Vandana Shiva: Fearmongering in Oregon

I’m excited to share today’s guest post by a buddy of mine, Jayson Merkley. Merkley is a Fellow with the Cornell Alliance for Science and the campaign co-founder of Vegan GMO and happens to live in Salem, Oregon, just down the road from me. The other day he alerted me that Dr. Vandana Shiva, a well-known international anti-GMO activist, is scheduled to speak at Willamette University today in Salem. I encouraged him to submit an opinion piece to the Salem paper – the Statesman Journal – and he submitted the below letter but was, for unexplained reasons, denied. I think it’s really unfortunate that Willamette University is giving Dr. Shiva a platform to spread her misinformation when she’s well-known in the science community for lacking the credibility she claims on subjects. So I decided to share Merkley’s letter here – please share it widely. Additionally, if you’re in the Oregon area, there will be a protest outside the University tonight during Dr. Shiva’s scheduled talk hosted by the Portland MAMyths. Feel free to join them.   – Sara

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jaysonAs a conscientious eater and agricultural advocate I’m extremely disappointed to see the University’s Department of Environmental and Earth Sciences hosting Vandana Shiva as part of their Dempsey Lecture series. Don’t get me wrong; I am a strong supporter of Willamette soliciting diverse voices to represent various perspectives as part of the series, but Dr. Shiva lacks the credibility to add to a productive conversation, and her blatant anti-science stance should not be promoted by a science department. As an ethical vegan I’m quite sympathetic to ethical issues in food production, which makes it all the more frustrating to see legitimate concerns for developing world farmers obfuscated by misleading claims about innovative ag technology.

Dr. Shiva is an Indian philosopher with a long track record of distorting the truth—especially around modern agriculture. Driven by her opposition to genetically engineered (GE) crops, Vandana has gone so far as to say in a 2011 speech that fertilizer is a “weapon of mass destruction.” This opposition to a basic input for plant growth leads one to question her most basic knowledge of agriculture, and speaks volumes to her ability to sensationalize the conversation.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated statement from her, but rather a reflection of the dramatization she uses to attack a variety of modern agricultural techniques. When it comes to GE crops, Dr. Shiva employs a wide range of claims to make her point, all of which can be debunked with a simple Google search.

One staple of her presentations is an attempt to link GE crops to many modern maladies including autism, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Using the logical fallacy that correlation equals causation, she refers to graphs that show these diseases growing at a similar rate to the consumption of GE crops. Not only is there is absolutely no proof that any disease is related to GE crops, but thousands of studies have disproven that claim and corroborated the safety of GE food over the past two decades.  Trillions of meals containing GE food have been consumed during that time without a single documented case of negative effects. A similar graph could show the incidences of these diseases correlating very well with the growth of organic food sales, but no one would credibly make the argument that organic food causes autism.

In fact, every major world science organization has concluded that biotech foods are as safe for human and animal consumption as their non-GE counterparts including the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Council for Science, the French Food Agency, and the British Medical Association.

Dr. Shiva’s activism on agricultural issues has crossed the line of civility in many areas, but perhaps none as much as when she blames the tragedy of farmer suicides in India on GE cotton. Farmer suicides in India have been a major problem for decades, well before the advent of GE crops. Studies have shown that a lack of affordable credit and virtually no crop insurance programs are the likely cause—not GE cotton. And while suicide is a problem in India, the rate for Indian farmers is actually less than that of the general population. Falsely using these tragedies to oppose GE crops is unconscionable, and the fact that Dr. Shiva continues to use this as an argument, despite the evidence to the contrary, is just another example of her lack of credibility and her attempt to inappropriately blame a technology for a very real problem in order to scare people away from a useful agricultural tool.

Why is this opposition so dangerous? Because millions of real lives in the developing world are being affected by Dr. Shiva’s activism. Perhaps the most damning example is her continued opposition to Golden Rice. It is estimated that this genetically engineered variety of rice, donated royalty-free to farmers, could help provide vitamin A to the more than 190 million children under age five who suffer from vitamin A deficiency which can lead to blindness and eventually death. A 2014 study concluded that the absence of Golden Rice over the last decade has caused the loss of over 1,424,680 life years in India alone. This is the real tragedy in India, yet Dr. Shiva continues to vociferously oppose Golden Rice simply because it’s a result of brilliant genetic engineering and would be a clear demonstration of the positive benefits of GMOs.

We can all agree that the future of our worldwide agricultural systems involves a complex conversation and to find a solution will require every tool we have and many we don’t. By the end of the 21st century, it is estimated that we will need to feed an additional 3 billion people, requiring farmers to grow more food in the next seventy-five years than has been produced in all of human history. Unfortunately, Dr. Shiva has proven time and time again that she is more concerned with standing in the way of progress toward that goal than she is about actually finding solutions to feed the world.

Willamette University must have higher standards than this, and I can only assume when they discover the background on who they’ve invited, they will agree Vandana Shiva does not meet those standards. Speakers who are known for mis-representing the facts to impressionable minds should not be given the platform of credibility provided by a lecture series at a well-respected University. The rhetoric she uses is simply unacceptable. I urge the University to cancel the event, and be more thoughtful about who it invites in the future. Additionally I’d like to urge the Willamette University student body and my fellow citizens of Salem to take a stand on behalf of Indian farmers; let’s do what we can to give them access to more tools, not less.

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The Faces Impacted by a Minimum Wage Increase

I  try not to get super political on this blog, because I think there are plenty of things to talk about without getting into partisan issues, and I like to see groups leave their party affiliations at the door when they come to the table to talk. But, that being said, I’m  having a hard time keeping quiet on the minimum wage discussion. Maybe it’s because I’ve made friends with a lot of farmers since moving to Oregon or maybe it’s because I’m becoming the kind of person who realizes that I’ll never make a real impact unless I follow and participate in local politics. Either way, I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m a Democrat, and I do not support the proposed minimum wage increase currently being debated in the Oregon House of Representatives. It’s not because I don’t want people to earn more money, I do. It’s not because I don’t care about those full-time workers who can’t make ends meet, I do. I’ve watched the public hearings in the Senate and in the House and I’ve heard the emotional stories on both sides. What it comes down to for me is this: I think pushing this kind of a bill through a short, 35-day session designed to handle budget issues and using the threat of a ballot measure as a weak excuse for urgency leads to sloppy and irresponsible legislation.

Let me take a step back. For those of you who are normally like me and don’t follow the Oregon legislature, I’ll explain. The Oregon legislature used to meet every other year for a six-month session during which they debated and passed bills. During the recession, the legislature had to call a number of special sessions to deal with budget crises, so through a ballot measure it was decided on the off years the legislature would meet for a short session (35 days) to address budget-related issues and make other small tweaks. We’re currently in the middle of the third of those short sessions, and it’s turned into a free-for-all. They’re debating things from increasing the minimum wage to a cap-and-trade bill to a ban on sky lanterns (what do any of those have to do with the budget?). Part of it has to do with the fact that proponents of raising the minimum wage have threatened to put up a ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and legislators are using that as an excuse to hurry a “less bad” bill. The bigger reason, I think, is that Democrats currently have a super majority in the House and the Senate and they’re taking advantage of that to push forward with their issues. The ballot measure threat is just an excuse. The proposed SB 1532 would increase the state’s minimum wage over the next six years in a tiered approach taking us from the current wage of $9.25 to $14.75 an hour in Portland with other urban counties at $13.50 and rural counties at $12.50.

Here’s the thing. There’s just not enough time in a 35 day session for legislators to fully vet this kind of a bill. Let’s not pass bad legislation with enormous impact with the paltry excuse that we’re afraid of a worse ballot measure. I’m not even convinced the ballot measure would pass. Importantly, the Oregonian, the Eugene Register-Guard and the Statesman-Journal all agree with me in thinking this is too much too fast and a little premature. When three of the state’s major papers come out against it, maybe it’s worth pausing to think about.

So here’s what I can do. Since I failed at a January Farming in Focus post because I was preoccupied with my new job, I can show you the faces and tell you the stories of some of those who will be directly impacted by a hike in Oregon’s minimum wage. These are the people who have convinced me that this is a bad idea. These are the people who I’ve seen explain in legislative hearings that this bill will hurt the very people it proposes to help, that it will cause them to cut jobs and rely on mechanization for their crops, and that it may well put them at a discrete disadvantage against neighboring states and in the end, put them out of business. I hope they can convince you, too.FullSizeRender (2)

Robin Froerer’s family grows and sells fresh asparagus in Nyssa, Oregon. She’s spent 20 years building her fresh pack asparagus business. “This increase will force me to remove the crop,” she said.  “I simply cannot pay the increase to minimum and stay price competitive.” In the image above she’s on a WinCo Foods Warehouse Visit – her business sells asparagus to WinCo which calls themselves the “Low Cost Leader.” (It’s true – that’s why I shop there myself.) Since Froerer doesn’t have the ability to raise the price of asparagus to make up for the increase in labor costs, she’s unable to compete with asparagus growers in other states who don’t have such a high minimum wage. “When it comes times to buy asparagus, WinCo will buy from those with the cheaper prices, not from Oregon farmers, and we will be out of business,” she said.  “How much would you pay for a pound of asparagus?”

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Marie Bowers (second from left) is a 5th generation grass seed farmer in Linn and Lane Counties. Her family also farms wheat and meadowfoam – I profiled her farm’s wheat harvest in July. Bowers has calculated that the proposed bill would increase her farm’s employee cost by $13 per acre. At current market conditions she estimates they would need to increase their yields to produce at least 177,000 more pounds of annual ryegrass. If farmers knew how to dramatically increase their yield, they’d already be doing it, but yield is dictated by many uncontrolled factors like weather. It’s not something they can just crank up this year to absorb increased employee costs. During harvest they hire about seven local students to drive combines, balers and tractors. “For over half a century my family’s farm has hired local youth to work harvest,” she said. “Watching these kids grow as humans and workers is always a very rewarding privilege, particularly when they say ‘Thank you’ 20 years later for teaching them to work.” Bowers believes the current minimum wage proposals will eliminate this opportunity for local kids because many like her will no longer be able to afford to hire them. If they’re going to pay that much, they’ll seek more experienced labors and would turn to automation.”The thought of taking away a kid’s chance to learn work and gain work ethic breaks my heart for them and their future,” she said. For many of these kids, the lessons learned on the farm inspire them to go on to earn their living as a farmer.

