Last week the New York Times covered a study by a group of prestigious researchers who were seeking to understand the huge rise in the number of children with asthma over the last thirty years. One group of people in particular had bucked this nationwide trend: The Amish. The researchers thought that group might hold the key to why other people have become so susceptible to this chronic illness.
For this particular study, they compared the Amish to another fairly isolated group of people with a similar lifestyle but a higher influence of asthma: the Hutterites.
Over the long duration of the study, the research showed a clear link between exposure to dust from barnyards used for animals…and a greatly reduced influence of asthma. Unlike the Amish, who keep their animals close to their houses, the Hutterites have larger, more modern barns located away from their homes. Hutterite children are not exposed to the dust from the animal operations.
The short explanation: microbes in the dust from barnyards effectively turbocharged the immune system of the Amish kids, filling them with the types of cells that fight off asthma. Hutterite children had immune systems that were much higher in the cells that provoke asthma.
Of course, this conclusion challenges all sorts of assumptions that our modern society makes about private and public health: Cleaner is better than dirty, farm animals are a source of disease, exposure to microbes is bad and should be prevented whenever possible. The types of assumptions that many of our public health agencies operate on daily.
And yet, it also falls neatly in line with the theory behind the majority of the successes that modern medicine has had: inoculation and vaccination. Expose the body to a small amount of a bad bacteria in order to enable the immune system to fight it off — preferably in the form of a highly processed pharmaceutical that must be purchased and delivered by a medical professional.
Unfortunately, while our society has embraced immunization via the medical industry, it is simultaneously continuing to eliminate inoculation from everyone’s daily lives. There is an entire industry dedicated to the fruitless and counterproductive pursuit of universal sterilization of the home and workplace. And we have dozens of government agencies pushing an antimicrobial agenda, including one — the Food and Drug Admnistration — with a gigantic conflict of interest as both the regulator of “cleanliness” in food production and the agency that approves new drugs sold to cure our illnesses.
At Terra Firma, we are in the midst of attempting to comply with the rules of the recently adopted Food Safety Modernization Act. It’s founded on the key legal principle that farmers are liable for microbes on food that make people sick, and that they somehow have the ability to keep those microbes off of crops. In light of the asthma study, it seems just as likely that by eating fresh produce people have historically been unknowingly inoculating themselves against illness. And that food-borne illness is as much a result of weak immune systems as it is of “contamination” by bacteria that have always been present in the environment around us.
Understand that I am not blaming kids with asthma for their illness, nor I am suggesting that practical food safety measures on farms are not a good idea. I’m just suggesting, as the others of the asthma study are, that we would benefit from moving towards an ecological, whole-systems approach to public health instead of the reactionary, reductionist one that we inherited from the 20th century.
Coming soon, look for new, FDA-approved pharmaceutical products that encapsulate barnyard animal microbes into expensive pills that prevent asthma. Meanwhile, a different branch of the same agency will be inspecting farms like ours to make sure that we sterilize our harvest knives daily and take measures to keep dust off our crops…that grow in dirt.