DDT: The Unsung Hero of a Beautiful Blue Zone?

Mark Rampolla — October 15, 2022


Sar­dinia is a beau­ti­ful place. The sec­ond-largest island in the Mediter­ranean, it is an Ital­ian ter­ri­to­ry that lies just south of the French island of Cor­si­ca, with a rough, unex­plored qual­i­ty that you don’t often find in Europe any­more. The untouched sandy beach­es are alone enough to jus­ti­fy a trip.

Many peo­ple know of Sar­dinia thanks to Dan Buettner’s book “The Blue Zones,” which explored parts of the world where peo­ple live incred­i­bly long, healthy lives. One of those places hap­pened to be Sar­dinia, which has one of the high­est con­cen­tra­tions of cen­te­nar­i­ans in the world. The idea behind the book was to uncov­er the rea­sons that the locals in these so-called “Blue Zones” live so long, so that the rest of us could do the same.

Part of what Buet­tner dis­cov­ered in Sar­dinia, and among the rea­sons I want­ed to vis­it, is that island life itself is con­ducive to good health. The amount of walk­ing that’s part of dai­ly life, along with a strong focus on spend­ing time with fam­i­ly and hav­ing a sense of pur­pose, absolute­ly con­tribute to longevi­ty. But I was most inter­est­ed in the role that food and diet play in the equa­tion, because of course both are inte­gral to long-term health.

First of all, the typ­i­cal diet in Sar­dinia is not plant-based. Not even close. Meat, cheese, seafood and oth­er ani­mal prod­ucts are all on the menu. The dif­fer­ence is in how those prod­ucts are sourced and processed (or not) how much most peo­ple eat. Com­pared to the typ­i­cal Amer­i­can, Sar­dini­ans eat very lit­tle and what they do eat is organ­ic and regen­er­a­tive (even if not cer­ti­fied so), min­i­mal­ly processed and as close to whole ingre­di­ents as pos­si­ble. Like a lot of soci­eties around the world, and with cer­tain eth­i­cal issues asso­ci­at­ed with ani­mal agri­cul­ture aside, the Sar­dini­ans have learned how to inte­grate these foods in a healthy way.

It’s like what Michael Pol­lan wrote in “In Defense of Food”: “Eat food. Not too much. Most­ly plants.”

But what sur­prised me most about Sar­dinia came not from its food but from its his­to­ry.

Dur­ing the 1940s, the island was the focus of an inten­sive effort by the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion to erad­i­cate malar­ia, which had been endem­ic in the area since before Roman times. Over the course of sev­er­al years, more than 267 met­ric tons of DDT were applied across the island, achiev­ing the goal of erad­i­ca­tion by the end of the decade.

What I find fas­ci­nat­ing is that, thanks to all that DDT, many of the peo­ple on Sar­dinia who might have died from malar­ia in their 20s or 30s were able to live much longer lives. There are a lot of down­sides to chem­i­cal appli­ca­tions like this, but there is a clear cor­re­la­tion in the num­ber of cen­te­nar­i­ans on Sar­dinia and what hap­pened there near­ly 80 years ago. It is an exam­ple of the appro­pri­ate appli­ca­tion of tech­nol­o­gy and the impor­tance of look­ing at the full pic­ture when think­ing about health and well­ness.

To be clear, I’m not advo­cat­ing for the use of DDT in food. But I believe it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize the fact that this chem­i­cal may very well have saved half a bil­lion lives world­wide since its first use. Even Rachel Car­son, in her ground­break­ing book “Silent Spring,” acknowl­edged the appro­pri­ate use of cer­tain chem­i­cals to improve lives and make the world a health­i­er place.

As investors in com­pa­nies build­ing a more sus­tain­able, acces­si­ble food sys­tem, the appro­pri­ate appli­ca­tion of tech­nol­o­gy is some­thing that we at Pow­er­Plant always keep in mind. I’m not advo­cat­ing for chem­i­cals like Roundup that have well known issues when it comes to food, but rather the fact that lever­ag­ing the right tech­nolo­gies, at the right time, can be appro­pri­ate and a net pos­i­tive. Some­times it just takes 70–80 years to see that impact.

That said, it was one of Buettner’s oth­er dis­cov­er­ies in the Blue Zones that I remem­ber most fond­ly. The tra­di­tion of “wine at five” is com­mon across many of the regions he stud­ied, and is one that I hap­pi­ly enjoyed, but I was not at all pre­pared for how good the wine on Sar­dinia was going to be. It is a region with a unique, fan­tas­tic and var­ied wine cul­ture, the vast major­i­ty of which nev­er leaves the island. They need their mag­i­cal liba­tions for 100 years of cel­e­bra­tions.

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