Eat more greens. Grow your own food. Kimbal Musk. Urban gardens and farmer’s markets. In a time where rates of chronic and auto-immune disease seem to be reaching epic proportions, the failure of conventional medicine to adequately address our health has invariably led many of us to begin to look for answers elsewhere. This has caused us to shift our attention from genetics to epigenetics and the role food and toxicity plays in health and wellness. From GMOs and ultra-processed foods, Paleo to Keto the conversation about what and how to eat seems more relevant than ever before.
Within this discussion of ‘enlightened eating’ we have all heard at some point the familiar mantra repeated over and over again: organic is better. While this argument seems to be gaining traction and even going mainstream (see the produce section at Walmart) the naysayers remain. These detractors say that evidence shows that organic food is not necessarily better than conventionally grown food and the marginal benefits do not justify the higher prices. That argument seemed to carry some weight and even seemed to appeal to our better judgment- until now. There has emerged what we think is the most convincing case yet for eating organic, with an overall narrative and supporting evidence that puts all the pieces together. It is very difficult to ignore much less refute.
We present to you now, The Case for Organic.
The man who seems to have very convincingly put the pieces of the puzzle together is Dr. Zach Bush, a triple board certified physician, founder and director of the M Clinic in Virginia. He’s certified in endocrinology, metabolism, internal medicine and palliative care. He has been an academic for most of his career studying and designing chemotherapy and trying to figure out the conundrum that is the cancer cell. According to Dr. Bush the hallmark of cancer is that is a rogue cell with identity issues. It is a cell that is isolated from the rest and can no longer regulate itself; it knows that it is an injured cell with massive DNA damage and yet, it doesn’t know how or when to die. Programmed cell death or ‘apoptosis’ is a common occurrence in a biological system where cellular communication is working properly. When this cellular network is broken or impaired some of these damaged cells that didn’t get the memo to self destruct begin to do just the opposite: proliferate wildly in order to survive, causing trouble and wreaking havoc within the network. Isolated from the other cells and the entire system it begins to grow and multiply out of control, threatening to take everything down with it. Dr. Bush is in this context advancing the novel theory that cancer is in fact not a genetic disease- as we have been led to believe for so long- but is in fact due to a breakdown in cell to cell communication. When our cells fail to communicate with each other disease and cancer become possible. Dr. Bush goes further, arguing that the health of this cellular network largely depends on the health of our guts or microbiome and the bacterial communities that inhabit it. But what is it that is killing our collective gut health and how does our environment and in particular our food play a role?
While looking under the microscope and trying to understand why it is that a cancer cell doesn’t know when to die, Dr. Bush discovered quite by accident that some forms of vitamin A were instrumental in directing cancer cells to shut down or commit suicide. For him this was an important discovery as it implied that “…suddenly, you don’t need the immune system to overcome cancer. That cancer simply eliminates itself when it realizes its part of a larger organism.” He suddenly he became acutely aware of something that he had neglected in his 17 years of academia- the importance of nutrition in health and healing. He realized that within the body, nutrition provides not just carbs, fat and protein but the information necessary to maintain the integrity of this all-important cellular communication network.
“A cell with uninterrupted access to information will never disease or die.”
This was a profound revelation and he knew at once that he needed to investigate it further. But the prospect of advancing a theory that there was a fundamental connection between nutrition and chronic disease meant that he would soon be marginalized by the scientific community that once embraced him. “Suddenly, I went from winning every teaching award at both the universities I had been in to maybe four, five people in these large auditoriums that would show up to my talks on health and healing because you throw the word healing into a science talk and everybody runs the other way”. He soon realized that in order to advance this new paradigm of nutrition he would have to do it on his own.
Wild, Wild Country
In order to further study his theory firsthand, Dr. Bush set out to a poor community in rural Virginia where, as was the case in most of the country, chronic disease had reached epidemic proportions. It turned out to be the perfect environment for his particular research. This community was what he called a “food desert” where access to fresh food was almost non-existent. Locals instead relied on convenience store hot dogs and Twinkies for basic sustenance. In no time he had a group of willing participants in his bootstrapped study on the link between nutrition and chronic disease with illnesses ranging from diabetes to chronic inflammation to auto-immune disease, just to name a few. He immediately began implementing a hard-core nutrient dense, plant focused, low protein program that also included juicing and short and long term fasting. What he saw next surprised him.
Of those in the focus group, 30 to 40 percent began showing immediate improvement. In certain individuals chronic disease began to retreat and even disappear. This was more or less not a surprise. What was surprising however was that 20 to 30 percent of people in this group were not in fact getting better at all, but getting worse. “They were getting worse. Inflammation markers were going up. All of their hypothalamic signalling going to their entire endocrine system was showing huge signs of increasing stress, not decreasing stress. They just were not behaving like the textbooks.”
