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Which is worse? Dirty potatoes or toxic potatoes?

March 04, 2013

Potatoes were brought to Europe from the Andes by Spanish Catholics, which meant Protestants were opposed to them for religious reasons. As late as the 1700s, what passed for campaign bumper stickers in England in those days read, “No Potatoes, No Pope.”

It is fascinating to hear of the British criticizing anyone else’s cuisine.

But be that as it may, the potato blight, which killed a million Irish, more or less proved their point. But the real culprit was genetic, not papist. The above-ground parts of the potato plant are toxic, so no one worries with potato seeds; instead, they cut eyes out of the edible tuber and plant them — the world’s first great experiment in cloning.

So without biodiversity, these identical plants were easily wiped out by blight. It’s the same reason (read Charles Mann and Michael Pollan if you doubt) potato bugs are ubiquitous today, and why commercial potatoes are grown in fields that, other than the potato itself, are biologically dead. The plants are drenched in pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and take their nutrition through artificial-fertilizer sprays.

In the Andes, there are 4,900 varieties of potatoes (in Peru, they think the potatoes Americans eat today are as watered down as our beer), some of which are poisonous — but for toxic potatoes there is a ready antidote: dirt. Animals will lick the ground before eating the tuber, and farm shacks sell spuds with little sacks of clay, just as our stores about now will be selling corned beef and cabbages. Boil the potatoes in dirty water and you’re fine.

Dirt. Is there anything it can’t do?

This is why everyone should read the recent Herald-Mail piece by Chris Copley titled “Help yourself — eat a little dirt.”

In the story, Hagerstown Community College professor Elaine Ashby explains the “Hygiene Hypothesis,” which concludes that, according to the article, “American’s health is deteriorating because we’re too clean. We avoid dirt too much.”

In other words, our guts have become just like those potato fields — so scrubbed of life that, counterintuitively, they need even heavier doses of poisons to live.

This is great news for 3-year-old boys. When their moms find them neck deep in the mud puddle, it is cause for celebration, not scolding. I just wish I’d known. “Why no mother, I’m not really licking the floor as such, I am merely re-establishing microbial equilibrium.”

I guess it’s an age thing. Or maybe it’s a math thing. But I see barrels of hand sanitizer everyplace I go and people trying to protect themselves from every last fragment of bacteria, and I can’t help but think: There are germs. They are microscopic. There are 83 zillion of them on every square inch of everything you come in contact with through the course of the day. Sooner or later, they are going to win. And meanwhile, we are killing the good germs whose job it is to fight off the bad.

So my feeling is that if you can’t beat them, get immune to them. Unless you are performing open heart surgery on your kitchen island it probably doesn’t matter all that much.

Worse, and if this doesn’t get you out wallowing around like Arnold Ziffle nothing will, our innards have become so sanitized of good bacteria that a new medical field is emerging: Transplanting nonsanitized nasal and intestinal material into people who have grown too dependent on the hand wipes and antibiotics.

Believe me, this is not as pretty as it sounds. But, you know, it’s what we deserve because we have decided that we can bend every aspect of life and nature to our will. Same thing happened with NATO. In the name of prevention, we’ve made ourselves much more susceptible to unpleasantness.

And if I could only be 4 once again, I would march right up to the Centers for Disease Control and say “I told you so.”

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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