“…On June 7, Rodale will publish my book Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Search for the Truth About Food Safety. I’d originally thought the book would be about the pathogenic bacteria that often contaminate our food, and what needs to be done to ensure consumer safety. To a certain extent, this is still true. But as I got deeper into my reporting, I became intrigued by the interplay between human life, the bacteria that inhabit us, and the bacteria we encounter on a daily basis, both in our food and otherwise. The following excerpt, which David has kindly offered to post, is from one of the chapters that explore this issue. Thank you for reading. – Ben Hewitt
PS: One of the great pleasures in writing this book was the opportunity to get to know a few of the characters that post here regularly. In particular, I am thankful to Bill Marler, Mark McAfee, and David Gumpert for their extreme generosity with their insight and time.
There are plenty of people within the biological science community who are certain that the conventional wisdom regarding pathogenic bacteria is, to put it bluntly, killing us. One of those people is Lynn Margulis, a distinguished university professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts.
“This whole idea of good bacteria versus bad bacteria isn’t just wrong, it’s suicidal,” Margulis told me. As Margulis explains it, microbes and the communities they comprise (which is to say, us) are constantly evolving. When we meddle with that process, we run the risk of unintended consequences that might take hundreds of years to play out. “Some of the things that we now consider pathogens could be key to our survival in the future. I’m not denying there are toxic bacteria, but there are natural reasons for it. When we think of these bacteria as something to be defeated, we are not thinking ecologically at all. The war on pathogenic bacteria is built on lie upon lie upon lie.”
Essentially, Margulis is saying that our attempt to thwart pathogenic bacteria is only beneficial in the short term; over the long haul, it may actually degrade our ability to weather incoming invaders, or create even more deadly strains of the very bacteria we are trying to protect ourselves from. Antibiotics provide a convenient analogy: In the short run, they are tremendously beneficial – nothing short of lifesaving – but after only a few decades of widespread use, we are beginning to recognize significant downsides. One is the possibility of secondary infections that take root in the aftermath of antibiotic use; this is because the drugs have knocked out good bacteria along with bad, and good bacteria is, at least in part, what protects us from bad bacteria. The second, of course, is the fact that some bacteria have evolved to the point where antibiotics can no longer kill them….”