UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley

Recently, a group of cactus & succulent gardeners car-pooled to the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, for a tour of the Garden’s collection of cacti & succulents.

The 34-acre Garden holds one of the largest and most diverse collections in the United States, with most plants organized geographically in several regions of the world. In addition to the Geographic Collections, the Garden includes Ethnobotanical Collections and Taxonomic Collections.

These collections include nearly 17,000 different plants, called “accessions,” each of which is documented thoroughly in a computerized database, which can be searched online. The Garden’s website has this information about its database:

“Detailed records are kept for each accession, including their place of origin, which enhances their scientific and educational value considerably. Each accession is accompanied by a public display label including accession number, family name, scientific name, and place of origin, and where appropriate, common name.”

Such records are essential for a research collection, and a good idea for any garden. The Garden’s plant database is searchable online.

This group headed for the Arid House, which is one of Taxonomic Collection. The Arid House is a climate-controlled space that includes a cacti & succulents collection open to the public, with a diverse collection of plants from multiple geographic locations. Each plant has an informative label, and the room includes interpretive signs with broader information.

This public space is connected to a staff-only large room with a large research-and-conservation collection of mostly small plants. The specimens on one side of this room can be viewed from an adjacent walkway, through a security barrier.

Our group tour was led by Bryan Gim, the Horticulturist for the Arid House collection. He noted that the majority of the plants in the Arid House are succulents (which includes cacti) and also includes other plants with similar climatic requirements.

Many succulent plants grow well outdoors in the UC Botanical Garden’s environment, which is similar to that of the Monterey Bay area. So, many of the Garden’s succulent plants can be seen outdoors, in several regional collections, particularly Deserts of the Americas; Mexico and Central America; Southern Africa; and Mediterranean Collections. Most of these are close to the Arid House.

Agave stricta

Agave stricta (Hedgehog Agave, Mexico)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aloe plicailis (Fan Aloe)

Aloe plicatilis (Fan Aloe, South Africa)

Boophone Disticha

Boophone disticha (Veld Fan, South Africa)

The UC Botanical Garden is an exceptional resource that is easily accessible to all in the Monterey Bay area. It offers unique opportunities to study plants, or just to enjoy a walk through a fascinating collection of both exotic and familiar plants and escape the concerns of the day. The site, although fairly limited in size, presents a great resource for both avid gardeners and all who appreciate nature’s bounty.

 

 

Visit the Garden’s website for more information. Explore the page “About/The Garden” for a timeline of the Garden’s since its establishment in 1890, and “About/Collections” for an introduction to each of the individual collections.

My visit was with the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society;of course, the Garden welcomes all interested individuals and groups year-round.

GMOs Revisited

The battle over genetically engineered foods goes on! The latest salvo deserves your attention.

First, some background.

GE foods are referred to, incorrectly, as “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs), but that term encompasses natural and human-made hybrids, while “GE foods” refers specifically to foods created by introducing foreign genes.

No one resists actual GMOs, because everything we eat has been genetically modified, either by hybridization managed naturally by bees and other pollinators, growers who do the work of bees in an organized way, or farmers who select and replant seeds from the best-performing plants in their fields. These practices all modify genes.

On the other hand, the vast majority of consumers has been—and continues to be—strongly resistant to GE foods, typically concerned that there must be bad consequences from “fooling around with Mother Nature.”

Consumers have demanded labeling GE foods, so that they could avoid them at their discretion. Federal regulations allow labeling foods as “organic” when they meet certain standards, including not being produced through genetic engineering.

However, federal regulators have agreed with the Monsanto Corporation, the major source of GE food seeds, that GE foods are no different from conventionally produced foods, and therefore do not require labeling, as such. Critics dispute this conclusion, because corporate interests have controlled most related research.

So, consumers with concerns about GE foods have always had the option to buy only organic foods. Still, consumer groups have pressed for labeling of GE foods (called GMOs).

