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!

Waiting for Organic Pot

A young friend recently took a look at my garden and suggested that I could grow a few marijuana plants for personal use.

I looked into it, out of curiosity.

Long before I searched for sources of seeds or seedlings, or cultivation advice, I learned that, unless I had a genuine medical need for the herb, growing marijuana (Cannabis sativa) in my garden would be illegal. The related regulations at the local, state and federal levels are full of contradictions and different perspectives, and are in flux.

I’ll wait.

Many hundreds of illegal marijuana “grows” exist already in the Monterey Bay area, and thousands in California, including many in California’s “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties. The numbers are growing, and it is not difficult to find pot, if one were to be inclined to try it.

Last week, at the 36th annual Eco-Farm Conference, in Pacific Grove, Dr. Andy Gordus of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, described and illustrated the impacts of illegal and therefore unregulated marijuana grows in California. The growers are illegally clearing forest lands, damming streams, digging wells that drain streams that wildlife depend on, polluting waterways and killing wildlife with pesticides, leaving mountains of trash, and otherwise being really bad neighbors.

Marijuana plants, like other plants, are subject to a variety of pests and diseases, and growers use a variety of synthetic agricultural chemicals, including some highly toxic materials that are being smuggled in from Mexico. Such chemicals may be sprayed on growing plants, or applied systemically. Also, because rats and other animals chew through plastic irrigation lines, rat poisons are often used.

Marijuana products may be used by inhaling, ingesting, and absorbing through the skin. These diverse forms of use mean that users should ensure that their marijuana does not contain toxic substances. Consumers of marijuana products ideally could rely on the organic label, but at this time there is no such label for these products. Consumers can only rely on trusted sources.

California does not approve any aspect of marijuana cultivation, including pesticides, because it continues to be illegal at the federal level. The federal government also does not recommend pesticides for illegal crops.

In this bizarre environment, California has provided informational guidelines that include a short list of organic pesticides and natural rodenticides that “may be used in and around marijuana cultivation sites consistent with the label.” Visit www.waterboards.ca.gov and search for “Legal Pest Management Practices for Marijuana Growers in California.”

For more information, visit the websites of the Santa Cruz County’s Cannabis Cultivation Choices Committee, or Organic Cannabis Growers Society.

For now, I’ll wait.

During four days last week, the Eco-Farm Conference provided updates about a wide range of organic gardening and farming practices, and related state and federal policies. The short story is that organic, sustainable and regenerative gardening is healthy and expanding steadily. I’ll have more to report in future columns.

Labels are Important

Our gardens are mostly dormant during the winter, but government regulators never rest! This column offers a brief update on three current debates over garden-related regulations.

Labeling Foods as Genetically Engineered

Almost all consumers, when responding to surveys, have said they want labels on foods that are based on genetically engineered plants or animals. I wrote about this issue in late spring of 2015: go to ongardening.com to read “GMO Controversy.”

Consumers in several states, including California, have tried to require labels on such foods, but industry groups have argued against the related ballot measures. Vermont succeeded in adopting this labeling requirement, to be effective in July of 2016. Since then, opponents lost their legal challenge of the requirement, and failed to persuade Congress to ban such requirements (the House approved, the Senate didn’t).

Most recently, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responding to pressure4s from both side of the debate, issued “Guidance to Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants.” In brief, the nonbinding recommendations of this Guidance allow voluntary labeling that is truthful and not misleading (as required by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 1938).

The FDA is currently accepting comments on its similar draft guidance for labeling genetically engineered Atlantic salmon.

An increasing number of food producers are voluntarily labeling such foods, but the ultimate resolution, a uniform federal requirement, would benefit all parties.

Labeling Foods as “Natural”

FDA, responding to another set of pressures, has requested comments regarding “Use of the Term ‘Natural’ in the Labeling of Human Food Products.” The issue becomes more complex than it would seem at first. Long-standing federal policy interprets “natural” food to mean that it contains nothing artificial or synthetic that would not normally be expected to be in the food.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America want to label as “natural” foods derived from genetically engineered plants or animals.

