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.

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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.

 

 

The beauty of the three sisters garden is in the way the corn, squash, and bean plants work to benefit each other — the corn provides a trellis for the beans and shade for the squash, the beans provide nitrogen for the corn, and the squash act as a living mulch and pest deterrent for the whole garden patch.

The danger of the three sisters garden is that if one element of the garden fails (especially the corn), the entire venture is at risk.

As noted in my last entry, I have already learned some hard lessons. Though the Bingo beans are producing a moderate number of pods, the favas have yet to produce one bean while continuing to refuse the corn as a trellis.

Bloody Butcher is a magnificent corn. However, it is also one of the taller varieties available, reaching a height of 12 feet. The problem I’ve run into is having corn that is perhaps too tall and thus susceptible to wind damage. I’ve already lost 5-10 plant to strong wind blowing the stalks over. As corn requires a good stand to produce quality ears, what I end up with might be far less than desirable. I began the season thinking I might have enough corn to save some seed and grind some for meal. But corn needs a minimum of 100 plants to provide the variety of genes needed to produce viable seed. Once again, I did not give myself any room for failure and began the season with the bare minimum of plants. With fewer that 100 plants pollinating each other, saving seed would be a futile pursuit this year .

Finally, the squash that I had such great hopes for this spring has been, almost to a plant, invaded by the squash vine borer. Although I spent some time at the peak of their emergence slicing open the vines and pulling the worms from inside, I was dismayed this weekend to discover that they had decimated the remaining plants, the worst of them containing 7-8 grubs. The exception, apparently, is the butternut. For whatever reason, the SVB does not bother with this squash. We will be lucky to have 5-6 butternut squash by the season’s end. At least I hope we do — in the middle of pulling the infested vines, I was surprised to find that one SVB grub had burrowed into a volunteer tomato plant. I can only suppose that he burrowed right back out.

But trial and error, isn’t that the name of the game? Next year I am planning to increase the size of the bed and sow legumes and other green manures to improve the organic makeup of the soil. After a season of rest and rejuvination, perhaps the chances for a more succesful three sisters garden will be greatly improved.

Stay tuned for news of further calamities.

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.

IMG_1517When the corn hit 4-6 inches in height this May, I planted my squash and my beans. I sowed my beans in the same hill as the corn, one seed per stalk of corn. For the squash, I planted 2-3 seeds in every other hill. I chose two differnt varieties of beans, a fava (Broad Windsor) and a pole bean that I can dry and store (Bingo). Most of the drying beans sold in the seed catalogs I like are bush beans and don’t necessarily climb.

After the beans started to sprout, I realized my first mistake of the season — only planting one bean seed per stalk. I should have planted 2-3 per stalk, but I didn’t order enough seed. Between the crows and the cut worms, my efforts to stretch the beans is going to short me a few plants.

As the beans progress, I have come to the realization that favas are a poor choice for a three sisters garden. They just don’t want to trellis up the corn stalks. The Bingo beans are hanging on, but between the ants and the many bean beetles, I feel certain my harvest will be exceptionally light.

IMG_1519The squash vines stretch and intermingle in the corn. Some are beginning to trellis up the corn as they clamor for sunlight. This summer I am growing three different varieties — Waltham Butternut, Galeux D’ Eysines, and Marina Di Chioggia. So far, only the butternut are producing any fruit.

adult moths (image courtesy U.Minn Extension website)

adult moths (image courtesy U.Minn Extension website)

Two Sundays ago I spent the afternoon cutting squash vine borer grubs out of the vines. Last year, I felt squeamish even thinking about picking the pasty white killers from the plants. This year, armed with the spite born from last year’s squash failure, I went at it with furious abandon.

in grub form (image courtesy UConn extension agency)

in grub form (image courtesy UConn extension agency)

Unlike many insect predators, the SVB moth is active during the day, from late May through mid July. So far this year, I’ve only seen one moth. However, you can tell you have this pest if the vine, especially where it enters the soil, bears a mushy brown hole or shows other evidence of frass (what looks to be wet sawdust). Unfortunately, once the worms are inside, little can be done except to slice the vines open, pick out the grubs, tape the vines shut, then cover them  with dirt. Although the Kentucky heat opens the door to growing a wide range of vegetables in the garden, it also creates conditions ripe for most of the pests that plague them.

All in all, I am hopeful that we may get a fair-to-decent harvest from our three sisters garden this year. As I write this, much of my corn is 8 feet tall (or taller) and just beginning to tassle. The squash, though stunted by the SVB and my efforts to cut them out, are still alive. The beans are hanging in there. But the pessimist in me knows that the season is only half over. Much can still go wrong.

van longviewFor those of you who think having limited space limits your ability to garden, consider Vanessa. While true that she cannot grow large crops such as corn and winter squash, each year she maximizes her available space and enjoys a steady abundance of tomatoes, peppers, greens, and other seasonal staples. These annuals thrive next to perennials such as thyme, sage, and greens that reseed themselves year after year.

Vanessa’s garden is located in back of her apartment, along a fence separating her parking lot from her neighbors. To get the most from her garden, she succession plants, or plugs new, seasonally appropriate varieties into her bed once the previous plant has run its course (i.e., once it is too hot for her lettuce, she plugs in a pepper or basil plant).

van's potsVanessa also takes advantage of containers in order to increase her harvest. Using medium pots and lots of compost, she is able to grow a variety of tomatoes, eggplants,  and peppers, vegetables that normally take up a lot of space in the garden. But V’s resourcefulness doesn’t stop there.

Vanessa's CompostBy repurposing old windows and bricks, she has created a compost pile that will reduce the need for outside inputs and will boost the health of her soil. In fact, V doesn’t use any fertilizer. Rather, she relies on steady applications of compost to naturally boost her plants.

van's arugulaThe star of Vanessa’s garden is her arugula. When her grandfather immigrated from Italy, he brought this wild seed with him. Today, Vanessa grows that same arugula. And this is what I love about gardening — perserving familial and cultural traditions, ones that cannot be easily reproduced or purchased from a catalog. In fact, the arugula you see here is unique to Vanessa’s garden (and a few hillsides in Italy). This mighty little green packs a powerful punch, a peppery bite that enlivens drab salads and makes commerically available arugula taste like cardboard. It’s also a rather stunning plant, its thin leaves somewhat reminescent of the tomato.

So take heart, those of you who want to garden but don’t feel you have the space. With a little bit of ingenuity and creativity, you can transform even the smallest patch into a productive and beautiful garden.

A U.S. appeals court kept an injunction in place that prevents Monsanto from selling Roundup Ready alfalfa seed until an environmental impact study can be completed.

The problem with GMOs like this is the likelihood that GMO plant genes will cross-pollinate other strains of alfalfa and similar crops. The result could be “super weeds” that are resistant to any means of control.