Soil is the Solution

A crucially important trend in climate change news focuses on soil.

In the United States, the greatest contributors to climate change have been the energy and transportation sectors, so federal responses have focused on emissions that result from burning fossil fuels. The resistance to regulated changes has come from private interests with business models that depend on fossil fuels (and politicians that support them).

The U.S. priority on fossil fuels makes sense, and it engages a good fight, but it’s not the entire story.

For at least the past ten years, public interest organizations have been pointing to Nature’s plan for moderating climate change. That plan depends on forests and soils, both of which are very good at absorbing and storing (sequestering) carbon.

Climate change has been accelerated by cutting down vast areas of forest to free land for agriculture. The negative effects of deforestation have been recognized, and initiatives (never enough) have been launched to control this practice and let the trees do their work.

Nature’s plan also as been compromised by agricultural practices, beginning with deforestation and continuing with a variety of poorly conceived land-use and land-management practices.

The good news on this front is that almost all the countries that have joined in the Paris Climate Agreement have stated that they will improve agricultural practices in their efforts to curb climate change.

According to the World Resource Institute, agriculture contributes 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and, with land-use changes, 24 percent of net emissions.

Agriculture is not as important as a climate change factor in the U.S. as I developing countries, but it’s still a significant contributor. California, which has a huge role in agriculture, has recognized this reality and initiated the Healthy Soils Initiative, discussed in a recent column (see ongardening.com/?p=2680) .

In this regard, California has been well ahead of the federal pace: U.S. Department of Agriculture has recommended that farmers voluntarily adopt carbon-capturing practices, but has done little more in deference to policies on energy and transportation.

In more good news, the U.S. position is changing, In December of 2016, the National Science and Technology Council (NTSC) released the report, “The State and Future of U.S. Soils: Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science.” The NTSC is “is the principal means by which the Executive Branch coordinates science and technology policy across the diverse entities that make up the Federal research and development (R&D) enterprise.”

To see this report, visit www.whitehouse.gov and search for “soils.”

In related actions, on January 11th, Regeneration International, a coalition of consumer groups, launched its “Soil is the Solution” briefing for members of Congress. A team of experts will seek opportunities to talk to our elected policy-makers (or their staffs).

Also, on January 19th, Former Vice President Al Gore will unveil a sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth,” his 2006 climate-change documentary. The new film surely will emphasize the role of agriculture in climate change. The sequel will debut at the Sundance Film Festival, and will be released in theaters later in 2017.

Efforts to control climate change must begin with large-scale actions, but they are also appropriate for home gardeners. We all have a stake in the future!

Future Uncertainty

As the inauguration of Donald Trump approaches, we enter a historically extraordinary period in which a single political party controls the House, the Senate and the White House.

“Control” should be taken with a grain of salt, because little is absolute in our nation’s capital.

While absolute control doesn’t happen in Washington, the political arena does have constants. During the past several years, a great constant has been the confrontation between opposing perspectives.

Under the new administration, that confrontation focuses on the struggle over the separation of power written into the U.S. Constitution. The incoming political majorities seem determined to reduce the power of the executive branch of government, meaning to constrain the president’s ability to use executive orders and the authority of administrative offices to write and enforce regulations based on legislation.

The lobbyists are out in great numbers, speaking on behalf of either public or private interests.

There are many issues on the table. A recent report in the New York Times observed, “The most powerful and ambitious Republican-led Congress in 20 years…plans to leave its mark on virtually every facet of American life…”

With that in mind, we examined the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s December 2016 report, Free to Prosper: A Pro-Growth Agenda for the 115th Congress. This 193–page report addresses many aspects of American life, and consistently calls for the reduction of federal regulation with the intention to “unleash America’s entrepreneurial, wealth-creating potential.”

In this column, we focus on issues related to gardening, a topic that easily includes food, so we will comment on only this report’s section, “Food Drugs, and Consumer Freedom.”

Due to space limits, we can only list the report’s food-related objectives:

  • Ensure consumer access to genetically engineered (GE) foods
  • Streamline (“fast-track”) regulation of (GE) plants and foods
  • Repeal the national standards for labeling GE foods
  • Oppose overregulation of food additives (particularly trans fats)
  • Oppose recommended limitation of sodium (salt) content of foods

This section also contains objectives to reduce or roll back federal regulation of (a) drugs, medical devices, and treatments, especially the new and experimental, (b) tobacco substitutes, (c) soft and pliable plastics (phthalates), (d) flame retardants (organohalogens), (e) online gambling, and (f) sports gambling.