The Consumers Union wants to prohibit the use of “natural” on any food labels, indicating that the large majority of consumers believe “natural” means no use of artificial materials, chemicals, ingredients, colors, toxic pesticides or genetically engineered plants or animals.

Labeling Garden Chemicals as Toxic

The World Health Organization has found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used pesticide RoundUp, is a probable carcinogen to humans. In response, consumer groups have asked California’s Environmental Protection Agency to label RoundUp as a carcinogen. The agency received comments on this action until late October of 2015, and is now considering those comments.

Most recently, the agency is currently receiving comments on proposed changes to clarify existing requirements for “clear and reasonable” warnings of a variety of exposure situations.

Another chemical that is under fire is imidacloprid, one of the neonicotinoid insecticides (called “neonics”) that has been linked to risks to honey bees hives. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved agricultural uses of this chemical, but in response to President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, and recent scientific studies by the State of California, has released a “preliminary pollinator risk assessment” that imidacloprid use potentially poses risks to bee hives. This assessment focuses on agricultural crops and does not consider this chemical’s risks to bees when used on ornamental flowering plants!

Chemical companies that produce this chemical insist that bees are not at risk when this company is used correctly.

The EPA is inviting feedback during 60-day comment period. It is continuing assessment of the risks of this chemical and three other neonics, with more findings to be released in December of 2016.

Gardening to Reverse Climate Change

The threat of climate change has become a concern among scientists, environmentalists and gardeners (who might wear all three of these hats, of course). In the search for solution to this problem, these three interested parties have common ground, as we explore in this column.

As background, our climate is changing as a result of a disruption of the Carbon Cycle.

On Plant Earth, a fixed amount of carbon cycles through different forms: liquid, solid, or gas.

Carbon enters the atmosphere from several sources, including respiration of animals and plants, decay of animals and plants, eruptions of volcanoes, and releases of dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) from the oceans.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, and use photosynthesis to release oxygen back into the atmosphere and convert carbon into sugars that support the plant’s above-ground growth. At the same time, up to 40% of the CO2 goes to the plant’s roots, to feed soil microbes. The microbes assist the plant to acquire nutrients through its roots, and lock (“sequester”) carbon into the soil for very long periods.

The Carbon Cycle supports Earth’s climate and enables the growth of plants and literally all other living things.

Carbon Cycle

Credit: NASA/Globe Project

In the diagram above, notations in blue indicate pools of carbon and notations in red indicate fluxes of carbon, both quantities are measured in petagrams.

This complex natural process balances the amount of carbon in liquid, solid and gas forms. Vast amounts of carbon are stored in the soil and fossil fuels, and much smaller amounts are stored in the atmosphere, the oceans, and plants.

During the Industrial Revolution (1760 to c. 1830), humans began burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, draining wetlands, converting grasslands to large-scale crops, paving paradise, and applying synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These activities have been disrupting the Carbon Cycle and altering this important balance.

The consequences include degraded soil with reduced ability to capture carbon, an excess of carbon in the atmosphere, the acidification of the oceans, and other effects, none of which are beneficial to living things (including us).

The broad term, climate change, encompasses all these negative effects.

Restoring the natural Carbon Cycle could reverse climate change.

Restoration requires feeding the soil with organic matter and planting cover crops to protect the soil from temperature extremes and erosion. In short, the solution is based upon regenerative, organic agriculture.

This strategy must be employed on a global scale, but we all should understand the Carbon Cycle and support this process of soil restoration in our own gardens and in our individual contributions to relevant public policy. Substantial private interests are invested in fossil fuels, “conventional” monoculture agriculture that depends upon synthetic chemicals, and other industrial methods that are changing our climate. They can be expected to resist this strategy of working with nature, so eventual success requires our vision and long-term commitment.

Each gardener could participate first in his or her own garden. That would be a fine way to celebrate our independence from, in this context, commercial interests.

Continue reading

GMO Controversy

I’ve been reading lately about genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as GMOs. The preferred term is genetic engineering (GE).

There are strong feelings about whether GE technology is good or not so good for people, for the environment, or for the future of food.

These days, given the resources of the Internet, we can read a seemingly inexhaustible series of opinions about GE foods, and be tempted to escape the controversy by simply adopting one or the other extreme position.

