Chronicles of Less Urban Living, Fresh from In the Night Farm

Sustainable Living

Rainforest Roundup

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 18.

Yesterday’s Monsanto Project post explained the importance of choosing organic, shade-grown coffee.  I hinted that fair-trade matters, too.  Here’s the interesting thing:  It doesn’t just matter for purposes of social justice.  It matters even if all you want to do is avoid supporting Monsanto.   

It seems the coffee farmers in Colombia, the world’s third-largest coffee producer, began to suffer substantial losses in the “coffee crisis” of the early 2000’s.  Competition from international growers increased while Colombian labor regulations limited farmers’ ability to lower production costs.  Unemployment skyrocketed, young people joined the Marxist guerillas or paramilitary forces in an escalating civil war, the World Bank and U.S. oil interests got tangled up in the affair, and coffee farmers became desperate.

So desperate that many of them turned to growing illegal plots of poppy and coca to supplement their incomes.  You know, in order to afford the basics.

The farmers’ survival tactic didn’t go unnoticed by the U.S. and its War on Drugs.  Nor did it go unnoticed by Monsanto.

Almost 70,000 gallons of Roundup were sprayed in Colombia in the first months of 2001. In 2000, roughly 145,750 gallons were sprayed over 53,000 hectares (205 square miles). With a retail price between $33 to $45 per gallon (Monsanto refused to confirm the wholesale price for such volumes), this represents a cost of around $4.8 to $6.6 million – paid to Monsanto by US taxpayers. ( J. Bigwood, Earth Island Journal, 2001-2001)

This spraying is not done from the ground.  It is done from airplanes.  Sure, the drug plants die and the government pats itself on the back…but that isn’t all that happens.

The Colombian rainforest is not Roundup Ready.  The glyphosate (and additives that appear to make Roundup and Roundup Ultra even more toxic than glyphosate alone) coats much more than its intended targets.  It destroys entire ecosystems, from natural foliage to food crops like bananas and manioc to native fish.  Hunger threatens the indigenous peoples as a result.  In 2009, Ecuadorians filed a class action suit for harm caused by pesticide drift across the Colombian border. 

“The US State Department believes the spraying of herbicide in Colombia is not harmful to the environment or to humans,” said its spokeswoman Susan Pittman.  Contrary to government officials’ and manufacturers’ claims of non-toxicity, at least five inquiries have found that Roundup causes serious human health problems. (T. Williams, The Public Record, 2009.)

And yes, some of that Roundup does wind up on the coffee.

Extra Credit (sorry, WP is having hyperlink issues again!)

Colombian Coffee Crisis:  http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/drugs/prices.htm

Fair Trade Coffee in Colombia (pdf): http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/fairtrade/coffee/ColombiaFlyer.pdf

Coffee, A Dark History by Antony Wild (book)

Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series:  http://inthenightlife.wordpress.com/category/monsanto-project/


Cream? Sugar? Glyphosate?

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 17.

The coffee I’m sipping is organic.  When I bought it, I wasn’t sure that was important, but a little reading has assured me that it is.

It seems that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is a favorite herbicide for use on coffee plantations.  Glyphosate has the unfortunate effect of significantly reducing microbial populations in the soil, leading to poor soil quality, defenseless trees, and the need for even more chemical herbicides and fertilizers.

It also has the even more unfortunate effect of endangering human and animal health.

Furthermore, coffee trees grown in full sun are deprived of natural predators for their pests, which means they require even MORE chemical application for continued production.

Looks like I’d better make sure my next pound of coffee is not just organic, but shade-grown.

…and fair-trade.  Tomorrow’s post explains why.

Bonus note:  I usually drink my coffee black, but if you add anything to yours, bear in mind…

  • Flavored and non-dairy coffee additives nearly always contain GM HFCS and/or soy.
  • Non-organic cream is usually laced with rBGH.
  • Half of the sugar sold in the U.S. is from sugarbeets, 90% of which are GM.  If you must use sugar, choose organic cane.

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Catch up on any Monsanto Project Series posts you’ve missed.


House of Cards

 I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 13.

You’ve heard the argument:  Earth’s human population will grow to 9 billion by 2050.  GM crops are necessary to feed the world.

Fear not.  Monsanto is here to save the day.

According to their website“Monsanto is one of the world’s leading companies focused on sustainable agriculture. We discover and deliver innovative products that support the farmers who feed, fuel and clothe our world.”