Finally, this section recommends federal defunding of “activist research,” such as research on the safety hazards of BPA (bisphenol a) lining of metal food containers.

These are industry-sponsored objectives, not actual legislation. Their basic message is expressed in the report’s title, which translates to Make Money.

At the same time, consumer groups are vigorously organizing their defense of regulations that are intended to protect public health and safety. In California, the governor and attorney general are prepared to resist federal actions that would obstruct the state’s progress on several important issues.

The debate over the appropriate balance between public and private interests will continue during the coming four years, with an opportunity at the mid-point of this period to review the actions of some of our elected representatives.

Meanwhile, the political environment must be regarded as unsettled at best.

California’s Healthy Soils Initiative

This week, California’s Department of Food and Agriculture reported progress in implementing the state’s Healthy Soils Initiative. This matter might seem esoteric for home gardeners, but it’s worth our attention for several reasons that are listed below.

First, by way of definition, let’s review the initiative’s goals, as stated by the CDFA:

  • Improve plant health and yields —contain important nutrients that improve plant growth and yields.
  • Improve biological diversity and wildlife habitat — at least a quarter of the world’s biodiversity lives in the soil; healthy soils improve habitats and other natural resources.
  • Reduce sediment erosion and dust — improve aeration, water infiltration, flood management and resistance to erosion and dust control.
  • Sequester and reduce greenhouse gasses — carbon stored in soil reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
  • Improve water and air quality —affects the persistence and biodegradability of pesticides and other inputs.
  • Increase water retention — healthy soil has the ability to hold up to 20 times its weight in water.

These goals encompass a “basket” of interconnected issues: agriculture, an important part of California’s economy; biodiversity; erosion; climate change; water & air quality; and drought. These issues are concerns of several state agencies, all of which are engaged in the operation of this initiative. Promoting interagency coordination and collaboration, which is never easy, is among the principal actions to advance this work.

The state’s 2016 budget act includes substantial funding for the Healthy Soils Program. The CDFA has defined five primary actions for carrying out its responsibilities under this program. Its recent report of progress focuses on Action #2: the identification of sustainable and integrated financing opportunities for (a) promoting greenhouse gas reductions, (b) sequestering carbon, (c) increasing water-holding capacity of the soil, and (d) increasing crop yields. The CDFA has drafted a framework for this program and will be inviting public comments beginning in January 2017.

The Healthy Soils Initiative and Program clearly target California’s agriculture industry. Why should home gardeners find this work interesting?

  1. It addresses issues that are important for every resident of the state, and that require long-term, comprehensive strategies for effective action.
  2. Home gardeners could (and should) adopt their own Healthy Soil goals and action plan to pursue within their respective gardens.
  3. By adopting the Healthy Soils Initiative, California both acts constructively to improve the quality of life within the state and provides a practical model for other states and indeed for the world. Everyone has a stake in this program’s success.

The CDFA has recently updated its website for the Healthy Soils Initiative. This site offers complete and succinct information on this program. Gardeners should visit the site and consider how they could pursue an equivalent program in their own gardens. Unless the CDFA quickly produces a “Healthy Soil Initiative for Home Gardeners,” watch for it in this column. Your ideas will be welcome!

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!

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.”

Continue reading

The Future of Genetic Engineering

When projecting the development of genetically engineered foods, we first acknowledge that no one really knows what we might find on grocery shelves in the future.

It does seem likely, however, that consumers will not be given much information about their food products.

Last week, the U.S. Senate, by a vote of 63-30, passed a bill to establish a uniform national standard for labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients.

Everyone supports a national standard for food labels. There’s nothing good about having each state require unique labels.

This legislation, however, provides a deeply flawed national standard for labels.

  • It does not penalize non-compliance, making it essentially voluntary.
  • It does not require simple, on-package labels, but allows the use of QR codes that can only be read with a smartphone.
  • It defines GE foods in a way that exempts a great many foods, as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration noted.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said, “Here is a so-called labeling bill, but in fact it does the opposite…this so-called mandatory labeling bill isn’t mandatory, doesn’t label, and it excludes most GMO foods.”