In late July of this year, Congress, under pressure from agribusiness, approved compromise legislation mandating a national standard for labeling GE foods, and President Obama signed the bill. The problem with this standard is that it doesn’t require such foods to be identified plainly in print, but instead allows labeling to be done through UPC codes or website addresses. Consumers were disappointed and even outraged.

Congress was motivated to adopt this industry-friendly approach for various reasons, including the claims that genetic engineering is needed to feed the world’s growing population, and reduce needs for agricultural chemicals.

My view has been that the impacts of GE foods on health have not been demonstrated convincingly, and the actual problem with GE foods lies with their unproven benefits, corporate control of seeds and increased uses of synthetic chemical herbicides.

The latest salvo in this struggle is the report of investigative journalism, “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops,” published very recently in the New York Times. The reporter, Danny Hakim, compared historical yields of crops in the U.S. with those in Europe, where GMOs have been banned in agriculture.

U.S. farmers use GE seeds almost always in growing corn, and European farmers do not, so this is a crucial comparison. Hakim found that yields of corn crops were about the same in Europe and the U.S., indicating no benefit from GE technology.

Hakim also compared yields of crops of rapeseed (used to produce canola oil) and sugar beets, and also found zero benefit from GE technology.

Hakim’s research also found that herbicide usage in the U.S. has grown dramatically over the past ten years, primarily in the use of Roundup, which kills weeds and other plants other than those grown from “Roundup-Ready” seeds produced with genetic engineering. Critics note that uses of synthetic agricultural chemicals are poisoning our soils, getting into our foods, and fostering the evolution of “superweeds” that resist the chemical attacks.

Another report of investigate journalism, by Krista Holobar, “Does Big Ag Really Feed the World? New Data Says Not So Much,” was published recently online by Civil Eats. She found that U.S. agribusiness does very little to provide food for undernourished people, and concluded that helping those populations should emphasize economic development, education, health and nutrition training, and an end to warfare.

The best strategy for U.S. consumers is to Buy Organic!

Cultivating Cannabis

The stunning results of this week’s vote include a significant change for gardeners:
removal of a long-standing ban on growing cannabis for personal recreational use by adults.

Voters approved Proposition 64, which legalizes “growing up to six marijuana plants and keeping the marijuana produced by the plants within a private home.” This column provides a brief introduction to the cultivation of marijuana; interested gardeners should read all of the proposition’s provisions related to personal uses of marijuana.

Cannabis (Marijuana), a herb with psychoactive properties, is a genus of the Cannabaceae family. Other genera in this family include Celtis (Hackberry), Humulus (Hop) and about eight other less familiar plants.

There are three species of Cannabis: C. sativa, C. indica, and C. ruderalis. There are many C. sativa x indica hybrids that combine sativa’s productivity and indica’s more compact size.

The plant grew originally in mountainous regions northwest of the Himalayas, and is now indigenous to central Asia and India; it grows well in much of California.

Cannabis is dioecious, meaning the genus has separate female and male plants. Only about 6% of flowering plants are dioecious; the great majority is monoecious, having both male and female flowers.

The flowers of well-grown female plants (called sensimilla, meaning “without seeds”) of both C. sativa and C. indica secrete an abundance of chemical compounds (cannabinoids), mostly tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive constituent, and cannabidiol (CBD), which has a range of medical applications.

Growing cannabis for personal use would be well within the skills of typical gardeners: the plant grows so vigorously that it is commonly called “weed.” The reasons for growing your own marijuana include controlling expenses, avoiding synthetic chemicals, and selecting preferred cultivars (“strains”). Growing the plant for optimal production of THC involves some care, so the challenge to succeed could be satisfying in itself.

Local garden centers are unlikely to offer Cannabis seeds or seedlings in the near future. Two local garden center managers told me they would stay out of the Cannabis market at least until federal laws allow personal, recreational use of the plant.

For this reason, the best way to begin is to buy seeds online. A search of the Internet for “Cannabis seeds” will yield links to several vendors offering various strains, each with features of potency, productivity, fragrance, taste, disease resistance, etc. Generally, seeds are offered online in small packets, with prices ranging around $5 to $10 per seed. Growers claim germination rates of 90-95%, so two or more gardeners might share the cost of a seed purchase.

