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The following question was posed:

https://sustainability.stackexchange.com/questions/145/pine-needle-tea-vitamin-c-and-a-all-pine-tree-subgenus-species

...
Are the amount of vitamins the same on all this different trees? And are all safe to use?

Emphasis mine. Should questions on what plants are safe to use be on-topic on Sustainable Living?

I realize that a desire to live a sustainable, resource-neutral life is closely correlated with using natural resources to keep us healthy and nourished.

I am married to someone with a keen interest in nutrition and what uses natural resources (plants, fungi, etc) can be used for when it comes to our health. As such, I am very much aware that there are serious risks involved with using plants you are not familiar with; mistake hemlock for parsley and you will fall seriously ill or even die.

I fear that if we choose to leave such questions on the site, we are going to end up with a situation where someone falls ill because an answer here had given the impression that a given plant was safe to use, or where the specific plant had not been identified clearly enough. When it comes to funghi, the risks of misidentification are higher still.

For the above example, yes, so far as we know all pines are safe, but you also must be absolutely clear that yew (taxus baccata) is not a pine and not safe to use. A novice could be easily confused if details like that were omitted from an answer.

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    So why wouldn't you want that information ("avoid yews") available then? – Shog9 Jan 30 '13 at 22:29
  • @Shog9: The point is that that information may have been omitted in the answer, I was adding that here as an illustration of what could have been forgotten. – Martijn Pieters Jan 30 '13 at 22:30
  • @Shog9: Sites that specialize in this kind of information include lengthy disclaimers to avoid litigation because of the risks involved. – Martijn Pieters Jan 30 '13 at 22:33
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    I could post an answer on hardware repair on SU that forgot to mention the need to unplug your PSU before working on it. I could forget the "not for use in nuclear power plants" warning on a Java answer on SO. I could forget to mention that eating green beans is dangerous if they're infested with botulism when posting an answer on Seasoned Advice... Ultimately, it's a judgement call and a matter of community review whether or not this is necessary and/or done. – Shog9 Jan 30 '13 at 22:42
  • And not to knock that site (I've never seen it before, it might be awesome) but... I suspect they need the "educational only, not health advice" disclaimer because a lot of what they're offering appears to be medical advice. If you're telling someone that such and such a concoction will cure what ails 'em, you probably do have to be pretty explicit about that being just, y'know, your opinion 'cause otherwise you'll start running into some of those laws floating around to combat snake oil. – Shog9 Jan 30 '13 at 22:47
  • @Shog9: Hrm, I clearly am not getting across that the risks are real and more immediate. Yes, the disclaimer is there to ward of laws as well (no health advice unless you are a licensed doctor, etc.) but that's the point I am getting at; a question as innocent as is this plant use healthy easily is taken as medical advice and the risks with such advice are real and numerous. More so than forgetting to mention nuclear power plants when giving Java coding advice. – Martijn Pieters Jan 30 '13 at 22:52
  • See my answer, Martijn. This question's problematic in several ways, but I'm reluctant to advise a course of action that embraces paranoia. There's a world of misinformation out there already - if this site has a purpose, then actively combating misinformation should be a part of that; shying away from any topic that could possibly attract wrong or dangerous answers is itself dangerous. – Shog9 Jan 30 '13 at 23:06
  • @Shog9: Hrm, I don't detect any paranoia in my original statement; that's pretty strong there Shog9. I perhaps over-emphasized the part where health information is risky, I agree it is plainly not on topic, but did want to show that if we did decide it is on-topic then we need to be clear as to how far we'd be willing to go tolerating debate and/or advice on such subjects. – Martijn Pieters Jan 30 '13 at 23:09
  • I don't think you're paranoid, @Martijn - it's a valid concern. Heck, it's come up before on Cooking, on Fitness, on SU and SO and probably other sites I'm not thinking of right now. But disallowing questions on a topic because answers can be dangerous is as wrong as it is attractive - rather, you should always consider whether or not you have the expertise to make folks aware of the danger, to guide them away from it, and to stop those who might lead them into it. As I said, this will hardly be the only subject where such concerns will apply... – Shog9 Jan 30 '13 at 23:13
  • Exactly; I have enough expertise to warn people away from taking health advice on a internet forum, for one. :-) – Martijn Pieters Jan 30 '13 at 23:16
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Here's my take: the topic of this site is sustainable living - not herb usage, health advice, nutrition information, etc. Folks signed up to share information on living without depleting - while there may be some information on tangential topics floating around, that's not really why you're all here.

So while there are probably some topics involving the sustainable use of pines and tea that'd be on-topic here, the vitamin content / nutritional value of such is pretty far removed.

That being said, close questions like that because they're off-topic. Not because you're scared someone will provide bad info. There'll be plenty of questions on topics vital to this audience that can and will attract bad, incomplete or even outright dangerous answers - if this site is to have any real value, you must be able and willing to correct them, improve them, call them out - not just shut them down and pretend no one will ever find information on, say, overcharging batteries or drinking poorly-treated water anywhere else on The Internet.

It's Stack Exchange: anyone can answer, anyone can edit, and folks who've demonstrated some basic competency can vote - if this site's gonna work, you have to be willing to use those tools - to elevate good information and dispute bad information.

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    I'm not sure I agree that nutrition discussion should be off topic. It's certainly a little tangential, but discussion of whether plants are edible (especially plants that people don't normally think of as food) is certainly on topic for sustainability. That's part of permaculture is starting to eat and selectively breed hardy plants that don't sap the soil as much as many more mainstream food plants. – Daniel Bingham Jan 30 '13 at 23:27
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    You should post an answer, @Daniel – Shog9 Jan 30 '13 at 23:29
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I don't think nutrition discussion should be off topic. A large part of permaculture is identifying as edible, and beginning to breed for increased edibility, plants that are not normally eaten. Plants that are hardy, perennial or don't deplete the soil as much as ones that have been over bred for productivity.

By nature, a discussion of nutrition needs to be a part of that. In fact a part of sustainability is figuring out how to repeatedly get the most nutrition possible from the soil with the least amount of work and with out contaminating or depleting that soil. In that light, discussions of nutrition are very much on topic.

As to the questions of the danger of lack of information, that's just a problem with any information source. We can't let that stop us from providing what information we do have. Maybe we can put a site specific caution with respect to discussions of edibility (plants and mushrooms). I know a lot of the permaculture books include a section discussing safe practices for trying new plants (taste a tinsy tiny amount and then gradually increase the amount each time you try it). Even if a plant is generally edible that doesn't mean someone won't have an allergic reaction to it. There's always that risk. We're just gonna have to be careful to make people aware of that risk.

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    That's a good point; as long as we are careful to a) keep it constructive and b) make sure people are aware of any risks and c) limit it to 'better for the soil', 'more nutrition for your ecological impact' kind of info and not 'cures cancer too' angles I think we'll be fine. I'd love to find a concise and easy to explain line to draw though. – Martijn Pieters Jan 31 '13 at 11:44

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