The primary effect of the bill, then, is to preempt related state regulation in favor of this federal non-response to widespread consumer interest in knowing about their food.

The Senate bill now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives, which had already passed similar legislation and very likely will support the Senate’s version. The margin of approval appears to be enough to override a presidential veto.

What will GE technology produce in the future? We have already heard of so-called Arctic Apples that don’t turn brown as they age, crops that have chemical pesticides added internally, and several crops that are resistant to synthetic chemical weed killers. Each new food requires federal approval before it can be marketed, but approval is based on the producer’s own testing.

Recent advances in genetic engineering technology called CRISPR can be used to modify organisms by editing existing genes. This technology has enabled faster and cheaper tinkering with both flora and fauna: reportedly, a high school student with a little training and inexpensive lab resources could edit genes.

The products of gene editing do not involve the addition of foreign DNA and therefore do not require federal approval. Apparently, gene-edited foods also will not require labeling to indicate how they differ from natural foods.

The competitive marketplace will be the principal control over our food supplies. That could lead to interesting and valuable results. When novel products become popular (and some probably will), their prices will rise. There have been claims that labeling GE foods as such would increase prices, but those claims were never shown to be accurate.

Federal regulations already control which foods can be labeled as organic, and do not allow GE foods to be identified as organic. It remains to be seen whether foods with edited genes could be identified as organic. For now, consumers who are wary of foods that have been engineered, one way or another, should buy only foods that are labeled as organic.

Continue reading

Battles over GE Labels

The battle over food labeling continues!

In the last week of June, 2016, a U.S. Senate Committee proposed legislation that would mandate labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Side note: Some news reports refer to labels for “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs,” but the correct term is “genetically engineered organisms” or “GEOs.” Genetic modification includes hybrids that result from human intervention or natural processes, all within a single species. In comparison, genetic engineering involves transferring genes from one species to another. That’s very different!

This bill, called a “compromise,” appears to respond to the vast majority of consumers (up to 90%) who want to know if foods in grocery stores have been produced with genetic engineering. The bill calls for a “National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.”

Consumer groups might applaud this bill but instead they are outraged. The bill includes a two-year delay and big loopholes, and lacks enforcement, but here are the two biggest objections:

First, the bill prohibits states from requiring food labels that differ from the federal standard. Requiring food manufacturers to follow the same rules in every state makes sense for everyone, but this bill proposes lower standards than have already been adopted legally in Vermont, and that go into effect on July 1, 2016.

Second, the bill allows food manufacturers to choose from several kinds of labels, including a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link to a website (but not a printed web address). Smaller manufacturers could provide a telephone number to ‘Call for more food information.’ By comparison, Vermont’s law requires food packages to have printed statement in words indicating the presence of GE ingredients. Consumer groups prefer the use of simple statements, and are critical of less accessible forms of information. In particular, they dislike the option for digital QR codes that the consumer must read with a smartphone to connect via the internet to information on GE ingredients.

Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said the law “replaces the requirement for clear, on-package labels with a convoluted, inconvenient and discriminatory scheme involving barcodes and 1-800 numbers.”

Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety said, This kind of labeling system is inadequate and inherently discriminatory against one-third of Americans who do not own smartphones and even more so against rural, low-income and elderly populations or those without access to the internet.”

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has promised to place a hold on this legislation. Under Senate rules, a hold will require at least 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to overcome.

Senator Diane Feinstein of California wrote to President Obama years ago asking him to direct the Food & Drug Administration to revise its 21-year old policy that GE is “not necessarily a material fact that must be provided to consumers. She wrote, that surveys have shown that “genetic engineering is clearly of material importance to American consumers.

Wise people do not predict the actions of Congress, but I’m hopeful that plain text labels will eventually become the law of the land.

Vermont’s law is already being followed in some nationally distributed products because food companies do not want state-by-state labeling. Forward-looking companies have begun labeling their products as “GE-free” or “Contains GE ingredients,” and prices haven’t risen at all as a result.

Remember, too, that we already have federal certification of organic foods, which cannot include genetically engineered ingredients.

