Sunday, January 30, 2011

GE Alfalfa

For several years, the Center for Food Safety, the Cornucopia Institute and others have been engaged in a court case fighting the release of Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa. Last week, to the favor of the biotech industry, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the agency will fully deregulate the controversial seed. As you would expect, folks in the organic community are more than disappointed. Michael Pollan tweeted that the decision to cave is a "disaster for organic agriculture" and all the foodies are buzzing about the potential contamination and complications.

Because of the sensational claims made on both sides of the GMO debate, I decided to contact Associate Professor Scott Glenn, from the University of Maryland, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, a professor I've had the pleasure of learning from. His research and teaching focuses on the biology and management of perennial weeds and his perspective on conventional farming methods has helped me understand the merit in arguments for and against the innovation. Glenn explained:

"Roundup Ready® Alfalfa was deregulated (approved) [in April 2004] but shortly thereafter, several activist groups took [Monsanto and Forage Genetics International] to court stating that the pollen from the GE alfalfa would contaminate organically grown alfalfa. There was a court decision to have further scientific studies to determine if this was a valid issue. Recently, the results of those studies have been released and they indicate that there is no valid scientific evidence to suggest that this would be a problem. Furthermore, if contamination does occur it would be at an extremely low level and, according to a recent ruling, that alfalfa crop would not lose its status as organically grown.

Alfalfa is a perennial forage crop that is primarily cross pollinated. All producers of alfalfa as a forage (organic and conventional) want to harvest alfalfa (including grazing) in bud to early bloom, so if managed right it should not be producing pollen. However, sometimes due to poor management or bad conditions some pollen may be produced. However, the only time those genes would be incorporated in to the genetic makeup of non-Roundup Ready alfalfa is if that alfalfa was allowed to fertilize and go to seed. This could take place in alfalfa that is grown in the wild (very rare, but definitely not part of an organic system) or during the production of commercial seed. Commercial seed production (both organic and conventional) is grown under very closed, highly monitored conditions. Major precautions are taken to prevent extraneous pollen from fertilizing the cultivars of alfalfa that they are producing. There are strict protocols in place such as not having any other alfalfa fields (organic or conventional) within a specific area ('pollen-free zone') surrounding the alfalfa seed field."

So the case, as it has been presented, against GE alfalfa is not scientifically strong enough to limit or eliminate its use and Montsanto does not intend to persecute accidental cross-contaminations but perhaps the devil isn't in the details of this one. Perhaps the greenies, who may disown me after this post, need to broaden the argument, re-organize and out-innovate. What I mean is, the organic opposition comes across as anti-progress and innovation, and if that is the case, we're not going to win much support from the conventional side or even the civilian masses. Instead of putting our energy into the fight against a certain seed, let's put it into the race for a solution and accept the fact that we may need to bend a little here and there to find it. Isn't the bigger problem here the rampid use of products containing the herbicide glyphosate and the effect that has on everyone and everything?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Not a Seed-Eater

A young hawk in Arlington, Virginia. One birder in the neighborhood thinks it’s a Sharp-shinned Hawk but since all young hawks have nearly identical coloration and patterns, it could also be a Cooper's Hawk. Both are of the family Accipiter (bird hawk), named for their preferred food, and aren't uncommon in area backyards - especially those frequented by smaller, seed-eating birds.

In fact, a Cooper's Hawk recently found her way into the Library of Congress and spent a week flying around inside the domed ceiling in the Main Reading Room. Thankfully, the hawk (now known as Jefferson) has finally been contained and will return to her natural habitat soon. More on Jefferson here.
(Post by DW)

"Dinner in a Bottle"

A reader recently sent in this link to an article about MeatWater in which the reporter seems to think that MeatWater is in fact an actual, available product. It's not real, folks.

It is an incredibly creative campaign that forces people to think twice about the culture of "food" around us. Their message is so carefully laced into our modern expectations for new food products that a lot of people seem to believe that Hungarian Gulash water will soon be available at the grocer.

I urge you to read more about the campaign here and then spend some time on the MeatWater website. And I hope that this clever hoax doesn't create an actual... gulp... demand for such a product. Yikes.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

I recently submitted this mantra (post title) for the second edition of Michael Pollan's collection of Food Rules and share it with you today in light of the class action lawsuit against Taco Bell. For those of you who haven't heard about the controversial "meat filling," allow me to summarize.

An Alabama law firm is suing the chain for falsely advertising the substance formerly known as "taco meat filling" as "meat" because the filling is actually only 36% meat and according to USDA standards, "meat" has to be at least 40% meat to be called meat. Yes, only 40%. Eww.

The firm isn't asking for money, just a correction. Want to know what makes up the other 60-64%?

Water, isolated oat product, salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, oats (wheat), soy lecithin, sugar, spices, maltodextrin (a polysaccharide that is absorbed as glucose), soybean oil (anti-dusting agent), garlic powder, autolyzed yeast extract, citric acid, caramel color, cocoa powder, silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent), natural flavors, yeast, modified corn starch, natural smoke flavor, salt, sodium phosphate, less than 2% of beef broth, potassium phosphate, and potassium lactate.
Mouth-watering, huh? If you stopped reading that pile of ingredients at maltodextrin, consider visiting this great post on Buzzfeed for an entertaining visual interpretation instead.

