Woolworths Michelle Bridges Freak Debacle

Freak. The word draws perverse connotations of the unusual, the obscure, the deformed and the reclusive. The only time the word might be used in a positive light is when you’re describing a freakish talent of a sports person or a musician. And even then, I think there are more eloquent ways to describe their unique abilities.

So when Woolworth’s teamed up with one of Australia’s favourite health and fitness celebrities Michelle Bridges, and used the term freaks to describe people who grow their own food I was a bit taken back.

Woolworths is very large company and they have the budget to think very strategically about all of their business decision, particularly in the field of marketing and advertising. So how could they make such a mistake we must ask?

Well, I think the answer lies in their so-called apology that they released on 6 November through their Facebook page: “We’ve listened to your feedback about the latest Michelle Bridges video and have removed it. Our intention was never to upset anyone.”

When you look at this statement closely there is no apology, just a statement about how their customers have interpreted their advertising wrongly… So essentially they are passing the blame from themselves to the public; and this is the inherent problem here. Woolworths are so out of touch with their customers one would think the marketing department have been taking lessons form former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Woolworths genuinely thought that it would be a good idea to: stereotype people who grow their own food as hippies; ridicule them as freaks; and promote frozen food as a substitute for growing your own.  All of this coming from a company that calls itself the “fresh food people”.  What were they thinking in the boardroom when the conceived this…

They may have actually been thinking very strategically. You see, Woolworths don’t make any money when you grow your own food, so they have a vested interest in ensuring you don’t. So stereotyping people who grow their own as freaks is actually a marketing strategy to try and increase their customer base by making people more reliant on their products.

What they might not have considered so diligently is that the public aren’t always that stupid.  According to The Australia Institute over 50% of Australians grow some of their own food and I will take a guess that most of these people would not identify themselves as hippie freaks. Based on my experience, people who grow their own food cut through all stereotypes, socioeconomic groups, age groups and genders. Because of this, I think the message Woolworths were trying to send blew up in their face because it caused a form of cognitive dissidence in the general public. They grew their own food, but did not associate themselves as a hippie freak and therefore to solve the dissidence they blamed the advertisement as being inappropriate.

This is starting to remind me of April this year when Woolworths ran their “fresh in our memories” campaign. This ad was heavily criticised as a money grab at the expense of the ANZACS.  There was a huge public backlash against using the emotion of the ANZACS to promote their products and Woolworths were forced to pull the ad from circulation.

The point hear is that Woolworths are a competitive animal and will try anything to make a dollar and grab some market share back from Coles. Their number one goal is make money for their shareholders. For this reason we as the public, need to come down hard on these companies when they step out of line. We as a society need to show these companies where the boundaries lie. Because if it is left up to them there will be no boundaries.

I encourage all the people who are currently growing their own food to continue doing so. I also encourage the 48% of people who are not to take a stand and start growing some food today. Even if its just one pot of your favourite herbs, you will get great satisfaction in harvesting your own crops and sticking it to Woolworths and there poor moral judgement.

If the answer is…”a lot more than you think”…then what’s the question?

Of course the question is "how much produce can you grow in your garden?" That must be the question, because it is what we, as urban farmers, get asked all the time.

Most people seem to have a preconceived idea that growing vegetables is just a hobby; something to provide a little bit of dinner party chat so you can tell your guests that you added a token home grown tomato to the nights Greek salad. However, I am going to challenge this mantra, as I am of the opinion that you can grow most of vegetables in the humble garden plot. And my weapon of choice to sway the popular opinion is going to be numbers…not my own numbers…and not just any numbers…but reliable peoples numbers that combine to produce statistics.

Lets start with finding out how much veg a person should be consuming. According to the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, the average person should be consuming at least 375g per day of vegetables [1]. Multiplied out, this equates to an annual consumption of approximately 137kg per year per person.

So a new question should be, how much land do we require to grow 137kg of vegetables per year?