The controversy has narrowed down to the issue of labeling GE foods. Those in favor say shoppers should know what they are buying, while others insist that there’s no reason to label GE foods, and are willing to put a lot of money into persuading voters of that perspective.

In my search for truth, I just read Steven M. Drucker’s 511–page book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth (2015). Drucker, a Berkeley-educated public interest attorney, has written and spoken extensively on genetic engineering and related topics. His book’s subtitle presents his central message: “How the venture to genetically engineer our food has subverted science, corrupted government and systematically deceived the public.”

Drucker builds his thesis with detailed and specific references to respectable sources, including highly qualified scientists and government officials. As a lawyer, he surely selects supportive sources, and presents a convincing case. Here are some of his main points.

Many scientists and government officials have advocated the promise of genetic engineering to enable commercial agriculture to meet global needs for the volume and nutritional quality of food. Still, there is literally no evidence that GE foods are more productive or more nutritious than conventional foods, despite contrary claims. In reality, GE technology has been used primarily to produce crops that can tolerate the herbicide Roundup, which kills all plant life other than the GE crops.

The advocates’ early enthusiasm for this technology led to a waiver of legally required tests to demonstrate the safety of new food products. This waiver was based on the argument that GE foods are no different from conventional foods, and are “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). But hundreds of scientists regard GE technology as dramatically different from historical methods of plant hybridization and selection, and express concerns about the safety of GE foods. While people do not immediately become ill from eating GE foods, several studies have shown that they could have long-term negative impacts on human health.

Finally, genetic engineering, which has been called a precise method to modify organisms, is really a form of crude “hacking.” Scientists have a very limited understanding of the complex interactions of genes, and, in their ignorance, they are fooling around with Mother Nature.

Drucker advocates the elimination of GE food products as “inherently high-rick” and unable to “conform to the requirements of food safety laws, the standards of science, or the protocols of information technology.” He contends that this could be accomplished by simply enforcing the food safety law of 1958. His preferred alternative is fuller development of environmentally friendly, sustainable and natural methods based on time-honored practices of organic agriculture.

As a growing numbers of food retailers and restaurants adopt “GMO-free” food products, and their customers choose organic foods (which are GMO-free, by definition), the technology could fade away. We’ll see.

A related book, “GMO Myths and Truths,” is available as a free download from the website, EarthOpenSource. This is second edition, dated 2014. The authors of this 330+ page book are John Fagan, Ph.D., Michael Antoniou, Ph.D., and Claire Robinson, M.Phil. The book is subtitled “An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops and foods.”

Protecting the Pollinators

The next time you are in your garden, tell the bees a national strategy now exists to protect their health.

The document, dated May 19, 2015, responds to President Obama’s memorandum of June 19, 2014, establishing the Pollinator Health Task Force, co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and including representatives of fourteen other federal agencies. The president asked for a report in six months, but it required eleven months.

Monarch Butterly

Monarch Butterly

Several federal studies on pollinator health had already been conducted, and most observers recognized that the decline of honeybee and butterfly populations was resulting from several factors:

Loss of Habitat. The use of Roundup to kill weeds in crop fields also has been eliminating milkweeds (Asclepias tuberosa) that Monarch larvae eat.

Exposure to Chemical Pesticides. The use of neonicotinoid pesticides (“neonics”) also has been killing honeybees and leading to Colony Collapse Disorder, and perhaps killing birds as well.

Attacks from Pests. The Varroa destructor is a tiny parasitic mite that first appeared in the United States in 1987. It infests bee colonies and feeds on bee blood.

Other threats to pollinator health include loss of nutritional forage, diseases, and even stresses related to trucking beehives to pollinate agricultural crops.

The Task Force report addresses four themes: research on pollinator losses, public education and outreach, improving pollinator habitat, and developing public-private partnerships to carry out these activities.

The Task Force also identified three target outcomes:

  • Reduce honeybee colony losses by to no more than 15% within ten years;
  • Increase the Eastern population of Monarch butterflies to 225 million butterflies by 2020;
  • Restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.