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Robby Scharf’s family has owned and operated a farm in Polk County for more than 100 years. His family’s farm grows grapes, hazelnuts, grass, wheat, clover, radish, field corn and canola. Robby works on the family farm and his mom Anna says he wants them to hire his high school friends. “With an increase in minimum wage,” she said,  “We will automate and those summer jobs for his friends will go away.” Scharf asserts that if this bill passes in addition to adjusting the crops they grow to ones that require less labor,  they’ll install a robotic palletizer that would eliminate two to three workers and they would use their mechanical grape harvester instead of hiring more than 40 pickers a day during grape harvest. In addition to the loss of jobs, for the consumer, mechanization can have real market implications. In the case of grapes, at least one wine maker I interviewed preferred the quality of hand-picked grapes to mechanically harvested grapes.

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Karl Dettwyler (left) grows blueberries, hazelnuts, grass, grains and vegetable crops in the Willamette Valley.  Blueberries are one crop particularly sensitive to an increase in the minimum wage because in order get the quality needed for the fresh market, the berries must be picked by hand.  For the consumer, a transition to mechanization would mean fewer fresh blueberries and more frozen blueberries. Strawberry growers might be worse off, though, because there is no way to harvest strawberries mechanically. Those growers are completely at the mercy of labor costs.

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Brenda Frketich is a third generation farmer from St. Paul. I profiled her farm last May. Her family grows grass seed, hazelnuts, wheat, clover, vegetables and vegetable seed. They employ anywhere from four to 10 employees throughout the year. “There is no giant pot of money sitting around on our farm just waiting to be dipped into to pay for this pay increase,” she said.  “For many businesses I believe and fear that the increase in pay for entry level employees will take away from current employees, even those in the middle level of employment. The money will inevitably come from reduced hiring tactics, decreased benefits for current employees, and even cuts in bonus pay or yearly wage increases.” Frketich believes an increase in the minimum wage will hurt small Oregon businesses, and most of all the farmers who grow our food.

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Shelly Boshart Davis is a third-generation farmer whose family grows grass seed, wheat and hazelnuts in the Willamette Valley and operates a grass straw baling, trucking and export business. “The increase would impact how many youth we hire every summer, and that is a devastating thought,” Davis said. “We take pride in teaching the next generation about hard work, and the value of a dollar. It will also increase our cost of doing business, and could make us uncompetitive with the global marketplace.” Davis, like me, believes the wage increase is happening too fast in a short session and hasn’t had fiscal impacts properly analyzed. She contests the wage increase is too high and doesn’t account for the unique needs of industries such as agriculture and food processing, among others. Lastly, she asserts separating the state into three tiers based on county lines is not economically or geographically sound. “Farms cross county lines, economies are significantly different in different areas of a county” she said. “For example, Linn County where I live has a larger urban area – Albany – but has much of the county in rural and timber land. Benton County has Corvallis, but also a large rural area. You could say the same for Lane County, Polk County, Marion County, Yamhill County, and others.” Below is Davis with her dad (left) and her grandfather on his last combine ride before he passed away. These three generations of Oregon farmers are asking legislators not to impose mandates that they’re concerned threaten the chances they’ll be able to pass on their legacy of farming.

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These are the faces impacted by SB 1532. It’s likely the House will vote on the bill today. If you live in Oregon, I’d urge you to contact your legislator and let them know how you feel.

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Review: Arctic Apples (nonbrowning GMO apples)

Yup, that's a picture of my son eating a GMO apple. (That's his nail polish, not mine.)

Yup, that’s a picture of my son eating a GMO apple. (That’s his nail polish, not mine.)

Last fall I had this brilliant idea that I should profile an Arctic Apple grower for my Farming in Focus series. I think people would be interested to see the new GMO apples growing on real trees and being harvested by real farmers – it would make for fresh, accurate GMO imagery to combat the ludicrous syringe stuck in a tomato image that seems to show up in every article about GMOs. I got super pumped about my idea and shot off an email to Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), the creators of the Arctic Apple. I got an email back right away from Joel Brooks, OSF’s Marketing Communications Specialist, saying that it was a great idea but unfortunately since the apples were only just approved this year, the first commercial orchards aren’t mature enough to produce fruit yet. Brooks did offer, though, that they have a limited supply of apples this year off their test trials (where filming is not allowed) and would I like a sample to try?  Of course I would, yes, please!!

A few months later a box of eight Arctic Golden Apples arrived on my front door and I don’t think my kids quite understood why I was so excited about a box of apples. For a while I just looked at them in awe and was a bit paralyzed about how to make the most of these eight apples. So I posted about it on Facebook and got some good ideas and a lot of general excitement from readers!

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I was tempted to put them all into a delicious GMO apple pie, but that wouldn’t show off the true benefits of the Arctic Apple. I wanted to demonstrate and test the traits that set these apples apart from traditional Golden Delicious apples. Using RNAi (RNA interference, one of the hottest new applications of biotechnology for which Andrew Fire and Craig Mello won the 2006 Nobel Prize) scientists at OSF have essentially “turned down” the browning effect in apples. You know when you slice up an apple for your toddler and they proceed to eat three bites and then let the remainder sit on the plate for an hour and ultimately refuse to eat it because it’s brown and “icky?” Not the case with Arctic Apples. This minor tweak using the apple’s own genes is revolutionary for a number of reasons: 1. it will significantly cut down on food waste (around 40 percent of apples are currently wasted due to un-appetizing but fully aesthetic browning) and 2. greater convenience will hopefully encourage more consumers to eat fresh fruit.

My kids love apples, and now that they’re both school-aged, I’m faced with packing them a healthy lunch and snack every weekday. In the winter especially, it’s tricky to find fresh fruit to send with them to school. I want to send apples because they have a long cold-storage shelf life, but the options are to send the whole thing and know that a good portion of it will end up in the trash (plus with loose teeth it’s hard to take a bite out of a whole apple), slice it up and risk them not eating it at all because it gets brown, soak the slices in lemon juice which my kids routinely reject, buy pre-packaged slices that are expensive and that my kids also think taste weird, or send apple sauce that has admittedly less fiber and is messy. What if you had apples you could slice up on Sunday that would stay fresh in the fridge all week and you could dole out a few slices a day in lunches? Convenient, frugal, waste-free and good for you! Sign me up.

Arctic Golden on the left, conventional Golden on the right (with sticker.)

Arctic Golden on the left, conventional Golden on the right (with sticker.)

Testing the Apples

I did a few tests to demonstrate and test the non-browning trait. First I went to the store and bought a bunch of conventional Golden Delicious apples. Because in order to truly do a side-by-side comparison on taste and appearance, you have to compare apples to … well… apples. First I sliced both apples and put them in their respective bowls to observe. I took care to

Slicing the first Arctic Apple.

Slicing the first Arctic Apple.

slice the Arctic Golden first so as not to contaminate it with PPO (polyphenol oxidase, the enzyme that causes browning and which there is less of in Arctic Apples) from the conventional apple.

I started this experiment at 12:15. It was hard keeping my kids’ hands (and mine) out of the bowls, so we left the house and came back to observe the appearance at 5:15.

Freshly sliced, Arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

Freshly sliced, Arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

After five hours, arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

After five hours, arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

As you can see, there are considerably fewer slices in the second picture because … children. But you can also clearly see the Arctic Golden is visibly less brown. I’ll be honest, though, I wasn’t super wowed. Not because the Arctic Golden browned, it didn’t really, but because the conventional Golden didn’t brown as much as I thought it would and it’s not as striking as I’d hoped. I emailed Brooks at OSF to see what was up with that. I hypothesized that maybe the reason they chose the Golden variety as the first variety was because they inherently don’t brown as much? He told me that’s not the case. “The thing is, the speed and overall amount of browning can vary quite a bit,” Brooks said,  “Not just by variety, but even among apples of the same variety for a number of potential reasons. Even the exact same apple would brown at different speeds in areas with different temperature, humidity, sunlight, etc. Golden Delicious isn’t one of the faster browning varieties (though it certainly can be dramatic, as shown in our timelapse), but it is one of the quickest to show bruising, especially because of its yellow skin.” He recommended I give the Arctic and conventional apples a good smack on the counter and see which fares better, but unfortunately by the time I got around to emailing him, we’d already eaten all the apples. So, something to test next time! He also told me that the reason they chose Goldens to start with is because, “it’s a great tasting variety with supply-chain issues that the nonbrowning trait can help address.” Because the light skin bruises so easily, it’s a harder apple to get from farm to market without damage.

Not cheap. That's $3 for less than a pound. Granted, you're not paying for the core, but you can get un-sliced apples for less than a dollar a pound!

Not cheap. That’s $3 for less than a pound. Granted, you’re not paying for the core, but you can get un-sliced apples for less than a dollar a pound!

My next experiment was what I call the lunch box taste test experiment. I went to the store and bought some pre-sliced, commercially available apples with citric acid to prevent browning. I put a few in a labeled ziplock bag in a lunch box with a cooler pack. I also sliced up a conventional Golden apple and soaked the slices in a bowl of cold water with lemon juice before putting the drained slices in a ziplock bag in the lunch box. Last, I sliced up an Arctic Golden and put those slices in a third ziplock in the lunch box. Then we loaded up the car and took the lunch box with us on a hike.

Arctic slices, conventional slices soaked in lemon juice water, and store-bought slices (with citric acid to prevent browning.)

Arctic slices, conventional slices soaked in lemon juice water, and store-bought slices (with citric acid to prevent browning.)

