The Call, Column 57 – ‘Fall’ In Love with Local Agriculture

13 11 2016

(October 9, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

‘Fall’ In Love with Local Agriculture

Wasn’t it 80 degrees one day last week? And now, as if by magic, it seems like fall has been thrust upon us. I’ve definitely said this before, but the fall is my favorite time of year. It is, of course, harvest time, when the plants vigorously bear their fruits as the threat of an early frost bears down upon them. It’s also the time of year when everything starts to slow down and become more deliberate – in nature, of course, but in human society as well.

The deciduous trees paint the landscape with color and drop their leaves, preparing for a revitalizing winter’s rest. The animals are busy storing seeds and fruits and nuts away to keep them fed, or eating whatever they can now in preparation for a long hibernation. And people, even, start to live more deliberately, as the hustle and bustle of summer dies down and is slowly replaced with the contented joy of an extended holiday season.

In New England, the fall is an awesome time to get up-close-and-personal with your local agricultural scene. The farmers have been sweating away since February or March, working towards a bountiful harvest that, in many cases, is only now coming to term. The fruits of that harvest, along with the farms that grew them, are the cornerstone of many of my favorite fall activities. Let’s talk about a few that I think you’d like.

            Visit a farmers market. I’d love to know that you already buy most of your food as one of our areas many farmers markets. But if you don’t, or if you haven’t been in a while, now is a great time to stop by! The summer crops – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, summer squash, cucumbers and melons, garlic, and onions – are still in full swing; but it’s also the time when many nutritious late-season crops, like cabbage, broccoli, kale, winter squash of so many varieties, and heat-sensitive leafy greens make their appearance. The Woonsocket Thundermist market (Tuesdays 3-6pm) was buzzing with great people and great produce this week. Check out farmfresh.org to find a market near you, and make a point to go!

Visit a local farm. For many different reasons, now is a great time of year to pay a visit to one of your local farms. Many will have open houses or visiting hours, and it gives you the opportunity to shake the hands that feed you, enjoy the scenery as the fall color descends upon the farm, and more fully immerse yourself in the process of growing food. As a bonus, many farms in our area have farm stands where you can purchase produce that was picked that very morning. Farm Fresh RI’s website is a good source for information on most of the farms in your area.

Go apple and pumpkin picking. This is a more specific example of the above. I make it a point every year to go apple picking in a local orchard, and I often buy a couple of big pumpkins while I’m there. There’s nothing like plucking an apple (or 50 right) off the tree, or a pumpkin right from where it grew in the field. This type of activity is a winning situation, both for the farmer and you, her customer. It brings people out to the orchard, creating a market for the raw produce as well as value-added products like warm apple cider  (a treat for which I will gladly consume a little extra sugar!). And you get to make memories with your friends and family, enjoying the experience of apple picking on a crisp autumn afternoon, all while buying (literally) bushels of apples for lower prices than in the supermarket, because you’re taking the work out of picking. Two of my favorite orchards are Barden Family Orchard (Scituate) and Hill Orchards (Smithfield). And what do we do with all that local produce?

Cook seasonal foods! Apples and pumpkins are the distinctive flavors of fall, used in all many of recipes, both sweet and savory, alongside the customary palette of spices. I regularly make baked apples, winter squash bisque, fresh-pressed apple cider (and one that’s, shall we say, “aged” a little), thyme- and butter-sautéed winter squash, and apple and pumpkin pastries, of course. (Eating a paleo diet has made this a bit of a challenge, but you’d be surprised how many great recipes utilize coconut and almond flour, and more nutritious sweeteners like maple syrup and honey. I make do!).

Decorate your house. Not only are our local farms the place to get some great, healthy produce. They can also be your go-to source for traditional fall decorations – from wreathes and corn stalks, to straw bales and pumpkins for carving into jack-o-lanterns. The very idea of decorating for the fall season seems to be a byproduct of our agrarian roots, where the waste products of agriculture – corn stalks, straw, leaves, pinecones, and the like – could be used to create decorative art. How cool is that! As a plus, pretty much any decorative plant material can be composted or fed to your chickens as the fall color gives way to winter weather.

Enjoy a fall or Halloween attraction. This has got to be one of my favorite pastimes, and it’s become something of a yearly tradition with my friends. From family-oriented corn mazes and hayrides, to more sinister, haunted attractions, fall is the time when New England farms show their creativity as entertainers. These are another great excuse to make the trip out to a local farm – spend the day outside with your family or friends, enjoy some hot apple cider, and get scared senseless by zombies and clowns lurking in the woods. Halloween New England’s site (halloweennewengland.com) is a good place to start if you want to check out some of these attractions.

