Archives for posts with tag: GMO labeling

A.V. Walters

The rains have come. Those first showers over a week ago, have worked their magic. At first it was just a blush–a wisp of color if you caught it at the right angle. Now there’s no question, our hills are turning green. It’s a funny dynamic that our gardening season is the opposite of our green season. Still, after months of dead brown hills it’s a relief to the eye to see this transformation. There are still goodies from the garden, they’ll go on until the hard frosts hit. This is the seasonal pause, the green relief in still fine weather, before the storms and cold come. It’s a pleasure to work outside in the cool, sometimes grey days.

I’ll be posting a little less frequently this month. I am, after all, fully committed to NaNoWriMo. It could be that Editor Rick picks up the slack. He’s undertaking those end-of-season projects, readying for winter, seed-saving (he’s so organized), tool management, and soon, pulling buckets. All that stuff that I let lag until the storms force my hand. My head is miles and decades away, weaving the fabric of a 1931 speakeasy in Detroit. Outside, the creeping green is putting me in the mood with the intense colors of my childhood. While California is lovely, it is difficult to go without green for five or six months of the year. I’m not saying I miss snow (though sometimes, I do) but I do welcome the return of green.

It’s less than a week to the election–don’t forget to vote. If you’re here in California, and if you value good food and informed choice, remember to vote for Proposition 37. Let’s get those GMO foods labeled.

I’ll pull my head out of fiction at least once a week, to give you the what’s up in Two Rock.

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The Question of Corn

A.V. Walters

It’s a tough call, especially if space and/or water are limited. Yet, what summer is complete without that incredible, mid-season jolt of fresh sweet corn?

At this point, I have to disclose that I grew up in The Valley of the Jolly (Ho, Ho, Ho) Green Giant. No, I’m not kidding. I lived just a little over a mile from the Green Giant canning plant where they processed Niblets corn. It was a rich agricultural area—Green Giant grew corn, Heinz grew tomatoes there, and it was generally considered the market-garden, banana belt of Southwestern Ontario. We weren’t farmers, but we knew farmers. When I was really little, the fields behind our house were strawberry fields. Time passed and the area eventually filled in with houses. Still, farming was an ever-present part of the economy. In high school I de-tasseled corn for Funk’s Hybrid during the summer.

While I never much liked canned, store-bought vegetables, Niblets corn was one of the better options. But fresh, their corn was incredible. If you found yourself driving behind a Green Giant corn truck (piled high with fresh cobs), you’d follow it and, occasionally, a bump or sharp turn would jostle free some sweet bounty. Sometimes we’d ride our bikes out into the county to nab a few ears from the fields. Some of the farmers were known to shoot rock-salt at anyone they saw pilfering. But finally, the cannery got smart and opened a fresh corn stand during the season. Cars would line up for it. We’d ride our bikes two miles along the highway to get it, and then hightail it home with a dozen corn ears strapped to our backs. It was well worth the effort.

I tell you this because, in the corn department, I have street cred. Growing corn is the toughest calling for the home gardener, and most don’t do it right. For years my city, square-foot garden didn’t include corn. I couldn’t justify the space. Each cornstalk requires about one square foot of garden space. Also, corn must be rotated in the garden, or else serious amendment is in order to replace the nitrogen that it strips out of the soils. And, it’s thirsty. Good corn requires a lot of water. So, if you have a good, local source, growing your own doesn’t make much sense. Local is important, because the secret of great corn is freshness.

This is so much so that there’s an American mystique about garden corn. Almost all home gardeners feel compelled to throw in a row or two of sweet corn. It’s often an exercise in disappointment.  I’ve learned some about how corn grows that makes me laugh at the memory of all those suburban gardens backed with a lonely, green line of cornstalks.

