"Industrial agriculture and the assumptions on which it rests are wrong, root and branch."
- Wendell Berry
|MOFGA members receive our quarterly newspaper The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener as a benefit of membership. Become a member today! It can also be purchased at news stands.
|| Reviews & Resources – Winter 2009-2010
Big Green Purse, by Diane MacEachern
Bringing Food Home: The Maine Example, by Merry Stetson Hall
First They Came For The Cows: An Activist's Story, by Sharon Zecchinelli
Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers, by Alan L. Detrick
Maine 101 – Everything you wanted to know about Maine …, by Nancy Griffin
Organic Body Care Recipes, by Stephanie Tourles
Small-Scale Grain Raising, 2nd Ed., by Gene Logsdon
Tomorrow’s Table, by Pamela Arnold and Raoul Adamchak
Web Sites & Web Publications
Changing Maine Directory
Cornell's Pesticide and Cancer Risk Database
Michigan State University Integrated Pest Management Resources
Soil and Health Library
What’s So Special about Organic Seed?
Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World
By Diane MacEachern
Avery (Penguin Group), New York, 2008
400 pages, $17.95
If you already know about the benefits of local and organic food, compact fluorescent bulbs, Energy Star appliances and no-VOC paint, it’s easy to turn a jaded eye to books that highlight “earth-saving” tips and “green shopping” suggestions. Don’t pass by the new 400-page tome Big Green Purse, though: It’s an absorbing, well-researched guide on how to take sustainable living to the next level, wherever you are in the process.
Author Dianne MacEachern starts with the premise that our power as consumers can transform industry. Since women spend 85 cents of every dollar, the book targets them as the Chief Financial Officers (and, she argues, Chief Environmental Officers) of most households. But men would find the book equally compelling.
Opening the book with a hard-hitting summary of environmental woes, MacEachern then elaborates seven common-sense principles for responsible consumption: Buy less; read the label; support sustainable standards; look for third-party verification; choose fewer ingredients; pick less packaging; and buy local.
“Buying food that’s locally grown is among the most effective ways you can spend your money to get the world you want,” she notes, and cites MOFGA’s estimate that $10 spent by Maine households weekly on local food would return $100 million to the state’s economy.
Subsequent chapters offer concrete suggestions for how to achieve the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – in each facet of domestic life (e.g., cleaning, clothing, food and transportation). In a readily accessible style, MacEachern explains critical terms and background, cites scientific findings, and provides valuable resource information. When explaining how to make sense of food certification, for example, she offers details – not just on organic standards, but on independent organizations such as Demeter Association, the Food Alliance and Cornucopia Institute.
I’ve read extensively on green living topics, but still found myself learning a great deal about manufacturing and growing practices (such as the unregulated use of nanomaterials); labor practices (e.g., 284,000 children enslaved on cocoa plantations); and potential health impacts (such as a finding that use of household cleaning sprays and air fresheners just once a week can increase the chance of developing asthma by 30 to 50 percent).
MacEachern suggests ways to guard against greenwashing, and points out the many areas in which federal regulators fall short of offering us meaningful protection (as with the Federal Trade Commission, which she claims “rarely enforces its own rules” against deceptive advertising, and with the Food and Drug Administration, which permits manufacturers to use any raw material in personal care products). She advocates writing and calling manufacturers and government agencies, and provides contact information for some of these entities. While any print guide is dated by the time it reaches bookstores, MacEachern has a Web site (www.biggreenpurse.com) where readers can find updates.
Big Green Purse is a valuable resource, helping ensure that our essential purchases inflict the least possible harm – on the larger natural environment and on ourselves.
– Marina Schauffler, Camden, Maine
Bringing Food Home: The Maine Example
by Merry Stetson Hall
Self-published through BookSurge Publishing, 2009; available from local bookstores and Amazon
463 pages, paperback; $23.99
Through interviews with some 100 people involved in Maine agriculture and fisheries, Merry Hall covers a range of efforts to bring more local food to Maine people, efforts that support our communities and ecosystems. She profiles many folks, farms, businesses and organizations familiar to the MOFGA community – from Jason Kafka at Checkerberry Farm in Parkman, to Carly DelSignore and Aaron Bell of Tide Mill Farm in Edmunds, to Jim Amaral of Borealis Breads. Generally these are not how-to profiles but stories that give readers a flavor of the small-scale enterprises that are fueling Maine’s creative food-based economy. They are interspersed with Hall’s philosophizing about the importance of local entrepreneurs to our ecological and social fabric.