Fall is one of the best times of year to really get involved with your local, small farms. These types of activities provide us with out-of-doors, nature-based entertainment, unmatched by electronic device. They make us more aware of the seasons, and how those seasons affect agricultural production. And they bring an influx of revenue to our hard-working local farms, right as we approach the lower-productivity winter season. Enjoying these activities is a win for everyone, so let’s get out there this autumn and FALL in love with local agriculture!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 44 – “For Your Health, the Environment, and the Animals”

10 04 2016

(April 10, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“For Your Health, the Environment, and the Animals”

            Today, we’re going to discuss a topic that I’ve given a lot of thought to in the past year: the nutritional, ecological, and ethical arguments in favor of eating animals.

First, here’s a little background. As some of you know, or may have guessed, I follow a dietary framework called the Paleo Diet, which enthusiastically involves moderate levels of animal consumption. I’ll talk about it more in the future, but needless to say, this has ironically led me to the dark corners of the internet, where the arguments against any and all consumption of animal products are given a pretty elevated platform.

To start, I have the utmost respect for the pure form of ethical vegetarianism and veganism, which is based on an objection to factory farmed animal products. A distinction has to be made between advocates of “animal welfare” – the goal of producing the highest quality of life for our animals – and those of “animal rights” – extending human rights (to life, freedom, etc) to animals, a goal that is inherently hostile to any form of animal agriculture. I have friends and family in the first group, who abstain from animal products as a hugely effective way to protest factory farming.

Not only am I not writing this to question their beliefs, but it is actually more in line with their central goal than opposed. Rather, it’s written in response to those perpetuating the ridiculous and offensively-named “animal rights abolitionism” – the use of government regulation to stop other people from utilizing animals for any purpose, including as pets – and somehow tying it to the largely unscientific environmental and human health arguments against animal consumption.

I don’t care that they believe this – that’s their own prerogative. But this “Triumvirate” of arguments is presented to the public as self-evident fact, and inflammatory opinion-piece films are made to disseminate it. Their false dogma is squarely wrong, but has somehow become the official position of polite society. And I want to do my part to combat that.

For Human Health

            Everyone agrees that non-starchy vegetables and lower-sugar fruits should make up a significant part of our daily calories. Specific numbers don’t matter much, but together with healthy plant fats, that leaves maybe 40 or 50% of caloric needs unaccounted for. We have to get that from some mix of animal foods (meat, milk, eggs) and plant foods (grains and legumes). The Triumvirate would have you believe that this should come mostly from the nutrient-poor sugars in grains and legumes (and low-fat dairy). The best science increasingly says the opposite.

In case you haven’t heard, dietary cholesterol has been exonerated as a cause for heart disease. Cholesterol is a necessary nutrient for brain function, hormone production, and the creation of new cells, which is why our livers synthesize so much of it. But, because we are well-adapted to eating animals, they happily produce less when it can be obtained from our diet; this means that consumption of cholesterol generally has no effect on blood cholesterol levels.

It isn’t even cholesterol that clogs arteries, but damaged lipoproteins (“oxidized LDL cholesterol”) which actually truck cholesterol around our bodies to where it is needed. The net effect of animal fats is to slightly raise LDL levels but actually protect them from becoming damaged/oxidized, while the net effect of concentrated sugars and starches is to accelerate the damage! Together, the nutrient-shaming of cholesterol and saturated fat are the basis upon which the Triumvirate argues against animal consumption; thankfully, that foundation has been destroyed by actual science, and the recommendations are slowly changing.

What’s more, we are “obligate omnivores” – there are nutrients that our bodies require in order to function properly, whose only or most practical source is plants (for some of them), and animals (for others). The required nutrients from animal products include Vitamins B12, K2, D, and preformed A, heme iron, zinc, and other minerals, appropriate forms of omega 3 fats, and complete protein (read more about this on The Paleo Mom’s site, http://tinyurl.com/hevowep).

Indeed, our species has eaten significant amounts of animal products for at least 2.6 million years (about 50% of calories prior to the dawn of agriculture), and have never suffered chronic diseases like the past five decades, which has been coupled with a decrease in overall consumption. As I’ve argued extensively in the recent past, the scientific basis of anti-meat nutritional recommendations is so shaky, it isn’t worth denying our own biology. Animal products are not only not bad for us, but necessary for human health.

Strike one.

For the Environment

            My analysis of this shouldn’t surprise you. Industrial animal agriculture is bad for the environment. But so is industrial plant agriculture. In fact, this is so because animal agriculture unnecessarily relies on resource-intensive monocultures of grains and legumes.