Really?

If GM crops are so wonderful, why was U.S. fertilizer use five times higher in 2007 than in 1960 (look at the “rate per fertilized acre” data), while crop yields increased by only 50%?

If GM crops are so wonderful, why did Monsanto recently admit that its Bt cotton resulted not in improved yield, but in resistant bollworms in India?  (Click that link!  I especially enjoyed the part about how Monsanto blamed the failure on the farmers, then proceeded to direct them to deal with the problem by applying more pesticides.)

I hope the farmers can afford those pesticides.  Small farmers in many developing countries certainly can’t.

Just as in the so-called Green Revolution of the 1940’s through the 1960’s, attempts to force Big Ag-style monocultures on poor farmers results in overplowing and higher irrigation requirements, leading to loss of topsoil, leading to the need for more chemical fertilizers to keep crops growing in the absence of naturally rich soil, leading to a damaged ecosystem more susceptable to pests, leading to the need for more chemical pesticides to keep crops growing, leading to farmers who can no longer afford to farm, leading to even more overcrowded and underfed third-world cities.

And don’t forget that Monsanto won’t let farmers save their own seed.  They have to buy it every year.

Who are we feeding now?  The World…or Monsanto?

Furthermore, Big Ag-style monocropping is hardly what you’d call “environmentally friendly.”  According to the U.N. Environment Program:

“Convententional/industrial agriculture is energy- and input-intensive. Its high productivity relies on the extensive use of petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fuel, water, and continuous new investment (e.g. in advanced seed varieties and machinery).” ~ Agriculture: Investing in Natural Capital, March 2011

Fortunately, organic polyculture is demonstrably capable of increasing yields — without destroying the environment, creating resistant weeds and pests, or forcing third-world farmers out of business.

In fact, as Mark Bittman recently pointed out in the Times, “Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellecutal…and physical:  the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization.”

A 2008 paper from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the U.N. Environment Program put it this way:

“Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously … Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.”

It boils down to this:

 A food system built on dwindling natural resources, even if it “feeds the world” for now, will eventually starve us all. 

A food system that replaces the natural resilience of biodiversity with monocropping, even if it “feeds the world” for now, will eventually starve us all.

A food system that takes the next generation of seed out of farmers’ hands, and fills those hands instead with unaffordable chemicals, can’t “feed the world” now, let alone later.  It will starve us all.

Extra Credit: 

Debunking the Stubborn Myth that Only Industrial Ag Can ‘Feed the World,’ Tom Philpott, Grist, March 2011

Agro-ecology and the Right to Food, U.N. report, March 2011

Botonist Sue Edwards’ conclusions from her work in Ethiopia.

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Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.


The Bastards and the Bees

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 10.

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” ~ Albert Einstein

I don’t know about Einstein’s 4-year estimate, but he wasn’t far off the mark.  Bees are necessary for the pollination of 30-60% of the human food supply (depending on source).  At least 85 different commerical crops, including peppers, tomatoes, and strawberries, rely upon bees to ensure the next generation of produce.

And yet, the world’s bee population is experiencing dramatic decline.  At first, only honeybees seemed to succumb to the mysterious “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD), but by 2009, it became apparent that bumblebees are affected as well.

CCD is characterized by massive die-offs of bees while away from their hives, apparently because the bees’ central nervous systems are affected such that they lose their ability to navigate.  In short, the workers leave their hives and don’t come back.  New workers are sent out.  They also vanish.  The hive is ultimately abandoned and, contrary to what we usually see in nature, the hive site remains devoid of other insect life.  The bodies of bees found to have died as the result of CCD are commonly infected with multiple fungi, bacteria, and viruses.

CCD has been observed in much of the U.S. and Europe, accounting for a 50-90% decline in bee populations in certain areas.  At first, it seemed that a fungus, bacteria, or virus might be responsible, but additional study has revealed an even more worrisome theory:  Monsanto is behind the death of our bees.

There seem to be two ways in which Monsanto and its Big-Ag buddies are impacting the bee population.  Both are related to pest control in major crops — one via insecticide, the other via genetic modification.

Root worm is the bane of corn farmers, which naturally made it a target for pesticide producers.  Enter clothianidin, an insect neurotixin produced by Bayer and applied to seed using an adhesive manufactured by Monsanto.  This toxin, which was supposed to be buried with the seed and therefore harmless to beneficial bugs, actually is absorbed into the roots and is incorporated into all the plants’ cells.  It contaminates not only the bees that touch it directly, but also bees that pollinate other plants on which the affected bees subsequently alight.

