Posts Tagged ‘Industrial agriculture’

The results on Washington Initiative 522, which would require labeling foods that contain GMOs, are coming in… and it looks like it won’t pass. I voted for the measure, but, as I was admitting to David the other day, not for very nice reasons. I want to put companies that push GM seed and farming out of business. I think the “No” side is right- putting “made with GMOs” labels on produce and processed foods will amount to putting warning labels on them. And while GMO labels may not increase the price of GM food itself, I do think that people would end up spending more money on their grocery bill to buy non-GM food, just like they spend more money to buy fair trade chocolate and coffee, and to avoid clothing and shoes made with child labor (though, Nicholas Kristof says that the only worse thing than being exploited in a sweat shop is not being exploited in a sweat shop- gotta start somewhere.)

So, what do we do if this initiative fails? How do we avoid buying and consuming GM food?

First, why are we avoiding GM food? I would hazard a guess that most people are against GM foods because it is unclear whether consuming them is safe. Because they are relatively new, I don’t think we have enough evidence to say one way or the other. Given that the FDA tends to operate on a innocent-until-proven-guilty platform, waiting until food additives have been shown to cause tumors or brain damage in rats and infertility (or what have you) in humans before banning them from US food, it might be smart for consumers to play it safe and not eat them. But as I argued in an earlier post, the foreign gene inserted into the crop (the one that makes corn cobs have those horribly ugly faces on protestors’ signs) is the least of our worries. On the other hand, there is ample evidence suggesting that agricultural pesticides are bad for us (Round-up ready crops get DOUSED in Round-up) and other critters, and that monocropping (which GM companies like Monsanto brutally push) is bad for the soil, the waterways, the oceans, and our future ability to grow enough food to support ourselves during unpredictable and harsh climate changes. The wave of fear and disgust toward weird monster corn genes may not be enough to get WA I-522 passed, but there are plenty of other reasons to avoid GM foods.

So here are some suggestions for how to do that sans label:

The simplest is to buy organic. USDA organic regulations do not allow GM ingredients in processed food, nor do they allow animals to be fed GM feed (which is where most of the GM crops produced in the US go- animal feed), so consumers can avoid GMOs by buying organic produce, meat, and processed foods like breakfast cereal. Buying organic also has the advantage of avoiding antibiotics used to raise animals, which have contributed to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and have led to lapses in cleanliness in slaughtering and processing procedures. (Logic being, why wash shit off the cow hide when the cow is pumped full of drugs?)

But, organic food is expensive. Is there any way to half-ass it? What are the most important foods to buy organic and which are not so important?

If the goal is to avoid GM ingredients,
1) stay away from conventional meat, dairy, and eggs (as animals are often raised with feed containing GM soy and corn)
2) or buy pasture-raised meat and dairy products (I don’t think they’ve genetically engineered grass yet…)
3) don’t buy conventional baked goods or grain products (GM corn and soy), or processed foods (GM corn syrup and soybean oil)
4) avoid particular products that you know have been genetically engineered, like some apples, sweet corn, and salmon- instead, buy organic and wild-caught versions of those foods.
5) uh… what’s left to eat? Based on this list, pasta, beans, and rice.

If the goal is avoiding pesticides, buy organic based on this list compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Some produce is more heavily sprayed than others. Produce grown by small farms often carries less pesticide residue than produce grown by huge farms. Know that washing your produce won’t get rid of all the pesticide.

Lastly, if you want to avoid GMOs because of the effect farming them has on the environment, on genetic diversity, or on small farms, buying your produce, meat, dairy, and bread at a local farmers market is your best bet. How much extra money are we willing to spend to save the environment, our health, and local businesses? That’s a tricky question. If you come up with a dollar amount appropriate for yourself or your family, spend it at the farmers market!

-I apologize for not citing my sources- it feels wrong… but perhaps when I’m finally finished with my PhD- two weeks till my defense!- I will come back and write about this in a more scientific way…

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Occasionally the New York Times publishes articles like this one on the crises modern agriculture brought on by gawdawful weather. Some discuss government-paid crop insurance and lament the plight of farmers across the country. This one actually mentions compost as a way to ameliorate the effects of drought, as well as gray water systems, and the importance of maintaining seed banks so that we can weather the weather with drought- and heat-resistant varieties of crops. I’m going to go ahead and add a plug against big Ag companies that promote and sell and monopolize crops with single varieties that are bred or genetically engineered to do well in shitty soil with lots of synthetic fertilizer. Bad idea. We need to be increasing the genetic diversity of our crops and animals, not whittling our base down to a teetering giant disaster waiting to happen.