Readers will get some concrete tips here and there. Adam Tomash and June Zellers of Avant Gardens in W. Gardiner, for example, tell how they scatter lettuce seed in cold frames just before a good, lasting snow. “The seeds lie there dormant until they sense that it’s the right time to grow. We let the seeds choose when to germinate, just like they would do out in nature.”
In addition to the familiar folks, I enjoyed learning about other Maine treasures in Bringing Food Home. David Spahr, for example, practices what he calls “Forest Forage Gardening” in Washington, Maine, by cultivating (or letting nature cultivate) many edible woody and herbaceous plants, mushrooms and more. One of his experiments involves planting white pine seedlings in the woods where chanterelle mushrooms grow, and later transplanting the pines closer to his house, hoping that the chanterelle mycelia will accompany them.
Hall’s book is a valuable look at the many models of “bringing food home” that exist in Maine now.
– Jean English
First They Came For The Cows: An Activist’s Story
by Sharon Zecchinelli
© 2009, self-published by CreateSpace; available from Amazon
240 pages, paperback
Vermont homesteader Sharon Zecchinelli (http://henwhisperer.blogspot.com/) has been fighting the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) head-on, and in 2007, during National Novel Writing Month, she created this fictionalized account of that work. This is a quick read in which Zecchinelli combines her strong Christian faith with her strong anti-NAIS sentiments. Readers who are not familiar with heavy-handed governmental efforts to register all “premises” where animals are kept and to identify all animals and their movements on and off those farms will be educated by this book – as they will be incensed when they learn that factory farms (the usual source of widespread pathogen outbreaks) need not identify every animal but only the facility itself, at minimal cost per animal. Because this is a work of fiction, readers will have to dig deeper on their own to find the current status of NAIS – and to try to bring about the positive ending portrayed in Zecchinelli’s book.
– Jean English
Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers – The Essential Guide to Digital Techniques
By Alan L. Detrick
© 2008, Timber Press
176 pages, paper, $24.95
Put this book on your holiday shopping list for anyone who loves gardening and photographing plants and gardens. It’s worth its price just for the exquisite close-ups of flowers and insects – but gives the reader much more. Learn the basics of close-up photography; what to look for in a digital camera; how to compose, store and edit digital photos; and more. Photographing your garden through the growing season is a great way to pay attention to what’s going on there; to remember and record what you did from year to year; and to plan for future gardening efforts. Detrick’s book will have you doing that more and more, better and better.
– Jean English
Maine 101 – Everything you wanted to know about Maine and were going to ask anyway
by Nancy Griffin
© 2009, MacIntyre Purcell Publishing Inc., Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; www.101bookseries.com
252 pages, paperback
This is a fun little book that I was going to dismiss but picked up instead, started reading, and didn’t put down until I reached page 252 – often reading excerpts aloud to my patient family. From its geology to its history, politics, famous crimes, place names and more, our wonderful state is detailed entertainingly in Maine 101. Find out about Dave Mallett’s top five Maine music memories; the top five Maine cultural trails (including the Maine Garden and Landscape Trail); the top five Maine country fairs (including Common Ground). One chapter covers Maine food – from Bean Hole Beans to Whoopie Pies, with fiddleheads and Needhams (with their potato-coconut-confectioner’s sugar filling) in between. Learn about Andy O’Brien’s five reasons why “it is actually fun to be a Maine rep” – including, “When you drive to the Statehouse parking lot, you don’t need to feel bad about your old dented car. It fits right in.” Mainers of all sorts will feel at home and will probably learn something interesting by reading this book.
– Jean English
Organic Body Care Recipes
By Stephanie Tourles
Storey Publishing, 2007
378 pgs., paperback; $18.95
Our bodies are amazing and amazingly complex. For instance, a single square inch of skin breaks down into: 9,500,000 cells, 65 hairs, 650 sweat glands, 78 yards of nerves, and thousands of other nerve endings, pressure and sensory stimuli, glands and fibers. More than a guide of body care practices and products, Organic Body Care Recipes is a textbook of fun and factual knowledge. Maine author Stephanie Tourles, a licensed holistic esthetician and certified aromatherapist, tells what is good and bad for your body – and why.