Industrial agriculture is bad for the environment. It uses a lot of fresh water, consumes a lot of energy, releases a lot of greenhouse gases, and causes a lot of localized pollution. But this isn’t inherent to animal agriculture, or plant agriculture for that matter. And that is where the advocacy community loses some of us holistic, systems-minded folks.

People need to eat. And there are a lot of us. Therefore, we must do agriculture. But we also need a properly-functioning planet to live on. So a major challenge of the 21st century is to find ways to do agriculture well, that are also good for the planet. Enter: Regenerative Agriculture.

Without going into too much detail, independent scientists and agriculturalists have constructed a toolbox of agricultural methods, collectively called “Regenerative Agriculture”, which rival the efficiencies of industrial agriculture but do so in ways that actually help the environment. Taking cues from nature – which is full of pastures, forests, and animals, but curiously not grain monocultures – pioneers like Allan Savory, Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, and many ambitious farmers have formulated three important agricultural practices: non-intensive plant agriculture and permaculture (topics for future discussion), and today’s highlight, rotationally-grazed livestock.

Grass-eating animals (ruminants) are essential for the health of the environment. And by feeding them only grass, and grazing them on pastures in patterns that mimic those of wild ruminants, we can create a system that requires very little water, produces no pollution and a gain in soil fertility, and actually has a net effect of pulling greenhouse gases out of the air! Industrial agriculture is a problem, but animal agriculture done this way is the solution.

Strike two.

And for the Animals

            Considering that humans are obligate omnivores (since science generally shouldn’t be discarded in favor of ideology), we have three options to supply those required foods: hunting/fishing, animal agriculture, and artificial meat production.

It is resource intensive to grow meat in a laboratory and, like most reductive science, likely wouldn’t provide a suitable substitute for meat. Also, it is unlikely to be scalable to the population’s demand for meat.

Hunting and fishing is a good solution, but not a complete one. At the current human population, supplying all of our animal product needs from natural populations would devastate them. There are maximum sustainable harvest rates that we should absolutely strive for in order to supply some of the demand, but to surpass them is to take that same right away from the next generation, and 10 and 100 generations down the line.

That leaves animal agriculture. I would argue, since we must raise animals for food instead of hunting them in the wild, we must make their lives better and longer than those of their wild cousins. Guess what? The holistic system I described earlier does just that. This is yet another reason to buy grass-fed, pasture-raised animal products, mostly from large grazing herbivores (red meat).

Even if we’re willing to ignore the fact that we are biological omnivores, the system of ethics by which we decide whether to eat animals is pretty much subjective. The most common framework is the “Least Harm Principal”, which posits that our dietary choices should be made in order to cause the least harm/suffering/discomfort to creatures with brains. The common argument is then: “so we shouldn’t kill animals for food when we can just eat grains and legumes”. But here’s the interesting thing: mechanical harvesting of grains and legumes, which is necessary at current consumption levels, results in the bloody, painful deaths of a significant number of animals living in the grain fields. Estimates actually have it at 25 times as many animal deaths per gram of protein produced in grain and legume agriculture, than in pasture-based ruminant agriculture (http://tinyurl.com/nr5f6m2), so the least harm principal indicates the latter as the best calorie choice in order to reduce animal suffering (http://tinyurl.com/hmqa6pj).

But my ethical approach to agriculture is a little different. It is well-documented that all creatures – plants, animals, fungi, and microbes – suffer in their own way, and limiting our scope of empathy only to those who suffer similarly to us is indefensible. For that reason, I believe in a more nuanced, large-scale method to reduce suffering – using the extensiveness of our agriculture to maximize the biomass production on the surface of the earth, producing the largest amount of healthy, thriving, biodiverse life possible, for the longest time possible. And what’s the best way to do that? Regenerative agriculture, including rotationally-grazed animals.

Strike three, case closed.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 43 – Like I Said, Just Label It!

28 03 2016

(March 27, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Like I Said, Just Label It!

I spent most of the afternoon last Tuesday in the State House, amongst other activists and Rhode Island senators. I’m happy to report that the GMO labeling bills (S2458 and S2459) are being heard again by the Rhode Island legislature, with notably more support than last year’s.

For those of you who don’t remember my previous column on this topic, here’s a brief refresher. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”, but a better label is “genetically engineered” (GE). GE crops and animals are those whose genetic information – their DNA – has been altered through biotechnological processes that would not otherwise occur in nature.

