Tuesday saw The Organic Institute of Ireland kick off its inaugural Environment, Food & Health Convention in Port Laoise, in the south midlands of Ireland. Motivated by the dire reality of the “…shocking legacy we are leaving our children and our children’s children”, founder, Gary Healy, is determined to do something about it. Through supporting education about how to cook and grow organic produce, as well as supplying organic produce free to organisations that support vulnerable people, such as the disabled, elderly and homeless, Gary and The Organic Institute are set to make a difference.

The first convention saw a mix of homegrown and international experts covering subjects illustrating the connection between the environment and the swathe of human chronic disease, that shows no sign of abating without a monumental 'U turn' from the top down and the bottom up. Rob Verkerk PhD set the scene with his presentation, entitled, “Reframing food, health and communities through the lens of sustainability”.

We have captured the essence of Rob’s presentation today in the following video, given how seminal it is to the systems-based foundation beneath ANH’s Blueprint for Health System Sustainability — and, in our expert view, to the change that is urgently needed in our world.

What follows is a summary of the other presentations to give you a flavour of the day and also share the top line take-homes from each presenter:

The medicine in your larder

Prof Dana Flavin MD, an authority on non-drug, nutrient-based, adjunctive therapies in cancer medicine flew over from Germany to discuss “Supplemental Therapy in Cancer”. The main thrust of her presentation is that nutrients commonly eaten in our diet are powerful, although oft ignored, medicine. For example, retinoic acid and beta-carotene (metabolites of vitamin A) from orange and red veg and fruit, have the ability at concentrated doses to be chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic. Likewise, a molecule in broccoli sprouts, beta-phenylethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC) has anticancer activity through its ability to modulate intracellular free radicals.

Other nutrients that Dr Flavin has used successfully to support her cancer patients are:

  • Cod liver oil
  • Vitamin D3
  • Boswellia serrata
  • Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
  • Selenium
  • Iodine
  • Turmeric
  • Vitamin B3
  • Lactoferrin

She emphasised the importance of assessing heavy metal status, suggesting that tumours may in part be the body’s way of trying to detox, as the basis. Here herbs, as well as vitamins and minerals, are essential support. In essence, she called for regular detoxing and to always eat organic.

Good medicine has always been functional

Conor Saunders, a nutritional therapist from Ireland, took the audience on a journey to show why pharmaceutical-based medicine has to give way to functional and integrative medicine. Any medicine that isn’t focused on health creation and optimising function, will never be effective at treating disease because it’s incapable of finding and treating the root cause. Added to which, the chronic disease epidemic sweeping the globe is multi-factorial, so a silo’d medical approach, as with current conventional medicine, is unable to deal with the body as a whole system. Hence, medicine today isn’t coping well and most developed countries are facing a public health crisis. The incidence of almost every non-communicable disease is increasing at accelerated rates, with many people experiencing multimorbidity (more than one disease at the same time) and polypharmacy (multiple prescribed drugs at the same time).

Conor’s presentation got the audience thinking about disease labels as decoys to keep funding the pharma industry; why cholesterol is “the defining molecule of higher life” that helps us to feel and to think; how different cancer treatment may be if oncologists posed the questions, why this cancer, this person, at this time? And how high blood pressure is likely just an adaptive response for narrowing ‘pipes’. Lower the blood pressure without addressing why it’s manifested, and you could risk a cardiac event.

He left us with a final thought-provoking comment, that the aetiology (origin/causation) of a disease is rarely, if ever, in the frame of enquiry from a conventional medical perspective as it is with a functional medicine approach. Yet, the thinking behind functional medicine as we know it today, has been around for some time!

Resilient soil, resilient health

David Wilson, a soil scientist, organic farming and sustainability expert bridged the gap between healthy soils, best farming practices for healthy crops and livestock to create a healthy population. David has been the Manager of Prince Charles’ Royal Duchy Home Farm at Highgrove since 1985 and was responsible for converting the estates to sustainable, organic agriculture. He took us on a fascinating tour through the ecology of managing 1900 acres using a mixed farming system with dedicated focus on healthy soils, crop rotation, sustainable livestock management and maintaining hedges and meadows for wildlife and pollinators.

David’s wealth of knowledge is founded in deep passion for the land and all that live on it. He farms from the premise that all life forms are joined up, saying, “If we are always aiming to create a healthy biome - be it soil health and soil biomes, the gut biome or the ruminant biome, we’ll make the right decisions”. The ‘proof is in the pudding’, or the soil in this instance, given that the recent deluge of rain in the UK means that many farmers are unable to plant their winter crops. Not so on the Duchy Home Farm, as the soil is so resilient (healthy) it’s able to cope with an excess of water. We talk a lot about resilience in health, but it applies to soil too.

Having lost around 90% of food genetics in plants and livestock over the last 100 years, David's focus is on heritage varieties of vegetables and ancient rare breeds of livestock to keep the gene pool. With some of the modern apples you’d need to eat around 80 to get the same level of polyphenols as in heritage varieties. He also commented that most rare breeds are very intelligent and character-filled, yet new breeds have been bred for docility, with an ensuing loss of intelligence.

David left us with hope for a better agricultural future. One that returns to a mixed farming system, given that permanent pasture for livestock sequesters a lot of carbon in the soil, which far outweighs the methane from grain-fed, belching cows and is necessary for environmental balance.

What is a low carb real food lifestyle?

Nutrition practitioner, Patricia Daly, took to the floor to talk low carb, real food lifestyles and what that means from a practical perspective. Using her own experience of using a ketogenic dietary approach to heal from eye cancer as the springboard, Patricia cleared up some of the confusion between low carb and nutritional ketosis.

Low carb being the level of carb intake by which signs and symptoms of intolerance resolve. Whereas nutritional ketosis is a state that shifts the body’s fuel homeostasis away from glucose and towards fat as a primary fuel. The key by-product being beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) (and other ketone bodies), which can be measured in the blood. Her comparison chart below represents the nuts and bolts of the macros in actual numbers.

Split of macro nutrients between the Irish Food Pyramid, a low carb and a ketogenic diet. Source: Patricia Daly, reproduced with permission. 

Patricia pointed out that ketones are not just a fuel source, they’re also signalling molecules that effect gene expression. This being part of the reason why becoming fat-adapted usually results in all, and more, of the following:

  • Stable energy through the day without the need for stimulants like coffee
  • Reduced sugar cravings
  • A clear mind
  • Better endurance
  • A loss of body fat
  • Reduced inflammation and pain
  • Better hormonal balance
  • Improvement in chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Connection = healthy people, healthy planet

There was a wealth of information shared in this one-day convention, but the overarching theme running throughout was the urgent need for connection, which then naturally will espouse a more systems-based model of thinking and acting. With this is mind, it seems fitting to end with the two quotes from American environmental activist and farmer, Wendell Berry, that David Wilson used at the start of his presentation:


"People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food."

"Eating is an agricultural act."
- Wendell Berry


Stay tuned as next year's event is planned for early June 2020!


Top row from left to right: Rob Verkerk PhD, David Wilson, Dr Dana Flavin, Gary Healy, Patricia Daly, Richard Burton, Conor Saunders, Dr Raymond Cadwell.
Bottom Row from left to right: Evelyn Healy, Meleni Aldridge