The answer to this will be dependent on what type of vegetables we choose to grow, as each vegetable grows and produces at different rates. The humble tomato plant generally produces anywhere between 5 – 20kg of fruit per plant, depending on the variety and the growing conditions. If you could get your tomato plants producing 20kg each, you would only need about 4 square metres to produce 120kg of tomatoes…that’s almost your entire recommended yearly intake for all vegetables!!!! However, tomatoes are considered high yielding vegetables and not all types of vegetables produce as well. Table 1 outlines some common productivity rates for typical home garden vegetables.

  Table 1 Productivity of Common Vegetables [2]

Table 1 Productivity of Common Vegetables [2]

One thing you need to bear in mind when viewing this table is what density you these plants can be grown at. Or put another way, how far apart they need to be spaced to deliver their produce. When we take this into account and then take an average productivity rate of all these vegetables we calculate that you require anywhere between 5 – 10 square metres to produce 137kg of vegetable matter per year. I challenge you to delve into your toolbox and draw out your tape measure and walk out into your yard. Now measure out 5 – 10 square metres. I bet that is a lot less land than what you thought!

But there is a twist in this storey. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics only 8 per cent of people in Australia consume the recommended daily intake of vegetables [3]. Most people actually only consume about half of what is recommended. If you take this into account then you can actually grow two people’s vegetables in 5 – 10 square metres of land. 

So next time you ask yourself the question is it worth putting in a vegie garden, pause for a moment, and then say “YOU BET IT IS”.

References

1.     National Health and Medical Research Council (2014) Dietary Guidelines for Australia http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/n31.pdf

2.     Productivity was determined by taking several sources of productivity rates and forming a range. This gave the most accurate estimate of productivity based on high or low yields.

3.     Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013), Daily intake of fruit and vegetables. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4338.0~2011-13~Main%20Features~Daily%20intake%20of%20fruit%20and%20vegetables~10009

What happens if you use roundup in your veggie patch?

So I recently had a question posed to me. “What happens if you use roundup in your vegie patch?”

This was a serious question and my answer at the time was a bit hairy fairy for my liking. I mumbled a bit about damaging soil microbes, long-term residue and potential health effects.  But then I got thinking, what really does happen if you use roundup in your garden, exactly what is it impacting on and how long does it last.

 The offending veggie patch

The offending veggie patch

The question came from a person with a neglected, weed infested garden that perennially has Couch runners popping up all over the place. They were constantly losing their battles against the grass and were at their wits end with it, to the point of having one hand poised on the roundup bottle.  This is when I got the phone call. It was a little bit like getting a phone call from someone on the precipice of a building threatening to jump. They don’t really want to jump, but in their world view they have run out of alternatives. And you are the last person that can help them. 

So this post is all about explaining the consequences of using roundup in you vegie patch and what are the alternatives. Where else can you turn to, to get results?

How Does Roundup Work?

 The defendent

The defendent

Roundup is a herbicide that contains the active ingredient glyphosate. Glyphosate was discovered in the 1970s by Monsanto and since then it has been widely used in commercial agriculture and home gardens [1]. Glyphosate is absorbed through the foliage. It works by inhibiting an enzyme involved in what is called the Shikimate pathway [2,3]. The shikimate pathway is where the aromatic amino acids tyrosine, tryptophan and phenylalanine are created [3].  Amino acids are used to build proteins and without some of the amino acids present the plant can’t function and dies.

Glyphosate does not affect animals because animals don’t share the Shikimate pathway [2]. Instead of building their own amino acids, animals have to consume plants and animals to gain all the essential amino acids to create proteins [1]. Only plants, fungi and bacteria possess this pathway and therefore only they are impacted by glyphosate [1].

Research suggests that glyphosate can persist in the soil for long period of time depending on the soil chemistry and climatic conditions. The half-life (time for half of a substance to breakdown) of glyphosate ranges from 2-200 days [1]. Hence it’s a bit of an unknown how long it’s going to stick around for once applied. It binds vigorously to soil particles and hence usually does not penetrate more than 15cm into the soil [1]. Therefore it is unlikely to impact on groundwater.