Corn pollinates by wind and gravity. The tassels, up high on the plant, release the pollen needed to make up those corn kernels. The pollen falls and hits the corn silk, which transports it, one silk at a time, to each kernel. It requires a lot of pollen to populate a full ear of corn. That’s why it’s pointless to plant a single row of corn. You just can’t get adequate pollination, and so you end up with spotty, incomplete corn ears. The Native Americans knew this; they planted their corn grouped together in mounds, combined with beans and squash. But somewhere along the way the agricultural concept of corn in rows took hold and that practice was imported into the backyard garden. In a field of corn, there’s no problem, there’s plenty—rows and rows—of cornstalks to create a deep enough bench for pollination. But in the urban or suburban garden, it can be a problem. If you want to plant in rows, you need at least four of them to consolidate enough pollen.

Here, we grow our corn in circles, hemmed in by a low border of corrugated roofing material. The edging holds in the water—or at least keeps it in the vicinity of the corn. The circles are about 6 feet across and hold about 18 stalks of corn. Unlike our buckets, there’s no bottom. Corn has deep roots, so there’s no easy way to protect them from gophers. (Though last year, they left it alone.) We just plant more than we need and hope it works out. Using circles, we use less water and get more complete pollination. When I first arrived here I was hesitant about planting corn, but Elmer looked so disappointed I changed my mind. We’ve had some great corn successes, except for last year.

Last year we used an heirloom corn variety. It was the tallest corn I ever planted, towering corn! The whole farm watched and waited. And then—the corn was tasteless. Really tasteless. (Which might also explain why we didn’t have any gopher losses.) I tried eating it twice, and then gave up. The sheep wouldn’t even eat it. What a waste! The most disappointing part was that we didn’t find out until after we’d put in all the work of raising it (120 stalks of it) only to be disheartened. I confronted the woman at the seed bank—this was really terrible corn, and they needed to know!

That one disaster has really damaged my gardening reputation. So this year, I’m trying two, tried and true, heirloom varieties—on separate sides of the farm. One is Golden Bantam, a perennial favorite, and the other is Country Gentleman a sweet, silver shoe-peg corn. We’ve put in 145 stalks in two shifts—early and late. I always try to stagger my corn to extend the corn-eating season. (Sometimes this doesn’t work, because if the two shifts are too close in age, they’ll “equalize” and come ripe all at once.) This weekend we transplanted the last round of starts. I was assured that these corns will be as tasty as some of the super-sweet hybrids.

I have another motivation for a good crop, this year. This year, the devil is releasing (from hell) the new, GMO, sweet-corn varieties. In the absence of labeling, there will be no way for the consumer to know whether the corn they buy will have been modified. So, suddenly home-grown takes on new significance. Also, with the heat and drought across the country—there may not be much sweet corn around this year. So, I’m counting on our water-saving, corn rings.

We’re also going to do an experiment to see whether it makes any difference whether or not you cut off the suckers. I’ve done the internet research that says it makes no difference, but our farm foreman, Don, swears that the suckers sap the plant’s strength. It’s a small sample, but we’re going to test it in a side-by-side study. (I’ll let you know about that one.) I may be overdoing it this year, but I have to try to rehabilitate my corn standing.

All our efforts have paid off, but this is only the beginning of the fight. In November, Californians will get to vote on whether or not genetically modified foods must be labeled in their state. This spring the California Right to Know (GMO) initiative effort collected 971,126 signatures in support of the measure, almost twice the number needed to qualify for November’s ballot. A broad coalition of organizations came together to launch this statewide referendum that will require that any genetically modified foods, or products containing genetically modified ingredients, be labeled in the marketplace.