Organic Body Care Recipes is a comprehensive catalog of the importance of a natural approach, tools and herbal ingredients necessary for the kitchen cosmetologist, and dozens of quick and easy do-it-yourself recipes (from facial cleansers and foot scrubs to bath salts and decongestant steams). With product names such as bodacious body dessert and sensational sunflower friction, the included recipes are worthy of an extravagant spa in New York City. However, Tourles prompts readers to take charge of their own body care regime and makes it fun, fast and affordable to do so.
Though the focus on beauty products might not be for everyone, this book also includes lots of recipes that most people would consider healthcare staples – such as soap, shampoo and toothpaste. Tourles devotes ample coverage to two topics that are of particular interest to farmers and gardeners: sun and bugs. The aloe after-sun relief spray sounds like a must have: it soothes sunburn-damaged skin and, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, doubles as an anti-itch healing spray for bug bites.
– Holli Cederholm, Unity, Maine
Small-Scale Grain Raising
By Gene Logsdon
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009
308 pgs., paperback; $29.95
Experienced with 30 more years of backyard grain growing, Gene Logsdon has refined his classic Small-Scale Grain Raising for today’s home gardeners and small farmers. Upon its original release in 1977 (Rodale Press), Logsdon suspected that this part factual, part anecdotal guide to small grains for small growers – or “garden farmers” as he endearingly calls gardeners who do more than prune their roses – would become even more applicable in light of rising food costs. He was right. Increasing grain prices and rumored worldwide grain shortages in 2007 confirmed Logsdon’s hypothesis and sparked a renewed interest in homegrown grains.
The Second Edition is intended for “the pioneers of this new, low-cost way of making food,” those committed to a food economy based on organic, natural, and local as opposed to producers reliant on fossil fuel, fossil fertilizers and genetic manipulation. Logsdon aims to take his readers beyond growing fruits and vegetables, showing them it’s just as easy, and as important, to incorporate grains and legumes into their food production systems.
Logsdon’s argument for sowing your own oats or corn or barley is, well, hard to argue with. Readers of the original Small-Scale Grain Raising will remember Logsdon’s “pancake patch,” in which he grows his own wheat. He attests, “Until you’ve tried pancakes fresh from the garden you haven’t lived.” As is true with those mealy reddish globes the supermarket tries to pawn off as tomatoes in February, store-bought flour cannot compare with the flavor, or the nutritional value, of flour milled right at home with nothing more than a good 10-speed blender or kitchen mill. And, Logsdon assures skeptics that a little goes a long way. Having done the math, the growing, threshing and cooking – he knows. A bushel of wheat makes 50 1-pound loaves of bread, and based on the yields of organically grown wheat, this requires only 1/40 of an acre.
The reasons for adding grains into your crop plan don’t stop with “growing your own bread.” Raising your own whole grains can decrease the price of raising your own milk, meat and eggs – provided your livestock are on a pasture-based system like Logsdon’s and that grain is a supplemental, rather than primary, part of their diet. Then there are the wonderful byproducts of grain growing: straw, silage, pollen for bees, and, of course, the view. According to Logsdon, “There are few landscapes more beautiful than wheat fields in November against a backdrop of brown-leaved woodland.”
Small-Scale Grain Raising offers basic information regarding yields and space requirements, and details crop specifics, including: types, economics, suggested crop rotations, fertility requirements, pests and diseases, harvest, storage and usage. Whole chapters are devoted to each of the world’s major grains, and others cover lesser known grains (including triticale and spelt) and other crops with similar cultural requirements that aren’t technically grains (such as buckwheat, quinoa, flax and legumes).
However, the second edition of Small-Scale Grain Raising is more than just an updated version of the original. Obsolete information and some of the more “facty” material have been deleted as Logsdon says repeatedly: This sort of information can be found on the Internet. In its place, the reader will find more humor, more anecdotes, and more of the “contrary bastard” and his opinions. Logsdon finds a balance in speaking both in the voice of a younger, more energized farmer and his older, wizened self.
If you haven’t read the original, there’s no time like the present. And if you have read it, read it again – you will learn something and laugh in the process.
– Holli Cederholm, Unity, Maine
Tomorrow’s Table – Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food
by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak
Oxford University Press, 2008
232 pages, hardcover; $29.95
Pamela Ronald is a professor of plant pathology and chair of the Plant Genomics Program at the University of California, Davis. Her husband, Raoul Adamchak, manages the certified organic market garden at the UCal Davis Student Farm. Together they wrote Tomorrow’s Table – Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (2008, Oxford University Press) to explain crop genetic engineering (GE) and organic farming, to recommend judicious use of GE in organic farming in order to help feed the 9.2 billion people who are projected to populate Earth by 2050, and to protect the environment in the process.
