Archive for the ‘thoughts’ Category

Breaking up with eco-perfectionism

Tea ball. Evil incarnate? Photo credit: Jlodder

For the first six months of this year, I skirmished daily with my tea ball. Actually, make that tea balls. I am outnumbered 2 to 1. One has a tiny metal latch that you need to thumb closed. The other is spring-operated and shuts with the predatory snap (if not the force) of a bear trap.

Convinced as I was that my daily tea bag habit was trashing the planet, I was resolved to give up tea bags altogether in favor of loose leaf tea. Every morning, I awoke determined to conquer these simple kitchen gadgets that would make me a better greenie.

Yeah. And pretty much every morning, the score card looked like this: Tea ball: 2; Jennifer: 0.

These things are evil.  So evil that I am tempted to start calling people I dislike ‘tea balls.’ They sneered at my attempts to close the latch in my pre-caffeinated total lack of motor control. They snapped shut on my fingers. They leaked out bits of tea (rooibos was the worst) so that every cup ended with a gritty mouthful of dead leaves. They were a pain to clean, so I left them in the sink. In the morning, I would blearily dump out a sodden ball of tea leaves, attempt a quick swipe with a sponge, and start the whole process over again.

In June, I signed up for a class that required me to be out of the house and awake enough to drive by 7:30am every day. About halfway through, I made some quick triage calculations and caved. I went for a box of 100 Irish breakfast tea bags for the following reasons: 1) I am exactly the kind of tea drinker who scoffs at boxes of 20 bags; 2) Irish breakfast has a lot of caffeine; and 3) the more bags in a box, the less likely they are to be individually packaged.

Now it’s October. I’m not sure where my tea balls have gone. I secretly hope the dishwasher has eaten them.

I’ve struggled for a long time with whether tiny personal actions matter. My response has usually been to say that they matter in a symbolic way, as daily, personal reminders to live consciously. What I never thought to ask myself is this: what is the trade off of agonizing over spinach bags, tea bags, plastic dental floss boxes, the occasional disposable paper coffee cup (used to hold tea, of course)?

I think there is a cost, actually. Speaking for myself, I’ve always had a finite amount of head space. (Go ahead, make a crack at my intelligence.) I am totally the Anti-Multi-Tasker. If I’m concentrating on my blog, I can’t work on my novel. If I’m fully engaged at work or school, I can’t really do justice to my blog. There’s just not enough time or space in my head to go full tilt at everything I’m interested in at the same time. And what I’ve come to realize is that fretting about the small stuff leaves me with less energy, time, and headspace to do things that might actually benefit this planet. Like plant trees, volunteer with my local native plant society, get involved with local conservation. For me, the fact that there’s always more to fix in my own life has been a sort of excuse not to get outside of it. And finally, there’s the danger of that ‘OK, I’ve done enough’ complacency when I have arranged my life to relatively green standards.

It’s true that there is plenty of room for improvement in my own life. I still have a car. I still haven’t made an attempt to vermicompost indoors. I still haven’t switched to cloth toilet paper. I still use tea bags. But…you know what? I’ve been a vegetarian for years. I’m not having kids. I travel maybe once a year. I don’t shop much. I live with another person and share resources. For a developed world citizen, I’m doing okay on most of the big impact lifestyle habits. Actually, I’m tired of futzing around with the little stuff that might reduce my negative impact ever so slightly, and am finally maybe-kind-of-ready to leave my armchair.

My growing issue with focusing on green living is that it tends to start and end with one’s own life, and the problems we’re dealing with are so much bigger than that. They require education, research, legislation, and communication.

I’m delighted to announce that I am finally getting close, after much haranguing with my condo association, to planting a new tree outside my window where the last one was removed. Planting a tree is a small first step away from the armchair. Getting myself fully scientifically literate is another. And after that? Who knows?

What’s your relationship with eco-perfectionism? Has it changed over the years?

Weird things we do to food plants (other than genetic engineering)

Mutant carrot. Photo credit: Joebeone

Here’s an embarrassing confession: when I was eight, the cartoon Attack of the Killer Tomatoes gave me nightmares. Seriously, what could be scarier than giant mutant tomatoes with teeth? (Don’t answer that.)

I’ve been thinking about these killer tomatoes a lot recently in the context of GMOs. Genetically modified organisms probably do seem about as unnatural and just as frightening (if less overt) as these tomatoes. It is scientists playing God. It is taking genes from one organism and sticking them into another. It is definitely unnatural.

But is it significantly more unnatural than other things we do to food plants?

I wanted to talk about some of the other weird s*** humans do to plants in this post, because I think there are a lot of misconceptions about how we develop crops. Unless you survive strictly off foraging, we all eat mutant plants every day. (That is, if you eat fruits and vegetables, which I hope you do.) Virtually all of our food plants are mutants, clones, or freaks, and about as far from their natural state as they can get through intense human meddling. Here are a handful of the ways we grow and eat mutants.

Corn: pretty much unrecognizable from its wild grass ancestor. Photo credit: photofarmer

Cherishing Mutants

Plants don’t evolve to be edible. (Quite the opposite, generally.) Many, in their unmodified state, are toxic, unproductive, hard to get, or just plain unappetizing. If you take a look at the wild ancestors of things like corn or tomatoes, you will almost certainly come to the conclusion that our ancestors must have been damn hungry to eat that. Corn is a great example. It started off as a wild grass with 5-10 extremely hard kernels per spike. Now, we don’t know the whole story, but we guess that when our ancestors found a mutant plant with softer kernels, they saved them to grow more mutant corn plants, maybe bred them with each other. This particular mutation is bad for the plant (soft kernels = seeds are all eaten by predators), but good for humans. Lots of crosses and some more chance mutations later, we have corn. Mutations, which are the raw material of genetic diversity — and which result in novel proteins — still happen. So does cross-breeding. Kevin Folta, a plant geneticist at the University of Florida, estimates that between 10,000 and 300,000 genes are affected when we breed plants the traditional way. We definitely don’t eat what our ancestors ate, and in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing.