Click to read the Stabenow Bill on Food Labels.

To see the opposition to this bill by consumer groups, visit the websites of the following groups:
Organic Consumers Association,
Center for Food Safety, and
Just Label It.

Eco-culture at The Garden Faire

The Garden Faire, now in its 11th year, originally focused on the best practices of organic gardening, conserving our finite water supply and protecting our watersheds from chemical contamination.

The Garden Faire spreads out on Skypark's playing fields-300

Click to enlarge

The Faire continues to deliver these messages and has added broader perspectives that emphasize the overarching notions of sustainability and stewardship of the environment.

Another, more recent theme in the Garden Faire’s evolution focuses on the nutritional and healthful aspects of our food. Edible gardening predates ornamental gardening by thousands of years, and responds to our fundamental needs for sustenance, while ornamental gardening feeds higher levels of our consciousness. Edible and ornamental gardening are complementary and each is indispensable within its respective sphere.

The Garden Faire continues to change. This year’s theme, Cultivating an Ecoculture, explores ways that humans already partner with Nature and opportunities to strengthen that critical relationship.

To appreciate the timely importance of ecocultural ideas, consider the development of academic pursuits. At some early point in history, scholars categorized knowledge with the disciplines: natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts. They sub-divided each discipline into the numerous subjects we now encounter in formal education and splintered them further into courses within each subject.

The division of knowledge into academic disciplines responds to the human interest in managing and controlling nature and yields certain conveniences. Scholars can pursue specializations, schools can be organized into departments, courses and books can be labeled in ways that are widely understood.

Such arbitrary and artificial divisions also can lose awareness of the connectedness of biological and cultural diversity, and, indeed, of everything comprised by the diversity of life.

The academic disciplines are constructs, which depend for their existence on the minds of the persons who create them. They are not real objects, which are directly observable.

Today, as we are challenged by global issues of economic instability, resource degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change, our responses must be based on real objects, and on an integrative approach to conserving Nature alongside human culture.

In this pursuit, we can learn from the integrative approaches that indigenous cultures have practiced for millennia. These existing eco-cultures honor the unity of people with the rest of nature.

This brief article is not the place to enumerate specific eco-cultures of the world. For the present, it is sufficient to acknowledge that many groups, through many generations, have followed their instincts to achieve sustainability.

Working in harmony with nature is not a new idea. We see applications of that principle in gardening organically, conserving water wisely, consuming natural foods, exercising regularly to maintain body health. These are integrative practices that we can adopt readily as individuals.

As we increase the scale of human activities, however, and consider policies affecting groups of people, distractions and barriers come into play. The academic disciplines might not always support the connectedness of real objects, but they can serve as the basis of developing ecocultural practices. Indeed, many examples of cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary initiatives can be cited. More would be helpful.

The work that lies ahead involves applying ecocultural concepts widely, in many (perhaps all) areas of human endeavor. The work includes adapting successful practices from the distant past to succeed in today’s fast-paced, complex society.

This work begins with individuals who grasp the concept and help to shape policies that will help to sustain life. It begins with you.

The world needs many conversations to advance the ecocultural perspective.

The Garden Faire supports one of those conversations for the Monterey Bay area, together with expert speakers on eco-culture, as well as gardening, water conservation, and nutrition. There’s much more: garden-oriented exhibitors, small farm animals, a krauting party, yoga and both familiar and exotic music.

***

IF YOU GO

What: The 11th Garden Faire

When: June 18th, 2016, 9:00 to 4:00, music continues to 9:00

Where: Skypark, Scotts Valley – free admission

Information:

The Garden Faire, now in its 11th year, originally focused on the best practices of organic gardening, conserving our finite water supply and protecting our watersheds from chemical contamination.

The Faire continues to deliver these messages, and has added broader perspectives that emphasize the over-arching notions of sustainability and stewardship of the environment.

Another, more recent theme in the Garden Faire’s evolution focuses on the nutritional and healthful aspects of our food. Edible gardening predates ornamental gardening by thousands of years, and responds to our fundamental needs for sustenance, while ornamental gardening feeds higher levels of our consciousness. Edible and ornamental gardening are complementary and each is indispensable within its respective sphere.