The Task Force, working with numerous federal agencies, has developed a series of action plans and resources to pursue these intended outcomes. It also has committed to annual assessments of progress toward these goals.

Another bureaucracy has been created!

Bee-friendly organizations have been less than enthusiastic about these plans. For example, the Xerces Society said, “The national strategy includes valuable long-term plans that could, over time, strengthen the pesticide regulatory system. But it fails to offer pesticide mitigation to address issues currently facing pollinators.”

Similarly, the Center for Food Safety said, “the plan is unfortunately too weak to actually accomplish these goals.” The Center called for speedy action to reduce uses of chemical pesticides and herbicides that have been identified as threats to pollinator health.

We’ll watch for the results of these action plans. We would like to tell the bees that the federal strategy is working.

Meanwhile, help to protect our hardworking pollinators by keeping your garden free of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, and using the less-toxic alternatives. For more ideas, the Pollinator Partnership has provided,  “7 Things You Can Do For Pollinators.”

More

Another bee-friendly group that advocates reduced uses of neonics is Beyond Pesticides.

Gardening to Save the Planet

We are learning about humanity’s many impacts on the near and distant future of our planet. Some people are in denial about these impacts, while others are concerned and ready to do whatever we can to ensure that our Earth will support future generations.

To support and encourage such positive action, leading botanist Peter Raven will visit the UCSC Arboretum next week to meet with UCSC faculty and staff, and present a public talk, “Saving Plants, Saving Ourselves.” Raven will present an informed update on the increasing threats to Earth’s environment, and emphasize the special role of public gardens in conserving plants that could be lost through habitat loss and climate change.

Peter Raven has a long friendship with the UCSC Arboretum, and a national reputation as a conservationist and advocate of global biodiversity: Time magazine hailed him as a Hero of the Planet. His visit to the Monterey Bay area inspires us to reflect on the home gardener’s unique role in saving the planet.

Here are ten everyday practices that gardeners can apply to help sustain the environment and protect plant diversity.

  • Irrigate your garden wisely, using drip technology to deliver water only where needed, and mulch (organic or inorganic) to minimize evaporation and weed growth.
  • Recycle household water into the garden, using plant-friendly soaps and detergents.
  • Prune your acquisitions of consumer goods that bury our landfills and clutter our environment…and that you really don’t need.
  • Propagate plants that Nature’s pollinators (bees and other insects, bats and birds) love and need to survive. Clusters of flowering plants will enrich your landscape.
  • Conserve biodiversity by protecting endangered species and including rare and threatened California native plants in your landscape. (Visit the California Native Plant Society’s website, www.rareplants.cnps.org/ for info.)
  • Nourish your plants with organic fertilizers, and discontinue uses of artificial chemicals
  • Control plant-eating insects with insect predators and organic insecticides. Use physical barriers and non-toxic deterrents to control other plant-eaters, e.g., snails, gophers and deer,
  • Select plants that are native to California or other summer-dry climates, to enable their healthy growth, support wildlife and ease your gardening workload.
  • Compost the “carbon-rich” fantasies of climate change deniers with the “nitrogen-rich” facts of the world’s scientists to promote wise stewardship of the environment. (Alto, keep all biomass on the property by composting green garden waste!)
  • Cultivate these good practices among your friends and neighbors.

The UCSC Arboretum employs these practices regularly, and assigns high priority to its work in plant conservation.

pt sur Austin and Tim

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This photo shows UCSC student Austin Robey and Arboretum volunteer Tim Forsell as they replanted endangered California native manzanita shrubs on a steep slope near the Point Sur State Historic Park and Lighthouse. The Arboretum’s Brett Hall coordinated the conservation project.

Your practices in your own garden also could help to save the planet. A good start would be to attend Peter Raven’s talk..

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Registrations for the Peter Raven talk sold out quickly. To receive timely announcements of future events at the Arboretum, visit arboretum.ucsc.edu/get-involved/.

If you would like to sponsor an educational event at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, contact Jennifer Macotto, 831-427-2998 or jmacotto@ucsc.edu.

For information on how you could help save a rare species: visit arboretum.ucsc.edu/education/plant-sponsorship/.