Mutagenesis: plant breeding through radiation damage. Photo credit: ssoosay

Making Mutants (MOARRR MUTANTS!)

Right. So mutation is the rough material of genetic diversity, but we can’t control where and what kind of mutations will occur in nature. If we’re trying to get a new a trait into a plant, we can a) damage its DNA through chemicals or radiation and hope that some of the resulting mutants will have good traits; b) insert the gene in through genetic engineering; or c) try to get it through traditional breeding. Believe it or not, we’ve been using the first (mutagenesis) for the past 80 years. Wiki notes that, between 1930-2007, more than 2540 mutagenic plant varieties have been released. These mutants are fairly common in our food supply and include varieties of grapefruit, pear, sweet potato, rice, peppermint, citrus, and yam. No label required. Yay for DNA damage!

A grafted tree. Photo credit: Jbcurio

Attack of the Clones

Not to take down a childhood hero or anything, but Johnny Appleseed probably left behind a lot of apple trees that produced gnarly inedible apples. Apples don’t breed true from seed (since they are not self-pollinated, a Golden Delicious tree will only pass on half its genetic data to its seeds), so in order to get an orchard growing, all the same type of apple, you need clones. Every Honeycrisp apple tree in the world is genetically identical.

One of the really weird things we do in order to clone trees is to take a branch, cut a slice in an existing, related plant, and bind them up until they grow together. This is an age old technique known as grafting. You can end up with at tree that bears several types of fruit! They’re called ‘fruit salad trees.‘ In the photo, you can still see where one tree started and the other left off, yet they’re part of the same tree. Sort of. These guys are the real frankentrees, in my opinion.

Seedless watermelon…nope, definitely not natural. Photo credit: stevendepolo

Polyploidy

Would you be insulted if I called you a diploid? I’m one, too. So is your mother. So is my cat. It just means that we have two copies of each of our chromosomes (23 pairs in humans, for a total of 46 — get this, the adder’s tongue fern has 1440!).  Some organisms have just one copy of each chromosome, like bacteria, where others can have four, six, or even more. When something has more than two copies of each chromosome, it’s a polyploid.

Humans have figured out how to induce polyploidy in plants by treating them with a certain chemical (colchicine). We’re not just adding a couple of genes — we’re adding a whole extra genome. (You’ll remember that even one extra copy of one chromosome in humans — 3 copies of chromosome 21 — causes Down syndrome.) And in fact, polyploidy is how we get things like seedless watermelon and seedless bananas. (I know, right? A seeded banana??) First we treat them to get tetraploid plants, which are crossed with regular diploid plants to produce sterile (seedless) offspring. Think about that the next time you eat a banana without spitting out seeds.

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Bottom line: humans do lots of weird things to plants, most of which have the potential to result in harmful, toxic, or allergenic foods. We don’t have long term safety tests for most of the foods we eat, including things like hot dogs, goji berries, and root beer (one component, natural sassafras flavor, was found to be carcinogenic fairly recently). Given that almost all of these techniques (except cloning, of course), result in much greater genetic changes than genetic engineering, I think it makes sense to be, if anything, more worried about mutagenesis and polypoidy than genetic engineering.

…Or, if you’re lazy and have a family history of heart disease and cancer anyway, you could be like me and eat lots of fruits and veggies and not worry too much about the other stuff. Just an option.

On a side note, I’m back in school, and my brain is inundated — and I mean polyatomic ions are coming out my ears — with chemistry and biology at the moment. I’m hoping to pursue a graduate degree in botany or plant bio once I’ve beefed up my wussy language arts background. Having this blog has made me realize that it’s time to get out of my house and brain and start doing something about the many problems we face. It’s starting not to be enough for me to sit behind my computer and fret over the miniscule impact of forgetting to bring my reusable bulk bin bags. I want to be doing something. I’m not an activist — I don’t like ideology or emotions — so science it is. I hope you’ll wish me luck and forgive me my erratic postings in the months to come. Peace.

Just label it! Supplements, that is.

Let’s talk about a big, billion dollar industry. Lots of hype, little solid data. Basically unregulated. No need to perform safety tests or clinical trials before putting a product on the market. No review or testing by an independent party. Checkered safety record, certain products strongly linked to organ damage, cancer, hepatitis, and death (among other things). Consumed by millions of unsuspecting citizens every year.

GMOs? Nope. I’m talking about the supplement industry.

Image credit: Ano Lobb

Twitter friend @donnzpg recently pointed me to this article on Consumer Reports: 10 Surprising Dangers of Vitamins and Supplements — don’t assume they’re safe because they’re ‘all-natural’. It struck a chord with me because I know people — lots of people — who are intensely skeptical about synthetic cosmetics ingredients and pesticides and GMOs, yet take many supplements and herbals without requiring independent, double-blinded clinical testing results.

I am absolutely guilty of this. I choose cosmetics with very few ingredients (and yep, generally natural ones) and use very few of them, because I fundamentally don’t think the cost/benefit assessment pans out when it comes to something like cosmetics. Yet I haven’t once checked up to see what tests have been done on my daily vitamin. Probably not too many — it came from my well-intentioned mother, who got it at Target. In fact, I feel downright virtuous when I take it even though I’ve read the studies that question the efficacy of vitamins and supplements. (High doses of vitamins can be downright harmful.) I buy fortified orange juice even thoughI just saw a study that suggests that too much calcium and Vitamin D can cause blood and bone issues

Goddammit, brain. If this is the best you can do, I might have to replace you with a more rational model.

As a plant lover and photosynthesis fan, I’m struggling to overcome my naturalistic fallacy and look at plants in a more rational way. Some can heal, many can harm, and a fair number can kill. If you’re not convinced that plants have a dark side, think about this. When the first photosynthesizing organisms arose, they caused a major extinction on earth by flooding the atmosphere with that most unstable, reactive, and poisonous gas — oxygen. But then oxygen became the basis for the ozone layer, which protected life from that other tremendously dangerous, carcinogenic force: UV radiation. If you can eat or breathe or walk under the sun, thank a plant.