After the hike we pulled out the apples for a snack. I had both my parents and both my kids do a blind taste test of the three options, and then asked them to do the same for me (closed my eyes, they gave me three slices one by one and I reported which one tasted the best.) All five of us unanimously chose the Arctic Golden slices as having the best taste. I could taste the lemon apples (yuck, no wonder my kids won’t eat those) and the store-bought ones hardly tasted like apples anymore. But the Arctic Goldens tasted super fresh and crispy and weren’t brown. Conclusion: send Arctic slices in the lunch box. Which is what I did with many of

Sending Arctic Apples in my kids' lunch box!

Sending Arctic Apples in my kids’ lunch box!

the remaining apples.  We also just straight up ate a few of them plain because they were really tasty and I wanted to evaluate the apple in its pure form. When I got down to just three apples, I went ahead and made that GMO apple pie (mixed with some conventional apples as well.) It was delicious, but as I’m not much of a pastry chef, I didn’t take a picture of it because my crust didn’t turn out picture-worthy. 🙂

GMOs 2.0

More than anything else, the GMO apples mark an important and necessary advance in the biotechnology arena from products with farmer benefits that non-farmer consumers may not really understand to products with beneficial traits specifically designed for consumers. Not only do the apples appeal to kids, but they also appeal to adults who care about reducing food waste. I asked Brooks what role OSF (and maker of the non-browning Innate potato, Simplot) play in the biotechnology conversation. “We see these [products] as signs of a positive shift for biotech crops and public perceptions,” Brooks said.  “It’s much easier for consumers to appreciate a new technology when they can witness the benefits firsthand. Products like Arctic apples and Innate potatoes do just that, while also offering value throughout the rest of the supply-chain. And, we feel that our commitment to transparency and open communications is also symbolic of a trend towards improving communications between agricultural innovators/producers and the general public.”

Arctic Golden slices destined for a GMO apple pie.

Arctic Golden slices destined for a GMO apple pie.

If you take it even one step further, think about the potential of this technology for future products. I know it takes a long time (like 10 years) for a new biotechnology product to get to the market, but I can hardly contain my excitement about the potential of a nonbrowning avocado. I have no reason to believe that OSF is working on that, but it seems like such an obvious application of the technology, so I had to ask. As expected, Brooks wouldn’t say, but he did say this, “We do have other biotech-enhanced crops in the works besides nonbrowning apples, including those with consumer-oriented traits (such as other nonbrowning fruits) and also some with agronomic benefits. We are playing some of those cards somewhat close to the chest until we have more to share, though!” I’m keeping my hopes up.

I can’t wait until I can try more apples, but others have already done some cool experiments. This New York Times article shows a cool test of Arctic Apples in a smoothie (the smoothie doesn’t turn brown in the fridge!) and what happens when you bash the apples around in a backpack all day (they don’t bruise) and this guy tested how applesauce looks using conventional versus Arctic apples.

In the meantime, the first roll-out of the Arctic Apple seems to be going well. “Our first true test markets will be in fall 2016,” Brooks said, “But the reception we received in response to samples we provided at tradeshows or mailed out was phenomenal! Lots of positive blog posts and social media messages, plus a few strong articles in mainstream media.” OSF recently applied for US approval of their next nonbrowning variety, Arctic Fuji, and they’ll also be seeking approval in Canada. The next variety in the pipeline is Arctic Gala, with plenty of other Arctic varieties on the horizon.

Stay tuned for my next review as I’ve just received a bag of Innate potatoes!!

 

 

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On Captive Audiences and Critical Thinking in the Classroom

By Jen

Ah, the halcyon days of elementary school. Cheery greetings at drop-off and pick-up, daily opportunities for parent involvement in the classrooms, chatty, colorful newsletters keeping you up to date about your child’s day, countless social interactions with other school families, and reliably uncontroversial, predictable lesson plans.

By contrast, the journey through secondary school is marked by reduced contact with parents and a shift in focus to the main stakeholder: the student. I quickly became aware of this when my firstborn entered middle school. Suddenly he had six teachers instead of one. He had friends I’d never met. He had homework in subjects I hadn’t given much thought to in 30-odd years (hello, Algebra!), as well as exposure to new perspectives, ideas, curricular materials, and, importantly, an expanded role in his own education.

Although it took a bit of adjusting on my part, I have learned to embrace my diminished role in the day to day school experience, largely because taking ownership of their academic affairs has been a key component of my kids becoming more self-reliant and developing independent critical thinking skills. We converse daily about school, but the onus is on them to be their own advocates whenever possible. If they have a question about an assignment or a grade, they’re fully capable of contacting the teacher directly and resolving the issue.

Now some years into the secondary school routine, both kids are comfortable with their current levels of independence and corresponding accountability. I’m enormously proud of both of them for taking initiative to solve problems when needed, and being truly engaged, committed students. All that said, my comfort in sending them into the wilds of public education unaccompanied is rooted in the trust of the quality of the education they’re receiving. For the most part, this trust is warranted, but there have been rare missteps.

Both of the recent incidents I’m about to relate centered around topics that were completely appropriate fodder for the teen classroom. But the materials chosen to introduce them were so outrageously biased and inaccurate, I felt like I had to intervene. The larger issue that these episodes bring into focus is that there is a significant different between preaching critical thinking and practicing it. ‘Critical Thinking’ is a phrase that many of our secondary school teachers use in describing their classroom dynamics, but, as these incidents show, building critical thinking opportunities into the learning process does not always occur.

The general formula is as follows:

1. Kid comes home and voices concerns about the accuracy of a ‘documentary’ presented in class
2. We do some research together and quickly realize that said ‘documentary’ is indeed rubbish.
3. With the consent of the kid, I formulate a polite email to teacher, endorsing discussion of the topic, but questioning the choice of material and inquiring about future plans to give students a more balanced picture.
4. Teacher replies with generally unsatisfying promise of balanced discussion and critical thinking.
5. I counter that a great opportunity for critical thinking has been presented in the form of discussing the validity of the material in question.
6. The unit wraps up quickly with notable scarcity of critical thinking and is never revisited.

In the first instance, without preamble or context, a middle school Social Studies teacher showed the class the HBO Vice episode entitled “Savior Seeds”, a decidedly biased take on the use of GE traits in agriculture. I’ve never watched VICE, though I’ve heard good things and it’s apparently won some awards, but considering that one of the executive producers is Bill Maher, inaccurate reporting of science-based issues isn’t exactly surprising.

After viewing the GE portion of the program and discussing the content with my kid (step 2) I proceeded to step 3: first contact. The response contained much bloviating about critical thinking and letting kids do their own research. I opined that, while that was a stellar idea in principle, biased introductory materials were detrimental to this process.

The next day, my kid came home with a lengthy printout of websites through which to ‘do his own research’. The printout was from the resource page of ‘The Future of Food’ website, which contains a long list of links to anti-GMO organizations. Sigh. Repeat steps 2 and 3.

Johann_Peter_Hasenclever_-_Die_Dorfschule (1)On the final day of the ‘research’ phase, the kids were instructed to go to the Monsanto website during class and look things up for themselves. Finally, while no ‘debate’ was held, students were encouraged to share whatever they wanted about their research. According to my kid, most of the class was either neutral or slightly in favor of GE technology, and it was clear from the teacher’s response that this was not her desired outcome. I couldn’t help but wonder how much the direction of the unit had changed due to my intervention. And it was hard not to think that whatever critical thinking had occurred in the class was in spite of, rather than because of, the way in which the material had been presented.
The second incident occurred a few months later, in a high school Health class. This time, the questionable material came in the form of a film called “Forks over Knives”, which presents an argument for a plant-based diet being superior to all others. On the face of it, that’s not a controversial claim at all. Consuming less animal fat and more fresh fruits & vegetables is one component of the standard recommendations for reducing disease  risks across the board.

The problem, described in some detail here and here, is that ‘Forks over Knives’ grossly overstates the benefits of their particular plant-based diet based on some notoriously shoddy research. This, combined with the scary implications that all other diets are a fast-track to pain and death, concerned me mightily. Adolescents already have a whole lot of risk factors for disordered eating, so adding these unsubstantiated claims to their pile of things to worry about—again, with no context or balance given, seems like a terrible approach to ‘Health’.

Again, steps 1-6 proceeded. Again, the classroom outcome was underwhelming. No other materials were presented, and there was no discussion of the merits or shortcomings of the film. The teacher announced at the conclusion of the unit that some parts of the film were accurate and some were not, but didn’t give examples of either. Again, a golden opportunity for actual critical thinking was squandered.

Again, I wondered what the outcome would have been had I not raised concerns about the source material.

Part of the underlying issue here is the relative ease in finding misinformation vs. accurate material. The internet is full of outrageous lies, many of them packaged in attractive, professional-looking, plausible formats. Science-based information, by contrast, doesn’t always rise to the top of a Google search. It can be hard to find in the first place, and often inscrutable when located. No wonder the pretty lies can travel so much farther—even as far as our K-12 classrooms.

This makes me wonder how many times this sort of thing plays out in various classrooms everywhere, and how many—or how few–times parents like me speak up. Recognition that a classroom full of kids is the very definition of ‘a captive audience’ is one key reason why action is so unambiguously warranted when a teacher’s religious views influence their curriculum. But there’s no recourse when broader unscientific views are taught as objective truth. Teaching kids how to think critically would go a long way toward minimizing the impact of such sub-par source materials, but in our experience thus far there have been disappointingly few opportunities to develop these skills in any practical sense.

One big positive in all this is the awareness that my kids clearly have excellent BS detectors. One could argue that, since they clearly know not to believe everything they hears without verification, there’s no need for me to intervene. But it’s not just them I’m thinking about. All the promises of critical thinking as a tenet of modern instruction aside, most secondary students still view classroom materials as objectively true and accurate. When inaccurate information enters the classroom, it’s the kids who haven’t been cultivated to think for themselves whom I worry about.

You might disagree with my choice to voice these concerns on the grounds that it doesn’t respect academic freedom and/or disrespects the efforts of already overworked public school teachers. I absolutely do not mean to malign teachers in general, or even these particular teachers. I know how hard they work. I know how challenging the job is. I know how much both my kids have benefitted from the efforts and dedication of their teachers over the years, and I know that much of that benefit has come from the individual passions and personal interests that these teachers have brought into their classrooms. I know that teaching kids how to think is much, much harder in every possible way than telling them what to think.