Who worked for this? Volunteers fanned out across the state. We are gardeners, organic farmers, health professionals, scientists, parents and regular people who are concerned about the inevitable consequences when ‘Frankenfoods’ are released into the food chain and into the environment. The public support for the labeling movement is enormous, even in this divisive political year. A National poll taken by the Mellman Group found that 91% of Americans favor labeling of GMO foods. (see website http://www.labelgmos.org/)

But it’s not over yet. We still need to win in November. GMO seeds and their companion chemicals are big business and those corporate interests aren’t going to go away without a fight. Already, the storm clouds are on the horizon. Despite overwhelming public support, every similar measure across the country has been defeated in the last weeks before the vote, flooded with corporate money and disturbingly inaccurate PR. They paint us as anti-farmer! The nerve! Just watch the airwaves; we will be inundated with the tragic tales of farmers who need GMOs to get by. We’ll be told that GMO technology is essential to feeding the world. We’ve heard it all before. This initiative isn’t anti-farmer. It doesn’t ban GMO products. If farmers and food producers want to grow and use these products in our food, they just need to tell us. This bill is about transparency and our right, as consumers, to know what we’re eating. We’ve proven with other food labeling that consumers use the information on those labels, and that providing that information isn’t prohibitively expensive to producers. When we win, California will be the first state to successfully protect its consumers’ right to know.

This country was founded on the idea that, in the marketplace of ideas, the best will rise to the top. For that to work, we, as voters and as consumers, need to have the information to make our own decisions. That’s what labeling is about. It’ll be a big fight, but I think we’re up to it. Almost a million people signed the petition. If you believe in this, talk about it, tell your friends, volunteer. I can’t imagine any good reason why labeling isn’t a good idea. After all, if what they’re pandering isn’t sinister, why are they afraid to tell us what’s in it?

A. V. Walters

Musings on Spring

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and, with this week’s heavy rains, our corduroy hills have taken on that Irish, emerald green.  I call them corduroy because the ranchers cut the hay and leave it in rows on the hillside. The hills across from us are so steep that a tractor can only go strait up and down–any turn on the steep part of the slope and they’ll tumble. On that steep terrain they cut, but don’t bother to bail or collect the hay. So the cut hay lays on the hillside in stripes–stripes that echo, season after season, on the landscape. The week’s rains have washed the cows and today they stand out starkly–black and white, against the green. With the intense green and the equinox next week, we can’t help but think of spring.

In my Michigan hometown, up on Lake Superior, they’re thinking of spring, too. My mother, even in her mid-seventies, is a rabid gardener. As soon as the snow retreats she hustles to rake up the garden in preparation for spring planting. It’s a big job, one she tackles in stages that are measured by the progress of the snow’s melt. She races against time, knowing that when late May fades into June, it’ll be blackfly season–and she’ll want to be indoors for that. It’s been a mild winter in the North, too mild. This week they’re having a false spring. It was eighty degrees in the Harbor today–a record breaker by all accounts. Most of the snow is gone, or nearly so. I can picture my brother-in-law standing in the parking lot of their general store, broom in hand (his excuse for being outside) face tipped to the sun. In fact I’ll bet all the inhabitants of the Harbor were out today, drinking in the summer-like weather.

It’s not necessarily a good thing and they all know it. In separate calls to my family today, three of them mentioned the obvious danger of too early a spring. The trees can be fooled, lulled into an early bloom. Flowers have the same risk. When that happens, winter reaches her icy fingers back to what March should be and the bloom will fail, taking next summer’s fruit with it. And nothing is quite as winter-numbing as the sight of a daffodil in it’s crystal sheath, after a freezing rain. Still, standing outside in shirtsleeve weather has its own hooks, after months of cold and grey.

Today in Two Rock the rains gave way to blustery winds. The clouds have been chased away and the sun shines on new hills. The grass is growing faster than the sheep and cows can eat. Walking out to the road, to get the mail, I spooked a huge flock of black birds–invisible in the tall grass until the moment they launched, en masse, into the sky. I was startled and laughed out loud at the surprise of it.