When clothianidin was applied to the German corn crop in 2008, 330 million bees died.  The chemical is not banned in the U.S., and is regularly applied to corn, sugarbeet, and sorghum.  In fact, “seed treatments,” among which clothianidin is common, come standard with all corn seed; untreated seed must be obtained by special order.

Soy seed, too, is commonly treated with clothianidin or its ugly cousin, imidacloprid.  Imidacloprid is another Bayer neonicotinoid.  Banned in France and Germany for the sake of the bees, it is widely used in the U.S.

What are the symptoms of bees poisoned with small doses of neonicotinoids?  Not immediate death, but confusion and inability to navigate.

Sound familiar?

It gets worse.  Not only has Big Ag seen fit to contaminate seeds, soil, and potentially surface and groundwater with known neurotoxins, but Monsanto took it upon itself to turn plants into insecticides.  In 2002, the company received approval (based on Monsanto’s on “research”) to market Bacill Thuringiensis (Bt) corn.  Bt is a bacterial toxin which, when genetically inserted into Monsanto’s Bt corn, turns the plant matter into poison.

Bt’s toxic proteins pierce the gut membranes of insects that ingest the GM plants or crops treated externally with Bt, which is sold to home gardeners as Dipel and does not preclude labeling as organic.  It affects not only the targeted corn borer caterpillars, but beneficial organisms like monarch caterpillars, New England silk moths, and bees as well.

Monsanto’s studies deemed Bt corn — as well as Bt potatoes, cotton, and soybeans — safe for bees because it doesn’t kill them directly.  Never mind the sub-lethal effects, characterized by compromised immune system response leading to death due to fungi, bacteria, and viruses that the bees could ordinarily combat.

Sound familiar?

Am I the only one wondering how the myraid food products made with Bt corn might affect the human immune system?

And get this:  Due to years of cross-contamination, it is unlikely that Bt corn can ever be eliminated from our environment.  Too bad the same isn’t true of Monsanto executives and the agencies who supposedly regulate them.

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Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.


Growing Pains

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 8.

The food I trust most is the food I grow myself.

This year, I’m more excited than ever to see In the Night Farm’s extensive garden space freshly tilled and waiting for a few more weeks of warmth to replace our frosty, Idaho nights.  Rhubarb and onions have already unfurled from the earth.  My cold-weather annuals — kale and snow peas — can be planted this weekend.  I might even risk half a packet of salad greens in the hope of an early harvest. 

I’m just one of many gardeners and small-time farmers eager to replace supermarket vegetables with homegrown fare.  Hours and sweat are a hefty, but worthy, price to pay for guaranteed organic, non-GMO, Monsanto-free produce.

But is it guaranteed?  Not necessarily. 

Here’s Monsanto’s list of seed brands.  Unless you live in agricultural country, most of the names are likely unfamiliar.  But look under “vegetable seed brands.”  See Seminis?  They provide seed to some very familiar vendors:  Burpee, Park Seed, J.W. Jung Seed, Germania, and many others that are making their way from garden centers to neighborhoods as we speak.

Fortunately, the internet is full of lists like this one, and a brief search will put you in touch with scores of sources for organic, heirloom seed.  My favorite is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a company with a conscience, a massive selection, rapid shipping, reasonable prices, excellent customer service, and a free seed packet with every order.

Unfortunately, even buying from a reputable  company may not be enough.  Consider contamination.  Can you be sure the heirloom seed you saved from last year wasn’t cross-pollinated by your neighbor’s Burpee bounty?  It may not be GMO (yet), but it’s still Monsanto.  You have to wonder.

As for GMO cross-contamination, there’s no question that mutant crops have infected the globe.  Ask Percy Schmeiser.

Extra Credit: The Global Spread of GMO Crops by Peter Montague and Organic Seeds Increasingly in Danger of GMO Contamination from Nutrition Business Journal.

Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.


Farm Facade

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 4.

It’s an easy day for me.  I won’t  be leaving In the Night Farm, except to ride, so I run no risk of directly exchanging money for Monsanto. 