At first he thought that this portion of the group simply weren’t following the regimented protocol set out for them. But this wasn’t the case. Puzzled, he began to wonder if the problem wasn’t something else. Maybe, he thought, the problem was with the food itself. This was the beginning of another paradigm shift. Could the problem be with the kale? Good god. He began to shift his thinking from maybe plants could be more powerful than chemotherapy to treat cancer to “Is there something wrong with the plants themselves?” It was at that critical moment that he began to look beyond the plant itself to the soils that the plants came from. The blinders were now off.
Motivated by these new questions he began to look at soil in depth and under the microscope. The a-ha moment was soon upon him. As he was reading a 40-page research paper on dirt he came across an image of a carbon molecule. It was a typical molecule, something that you could easily find if you took a sample of dirt from your garden and put it under a microscope. It was standard organic chemistry. But on second glance something curious occurred to him. Something looked all too familiar. He soon realized what he was seeing: “The three-dimensional structure on the right side of that molecule looked like the chemotherapy that I’d been making years previous.” This was an astounding discovery and true goose bump moment for him. At that moment he realized that the soil he was looking at had a medicinal structure similar to the cancer drugs he was trying to artificially create in the lab.
Further study led him to discover that not all soils are created equal. A very healthy garden soil will have millions of variants of this carbon molecule or ‘carbon snowflakes’ as he calls them. Variety is key with each one looking slightly different from the next. The magic happens when all these different variations of carbon molecules line up and are embedded within each other forming a kind of carbon circuit board where electrons can travel in a million different directions. This results in a kind of communication network with a carbon backbone that is intelligent, strong and can survive disease, pests and “…all kinds of noxious environments”. The problem today is that the biodiversity once seen in our top soils has been significantly reduced, in turn lessening the efficiency and overall intelligence of the network. This results in a weaker soil that produces weaker, less vital plants with less medicine. Weaker soil and plants and thus weaker humans who depend on them for survival.
But how did this happen? Who or what has been messing with our soil?
In order to begin to answer this question you must go back in time. History will show that there have always been massive fluctuations in the quality of our topsoil. During the age of the dinosaurs for example, the topsoils were so deep and mineral rich that an animal four times the size of an elephant could sustain itself on plant life alone. Even though they had small heads relative to their bodies and could not take in large volumes of food, the food they did consume was so nutrient dense that it didn’t matter.
Fast forward to the dust bowl of the 1930’s and the situation was quite different. A shortage of water and the failure of farmers to respect the common sense rules of crop rotation and soil rest led to an environmental disaster and epic food shortages. Thankfully by the 1950’s things had stabilized and even reversed. The widespread planting of backyard or Victory Gardens were promoted during both world wars as a way to both boost morale and reduce dependence on the public food supply. “A Vegetable Garden for Every Home” was the tagline of the day with Woodrow Wilson even claiming that “food will win the war”.
By the 1950’s over 40% of food production came from such local gardens. Paradise was found. However the end of the war machine also brought about a sudden surplus in petroleum and petroleum byproducts. Enterprising scientists suddenly realized that petroleum derivatives could be used as fertilizer for soils. This was the beginning of NPK fertilization, a molecularly similar but laughably sub standard form of ‘soil food’. Suddenly our plants and soils were getting weaker again. Time for a weed killer.
Dial M for Monsanto
Created in 1974 by the Japanese and patented in 1976, glyphosate is a spectacularly effective method of weed control. A chelator by design, what glyphosate does so well is to latch on and extract any minerals it comes into contact with. Originally used as a pipe cleaner, its agricultural uses soon became apparent; an excellent way to kill plants is to take away its mineral content. A distant relative of Monsanto’s Agent Orange (that uber chemical used in the Vietnam war to defoliate the pesky jungle vegetation) glyphosate didn’t have quite the same scope and power but still managed to kill everything in its path, from weeds to entire crops. What Dr. Bush thought was peculiar about the history of glyphosate was that even though it was widely used as a weed killer it was never patented as such. Instead it was registered as an anti-fungal and anti-biotic.
Glyphosate turned out to be amazingly effective and successful, so much so that it is now the number one chemical on the planet. It is estimated that four and a half billion pounds are sprayed across the globe every year and only increasing.
While this is troubling in itself perhaps the most disturbing aspect of glyphosate is that it is a water-soluble toxin. Because everything has a water content (including ourselves) that means glyphosate is now everywhere in our environment, at every level. According to Dr. Bush it is found in 75% of the air and 75% of the rainfall. As such it is acting as a widespread water soluble, airborne antibiotic sterilizing everything in its path. More importantly for human health, it is killing a significant amount of the beneficial bacteria and fungi that we co-exist with here on earth and which we depend on for our basic survival as a species.