There are two commonly used types of genetically engineered seed – herbicide tolerant crops (i.e. “RoundUp Ready”), which can be doused with the weed-killers (the carcinogen glyphosate, aka RoundUp) and not be killed, and Bt crops, which are engineered to produce an insecticide within their own cells. Crops including soy, corn, cottonseed, canola seed, and sugar beets are the most commonly genetically engineered ones (usually for one of those two traits). And it’s no mistake that these crops and their derivatives are the building blocks of the unhealthy processed foods that make up over half of the Standard American Diet.

The United States federal government is wholly a proponent of GE crops (and now, also genetically engineered salmon), structuring subsidy programs in ways that encourage farmers to grow them and absurdly streamlining their approval process through the FDA. That process involves minimal safety testing, almost exclusively done by the companies who stand to gain from the sale of the crop or animal.

Now that you’re caught up, the fun begins. Something like 64 countries around the world, including much of the developed world, label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, so that consumers are afforded with the necessary information to make their own safety assessments, and tailor their buying habits accordingly to their preferences. The United States is not one of them.

In fact, the US federal government has consistently refused to instate a national GMO labeling program, opting instead to attempt to pass the so-called “DARK Act”, which would essentially stop the individual states from mandating GMO labels within their own borders. Thankfully, this legislation was voted down last week, prior to the state senate subcommittee hearing that I attended.

As urban farmers, this issue should concern us deeply. We care about our health, and that of our families, friends, and fellow human beings – and we should be wary of consuming something with such inherent risks. We care about the health of the environment – and nothing that puts so much herbicide into the soil, and disrupts the proper functioning of the ecosystem, could be good for the Earth in the long-term. And we care about the preservation of our own freedoms – at the forefront is the right to know, and choose, exactly what we are putting into our bodies.

Unfortunately, the public testimony at the hearing brought out the same, tired old voices, industry representatives whose opinions really shouldn’t be factored into the decision about a labeling mandate at all. We heard from lobbyists sent by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry protection groups, complaining that they do not want to bear the miniscule cost required to make their product labels truthful – who believe that their bottom line should be protected by the government, and should always trump your right to know what you’re eating. We heard from individuals at the employ of the biotech industry, throwing around their academic credentials, as if that makes them fit to opine on the efficacy, safety, and appropriateness of a technology from whose public acceptance they stand to gain.

And sadly, we heard from the Rhode Island Farm Bureau representatives, who implied that a bill that calls into question a modern agricultural method or technology is equivalent to actively oppressing farmers. (So I guess we can’t do anything about CAFOs and the massive amounts of toxic pesticides being dispersed into the public commons, then. Sorry.) Their testimony was disappointing, if I may be honest. And I was very surprised when one labeling opponent began to yell at, and personally attack, a consumer and proponent of the bill for “keeping people in the dark”. As far as I’m aware, a truthful product label does quite the opposite.

Honestly, when all is said and done, this bill makes no comment, one way or another, on the safety of genetically engineered crops and animals. As I stressed in my testimony, it does no more, and no less, than to ensure that a piece of relevant information about a food product is fully disclosed to the people deciding whether or not to consume it. That is the motivation behind labeling the amounts of Vitamin C and calcium, including an expiration date, and listing the ingredients in cosmetics or food – a market is free only when the demand patterns of consumers are allowed to naturally tailor the practices of the producers, and this can only occur when the consumers know the relevant information about what they are consuming.

The debate in the senate subcommittee hearing was fundamentally between “big fish” – food industry representatives, complaining that greater labeling transparency might hurt their bottom line – and “little fish” – consumers and activists, offering reasons why a GMO label would be relevant to their decision-making process. If you ask me, only one of these two positions is even logically relevant in the labeling debate…and it’s not the food industry’s.

I’m about to make a personal request: CALL YOUR SENATORS, and email them, and express your support for GMO labeling! You can find your senator and his or her contact information by going to https://sos.ri.gov/vic/ and inputting your street address and city/zip. A quick call has the potential to change the course of history.

I want to give a huge thanks to Senator Donna Nesselbush, who has been a tireless advocate in this issue and who is the lead sponsor of the bills, and the great folks at Right to Know RI and Citizens for GMO Labeling. I have a good feeling about this year, and I believe we have the potential to join Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut at the forefront of this growing movement.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call and Times, Column 11 – Garden Like Nature Does (Organically!)

12 08 2014

(August 8, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Garden Like Nature Does (Organically!)

It’s midsummer, the height of the urban farmer’s year. The days are long, the temperature is hot (at noon, anyway), and the cold, bleak winter of so few months ago is but a distant memory. You can walk outside and almost hear Nature buzzing with life, almost see the garden grow before your eyes. As every experienced gardener knows, I’m not only talking about our carrots, tomatoes, and corn – this is also the time when the weeds, pests, and plant diseases threaten to squeeze the life out of our almost defenseless gardens, and where the resilience and determination of every urban farmer is put to the test by Mother Nature herself.