Ronald describes, for example, a low-yielding rice variety that tolerates 14 days of flooding. (Most varieties tolerate some flooding but not 14 days.) She and her coworkers identified a single gene that they believed was responsible for flooding tolerance, engineered it into a non-tolerant rice variety and tested that variety in the field. It tolerated flooding, so the proper gene had been identified, enabling other rice researchers to use “marker assisted breeding” to incorporate the gene into other, high-yielding varieties through conventional breeding.
Marker assisted breeding identifies traits (markers) – morphological, biochemical (a particular protein, for example), a genetic sequence near the gene of interest, or other markers – that are linked to the traits of interest – e.g., flooding tolerance – and are easier to identify than the gene of interest itself. This helps identify plants that have the trait of interest. According to MOFGA’s organic crops specialist Dr. Eric Sideman, marker assisted breeding is allowed under USDA organic standards.
Without marker assisted breeding, researchers had tried to incorporate the gene for flooding resistance into high yielding rice varieties for 50 years – without success. Submergence-tolerant rice could be useful not only during floods but could also help organic growers keep their fields flooded long enough to kill weeds.
Bt Issues and Safety of GE Crops
Adamchak provides a generally good synopsis of organic agriculture, although New York organic growers Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens would challenge his statement that organic agriculture is more labor intensive than conventional (see the online Summer 2009 Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener: The Martens Farm). And I was surprised that Adamchak only recently heard about applying Bt in oil using the Zea-later to help control corn earworms, since this control has been available for several years. (See the Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management at www.nysaes.cornell.edu/pp/resourceguide/) He suggests that we need powerful technologies such as GE to develop pest-resistant, high-yielding varieties for organic agriculture.
Likewise, Ronald suggests that the only alternative to GE Bt corn is spraying toxic pesticides to control earworms. A photo showing significantly damaged “organic,” wormy corn next to near-perfect ears of GE corn might convince the reader that she’s right – but the organic corn portrayed does not represent what Maine organic growers typically produce. Several conventionally bred sweet corn varieties with some earworm resistance (via tighter, longer husks) are on the market, so more funding of traditional breeding would seem to be a better solution to the earworm problem than Bt varieties.
Ronald says that Bt corn, because it would be less wormy, would contain less fungus associated with worm damage, and thus less mycotoxin contamination associated with fungi. Sideman does not believe these mycotoxins have a chance to develop in freshly picked and eaten sweet corn; Dr. Becky Sideman of the University of New Hampshire says mycotoxins might be a potential problem in sweet corn that is mechanically harvested and later processed, with no one actually handling (and looking at) it.
Also related to Bt crops, Ronald asked her students if they would prefer to eat GE foods or food sprayed with dead bacteria carrying a toxin that kills insects (i.e., externally applied Bt). Most choose the GE foods. Ronald does not say whether she mentioned that the “dead bacteria carrying a toxin” would be broken down before the students ate the food, and that the same toxin is in every cell of the GE foods even after harvest, where it is not broken down.
Ronald also asked her students if they’d prefer sweet corn grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and containing no earworms; grown organically and containing earworms; or grown organically and containing GE Bt toxin and no earworms. Most picked the third option (which, of course, is not allowed under organic standards). The students apparently were not given the choice of non-GE organic corn without earworms. Ronald says a Canadian study showed that consumers preferred GE over non-GE corn when clear labels and explanations were used. However, Lotter (see sidebar below) cites Toronto Star photos of the corn bins in this study: A sign on the non-GE corn asked, “Would you eat wormy corn?” while the GE corn sign said, “Here’s what went into producing quality sweet corn.” The signs also stated that the non-GE corn was sprayed with pesticides much more often than the transgenic.
Regarding the potential toxicity of the engineered Bt toxin and other commercialized GE traits, Ronald says “hundreds of millions of people have eaten GE food for more than a decade without a single verifiable case of adverse effects to the environment or to human health.” Yet I am not aware of any independent, long-term feeding studies done on animals to prove this.
Also, without labeling of GE foods, epidemiologists have no way of tracking effects of their consumption.
