The Perils of Buying Plants at Walmart

Wondering whom to blame for the scarcity of organic tomatoes in the stores? It’s a late-season blight caused by a fungus like the one responsible for the Irish potato famine. But in the New York Times’ weekend opinion section, Dan Barber goes further: The blight was kicked off by the resurgence of home gardening:

“According to plant pathologists, this killer round of blight began with a widespread infiltration of the disease in tomato starter plants. Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast. (Fungal spores, which can travel up to 40 miles, may also have been dispersed in transit.) Once those infected starter plants arrived at the stores, they were purchased and planted, transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into backyard and community gardens. Perhaps this is why the Northeast was hit so viciously: instead of being spread through large farms, the blight sneaked through lots of little gardens, enabling it to escape the attention of the people who track plant diseases.”

Whoa! It’s your fault, backyard gardeners! Barber goes on to suggest that gardens should be sourced locally. Buy local seeds or starter plants from nearby growers. “A tomato plant that travels 2,000 miles is no different from a tomato that has traveled 2,000 miles to your plate,” he writes.

Though Barber perhaps comes down a bit heavy on home gardeners, his point is valid: Once you start growing, you’re part of the country’s agricultural network. What you do can affect other people, in ways good and bad.

Image source: Flickr member visualdensity under Creative Commons

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