Cultivation of the Cannabis plant proceeds through stages:

  • Sprouting Stage. Germinate seeds in the spring by placing them in a damp paper towel. The seeds should show a small white taproot within 72 hours. Plant the seeds ¼-inch deep in planting mix with the root pointing down in a small biodegradable container, e.g., a peat pot. Keep the soil slightly damp with de-chlorinated water (leave tap water in an open container for 24 hours to release chlorine gas). Leave for 1 to 3 weeks.
  • Vegetative Growth Stage. Move the small plant (still in its biodegradable container) to a 3-to-5 gallon pot filled with planting mix plus compost. The mix should be kept slightly damp with slightly acidic (low pH) water, and the plant should receive maximum sunlight. If growing indoors, maintain 72–85°F, and provide a high level of light for 18–24 hours/day. Feed the plant with high-nitrogen fertilizer. During this stage, prune off about ¾ of the top growth tip to promote new top growth and additional buds. This is also the right stage to take cuttings for the propagation of clones.
  • Flowering Stage. Once the plant grows to18 inches or more in height, it will be ready for flowering. To stimulate flowering, provide strong light for 12 hours/day, and complete darkness for 12 hours/day. If the plants have been growing outdoors, this could require moving the plants indoors for the dark period each day. During this stage, the plants could double in size.
cannabis-plant-in-bud

Cannabis plant in bud

  • Harvesting Stage. Reaching this stage could take 5 weeks, during which the plant benefits from phosphorus (e.g., chicken or bat compost tea) more than nitrogen. As the buds develop, they will emit resinous trichomes that will change from clear to cloudy to amber in color. Using a low-power magnifier, watch for when about 50% of the trichomes become amber, indicating that the buds are ready for harvest. Cut each of the bud masses, keeping them large and intact.
cannabis-trichomes-magnified

Cannabis trichomes, magnified

  • Drying and Curing Stage. Air-drying is simplest and most popular. Suspend the bud cuttings upside down in a room with moving air for about seven days. Then, place them in airtight glass jars for at least 2 weeks. Longer is better. To release moisture, open the jars daily to during the 1st week, and every other day during the 2nd The marijuana should then be ready to smoke.

There is much to learn. Several “how-to” articles and short books are freely available online, revealing perhaps what generous marijuana cultivators do while their plants grow. To find and download these resources, search the Internet for “how to grow marijuana,” or visit selected websites listred below.

Growing your own marijuana is like making your own wine: it’s possible but not for every gardener. Let us know of your experience!

Online Resources

the-marijuana-grow-bible

marijuana-the-ultimate-organic-guide

marijuana-cultivation

I Love Growing Marijuana — An experienced cultivator of marijuana, Robert Bergman, maintains this website which offers many free or low-cost resources for cultivating Cannabis. The site also offers a variety of Cannabis seeds, with brief descriptions of their properties.

Seed Supreme — Another source of Cannabis seeds.

Ten Reasons to Buy a Plant

Many—and perhaps most—gardeners understand that a good practice is to buy plants in the fall, so that they can be irrigated by the rains while establishing their roots in preparation for a growth spurt in the spring.

That’s a better strategy than buying plants in the spring when garden centers offer plants with fertilizer-induced early blooms and a tendency to fade in common garden soil.

Another good practice: buy plants for specific goals. Purposeful purchases will be more successful than impulse buys, which can be based on an attractive name or an effective sales display.

