It was with disappointment, but with little surprise, that we read the article “The Root of All Evil” in this Sunday’s New York Post. This article is the third that Gary Buiso has written concerning lead contamination in NYC garden soils--his fear-mongering, faulty reasoning and sham investigative reporting are typical of the New York Post. These articles undermine the efforts of Cornell University scientists, the Parks Department, and greening organizations across the city who are working to educate the public about lead risks, and they undermine the work our organization has done to improve food access, build relationships, and address inequality in our community. With little support and with few other options for accessing fresh produce, NYC residents in every borough have transformed blighted vacant lots into vibrant and productive gardens, and Mr. Buiso seems intent on shaming and attacking them for their work.
I spoke at length last week with Mr. Buiso and Mr. Feuerherd about our awareness of the tests, our communication and support from Cornell University and GreenThumb (NYC Parks Department), our farming practices, and our efforts to support and educate urban gardeners in safe growing practices. I spent nearly forty minutes explaining our use of soil barriers, regular applications of compost, and our use of wood chips and cover crops to build and maintain lead-free soil. In the past two years we have partnered with the Department of Sanitation to distribute over 5000 bags of NYC Compost to East New York gardens, and applied over 10 cubic yards of new compost to our farm. Mr. Buiso makes no mention of this in the story. Why? Because well-reasoned science, proactive responses towards risk reduction, and transparency do not make for good cover stories in the Post.
While we agree with the author that there should be more support from the city for soil testing and public education about lead contamination, we take issue with the article on many fronts:
Misinterpretation of data: All of the soils tested at the UCC Youth Farm (our main growing site) were below guidance values for lead published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The article mentions a carrot that was tested with “nearly three times the safe amount of lead”. This is false. One carrot tissue sample in the 2011 test showed .12 parts per million (ppm) of lead, with the European Union guidance values for vegetables at .1-.3ppm depending on the crop (the US has no guidance values for metals in vegetables). Buiso uses this single “smoking carrot” to defame our farm and market, but his conclusion is based on an incorrect understanding of the test results.
Specious reasoning and guilt by association: The article lays out a manipulative and deceptive line of reasoning: “Some gardens in Brooklyn tested for high lead levels in 2011 and 2012. Some gardens sell their produce at markets. Therefore, garden produce sold at markets is toxic.” The two gardens with high lead levels that he mentions, Classon-Fulgate and Hart to Hart, are not in East New York nor part of our market, and yet Mr. Buiso attempts to link their test results with the produce sold at our market.
Accusations of secrecy: We are public and transparent about our work, and we are proud to grow food without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Our farm is open to the public to see our practices at work and speak with our growers. Even knowing the reputation of the Post, we still allowed the reporters into the farm. Growing food in the city is a public act, and a great way to start conversations about sustainability, food safety, and the health and environmental risks posed by industrial agriculture.
The legacy of lead contamination in our homes and soils is an unfortunate component of urban life, and it is one we take very seriously. Just as we would not vacate every building in this city built before 1978 (the year lead paint was outlawed), we need not abandon gardens where lead is present in the soil, but we must address the problem with education, remediation, and good practices. We test our soils regularly and follow the Healthy Gardening Practices recommended by Cornell University and GreenThumb, and we applaud their ongoing efforts to provide gardens with the educational and material resources they need to keep lead out of their produce. Rather than attempt scare tactics to smear community gardens, perhaps Mr. Buiso could have explored the substantial budget cuts faced by the GreenThumb Program in recent years. GreenThumb provides support to registered community gardens citywide, but these cuts affect their ability to distribute soil, compost, lumber and other supplies that aid in healthy soil management.
New Yorkers grow their own food because high quality fresh foods are not available or affordable in their communities, and will continue to do so as long as this is the case. Community gardens enhance our neighborhoods, contribute to cleaner air and water, and provide opportunities for physical activity, food production, and social interaction. Farmers markets throughout the city that work with community gardens are improving diets, improving neighborhoods, and constantly improving the soils and gardens that produce our food. We lament the reactionary and misinformed articles published by Mr. Buiso and the Post--this kind of journalism is truly toxic in the way that it pollutes any possibility of real dialogue, real education, and real action when dealing with lead in urban soils. We stand by the work that we do, and stand with gardeners across the city who have worked hard for their communities.
East New York Farms! Project Director
United Community Centers