At the same time, because plants can’t move, they’ve evolved into incredible chemical factories that protect them from predators. Coffee, bread, chili peppers, and basil are just a few of the things we eat that have naturally occurring carcinogens, and there is nothing that makes these natural chemicals inherently less toxic than synthetic ones. Many of our synthetics are actually based on natural chemicals! As Bruce Ames has said, 99.9% by weight of all pesticides we eat are entirely natural.

What this means is that supplements are chemicals. Essential oils are chemicals. Herbal medicines are chemicals. And the fact that they come from natural sources says exactly nothing about their safety. (It terrifies me when I read about well-meaning green pet owners applying essential oils to their pets. Without clinical testing or dosage information, it’s all one big experiment on a favorite quadruped.)

I’m biased, of course. My aunt died of kidney failure just after turning 40. She had an intense distrust of western medicine and instead relied heavily on traditional Chinese herbal medicine. An autopsy revealed a startling accumulation of heavy metals in her body. These were traced back to the high doses of unregulated herbals she took for 10+ years. She left behind two young children and is much missed.

It’s an anecdote, not a peer reviewed study, but it made an impression on me. And I don’t think it’s altogether an unusual story, either. Supplement makers do not need to test their products or back up their health claims. They do not need to test for or list possible, sometimes extremely serious, drug interactions. They do not need to show allergenicity studies. They have to be proven harmful before the FDA steps in. And they are quite common in processed foods, so it would be fairly easy to overdose on certain vitamins if you drink fortified milk, eat fortified cereal, and pop a daily multivitamin.

I guess my question is: why is the consumer standard of proof so different — and lacking — for supplements? If cosmetic chemicals and GMOs are so alarming, why are we not up in arms demanding that supplement manufacturers prove the safety of their products before peddling them to us?

Just some of the things I’ve been thinking about. Do you take supplements? Have you looked into their safety?

Guest Post: Non-Violent Communication (part 1)

This is a guest post from Ian Peatey, a Non-Violent Communication Trainer, on a system of communication based on empathy rather than competition. I’m not qualified to write on this topic myself, though I have seen that it works and fosters real conversations instead of shouting matches. Environmental issues are complex, and many of us are deeply emotionally invested in our perspectives on them. Listening and responding empathetically are not instinctive, but they can be taught. I hope that non-violent communication will help us to listen better and find solutions.

Is there a better way to communicate? Image credit: Akuppa

I turn 50 next year (gulp!) and I can point to maybe a small handful of events so far that triggered really huge changes. One of those transforming moments was coming across Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in 2001.

On the face of it NVC is simple and obvious – deceptively so. Scratching away its layers and patiently learning how to integrate it revealed a rich, practical approach to myself, relationships and social structures. It also turned upside down some of the things I’d taken for granted all my life about basic concepts such as honesty and co-operation.

At its core is a positive and compassionate view of the human race. Yes, of course, there are plenty of people I could label selfish, aggressive, violent or mean – in fact, I might even use those words to describe myself from time to time.

NVC takes the view we are all doing the best we can to meet our needs and we all enjoy giving when we are free to do so. It maintains that how we’ve been educated to think, communicate and act sometimes interferes with this positive, compassionate orientation. And by re-learning some of this education we can choose modes of living that help us connect with others, resolve our differences constructively and seek peaceful ways of living.

Me and NVC (or NVC and I)

My introduction to NVC was pure chance combined with laziness.

I was sitting in the main hall at a very large conference, trying to decide which workshop to go to next. A guy came and sat on the edge of the stage, talked a bit, pulled out a guitar and started singing in a rather tuneless voice. I can relate to ‘tuneless’ but didn’t want to listen to 2 hours of it. I glanced at the programme and saw it was the beginning of ‘Nonviolent Communication’ presented by Marshall Rosenberg. It didn’t sound really appealing but I was just too lazy to move and by way of justification, told myself there might be more to it than crap songs.

So I stayed.

Fast forward and today my life pretty much revolves around NVC. I run workshops on it, write about it and do my very best to integrate it into how I relate to myself and those around me. I’m even married to it – my wife is also an NVC trainer. There are many different aspects of NVC that changed how I live and I’d like to touch on 4 elements that had the biggest impact on me.

1. Needs

Needs are central to NVC – not as a consumer driven or egotistical concept but as the very real things enabling us to survive and thrive.

Needs are what underpins everything we do and include basic physical needs (like protection, food and water) and more complex needs (such as belonging, meaning, understanding, beauty, emotional safety). They are also one way we can bridge the differences between us and find that  place where we meet as human beings. By finding the needs we’re trying to meet (my needs and your needs) we’re much more likely to find sustainable solutions than if we stick only with ideas and opinions.

This was quite a different way of looking at needs than the one I grew up with. I believe needs are often misrepresented. I mean, who wants to be seen as ‘needy’ or ‘selfish’ (only looking after their own needs).

I was brought up to put my own needs to one side and do things for other people out of duty and obligation – in other words, to be obedient. Obedience was promoted as a virtue – to parents, teachers, bosses and any other authority figure. I’d also bought into the notion of needs promoted by the mass media which got me to think I ‘need’ certain products, brands or services in order to fit in, be successful or get the girl!

From a certain perspective it’s not so hard to see why needs get misrepresented. People who are clear and assertive about their own needs tend to be quite difficult to control and don’t make compliant consumers!

Quick Exercise – think of something someone does that drives you crazy.

  • Which needs of yours are not met when they do this?
  • Which needs of theirs might they be trying to meet by doing this?
  • Are there other ways they could meet their needs while also valuing yours?