All that said, I don’t regret my decision to challenge their choices in how these materials were presented. It may not make any difference to the way they teach these topics in the future, but it might. I hope it will, and I think it was worth it to try.

I’m under no illusion that this is the end of classroom controversies for our family. Already I see that ‘Alternative Medicine’ is on the syllabus for one child’s class later this school year, so stay tuned for how that plays out!

Meanwhile, maybe there’s a lesson here in the importance of staying engaged with your child’s education, even as they grow more self-sufficient and autonomous. These experiences are adding to the critical thinking toolkit my kids are currently assembling for themselves. My efforts to foster this are an investment in their futures, just like their extensive orthodontic interventions, or the college plans we’ve been paying into since they were babies. Learning how to sort out good facts from bad will pay dividends, no matter what academic, professional, or personal pursuits lie ahead.

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New Year, New Job, New Voices

Remember over a year ago when I wrote about how difficult it is for stay-at-home moms to return to the work force? Not because you might want to continue to stay home (please kill me now) but because it’s very hard to overcome the stigma associated with women who voluntarily leave their careers to raise kids? And how I was feeling shocked by the very real possibility of not being able to get a job I thought was worth my time and experience? Well, scratch all that. I got a job.

No big deal, it only took me two years. Given the fact that Portland is a city full of highly educated hipsters all willing work for pennies just to live in Portland, I’m kind of impressed that I managed to get a job at all. I’m patting myself on the back about that.

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how I should write this post, and there are two points I want to make. The first one is easier; it’s the advice I’d give to other stay-at-home moms who want to return to work at some point. Here it is: make certain you’re looking for a career in something you genuinely care about, and keep your toe in the water even if you have to do it for free or even pay out of pocket. Don’t pursue a career in something just because that’s what you did before. If you didn’t like it then, you’re not going to like it any better now. Pick something you feel passionately enough about that you might be willing to do it in your spare time. Because you probably should be doing it in your spare time. There were definitely times my husband said, “What? You’re going to pay your own money to go to a professional conference?” or “Why are you getting up at 6 am on a Saturday to take pictures of a Christmas tree harvest … for free?” or “That’s not worth your time, you’re hardly making any money on that job.” I felt strongly enough about advocating these issues that I kept doing it anyway; so find something you feel that strongly about and make yourself valuable in that industry by continuing to do it in some capacity. Even if that means re-training. Do some soul searching and if you have to go back to night school for a few years, do it.

The next point flows naturally out of the above, but is a little trickier. In the end, I’m a journalist, and I’m guided by those ethics classes I took in journalism school (even though I get the feeling many journalists can’t seem to be bothered with that). I feel compelled to be transparent about any potential conflicts of interest. I don’t want you, readers, to feel like now I’m getting paid to have an opinion and so somehow that lowers my trustworthiness. At the same time, I’m not willing to give up my anonymity for all the very real reasons I’ve written about before. So, I’m not going to tell you where I work. But here’s what I will tell you – I got hired into my job because of my passion, knowledge, and voice of reason on many of the issues I have discussed on this blog. I’m not getting paid to have my opinions, I’m getting paid because I already had those opinions. That’s an important distinction. This blog has always been and continues to be based on my own well-researched opinions. Nonetheless, I’ll promise you that I will not write posts on topics that directly conflict me or would have an immediate impact in my field.

Now, on to some more exciting news: I’m adding three new writers to It’s MomSense! I’m really looking forward to diversifying the number of voices on this blog – we’re coming up on two years since I started this and bringing in more opinions will help transform this blog into something even more valuable. It’s also necessary. There are just not enough hours in the day for me to work a full-time job, exercise, spend time with my family, sleep AND create regular compelling content for this blog. Enter the new writers.

I’ve asked them each to introduce themselves to you below, but all four of us have a few things in common: we’re all moms, we all live in Oregon, and we’re all passionate about evidence-based thought. You’ve also already met all three of them: Jen wrote a guest post on sunscreen last summer, I profiled Tiffany’s farm last fall, and although she’s unnamed in my post, Sarah was part of the March Against Myths campaign I blogged about last May.

Joining me on the new It’s MomSense team:

——– Jen ——–

JenI’m a scientist and mother based in Eugene, Oregon.  My husband and I moved to Eugene for me to attend graduate school at the U of O and loved it here so much we never left.  I had both my kids in grad school, and graduated with my PhD in Biology in 2003.  After completing a postdoctoral fellowship, I was invited to stay on as a non-tenure track research associate. My work focuses mainly the molecular biology of Usher syndrome, a hereditary form of deaf-blindness.  You can read some of my blog posts on this topic on the Usher Syndrome Coalition blog, where I’ve been a contributor for the past eight years.

My children, now teenagers, have taught me a lot about who I am as a parent, an educator, and a person, and some of my contributions here will be about what I’ve learned on that journey so far.  I am the product of a parenting style in which all that I did–every action, accomplishment, and misstep–was evaluated solely by how it reflected on the parent. My own parenting approach is pretty much 180 degrees from that.  My kids are their own people, increasingly accountable to and responsible for themselves as they grow. To facilitate them being the best versions of themselves, I have tried to create the structure and security for them to explore their interests and obligations in the way that feels best to them.  I usually let them figure things out for themselves rather than providing the answers. I encourage them to question the information that comes to them from all sources and form their own opinions.

Living an evidence-based, grounded life in Eugene, Ore. has its challenges, given that the culture here tends to skew more toward fairies than facts. The community vibe as a whole is often in stark contrast to my work and home life, but it definitely makes for some interesting conversations!  I strongly believe that effectively communicating science—and debunking pseudoscience—requires respect and genuine acknowledgement of different points of view.  No matter how clear cut the facts are, science can only speak for itself if people are willing to listen.

You can follow me on Twitter @ClutchScience, and soon on Facebook, as soon as I get around to activating my professional page.

——– Tiffany ——–

TiffanyFarming in real life; that’s what my family does. Not what the media says, not what the latest issue of Natural News says, and certainly not how that meme that your BFF shared from the Food Babe says. We farm in the real world. The everyday, not-so-exciting, get-your-hands-dirty, sweat-in-your-eyes real world of farming.

Keith and I are 4th generation family farmers working alongside his parents in the Willamette Valley, right next to the state capital of Salem. Our farm focuses on seed crops like wheat, grass seed, barley, oats, turnip seed, and field peas. In the last few years we started to plant hazelnuts (It’s MomSense blog post) and that has added a lot of excitement to our lives.

I work off the farm right now in the corporate world as an assistant for agricultural appraisers in a small but growing company. Balancing being a working mom after being a SAHM has been an adjustment for the whole family. I am sure that there are many of you that could relate and maybe even give me a few tips!

We have two funny/smart/awesome/infuriating/charming daughters from my previous marriage who are initiating us into parenting the teen years. Go US! Also we have a scattering of pets that seem to show up in my social media channels often because, well, pets are fun.

I grew up “in town” so when I married Keith, I was not only marrying him but this way of life. Culture shock is the best way to describe it.  Several years later, I am still adjusting but I’d like to think I am getting the hang of it.

If you want to know more about me or our farm, you can follow me on Instagram or Twitter. I also started a Facebook page recently, where I will be focusing on farming posts. A couple of years ago I did a spot for KATU Channel 2 for the Celebrate Agriculture campaign. Check out the video!

——– Sarah ——–

sarahI’m a twenty-something vegan mom of a rambunctious three- year-old boy and full-time student working toward a B.S. in Biology at Portland State University. When not busy with school and child-rearing, I enjoy spending my time communicating and advocating for science and biotech as well as completing the occasional craft project and eating copious amounts of soy ice cream.

As a young vegan growing up in Portland, I once fell prey to many myths associated with health and nutrition. I believed that organic food was safer and more sustainable than conventionally-farmed foods, that it was important to avoid “toxins” and processed foods and that genetically-modified crops were a science fiction horror story waiting to happen. Although I considered myself a skeptic and science enthusiast, I subscribed to these views because of how pervasive they were and continue to be. Becoming a mother further compounded these beliefs, as I was surrounded by misinformation from both the internet and well-intentioned friends and family members who had me believing that unmedicated birth, long-term breastfeeding, “clean” eating and attachment parenting were the only ways to ensure that my child would have a healthy and happy upbringing.

Once I realized that many of the views I held were not supported by empirical evidence, I immediately felt compelled to learn more and to educate others. I now understand that genetic engineering is not only as safe as traditional breeding methods but that it also holds many advantages for the environment, for global economy and for human and animal welfare. My current focus is educating other vegans about crop biotech, as I believe vegans especially should acknowledge and embrace the benefits this technology has for animals and the environment. In May 2015 I helped co-organize the Portland chapter of the international March Against Myths movement and have since become involved in pro-science activism both online and in person.

As a mom, I want my son to live in a society that values education, rationality and human progress. When parents decline to vaccinate their children, citizens vote against water fluoridation and misguided activists fight to oppose new breeding technologies I believe that human health suffers and progress is hindered.

————-

That’s the new team. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what this next year brings and how this blog will grow and change. Thanks for coming along with us for the ride.

 

 

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December Farming in Focus: Christmas Trees

This month’s Farming in Focus is an obvious one, and I’m publishing this story today with the hopes that you’ll read it while you’re winding down from your Christmas morning extravaganza. Kids are playing with new toys and you’re sitting there drinking your coffee next to your Christmas tree. I thought I’d take this prime opportunity to talk about where those Christmas trees come from and the work that goes into getting them from the farm to your festive family room.

Oregon grows more Christmas trees than any other state in the United States: in 2013 Oregon harvested 6.4 million Christmas trees, almost double the second runner up, North Carolina. In fact, in 2013 greenhouse and nursery crops, which includes Christmas trees, was Oregon’s most valuable commodity. This should really come as no surprise to those of us who live in Oregon, where the Douglas fir is a native species and is almost ubiquitous. So it was an easy decision to talk with Christmas tree grower Joel Rohde in Amity, Oregon about how he grows Christmas trees.