“Never in its lifespan as a chemical has it been patented as a weed killer. It’s been patented primarily as an antibiotic, antifungal, antiviral. Every single celled organism that thing touches, it kills.”
What does this mean for our food? At the soil level, glyphosate is doing catastrophic damage to the quality of our dirt and that means the quality of our plants are compromised. Yes, bugs and pests are kept at bay but the downside to this is that our food is now incomplete from a nutritional standpoint. Yes, a tomato still looks like a tomato, but it is different from the tomato of the 1950’s. At that time, when soils had not yet been subjected to the glyphosate onslaught, a tomato was yummy, had taste and contained valuable properties such as lycopene, a potent anti-cancer carotenoid. Today’s tomato, according to Dr. Bush, contains very little lycopene by comparison and is missing the diversity and richness of mineral content that gives a tomato its flavour. In many cases tomatoes today aren’t even grown in soil at all.
Going deeper in his research Dr. Bush came to the understanding of exactly how it is that glyphosate is impacting the quality of our food. A known byproduct of glyphosate’s effectiveness is its ability to block what is called the Shikimate Pathway, an enzyme pathway whereby essential amino acids are made. There are nine essential amino acids that cannot be produced by us (hence essential) and must come from our food. These amino acids are the building blocks for the proteins in our body and if they are missing then so is a large part of our biology. Also blocked are the production of alkaloids, a family of compounds that essentially gives our food its medicinal quality. There are alkaloids that are anti-diabetic, anti-mood disorder, anti-cancer etc… and when their creation is inhibited by glyphosate “… we have robbed the soil and the plant from the ability to make these essential medicinal compounds.” For Dr. Bush this lack of medicine helped to explain why even though fed a plant heavy diet, a large percentage of his patients in Virginia did not show improvement. This may also explain why today, someone who is largely vegetarian is still susceptible to cancer and other chronic disease. In these confounding cases have all heard the argument “…well she had the best, cleanest diet around and she still got sick”. Maybe now we know why.
It’s because a tomato is no longer really a tomato.
Bacteria never used to be our friends. Ever since the discovery of penicillin we have been waging a war on the bacteria in our environment. It is only recently that there has been a shift from viewing them as the bad guys to the beneficial, even critical organisms that outnumber regular cells by 10 to 1. Around 2012 Dr. Bush and his team saw something that astounded them in the lab.
“Suddenly we saw this cascade of bacteria and fungi controlling in seconds to minutes, mitochondrial activity, if you will…a shift in the genomics of the human cell.”
This meant that the bacterial network were having a very real influence on our health at the cellular level. If we alter, reduce or otherwise damage this ecosystem (most of which lies in our guts) the communication is disrupted and we are at risk for disease. This, in essence, is what glyphosate is doing. When we either breathe in or ingest glyphosate we are sterilizing our gut bacteria. This causes a significant depopulation and disruption in the intercellular communication within the microbiome. Specifically there is damage to a critical protein structure in the gut called ‘tight junctions’. This is a super thin membrane (think half the width of a human hair) that lines our gut and basically looks like a superfine mesh or velcro like substance. This membrane is our first line of defence from the outside world and regulates what is permitted to get into our intestines and what isn’t. It’s like our inner gatekeeper. According to Dr. Bush a little protein called zonulin modulates the permeability of this membrane. What glyphosate does is lead to the overproduction of zonulin which in turn signals to the body to keep the gates open. This leads to leaky gut which is defined as the increased permeability of the gut membrane. In other words, the velcro tight junctions are no longer ‘tight’ but are loose, open and what is meant to stay within the intestines leaks out into the bloodstream. These problems even extend to the brain as leaky junctions mean that toxins can now cross the blood brain barrier. In fact, every organ system is exposed and compromised and that is why you have the rates of disease that you do today.
One of the diseases of the modern age that seems most affected by leaky gut is autism. If the current trajectory continues, somewhere between 2030 and 2045 — a mere 13 to 28 years from now — autism is projected to affect 1 in 3 children. “In my clinic, I see this almost on a monthly basis now … sarcomas in the bones or chronic bone marrow cancers. All these things that used to happen in 70, 80 or 90-year-old people are now happening in 5-year-old children, 3-year-old children.”, says Bush. Current statistics also indicate that 1 in 2 adults also struggle with mental health problems. In 1900, that ratio was 1 in 100. All of these disease statistics and more correlate with dramatic changes to our food, specifically the loss of nutrients and minerals.
So what is the health conscious, ethically driven human to do? We cannot wait for legislation. We must vote with our dollar. Go organic. Demand GMO labelling. Lobby for the powers at be to stop spraying glyphosate. Go out into nature and breathe in the diversity of bacteria and fungi that are there. Eat more fermented foods. Get rid of the hand sanitizer. Plant a garden. Realize that you are less human and more a host to the 70 trillion or so bacteria and fungi that comprise your microbiome.