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Stealing another link from Darrow.   This time it’s about the environmental effects of eating various types of protein.  The rest of the site gives tips for how to choose the best meat and why certain forms of protein are harder on the environment than others and a cool explanation of the meat production life cycle.

I’m doing fairly well, except that i drink gallons and gallons of milk.  And, if i could afford it, i would eat tons of cheese.  I wonder if goat’s milk and goat cheese are any better than cow’s milk and cheese…

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Check out these great articles about organic farming and gardening:

This is a good overview of the development, principles, and future challenges of organic agriculture:  Organic Agriculture, a global perspective.  A bit slow, but you know, in case you were wondering.

An amazing, horrifying seven-part series about the dangers of synthetic fertilizers used in modern agriculture by Seattle’s Grist Magazine:  The Nitrogen dilemma- is America Fertilizing Disaster?

My new favorite book!  The New Organic Grower, by Elliot Coleman.  Great information about crop rotation, green manures, composting, and how to pick a good plot of land for your small organic farm.  Here are a couple of my favorite chapters:   Chapter 2 Land            Chapter 7 Crop Rotation

Renewing Husbandry   This is the 2005 article by Wendell Berry I mentioned previously- a stirring tale about the fall of soil husbandry.

Another fascinating book, this one entirely about soil, and how it is the key to a successful garden:  Start with the Soil, by Grace Gershuny.  Written in 1993, it’s a bit out of date with current USDA organic regulations, but still quite awesome.   The soil community       Hummus and Soil Health     Compost- gardener’s gold!

A shorter article from Mother Earth News in 2003 about building soil health and fertility using no-till gardening and farming methods.  Building Fertile Soil    I had heard about no-till, but some people advocate no digging whatsoever!  I announced to David last night that we were switching to no-till gardening.  “Huh?”  I repeated myself.  “I understand your words, but what the heck does that mean?”  I don’t know either quite yet…

More articles to come!

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Though I’ve heard of Wendell Berry, I’ve never read anything he’s authored until this morning. I will commit myself to reading much more. Funny how the more you learn, the longer your reading list grows.

Here is a beautiful piece about “soil husbandry.”

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Stole this from Darrow, who probably won’t even know i’m referencing her in my blog because we’ve only met 1.5 times, but it’s too good to pass up.  Those piglets… sheesh.  Makes me want to get one (or a leaping goat!) for Inka to play with.  We could see whether the pig could be trained to do as many tricks as the dog!

The photos are part of a campaign against laws in several states that would prohibit taking photos or videos of farms. If you don’t know much about agriculture these laws might strike you as odd, but harmless. Due to my recent obsession with our food production system, these laws make my guts churn. We already have no idea what goes on in those dark chicken houses or giant racks of battery cages or livestock processing plants. It’s only thanks to a few stealthy workers or spies that we have an inkling of the awful conditions these poor critters deal with.  Here’s an example that will make you sick in an NYT article that talks a bit more about the proposed laws.

Don’t mean to go on a tirade- but it’s a tirade against meat production, not eating meat.  Happy animals just taste better, they’re more healthful to eat, and they cause less environmental damage.  My friends Alison and Kevin call this kind of meat “Oscar meat”, after pork they bought from a farm that came from an actual pig with a name.  I call it “friendly meat”.   Though… i will admit that i have never eaten any animal that i’ve raised and named.  Tried that with the chickens- the plan when we got chicks was to eat any that turned out to be roosters, since roosters aren’t allowed in the city.  But, when we found out Matilda was very likely a rooster, i promptly exited the room and burst into tears. I did not want to eat Matilda, and didn’t want anyone else to eat her either.  And i certainly didn’t want Imogene to be eaten when we found out she was a dude too- she was my favorite one!  (Sorry, i still remember them as girls.)  So, I learned that i could not eat my pet chickens, and they went to a farm in southern Washington to make babies with a nice woman’s flock of hens.  And i really miss Imogene.  Matilda was a bit scary.

Some people only like to eat meat from animals that they’ve killed themselves.  I’ve eaten fish that way, and did eat meat from two goats I saw being killed while i was in Mali.  Well, “saw” meaning that i fed the goats carrots for a couple days and protected them from harassing children while they waited in the courtyard for the holiday feast.  Then, i hid around the corner while their throats were slit and reemerged to help skin and take them apart.  Both were delicious.

Some people like to eat meat, but don’t like to think about the animals it comes from.  Melanie said she would dig up an article about that philosophy and send it to me, so more on that later.

In any case, those animals are durn cute, and deserve happy lives before they get et.

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