Indirectly, though, I still participate.  My refrigerator and furnace whirr softly.  Later, I will cook breakfast on a stove.  I’ll call my well pump into action to water the horses.  How much GM corn ethanol is burned to keep the hydroelectric plants running to bring me electricity?  To ship my organic food?

And beyond the borders of my farm, the horror continues.

Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.

Resource du Jour:  Want more?  Watch The Future of Food, a full-length feature that expands on the video above.  Netflix has it. 


Gas Prices

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 3.

Okay, here we go.  Another tough one.  My little Hyundai’s tank is nearly empty, and I need to fill it without Monsanto’s help…or rather, without helping Monsanto.

The obvious problem is that most gasoline contains about 10% ethanol.  Ethanol is made from corn.  86% of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.

If I buy ethanol, I buy Monsanto. 

This is special:  Just last month, the USDA deregulated Syngenta’s Enogen, a corn seed genetically modified to make ethanol production easier by inducing the crop to produce an enzyme that hastens the chemical conversion of starch into sugar.

Syngenta, incidentally, is Monsanto’s rival.  Lawsuits fly between the two like arrows.  Normally, an enemy of Monsanto would be a friend of mine, but I have to make an exception for Syngenta.

In a twist as alarming as it is bizarre, many of the very same Big Ag trade associations that pump unlabeled GM foods into our grocery stores are screaming bloody murder about the Enogen approval.  It seems they’re alarmed about liability issues when Syngenta’s specialty seeds cross-contaminate the human food supply.

I worry about that, too.  The difference is that I actually care about the human lives at stake.

Perhaps the Enogen blow would feel softer if ethanol was, at least, good for the environment.   Alas, plant-based fuel additives burn more fossil fuel than they save, and monocropping is murder on ecosystems.

All the more reason to avoid ethanol.  But how?

My commute is 35 miles each way.  Walking, cycling, and horseback riding are out of the question.

Homemade biodiesel for my truck crossed my mind.  Briefly.  Until I remembered that it is made from leftover restaurant fryer fat…which is usually GM soybean or other vegetable oil.

Umm…

Google to the rescue!  Twenty minutes of searching yielded this site, which lists stations that still sell 100% gas.  I’ll be testing it this afternoon.  It had better be accurate, or I’ll have to fill up on ethanol so I can get home to feed my menagerie.

Which reminds me, I’m running out of chicken feed. 

Oh, dear.

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By the way, I found an updated statistic on cotton.  93%.  That’s how much of the U.S. cotton crop is GM.  Worldwide?  49%. 

Is anyone else feeling ill?

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Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.


Funny Business

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 2.

I have a fantastic assistant.  At my real job, I mean.  Not for blogging.  (Alas.)

Said assistant is accustomed to my strange ways.  When I hold meetings, she special-orders me meaty, eggy, oil-dressed salads to enjoy while everyone else scarfs sandwiches or pasta alfredo.

And yet, even she raised her eyebrows at me today.

I asked her to cancel my special lunch order for today’s meeting.  Why?  Because almost every catered salad is a veritable Monsanto’s Delight:  GM vegetables, rBGH-laced bleu, commerical chicken raised on GM corn, and dressing consisting of flavored GM canola and high fructose corn syrup.  Yum yum.

If I want to avoid Monsanto, I’m going to have to prepare my own meals.  All of them.

And so, I shall bemuse a roomful of people by sitting at the head table during a working lunch, eating my homemade salad of wild salmon, organic spinach and avocado, and Carlson’s lemon-flavored fish oil from an enormous plastic tub.

And Monsanto won’t get a penny for it.  Ha.

Speaking of Monsanto, this video is worth your 10 minutes:

Kinda makes you wonder what else we aren’t supposed to know.

Homework:  Share the video on Facebook, if you feel it’s important.  And visit the Millions Against Monsanto page.

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See all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.


Corporate Fluff

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

Today is Day 1.

MONSANTO.

It’s such a huge topic that I scarcely know where to begin.  And so, I will begin with an assumption:

I will assume that you know Monsanto is a massive, politically influential company that sells agrochemicals while engineering and selling genetically modified organisms to tolerate heavy application of said chemicals prior to their unlabeled distribution to the public.

This series will consider Monsanto from as many angles as possible, in no particular order.  Gather them as you would puzzle pieces.  The picture will assemble itself in your mind.