During the worst of the rains I was scheduled to collect signatures for California’s referendum to require foods with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such. We were positioned at the door to Whole Foods. (Yes, I know–shooting fish in a barrel.) Still, it was interesting. The signatures flowed easily between cloudbursts but when the rains really came down, the shoppers hunched their backs, scrunched up their faces, avoided eye contact and ran for their cars. I can’t blame them, it was cold and wet. Some people stopped to say they’d already signed, and to thank us for being there. One well-dressed man shook my hand and told me he hoped it wasn’t too late already. I couldn’t help but agree.

It’s an early spring here, too. To a lesser extent we have a similar problem as my family back home. We’re not clear of the danger of frost, not until May. But the equinox is a milestone. I can start hardy seedlings indoors next week. Then, in the weeks after that I can start some of the more delicate vegetables. I struggle with the temptation to rush the process. I’m no different than the folks back home, who sweep parking lots in the sun, where only a week or so ago there was snow. We all yearn for spring, for planting and the promise of summer’s warmth. And that’s what’s up in Two Rock.

A.V. Walters

Clarification

In my last post I expressed my support for labeling of GMO products in the food supply. In particular, I am advocating for the current referendum in California which would mandate such labeling. The responses have been interesting.

So, to start, my position is based on the premise that we have a right to know what’s in our food. Though there’s plenty of detailed information supporting the measure, I don’t think we need to go there in order to make the point. Yes, I am aware of the studies showing GMO residues in the umbilical cord blood of Canadian newborns; I know about the German study on alarmingly concentrated levels of GMO residues in the urine of adults; I know about the danger of GMO contamination of adjacent croplands; and, yes, I know about the danger to bees posed by both GMO (especially BT products) and current pesticides. I know these things–but I don’t think that we need to get into a science argument in order to support these measures. (Please, you don’t need to win me over, I know. You needn’t educate me with studies and websites.) After all, you’ve seen just how far arguing science gets us in the climate change debate.

These days nobody questions the right to know how much sodium a food processor puts in their frozen pizza. It’s accepted as a natural fact that we can–and indeed must–look at the labels to determine what foods meet our personal dietary objectives. This GMO measure is just an extension of that widely accepted principle. Go to the grocery store and watch the patrons looking at the labels (often squinting at the small print, with arms outstretched.) Labeling works. We get the data we need to make informed choices. It’s that simple. What’s the argument?

Now, can I get back to the farm? It is, after all, spring in Two Rock.

A. V. Walters

Food for Thought

I don’t generally include my political beliefs in my blog. Please bear with me, this rant is related to the topics of the blog, and after I get this off my chest I’ll retreat to my usual, bucolic subjects.

My blog includes issues of rural living, gardening and the slower, and possibly richer, human dynamics that go with a rural lifestyle. I’ve confessed to years of organic gardening, even when I lived in the city. What I haven’t revealed is the depth and length of my interests in food issues.

Back in the late seventies I did my undergraduate thesis on World Food Scarcity and Sustainable Agriculture. Even back then it was apparent that our efforts to export “modern” agriculture were wreaking havoc in the third world. A closer examination of those same practices here, revealed the early cracks in the crumbling view of American agricultural invincibility.Doesn’t anyone remember the Dust Bowl? It was time to look in the mirror. Even then, soil erosion, pesticide contaminated underground water supplies and the dangers of widespread monoculture were beginning to illustrate cracks in our agribusiness model. Some changes and improvements did occur–university extension programs hailed crop rotation (like it was a new concept) and alternative tillage approaches. But the solutions offered all came in the form of agribusiness management models and, at the encouragement of government programs, our farms began to look less like farms and more like chemically dependent corporate entities. We continued to lose old-style and family farms to corporate agribusiness. I became a believer in the alternatives.