With these ideas in mind for early planters, here are ten guidelines for visiting a garden center or opening a mail-order catalog,

  1. Fill a specific gap in the landscape. Look first for a plant with an appropriate size at maturity, and then consider the variety of secondary factors.
  2. Provide color when needed. You might want more color in the spring, or the summer, or the fall. With a bit of research, you can find plants that will show color on the desired schedule.
  3. Feed birds, bees, and butterflies. These winged creatures benefit from, healthy food sources, and will come quickly to gardens where the right plants are available.
  4. Develop a collection of plants. Different species within a genus, or different varieties within a species, add interest to the garden. Another rose, or another fuchsia, for example, will compare nicely with the existing selections.
  5. Extend a color scheme. A white garden, or a yellow and blue garden, for example, will look even better with an additional specimen that fits the scheme.
  6. Add a needed spot of color. A well-placed and well-chosen colorful plant can enliven a too-green planting bed by bringing an eye-catching contrast (but avoid adding color randomly).
  7. Create a focal point. A specific situation might call for an interesting plant, container or sculpture to be strategically placed to attract the eye of anyone walking through the garden.
  8. Fill a container. A large, empty container, or one with a plant past its prime, can become a strong asset in the garden with a well-chosen new plant or combination of plants. For a successful project, use fresh planting mix.
  9. Protect against pests and diseases. If diseases or gophers or any of several other pests invade your garden look for a pest-resistant plant, or replace one that’s not.
  10. Add a drought-resistant plant. A garden of succulent plants and others that evolved for a dry climate will grow well during the predicted future years of light rainfall.

You might have other specific reasons for buying plants. It’s most important to know the role the plant will play when you bring it to the garden. An Internet search or a reference like Sunset’s Western Garden Book can help with these decisions. If a plant also has an appealing name or a bright blossom, that’s a plus!

Enjoy a creative and purposeful browse through a garden center or a nursery catalog!

Planting for Fall Color

Experienced gardeners know that the early fall is a very good time to install new plants. This timing anticipates our Mediterranean climate’s rainy season, during which Nature provides the moisture that new plants require, and the winter months allow time for them to establish their roots in preparation for above-ground growth in the spring.

It is quite natural in this season for gardeners to plant with spring flowers in mind, with their greatest interest focused on spring bulbs. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, especially when gardeners explore the lesser-known geophytes, as well as the always popular spring- and summer-blooming bulbs.

Still, this season is the ideal time to plan for next year’s fall season. This planning begins with a critical look at your own garden. Is it visually exciting and beautiful during the next few weeks, or does it appear tired and eager to enter dormancy? If it could be more pleasing to the eye, plant now to ensure a better look a year in the future.

An easy and reliable way to find plants to add fall color to your next-year garden is to take a walk through your neighborhood to spot attractive plants that look healthy and vigorous. By scanning gardens with growing conditions like yours, this approach automatically directs your attention to plants that are likely to do well in your garden.

Another productive strategy is to ask at your favorite garden center about plants for fall color. A trustworthy garden center will be ready to point out such plants and recommend winners for your garden setting.

Research also can identify good candidates. The Sunset Western Garden Book lists several trees, shrubs, and vines for fall color, and provides details for each in its Western Plant Encyclopedia.

Here are a few popular selections.

Trees

Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nattallii) A spectacular tree that can grow to 50 feet tall. It flowers white or pink in the spring and again in the summer> In the fall it displays yellow, red and pink leaves and clusters of decorative red fruit.

Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’) An ancient, actually prehistoric genus that can reach 30 feet tall. It produces gold-colored leaves that drop quickly in the fall to produce a golden carpet.

Flowering Crabapple (Malus hybrids) Small trees (usually 20 feet tall) that flower in the spring then hold their attractive fruit through the fall. Many varieties are listed in the Western Garden Book.

Shrubs, Perennials

Cotoneaster varieties (e.g., C. lacteus, C. franchetii) This shrub, native to China, comes in various sizes from groundcover to twenty feet tall and wide. Produces bright red berries in the late summer followed by fall.

Windflower (Anemone x bybrida) The popular Japanese Anemone (A. japonica) produces white, pink, or rose flowers on arching stems up to four feet high, followed by unusual cottony seed heads.

cotoneaster-anemone

Cotoneaster & Anemone

Aster (Aster x Frikartii ‘Monch; Symphyotrichum spp.). Only the European and Asiatic species are still called Aster officially; North American species have that long new name. Hundreds of varieties are available to produce an abundance of flowers from white to pale blues and pinks to deep scarlet and purple.