Glyphosate does not bioaccumulate. This means that it does not build up in the cells of animals instead it is expelled in urine and faeces [1]. In addition, it is considered to be non-carcinogenic and is relatively low in dermal and oral toxicity [1].

What are the human health impacts?

There have been hundreds of studies on glyphosate in the last 35 years and roundup has one of the most extensive human health safety and environmental data packages of any pesticide that's out there.

Some concerns have recently been raised by ingredients other than glyphosate in products such as roundup [2]. Glyphosate is the active ingredient that affects the plants, however, there are other substances in roundup called surfactants that lower the surface tension of the product. This allows the product to cover more surface area of the plant and therefore have more of an impact.  Roundup uses a surfactant called Polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA) [1].

Scientific America recently published an article bringing to light research that suggests POEA might be more toxic to human developmental cells, such as human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells, than previously thought [4]. The research team suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages [4].

Most of the research that I came across indicates that glyphosate is generally safe for humans if used as intended [5,6,7]. However, safe for humans does not mean the product is ok to use in the garden. I recently wrote an article called ‘Why is a Garden Like Your Body?’, that outlines the importance of looking after microbes in your soil. Well, Glyphosate is detrimental to fungi and many forms of bacteria. These microorganisms are vitally important to the health of your plants and substances like glyphosate can kill them. And because it can persist in the soil for long periods it can continue to have an effect for months after application. Therefore, you might not actually see the damage that glyphosate is doing to your garden because it could be killing all the microorganisms that you can’t see. But what you will notice is less vigor in your plants and you might be wondering what is going on.

Alternative Solutions

Having said all of that, what is the alternative? The obvious answer is a bit of back breaking labour, and pulling all of the weeds out by hand and then remaining vigilant.  But in reality, it is almost impossible to completely remove all of the weed material, particularly roots and seeds. One option is called solarization.

Soil Solarization

This involves cooking the weeds under the power of the sun over a period of about 4-6 weeks [8]. This technique kills the weeds, seeds and most other living things in the soil. Beneficial, bacteria, fungi and insects may also be killed or at least made dormant, however, because there is no residual chemicals, it appears that the communities of microorganisms bounce back relatively quickly [8]. A great description of this process is given by the University of California. In short, this is how it works:

  1. Remove as much plant matter that you can from the weeds. Mowing or whipper snipping is a decent method.
  2. Flatten the area as much as possible to minimize air pockets and to prevent the tarp from flapping.
  3. Thoroughly water the area. Wet soil conducts heat much better.
  4. Cover the area in plastic sheeting, preferably clear or black. Clear is good because it lets sunlight in which can sterilize the soil, however, black plastic is good because it generates so much heat.
  5. Leave in place for 4-6 weeks depending on the time of year and temperatures expected.

Benefits

It leaves no toxic residues and can be easily used on a small or large scale garden or farm. Soil solarization also speeds up the breakdown of organic material in the soil, often resulting in the added benefit of release of soluble nutrients such as nitrogen (N03-, NH4+), calcium (Ca++), magnesium (Mg++), potassium (K+), and fulvic acid, making them more available to plants [8].

What happens to beneficial soil organisms?

Although many soil pests are killed by soil solarization, many beneficial soil organisms are able to either survive solarization or recolonize the soil very quickly afterwards. Important among these beneficials are the mycorrhizal fungi and fungi and bacteria that parasitize plant pathogens and aid plant growth. The increased populations of these beneficials can make solarized soils more resistant to pathogens than nonsolarized or fumigated soil. Earthworms are generally thought to burrow deeper in soil to escape the heat [8].

Conclusion

My conclusion is this:

  • Don’t use roundup because it has negative impacts on your soil microbes and may have negative human health impacts.
  • Apply a consistent approach to weeding your garden. A little often takes care of the weeds.
  • If you have let things go, then give soil solarization a go. It takes a little time but it is effective and will get you up and going again.