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Rohde, a second generation farmer, does more than just grow Christmas trees. He also owns a small grocery store/coffee house and has a straw export business. In fact, Rohde was quick to tell me that he’s getting out of the Christmas tree business because it’s just not lucrative enough and the export hay business makes more money. He keeps the grocery store simply because he likes being part of the community. “Half the high school is in  here in the afternoons. You can’t be in it to make money, but it’s a good community thing.” Rohde primarily bought the store (in partnership with another owner) so the local kids working there could keep their jobs. His wife mostly runs it now.
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Rohde got into the Christmas tree business in 2001 when it was booming and trees were selling for $3.50 to $4.00 per foot wholesale. He started planting trees, but so did everyone else. By about 2007 there was too much supply and the market tanked. Prices dropped to $1.00 per foot. It’s rebounding a bit now, back to about $2.50 per foot, but he’s down to his last 20 acres of Noble firs now (which is still a lot of trees – he told me he grows 1,752 trees on an acre.) He used to grow Noble fir, Grand fir and Douglas fir on about 100 acres. When he decided to scale back, the Douglas and Grands went first because they grow faster (it takes about seven years for a Douglas fir to grow six feet versus nine years for a Noble.) He’s just waiting for the last of the Nobles to reach the right height and he’ll be done in about two more harvests.

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Rohde told me growing Christmas trees is very heavy on labor and he doesn’t love the physical work. He starts planting seedlings from nurseries in April and after three years he starts basal pruning (cutting limbs from the bottom up so they can eventually get the chain saw in to cut it down.) Shearing alone costs about $.30 per tree. He also has to manage for weeds between the rows so the weeds don’t compete for resources and get in the way of shearing. In the summer he sprays for insects and fungus. He fights aphids that turn the inner part of the tree black and cause the needles to fall off, and fights needle necrosis which could be caused by a fungus and causes needles to turn brown. Sometimes he can sell trees with needle necrosis as flocked (sprayed white) Christmas trees. After the fourth year he starts to shear the trees into the classic Christmas tree inverted “V” shape. Ninety percent of trees sold are between six and seven feet, so for a Noble fir that’s about nine years worth of management before harvest.

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Rohde also told me he does a lot of tip pruning and leader work. Sometimes the leader (that characteristic tip you put your star on) will die off and he’ll have to train a new leader with a stick like he’s doing in the image above.

xmas trees-12In July and August the trees get tagged by color based on height. Then in November they start harvesting. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays Rohdes has 12 to 15 high school guys working eight hours a day. I had a heck of a time even catching up to this guy and his chainsaw. He and another guy moved so fast through the rows that I had to run to keep up. They had those trees down in a blink of an eye. It was awe inspiring.

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Following the two guys with chainsaws was a group picking up the trees and hauling them to the edge of the field. Rohdes told me his favorite part about growing Christmas trees is working with the high school and college kids. He spends a lot of time coaching and counseling the kids. “This job defines a kid, physically,”  he told me. “After two to three weeks you’ll have the desire to go back to school and get good grades.”
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The rest of the process would seem familiar to anyone who’s been to a U-cut Christmas tree farm, only on steroids. Another crew picks up the trees from the edge of the field and first puts them on a machine that shakes them to remove loose needles …

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… then the trees are run through a netting device …

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… and piled up by size.

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Then the crew hauls the shaking/baling machine up the hill to the next pile of cut trees. One difficulty in the whole process, as you can see in these pictures, is trying to keep the trees out of the mud (who wants to buy a Christmas tree caked in mud?) Anyone who’s ever lived in Oregon in November and December can understand what a difficult task that can be, especially when you’re driving a heavy baling machine and trucks up a down a hilly terrain (where Christmas trees grow best) in the rain.

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Afterwards the trees are piled on to a truck and taken down the  hill.

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Eventually the trees are taken to McKenzie Farms, a Christmas tree yard that ships the trees world-wide. Upwards of 90 percent of Christmas trees grown in the Pacific Northwest are shipped outside the region, with California being the largest market. Rohdes told me his trees have also been shipped to Hawaii and Mexico.

And, obviously, the final destination is your family room where many of us are sitting today, enjoying our festive tree with our families on Christmas day. Remember today, as we sit by the fire and enjoy the fresh Christmas tree smell and all the memories that come with this day, that there’s a farmer out there who put up to nine years of hard work into your tree. He’s thanking you for enjoying his hard work and we’re thanking him for making our Christmas that much more enjoyable.

Merry Christmas.

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The Science of Mom: Read This Book (or Give it for Christmas)

When I was pregnant with June, the only book I read was What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I took the childbirth classes recommended by the hospital, and I can’t even remember, but I think I took a breastfeeding class. That was it. I’m not even sure I made a birth plan, or if I did, it was very basic. I didn’t read any books about what to do when the baby actually arrived –I was completely focused on the pregnancy and getting all the right baby gear.

It did not go as planned. I went into labor one day shy of full term, and when I got to the hospital we discovered June was breech and I’d have to have an emergency cesarean. I was shocked. I’d only skimmed the chapter on cesarean in the book and I only half paid attention to that part in class. But then everything happened really quickly, they delivered June via cesarean and it turned out fine. June was perfectly healthy even though she was technically premature.

first weekI will never forget the complete and utter feeling of astonishment when we were moved from the delivery room into the post-partum room and the nurses started to leave. Both my husband and I looked at them, no doubt with utter shock in our eyes, and said, “Wait, you’re going to leave us alone with her??”

Two years later I had spent more hours alone with a baby than I ever thought possible (most of them in the middle of the night.) I had more realistic expectations for July’s birth and by then I knew all the gear I really needed was diapers and boobs. Again, it did not go as planned. I went into labor even earlier this time, just shy of 36 weeks, it went slower than before, I ended up with an epidural, I freaked out my OB by having a vision-altering migraine while pushing and July was delivered very quickly with forceps to avoid further complications. I was encouraged to have an MRI and think hard before having any more children. He was perfect, but I needed pain killers for a long time.

The point of these stories is that childbirth rarely goes as planned and it is only just the beginning of the confusion.  When you’re pregnant, being pregnant is all-consuming – what should you eat, how do you get prepared, how should you exercise? Then when you’ve had a child, what to do with that child is all-consuming – where should she sleep, what do you feed him, do you really need that vitamin K shot?

Here’s my unsolicited advice to new moms: don’t just read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In fact the pregnancy part, as all-consuming as it feels at the time, isn’t the most confusing part because at that point it’s still your body (IMO). Once your pregnancy becomes a tiny little human separate from you but for whom you’re completely in charge the decisions are even more complicated.  Spend your time reading information that will help you make those decisions.  And under no circumstances should you rely on Google and mommy forums to help you make those decisions, because there is nothing more judgmental than a mommy forum. You will not get good, evidenced-based advice there. They’re not terrible and can offer a support group if you find the right one, but in my experience, moms are the biggest critics of other moms and you’ll get pressure to do things a certain way, often with total disregard for science.

A few months ago I was asked to read and review a book called The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year by Alice Callahan. Alice is a blogger with whom I am familiar because she lives just down the road in Eugene.  Now, my kids are much older than one year and to be honest, I don’t normally review books. But I’ve gotten a lot of support from fellow bloggers in this space, so I felt like I should at least give it a read and if I didn’t think it was useful, I wouldn’t review it. Alice is a new(ish) mom who has a PhD in nutritional biology and spent two years investigating fetal physiology as a postdoctoral scholar, so she’s clearly qualified to write on the subject.

Her book is fantastic. If all you do is stand in Barnes and Noble and read one chapter, read the chapter about vaccines. It should be required reading for all new parents. Alice writes in a soft and non-judgmental way, in a way I’d have a hard time doing. It’s not pushy,  just informative. I’m not even going to have any more kids and I was reading out loud to my husband at night about the science behind when to cut the umbilical cord, simply because I found her presentation of the subject so compelling. In her book, Alice has applied her scientific scrutiny of the literature on subjects ranging from the benefits (or lack-thereof) of breastfeeding, to the cultural framework behind co-sleeping, to what your baby’s first foods should be. She calms fears and provides parents with real facts. She doesn’t make the decisions for you, but she makes it a lot easier to make sound decisions.

So if you know someone who’s having a baby soon and you’re not sure what to get them for Christmas, get them this book. In fact, even if you already got them something, do them a favor and get them this book, too.  I wish I had read it when I was pregnant with June, because it would have kicked off my whole parenting experience on the right foot – an evidence-based foot. Thankfully, I’ve gotten there on my own, but for new parents Alice’s book provides the tools to potentially save them from falling into the black hole of pseudoscience and misinformation that runs wild in parenting communities. You should read this book, even if you’re like me and don’t plan to have more kids, because it’s interesting and well written.

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November Farming in Focus: Squash

For this month’s Farming in Focus, I wanted to do something Thanksgiving-y. The obvious choice was to try to hunt down a turkey grower and find out what I could learn about how that tasty bird gets from the farm to our Thanksgiving table. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a turkey grower and none of the Oregon farmers I reached out to knows a turkey grower. Turns out, there aren’t very many turkeys grown in Oregon anymore. So, I went with another Thanksgiving staple: squash. I drove down to Aurora, Oregon on a very cold and rainy November day to chat about decorative pumpkins and edible squash.
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Dylan Wells and his family own Autumn Harvest Inc., the largest mini pumpkin and gourd grower in Oregon. Dylan’s father originally got into agriculture at the age of 20 when he started growing tree seedlings for Christmas tree production and reforestation efforts. Eventually he switched to nursery production and grew grafted ornamentals until 2009 when the housing industry crashed and took the landscape market with it. Thankfully, in the meantime Dylan and his brother Darren had created a mini-pumpkin business initially as a way to earn enough money to go to Disneyland and later to Hawaii to see their dad inducted into the Oregon Association of Nurseries. When their roadside mini-pumpkin business inherited the Safeway decorative pumpkin contract from a neighbor, they went from growing three acres to fifteen acres and eventually when the nursery business crashed in 2009, the boys’ pumpkin business was big enough to support the family.