For me it’s people throwing litter in the playground where my kids play. My needs are for care, safety and health and I guess the needs of those throwing the trash are about ease and (possibly) being noticed/getting attention. Just getting to this step I find helpful and I feel calmer. I no longer see these (usually faceless) people as moronic louts who don’t care about anybody. I start to get a tiny glimmer of them as people, just like me, doing the best they can – albeit, it in a way I really don’t like.

Overflowing bin with doomed recyclables. Image credit: Ecstatic Mark

Jennifer: I get so angry when I see recyclables in the trash. Despite the fact that we have super-easy single-stream recycling, people still throw away their trash without sorting it, and their big white trash bags contain highly recyclable glass, aluminum, and plastic. I think it makes me even angrier that it often comes from families — Enfamil containers, other kiddie items — because surely they have the highest stake in the future? If their recyclables are easy to reach, I fish them out, but it’s really gross and gets my back up.

My needs that are not being met: the need to respect limited resources, for thoughtful behavior, and a planet-centered worldview. Their needs: convenience or to save time (I’m sure they are busy and sleep deprived). I don’t know what a compromise would look like — I can’t talk to them because I don’t know who they are, and I never see them doing it. Thoughts, Ian?

I’d love for you to try this thought experiment, even if, like me, the solutions aren’t immediately obvious. When it comes to environmental issues, what makes you angry, and what needs of yours aren’t being met?

Go on to part 2: Honesty

About the Author

Ian Peatey is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) living in Romania where he runs and writes for NVC World and does a bit of business training. Together with his wife, he runs
the Romanian Association for NVC delivering workshops and training courses aimed at supporting parents and couples as well as organisations involved with children. His main contributions to the environment are refusing to eat meat, walking a lot (and not owning a car) and buying local, natural wherever possible. On the other hand he does have 3 kids but he’s not willing to give any of them up.

He can be contacted here.

6 Questions to Ask Before Buying Organic

Is organic more eco-friendly? It depends.             Image credit: fruitnet

How awesome would it be if a tidy little green and white label could tell you that your food was grown with minimal impact on the environment and evidence-based consideration for long term human and ecological sustainability? If certified organic had a 1:1 correlation with environmental and social responsibility, I would jump on the 100% organic bandwagon. Right now.

Unfortunately, organic is a marketing term, and a highly profitable one. The cynical part of me sees the way big corporations have gotten in on the action and wonders: if organic growing practices have a higher cost that is passed on to the consumers, why is it so profitable that huge corporations want in? What am I actually paying for?

While I still think that more of the farmers who are paying closest attention to sustainability are organic, buying organic food doesn’t excuse us from continuing to ask questions about the impact of our food. Answers, as always, are hard to come by.

(Here I want to acknowledge how hard it is to wrench food from the earth. As someone who has managed to get aphids on indoor herbs, I have tons of respect for farmers who go out there and grow food in the face of unpredictable weather and fierce competition from insects, bacteria, viruses, and small mammals. I also recognize that, however you farm, you drastically alter the ecosystem of the area you farm. There’s no way around that. When it comes to eco-friendly farming, we’re always already talking about compromises.)

Anyway, I’ve come up with some questions to ask before buying organic. It’s more of a wishlist than a realistic set of questions to interrogate your local farmer with on Saturday mornings, but it’s a way to start thinking about these complex issues. Most of these also apply to conventional agriculture. What would you add?

Pest management strategies?                                        Image credit: kumaravel

1. How does this organic farm manage pests?

Contrary to popular thought, organic does not mean pesticide free. It usually does mean free of synthetic pesticides (some synthetic substances, like pheromones, are allowed — the National Organic Program has a list of organic-OK pesticides that all certified farmers abide by), but it doesn’t tell you how often [natural] pesticides were used, how many different ones, how much, or how safe. Natural pesticides are sometimes less efficient than synthetic equivalents, resulting in either crop loss, higher quantities of pesticides, or both. (See this study comparing environmental impact of synthetic and natural pesticides.)

Unfortunately, natural pesticides are not necessarily gentler on animals or soil. According to Professor James McWilliams of Just Food, sulfur, which is a commonly used natural fungicide that is allowed in organic agriculture, is responsible for many farm worker injuries, is toxic to fish, and contributes to topsoil pollution. Another, copper sulfate, persists indefinitely, bioaccumulates in fish, and is classified by the EPA as a type I toxin (most toxic; glyphosate, in comparison, is a type III). Read more about pesticides used in organic farming here. Like synthetic pesticides, some are relatively safe, some are very toxic, some bioaccumulate, some don’t. They need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Better answers for this question would be things like crop rotation, crop diversification, integrated pest management, and cultivating beneficial predator populations.

What gets me is this: by drawing a line between natural and synthetic, the National Organic Program creates a binary based on ideology, not safety records. There is nothing intrinsically safer about natural pesticides. I would prefer to support a farmer who used integrated pest management to control pests, using the lowest effective dose of an appropriate, well-tested chemical (synthetic or otherwise) as a last resort.

2. Does the farm till to control weeds? How often?

How eco-friendly is tilling?     Image credit: ryanovineyards

Tilling seems like an intrinsic part of farming, but should it? Farmers till soil to get rid of weeds, but tilling is also responsible for increased soil erosion, moisture loss, run-off, poor soil quality, and the subsequent need for more fertilizers. No-till farming has benefits in reducing labor and machinery and improving soil quality and sustainability. However, with no-till, farmers still need to control weeds. Here are your three choices: tilling, spraying conventional toxic herbicides, or using glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant GMO crops. Pick your poison.

3. How suitable is the crop for the environment in which it’s being grown?

Growing coconuts in NorCal is probably not a good use of resources. And because it’s not economically beneficial, we don’t tend to do it. But what happens when it is profitable to grow a crop that doesn’t fit the environment in which it’s grown? The most famous example is probably tomatoes. If you get tomatoes in winter, they probably come from either Florida or Mexico. Florida: tons of pesticides (soil is packed with nematodes and terrible for tomatoes). Mexico: American demand for certified organic tomatoes (and basil and peppers)  is decimating local water tables. Closer to home, California’s aquifers are also under stress from both organic and conventional agriculture. Not too surprising, given that we spend 6 months of every year bone dry but grow food year round.

