Thursday, March 12, 2015

In Praise of Rats

This is Dragon, my son's pet rat.

When we first brought him home from the pet store, we put him in the basement with the hamster and had limited contact with him. I soon noticed that whenever we went downstairs, unlike the hamster, who ignored me and spun on his wheel, the rat would stand up on his hind legs, cock his head to one side, and try to make eye contact. Even my husband, who largely ignores the small animal population at our house, began talking to him. 

I decided that the rat seemed sad and discussed my concern with a rat-loving friend of mine. She told me that pet rats have been described as pocket dogs and need frequent attention to be happy. Social animals, they are often sold in pairs so that they don't get lonely. 

As a result of that discussion, we moved the rat into my boys' bedroom. He seems much happier upstairs. I talk to him daily. He is inquisitive about any activity that surrounds him, and with three kids in the house, there's quite a lot of activity. We started buying him dog toys, soft things that he can shred and tear and sleep on. 

Dragon is a good listener.

And that brings me to the point of this essay: Rats make nice pets. 

Frankly speaking, rats get a bad rap. A recent headline in The Independent screamed, "Bubonic plague-carrying fleas found on New York City rats." What a misleading headline! One would assume that we are headed straight for an epidemic of the plague. The actual article reveals that the rats were found to carry the type of fleas that transmit the disease, not the disease itself.

Another recent article - this one in The Guardian - suggests that giant gerbils, not rats, may have been the source of the Black Death. As reported by the BBC, a team of researchers from Norway "now plans to analyse plague bacteria DNA taken from ancient skeletons across Europe. If the genetic material shows a large amount of variation, it would suggest the team's theory is correct. Different waves of the plague coming from Asia would show more differences than a strain that emerged from a rat reservoir." 

So, the next time that someone tells you that they have a pet rat, try to keep an open mind. You might find that they aren't so bad after all.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Is Your Organic Garden Really Organic?

This was the first magazine article that I wrote as a freelance writer, for a natural family website. The site has since changed hands - and many of the articles have been largely rewritten, presumably to evade copyscape - but I managed to find an old copy of my piece and thought I'd post it here for safekeeping.


Is Your Organic Garden Really Organic?
By Julie Bloss Kelsey

You know not to garden near your house, because your home was once painted with lead-based paint. You know not to garden near the road because automobile exhaust used to contain lead. But did you know that former farming practices might have contributed to lead and arsenic contamination in the rest of your soil?

We take for granted that organically grown produce contains lower quantities of harmful pesticides than food grown by conventional means. But organic gardening doesn’t guarantee safe food. Do you know the historic land use of the soil in your garden? Was it ever used for conventional farming? If so, there may be pesticide residues in your soil.

Look back at non-organic farming practices

Arsenic-based pesticides were used by farmers in the United States from the late 1800s until around 1940. After about 1945, U.S. farmers began to use synthetic pesticides, and the use of arsenic-based pesticides declined dramatically. However, in some parts of the country, farmers used arsenic-based pesticides on fruit trees until the mid-1950s and 1960s. Lead arsenate was not banned completely on food crops in the U.S. until 1988.

But problems can develop many years later. In 1997, a routine test conducted by the FDA revealed elevated levels of lead in a package of frozen mixed vegetables. Carrots, grown on old orchard land in the state of Washington, were the source of the lead. At the time the carrots were grown, use of lead arsenate had been banned in that state for over 20 years.

And this wasn’t an isolated incident, as evidenced by the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. As reported on their web site, “In the late 1990s, elevated levels of lead were found in a baby food (chicken and vegetables). The source was traced to carrots grown in fields previously used as apple orchards that had been treated with lead arsenate.”

Reduce your risk

Just because your garden was formerly used for conventional farming does not mean that you should stop gardening. If you follow these simple tips, you will greatly reduce your risk of exposure to any pesticide residues that may remain in your soil.

• Wash your hands after gardening and remove your shoes before coming into the house. Be sure to wipe the feet of pets that have been in the garden with you.

• Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them. Ingesting contaminated soil poses a greater human health risk than eating foods grown in contaminated soil.

• Be aware that leafy greens, like lettuce, are the most likely to uptake metals, followed by roots such as carrots. If you are concerned about the soil in your garden, you may wish to grow fruits, such as tomatoes.

• If your land has a known history of conventional agriculture — particularly if it was a cotton field or a fruit orchard — consider importing fresh topsoil from a trusted source for your garden. If you are concerned that the topsoil might erode (for example, your garden is on a slope), you can use an elevated planter.

Above all, don’t let fears of residual soil contamination dampen your enthusiasm for organic gardening. You know more about how your food is grown than most people do. And you can take proactive steps to ensure that your food is as safe as possible.

© Julie Bloss Kelsey

Julie Bloss Kelsey holds a master's degree in environmental management from Duke University, where her master's project was called "The Impact of Historic Pesticide Applications on Former Agricultural Soils."


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Organic gardening is good for native bees.
(Note the discarded antennae on the floor.)