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Today Wells runs the business with his wife, mother, and father. On about 200 acres, he grows 18 to 20 varieties of pumpkins, 25 varieties of winter squash, seven to eight varieties of gourds, and a few acres of dill weed, pickling cucumbers, and Indian corn. About seven years ago he got into edible squash which currently makes up about twenty-five percent of his business. His most popular product is the mini white pumpkin (primarily for weddings and decorations) and his top sellers in winter squash are butternut and acorn (also called danish squash.) When I asked Wells what his favorite squash is he confessed, “I don’t really care for squash.” I seriously laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair.

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While we were chatting about how Wells gets his product to market, a distributor pulled up to collect just one lonely box of red kuri squash for a local restaurant. Unlike some crops like peas, squash and pumpkin growers don’t get contracts ahead of time from the cannery. So instead of agreeing on a price ahead of time and growing a specified number of acres, Wells says he operates on the “plant and pray” approach. Starting in about January he starts placing seed orders for what he’ll plant in May. He has to guess what consumers and distributors will want based on what they bought last year. Wells sells directly to consumers in their online store (which they are actively trying to grow as it makes them the most money), and also sells wholesale and to distributors. Wells supplies pumpkins and squash to Fred Meyer, Safeway and WinCo, so next time you pick up a squash at one of those stores, it might have come from Autumn Harvest!

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When I visited all the fruit had already been harvested out of the field so I didn’t get any field shots, but I did get to see the crew cleaning and packing butternut squash. Pumpkins and squash are harvested by hand with clippers starting August 15th and are brought into be washed. Here they first go through a floating, sanitizing soak to get most of the debris off.

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Next they are scrubbed and rinsed by hand and run down a line of these spinning brushes.  Wells told me at the height of packing he employs about 50 people, and on average they’re making about $13 per hour. His foreman makes closer to $20 per hour and he has some employees that have been working for him for years who make more than the first-timers. Forty percent of Wells’ cost is in labor, and if the minimum wage increases as it’s looking like it will, Wells told me he’ll be put out of business because he just can’t afford it. The minimum wage discussion  has him already looking into investing more in real estate and considering getting out of farming all together.

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Then the squash roll down the line under big fans. Moisture and heat lead to rotting squash, so getting them dry is very important. If these were decorative pumpkins, it’d be at this point that they might be sprayed with food-grade wax to make them look shiny (similar to what is done for apples.)

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Next the squash are sorted by size. In the case of butternut, squash that is very small or very large often end up being sold as pre-peeled and sliced. In fact, Wells told me he grows some varieties specifically for the pre-cut market (like the massive butternut he’s holding in the first image.)

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When the squash are being sorted in the last step, some go into the dump bin. Wells told me about 25 percent of his product gets kicked out as “coals.” Sometimes they get tossed aside because of size, sometimes because of scarring, rotting or broken pieces. The stores won’t take scarred squash because customers won’t buy them. Wells told me spaghetti squash are particularly susceptible to scarring as their skins are very thin and when the wind blows the vines scrape across the surface of the squash and damage it. While weeds are Wells’ biggest pest, the cucumber beetle and brown marmorated stink bug are also very serious pests. The bugs take bites out of the squash and lead to scarring and rot. Wells has an arrangement with some pig and cattle ranchers who come collect the “coals”  – he essentially gives away 25 percent of his crop as livestock feed. Often he gets a free pig out of the deal, though. He can’t compost the unwanted squash because the seeds stick around and volunteer squash pop up in the wrong places. I’ve experienced this in my own backyard garden; this year I had a rogue spaghetti squash volunteer in my tomato garden out of my compost. Considering that it vines and produces fruit heavy enough to pull down my tomato cage and leaves the size of dinner plants, I can understand why Wells doesn’t want unwanted squash in the wrong field.

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Wells told me when the squash are harvested they’re selecting for color and hardness. As I mentioned, planting starts in May and harvest begins August 1st and goes through November 1st, but there’s a lot that goes into making sure that red kuri squash looks just right. Squash are thirsty plants and require irrigation throughout the summer – they will abort squash production to conserve resources if it’s too hot or they don’t get enough water which happened a lot this summer when it was really hot and dry. They also produce male and female flowers, meaning they need a pollinator to create fruit. Wells rents about 150 to 200 hives for the bloom. Weeds are a problem too; Wells said if you don’t manage it right the pig weed will get four feet tall. Much of the weed management has to happen before the vines get too big because after the plants are established the only real option is hand hoeing.

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I was blown away by the sheer number of bins of squash. They were everywhere: sitting inside the warehouse, sitting outside in the rain, under non-climate-controlled structures. Wells told me they plan to have it all sold by the beginning of December because once it starts to freeze the squash deteriorate and they have very little climate-controlled storage. After that they clean up, the extra squash goes to livestock feed, they maintain and repair vehicles and equipment and start ordering seeds to get there by April 15 so they can start working the ground and planting in between rain showers in May.

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Wells also grows Indian corn which dries out in this structure under fans for almost a year. The corn above will be sold next fall. One of the reasons Wells grows Indian corn is because it offers crop rotation outside the cucurbita family which includes squash, pumpkin and cucumbers (so pretty much everything else Wells grows.) Squash is susceptible to mosaic virus which leaves the leaves spotted and can stunt growth and ruin a crop. Incidentally, there is one variety of GMO yellow crookneck squash that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to the mosaic virus because there aren’t good treatments for mosaic virus. The only thing to do is rotate your crops to prevent the virus from showing up. Wells trades land with other local farmers every three years, which is about how long he can grow squash on the same field before the virus shows up.

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I asked Wells if he gets a lot of pressure to go organic because of the niche market he’s in. He told me he does, and he’d love to put 50 or so acres to organic production because he could triple his asking price. The only thing holding him back is the crop rotation issue I mentioned. Wells trades land with grass seed farmers for crop rotation and in order to go organic, he’d have to get them to agree to also be organic for a season as well. So far he hasn’t been successful at convincing anyone to do it.

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Right before I left Wells told me he had to show me one more cool thing: Hot Skwash. Daria Knowles, an artist out of Portland, salvages unusable squash stems and corn husks to create velvet pumpkins and corn adorned with Swarovski crystals that sell in Neiman Marcus from $30 to over $100. So next fall, in addition to decorating your table with real mini-pumpkins, you can also decorate with couture squash art!

As always, I hope you learned something cool about squash production today. Leave a comment if you did!

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Roundup: What It Is (and What It Isn’t)

pesticide appliedI have a neighbor/friend who recently asked me if I knew how to stop our neighborhood landscaping crew from spraying Roundup in the common areas. She didn’t know that I blog about agriculture issues, nor did she know I used to work for Monsanto. I told her my position and asked her why she had concerns.  It boiled down to all the things that people think about Roundup: it’s bad for the environment, and it’s possibly carcinogenic. She suggested we look for an alternative that is unquestionably safe. During this conversation another friend of mine piped up and admitted that, “I don’t really know much about Roundup, I’ve just heard it’s bad.” Then a few weeks later I was helping out in the school garden at my children’s elementary school when I heard one of the adults tell the kids that “pesticides are bad.”

Pesticides are incredibly useful, but that’s not what the public thinks. So today I’m going to talk about the most commonly used herbicide in the world: Roundup. This post is really meant for the lay-person, so if you’re looking for in-depth analysis, you’re probably not going to find it, but I will provide links throughout on where you can find more information.

This is a long post because there’s so much to cover, so I’ll summarize up front. I’m going to talk about

  • What Roundup is: a broad-spectrum herbicide containing glyphosate as its active ingredient.
  • How it’s used: to kill weeds in agricultural, forestry, and industrial settings as well as around the neighborhood.
  • What Roundup Ready is: crops that have been bioengineered to tolerate Roundup so just the weeds die and the crop survives.
  • Why it’s beneficial:  (for crops) reduction in tillage which results in less run-off, better soil, and carbon sequestration.
  • Alternatives to Roundup: more harmful or less effective herbicides or less-efficient, energy intensive options.
  • Is it safe:  yes.
  • Does it cause cancer:  no.
  • Do farmers douse fields: no, or use it too much: it’s complicated, and super weeds: they’re not that super after all.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be concerned about Roundup. If you don’t want to use it in your yard, don’t.  But as far as herbicides go, Roundup has a long, safe history and is a useful tool for farmers. It’s not the end-all-be-all of agriculture, but it’s an extremely valuable agricultural tool.

What is Roundup? (for the non-scientist)

Roundup contains the active ingredient glyphosate, which is a non-selective, systemic herbicide. Throughout this post I’ll use the two terms interchangeably, but Roundup is a brand name for glyphosate like Tylenol is a brand name for acetaminophen. There are dozens of other herbicide brands that also contain glyphosate, but Roundup is the most well known. An herbicide is something that kills weeds (for clarity: pesticide is the umbrella term that includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) Non-selective means that it doesn’t just work on one kind of weed (like just broad-leaf weeds or just grasses), it works on virtually all plants. In contrast, selective herbicides (like Dicamba) are likely what you’ve seen advertised to use on your lawn to kill dandelions and clover – it doesn’t kill grass, only broadleaf weeds. Don’t spray a non-selective herbicide like Roundup on your dandelions, it will kill the dandelions but it will also kill your grass. Systemic means that it doesn’t just damage the sprayed leaves of the plant; it gets inside the plant and disrupts the functions that keep it alive. Compare this to vinegar, which is a contact herbicide (non-systemic) and will only damage the part of the plant that gets sprayed with vinegar, but the weed isn’t dead, just damaged and it might come back. Systemic herbicides are very effective because it’s less important that you completely cover the plant, just a little will do the trick.

If you want to know more, there’s plenty of information out there about how glyphosate actually works in the plants (it inhibits specific enzymes only found in plants and blocks the shikimic acid pathway.) Here’s a good video on how glyphosate works. And here’s a good detailed overview of the mode of action (warning: very sciencey).