4.  How efficient is this organic farm compared to a non-organic farm growing the same variety under similar environmental conditions?

Here’s another of those pick-your-poison scenarios. Done well, organic agriculture can have less of an impact on soil health, local animal populations, and waterways. But many scientists (no, Rodale is not considered a scientific organization) remain unconvinced that organic can meet the efficiency levels of conventional agriculture. Water and land are also limited resources, and the more inefficient the farm, the more pressure on local ecosystems. Read more about organic farming efficiency and ways that careful management can narrow the gap to 13% (still considerable). Since efficiency difference varies by crop, maybe instead of the Dirty Dozen, we need an Efficient Eleven (or whatever) guide to buying organic. Then again, agricultural efficiency has driven massive population growth. Then again, dropping agricultural output to curb our population seems like it would be an unpopular and possibly inhumane idea. Ack!

5. How do nutrient levels compare in the same variety of organic and non-organic produce under similar environmental conditions?

Same thing, really. We do tend to see increased pesticide residues (well below accepted safety standards) in conventional agriculture compared to organic, though organic isn’t pesticide free, either. When it comes to nutritional content, studies and articles not produced by the organic industry tend to be inconclusive. (I dunno, I kind of think that Americans should just eat more fruits and vegetables and not worry about minor nutrient differences between conventional and organic.) Still, it would be interesting to see more studies and more lists of fruits and veggies in which organic does make a difference.

Got food? Thank a farmworker! Image credit: National Farm Worker Ministry

6. How does this farm treat farmworkers? 

This piece of information is frustratingly hard to find. Unlike GMOs, I can’t hop online and get a reasonable idea of which farms/products I want to avoid for ethical reasons. And tragically, farm workers are some of the most (if not the most) disenfranchised people in the country. They are exposed to the highest levels of toxic chemicals and have little or no legal recourse even when they have children with terrible birth defects as a result of illegal chemical exposure. I would gladly pay more for organic if it guaranteed that farm laborers were paid a fair wage with adequate protection from toxins and health care.

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Whew. Sustainable food is one big, messy problem with no simple or easy answers. I think I could be reading up on it for the rest of my life and still be unsure what the best thing for me to do as a consumer. Right now, I buy a mix of organic and conventional; the percentage varies on where I’m shopping, and how much more organic costs than conventional. I really, really should try to talk to more farmers to get answers to these questions and make more decisions based on detailed knowledge, but again, there’s that whole farmers-market-phobia thing. Damn you, introversion.

Did I flub anything (I’d especially love to hear from organic farmers)? Are there any questions you would add to my list? How do you feel about buying organic?

Thoughts on the California GMO labeling initiative

I’m guest blogging over at the Just Farmers blog today about California’s GMO labeling initiative. It’s an issue that I’m solidly on the fence about, and I’ve tried to present both sides fairly. I hope you’ll take a look and let me know what you think! I’ll be featuring farmer Mike Haley’s perspective on the issue next week. Here’s a teaser from the post:

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California’s GMO Labeling Initiative – A Consumer’s Perspective

At an Earth Day festival in the San Francisco Bay Area this year, a GMO labeling activist grabbed my arm and told me that labeling GMOs was ‘a matter of life and death.’  A few months and a lot of signatures later, the initiative met the requirements to be voted on this November.

As a Californian and an environmentally concerned citizen, I’ve been following the developing dialogue on GMOs with interest. I’ve seen a growing divide between public’s perception of genetic engineering and the scientific community’s. And while I share concerns over the long term effects of genetic engineering, I really don’t like the reactionary rhetoric being used to promote labeling. In other words, I’m a fence-sitter.  Instead of taking a stance, I’ve been talking to people: scientists, farmers, environmentalists, parents, science teachers. I’m no closer to making a decision, but I’ve been able to look at the major arguments of each side.

As far as I can tell, the argument in favor of labeling is based on:

  • Desire to make and promote transparent, educated choices. As consumers, we want more information about our food so we can make responsible choices for our own health and that of the environment.
  • Concern about the long term effects of GMOs on human and environmental safety.  The safety testing and information on GMOs is not readily accessible to consumers, and the info that is available tends to be from activists who emphasize risks.

Keep reading at Just Farmers

Photo credit: MillionsAgainstMonsanto

Is DIY Really Greener?

Home canning: a high energy proposition?

I was whipping up a batch of homemade mayo last week (and by whipping, I mean letting the blender do its thing while listening for the choonk-choonk-choonk sound of successful emulsion) when I started to wonder: is my homemade mayo a better use of resources if I end up throwing half of it away because it goes bad (due to the unpasteurized raw egg)? Is it a better use of resources if I get salmonella poisoning and have to go to the doctor? Is DIY always the greener way to go?

And the answer, as it is for so many things, seems to be that it depends.

Here’s one case that deals with the energy efficiency of canned vs. dry beans. Up until you get them home, the dry beans are a clear winner. They’re lighter, so they take less fuel to transport; they don’t involve nearly as much packaging (especially if you get them in bulk); you save the considerable energy that goes into the canning process. They’re certainly cheaper, which might make a difference in the type of job you have to support your lifestyle. But once you start the long simmer that it takes to cook beans from dry — at least if you have an electric stovetop — things take an unexpected turn. From the Slate article: “cooking those beans on the stovetop would take up to 11 times as much energy as at a commercial facility.” Yow!

These types of calculations get really dicey because of all the different factors that come into play: where you get your energy (renewable / fossil fuel), whether you have an electric or gas stovetop, whether you use a pressure cooker, whether beans are replacing a significant portion of your meat consumption, how locally your beans are grown…

Regardless, sharing resources does tend to reduce our individual impact, whether we’re talking about public transportation or electricity. David Owen of The Conundrum points out that New York City dwellers have a lower per capita impact than Portland residents due to dense urban living that makes individual yards, large living spaces, and personal cars difficult. Living alone is significantly more resource intensive than living with a partner. (Sorry, fellow misanthropes.) I expect that a commercial bakery producing many loaves of bread each day has a lower per-loaf energy impact than my small scale bread baking.