It is tempting, in such trying times, to fight back with the most potent weapons in our arsenal – artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers – the veritable chemical weapons in this war we call gardening. These magical elixirs brought to us by conventional industrial agriculture certainly do the trick, delivering on their promises of death, defoliation, and sterilization – necessary traits in any good weapon. Certainly an enticing promise, but if we look further than the next harvest, our very declaration of war is called into question. For this, I think it’s worth asking ourselves: why are we at war, are we sure that we really want to win, and is there any other way to get our gardens to grow? The short answers to these questions: we’re fighting the wrong entity; there are ways that everyone can win; and we have to garden like nature does.

In this column, I will go over four of the major components of garden care – pest control, weed control, soil fertility, and crop selection – and explain, for each, why the conventional approach is wrong. I will go on to discuss the systems that are “used” in most natural ecosystems on Earth, and how and why urban farmers should take advantage of these alternative methods, Nature’s valuable tools, to make our gardens grow better and stronger, and to make our urban farming more resilient and more sustainable.

The first major component of garden care is soil fertility, the most elemental requirement for the land to produce food. Industrial agricultural operations tend not to give too much value to long-term soil fertility: the soil is left bare, exposing it to the elements and causing it to erode at an astonishing rate (with maybe 60 years left of absolutely-necessary-in-order-to-grow-food topsoil, as discussed in April’s column). Erosion which, as bad luck would have it, robs the soil of not only essential nutrients, but of its very ability to naturally replace these nutrients.

To solve this problem, industrial agriculture opts for the short-term boost of artificial, chemical fertilizers, the same ones that are often used by home gardeners. These fertilizers are derived from fossil fuels, and while they may somewhat increase plant growth when they are applied, the soil is left less healthy than before (an unsustainable system if there ever was one), and they don’t help to build the organic matter content of the topsoil, which is absolutely necessary to its long-term health.

The next component is crop selection. In conventional agriculture, large swatches of land, literally thousands upon thousands of acres, are planted to the same crop. This practice is called “monocropping” or “monoculture”, with corn and soybeans at the forefront. This is done to streamline seeding, watering, and harvesting, and because the government parts with our tax dollars, as agricultural subsidies, far more readily when farms are massive fields of the same crop. This monoculture results in major problems with insect pests and diseases, in basically the same way that head lice and the Flu spread through a crowded elementary school. While not nearly as big an issue in home gardens, pests and disease can become a problem even on that scale when areas are planted to monoculture.

That leads to the third component, pest control. On industrial farms and many backyard gardens alike, artificial, toxic pesticides are the tools-of-choice when it comes to dealing with insects that threaten destroy the crop. At its very base, the use of these chemicals amounts to spraying poisons – neurotoxins, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors – on things that we intend to eat. That fact alone should give anyone pause, because, as the old adage goes, “the dose makes the poison” – if it kills insects, what’s to say it’s safe for us, after a lifetime of exposure?

Furthermore, agricultural pesticide use is responsible for the decline in pollinator populations – most notably the threats to the bee, on whose pollination services one-third of our food depends. And finally, as if to nod at the absurdity of spraying toxins on plants destined for human consumption, insect pests have a history of adapting a tolerance to pesticides, rendering them useless – at least, that is, until something more deadly is discovered.

The final major component is weed control, the bane of the farmer’s existence, urban and rural alike. Because modern agriculture keeps the soil bare, it is especially prone to weed growth. To this, industrial agriculture has responded with two main practices – tilling the soil to uproot the weeds, and spraying the soil with toxic chemical herbicides, both practices often used in home gardens. Tillage is a complex subject, but at the basis, it’s proving damaging to the environment to rip up the soil and expose the subsoil to air. This causes it to release a lot of climate-change-accelerating carbon dioxide, and has a harmful effect on soil fertility.

On the other hand, chemical herbicides come with their own set of problems. It has been shown that, despite the constant denial by the companies that produce these chemicals, they remain in the soil much longer after spraying that intended, causing a slow sterilization of the soil’s fertility that doesn’t really make sense if you actually want to grow food there. These chemicals, like pesticides, are carcinogenic and generally toxic to human health, and produce “super weeds” – invasive plants that develop a resistance to the defoliating effects of herbicides, which brings me to my final point. The use of these chemicals effectively makes farmers dependent on the companies that produce them – that would be Monsanto, to name the most prominent.