How is Roundup used?

In non-agricultural settings like your yard and neighborhood, Roundup is really effective in places where you don’t want anything to grow: cracks in pavement, along rock borders, in mulched areas in your flower bed. It’s what landscape crews are probably spraying in hard-to-mow spots like under fences and around trees. It’s also commonly used by state transportation departments to manage roadside vegetation instead of mowing which creates emissions and is labor-intensive.  It is also used by parks departments to get rid of noxious weeds like poison ivy and invasive weeds like blackberry, and along railroads or power line corridors to prevent weeds and trees from causing disruptions.

In agricultural settings, Roundup is used to increase cropping efficiency. Weeds compete with crops for resources like sunlight, water, space and nutrients. Weeds that get a stronghold will out-compete crops by shading them from the sun and stealing valuable nutrients. In the end, not treating for weeds means farmers make less money and get far less production out of every acre, and it means we need more acreage to feed the same number of people and wastes resources like water on something we can’t eat.

It’s important here to point out a very big difference between managing weeds in your yard which is primarily for aesthetic reasons and managing weeds on a farm which is entirely for efficiency reasons. The downside to weeds in your yard is looking at a weedy yard. Yes, it looks untidy and it might even decrease the value of your house and your neighborhood, but it’s not a huge problem. Not managing weeds on a farm is a big deal and not really an option. Even organic farmers who aren’t allowed to use synthetic herbicides have to manage weeds or suffer unsustainable yield losses.

What’s Roundup Ready and Why is it Beneficial?

One of the reasons that Roundup is so popular among farmers (aside from the fact that it’s a highly effective and extremely safe herbicide) is because of the development of Roundup Ready crops. In 1996 Monsanto introduced glyphosate-tolerant “Roundup Ready” soybeans, the first major GM crop that was bioengineered to survive applications of Roundup. Soybeans were quickly followed by Roundup Ready cotton, canola, corn, and later, sugar beets. For farmers this meant that they could go from spraying many different herbicides in an attempt to get effective weed control, to only spraying primarily one herbicide. It offered farmers simplicity and flexibility. Not surprisingly, Roundup Ready crops were rapidly adopted by farmers. In fact, the technology is said to be the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of US agriculture. Today, 90 percent or more of all soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and sugar beets grown in the US are Roundup Ready.

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This is what a no-till field looks like. Last season they grew fescue. They harvest the fescue, spray Roundup, and plant peas right into that fescue residue on the field. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Hadley)

Roundup Ready crops (and the use of Roundup in agriculture generally) has also contributed to the adoption of no-till and conservation-till methods which help reduce soil erosion and water runoff and increase organic matter and nutrients in the soil. Importantly, no-till also sequesters carbon in the soil and reduces the amount of fuel consumed because farmers don’t have to drive machinery over their fields as many times, thereby reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint.  It’s estimated that in 2013 alone, biotech crops reduced carbon emissions equivalent to taking 12.4 million cars off the road for one year; no-till and conservation-till methods helped contribute to that figure. The use of herbicides like Roundup allows farmers to kill weeds without tilling (literally digging and turning over the ground to mechanically destroy weeds).  Roundup is perfectly matched to no-till agriculture because it removes essentially all existing weeds before planting, and has no residual toxicity to crops that emerge later. No-till has become increasingly popular in conventional farming as it saves time, money and fuel, sequesters carbon, water, and maintains soil structure.

Alternatives to Roundup

Let’s pretend that activists managed to get Roundup banned like they claim it should be. It’s naive to think that farmers would stop using herbicides to manage weeds, because as I already mentioned, weed control is critical to successful crop production. Likely it would mean that conventional farmers would use a different herbicide (or combination of herbicides).  When Roundup was introduced, it displaced other more dangerous herbicides like alachlor which is more toxic than glyphosate, considered to be likely carcinogenic at high doses, and poses potential chronic toxicity concerns or MCPA which is much more toxic than glyphosate.  Because of this and its bioaccumulation issues, MCPA is a restricted use pesticide in the US. Pesticides have come a really long way in the last few decades in terms of safety, which is great news, but as I’ll talk more about below, Roundup is one of those really safe herbicides. Taking it out of the toolbox would not result in the use of less herbicide or the use of a safer alternative.

I took this picture at a Costco in California.

I took this picture at a Costco in California.

“But, Sara, what about an organic approach? I saw on Pinterest that you can use a combination of vinegar, salt and dish soap for a chemical-free and more effective alternative to Roundup!” First of all, who says these mixtures are organic? “Organic” means the USDA program for non-chemical pest control and fertility enhancement. It does not mean you can spray anything you can whip up in your garage. The vinegar / salt / soap mixture is not chemical-free or great for the soil. Vinegar contains the chemical acetic acid, and salt (sodium chloride) sticks around for a really long time in the soil and can make it difficult to grow anything at all for a long time (think salt flats). Soap is also a chemical, and interestingly, commonly used in synthetic pesticides as a surfactant.  Just because you are more familiar with those chemicals, does not make them safer alternatives. Acetic acid is more toxic than glyphosate. Does that make vinegar scary? No. It just means glyphosate is pretty darn safe. Andrew Kniss actually did a great analysis of that home-made herbicide and concluded that, “The acetic acid in the homemade mixture is nearly 10 times more lethal than the glyphosate in the Eliminate mixture. And this doesn’t include the salt.” And, as mentioned, these home-made mixtures are non-systemic and merely destroy sprayed foliage.  In addition, pesticides are regulated and approved by EPA and state authorities, and you may not spray non-approved non-labeled mixtures for pest control on food crops.

What about other organic alternatives? The thing is there aren’t many organic herbicides. There are some (yes, organic farmers DO SPRAY PESTICIDES) like clove oil and citrus oils which are approved in the USDA program, but they are primarily contact herbicides (non-systemic) and require higher doses to be effective. There are other methods like mulches and flooding, and mechanical methods discussed below, but even the organic farmer in Tomorrow’s Table confessed that weeds are really a weak spot in organic farming. Maybe you could make it work on a small organic farm, but it’s just not feasible on a large scale. Not to mention it’s a less efficient use of resources.

What about mowing, hoeing, weed-whipping or just pulling them out by hand? Sure, you can do that to avoid spraying anything at all. Easy peasy. OK, get your gardening gloves on and head out to weed 500 acres, which is a small farm in the Midwest. That’s about 500 football fields worth of mowing or weed whipping with a gas-powered device, all the while consuming fossil fuels and spewing exhaust. Or you could hire a group of people to remove weeds out in the sun (a known carcinogen) using man-power (and possibly contributing to sore backs and arthritis.) In fact, as I’ve discussed before, in 1975 the use of the short-handled hoe was banned to prevent worker injury and in 2004 California banned hand-weeding to prevent back injury (except organic producers are exempt because without the use of hand-weeding, they’re pretty much at the mercy of weeds). Consider that US farming covers slightly less than 1 billion acres, with perhaps a third of that considered prime crop growing land. The entire US population working all summer could not effectively hand weed US crop production acres. And what fraction would be willing to try?

Now, if you want to avoid spraying anything in your yard or neighborhood, it’s totally doable. Like I said, there’s a big difference between managing weeds in agriculture and managing them in your backyard. All you have to do is not mind looking at weeds and convince all your neighbors they don’t mind either. Or you can try to mobilize a group of neighbors to regularly weed your neighborhood’s common spaces in their free time. Considering that most of my neighborhood relies on hired landscape crews to mow and maintain their own small (less than a quarter acre) lots, I’m doubtful that’ll work. But, you can try.

Safety of Roundup

Roundup less toxic than caffeineRoundup is an extremely safe herbicide. In fact, it’s 25 times less toxic than caffeine (from LD50 levels based on oral ingestion in rats.) Like I said in the very first section, glyphosate only works in plants and bacteria, not in animals. Glyphosate is not well-absorbed in animals, it doesn’t accumulate in tissues and is excreted largely unchanged.  From an environmental perspective, glyphosate binds very tightly to the soil so it doesn’t contaminate ground water and is broken down by microbes in the soil so it doesn’t persist or migrate in the environment.

Glyphosate has been used safely for more than 40 years, and it’s the most widely used and most comprehensively evaluated herbicide.  There are more than 800 studies demonstrating its safety. The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies glyphosate as “practically non-toxic,” and there are a whole slew of regulatory bodies around the world that have come to the same conclusion. I’ve written extensively before on how regulatory bodies determine which pesticides are approved and how much is safe to use, and this blog post concludes that based on those figures you could eat 62 pounds of produce every day and still come in 100 times lower than the no-effect level. Monsanto recently said you could eat 900 pounds of fruits or vegetables every day for the rest of your life without worrying about any health problems from glyphosate residue.

Yes, you can find plenty of stuff on the internet that contradicts what I’ve just said. Activists will point to (debunked) studies that claim glyphosate causes everything from autism to Parkinson’s. The regulatory bodies that make these safety determinations have access to the same studies that you can find on the internet and many more that are proprietary. If the majority of the global scientific community didn’t think those studies were good enough to reverse their conclusions, neither should you.

But, I Read in the News Lately That Roundup Causes Cancer.

Nope, Roundup does not cause cancer. You might think you read that because last March a division of the WHO called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorized Roundup as class 2A, probably carcinogenic.  What does that mean? Well, importantly, IARC does hazard identification, not risk assessment. That means they’re looking for potential, not likelihood; they’re not required to take real-world exposure situations into account. There was no new study done, IARC looked at the same existing body of research that EPA and all other global regulatory bodies have access to, but really only expressly considered publicly available information. After IARC’s announcement, EPA stood by their conclusion, saying the research, “does not provide evidence to show that glyphosate causes cancer, and it does not warrant any change in EPA’s cancer classification for glyphosate.” EPA’s not the only one who disagrees with them, either. Not surprisingly, Monsanto disagrees as do lots of other scientists in the field. Additionally, the European Food Safety Authority just announced earlier this month that they again looked at the evidence and concluded Roundup is unlikely to cause cancer in humans and recommended increasing the safe limit for consumption.