The Garden Faire continues to change. This year’s theme, Cultivating an Ecoculture, explores ways that humans already partner with Nature and opportunities to strengthen that critical relationship.

To appreciate the timely importance of ecocultural ideas, consider the development of academic pursuits. At some early point in history, scholars categorized knowledge with the disciplines: natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts. They sub-divided each discipline into the numerous subjects we now encounter in formal education, and splintered them further into courses within each subject.

The division of knowledge into academic disciplines responds to the human interest in managing and controlling nature, and yields certain conveniences. Scholars can pursue specializations, schools can be organized into departments, courses and books can be labeled in ways that are widely understood.

Such arbitrary and artificial divisions also can lose awareness of the connectedness of biological and cultural diversity, and, indeed, of everything comprised by the diversity of life.

The academic disciplines are constructs, which depend for their existence on the minds of the persons who create them. They are not real objects, which are directly observable.

Today, as we are challenged by global issues of economic instability, resource degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change, our responses must be based on real objects, and on an integrative approach to conserving Nature alongside human culture.

In this pursuit, we can learn from the integrative approaches that indigenous cultures have practiced for millennia. These existing eco-cultures honor the unity of people with the rest of nature.

This brief article is not the place to enumerate specific eco-cultures of the world. For the present, it is sufficient to acknowledge that many groups, through many generations, have followed their instincts to achieve sustainability.

Working in harmony with nature is not a new idea. We see applications of that principle in gardening organically, conserving water wisely, consuming natural foods, exercising regularly to maintain body health. These are integrative practices that we can adopt readily as individuals.

As we increase the scale of human activities, however, and consider policies affecting groups of people, distractions and barriers come into play. The academic disciplines might not always support the connectedness of real objects, but they can serve as the basis of developing ecocultural practices. Indeed, many examples of cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary initiatives can be cited. More would be helpful.

The work that lies ahead involves applying ecocultural concepts widely, in many (perhaps all) areas of human endeavor. The work includes adapting successful practices from the distant past to succeed in today’s fast-paced, complex society.

This work begins with individuals who grasp the concept and help to shape policies that will help to sustain life. It begins with you.

The world needs many conversations to advance the ecocultural perspective.

The Garden Faire supports one of those conversations for the Monterey Bay area, together with expert speakers on eco-culture, as well as gardening, water conservation, and nutrition. There’s much more: garden-oriented exhibitors, small farm animals, a krauting party, yoga and both familiar and exotic music.

***

Tom Karwin is 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.

IF YOU GO

What: The 11th Garden Faire

When: June 18th, 2016, 9:00 to 4:00, music continues to 9:00

Where: Skypark, Scotts Valley – free admission

Information: http:/ /thegardenfaire.org

GMO Labels Are Important

As reported last week, the U.S. Senate rejected a recent legislative attempt to ban states from requiring labels to identify food products made with ingredients that include genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This was a victory for the vast majority of consumers, who have been demanding to know what is in their food. Food producers have insisted GMOs are nutritionally no different from so-called conventional foods, GMO labels would suggest that such foods are not as good and some consumers would avoid them.

The food producers, working through the Grocery Manufacturers Association had spent millions of dollars to oppose state initiatives to require these labels. State initiatives in California and Washington failed narrowly, but Connecticut, Maine and Vermont passed similar initiatives. Vermont’s law will go into effect on July 1st of this year, prompting the federal preemption strategy.

With the failure of the Senate bill, several major food producers announced plans to label foods with GMO ingredients. Campbell was the first to announce. It was soon joined by General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, and Conagra Foods. They had previously opposed GMO labeling, and are now calling for uniform national guidelines for such labels.

These large companies are taking this action as a clear business decision. They are sure that Congress will respect the clear and strong position of consumers, they expect additional states will require labels, and they certainly don’t want a hodge-podge of state-by-state requirements.

Food producers now will do all they can to persuade consumers that GMO foods are both safe and good for you. This is “Plan B,” the fallback position for when they could not ban labeling.

At this juncture, consumers should learn all the reasons why GMO labels are important.

First, U.S. Food & Drug Administration has concluded that GMO foods are the same nutritionally as non-GMO foods, but the FDA relies instead on research conducted by the food producers and does not conduct its own research. Independent scientists have argued that manipulating genes is not an exact science and could have unintended consequences. Steven Drucker’s book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, presents this perspective.

