Saturday, March 13, 2010

The GM beat goes on

I just listened to an hour of yesterday's Science Friday on what GMO's can do for world hunger. As the intro said, Golden Rice isn't in any rice bowls yet. What advantages does "biotech" (is that a cleaner or sexier phrase than "genetically modified"?) have over conventional hybridization?

Well, I don't think they answered the question. I appreciated what the spokesperson for the Union of Concerned Scientists said at the beginning of the segment - the quick fix of GMing doesn't work so well for complex traits like drought resistance.

I did not appreciate the fact that every time this guy presented an alternative viewpoint to the Man from Monsanto, Ira Flatow told him to hurry up. The fact is that complex traits, and ecologically and culturally complex situations, require complex answers, not slick talking points.

Several times during the conversation GM cotton's introduction to and use in India was mentioned. I wonder how they could do this with no one - even the anthropolgy professor on the panel - mentioning the many suicides about farmers of GM cotton in India.

Well into the hour, a person preparing a talk on conservation raised a good question, and Glenn Stone, the anthro professor, made some good points, I think. He pointed out that the patenting of seeds makes it very difficult for independent scientists to do the research they would like, the experimental work necessary to test the environmental impact of GM seeds.

He also pointed out that the buying up of seed companies by agrochemical companies has caused seed prices to soar.

One of the things that fascinated me is that at Monsanto and in the institutes and foundations that are playing ball with them, the comparisons of GM crops (biocassava+, I think the new one which will be ready at the end of this decade was called) are to vitamin pills, rather than, as the Concerned Scientists rep pointed out, to agro-ecology. So doing gene transplants to get more iron and calcium and vitamin A or whatever into a staple root crop is better than "supplementation" - but is it better than developing diversified small scale agriculture? No foundation grants for that research.

The link to this podcast was broken, and I'm not sure how I finally did download it. Itunes might work better than the NPR site if you care to search for it and listen to it. If you do, try to stick with it - the next to last question from a listener in San Francisco is worth the price of admission - he brought it back to the context of global hunger. I wish the answers from the panel had been as good as the question.

Business vs. Nature

There's an interesting interview with Susan Dworkin on this week's Living On Earth.

It caught my attention when she said, "Business loves monoculture, but nature loves diversity." An interesting bumper sticker, perhaps, for capturing the essence of why diversity in our seed stocks has diminished.

Dworkin has written a book about one of Norman Borlaug's disciples, Bent Skovmand, called Viking in the Wheat Fields. It should be interesting, since Dworkin opposes the patenting of life forms as apparently Skovmand did, but praises the Green Revolution.

I hope the book has a bit more sophisticated science than the interview.

While I'm waiting to get it from the library, I'm going to think about another point Dworkin makes, that we the people have been largely kept in the dark about agriculture issues while a few government bureaucrats and representatives of global corporations make decisions about our food supply. We need more civic discourse about the food system.

This is a point I have been trying to make as one of the "education and communication" stakeholders in our local Food System Alliance. It's not enough to teach the kids through school gardens and reskill the adults in food growing, prep and preservation. We need to have forums on food issues that aren't just limited to the foodies, farmers and nutritionistas.

At Thanksgiving Lutheran on Thursday evening (their lenten series is using the ELCA world hunger prayer calendar) Karen commented on how we should be thankful that we are hearing more about our food system these days, thanks to Michael Pollan's books, popular documentaries, etc. Hear, Hear!

You can find the short Dworkin interview here:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Presbyterian Food and Faith blog

The latest spam blast from the National Council of Churches eco-justice unit has a note on a Presbyterian initiative to tour sustainable ag sites in parts of the south and Midwest on their way from Louisville to Detroit for the US Social Forum, June 22-26.

This sounds like a good and interesting thing to do, and I wonder if the Episcopal Church is involved in this in anyway, and if not, why not? I'm guessing that since we have a denominational domestic poverty conference in April, this event for all sorts and kinds of activists, from many denominations and none, is not on our institutional radar. If anyone knows different, comments please.