Ronald dismisses as flawed a study by Dr. Arpad Pusztai, published in the respected journal Lancet and showing damage to rats’ internal organs after they ate GE potatoes. (Unfortunately, Pusztai was forced to resign from his job after publicizing his data.)
Also regarding the safety of GE foods, Ronald says “…GE traits are composed of the same chemical building blocks (DNA and proteins) that we eat every day.” Aren’t prions, too, protein particles? And they’re thought to cause various brain diseases in animals and humans. Allergens are also proteins. And toxic proteins have been implicated as contributing to Alzheimer’s disease.
Ronald says that by using Bt crops, “the global environment is being spared more than a hundred million pounds of much more toxic pesticides each year.” Organic agriculture has that potential, too – without adding large amounts of Bt to diets and the environment. In discussing reduced pesticide use from growing GE crops, Ronald does not say whether these studies compared conventional and GE practices, or conventional, GE and organic. Omitting an organic treatment is a common fault of many studies reporting that GE reduces pesticide use.
Ronald does not address effects of Bt from GE crop residues on soil life; on aquatic life when agricultural fields are drained; effects of Bt crops on nontarget pests; or secondary pest outbreaks in Bt crops (all cited by Lotter). She mentions GE opponents’ concern that pests will evolve resistance to Bt faster now that the toxin in GE crops is present all season and on so much acreage – but minimizes this concern by saying that such resistance hasn’t happened yet. This seems shortsighted.
Ronald says that organic farming also has risks, citing rotenone use as an example – yet no formulation of rotenone is now approved for organic growers; and when rotenone was allowed, it was only under very restricted conditions, and it broke down rapidly.
In defending the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes, Ronald says “…one study showed that transgenes in GE soy are completely degraded by the time they get to the large intestine.” Although she seems to believe that these marker genes are benign, she says that antibiotic resistance marker genes are being replaced with sugar enablement markers and that some GE crops do not contain marker genes at all. Ronald does make a good point that overuse of antibiotics in conventional animal husbandry and in medicine are probably far more serious contributors to antibiotic resistance – but that does not mean it’s OK to risk adding to the problem by using them in GE crops as well. The move away from this use is welcome news.
While supporting organic ideals in parts of Tomorrow’s Table, Ronald defends such industrial conventional practices as using Roundup Ready GE crops in other places. “The good thing about glyphosate,” she says, “is that it is known to be nontoxic to mammals…” However, Argentine embryologist Andres Carrasco has found that very low doses of pure glyphosate cause defects in amphibian embryos. He noted the lack of studies in this area. Other researchers have found that additives in Roundup are toxic to human cells at concentrations below those recommended for agricultural use. The jury on the safety of Roundup seems to be out.
Ronald cites a 2002 study saying glyphosate-resistant GE crops have reduced uses of more-toxic herbicides, but she does not mention that increasingly, glyphosate-resistant weeds are appearing that require spraying with more-toxic herbicides, such as 2,4-D, a carcinogen.
In a June 2009 article entitled “Poisoning the Planet” in Resurgence magazine, Miguel Altieri lists several disturbing effects of growing Roundup Ready soy in South America, including rapidly increasing deforestation, displacement of small farmers, and a great increase in the use of Roundup. “In southern Brazil, for every kilo reduction of non-glyphosate herbicide during the period of expansion of GM soybean cultivation, the use of glyphosate increased by 7.5 kilos,” he writes. He lists several other harmful effects of Roundup on soil organisms, pollinators, nutrient cycling and more. (See http://resurgence.org/magazine/article2803-Poisoning-The-Planet.html)
Roundup is not benign stuff.
Feeding a Growing World
While Tomorrow’s Table very briefly touches on the population growth problem and political and distribution problems related to hunger, it makes no mention of educating women – the most powerful way to slow population growth, according to some – and it seems to dismiss the idea of reducing population growth in a few sentences just because it is a complex issue.
The authors do note that organic yields are often close or equal to conventional, but they do not acknowledge that these yields have been achieved despite the relatively minuscule amount of funding for organic compared with conventional and biotechnology research. They believe that engineering plants for better pest resistance, drought tolerance and water use efficiency would help feed people and minimize crop losses – but conventional breeding (especially Participatory Plant Breeding – see “Organic Seed Alliance May Save Us from Ourselves,” The MOF&G, Dec. 2008-Feb. 2009) and cultural practices could do the same.