Vines

Chinese Wisteria (W. sinensis). This vine, the most common wisteria in the west, produces clusters of violet-blue, slightly fragrant flowers that open all at once in the fall.

Roger’s California Grape (Vitis californica cultivar ‘Roger’s Red’) A central California native often grown as an ornamental plant grows so vigorously that gardeners can boast of their green thumbs. Many American and European varieties are available for table grapes.

There are many more plants that can beautify your garden environment in the fall with colorful flowers, foliage or fruits. Plan and plant now, as we enter the planting season, to set the stage for attractive seasonal displays in future years.

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In Praise of Japanese Maples

Trees add to the garden landscape in various ways. Often, very large trees will dominate the scene, and bring stability and grandeur to the scene, and shade a large area. In time, they can be desirable components to the garden and add value to the property.

By contrast, small trees contribute to the landscape in different ways, notably as specimen plants that attract the eye with their specific features, e.g., blossoms.

Unless you have a relatively large garden, a large trees can be overwhelming, and a small tree can be a delight.

There are many choices of small trees, which might be called “patio trees,” even though they have roles to play in all parts of the landscape.

Today, let’s review the Japanese Maple, which many gardeners and landscapers regard as the most popular of the small trees.

The true Japanese Maple is Acer palmatum. Other Acer species, including A. japonicum and A. shirasawanum, are also called Japanese Maples, and have attractive characteristics. Still. A. palmatum has been the focus of hybridizers in Japan for centuries, and has been favored by western horticulturists since its introduction to England in 1920. The species now includes well over1,000 cultivars.

The extraordinary range of sizes, forms, leaf shapes and colors of A. palmatum reflect the long history of its development and stimulate the interest of gardeners and landscapers. Those who have the pleasure of gardening in large spaces can be tempted to collect large numbers of A. palmatum cultivars.

For most gardeners, however, even one Japanese Maple can be rewarding. Even very small gardens, including balcony gardens, can be enhanced with one of these trees, which range in mature height from the dwarf varieties (three-to-six feet) up to twenty-five feet. They grow well in containers, and will ”self-stunt” when their roots are confined. This characteristic makes Japanese Maples popular with bonsai artists.

acer-palmatum-unknown-cultivarThe accompanying picture shows one of my Japanese Maples as it begins to show its fall color, which is the typical seasonal variation of these trees. It has grown to about eight feet, with distinctive red twigs, but sadly I have lost track of the cultivar name.

Many gardeners will locate a Japanese Maple as a garden feature or focal point, where the color or leaf form of the selected variety can be appreciated. With this in mind, once you have become interested in adding a Japanese Maple to your landscapes, consider where it would be best located. This decision should involve envisioning the tree in several spots in the garden, and from different perspectives. This process draws upon the most creative work of gardening. Think of your new tree as a living sculpture.

Also, keep in mind that Japanese Maples prefer part sun or indirect light, good drainage and consistent watering. They like a slightly acidic soil and do not like cold winds or salt air. Plan to provide regular watering during the first year after planting.

A Japanese Maple or several of these small trees could enhance your landscape during future years. Right now is a good time to decide on the best location, explore the range of cultivars and choose a fine selection to install in your garden before the start of winter rains. Continue reading

Seasonal Succulents

Succulent plants, like all plants, have seasonal growth patterns. Plants in this category come from numerous genera, and have a wider variety of forms, textures, and colors, but they can be divided into just two principal growth patterns: Winter Dormant (“summer growers”) and Summer Dormant (“winter growers”) (see lists at the end of this page).

It would be comforting to find that Winter Dormant succulents are native to the Northern Hemisphere and Summer Dormant plants are from the Southern Hemisphere, but it’s not that simple. It could be that growth patterns sometimes reflect a genus’s adaptation to its adopted environment.