Second, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not allow GMO foods to be labeled “organic,” which the typical consumer understands to mean “natural,” which does not include gene manipulation.

Third, the primary use of genetic modification technology, by far, has been to create food crops that can tolerate RoundUp, a synthetic chemical weed killer that have been found to be carcinogenic. Vast quantities of this chemical are being dumped on agricultural fields.

Fourth, farmers must buy seeds that tolerate weed-killing chemicals annually, rather than saving and planting their own seeds. This raises the operating costs of small farms, and too many farmers in the Far East have committed suicide in economic despair.

Fifth, winds have blown pollen from GMO crops into nearby field of organic crops, contaminating those fields and nevertheless prompting GMO seed producers to claim theft of their private property.

Federal laws that provide the basis for FDA regulations do not address these economic and environmental impacts of GMO-based agribusiness. They focus instead on nutritional content. Recent studies have concluded that certified organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown foods (including GMO foods), but more importantly labeling GMOs should raise questions about the unintended fallout of GMO-based agribusiness.

In a perfect world, GMO technology would target good health and good taste, not weeds, and would yield seeds that belong to the world, rather than profiteers. Until then, the consumer’s best choice is to enjoy organic foods.

Progress on GMO Labels

 

Congress continues to battle over food labels, with a recent victory for the public interest.

People who want to know what they’re eating can read Nutrition Fact labels, which the U.S. Food & Drug Administration requires to list the nutritional content of the food product.

In recent years, scientists have developed ways to bypass natural changes in foods by tinkering with their genetic makeup. The results are called genetically modified organisms or GMOs.

The FDA says that GMOs do not differ nutritionally from other foods, and has not required labeling of GMOs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, says that GMOs do not qualify as organic foods.

Still, many consumers—the overwhelming majority, in fact—want to know if fruits and vegetables are GMOs and if food products in grocery stores contain GMOs. Consumers are concerned that GMOs could produce seeds that float into fields of organic foods and change them, or that GMOs have undiscovered ill affects on our health or the environment, or that GMOs enable agribusiness to control the market for seeds. (Historically, farmers would simply save seeds from one year’s crop to plant in the following year.)

Monsanto Corporation and a few other companies that develop GMOs strongly oppose labels that identify GMOs, believing that consumers will interpret such labels as warnings and avoid such foods. Several countries have either banned GMOs or required them to be labeled. In the U.S., some local governments have banned GMOs and several states have tried to pass laws requiring labeling, but industry lobbyists succeeded with intensive campaigns to defeat those initiatives.

One state, Vermont, has approved a GMO labeling law that is to go into effect on July 1st. Some food industry companies opposed Vermont’s law legally, but lost in court. Those opponents have asked Congress to block the states, including Vermont, from requiring GMO labels.

On March 1, 2016, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) introduced the National Voluntary Bioengineered Food Labeling Standard (S. 2609) to (a) allow voluntary labeling of GMO foods, (b) prohibit states from requiring GMO labels, and (c) mandate a federal program to promote consumer acceptance of agricultural biotechnology.

Several consumer groups called this legislation the Denying A Right to Know (DARK) Act and urged consumers to ask their state senators to vote it down. These groups want mandatory labeling on the packages of food products, using clear language and not codes, symbols or acronyms. They dismiss industry claims that such labels would increase the cost of foods: two large companies, Campbell and General Mills, soon will begin labeling GMOs without added costs.

The Senate quickly rejected S. 2609 with a margin of eleven votes. Senator Roberts has vowed to sweeten it a little and bring it back.

Meanwhile, a group of six senators introduced Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act (S. 2621) to establish a requirement for standard labeling of GMO foods. The sponsors include Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT).

If you wish to avoid GMOs, your best option is to buy organic foods. By federal law, foods labeled as organic cannot contain GMOs.

***

The plant exchanges are springing into action! Several occur each year in the Monterey Bay area. The first one spotted, a monthly occasion, begins Saturday, March 26th (yes, tomorrow) at the Live Oak Grange Hall parking lot, 1900 17th Ave, Santa Cruz. Plant exchanges bring together gardeners who prefer to share their surplus plants with other gardeners who enjoy expanding their gardens without cost. Great tradition!