So although DIY is often equated with being greener, is it? That’s a hard question to answer. I like the mentality, and I like knowing how things are made and how to make them. I’d also argue that DIY has a number of real but difficult to measure benefits like:

  • Greater sense of connection with planet / community / food. Don’t know about you, but I find bread baking downright therapeutic.
  • Reducing the amount of time we spend on more ecologically destructive pursuits
  • Shift towards a less consumerist society

Even if we could do the math, it’s probably an insignificant difference in impact, given the context of the rest of our lives as developed world citizens. Other decisions make a much bigger difference. So why bother sweating the small stuff at all?

For me, this stuff is worth thinking about because it gets me to question something that I’ve come to think of as the environmental litany. This is a collection of simple, absolute, often-repeated, binary rules ‘to be green’ that more or less excuse us from having to think critically about our decisions and consider them on a case-by-case level.

I really, really don’t like the environmental litany. For one thing, I hate being told what to think. I resent it when complex problems are made to appear simple or hard things are made to appear easy, even if it makes sense from a marketing perspective. (I’m terrible at marketing.) I have a huge problem with binary thinking and ideology. And I suspect that this kind of litany can actually cause us to make choices that are at cross purposes with what we want to be working for. If some organic-OK’d pesticides are less effective (resulting in lower yields for the same amount of land and water) and have greater negative effects on natural enemy species, are they still more sustainable than conventional ones? As a vegetarian and an animal person, it has been a long, hard slog through EPA reports and scientific studies full of animals that were ‘sacrificed at the end of the study’ (or worse, one lab macaque that sticks out in my head was ‘euthanized’ due to repetitive self-destructive behavior) to realize that calling for better chemical safety testing [still] usually means more animal testing. I still don’t know where I stand on that one. Learn enough about any issue, and it will no longer seem simple or straightforward.

If something is worth knowing about, it’s probably worth knowing enough about to say, “It depends.” Worth it, but definitely not easy.

What kinds of environmental litany have you started to question? How green are your DIY hobbies?

Incidentally, I may be quiet on the blog through July. I enrolled in a college biology class with the idea of maybe going back to school for a BS, and my head is stuffed so full of new and half-remembered vocabulary and ideas that there may not be much room left for blogging until it’s over. This might also be the summer that I finally set up an Etsy shop for my pottery. We’ll see.

Photo credit: thebittenword.com

My Love/Hate Relationship with Farmers’ Markets

I can count the number of times I’ve been to a farmers’ market this year. On my fingers. On one hand. (My time in Hawaii excepted, because the promise of tree-ripened mangos, papayas, and apple bananas can entice me into all sorts of things I wouldn’t normally do.) The discrepancy between belief and action surprised me until I realized that my appreciation of farmers’ markets is primarily intellectual. For all the good fruit, community-building, local-economy-supporting, environment-supporting vibes, I don’t like being there.

Blasphemy.

I took Beth’s Show Your Plastic challenge (well, at least the collecting part) this week, and found that most of my plastic waste is, in fact, packaging from delicate summer fruit: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries. It’s all stuff that I could readily get at the farmers’ market with significantly less plastic; I just don’t feel much motivation to go. First world problem? Oh yeah.

I’ve identified the reasons I don’t go to farmers’ markets more often. Maybe you can help me come up with solutions.

Problem #1: I hate crowds.

As in hate hate. If you can have claustrophobia about being enveloped by people (small spaces without people = no problem), that’s what I have. Being stuck in a sea of elbows, bad perfume + body odor, and double-wide baby strollers makes my blood pressure rise and my mood plummet. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that my local markets enjoy such good business. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can only be at the farmers’ market for a few minutes before I start to shut down and look for an empty corner in which to whimper.

Problem #2: The good farmers’ market is at the same time as my pottery studio time.

There are two nearby weekend markets. The Saratoga market, which has reasonable prices, manageable crowds, and really good fruit, is on Saturday morning. So is open studio at pottery. There is very little that I prioritize over being elbow deep in mud on Saturday mornings. Seeing friends? Sleeping in? Buying food? Meh.

Problem #3: The other farmers’ market has an unacceptable level of smug. 

The Campbell farmers’ market: a little richer, a lot whiter, and a whole lot smugger. It’s like taking the entire weekly population of Whole Foods and concentrating it on three street blocks. Phenomena observed there: designer reusable bags, eco-sunglasses, bamboo baby strollers, crappy overpriced crafts, pedigreed dogs with non-toxic toe nail polish, yoga goddesses going on about their latest juice cleanse. I don’t particularly like the ambiance at Whole Foods, but the Campbell market is about ten times worse and just as expensive. Time it takes for this place to get my back up: 5 minutes. Time it takes for me to complete my shopping: 20 minutes. I’m rubbish at math, but even I can see that that isn’t a good equation.

Problem #4: I don’t like talking to people.

One of the touted benefits of going to farmers’ markets is getting up close and personal with farmers. Here you can talk to farmers about their growing practices, pest management strategies, crop rotation, colony collapse. It’s a terrific thing to know how your food is grown, but that doesn’t change an inherent personality flaw: I don’t like talking to strangers. I have a limit of maybe five new people a day, tops. So once I’ve talked to a few farmers, I’m done, and just want to mutely shove cucumbers into my reusable produce bags. In fact, I sometimes welcome the anonymity of buying from the supermarket, where I can’t be guilt tripped into paying $4 a pound for organic heirloom tomatoes that the grower wrested at great personal cost and effort from nematode-infested soils.

Problem #5: I can’t always justify the cost.