In any event, a succulent plant’s growth cycle affects its need for water and its bloom period. These plants require minimal watering during their dormant period and will produce blossoms during their growth period.

If you have a large and varied collection of succulents, a good practice is to cluster separately the Winter Dormant and Summer Dormant plants, to simplify watering.

Except for their blossom periods, many of which are delightful but rather brief, succulent plants are favored mostly for the shape, texture, and color of their foliage, which changes little through the seasons, except for size.

Most popular plant genera have very specific annual cycles. Shows and sales of roses, irises, dahlias, tulips, daffodils, and amaryllis, for example, are very seasonal events. Succulent plant shows and sales, however, could occur at any time of the year.

In contrast, California’s cactus & succulent societies hold their sales during the period from April through September. These sales offer the greatest variety and best prices, but gardeners can find at least the more common plants at their local garden center throughout the year.

For local gardeners, important dates for cactus & succulent sales include the spring and fall events organized by the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society. These occur each year in late April and late September or (this year) early October.

Another noteworthy occasion is the Succulent Extravaganza, presented with free admission by Succulent Gardens, a commercial entity. A highlight of this year’s event, on September 23 & 24, was Debra Lee Baldwin’s talk on “Bulletproof & Beautiful Succulents for your Garden.” Ms. Baldwin, called the Queen of Succulents, described a variety of attractive plants, emphasizing various forms of the genus Echeveria. I brought home an unusual and rare carunculated (warty) hybrid, Echeveria x Barbillion, which is shown by the accompanying photograph.

echeveria-x-barbillion

During our brief conversation, Debra Less Baldwin and I exchanged stories about “midnight acquisitions” of succulent plants from both public and private gardens. I’ll write on that topic in another column.

The next important opportunity for gardeners to build their succulent collections is the Fall Show & Sale of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society. This event offers opportunities to talk with other gardeners who are enthusiastic about these plants and choose from an amazing array of small, inexpensive plants. There will also be a display of exceptional specimens, which you can vote on for a People’s Choice award, and a selection of unique containers that are right for artful presentation of succulent plants.

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Seasonal Events

 

At about this time each year, our thoughts drift to certain seasonal topics. For example, this is the time to plan a display of spring bulbs. I thought I should write about this activity (which can lead to adventuresome ideas), but I have already written before on this topic. To see earlier columns, browse to http://ongardening.com and search for “bulbs.”

Let us consider other aspects of seasonal gardening.

The annual Succulent Extravaganza is happening this weekend. This is a fine free event to learn about and become fascinated by succulent plants. If you are already collecting and landscaping with these interesting plants, the Extravaganza offers a selection of plants to add to your garden. For info, visit http://sgplants.com and click on ”Events.”

The next really big event for succulent gardeners is the Fall Show & Sale convened by the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society. This event will happen on October 1st & 2nd, in nearby San Juan Batista, California. Nineteen members of the Society will offer a vast array of small succulent plants, many larger plants and some unique pots for sale. The selection is great, the prices are very good, and members of the group will be available to answer specific questions and share their enthusiastic for gardening with succulents. The display of exceptional plants is a “must-see” event in its own right. For info, visit http://mbsucculent.org .

Dudleya brittonii - cu

Dudleya brittonii — a California native succulent plant

Toward the end of October, an event for gardeners is the annual apple tasting, organized by the California Rare Fruit Growers, Monterey Bay Chapter. This will be included in the Wilder Ranch Heritage Harvest Festival, which is on October 15th. It will be a unique opportunity to learn which apple tree you want to plant in your garden. The Festival also includes other interesting activities. Info: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=26413.

The UCSC Arboretum’s annual Fall Plant Sale will be on Saturday, October 15th. It will be open to members of the Friends of the Arboretum from 10-12, and to the public from 12-4. Just before the sale, you could join the Friends. There are year-round benefits to belonging to the Friends, in addition to gaining early access to the Sale, which offers a great selection of plants from California, Australia, and South Africa. The California Native Plant Society will have a concurrent sale, at the same location: the Arboretum’s Eucalyptus Grove, which is accessible from High Street, near the intersection of Western Drive. Info: http:// http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/.

