19. Plant toxins are everywhere…and we should eat them

A while back, my neighbor asked me about a plant that he learned (on the internet) was toxic and he wanted to know if he should pull it out of his garden to protect his grand-daughter and her friends.  It was an Amaryllis.  I said that many plants in the lily family are toxic, but mostly the bulbs.  And the girls were not likely to see his plant as food and they aren’t very toxic to humans anyway. I wasn’t concerned. He pulled it out anyway.

I did not tell my neighbor that all plants produce toxins. There was no way I was throwing gas on that fire.  I don’t mean most plants, mind you; ALL plants are toxic.  A pound of fresh basil is toxic, a cup of fresh rosemary is toxic, cabbage is toxic, and hot peppers are toxic.  Apple seeds are very toxic and coffee beans have one of the most toxic substances known.  If you eat enough of any plant, your body will experience some difficulties with the toxins in the plant, and your digestive system will let you know.  Try eating leaves from a walnut tree.  The smells and tastes in plants are warnings of toxicity. 

And that’s why we eat them.  Not only that, we often crave them.  We dry them and grind them and sprinkle them on our food, especially on meats.  Plant chemicals keep us healthy.  I’ll take a second cup of those coffee beans, please.

There is nothing particularly healthy about meats.  It’s protein, sure, with a large dose of animal fat.  Plants add a variety of flavors and we associate the flavors with the meat, but we never think about the underlying need for the plant chemicals when we’re eating our meats.  Meats typically have little inherent flavor outside of burnt fats.  Those meats that do have subtle flavors, such as free-range meats, are the result of an exposure to a range of plants in the animal’s diet.  It’s the plants, not the meat.

We don’t get that.  With cheap corn-fed, factory-farmed, industrially-flavored supermarket meats surrounding us, anyone under the age of about 40 has never really experienced anything else.  Nor have the people who produce the meats.  And we are increasingly poorer and sicker because of it.

We need the healing power of those plant toxins.  We need weak toxins to stimulate our systems, we need environmental challenges, we need to stimulate the microbiome.  We need stop eating watered down, genetically uniform, commercially grown, immature food plants.  Plants are biological systems and they produce more and more chemicals as they age.  When we eat baby spinach, we are getting all of the experience those week-old leaves possess….and it isn’t much. 

We need to eat plants with character, with a history of fighting for life, with stories to tell about their misadventures with insects and pathogens.  We need to eat plants that can and have survived the outside world.  We need to stop eating plants that have never seen the outside of a greenhouse.

We also need to stop eating (or drinking) supplements and start consuming the real thing.  The plant is a consortium of defensive chemicals that have evolved over millions of years to protect the plant from a hungry world.  The components of that chemical cocktail do not work in isolation and we have no experience with them in that way.  Isolated chemicals are drugs.  They can be described as “medicine”, but they are still toxic, purified, potentially addictive, and act to replace physiological functions rather than to strengthen them. 

When we eat mature plants, we get very small doses of many different chemicals and those small doses stimulate out physiology in different ways.  They can be anaesthetics, analgesics, stimulants, depressants, disruptors, or enhancers.  The results of eating mature plants are incremental and slow, but the result is a stronger, more prepared, and more experienced body.  The result is a human physiology that is informed and ready in a holistic sense.  Plants are slow medicine.

The loss of nutritional quality in modern plants is well recognized.  Sometimes its intentional, such as reducing harsh flavors to make the plants more palatable.  Other nutrients are lost as genetic variation is eliminated in crop plants.  Sometimes, it’s just because we grow plants too fast.  Regardless, we are starved for the slow medicines and it’s showing.  We are sicker, we aren’t resistant or resilient, we are not recovering, we are more susceptible, we are dying.

We are primates.  We eat plants.  We have a colon that is constructed specifically for managing a large quantity of plant material by using bacteria to extract very important chemicals.  This is our evolutionary history and we cannot override that with food technology that ignores biological realities.  There is a second pandemic going on right now; it’s slow and creeping, but growing in speed.  It is the unintentional consequence of intentional actions that result in the starvation of our species by the continuous “improvement” of a nutritionally depauperate food system.  We need to change that very soon.

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