I would love to support my local farmers all the time, but it bumps up my grocery tab by as much as 50%. $3 for a small basket of strawberries, $6 for a dozen truly cage free, happy hen eggs, $2.50 for a pound of potatoes. Ouch. I still have no guarantee that they are grown more sustainably than the stuff at my local greengrocer. In The Conundrum David Owen has a rather harsh invective against farmers’ markets, but asks a question I would love to know the answer to: if lower efficiency farming uses more land to produce the same amount of food, is it really greener? It’s a complex question that has to take into account externalities from conventional high efficiency farming (higher levels of pesticides, nitrogen run-off) and whether the small organic farms take away land that would be otherwise available for wildlife (perhaps not), but once again, I find myself wishing sustainability were a quantifiable term.

What kind of relationship do you have with farmers’ markets? Got any clever solutions for me?

Photo credit: NatalieMaynor

Unpacking the idea ‘safe’

Are things either safe or unsafe?

It’s a common demand from the public to scientists: prove to us something is safe before unleashing your monster on the world. And on one hand, it’s a totally fair, reasonable request to not be treated as lab rats. I get that. I hate the idea of having big chemical corporations profiting off their creations that create long term problems for ordinary people and the environment. On the other, whether you’re talking about GMOs or synthetic chemicals, it’s a problematic request for a couple of key reasons:

  • It assumes a binary between safe and unsafe without regard to exposure level or other circumstances. Just about everything can be harmful under the right (or perhaps I should say wrong?) conditions. Take water, for example. Tons of evidence that it’s generally safe to drink. However, it’s still possible to die from drinking too much water. Even small quantities of water, if inhaled, can be deadly. It’s called drowning. Microbes also love water, which is important to know if you’re into DIY personal products.  Does that mean water (and do check out the dihydrogen monoxide website, if you haven’t seen it) is unsafe? Yes — if you define safe to mean that any level of risk from contact with water is unacceptable. Of course, dehydration’s not a lot of fun, either. Water is a simple example, but virtually any substance you can think of has benefits and drawbacks, conditions in which it has no harmful effects, conditions in which it does. That goes for everything from fluoride to Botox.
  • It doesn’t define safe in a way that science can address. Science is good at testing for one thing at a time, under controlled and specific circumstances. Safety is not a trait that can be directly tested for. We can’t run a chemical through a gas spectrometer and have that tell us whether something is safe or not; we infer safety from the absence of observable harmful effects in a fairly wide range of applications, test subjects, and experiments. To get meaningful answers, we need to ask meaningful questions. Instead of asking, “Is BPA safe?” we need to be asking things more like, “Do low doses of endocrine disrupting substances like BPA produce harmful effects on developing human fetuses?” That’s a reasonable request for information, and it’s something scientists could design experiments around to answer.
  • Scientists don’t know what they don’t know. You’ve probably heard of prescription drugs that were withdrawn when they eventually proved to have major, unexpected health impacts. It’s not that tests were necessarily done improperly; it’s that scientists didn’t know enough to ask the right questions before the issues became apparent. It’s impossible to test for lack of harmful effect for everything, at every level, in every remotely plausible circumstance. And although we mostly hear about the failures, when scientists haven’t anticipated and tested for a particular problem, there are many prescription drugs and chemicals that have gone on to establish very solid safety records and saved lives.

Science is limited in the answers it’s able to offer us. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes the answers are inconclusive and pending further research. The scientific method can also be a bit clunky with its one variable model when it comes to looking at multiple factors and multiple exposures, which are inevitable in real life scenarios — one of the reasons we’re having such a hard time pinpointing causes for things like cancer and autism. And no, the media totally doesn’t get this. No one’s going to read a headline about inconclusive test results. It doesn’t make for an exciting story.

Instead of asking whether something is safe, I’ve begun to try (try!) to look at things on a spectrum of lower risk to higher risk and think about decisions as risk evaluations.  At the lower risk end, I would include things that have 1) solid, evidence-based records of few or no harmful effects, 2) relatively few/unusual circumstances in which it produces harmful effects, and 3) statistics favoring my likelihood of emerging unscathed.

Here are some things I would consider lower risk  within the parameters of my life:

  • Eating spinach. Yes, spinach contains oxalic acid, which is linked to kidney stones. But as a healthy person, I’d have to eat massive amounts of it all the time to develop significant health issues, and the nutritional benefits associated with eating moderate amounts outweigh the risks.
  • The preservative in my contact lens solution. Used in small quantities, well-tested, and far lower risk than putting something with microbial or fungal growth in my eyes. Definitely less risky than driving in my 10 year old glasses (time to get those replaced!).
  • Cleaning Brie’s litter box. Yes, she’s had toxoplasmosis. That’s why she’s blind. (I sometimes refer to her as Toxokitty. No brownie points for sensitivity there.)  No, she’s not shedding parasite eggs anymore, and no, I’m not pregnant.
  • Sunblock. Something I put on only when I anticipate needing it and can’t avoid peak sun hours or don a hat. In the quantities I use it, it’s not going to have an appreciable effect on my life. The dose makes the poison.
  • Taking allergy medicine. I used to pop an antihistamine daily in the month of May for allergies that otherwise left me a fatigued, sniffly, nosebleedy mess. Now I just go somewhere else on vacation. When I need an antihistamine, I still take it. There are side effects; they make my eyes dry and sometimes affect my energy levels. But I’m willing to accept that risk.
  • Baking in silicone. I bought silicone muffin cup liners a few years ago when I thought they might be greener than the paper I had been using. I’ve wavered in that belief (they take ridiculous amounts of water to clean, won’t biodegrade, and involve fossil fuels), but I still use them every now and then when they make more sense than paper. I’ve read the available studies, and I use them maybe five times a year, at relatively low temperatures.