To put IARC’s classification into perspective, other things in the same “probably carcinogenic” 2A category include working as a hairdresser or night-shift worker, acrylamide which shows up in coffee beans and French fries, and red meat. The category one step above, carcinogenic to humans, includes alcoholic beverages, outdoor air pollution, working as a painter, exposure to the sun and wood dust. IARC is also the same organization that just classified processed meat as carcinogenic, indicating that from their cancer-causing perspective, consumption of hot dogs are more dangerous than exposure to Roundup.

Ok, even so, why wouldn’t I want to avoid something that even some scientists think may cause cancer? (I’m going to assume if you feel that way, you’re also going to avoid all the things I listed above, like sun exposure, alcohol, bacon and exhaust fumes: you should be consistent, after all.) I get that, but it’s also important to note that even if we agree IARC’s classification is consistent with the science (of which I’m personally not convinced), the committee themselves noted that the hazard is really for agriculture applicators, not consumers. They’re not talking about residue on your food, or spraying your rock border, they’re talking about farmers who are applying Roundup on a large scale. Even for those farmers the risk is low, because federal regulations mandate how and when to apply, and what precautions should be taken when applying pesticides.

What About Super Weeds and the Increase in Herbicide Use?

Graphic courtesy of Nurse Loves Farmer

Graphic courtesy of Nurse Loves Farmer

I hear the term “dousing” used a lot when people refer to farmers and pesticides, particularly Roundup. “They’re just dumping that stuff on we have proof because now all these weeds are resistant to Roundup!”  First, the dousing:  Nurse Loves Farmer did a great post on how inaccurate that term is and pointed out that typically farmers use about the equivalent of a can of soda of Roundup on an acre of crops. Remember, an acre is about the size of a football field.  Additionally, farmers don’t want to spray pesticides if they don’t have to. It’s expensive and a waste of their time. I was blown away at the advanced technology I saw when I rode in a sprayer – it is so precise that the boom (the arm on the machine that sprays the pesticide) uses GPS guidance and will turn off if it passes over a portion of the field it knows has already been sprayed. Would you mow your lawn twice in the same day? No. Farmer’s don’t spray pesticide if they don’t need to.

Next: has the use of herbicide gone up? One of the claims about GMOs is that they would reduce pesticide application. That’s definitely true for insect-resistant crops, but it’s trickier for herbicide-tolerant crops. In reality, the use of Roundup alone has increased as a result of GMOs that are immune to its effects. This is intuitive, and I already touched on it – a farmer who switched from conventional to Roundup Ready corn used to spray three or four different herbicides and now only sprays one. Lots of farmers adopted this approach, and the use of Roundup went up. That’s actually a good thing, because as we already discussed, Roundup is a safer herbicide than many it replaced.  Total use of herbicide is also trending down, but more importantly, the move to safer herbicides means the environmental impact of herbicide use has gone down.

What about super weeds? The term super weed refers to weeds that have become resistant to an herbicide, in the same way that some bacteria are now resistant to antibiotics. This is not new and certainly not unique to Roundup. In fact, there are many other herbicides with greater resistance issues than Roundup (including the ALS-inhibitors used to treat the sunflowers that Chipotle switched to because they claimed Roundup Ready crops created too many superweeds). Roundup is the most widely used herbicide and (according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds) there are seven herbicides with more resistant weed species.

That being said, there are good ways to manage resistant weeds. They’re not super at all; you can still get rid of them with another herbicide, or by physically pulling them up or tillage. Farmers are starting to use combinations of herbicides to prevent resistance, and seed companies like Monsanto are developing crops engineered to withstand multiple herbicides in an effort to help stem resistance. Over-reliance on one particular herbicide leads to resistance because it increases the selection pressure for weeds that have naturally developed resistance.  It’s like always using the same antibiotic over and over to treat an illness. Not using the right amount of an herbicide can also increase the chances of developing resistance, just like when your doctor tells you to use an antibiotic for a whole week but you stop after three days because you feel better.  Roundup resistant weeds have taught us a good lesson about over-reliance and following proper usage rates, but it’s not a fundamental problem with Roundup: it’s more about how the herbicide has been used.

In summary, don’t be afraid of Roundup and don’t sign petitions to ban it because that won’t solve anything. If you don’t like Monsanto, that’s an entirely different issue (Monsanto’s not the only company that sells glyphosate, anyway).  If you want to pull weeds by hand, go for it – I weed my own garden (mostly) by hand because it’s small, I enjoy it, and sometimes I’m too lazy to walk to the garage and get the sprayer. But know the facts: Roundup isn’t evil, it’s a very thoroughly tested, efficient and effective herbicide with a long history of safe use and it’s a tremendous tool that enables farmers to farm sustainably and efficiently.

 

 

 

 

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October Farming in Focus: Wine – Another Favorite Thing

A few months ago I did a Farming in Focus on hops, so I felt it was only fair to also pay homage to an equally worthy beverage, especially since I live in a region of the country very well known for its production of Pinot Noir. While I really enjoy the craft brew culture Portland provides, I do drink my fair share of wine and find wine production intriguing. In our early married years my husband and I dabbled in home beer brewing, but wine always seemed a little too scary to take on, so I was really interested to visit with Dave Coelho at Coelho Winery in Amity when they were processing Pinot Noir grapes last month.

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Dave Coelho is a first generation grape grower who moved to the Willamette Valley 25 years ago from California with his wife and four kids. While he’s the first in his family to start a winery, Coelho’s family has history  in agriculture. His father was a dairy farmer, and before he moved to Oregon, Coelho farmed tomatoes, sugar beets, corn, alfalfa and dried beans in the San Joaquin Valley, about 60 miles east of San Francisco. When I asked him what he liked better, he told me he likes making wine better because he gets to interact with the end user. He currently farms 40 acres of grapes with his wife and sons David and Samuel. They primarily grow Pinot Noir but they also grow some Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. His son experiments with Riesling and botrytized wines, a method of allowing a fungus to infect the grapes to a point before making them into a desert wine.

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Aside from growing their own grapes and creating estate wines (which I learned means wine made from grapes grown by the winemaker), Coelho also incorporates his Portuguese heritage by making a number of Portuguese-style wines with grapes he drives to California in a refrigerated truck to buy. The winery also provides warehouse storage and custom grape crushing for other winemakers. The day I visited they were making a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which is a blend of Pinot Noir grapes from several vineyards, including Pinot Noir grapes from Scharf Farms nearby. I tagged along with Jason Scharf back to his vineyard after he delivered grapes to Coelho to take the above picture because Coelho had already harvested all the grapes off the vine. Pinot Noir grapes can be very fickle, they like a cool climate with well-drained soil making the Willamette Valley a superb region for growing them. They’re also prone to rot because the grapes are so tightly clustered and their preferred cool, wet growing conditions are ideal for bacterial growth. Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley is considered some of the best in the Americas.

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Scharf told me that grapes can be harvested by hand, or by machine, but Pinot Noir is difficult to harvest. That might be because of their tightly clustered pine cone shape – the name Pinot Noir actually comes from the french words for “pine” and “black.” A machine can do the harvesting work of 40 men, but the grapes have to be processed right away, unlike when they’re hand picked, which is what Coelho prefers and uses for his wines. Either way, the first step in the process is to crush the grapes through this machine that separates the grapes from the stems.

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See that ladder there? Yeah, I climbed that ladder to take the previous photograph. Then I actually got up on a cherry picker to take this picture, which is saying a lot because I’m kind of squeamish about heights. But, it was worth it because you can see a really good overview of the crushing process, from the dumping of the grapes all the way through to the leftover stems. The crusher removes the stems but it also releases juices and leaves the juice in contact with the skins where it travels out through that white tube at the bottom.

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We have Concord grapes growing in our backyard, so I know just how difficult it is to separate the grapes from the stems by hand. You can’t really make good wine from Concord grapes, but if I could, I’d seriously consider taking my grapes to Coelho to use that efficient crusher! Just look at all those stems! Coelho told me they compost the stems and skins (called pumice) and spread it back on the fields as fertilizer.

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The main reason I got up on the cherry picker was to look in this vat. After the grapes are crushed they’re funneled into this vat where they add wine making yeast. The vat can hold 20 tons of juice, which translates to 3,000 gallons of wine!

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Next the juice is chilled or “cold soaked” for several days if time allows to get the color out of the skins and add complexity and flavor to the wine. This is particularly  important for Pinot Noir because the grapes are thin skinned and don’t provide a lot of color to the wine. A cold soak does increase the risk of spoilage and spontaneous fermentation, so to avoid that, Coelho adds sulfur to prevent unwanted microbial activity. Cold soaking also provides an opportunity to get a good base reading on the sugar content of the juice. After that the juice is heated to ferment.

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During the fermentation process the skins float to the top and eventually the wine is drained off and the skins are gently pressed over two and a half hours to release all remaining juice which is added back to the wine.

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After the yeast has converted all the sugar to alcohol, the wine is aged in barrels for 11 months before it is bottled. Then it lives in a bottle for six to eight months before being sold. In his first year, Coelho produced about 4-500 cases of wine. Now in his 11th vintage (which I learned means he’s been making wine for 11 years) he produces about 20,000 cases of wine.

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Of course I couldn’t leave without sampling! Obviously. 🙂 I asked Coelho why he likes Pinot Noir and he said it’s because it’s versatile and pairs well with so many meals. He views wine as a food, and drinks it to compliment other flavors in the meal. I sheepishly admitted to him that I don’t actually like Pinot Noir (shhh, don’t tell anyone) because I think it tastes kind of thin. I like the fuller-bodied reds and red blends. So I am happy to report that I found a wine that I really enjoyed in his tasting room – the traditional Portuguese red wine blend. I ran out of time at the end of my visit because I had to dash back to get my kids off the bus, but next time my husband and I are in Amity I’m planning to stop by and get a bottle. I learned a lot about wine production, and I hope you did, too. Leave a comment if you learned something new!

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