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In a classic of Orwellian double-speak, Monsanto now claims to be leading the way in sustainable agriculture.

I’m not sure when the word “sustainable” became synonymous with producing more food from crops stacked with their own pesticide producing capabilities. But in an apparent effort to reframe what has been an already largely degraded term, that’s exactly what Monsanto has done.

Will they still call it sustainable if these new “smart” crops fail or are proven to cause the diseases some studies indicate they will cause? Maybe by sustainable, they mean reducing the world’s population through food-induced disease and death.

Orwell be damned.

In a brief follow up to yesterday’s post, the St. Louis Business Journal reports that the EU’s European Commission “failed to authorize the sale of Monsanto Co’s genetically modified corn on Wednesday.”

Monsanto, of course, is billing this as a loss to farmers. Earlier this year, Germany joined France, Austria, Hungary, Greece and Luxembourg in banning the GM seed, “alleging that it is harmful to wildlife.” We can only hope that other European nations will soon follow suit.

I think it’s interesting that the St. Louis Business Journal chooses to frame this as “failure” on the part of the EU Commission. Monsanto is headquartered in nearby Creve Coeur, Missouri. In this and other articles I’ve read from the SLBJ, it is clear that they are, at the least, highly sympathetic to Monsanto’s position.

Stay tuned. It will be interesting to see how this story continues to unfold.

On July 20, agri-giants Monsanto and Dow received EPA approval to move forward with a 2010 commercial launch of Genuity Smart Stax, a new corn seed that combines in-plant insect and weed resistant technologies developed by each company. Farmers are expected to plant 3-4 million acres of the new corn seed next year. According to the companies, this will represent the largest introduction of corn biotech seed in the history of agriculture.

How does it work? One of the three components of this new seed is Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that kills many harmful insects by creating pores in the insect’s gut. Monsanto, Dow, and other companies have spliced the genes of the Bt toxins into the corn’s genetic code. In short, these plants produce their own insecticide.

Why is this a problem? That depends on which angle you take. From the conventional farmer’s perspective, the development of these products is a huge relief — the farmer can continue to intensively grow one crop on the same patch of land without having to adjust his practices. It’s sort of like a drug dealer making crack that will tweak you out at night but leave you ready for work in the morning. If there are no immediate consequences, why fix your bad habits?

From the organic farmer’s perspective, this trend is bad news. Bt, a living organism that belongs to no one, is one of the most effective tools available for  organic pest control. By creating plants that naturally produce the bacteria proteins so deadly to pests, Monsanto, Dow, and their ilk are also encouraging the evolution of  insects that will be resistant to the Bt toxin. Already, Diamond Back moth populations with a resistance to Bt have been discovered. Likewise, farmers growing GMO cotton have documented pest resistance to Bt crops. It is worth noting that, unlike conventional farmers, most organic farmers only spray Bt when a pest population has gotten out of control. It is also worth noting that Bt, when sprayed on vegetables, is not harmful to humans if consumed in small amounts.

From the consumer’s perspective there are many unanswered questions about GMO foods, especially those that produce their own insecticides. For one, notice that this new seed received approval from EPA and not the FDA. That’s because the FDA considers this type of seed to be an insecticide, not a food product, therefore placing it under the EPA jurisdiction. Even Monsanto’s own language reflects this inherent disconnect between food and these new products: “The decisions also include a reduction of the typical farm refuge requirements for farmers who plant the technology.”

I don’t know about you, but I prefer eating food, not technology.

Secondly, and of greater concern, are some studies that suggest high levels of Bt can cause infertility in mice (and by extension, people).  Before this study took place, Monsanto tried to stop it. Once the study was completed, they attempted to suppress the findings. It is worth noting that these GMO plants “naturally” contain high concentrations of the Bt toxin.

And finally, as with all crops that are wind or insect pollinated, it is virtually impossible to prevent the genes of these plants from spreading into non-GMO crops. Perhaps this is the greatest concern of all — especially considering the reduced buffer/refuge zones required for Genuity Smart Stax — that even if you make every effort to avoid the loaded gun of GMO crops, their genes can still find their way into your food.

 

 

striped roman close #1The Striped Roman is a colorful, sausage-type tomato. Inside, the flesh is thick and meaty, and compared to a slicing tomato, the Striped Roman is “dry,” the flesh almost like a paste. It’s the perfect tomato for making a thick enchilada or marinara sauce.

striped roman far #3The plants seem wispy, their branches daintier than other varieties. They seem almost fragile. However, by mid-June, when the summer’s heat is constant, these plants explode, quickly branching out and smothering anything in their vicinity.

Immature tomatoes are green and white striped. As they ripen, the skin turns a fiery combination of red, orange, and yellow. The Striped Roman is one of the most competitive plants I’ve seen in the garden.

If you’re interested in a tomato that is functional and pretty, consider saving a space in your garden for the Striped Roman.

Many of us feel that organic is better, local even more so, and the two together unbeatable. But why?

A new movie, Food Inc., looks at the “dark” side of industrial food production, highlighting the nutritional and ecological effects of eating highly processed, inhumanely slaughtered, and otherwise unsustainably produced food.

I haven’t seen the movie, though I hope it will receive some play in Lexington (come on Kentucky Theater!). Previews have already generated a lot of buzz, including this response by Rebecca Ruiz, a health writer for Forbes.

