November 21, 2013

Dr. Thottathil presenting about SF Bay Area PSR’s sustainable meat program at October 2013 Balanced Menus meeting in SF

I recently finished my PhD at UC Berkeley, where I was researching organic agriculture in South India. I worked with farmers and NGOs in the state of Kerala on pesticide poisoning and saw how communities were exposed to toxins from industrial agriculture. I saw how all the chemicals and pesticides that are added into our food system at the stage of production were affecting people’s health downstream, from birth defects to the failure of their endocrine systems, and from their fingernails falling off to headaches and nausea.

At SF Bay Area PSR, we are engaged in making agricultural production more sustainable; it’s great for me to be a part of applying here what I learned in India. I appreciate how our chapter makes linkages between the environment and human health.

My primary work at SF Bay Area PSR is on healthy and sustainable food. I work under the national Healthy Food in Health Care (HFHC) program with our partner, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH). I provide technical and communication assistance to hospitals across the country (473 have signed the HFHC pledge!), to support their purchases of more local and sustainable food in their cafeterias and patient meals.

I also advocate for sustainable food policy. We energize clinicians in our network to get involved in sustainable food advocacy. This year, we did a lot of policy work on the issue of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Antibiotics approved for human medicine are routinely given to animals, and that use is increasingly linked to antibiotic resistant infections in humans. In May, we asked our members to sign onto a letter to President Obama asking him to take stronger action on getting the routine use of antibiotics out of animal agriculture. Over a quarter of those who signed were from California because we were effective in our promotion through the SF Bay Area PSR listserv.

In addition to antibiotics in animal agriculture, our procurement and policy work are anchored in the issues of climate change (particularly thinking about reducing the health care system’s carbon footprint) and getting toxic chemicals out of our food.

Health professionals and hospitals can play a key role in transforming agricultural production to become more healthy and sustainable. Policymakers and individuals rely on doctors to take care of them when they are sick, and people listen to what they have to say because they are seen as authority figures on human health. The health care industry also has economic clout: the purchases that hospitals are making send signals to the marketplace that the health care sector is interested in buying sustainable food.

SF Bay Area PSR members can integrate food sustainability into their work in multiple ways: by signing onto letters and petitions our chapter sends out; joining in-district Congressional visits that we organize; making connections with food service staff and talking about the kinds of food that are brought into the setting where you work; and talking about healthy food with your patients and why it’s important to eat fresh and organic foods. Health care professionals really understand how toxic chemicals from agricultural production interact with our bodies to cause problems, and are key allies in the sustainable food movement.

Dr. Thottathil has a book about organic farming coming out in the Fall of 2014 from the University of Iowa Press.