 

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glyphosate
  2. Williams A.L., Watson R.E. & DeSesso J.M. Developmental and reproductive outcomes in humans and animals after glyphosate exposure: a critical analysis., Journal of toxicology and environmental health. Part B, Critical reviews, PMID: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22202229
  3.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shikimic_acid
  4. Gammon C (2009) Weed Whatcking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells, Scientific American http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/weed-whacking-herbicide-p
  5. Mink P.J., Mandel J.S., Lundin J.I. & Sceurman B.K. (2011). Epidemiologic studies of glyphosate and non-cancer health outcomes: a review., Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology : RTP, PMID: 21798302
  6. Mink P.J., Mandel J.S., Sceurman B.K. & Lundin J.I. (2012). Epidemiologic studies of glyphosate and cancer: a review., Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology : RTP, PMID: 22683395
  7. Kier L.D. & Kirkland D.J. (2013). Review of genotoxicity studies of glyphosate and glyphosate-based formulations., Critical reviews in toxicology, PMID: 23480780  
  8. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74145.html

The Science of Vegetable Storage

A friend of mine recently asked me what is the proper way to store veggies to prolong that crisp, just-harvested taste and ensure that you are getting the most of your vegetables?

The answer to this question has been provided in two parts. Part 1 describes the background and reasons why vegetables need to be stored in certain ways and Part 2 specifically describes how certain vegetables should be stored. If you don’t want to know the why, then proceed to part 2 for specific information.

Veggies

Part 1 – The Science Behind Storage

The key to prolonging the quality of harvested vegetables is controlling two primary climatic factors: temperature and humidity [1]. Each type of vegetable will require different levels of each, and by collating all the veggies that store best in the same conditions we can order our harvest for maximum storage quality.

Before we get into which vegetables prefer what condition, it is important to have an understanding of why temperature and humidity are so important and what mechanisms are at work.

The thing to remember is that harvested vegetables are living tissues with continuing metabolisms [1]. Metabolism is a simple word to describe all the chemical reactions that are taking place in the vegetables cells as they continue to live (i.e. respiration) [2 & 3]. Because the vegetable has been harvested, it no longer has access to a continuous food supply and therefore it is living on finite supply of reserves. If you can slow the consumption of these reserves by forcing the vegetable to ration them, then you can prolong its shelf life and preserve its quality and taste. The key to this is temperature.

Temperature

By lowering the temperature of the vegetables you can slow their metabolic rate and this will force them to ration their food supply [1 & 3]. This same principle also works with most of the microbes that will try to grow on your vegetables too. Cool temperatures will slow the microbes growth and reproduction, which means less rotten veggies [3].

One particular process that temperature affects is the release or absorption of ethylene [1]. Ethylene is a chemical released by some fruit that promotes ripening. Bananas and melons  produce large quantities of it and tomatoes and globe artichokes also produce it. Reducing the temperature of the environment slows the release and absorption of ethylene and this reduces its impact in over-ripening fruit and vegetables [1]. Only some vegetables are susceptible to ethylene production and should be stored separately to ethylene producing fruit and vegetables. See the table at the end of this post.

An important thing to note is that when reducing the temperature, you don’t want to stop the vegetables metabolism [1]. You want the metabolism to continue just fast enough for the cells to remain alive. Unless of course you want to freeze your veggies, then make sure your freezer goes below 18 degrees and you can effectively store it indefinitely [3]. However, when you thaw it, it will be a bit mooshy because the cell walls will have been broken apart!

Most leafy vegetables and ‘temperate’ fruit, including pome and citrus fruits, are not chill-sensitive and can be stored between 0°C and 2°C for long periods without significant loss of visual quality. Tropical and subtropical fruit and some root vegetables are chill-sensitive and may be damaged at low temperatures. They are generally stored at 13°C or above, although some may be stored safely as low as 5°C if cooled soon after harvest. Temperature must also be stable as changes may affect respiration and quality [1].