I have to admit, I am conflicted. As Ruiz points out, activists who sing the praises of small scale, locally produced food often don’t discuss the thornier issues surrounding hunger, access, and cost.

These facts are undeniable: small scale food is healthier, but more expensive; organic crop yields are often lower (perhaps “normal” is the correct word), though prospects for long-term ecological sustainability are greater.

Many questions remain: Are those of us clamoring for locally produced food really just advocating for a privileged food class? How would the world shift food production from large to small scale and achieve this without starving millions of people? Is small scale, local agriculture a realistic model given the realities of ecological changes and increasing world populations?

Though Ruiz’s critique is serious and well-reasoned, she conflates a number of topics into one topic, while simultaneously buying into some common misconceptions. When she says, “Skeptics point out that by and large, the healthiest food is not cheapest, nor is it available in every market,” she is raising a good point, one that I’ve raised myself. When she criticizes locavores as being naive, she does so at risk of sounding like a hypocrite.

Let’s not confuse the issue of cost and access, which seems to be an American concern, with the issue of eradicating hunger, which seems to be something else entirely.

Sure, as Americans, we have access to an abundance of cheaply made food, much of it produced using industrial farming techniques. But what kind of food is it? The next time you’re at the grocery, take a moment to break the store down by types of food. You have a relatively small produce section; you have an aisle of dairy and one of meats; you have an aisle of canned produce; you have a section of pastas, flour, and other grain products. The rest of the store is mostly made up of pre-packaged, prepared foods that are full of artificial everything, extra sodium, and more sugar/corn syrup than our great grandparents probably ate in their entire lives. Is it just a coincidence that the most processed foods are the cheapest, or that rates of obesity and poverty often overlap?

So is the issue food scarcity? Or is the issue, perhaps, using the food resources we have, no matter how they’re produced, to make better quality food?

Access to affordable, healthy food is one issue, though one that I believe is only tangentially connected to the larger issue of feeding the world’s population.

To that end, Ruiz offers a slight defense of Monsanto and their ilk by saying that industrial farming techniques have been developed as they have in order to feed as many people as possible. And these techniques have fed a lot of people. However, here Ruiz is being slightly less naive than the food activists she set out to critique.

If you really believe that Monsanto, Cargill, and DuPont helped develop these farming methods out of the kindness of their hearts and in order to feed the world’s hungry, I will buy you a new tractor. If Monsanto really cared about the world’s farmers, would they breed corn that has a kill gene in it (which prevents the seed from sprouting the next year, in effect making the plant a one-and-done), or sue farmers who try to save seed from plants originally purchased from Monsanto?

Admittedly, I haven’t researched the investments of Monsanto, Cargill, or DuPont, so I’m not entirely sure what all they own. But I would wager a bet that these same companies pushing enhanced/modified seeds also sell the weed killers, pesticides, and petroleum based fertilizers necessary for this type of farming. These are businesses. Their business is to make money, and making money is never about long term sustainability/success.

But what about the recent success of grain farming in Africa using these seeds and techniques? Well, as every good drug dealer knows, first you subsidize the product, then once the customer is hooked, you charge them full price. As the Punjab region of India has shown, relying on these techniques may increase production in the short term, though the success comes at an astronomical price.

Still, Ruiz and others who share her concerns can’t be entirely discounted. The real challenge in all of this is in changing how we perceive food. Cheetos are not food, nor are Cool Ranch Extreme Fiesta Salsa Doritos.

One solution would be to use the food we produce to better ends. Another solution might be to reduce the number of animals raised for meat. I’m not saying to eradicate meat consumption entirely — I enjoy a nice steak, piece of sausage, or chicken thigh as much as the next person. But Americans (and now, following suit, most of the world) eat entirely too much meat. Meat production requires large amounts of grain and other staple crops that could be used to feed a larger portion of the world’s populace. Meat on the scale that we produce/eat it is unsustainable.

As the National Geographic article (linked above) points out, industrial “green” farming techniques are only moderately more successful than organic/sustainable techniques. The larger question is whether we can encourage the paradigm shift necessary to radically change the scale and sustainability of world agriculture while still providing enough food to the world’s population? If environmental pressures continue to mount, we may be forced to answer this question far sooner than we have anticipated.

Two events coming up for Lexingtonians interested in gardening and in eating local.

One is the opening of an evening farmer’s market in front of the Whole Foods at Lexington Green. This is exciting because the vendor produce at this market is guaranteed local and not shipped in from South Carolina or Georgia.

The other event is this weekend’s farmer’s market tour. Although this event costs money, it gives you a chance to meet your local farmers and perhaps get some ideas for your own garden/farm.

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While it can be said that I am a lazy man, the birth of my daughter on Monday is plenty excuse for being a little behind on the blog posting. So, between feedings, cuddlings, yard cutting and weed pulling (the garden never sleeps, much like a new parent), I will be posting some new stuff in the next few days.

Look out for the following:

  1. 1. A profile of a late spring west coast garden and backyard chicken operation from our longtime friend and natural green thumb, Schuyler.

2. A profile of Lexington gardener (and one of the best cooks I have ever met) Vanessa, who has one of my favorite gardening spaces in all of Lex.

3. An update on my three sisters gardening experiment. Sneak preview: it’s cranking right now, but so are some pernicious cutworms, crows, and squash vine borers…

Stay tuned!

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