Archives for posts with tag: GMO

Snow Cats, Hot Cocoa and GMOs

-A.V. Walters-

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It’s snowing again. We’re expecting seven inches by tomorrow and then it will really feel like winter.

Yesterday we were out clearing. Snow shoveling leads to play—at least for those of us with snow history. The snow on the ground was a little too dry for a decent snowman. Though I managed a couple of good snowballs, I couldn’t get anything good going (Rick, shoveling, didn’t want to play along) so, I had to settle for making a snow cat. Yes, a snow cat—nice and fat like my favorite cat—who is unfortunately named Kilo, making a permanent joke of his girth.

On the way up to the house site, we noticed tracks—large, feline tracks. They were much too large, and the spread of the step is too long, to be a house cat. This summer, I noticed similar tracks in the sand and wondered if we had bobcats or a lynx. But tracks in sand are difficult to identify, so I let it go. Now, in snow, it is absolutely clear that we have a regular visitor who is something larger than Kilo or Bob. I followed them (the tracks, that is) in a meandering trail that ended across the way because my quarry walked up the neighbor’s driveway—which had been plowed after the tracks were made.

I’m not surprised; there are plenty of bunnies here to keep a wild cat well fed. We see their tracks, too, along with those of the mice and squirrels and their veritable freeways of tracks. I came home, determined (after a cup of hot chocolate) to identify our feline visitor. I believe it’s a bobcat. The size is right, the length of the stride, and even the meandering path. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see him, because they are nocturnal, but it’s nice to know he’s there.

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“And now, a word from our sponsor…”

Hot chocolate is always nice after my own meanderings in the snow. I’m going to put in a plug for Hershey’s here—as they have recently announced that they’ve nearly completed their transition to non-GMO sugar in all their products. They made their statement in a benign way, declaring that they are responding to clear customer demand. No company wants to support such a change on environmental grounds—and risk the wrath of the larger food industry. Still, I admire Hershey for making the shift. The company also has a nice website which identifies which of their products are gluten-free. That’s good for me. They’re not perfect, but for today, they can bask in their non-GMO glory.

The Hershey announcement has the Minnesota sugar-beet farmers in a tizzy. Minnesota leads all other states in sugar production—all from sugar beets, all of them GMO modified and drenched in Round-Up. Previously, Hershey bought sugar made from sugar beets. Sugar-beet spokespersons are circumspect about the Hershey announcement—hoping that it’s not a trend. Surely, Americans won’t abandon conventional, chemically saturated, agriculture. Will they?

Here’s the rub. The sugar-beet farmers and cooperatives couldn’t change gears to go back to non-GMO seeds if they wanted to. There aren’t any non-GMO seeds available. Monsanto has so flooded the market with their poisonous seed-and-Round-Up combo, that the farmers have no fallback position. This, despite the evidence that GMO yields are no better than organic, or conventional fields. (Listen up organic farmers, here’s a window of opportunity to grow conventional sugar beets for seed!)

Consumers can make a difference. It will be fun to watch conventional agriculture scramble as more and more of us vote with our dollars for healthier products that don’t contaminate our soils and water. In the meantime, I’m warming up with a hot chocolate and anticipating a few more days of heavy snows.

 

Perfect Hot Chocolate—one heaping teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa powder, one teaspoon honey and one cup of whole milk or, for a special treat, almond milk.

 

 

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Killing Fields

A.V. Walters

The view out our window.

The view out our window.

We knew. We’d even talked about it. Our landlady rents the acreage around her house to a local dairy farmer. He grows corn to feed his cows. We stand at the edge of the lawn, where our clothesline is, and we look. There are no weeds in this cornfield. The farmer does not practice no-till planting. On a windy day, the sandy soil catches, and the air fills with an ominous dustbowl specter. Worse, he plants corn, year in, year out, without any crop rotation, depleting the soil of nitrogen and other nutrients. Why should he care? It’s not his land. Some people actually like the tidy lines of weed-free corn in formation. I find it sinister.

You see, I know that nature abhors a vacuum. Weed-free is unnatural. It means that her fields are sprayed with Round-Up. I live within spitting distance (literally) of GMO corn. Worse yet, the lower part of our property is downwind of it. It’s a little funny; for years I’ve been protesting and writing about the dangers of GMO and its impact on the environment, and now, I have a front row seat.

Yesterday morning was as still as death—unusual in our normally wind-whipped world. For that, I’m thankful. I’d gone out to the compost and heard, and then saw, a tractor headed up the road in our direction. I had a bad feeling. I sprinted back inside, gathering up a loose cat along the way, and closed the windows. Sure enough, it was the farmer coming to spray the field. I stayed in most of the day, canceled my plans to do laundry, and kept the cats inside—feeling a little trapped. But, my little garden is out there, on the side facing the field. If that Round-up went airborne, it’ll be dead within days

I know that this is the norm in agricultural communities. As a kid, I remember they’d spray the fields right by us, even as we walked to school. Even now, nobody thinks twice about it—it’s a way of life. Yet, there are studies galore showing the neurological impact of pesticides and herbicides on those living within a mile of sprayed crops. A new one came out this week showing the correlation (not causation) between the increased incidence of autism in the children of women so exposed. I have a friend who has Parkinson’s—the legacy of her childhood exposure to pesticides in California’s Central Valley. It’s not just her saying it—the medical studies bear her out. In my world-view, chemicals have become the problem in farming, not the solution.

