Patricia Nell Warren

Michelle's Garden: The Big Oops

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | August 02, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: lead pollution, organic gardening, White House

Bombshell breaking news: the soil in the now-famous White House organic garden has some lead pollution in it. The National Park Service tested the soil, and says so. It seems that, during the Clinton era, the lawn was fertilized with treated sewage sludge, which is technically "safe" but a big no-no if you're going for organic certification. The lead levels are 93 parts per million, which is not high enough to be a health threat (the EPA says that the threat threshold is at 400 ppm). But it is high enough to create a political problem for Michelle's garden project.

Now what does the First Lady and her gang of kid gardeners do?

In blogs and newspaper commentaries across the country, the boo-hooing and snarking over the First Lady's garden oops has been intense. Does Michelle say Damn the torpedos and go full speed ahead, on grounds that 93 ppm is well below the limit? Or does she opt for zero tolerance and start over? Get a bulldozer and a few dumpsters to remove the offending soil, and replace it with clean new stuff?

Oh...and why wasn't the soil tested before they planted the garden?

It's getting harder and harder to avoid any trace of pollution of our food supply. If you start out with a container garden, like I did, then you're likely starting with fairly clean topsoil out of a bag. But if you garden right in the ground, most soil in urban and surbuban areas might contain some levels of metals or other industrial pollutants today. Community gardens often pop up in areas that have an industrial past. Products like steer manure and bone meal most likely come from "factory farmed" animals that were marinated in hormones and antibiotics during their brief lives. Last but not least, organically minded Americans have only recently started worrying about their produce being cross-pollinated and contaminated by stray pollen from genetically modified plants (GMOs).

Indeed, Michelle's little garden faces the same dilemma as the commercial soybean farmer who decides to go organic with his 3000 acres, after 25 years of using pesticides and chemical fertilizers. To clean up the soil and get certified, he has to go through a process -- let his land rest for three years so those chemicals will break down and dissipate. That means no income off that land for three years -- and banks who make ag loans will often deny any financial support to farmers who want to go organic. The magazine Acres U.S.A. was launched in the 1980s as an information vehicle to help commercial farmers tough it through this process.

It's ironic to see the White House hoist on its own petard, considering the new food safety law that the Obama administration is pushing through Congress. Small farmers and organic growers complain that compliance will be economically more difficult for them. They will be paying the same high fees as big agribusiness corporations. The new law doesn't apply to home gardens. But if Michelle was a small grower, she'd be looking at bankruptcy because of the extra costs.

Whatever the First Lady does, it's going to set an example -- good or bad -- for the rest of the country. Oh, the power of a single veggie garden...


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When we first acquired our 200 yr old farm, we found huge bags of serious pesticides in one of the barns. We had to assume that the rich fertile ground in which we would be growing herbs and vegetables would not be organic, but we refrained from using any pesticides for more than a decade meaning that according to the government, our crops could be labeled organic (the thinking is that toxins leech from soil over time).

Michelle should simply use no pesticides or toxic additives and long before the end of the Obama administration she will have earned the "organic" label for her efforts. And, she will have set a good example about reclaiming the land from the sins of our recent ancestors.