Although I have taken issue with Taco Bell ever since they started encouraging the "fourth meal" to boost their own sales and their customers' cravings, I don't know which side of this argument I fall on. On one hand, the fast food chain isn't meeting already pathetic standards for labeling and who-knows-what-else but on the other hand, these tacos cost less than a dollar, right? So what can you really expect? A 99% choice beef taco, handed to you through your window after less than three minutes, still hot and (I hear) delicious for 99 cents? That's sort of unreasonable, don't you think?

Once again: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Sorry, chalupa fans. You get what you pay for.


Taco Bell responded to these allegations with the following press release. As usual, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle of the argument. Click here for larger view.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Feathered Friends

My favorite cardinal (pictured) stopped by this morning to remind me to fill up the feeders - and to remind his reflection that he is the top cardinal on the clover. Full feeders are also important this time of the year for birds associated with "irruptions." When natural winter food supplies are scarce in northern Canada, bird species like Juncos, Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, Common Redpolls and Grosbeaks "irrupt," which means they migrate south in search of food. Be sure and leave out some millet for the Juncos and lots of thistle for the winter finches.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

COFED: Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive

Michael Pollan, Bill McKibben, and Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel are part of the launch committee that will help the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, or CoFed, movement come to a college campus near you. So what exactly is COFED? Well, right now it is much bigger on the West Coast than East Coast - but don't let that stop you from making a donation and getting involved!

The national "training program and research institute is empowering students to create ethically-sourced, cooperatively-run sustainable food storefronts and caf├ęs on college campuses." Treehugger reports:
CoFed grew out of a campaign that successfully blocked the first fast food chain restaurant from opening on the University of California's Berkeley campus. The Berkeley student food co-op opened instead on November 15th and in 2010 alone, six teams on the west coast began working on doing the same at their own schools, from Santa Barbara to Seattle.
Complete with experts ready to help students with everything from retail and dealing with legal issues and incorporation, CoFed "will train a new generation of leaders with experience creating good, clean, fair food businesses and a new generation of eaters who believe in the power of community," said Josh Viertel.
Bill McKibben, founder, made this enlightened statement: "Colleges around the country are figuring out that they educate their students three times a day about either good food or bad - about a world where local matters, or where food is just a plate full of calories to get you through class. CoFed has the potential to be a crucial part of that process."
Learn more about the program here.

The Booze You Love in a Can??

Panama-based company Scottish Spirits believes that folks who like to drink whiskey outdoors would prefer to do so out of a can. For now, "straight whiskey in a can" is only available in Caribbean and South American markets where it is being marketed as "the perfect size to be shared between three people who can mix it with other things like cola."

I think it encourages over-consumption and is probably about as palatable as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a can.

Read all about the alcoholic-coma-can here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Still Undecided About GMOs?

Me too.

On one hand, Genetically Modified Organisms seem great. Altered seeds like Bt Cotton produce plants that protect themselves from their biggest pest therefore reducing the need for insecticides. On both hands, Roundup Ready seeds that allow big farms to spray entire fields with herbicides, which is convenient for them and reduces the need for tilling and the accompanying soil compaction, but has also eradicated Vitamin A-rich weeds in nations whose people depend on them. Then there is Golden Rice - Monsanto's promise to feed and nourish the Vitamin A-deficient folks. While I remain undecided on modified seeds and the controversial patent laws that accompany any discussions around them, I just discovered a whole other wing of GMOs to ponder: Bird Flu Resistant Chickens. Popular Science reports:

Generating flu-resistant birds may be more effective than giving vaccinations to an entire flock, said Dr. Laurence Tiley, a veterinarian and lecturer in molecular virology at the University of Cambridge, England, one of the authors of the chicken study. Vaccinated birds may not develop flu, but the virus can still replicate in their bodies and be transmitted to other unvaccinated fowl, he explained in a podcast with the journal Science, which publishes the study tomorrow. Besides, just like with human influenza, there are plenty of strains, and vaccines don’t cover all of them.

The new genetic modification is basically the opposite — birds will still get sick and die, but they won’t pass on the virus to other birds, a major advancement for animals that generally live in very close quarters. The lack of transmission also means the virus will be less likely to spread to people.
Read more here and here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Millions of Dead Crickets

A cricket paralysis virus that swept through European cricket farms in 2002 is now spreading across North America killing off millions of crickets raised to feed pet reptiles. Is this related to the mass bird, fish and crab deaths of late? Probably not. According to biologists, mass die-offs happen all the time. According to the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, 95 mass wildlife die-offs have taken place in North America in the past eight months. The list includes:

900+ turkey vultures that drowned and starved in the Florida Keys.
4,300 ducks killed by parasites in Minnesota.
1,500 salamanders wiped out by a virus in Idaho.
2,000 bats that died of rabies in Texas.
2,750 sea birds in California.
350 some Common Grackle in Virginia

Fingers crossed that all the pet reptiles out there get something in their bellies soon!