My landlady thinks that my property—vacant for twenty-five years, overgrown and wild—is an eyesore. She was glad I’d finally appeared, thinking I would whip things into shape. She thinks that any insect or weed on her property must have come from the undisciplined wilds, of mine. We were at a function together when she informed me that she’d told her farmer how much I’d love to have him grow corn on my bottomland.

I recoiled in horror. “You said what?

“You know, get rid of all that scrubby pine and weeds—he pays well. We have good soil here.”

We are worlds apart. There are times when one should hold one’s tongue. Unfortunately, when it comes to neighborly relations, I forget about those times.

“Think again. I wouldn’t let that man set foot on my property.”

She looked like I’d slapped her. “He’s a good farmer—and what’s wrong with corn?”

So, I let her know what’s wrong with corn, at length—especially with the way it’s grown on her property. I’m afraid (but not totally regretful) that I even said that she stands by while he’s killing her soil. She looked injured. Well, she only knows what she knows. She grew up on a farm and better living through chemistry is deeply ingrained in her limited, world-view.

What will we say to the next generations? Maybe (just maybe) those of my landlady’s generation have an excuse. They just did what everyone else did, what the Agriculture People told them. My generation started out knowing better. We started out with Silent Spring and a glimpse of the damage done by “modern life.” Where did we go with it? From fertilizers, to organophosphates, to GMO/ Glyphosate, to neonicitinoids. How will we explain a world of dead soils and contaminated groundwater? How will we justify the loss of the bees? And this is just farming I’m talking about.

For much of my adult life, I grieved that I was unable to have children. I’m at peace with it, now—maybe it’s even a little bit of a relief. I have always tried to do my part—to garden within the rhythms of nature, to avoid products that do damage to the environment and to limit my participation in our throw-away culture. I look around now and realize that taking personal responsibility isn’t enough. We all need to do more, to tip the scales back in balance. So, there is a sense of relief that I’ll never have to look into my children’s faces to tell them we knew, but we didn’t do enough to stop it.

 

 

This Is How It Goes–

A.V. Walters–

Up north, in the U.P. where my mother lives, folks are getting Lyme disease. These are hearty, out-doorsy people, who spend a lot of time in the woods. Lyme disease isn’t new—it’s been around for decades, just not up there. It’ll take a little time for people to wise up to the new reality—the ticks have moved north. Soon, folks will take precautions, recognize symptoms, and will have made the adjustment so that a bite doesn’t necessarily mean a long-term, debilitating illness. You adjust.

In Michigan, (and southwest Ontario) the forests have been devastated. A shipment from China apparently, and inadvertently, imported the Emerald Ash Borer. It’s a pretty, little bug. Here, we have plenty of ash trees, and no predators. Estimates are that, so far, 20 million trees have been infected and died. There is no cure—they offer some heavy-duty, toxic treatments that can hold it at bay, (if your favorite yard tree is at risk) but nothing can be done to protect the forests. Before it runs its course, we will lose about 80 million trees. Now that the seasonal leaves are gone, you can look into the woods, as you drive by, and see all the fallen trees. It’s heartbreaking. Ash naturally grows in a diverse forest—so there are still plenty of other trees standing but, like the elm before, this area can kiss its ash good-bye.

We have forested property. We walk its hills, shaking our heads. The ash are dying and falling. The tree has a distinctive bark, so even in the winter it’s easy to identify. As we walk, we see not only the downed victims of the blight, but every one of those standing trees, with that lovely deeply-grooved bark, is doomed. They say to expect 100% losses. There are timber restrictions on the movement of ash wood-products. Areas are quarantined to try and prevent the spread. Our quarantine area is Lower Michigan. It’s spread to some counties in the U.P. now, too. So far as I can figure, the only winners in this game, and it’ll be short term, are the woodpeckers, who eat the larvae.

Bat White-Nose Syndrome is spreading across North America. It’s caused by a fungus. In some bat populations, the mortality is 95%. Because it affects a wild species, and the primary transmission route is bat-to bat, there’s not much that can be done. It originated in Europe. Nobody knows how it arrived here, but human transmission is likely. The fungus can be transported by the movement of people and equipment, in the forest. That’s the likely way that it got here. Unlike the European bats, ours have no immunity to the disease. It thrives in cold temperatures, infecting bats during hibernation. Unfortunately, the close contact of bats cuddling in hibernation, speeds its transmission. People shrug. Too bad about the bats, eh? Well, it’s more serious than that. The bats eat the bugs. What are we going to do with the resulting bumper crop of bugs?

Dutch Elm, West Nile, Lyme disease, Emerald Borers, White-Nose. I could go on. (Don’t even get me started about the bees, who are primarily the victims of neonicitinoid pesticides.) These are pests that are spread beyond their borders by the impact of people. In some cases, it is simple relocation, like our Ash Borer. In others, because our climate is changing and so extending the range of existing critters.

Maybe, like Lyme in Northern Michigan, we can adjust to new threats. What about the bats, or the bees, or the ash trees? How will we adjust to a world without bats? What will we do with the resulting bonanza of bugs? More poisons like neonicitinoids? How can we know the rippling impact of these changes? It threatens to change the face of nature. Most Americans don’t live in nature and they won’t notice. They get their food—sprayed, plastic-wrapped and GMO’d. They fail to comprehend that diversity is a necessary component of a healthy environment and take no notice of the rapid level of extinctions all around us. Most Americans don’t know we have a bat crisis, or that the Ash trees are dying.

For my part, next spring I’ll put up bat houses and maybe purple martin condos. I’ll shun chemical interventions and try to live lightly on the planet. I’ll read and try to stay informed. Because this is how it goes.

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.

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

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.