I was confused about why, in a book purported to address world hunger, Ronald would consider it a good thing that Amish farmers in Pennsylvania are growing reduced-nicotine GE tobacco – even if they are earning $3,500 per acre for it.
Big Bad Corporations
Ronald expresses understanding for those who reject GE because so much of the technology is controlled by Dow and Monsanto – makers of Agent Orange – but says that this is a nonscientific concern that “can only be addressed through policy.”
Adamchak points out that Monsanto now also controls many of the hybrid vegetable varieties that organic growers like to use. (Those who order from Fedco Seeds are able to avoid these through Fedco’s labeling system.)
Regarding gene ownership, Ronald acknowledges that “…although about one fourth of the patented inventions in agricultural biotechnology were made by public sector researchers (e.g., public universities) many of these inventions are exclusively licensed to private companies…” University researchers and small growers cannot afford the $50,000 to $50,000,000 regulatory costs to bring a new GE variety to market, she says, and she thinks such regulation isn’t appropriate for “genes whose source and effects resemble those of traditional breeding.” Maybe she can come up with a definition of “substantial equivalence” that actually has some science behind it.
Ronald and others are attempting to counter complete usurping of publicly-funded GE research by corporations. Rather than using the patent-protected process with Agrobacterium to transfer genes, she mentions using another species of “benign bacteria” for which the methodology is available to public sector researchers on an open source basis. To compensate countries from which germplasm comes, Ronald and UC Davis set up nonexclusive licensing (allowing less developed countries access to genes at the same time that certain companies are given licensing as well) and a Genetics Resource Recognition Fund that, using contributions from royalties, could support farm work, research or habitat preservation in the source country. Another program, Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture, “allows universities to market their technologies to the private sector, and thus still profit from their inventions, while retaining rights for humanitarian purposes and small crops that are vital to small-acreage farmers…”
In evaluating GE crops, Ronald advises readers to look for studies that have been published in reputable scientific journals and have been reproduced – yet scientists who want to research GE crops objectively, without receiving funding from Monsanto et al., often can’t find the funding, can’t acquire the GE seeds from the patent holders, and/or are threatened or harassed. Ronald does not acknowledge the disproportionate impact that the biotech industry has on academia.
Organic and Consumer Discrepancies
Adamchak talks about the pluses and minuses of hybrid, open pollinated and GE seed and asks what’s wrong with engineering a gene from one tomato variety into another if it will confer, say, disease resistance, or eliminate cracking. He criticizes the Safe Seed Pledge that many seed companies have taken: Companies say they won’t knowingly carry GE seed, yet, says Adamchak, some of those same companies do carry pesticide-treated seed.
Ronald and Adamchak also note that useful traits in some conventionally bred crops that are used in organic production were induced by exposing seed to various types of radiation, causing mutations, and then growing out that seed and looking for certain traits. (In fact, exposing seed to 48 hours or more of sunlight and heat before planting it is one way to induce mutations. Apparently this is one way mutations have occurred in nature.)
Related to health, Ronald says, “Curiously, while some consumers oppose even trace amounts of transgenes, they have readily accepted other kinds of unintended biological material (e.g., insects or rodent feces…)…” and, “They even accept a small amount of pesticide drift on organic crops…” I would have a problem with rodent feces, and I suspect organic certifiers would, too. With respect to trace amounts of transgenes versus trace amounts of pesticides, one issue is that transgenes may continue to propagate and contaminate crops, while pesticide residues, while they can be long-lived and certainly harmful, at least do not reproduce themselves.
Ronald says that rennet made by GE bacteria is widely used to make cheese, which people eat without questioning the process. She does not point out that those making organic cheese must not use rennet derived from GE bacteria.
Pollen Drift, Gene Flow
Regarding gene flow, Ronald mentions Dr. Ignacio Chapela’s work, published in Nature, showing transgenic DNA in landraces of corn in Mexico, where GE corn is not permitted to be grown. She says his work was widely disputed and then refuted by a larger study – yet Lotter cites several studies showing gene flow from GE to nontransgenic crops and to weedy relatives of transgenic crops, including a recent study again showing transgenes in native Mexican corn. If even the scientists disagree about the impacts of GE technology, shouldn’t we take a step back and look at this process more carefully before sending more of it out into the world?
Ronald says that genes from other modern corn varieties are getting into landraces anyhow; and, “It is unlikely that a single transgene by itself would reduce the genetic diversity of native populations to a greater extent than is already occurring.”