In general, conventional agriculture’s so-called solutions ultimately result in problems of a greater or more long-term nature. These approaches are expensive, yield dependency on someone or something (always fossil fuels) and generally death in the ecosystem, and result in dangerous food; by gardening like Nature does, our solutions would actually fix the problems at hand, would yield safe food and self-sufficiency, and are essentially free. So now, let’s figure out what Nature does better, and how we can do the same.

The first nearly universal technique used by Nature to make things grow is to cycle nutrients between plants, animals, and microorganisms. In basically every ecosystem on Earth, leaves or needles fall, grass dies, and animals eat and…defecate. The wastes of this year’s growth are broken down, to become next year’s soil, in a sustainable process that actually results in more topsoil – more carbon captured in the soil, more soil fertility, and a healthier ecosystem. This is easy to mimic in our own gardens – by keeping a compost pile as the destination for all garden and yard waste, and by keeping a couple of chickens to eat food scraps and contribute to the compost, we can supply all of the soil fertility we need, without resorting to artificial fertilizers.

For her next trick, Nature uses a very simple tool – mulch! If you take note, next time you’re wandering in any undeveloped or wild-kept area, the topsoil is almost never visible. This is the result of millions of years of a symbiosis of sorts, between the Plant Kingdom and the great living organism that is the topsoil. Because open soil space is valuable, both because of the rich soil nutrients and exposure to sunlight, plants of all sorts find their niches to make complete, highly-productive ecosystems. This is more or less the reason that weeds are so invasive (they evolved that way), but if we keep this system in mind, we can prevent them as well.

By ensuring that the soil is well-stocked with plants, and that it is kept mulched with dried grass, hay, chopped leaves, or any material like these, gardeners can do even better than nipping the problem in the bud – by preventing it in the first place. Mulching has the added benefits of helping to conserve soil moisture (less watering, anyone?), boosting soil fertility by composting back into the soil and preventing erosion, and preventing the water from splashing on the soil and back up onto the leaves of plants – a cause of many of the common plant diseases. Also, to put it into perspective, most weeds – dandelions, plantain, lamb’s quarters, nettle – are perfectly edible and often have medicinal qualities. So maybe, just maybe, that odd weed or two that make it through the mulch…are just another valuable crop.

Finally, there’s biodiversity, probably one of the most astounding tools that Nature uses to make life happen. To quote my first column, “there is no forest of just spruce trees, no sea of just cod, and no lawn of just Kentucky Bluegrass”. Nature’s fields are diverse, a mixture of many different plants and animals, with vastly different purposes. By doing this, and ensuring that ecosystems evolve year-after-year, Nature has this magical way of preventing a significant outbreak of disease or infestation of pests, and manages to build the fertility of the soil. With so many different plants in an area, pests and diseases can’t get a serious foothold in natural environments; and the low-level exposure to these things makes plants stronger, and, in the case of crop plants, more nutritious.

By practicing polyculture – planting a variety of different plants in the same area, selecting our crops with companion planting methods in mind, and “rotating” crops each year (that is, change where a specific vegetable or fruit is grown), we can take advantage of one of the best parts of Nature’s gardening method. Pests and diseases are unable to build up to significant amounts in the soil, nutrients are given time to replenish between plantings of the same crop, and the quality and nutrition of the things we grow is improved.

In our gardens, what we’ve essentially done is cut a chunk out of an already well-established ecosystem, a “piece of Nature”, and attempted to completely control it, to use it to our advantage. This mirrors what we do as a society, as a species – and this has led to an extractive economy, one that grows on the back of the decimation of the Natural World.

But when we look really hard, both at our economy and at our gardens, we see Nature not as our opponent in this frankly unwinnable war, but instead, as our benefactor. She provides the land, the water, the atmosphere, the beneficial microbes, the sunlight (depending on how far-reaching your definition is), and all sorts of cleaning, filtering, energy-capture, and decomposition services. Nature is well-equipped with all of the tools necessary to produce food for the rest of life, and she doesn’t use toxic chemicals, monocultures, or artificial fertilizers. If we take a page, or more like ten million, out of her book, and take advantage of these tools, we can break free of the crippling hold of industrial agriculture, and just maybe produce better, safer, more sustainable food. If our society did this, if our farmers did this, if urban gardeners did this, we’d be in better as a nation and a species – so let’s try something new, and garden like Nature does.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Nerve

1 05 2012

First of all, sorry all for not posting in a while (has it been over a month?). I’ve been busy with school, an independent alternative energy project, etc.