Humidity

Controlling humidity is all about trying to manage water loss from your vegetables [1]. Leafy vegetables such as spinach or lettuce lose lots of water through a process called transpiration. Transpiration is the process of water movement through a plant and its subsequent evaporation through the leaves, stems, fruit and flowers [2]. Water gives your vegetables turgidity (crispness), thus by reducing transpiration the vegetables will retain their quality for longer. By increasing the humidity of the storage environment, it makes it harder for water molecules to transpire out of your vegetables.

High humidity should only be used with low temperature storage because humidity and warmth combined favour the growth of fungi and bacteria [1].

PART 2 – How to Store Your Vegetables

Now you know the basic science of why vegetables decay and how to control it, lets put this into practice. The first step in prolonging their quality is maximizing preharvest conditions. This can be achieved through [1]:

1.    Harvesting fruits and vegetables at peak maturity or as near as possible.

2.   Store produce that is free from visible evidence of disease.

3.   Do not store vegetable for long times that has severe insect damage.

4.   Handle food carefully after harvest so that it is not cut or bruised.

5.   Leave 2.5cm or more of stem on most vegetables to reduce water loss

Once the veggies have been harvested then its time to make sure you tend to each ones particular needs. Below I have described how to prepare a number of common veggies but its not exhaustive. Use the lessons learned above and the final table in this blog to come up with ways to store all of you veggies.

Brassicas

Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Chinese Cabbage (Bok Choy), Kale, Kohlrabi

Temperature:                         0 Degrees

Humidity:                         90 – 100%

For the heading crops, remove the loose surrounding leaves and keep just the compact head. This will reduce water loss. Place in a paper or plastic bag with some holes in it to let moisture escape. The bag is important to trap moisture; however the holes are required to stop saturation and allow some air circulation. The quality of the stems will diminish after being stored and tends to get slightly woodier the longer it is stored.

 

Root Vegetables (not including potatoes)

Beets, Carrots, Celeriac, Parsnips, Turnip, Winter Radishes 

Temperature:                         0 Degrees

Humidity:                         90 – 100%

When storing roots, first carefully remove the dirt without bruising or cutting the root and let dry completely. Remove the tops of all veggies about 2.5cm above the root crown. Store same as above, in a ventilated plastic bag.

Potatoes

Temperature:                        7-12 Degrees

Humidity                        85-100%

Potatoes should be washed and allowed to dry. They should be stored in a cool humid place away from sunlight. Researchers have found that storing potatoes with dried lavender, sage and rosemary naturally suppresses sprouting and inhibits bacteria that can lead to storage rot [4].

Lettuces

Temperature:                         0 Degrees

Humidity:                         90 – 100%

The two things to remember when storing lettuce is to make sure it is mostly dry and store it in an airtight container. Wash and dry your lettuce. A salad spinner works great if available, otherwise you can dab with a towel. You can either place all lettuce leafs on a paper towel and wrap the leaves in the towel, or you can alternate layers of paper towels and leaves. Next place the lettuce and paper towel in an air-tight bag and squeeze all the air out and store. Compact head lettuce, such as iceberg, you follow the same procedure, just remove the loose leaves and store just the compact head. There is no need to wash every leaf.

Onions and Garlic

Temperature:                         0

Humidity:                         65-75%

Harvest the crops and let them cure by allowing to dry roots and all in a cool and aerated location away from sunlight. After about two weeks the onions and garlic cloves should have papery dry exteriors and the old shoots should be brown and dried. Cut the tops a little above the bulb, about 2cm or so and let cure for another week in a well-ventilated, cool environment. If there are bruised bulbs or bulbs that still have green stems chuck them out or consume immediately (onion soup). They will cause rot that will set the rest of your stored bulbs off. Store as close to zero degrees as possible in a medium humid environment for long term storage.

Hard Shell Squash

Temperature:                         10-13

Humidity:                         70-90%

When harvesting, leave some of the stem on and cure similar to onions and garlic for about two weeks. The squash needs to be adequately cured and a good test to measure this is to see if you can’t easily pierce its skin with your fingernail. It is important that the squash has tough enough skin to withstand long-term storage. Once cured, keep them in a cool place and they should last for months.

