#1 in a 4 part-series of discussion on "A Question of Balance - Healthy and Unhealthy Inflammation," See also a presentation by Verdant Kitchen CEO Ross Harding at National Health Policy and Clinical Practices conference March 2016
A few weeks ago I was in Los Angeles and one perfect spring morning I walked the 10 miles from pier to pier and back along Venice beach. I felt great. The next morning my right ankle was a mess. Swollen, hot and sore.
I didn't remember doing anything to it, but my body knew much better. My immune and repair system, a subconscious biochemical wonder of sensors, receptors, transmitters and regulators had gone into action. Overnight, a series of cascading chemical reactions had caused increased blood flow to my ankle, the muscles had become more porous allowing blood to better penetrate the region. Macrophage cells had been called to and concentrated there, pumping out a chemical cocktail of enzymes to dissolve, consume, reform, nourish and repair. The cascade of reactions had continued. An acute inflammatory response, designed to repair damage and neutralize infection.
Over the next week the inflammation reduced, my ankle felt better. My body had healed itself. The soup of breakdown products had been carried away, processed by my liver and expelled into bile and by my kidneys. New nutrients from my diet were used to reassemble and replace the chemicals and cells needed and ready for the next fight while I slept.
A healthy inflammatory response is critical to our wellness. Without it we would die, quickly being overwhelmed by muscle damage and infection.
Our lives are truly in the balance. Unregulated Inflammation is now better understood as perhaps the central problem affecting our quality of life. Once the natural cycle of healing inflammation becomes chronic, long-term damage results. Asthma, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Alzheimer's, Crohn's Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus. . .all unregulated, out-of-control inflammatory responses. The most common diseases afflicting our societies and robbing people of joyful and productive years include heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer; all have unregulated and chronic inflammation at their core. The National Institutes of Health in 2015 identified Inflammation and alleviating chronic pain as a research area of special focus.
The central questions remains. What causes our healthy inflammatory cycle to become chronic and out of control? What can we do?
I remember as an undergraduate, standing in the hall outside my biochemistry lab looking at a portion of the Krebs Cycle (the pathway in our bodies that convert fuel to energy). I was struck then and still am now by the overwhelming complexity of our chemical self. There are hundreds perhaps thousands of complex reactions. Each one with feedback loops, regulating chemicals, chemicals to catalyze reactions, chemicals to mop up, bind to and expel products.
My point is that there is a lot that can go wrong. Each of us share similar chemical pathways but each of us is unique and unique in time. Our chemical self at 20 is different than at 40 and at 60. Stress, lifestyle, environment, diet and environmental exposure can and do affect these delicate cycles and can cause them to go wrong. The cycles can be overwhelmed with reactive (free radical) compounds.
The answer is as simple in concept as it is complex to implement in our modern lives. It is a question of balance.
Reduce the things that cause inflammation and increase the things that help regulate inflammation.
Sounds simple right? Part of the answer is naturally complex nutrition™. There is positive news and there is a great deal that we can do.
We are what we eat and so much more.
I was looking at this picture of Michael mulching some organic turmeric beds with straw at the farm at Verdant Kitchen and I remembered a recent conversation about the cost of our food. The question was "is my organic food expensive or is it just that my non organic food is so cheap.....?"
It turns out that in the US it is both. Our non organic traditional foods are very inexpensive and relative to them our organic food is expensive.
The majority of our food staples such as corn, rice, wheat, soy and milk are not produced organically. US farmers are some of the most productive in the world. They leverage three resources to produce very consistent and high yield - that common thread is "GO BIG"
i) Large Capital Farm Equipment (tractors, planters, harvesters) that reduce labor
ii) Synthetic Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that provide high yields and can deal with monoculture plantings
iii) Large scale monoculture that reduces costs
As a farm business, like any other production manufacturing you make money by driving up scale.
By contacts an organic farm can not GO BIG - nature will always fight monoculture agriculture. Pests, diseases and weeds will target these monoculture fields and unless controlled with fast chemical treatments will overwhelm the crop. Without the use of these treatments the organic farmer has a different model
i) Small rotational fields that reduce disease
ii) Slow release nutrients, soil fertility building, mulching and manual weed control
A consequence of this model is
iii) High labor and expensive small equipment (relative to the yield of product)
The picture that triggered this article was covering organic turmeric beds with straw, a labor and material intensive job. I calculate that spraying the beds three times with a synthetic herbicide and would be 10% of the cost of this mulching process. This is just one costs, there are many more.
When I look at the retail price premium of organic v's non organic (which varies but is often a 50% increase) and the fact that 90% of small farms in the US do not make any on farm profit, it seems to me that the current price of organic food is based on what the market will accept, rather than the price required to receive a adequate financial return and provide a high quality organic product to market.
It seems to me that the costs are what they are. It is the job of the organic farmer to be productive and smart and to ensure they educate their customers about the benefits of organic food. I recommend that you go to an organic farm if you can and see the fundamental difference between large scale production agriculture and organic farming - the differences are stark. The quality, purity, taste and sustainability of the organic farm produce is a fundamentally different product than the non organic alternative. Be educated and buy the best quality organic food that you can afford in your life.
Our congratulations to Howard Morrison, 2015 Helen V. Head Small Business Advocate Award. Howard has lived a life dedicated to the belief of entrepreneurial drive. With the right passion, the right product and most importantly the right people amazing things are possible.
Perhaps there is nothing more important than we can do, than teach our children about their environment, the soil and how their food is grown.
We recently hosted at our farm, the 1st Grade class from St Andrew's School in Savannah GA. The class and their teacher Ms Adams helped us plant turmeric in the rich coastal loams that we are blessed with on the farm.
Sure it is fun to get your hands in the soil, especially if you are 6 and your teacher Ms Adams lets you leave the classroom and go wander around with dogs, sticks and worms. Better still if you know that you will get to come back and see the young shoots come out of the soil, perhaps get to pull out a weed. That is part of the lesson, perhaps the main lesson, that there is pleasure in being outdoors, to have your hands in the soil. The mystery of planting a seed or in this case a rhizome and seeing it grow, being part of the creation and regeneration of something, is a special feeling.
There are many lesson that we need to teach our children. A love of growing things is a foundation class for life.