That being said, here’s the way I see it:

Let’s say that I’m Monsanto (I know, I feel dirty already). 20 years ago, I developed this new technology – I found an efficient way to take genetic material from anywhere in any of the Kingdoms of Life, and put it in a plant. I also found a way to inject cows with something that makes them produce 10% more milk, no questions asked (except for a malfunctioning uterus, increased mastitis, and the chemically altered milk…shhh). I decided that these technologies were quite good, and because I had enough money from the last century of manufacturing toxic pollutants and my Better Living Through Plastic campaign, I went full-force in implementing them. So a little later, I was going about my business, slowly integrating my creations into the food supply, when out of blue, an obstructive Big Government gets in my way with unfounded questions like “Are you sure that’s safe?” and “Should the FDA label your stuff?”. Well, I put them in their place, or more accurately, I replaced them with my own people: Michael Taylor, Deputy Food Commissioner at the FDA, and Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice. You got it, they are both mine. Well, at this point, the unthinkable happened. Some idiots in the local and organic foods movement started talking about my business, my products, and my unannounced presence in the refrigerators of most Americans. They touted lies (i.e. complete truths) about how my genetic tinkering created new allergies, how my RoundUp gave people cancer, and how my milk made 8 year olds go through puberty – well, I would have none of that, so I did what any sensible multinational corporation would do, and denied it all. I hired lots of researchers to worship the merits of my products, got a bunch of lawyers to sue the pants off of people and governments in court, and insisted, in debate after debate, that my opponents had no true arguments and that they were just bitter Luddites. Also, just for good measure, I slapped the phrases “farmers” and “Feed the World” on my website a couple thousand times, to convince people of my altruism. Well, what good any of that did: it was time for brute, multinational corporate force. Try to label milk from cows treated with rBST…BOOM, you’ve got a multimillion dollar lawsuit on your sorry keister. Try to label GMOs…BOOM, lawsuits for everyone! Basically, I adopted the stance: I am here to stay, I make a bunch of probably dangerous food products, and if you don’t like that, too bad. You’re going to eat it, and if your government tries to give you the choice not to, everyone gets sued. Period. Deal with it. It’s not my problem. My newest strategy is working quite well, don’t you think?

Here’s some thoughts that have occurred to me along the way:

  1. Pretty much all of the things I genetically modify and sell are made into fat-based foods – soy, corn, cotton(seed), and canola are damn near the only sources of oil in the U.S. (aside from that olive oil, and those Europeans are hard nuts to crack with their objection to GMOs), and the milk is mostly made into cheese and butter. Plus, soybeans produce a chemical, phytoestrogen, similar to human estrogen (shh, don’t tell anyone) and the milk is laced with IGF-1, a human growth hormone. So, excessive amounts of lipids, sex- and growth-hormones in all the wrong places – I always say, “a fat, hormonally confused population is a subservient population”, so bring on the soybean oil and rBST milk!
  2. Once I got farmers to spray enough RoundUp and petroleum fertilizers on their farms while growing RoundUp resistant soybeans, they were pretty much hooked. Fertilizers depleted the natural fertility of the soil and the residual RoundUp made everything sterile and lifeless, so all they could plant next year was my soy – job security! Corn was pretty much the same. When the bugs became resistant to all but the most powerful pesticides (because of my overuse), I showed up with a corn that produces just that. Yum!
  3. A little slogan I like to live by: If something moves and it’s not a potential customer (so, if it’s a farmer or a bug), spray it with the most powerful neurotoxin available. If it’s a potential customer, give it high cholesterol and hormone imbalances with the ol’ Trinity of corn, milk, and soy, and launch a Monsanto Pharmaceuticals Division.

Am I not the most disgusting, immoral thing you’ve ever heard of? Well, guess what: As of January, 2010, I’m a legal Person in the United States, and I’m allowed to buy off your politicians and tell you nothing. What do you think of me now…….? That’s what I thought.

**Just as a quick note, I want to mention that, when I sarcastically refer to Monsanto’s use of helping farmers and feeding the world, it is not done with malice toward the farmers or poor people in third world countries. I believe in taking action to make sure there are no starving people, and it keeping at the forefront of my mind the value, tangible and intangible, that farmers add to society – I just don’t believe any of what Monsanto does actually helps any of these people, and is in fact making the third world poorer and the farmers bankrupt.