She thinks contamination problems can be minimized with space between crops, different planting times and different maturity dates of crops.
“To date, no grower has ever lost certification due to the presence of a transgene in an organic product,” says Ronald – but some have lost markets and many thousands of dollars, and others have lost a lifetime of breeding work. Canadian grower Percy Schmeiser, who selected and saved his own canola seed for decades, only to lose it when it was contaminated by Monsanto’s engineered genes, is not mentioned in Tomorrow’s Table.
Ronald asks, “What if… GE is a tool that can be refined and shared…”
And used in organic systems. Tomorrow’s Table says that “… much of the potential of GE plants is lost in conventional systems that continue to use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. To maximize the benefit of GE plants they would best be integrated into an organic farming system.”
This is confusing, because Ronald previously defended Bt and Roundup Ready crops and Roundup itself. Maybe she sees these as points on a continuum toward a more ecological agriculture.
A Worthwhile Read
Ronald and Adamchak wrote Tomorrow’s Table in an effort to open a conversation between two polar sides in the genetic engineering debate. The authors come across as sincere and intelligent (indeed, Ronald’s resume, found online, is impressive), and their book is highly readable, with several family stories in it and even some favorite recipes. The book is worth reading – critically – because it will help us make more informed choices. I am grateful to Tim Christensen of Colby College for sending the book to me.
I would have liked more scientific information, including explanatory diagrams, about the kinds of genetic engineering that the authors think are best suited to organic agriculture, such as gene silencing. And the book would have been more valuable if it had done a more thorough job of countering opponents’ concerns about genetic engineering – if it had had a third co-author, such as Don Lotter, for example.
Another Point of View
In two in-depth articles in the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, agroecologist Don Lotter, Ph.D., reviews GE food, feed, and fiber products – development of the industry; minimal regulation due to the influence of the biotechnology industry over U.S. federal regulatory agencies; the basic technology of plant GE; the main GE crops, traits, and producing countries; consumer resistance to GE foods; industry problems with shrinking investments; the worldwide promotion of GE crops; and ecological issues related to GE crops.
Lotter points out flaws in the one gene–one protein model used in transgenics and says that mutations occurring due to plant transgenics may result in allergens and novel proteins. In the second article, Lotter reviews how the scientific community failed to properly oversee crop transgenics and how university science programs in the past 25 years have changed from non-proprietary programs for the “public good” to the “academic capitalism” model that includes a bias for transgenic crop technology and harassment of scientists who oppose the technology. Future food production strategies for developing countries that are based on ecological methods and do not include GE crops (but may use marker-assisted selection) are reviewed. (“The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science – Part 1: The Development of a Flawed Enterprise; Part 2: Academic Capitalism and the Loss of Scientific Integrity, by Don Lotter, International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, Volume 16, issue 1 (2009), pages 31-68; http://ijsaf.org/contents/16-1/lotter1/index.html; www.donlotter.net)
– Jean English
Web Sites & Web Publications
www.AmpleHarvest.org lists food pantries and what products they can use.
The sixth (2009) edition of the Changing Maine Directory is available free at www.changingmaine.org and for $12 (postpaid) in print. Nearly 1,500 Maine grassroots social action and social service organizations are listed. Order print copies from Resources for Organizing and Social Change, 161 Stovepipe Alley, Monroe, ME 04951. Make out checks to ROSC. FMI: Larry Dansinger, (207) 525-7776, email@example.com.
Cornell University has updated its Pesticide and Cancer Risk Database to contain EPA Cancer Risk Classifications on 114 pesticide active ingredients found in 3223 turf and lawn care pesticides. See envirocancer.cornell.edu/turf/index.cfm.
Michigan State University Integrated Pest Management Resources offers excellent photos and descriptions of natural enemies and spiders that feed on crop pests: ipm.msu.edu/natural-enemies/parasitoids.htm
Soil and Health Library (www.soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/01aglibwelcome.html) features The Holistic Agricultural Library, where many classics related to organic agriculture are available online. “Now I can read Darwin's worm book!” says MOFGA member Beedy Parker. Not to mention books by William Albrecht, Lady Eve Balfour, Luther Burbank and many of the other biggies.
What’s So Special about Organic Seed? Dr. John Navazio, formerly of Maine and now working with the Organic Seed Alliance, succinctly explains the importance of organic seed in a 5-minute video produced by Organic Nation TV. Watch it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPnVkvCsHOA.