Equine Nutrition & Lifestyle: Chemical Free Living – Or is it?

By Dr. Sarah Reagan
Instructor & Advisory Board Member at The American Council of Animal Naturopathy

There actually is no such thing as “chemical free living” – for us, our animals, or any living organism, and “chemical free products” are nothing more than marketing hype. As an example: Dioxin is likely the most toxic synthetic (man-made) chemical compound in existence, yet it is vastly (some sources say a million times) less toxic than the Botulinum toxin that nature makes.

Before you get the tar and feathers out, let me explain. And no, I am not advocating using Dioxin! From a material standpoint, life does not happen without chemicals and chemical reactions – but of course the living form is more than just biochemistry.

It’s just that we would lack a bit of substance without that aspect. Let’s take an example of a naturally occurring chemical compound that can be toxic, yet is vital to most life forms: NaCl – sodium chloride, aka salt. If you are a slug, you probably don’t like this much and will avoid it if at all possible, yet you, as a human, and your horse would both die without a certain amount of it. The issue with salt of course is human interference: natural salt deposits are predominantly sodium and chloride (87%-90%), but the other 10%+/- includes many other trace minerals necessary for a state of health; human decided somewhere along the way that these trace minerals were “impurities” and decided to remove them, and we wind up with a toxic product (just not immediately toxic in normal use).

So we can’t say that “chemical-free” means omitting all chemicals period, else it would all be a moot point and this article is totally unnecessary because no one would be left to read it (nor would I be here to write it). We also can’t say it means eschewing all “toxic” chemicals because defining toxicity can be very dose dependent, and includes some naturally occurring chemicals and related compounds. CO2 anyone? So what do we really mean? Let’s examine this a bit further.

The world went a bit crazy in the early part of the 20th century, not that it has recovered. Chemical weapons (made from substances found in nature) had been in use for thousands of years: poisoned arrows, boiling tar, arsenic smoke, and so on. But WWI saw the beginnings of ‘real’ chemical warfare, particularly in the form of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases. Phosgene gas is largely an industrial product used in plastics and pesticides; chlorine is a naturally occurring element, and the gas was first synthesized in 1630; mustard gas (aka sulfur mustard) is an organic compound that is not found in the environment, and was first used as a treatment for psoriasis but no longer has any medical use. WWII however ushered in the use of a new kind of chemical warfare – the likes never before seen. As before in history, many of these chemicals were (are) quite easily found in nature; but human figured out how to manipulate/combine/repackage them into deadly weapons, such as the phosphorus grenade. Napalm is another good example, taking naturally occurring salts and acids and turning them into something extremely deadly. Nerve gases, although never (supposedly) used by the US during WWII, were also developed during that period. Perhaps one of the single most influential chemical aspects of WWII was the fixation (literally and figuratively) of nitrate from nitrogen, which occurred in the early 1900’s; nitrate was subsequently used extensively in munitions during the 2nd World War. And of course, DDT was born during WWII, touted as “safe but effective against insects”, leading the way for development of a multitude of other –cide compounds. Again, keep in mind that all of these have as a basis naturally occurring substances. This “chemical age” was an exciting time for many scientists as they were able to experiment and develop to their heart’s content…without an apparent thought of future consequences. The human species, despite being equipped to do so, doesn’t seem to think much about long term effects now, and apparently did so even less 75 years ago.

When WWII drew to a close, the US had ten large scale nitrate-making bomb factories , not to mention unimaginable stockpiles and/or capacity to make all sorts of chemical compounds. Without a war requiring significant amounts of these chemicals for warfare, what was to be done? Ah ha! The ‘lucky’ citizens became the benefactors of: ways to make plants grow ten times faster than they normally would (farmers couldn’t wait to get their hands on this stuff), and our lawns green and free of those pesky weeds; home cleaning products that can “disinfect” and take stains out of just about anything (and hopefully the “thing” survives the stain removal); liquids, powders, and granules that kill any and all kinds of creepy little crawling, flying, and jumping creatures in the environment as well as on our animals. Life became much easier, more play time – unless of course you were one of those that got into competition with your neighbor to see whose yard was the greenest and most weed-and-bug-free – that probably took some of your play time away.

But something started happening…the past several decades have shown us some rather odd, and scary things…these ‘wonderful’ products that were supposed to make our lives easier seem to be doing something rather nasty as well, to us, our animals, and the ecology in general. Things like tumors and all kinds of supposedly idiopathic conditions that were endowed with “disease” names. Not to mention dead birds and a fast-dying bee population. (But if you’re worried about the bees not being around to pollinate the plants that make your food, there’s always the McD’s hamburger you can store in your pantry and eat ten years later with no change in its appearance; another benefit of “mad science”.)

Some of us began to wake up and realize there was something rotting in the woodpile…and it didn’t come from nature. We started attacking science (literally and figuratively) seeming to ignore the fact that two of the greatest women that ever lived are the ones that first began clueing us in on what was “rotting”: Rachel Carson, biologist (1907 -1964) and Theo Colborn, zoologist (1927-2014). We somehow seem to have forgotten that both these women were mainstream scientists.

Let’s go back and narrow down exactly what many of us in the holistic health field are really talking about when we say “chemical free lifestyle” for our animals (and us). We are essentially talking about synthesized pesticides – and chemical fertilizers. The EPA definition of “pest” is so broad as to include just about anything that is unwanted at any given time or is in an undesired location at any given time (and yes, I personally think the EPA is a pest on both counts). A pest-a-cide is any substance or mixture of substances used to: prevent, destroy, repel or reduce pests and the damage caused by pests. So to make discussion simple, there really is no point in differentiating between whether it’s an herbicide, fungicide, or other killing or reducing agent – they are all pesticides.

Unfortunately the picture can become cloudy as biologicals and unadulterated, naturally occurring chemicals are also sold as “pesticides” – and many are allowed inputs under current organic growing guidelines. Ever heard of Paris green? Many of us like to think of the “good ole days” before the chemical revolution and say that “grandpa” used to farm like organic farmers do now, only then it was just called farming and all the food was (supposedly) clean. If grandpa (or his father) were still alive, he might tell you about using the very popular Paris green (arsenic) as well as copper and sulphur on the crops. Arsenic in general was finally disallowed just a few years ago (approximately 2009), which means it remains a food-system-wide problem in both organic and conventional production; copper sulphate and other quite poisonous natural chemicals are still allowed under USDA organic guidelines. Rotenone is another good example. I remember many years ago (about 1980) when I first began gardening organically, I thought – like many people did and still do – that organic or natural simply means the absence of using synthetic chemicals and that any substance derived from nature is perfectly ok. Rotenone was touted as a wonderful defense against pests; it’s all natural so use as much as you want or need. The problem is rotenone (derived from certain legume roots including jicama) is a nerve agent; it kills fish and can induce Parkinson’s-like symptoms in mammals. It (along with other botanicals) remains controversial in use in organic growing, but nevertheless remains allowable for use. Pyrethrins are natural insecticides found in many pet shampoos, and while the LD50 for organic pyrethrins (as opposed to synthetic pyrethroids) is quite high, it is still a nerve agent, though not as potent as rotenone. Again, everything depends upon dose –

Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy
~ Paracelsus

I realize this may be splitting hairs so to speak, but what I want to get across is that there simply is no such thing as a “chemical free lifestyle”. It is my viewpoint that if we are going to sling terms around, we need to fully understand what we are saying. There is a false dichotomy between natural = good and man-made = bad, and approaching the situation from that standpoint does nothing but perpetuate a rift between so-called opposing sides. As one migrates into natural or holistic health practices (whether personally or professionally), the general approach is to simply switch lanes; we do not change our underlying thinking process. And so we look to replace a synthetic –cide with a natural –cide. While doing this is absolutely the preferable way to go it does nothing to address the underlying situation. We cannot just simply go pour a bunch of “organic” fertilizer on our pastures and expect everything to be ok. The approach we, in my viewpoint, should be taking is a phenomenological one in which there can be no question of the path to take in any given situation. We need to work toward real solutions, not just covering it up with a band-aid. And that requires understanding from a true perspective, not just repeating something that someone else said. And yes, this kind of understanding takes a bit of effort – and that effort is also known as responsibility.

We are always looking downstream; we are always reacting and trying to fix what has already occurred. We are always seeing the animal and the environment. But what if we looked upstream? Would we not see from whence the river came? Would we not begin to see that the animal-and-environment is fictitious? Would not begin to see that one forms the other, that there is a certain unity in form between the two that cannot be broken apart? When we begin to see this way, there becomes no doubt that whatever we do to one affects the other, and this then leads us to understand that we cannot reverse what has already happened. The river has already flowed downstream.

So how do we apply this to a domestic horse situation? It’s really very simple…we realize that the horse (any animal) is born of their environment. We have a “form” to start with. The physiological part of this form is where we apply species appropriate nutrition. Then we begin to understand the morphological form with regard to how the animal views and reacts with his environment; this gives us clues as to how to build a domestic environment for the particular species that respects the parameters of that morphology. Nowhere in this scenario does it include rearranging the parts.

(1)The suffix “cide” comes from a Latin word meaning “killer” or the “act of killing”.
(2)Source: http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/04/history-nitrogen-fertilizer-ammonium-nitrate
(3)Source: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/about/
(4)Source: http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdch_Pesticide_Booklet_97200_7.pdf
(5)The aspect of the evolution of higher animals (mammals specifically for this discussion) is not addressed here. Mammalian (including human) evolution involves emancipation from nature, and we see this happening in many cognitive actions and re-actions of non-human mammals. The present evolutionary state of non-human animals, however, still leaves them very much a part of nature, and for the purpose of this discussion, we cannot ignore that aspect when it comes to human manipulation of animal and his environment. This bears further discussion beyond the scope of this article.