Monsanto, the bane of my existence

5 03 2012

Since Monsanto, the multinational chemical turned biotechnology company, has done more harm to the world in their 100 year tenure than any other person or company in history, I feel it fitting that my first post be a tribute of sorts to them. (All company history comes directly from Monsanto’s website, http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/Pages/monsanto-history.aspx)

Monsanto, originally a chemical company, was founded in 1901 by chemist John F. Queeny. In the hundred years between its founding and its conversion to a biotechnology company in 2000, Monsanto was responsible for quite a few well-known inventions:

  • saccharin and aspartame – artificial sweeteners that are believed to cause cancer and other health defects
  • 2-4D – a major ingredient in Agent Orange, which was used during the Vietnam War to kill not only the enemy, but also innocent Vietnamese farmers and, yes, our own troops
  • Roundup – a powerful herbicide that, according to recent studies, causes cancerous tumors and effectively stops the body from fighting them
  • bovine growth hormone – rBGH, rBST, or Posilac; whatever name it is called, it increases cows’ milk production and gives them mastitis, polluting the milk with somatic cells (puss) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF, a human growth hormone)

And then, in the year 2000, EVERYTHING changed. Early in that year, Monsanto merged with a few other companies, and changed its name to Pharmacia Corporation. A few months later, Pharmacia Corporation spat out a subsidiary named – you guessed it – Monsanto, a primarily agricultural biotechnology firm that happened to have the same corporate structure, be staffed by the same people, and operate toward the same goals and products, as “the old Monsanto”. This was “the new Monsanto”, the self-proclaimed messiah, completely disconnected with the shady activities of its past.

Thus, we come to modern day. The Monsanto Company mainly produces what are called genetically engineered seeds. That is, plant organisms which have genetic material from another species, possibly from another taxonomic family entirely, forcibly inserted into their DNA, and that are only minimally tested for safety. Since around 1994, when the company first put its foot through the door of agribusiness, it has specialized in two major “products”, as they insist on calling the living creatures that they mutate and sell to the unknowing public – the Roundup Ready™ and Bt traits:

  • Roundup Ready™, as the name would imply, is a line of plants (mostly soybeans) that have been genetically modified to survive being liberally sprayed with the plant toxin glyphosate (the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand weed killer). What it does not say on the label is that glyphosate bonds to soil molecules, is taken up into the plant through its roots, and is consumed by innocent people like you and me, where it increases our risk of cancer while blocking our cells’ natural defenses against carcinogenesis (the formation of cancer).
  • Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis, is a soil bacteria whose genetic material is inserted into the DNA of plants (mostly corn), so that the organism will produce a toxic chemical, thus making the plant act as its own pesticide. The toxin is present in every bit of the plant, including the part we eat, and studies have shown that it is not as narrowly “targeted” to specific pests as the company would like us to believe.

At this, one might ask: “Well, what do I have to worry about? I eat corn on the cob a couple of times a summer, and I never eat soybeans. This stuff really doesn’t affect me, right?” This, my friends, brings us to the pièce de résistance, if you will, of Monsanto’s invisible corporate empire. According to recent estimates, upwards of 75% of processed foods in the US contain at least one genetically modified ingredient. Through a clever game of intellectual property rights, manufacturing demand, and the “revolving door syndrome” with the US government (issues I will address, in due course, at a later time), Monsanto has unilaterally ensured that some form of its products, especially processed extracts, of extracts, of corn and soy, manifest themselves in most of the things we eat every day. When you start to think about it, the list goes on and on: (high fructose) corn syrup, soy lecithin, citric and lactic acid, dextrose, soy protein concentrate, soybean oil, soy meal and corn flour, soy isolate, mono- and diglycerides, “natural flavors”, of course, and many, many others.

With such a presence in our modern world, your next question might be “Why have I never before heard of Monsanto Company?” To this, I can only say, you – all of us – were never supposed to. In the past decades, Monsanto has spent huge sums of money fighting citizen and government initiatives to label food that contains the company’s products. There is no “fine print” mentioning that the ingredients in any of the processed foods in the United States comes from Monsanto, and there is definitely no indication that they are derived from genetically modified sources. With the help of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with whom the company shares quite a few employees, Monsanto has constructed a system in which the public has absolutely no idea, unless they adamantly look for it, that the food they are eating is different than that eaten by their grandparents. The desire, the ultimate goal, of this shadowy entity seems to be a presence in every house, and every human body, in the world, while ensuring that its name never leaves the tongue of those destined to bear the effects of its unsafe creations. Forgive me, because I recognize that the way I say these ideas, they sound like conspiracy theories. I assure you, however, that they are far from that. Money and power make people to disturbing things, and the Monsanto Company is a perfect example of, in the paraphrased words of a blogger whose piece I read more than a year ago, “a company that is bat-s**t crazy with power”. Though it seems unreal, there is, in fact, a company that holds quite a bit of control over your life, and which takes great pains so that you have no idea that this is the case. What I have discussed here has only scratched the surface. There is a world of lies and deceit, both from this and other entities that feed you their poison and regulatory agencies that allow it to happen – and this is a topic I plan to cover at great length on this blog. At that, I leave you with a quote:

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”     George Orwell, 1984