Because crops influenced by Monsanto have found their way into amost every crevice of the modern American grocery store, food will be my most immediate concern during this 46-day Monsanto fast.  Fortunately, my paleo way of eating has already nixed many of the major concerns:

  • Processed foods (nearly all of which contain GM corn, soy, artificial sweeteners, or GM additives such as amalyse, catalase, and lactase),
  • Conventional animal products (livestock is fed GM grain & soy, and dairy contains BGH and/or chymosin, a GM rennet used in most cheeses), and
  • Conventional produce (often GM, and not labeled as such).

Instead, I eat local, organic, grass-fed meats; wild fish; organic dairy (if any); and organic produce (preferably locally grown from heirloom seed).

There are a few items I’ll need to remove from my diet in order to avoid supporting Monsanto.  Canned tuna comes to mind, because it contains soy (often GM, courtesy of Monsanto) as part of the vegetable broth.  I’ll need to double-check the labels on miscellaneous items like hot sauce and vinegars.  Canned tomatoes will have to go organic, pricetag notwithstanding.  And nuts?  I wonder if they’re sprayed with Monsanto’s pesticides.  Better check.

So far, this looks a lot like a Whole 30.  Fair enough.  I was going to do one in April anyway.

Unfortunately, the food is the easy part.  Avoiding Monsanto means doing more than taking extra care about what goes into my refrigerator. 

For example, I hope I don’t have any need to withdraw cash.  Dollar bills are made of cotton.  And cotton is GM.

Clear back in 2003, 73% of the U.S. cotton crop was GM.  By 2007, 43% of the worldwide cotton crop was GM.  I’m almost glad I can’t find a more recent statistic.  Monsanto, of course, is happy to provide plenty of seed — supposedly to reduce pesticide use (1/3 pound of chemical pesticides and fertilizers is required to grow enough cotton for a single T-shirt) — but introducing a variety of new hazards, such as overpopulation of insects not targeted by the GM crops.

I wish I knew more about the health consequences of GM cotton, because we eat the stuff.  Despite being a “non-food crop,” cotton permeates our food supply.  It is used as a filler in livestock feeds.  Cottonseed oil appears in myriad processed foods.  And ‘linters,’ short cotton fibers, are used in a variety of emuslifiers, thickening agents, and fillers.

How about textiles?  Good thing I’m not a fashionista, because it looks like I won’t be buying any cotton clothing during Lent.  Unless I want to go naked, however, I’ll need to wear the cotton I already have.

Back to the cash.  I wonder how I’ll pay at the farmer’s market.  How will In the Night Farm’s customers pay for their duck eggs and strawberry plants?  Are Craigslist purchases out of the question for the next 6 weeks? 

Is it impossible to navigate modern America Monsanto-free?

We shall see.  So far, it doesn’t look good.

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Resource du Jour:  GMO Database, courtesy of GMO Compass.  Type a food into the search box on the left (scroll down to find it) and check for updates on its genetic status.

See all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.


I’m Giving Up Monsanto for Lent

I am not Catholic.

But, I am pissed off.

And this is as good a time as any.

For the 46 days between March 9 and April 23, I am going to do my best to avoid supporting Monsanto in any way.

I suspect that doing so will lead me down (ahem) interesting paths as I explore just how deep the company’s claws have sunk into our politics, economy, and environment.

I’ve heard that to control a nation’s destiny, you must control the education of its children.  I’ll buy that.  But if you want an even deeper hold — an even more immediate and desperate one — why not control the food supply?  And while you’re at it, you might as well think big.  Go international.  Do it in the name of Feeding the World.

Enough.  I want to know if we can still escape.  The best way to find out?

Try.

So, the rules:

1.  No purchasing GMO foods or food products that contain them as ingredients.  All produce, including canned or frozen, must be organic or an item as-yet unapproved for alteration.  Any dairy must be free of rBGH. 

2.  Insofar as possible, no purchasing other products that support Monsanto.  I’ll share with you as I do my homework, but I suspect this list may include such items as gasoline (corn ethanol?), stocks, household products, livestock feed, and more.  It’ll be interesting to discover whether I still have a choice in these areas.

And, the caveats:

1.  I do have a few non-compliant items in my pantry; my budget demands that I use up what I have, but any new purchases will follow the rules.

2.  I’m bound to make mistakes.  I suspect Monsanto products are more pervasive than I know, so I’ll be obliged to make corrections as I learn.

So, feel free to add cautions to the comments.  Warn me of the places Monsanto hides.  And join me if you dare.

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See all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.


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