The Friends of the University of California, Santa Cruz Arboretum held its annual meeting —called the “AR-B-Q” — on Sunday, September 18th, in the Australian Garden. This was a fine, convivial event, as always, with many volunteers enjoying the company and the warm weather. The meeting included thanks to retiring board members (including this writer), the election of board members, and the announcement of officers for the coming year.

Several readers of this column have expressed interest in our recent column about the book, The Invention of Nature, about the extraordinary Alexander von Humboldt 1769-1859. On October 19th, the Garden Conservancy will sponsor a visit of the book’s author, Andrea Wulf, at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley to discuss the influence of Humboldt’s vision, and how he helped shape our understanding of nature today. Wulf ‘s very readable book reflects her thorough research and inspires interest in her other highly regarded books about gardeners:

This Other Eden Seven Great Gardens and Three Hundred Years of English History

The Brother Gardeners. Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

The Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation and the Shaping of the American Nation

For info on WUlf’s talk at UC Bekjeley, visit the Garden Conservancy website:

The gardening world is very lively, as always. Enjoy your garden!

***

Tom Karwin is past president of the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, president of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, and a Lifetime UC Master Gardener (Certified 1999–2009). Visit ongardening.com for links to information on this subject, and send comments or questions to gardening@karwin.com.

Labeling GE Foods: New Issues

The federal requirement to label foods with genetically engineered ingredients is generating turmoil in the marketplace.

To review, a very large majority of U.S. consumers demanded labeling of GE foods, and the food industry spent a reported $400 million to defeat related legislation. The debate, which continued for over five years, resulted in late July of 2016 in the adoption of “compromise” legislation that strongly favored the food industry’s position.

The central issue in the debate has been a policy of 1992 under which the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that the health and nutrient values of genetically engineered foods do not differ from “conventional” foods and therefore do not warrant labeling.

Labeling advocates have insisted that GE foods have not been studied sufficiently by independent researchers, and federal policy ignores the environmental and economic impacts of such foods. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) supported labeling by pointing to consumers’ strong interest in knowing when foods contain GE ingredients.

Consumer groups are still a bit stunned by the adoption of what has been called “the weakest labeling law imaginable.” They continue the struggle, but have abandoned the political arena and are moving future battles to the marketplace.

The simplest strategy is buy only foods labeled as organic, under long-standing federal standards. Organic foods, by definition, do not contain GE ingredients.

The flipside of this strategy involves boycotting foods that are not labeled “organic” or “non-GE.”

A related strategy includes rejecting foods labeled as “natural.” Some consumers regard “natural” and “organic” as equivalent but current FDA practice states that “natural” foods do not include artificial ingredients. The FDA is being pressured to define “natural” in a way that includes foods with GE ingredients. We’ll see how that goes!

Another strategy is take legal action against companies that label foods as “organic” when they in fact contain GE ingredients. To date, such initiatives appear to be effective.

One group has mounted a campaign to label selected conventional foods with the “Non-GMO Project Verified Butterfly.” Such labels are becoming more used, reportedly.

One thoughtful observer, food writer Mark Bittman, has suggested that the GE labeling “cloud” has a silver lining, because the new labeling law opens the door to a new era of transparency about food products. He notes that the new law, however flawed, calls for labeling a food’s production process in addition to labeling its health and nutrient values.

Bittman lists the new categories of information that consumers should be told about a food product’s ingredients: Where are they from? Were they dosed with pesticides or other synthetic chemicals? How much water was used to grow them? Did farm workers receive fair pay and treatment? Were farming practices friendly to the environment? For food products from animals: Were the animals treated with antibiotics? Were the animals treated humanely?

Such labeling requirements might be required on a state-by-state basis, which is still permissible under federal law. State-level responses to consumer interests in such areas could force the adoption of overdue national standards regarding food production processes. GE labeling might be only the beginning of a much-needed “transparency revolution.”

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