The Following table was adapted from the Department of Agriculture WA and outlines all parameters to store all of your common vegetable under.


 

Why is a Garden Like Your Body?

You may be thinking that this topic is a bit of a long stretch, but before passing your judgements hear me out.

A lot of recent studies have shown that the human body is not quite the autonomous, self-serving robot that it was once thought. Studies have shown that only about 10% of the cells that make up your body are….yours. The other 90% are made up of a vast ecosystem of organisms that predominantly reside in your gut [1].  But these organisms aren’t just hitchhikers, they operate in a symbiotic relationship with your body, where you provide them with protection and raw materials and they provide you with the ability to break down a huge variety of food sources into molecules vital to your bodily functions [2] [3].  Research suggests that your gut microbes can have significant affects on development, nutrition, immunity and resistance to pathogens [1]. There is also starting to be a link drawn between metal development and function and the gut microbiome.

The importance of this ecosystem in your stomach is only just starting to be unveiled, and like any ecosystem, the inputs that flow into that ecosystem have a great impact on the number and type of organism that thrive [2] [3]. For example, if you enjoy large amounts of sugar, the microbes in your gut that enjoys sugar the most will become abundant and outcompete other microbes that rely on other nutrients.  Now, I’m not here to delve into the intricacies of the gut microbiome diversity and their impacts on your health; the experts are doing a fine job of that, but what I will draw your attention to is the similarities between your stomach and the soil in your veggie patch. Yes….believe me there are particular similarities.

Your vegetables draw their nutrients out of the soil just as your body draws nutrients out of your stomach. And just as your stomach has a unique composition of organisms that break raw materials down into nutrients so does your soil [4]. Therefore, the plants in your garden are akin to your body and your cells and the soil that the plants grow in is akin to your stomach. A plants ability to gather nutrients and flourish on its own is limited. However, when it engages the services of all the organisms that operate in the soil, it has access to a vast array of nutrients that it can then turn into luscious leaves and fruits [4].

Just like your stomach flora, your soil flora will be impacted by what raw materials you add to the soil. If you add inorganic fertilisers to your soil, the soil flora cannot use them and will starve or can be poisoned [4]. This is similar to eating large quantities of sugar, although it seems like a good idea because it will give you lots on energy in the short-term, in the long term you are actually affecting the composition of your gut flora that could have lasting effects on your health. You guessed it, by adding fertilisers to your soil it may work in the short-term, but if you want longevity in your soils you need to put the NPK fertilsers down and work on feeding the soil flora that can intern feed your plants.

Soil organisms love organic matter in any form. However, they will only produce nutrients for your plants once the organic matter has been highly decomposed. Therefore, the importance of a good compositing system for any aspiring vegetable grower is vital. If you can feed your soil well composted organic matter the soil ecosystem will flourish and provide you plants with a continuous stream of nutrients required for growth. There will be no need for inorganic fertilisers.

The best part of this storey is the interrelated relationship between keeping your soil flora happy and your stomach flora happy. If you can successfully grow more vegetables, you will eat more vegetables. These vegetables will feed your stomach flora and they can pass on the nutrient benefits to you and keep you healthy.

Soil health – plant health – gut health – your health

References

1.     Li K, Bihan M, Yooseph S, Methé BA (2012) Analyses of the Microbial Diversity across the Human Microbiome. PLoS ONE 7(6): e32118. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0032118

2.     Li K, Bihan M, Methé BA (2013) Analyses of the Stability and Core Taxonomic Memberships of the Human Microbiome. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63139. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063139

3.     Davenport ER, Mizrahi-Man O, Michelini K, Barreiro LB, Ober C, et al. (2014) Seasonal Variation in Human Gut Microbiome Composition. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90731. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090731

4.     Lowenfels J &Lewis W (2010) Teaming with microbes. Timber press inc, Portland, Oregan.