After college, I kept my convictions about having a smaller footprint on the planet. I’m not perfect, but I knew (and know) that one person can make a difference. I supported California’s early efforts to develop organic standards. I grew much of my own seasonal food in my postage-stamp sized, urban, back yard. When possible (and early on, it wasn’t easy) I sought out and supported local organic farmers. I rejected fast food. I believe deeply in the value of cooking for oneself and those you love. I think sharing a quality, home-cooked meal with friends and family is the essence of civilization and one of the most enjoyable forms of social intimacy. I tried to convey the essence of those pleasures in The Emma Caites Way, as the characters bonded, sharing common goals and great meals. I am a slow food advocate.

For a brief while, in the late seventies and early eighties, I supported the idea that the then-new concepts of agricultural recombinant DNA (now called GE or GMO crops) could revolutionize agriculture in a good way. I thought there was promise in the concept, much as the Ford Foundation’s advanced hybrids had brought us short stalked rice–a boon to food production on marginal lands and in resource poor countries. (Yeah, like some earlier folks had hailed the then-new technology of television as a boon to education!) As the science developed, I was horrified when, instead, the technology brought us Frankenfoods and pesticide-resistant (or worse, pesticide-containing) crops–and all without adequate testing–not only of the impact of those crops on the consuming public, but also on the environment. How can a crop be a good thing if planting it requires ever increasing amounts of chemicals to be flooded onto the soil? Even worse, the very licenses under which these GMO seeds are sold prohibit further scientific review. We, the consuming public, were advised that the intellectual property rights of the Corporate Agribusiness Elite were more important than public safety. We are the guinea pigs. And we are expected to be satisfied with Monsanto’s and Dow’s assurances that these products are safe.

In a warning shot across the bow, a decade ago we saw the Gen-Star debacle, in which strands of wheat DNA were inserted into corn. No need for testing, we were assured, because the products were intended for animal consumption only. Yeah, right. Sure enough, this restriction was ignored and human food products were manufactured from this FrankenCorn. People with wheat sensitivities reacted. Products were pulled from the shelves and the government of Mexico protested that the crop was grown, without disclosure or permission, in Mexico, where the original seed stock that made modern corn possible lives. I cannot begin to explain how important that fact is–because of the dangers of gene stock contamination.

I am one of those chemically sensitive people. I can’t tolerate scented products. I have food intolerances and serious food allergies. I can’t take most antibiotics. My life became much easier in the mid-nineties when food labeling meant that I could go to the grocery store, like a regular person, and read the labels to see whether I could eat the processed foods. Now everyone reads labels to check for vitamin content, or sodium, or sugar. Labeling empowers us to take control of our diets without having to grow all our foods in the backyard. (Not that it stopped me from doing so.) When food labeling was first proposed, the food industry screamed that it would be ruinously expensive, that it would result in lost trade secrets or secret recipes, that businesses would fail and that consumers weren’t sophisticated enough to use the information anyway! Pshaw! The world didn’t end. Millions of Americans assiduously read food labels today. We accept without question that we have the right to know what we’re eating.

Which brings me to my soapbox today. (What, you thought I was already on one?) We have the right to know. I want to know what I’m eating and I have that right. In my case, cross-contamination of foods could result in illness or life-threatening allergic reactions. The Gen-Star incident showed us that GMO crossed foods could result in triggering food allergies in unsuspecting sensitive people. You don’t have to be for, or against, GMO agriculture to recognize that Americans have the right to literally put their money where their mouths are. In my case, it is a critical question. But every consumer has the right to align their dollars with their convictions. To do so, you have to know. According to the average grocery cart, most Americans are already eating GMO foods, though polls show that under thirty percent of us think so. Today, over 50 countries (covering 40% of the world’s population) require GMO labeling. It’s shocking that we’re so far behind the curve.  A California initiative currently collecting signatures would require labeling of food products that contain GMO materials. It’s that simple–you disclose your ingredients and let the consumer decide. It’s a pretty American kind of solution to a thorny problem. I urge all Californians to sign the petition for The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act of 2012 and to support it in the election in November. It’s a no-brainer.

And now, if someone could help me down off my soapbox…(that’s an unscented soap soapbox.)