There are also some interesting posts on the PCUSA Food and Faith blog

Most recent, for example, is a cut and pasted piece by Anna and Frances Moore Lappe critiquing the Gates foundation's latest plan to end malnutrition.

One of the things, though, that fascinates me about the Food and Faith blog is that the links on the left look surprisingly like the list of links on this blog when I started out - but there is no link to this blog. Hmmmm. I learn more everyday about the things you can do in the blogosphere.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Americans Discover Food

Reflection: Americans Discover Food
Christine Sine

I have just been doing a little research on the trend towards growing one's own food which is really taking off here in the US, partly as a result of the recession and partly because young families are worrying more and more about the health risks of store bought food. Evidently the sale of vegetable seeds in 2009 was up 35% over the previous year, and predictions are that sales will be even higher this year. An estimated 9 million people who have never planted vegetable gardens before started growing their own produce last year. Even the White House planted a garden to supplement presidential salads.

More of Christine's reflection at
Christine is part of Mustard Seed Associates based in Seattle.


Garden Prayer

Liturgy: A Blessing For the Planting of a New Garden
Christine Sine

God bless this soil rich and fertile with life
God bless the seed we plant this day
As it falls into the ground to grow
We remember Christ's body broken for us

Unless a seed is planted in the soil and dies
It remains alone
But its death will produce many new seeds
A plentiful harvest of new lives

In the name of God the creator,
We sprinkle it with the water of life
Remembering that though we may plant and water
It is God who gives growth to all our efforts

Read the rest of Christine's prayer at


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

seedy times

I have been thinking about seeds a lot the past few weeks.

First thinking about what seeds I need and ordering them, as well as thinking about what seeds I have on hand. I have saved some seed the last few years, though perhaps not with as much thought and care as I should.

Then there's the challenge of when the early seeds can go in. Very rainy winters like this are pretty difficult. I've been sowing when we get a couple of dry days and will see what happens. The biggest challenge is not seeds, but wanting to put in potatoes this year, when the spot I'd like to use is muddy and needs much improvement - and the break of a dry week, when I could do it, appears not to be happening.

Monday, before the Sonoma County Food System Alliance meeting I went on the brief tour of the gardens at Lynmar Winery. I was mightily impressed by Michael's seed saving and seed improving efforts. I wish I'd had my camera, so I could show you a picture of his shelves of bins - so much accomplished in just his few years of gardening there.

Then yesterday an email arrived from Occidental Arts and Ecology with an invitation to download their publication on seed saving for school gardens. This is a comprehensive 90+ page resource with lots of good background and lesson plans cued to California standards.

I, of course, began to think about how congregations with gardens might use this - first with information on seed saving, and second to provide good science background for lessons for Sunday School and vacation bible schools.

So often we talk about seeds with kids in our churches and leap right to the metaphorical. Just because St. Paul was a lousy botanist doesn't mean we need to be. The very first lesson plan here, "Do seeds need soil to sprout?" made me think about doing the science and then doing the parable of the sower. My favorite lesson, though, which would be a big stretch for Sunday School, was the one on how to read a seed packet - and how to make your own for the seed you've saved.

Download "A Handful of Seeds" here:

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I've begun to catch up on reading articles and reports, and want to recommend this one from Brighter Planet
The American Carbon Foodprint is a well-written and nuanced report. There's not much that's new here, but there are lots of good graphs illustrating the various points. There's also a list of seven directions to take in reducing one's contribution to greenhouse gases from food. (That sounds strange, but you know what I mean.)
The one question I have of this report is that it states that conventional agriculture is more productive, sometimes much more productive, than organic agriculture, which can mean that per calorie, conventionally grown foods contribute less in CO2 equivalents to the atmosphere. I wonder about this. Are they referring to large-scale organic or unsustainable organic? Because some studies have revealed that small-scale, diversified, sustainable organic farming has equivalent or higher yields to farming based on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, etc.
If you are interested, it's not a long read. If you only have a moment, go to page 17 for the list of seven things to do.