Higher risk (somewhat likely to result in grievous bodily harm, more proof of harm, or harmful under more circumstances):

  • Driving or riding in a car. Hands down the most statistically dangerous thing I do on a regular basis. Car fatalities are down somewhat in recent years, but there were 32,885 in 2010. That doesn’t include injuries.
  • Drinking alcohol. I seem to be mildly allergic to alcohol and don’t drink, but if you look at the chemical properties of alcohol, it fits many of the criteria we use for calling other substances poisons. There are well-established acute and long term risks associated with drinking, yet we’re much more likely to get excited about the potential toxicity of a synthetic or newer chemical.
  • Eating unidentified wild mushrooms. Most mushrooms are not fatally toxic, but there are a handful that will really do a number on your liver. The chances of randomly picking an amanita to sample may not be that high, but the potential fatality is a deal breaker. For me, anyway. Maybe I’ll do a post later on how to identify an amanita mushroom.
  • Breathing in silica dust. There’s a reason why silicosis is known as ‘potter’s rot.’ Silicosis is not reversible or treatable, and some of the older potters I work with tell me that their lungs, x-rayed, look somewhat like smokers’ lungs. You’d think this would get me to wear a mask, especially when I’m carving clay. Not yet. I’m being stupid like that.
  • Cutting Brie’s claws. Almost inevitably ends in blood loss (mine). ‘Nuff said.

I’m surprised at how reluctant I am to put pottery on that list. A small voice in the back of my brain is protesting, “But I like pottery,” as if that influenced risk level in any way whatsoever. It also wants to add, “But clay is a natural substance,” which it is, and which also doesn’t influence risk level in any way whatsoever. Do you ever want to call your own brain a troglodyte? I do.

I haven’t done the research yet to be able to put other things I do (eat raw cookie dough, for example — I’m pretty sure my current salmonella-schmalmonella attitude is not appropriate) on the spectrum, and frankly, I still fall for naturalistic fallacy all the time. But I still want to point out that headlines don’t present information in perspective with the actual amount of risk something presents. It’s the other, ordinary stuff that’s really likely to get us: poor eating habits, lack of exercise, driving, and I think it’s helpful to keep that in mind when reading alarming headlines or studies. After all, life is one of those things in which no one gets out alive.

Do you classify things as safe or unsafe? What would persuade you that something was safe?

Photo credits: jma.work, ell brown

Seeing through fuzzy lenses

Things look a little blurry?

This week, I’ve come across two articles on the ever-popular topic of sunscreen safety. The first presents some early research suggesting that zinc oxide may not be as safe as we thought. The second, citing the EWG, claims that nano zinc oxide based sunscreens have been given a green light for safety and effectiveness. How you respond to these articles probably has a good deal to do with your opinion of the safety of cosmetics to start with. If you believe most commercial cosmetics are unsafe, you are more likely to be alarmed by the first article and dismiss the second. If you believe that most commercial cosmetics are safe, you are likely to find the first unnecessarily alarmist and think the second reassuring.

(Where do I stand? I am a staunch supporter of staying out of the sun during peak intensity, wearing a hat and breathable clothes with good coverage, and if neither of those is possible, applying sunblock. And then not worrying about it. I defy any sunblock to cause measurable damage to my health in just ten or twenty applications per year.)

We all see the world through certain lenses of opinion, experience, background, and emotion. Objectivity doesn’t come naturally; maybe doesn’t come at all. But being able to identify your own fuzzy lenses is a helpful way to understand why you think and react the way you do. Let’s take one of my fuzzy lenses — one of the sillier ones — as an example. I like cats. I genuinely think they’re cooler than dogs.

The belief that cats are awesome influences my behavior in quite a lot of ways:

  • I have a cat
  • I volunteer at a cat rescue
  • I follow cat organizations on Twitter and Facebook
  • I read cat stories online
  • I surround myself with fellow cat people
  • I put more weight on articles that show cats to be superior lifeforms
  • I am more likely to be skeptical of articles that show cats to be inferior to / invasive / less intelligent than dogs

So, by limiting my exposure to things I don’t agree with and increasing my exposure to things I do, I’m reinforcing what I want to believe while (maybe) thinking that I am making a rational assessment. In fact, it’s more or less just ideology. In Jennifer-land, cats are cool, and there’s not much you can do to persuade me otherwise.

In his article on PersonalCareTruth.com, cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski brings up this point as an ideology litmus test: what evidence would you need to change your mind about an issue? If the answer is that nothing would change your mind, you’ve stumbled upon some ideology.

Frankly, the anti-science tendencies of the environmental movement scare the dickens out of me. I came across a comment earlier this week about how the sun doesn’t cause cancer, sunscreens do, and the breathtaking disregard for a large body of scientific knowledge and consensus as to the effects of UV radiation on skin appalled me. The Skeptical Environmentalist, perhaps rightlysneers at our tendency to adopt binary beliefs (organic = good, GM = bad, for example) as a ‘litany.’ In surrounding ourselves with studies we want to believe and doubting the ones that don’t align with our beliefs, are we really that much better than climate change deniers?

It’s a sobering thought, and it prompted me to identify, if not completely clear off, some of my other fuzzy lenses:

  • I want to believe that a vegetarian diet is healthier, kinder, and more environmentally friendly.
  • I want to believe that organic farming is lower impact and more sustainable than high-efficiency conventional farming.
  • I want to believe that all industrial scientists whose data goes against my beliefs are corrupt.
  • I want to believe that natural is safer, more sustainable, and more effective.
  • I want to believe that our planet and its remarkable biodiversity is inherently valuable.
  • I want to believe that science is the most reliable way to understand our world.

I’m pretty sure there’s evidence that could affect my opinion for most of these, and I have already moved towards urging a more case-by-case consideration on farming practices and chemicals. I have been following the debate over Rothamsted’s GM wheat experiment with great interest and appreciate all the open conversation that is taking place between the scientists and the public.  But I don’t think you could budge me on the last two. I don’t think ideology is necessarily a bad thing, or an avoidable one, but it’s good to know where it is.

(By the way, the questions in this Baloney Detection guide, although aimed towards orthorexic vegans, are quite useful for evaluating information in general.)

What are your fuzzy lenses when it comes to all things green? What evidence would it take to change your mind?

Photo by Crunchy Footsteps

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