Monday, January 10, 2011

mental_floss must-reads

Not only is there a great feature by Rachel Stern about the four most "Eco-Fabulous Places to Live in 2020" in the latest issue of mental_floss, but Maggie Koerth-Baker breaks down the meaning of "organic" in a great little post you can find and read here and in the graphic found below. If you don't already subscribe to the magazine, you can usually find one at your local Whole Foods check-out line.

Potty-Training Pigs?

Pretty good idea, if you ask me. Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration has pledged to toilet train train their six-million-swine pig farming industry in an effort to reduce the impact of farm pollution on water supplies. Popular Science reports:
Starting in 2009, one southern Taiwanese pig farmer began smearing special “toilet” areas on his farm with excrement and urine to attract the pigs, cajoling them into doing their business in areas where the waste can be contained (waste from farms is among the primary water pollution complaints received by Taiwan’s EPA, and the farmer was trying to avoid costly fines). The effort was such a success that the EPA recently conducted a study on the technique and plans to adopt it across the island. The effort didn’t just cut the amount of waste water at the farm to 20 percent of previous levels, but also made the farm a cleaner and less odorous operation, boosted fertility y 20 percent, and reduced illness among the animals. The farmer who piloted the initiative told local media that he thinks he collects up to 95 percent of all pig waste produced, rather than letting it slip into nearby rivers.
I'll spare you guys the dirty details about pig "toilets" but if you're curious, read more via Treehugger and Yahoo Green.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Uh oh. Word on the web is that bananas are in danger! This is very uncool.

The January 10, 2011 issue of The New Yorker reports on the history of a devastating blight, 'Tropical Race Four' that struck the 'Cavendish' variety banana populations in Australia and the Far East in the late eighties and now, scientists fear, may plague today's primary supply in Latin America. From the article abstract:

More than a thousand kinds of banana can be found worldwide, but a variety called Cavendish, which a nineteenth-century British explorer happened upon in a household garden in southern China, represents ninety-nine per cent of the banana export market. The vast majority of banana varieties are not viable for international trade: their bunches are too small, or their skin is too thin, or their pulp is too bland. Although Cavendishes need pampering, they are the only variety that provides farmers with a high yield of palatable fruit that can endure overseas trips without ripening too quickly or bruising too easily. The Cavendish, which is rich in Vitamins B6 and C, has high levels of potassium, magnesium, and fibre; it is also cheap—about sixty cents a pound. In 2008, Americans ate 7.6 billion pounds of Cavendish bananas, virtually all of them imported from Latin America. Your supermarket likely sells many varieties of apples, but when you shop for bananas you usually have one option. The world’s banana plantations are a monoculture of Cavendishes.

Read Mike Peed's full "We Have No Bananas" abstract (and article with subscription) here.

'If anything goes wrong, Desmond Hume will be my constant.'

As you have all been reading/hearing, thousands of dead drum fish recently washed ashore of the Arkansas River between Ozark and Clarksville and then on New Year's Eve thousands of red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas.

I have several theories:

1.) One of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 forgot to push the button and is moving the island therefore causing a magnetic pole shift.
2.) ManBearPig is real.
3.) We've got a mutated species of petroleum-eating Chytridiomycota fungus on our hands that is capable of making the whole world's oil supply disappear and someone needs to find Tom Clancy.
4.) Some human beings are doing/dumping something they shouldn't in/around the Arkansas River.

Apocalyptic thinking aside, the fact that the deaths were limited to certain species in a certain region leads me to believe this could be something like the amphibian-killing chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, but with the most recent news of near 500 dead blackbirds and starlings in Louisiana in this short period of time and talk of deadly blood clots in the recovered carcases, I think I am one of many now concerned that there is a stronger and faster-spreading problem affront.

Please feel free to share any theories or articles of interest in the comment section. Here are a few readers have sent in:

For Arkansas Blackbirds, The New Year Never Came
Mass La. Bird Deaths Puzzle Investigators
Nearly 3,000 Dead Birds Fall From Arkansas Sky
Dead Fish Cover 20-Miles of Arkansas River

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2011 Welcomes a New Type of Reality TV: 'Kill It, Cook It, Eat It'

On Tuesday, January 11th 2011 at 10pm EST Current TV will begin airing episodes of Kill It, Cook It, Eat It, a television series that follows a diverse group of participants as they "procure their main course the old-fashioned way: by hunting and killing their chosen prey, butchering it in the slaughterhouse, helping to prepare it in the kitchen, and ultimately sampling it at the dinner table."

A few weeks ago, when a classmate of mine invited me to an exceptional local turkey farm to procure a main Thanksgiving course the old-fashioned way, I got to thinking whether or not I could go through with the deed. After about three seconds of thinking I said, "Nope. No thank you, but I admire you for doing so" and went along my merry meat-free way. I have been considering the topic throughout the holiday season and have decided to watch this series because I believe it will offer a hint of the experience without the anti-feedlot activist spin and at enough distance that I can still sleep at night.

Like so many increasingly conscious eaters, I have been on the fence between strict vegetarian and polite house guest for some time now and wonder if this series, likely filled with the painful audiovisuals books on the topic spare, will push me to take a stronger stance.