Category Archives: Something to Think About

These are stories that I hope help parents differentiate fear marketing and misinformation from science and reason. I’ve done lots of research but haven’t done any interviews. Think of these like op-eds.

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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Are Conventional Farmers Doing it Wrong? 2 of 2

Yesterday I talked about why the organic label isn’t an indication of “rightness” when it comes to farming practices. As I mentioned, in order to provide some specific examples of how conventional farmers are also using some of the same practices that many believe define organic production, I surveyed a group of conventional growers. I asked seven questions and got responses from 11 conventional farmers from across the US. Verbatim answers are below (not all, because some had similar answers.) Caveat: this is in no way meant to be a study, I understand it’s a small, volunteer-based sample, but I hope it helps some people understand that organic production is not the only way to farm sustainably.

conv farm QA (1 of 3)Before we get into those examples, though, let’s talk a little about one thing that will come up in their answers: tillage. Tilling (literally digging and turning over the ground) is one way that farmers prepare the soil for crops. It does a number of things, one of which is to mechanically destroy weeds – and killing weeds is important because they steal resources (like water and nutrients) from crops and reduce efficiency. There are many benefits to tilling like incorporating nutrients into the soil, but there are also disadvantages such as release of carbon into the atmosphere and increased erosion.  No-till and reduced-till agriculture has become increasingly popular in conventional farming as it saves time, money and fuel, sequesters carbon, and maintains soil structure.  Conventional farmers use herbicides to kill weeds instead of tilling, which is something that organic farmers can’t do. (To be clear, tilling does not eliminate the need for herbicides, many farmers who till still use herbicides.) One of the farmers I reached out to said, “On a national level, the switch to no-till is huge in terms of environmental benefits. Carbon is stored in the ground and not released into the atmosphere, and secondly, erosion is drastically reduced. These two things alone makes conventional farming (with the use of no-till) superior environmentally to organic – at least on a large scale, as it is very difficult to farm organically without relying on cultivation for weed management.”

Ok, the Q&A. It’s long, but worth the read.

Question #1: Do you use cover crops? (Note for readers: Things that are grown when a farmer is not growing a crop to sell. Advantages: reduced soil erosion, weed suppression, soil amendment.)

  • Yes, we use cereal rye, hairy vetch, or tillage radish for cover crops
  • We have done both cover and not. We prefer cover crops out of convenience. Who wants their seeds blown away with all of your top soil?
  • We have just planted oats as a cover crop. We harvested peas in the field this year and are planning on putting in radishes in the spring. By planting the oats, we capture any remaining nutrients, which will be held by the oat crop. When we spray out the oats in the spring those nutrients will then be released back into the soil and will be available to the radish crop. Furthermore, having a crop growing keeps the soil “alive.” There is another whole layer of life in the soil in form of various microbes, and they are kept healthy by having a growing crop at all times.
  • We use cover crops and use soil samples to see what the soil and crop needs
  • No. There are not many/any economically viable cover crop options in our area. We do “rest” ground by putting it through a three year alfalfa rotation.
  • Sometimes. Everything we do is about conserving moisture – cover crops use moisture. It takes six inches of water to get wheat to a point it will help as a cover crop.

Question #2: Do you use crop rotation? (Note for readers: this is the opposite of a mono-crop – not growing the same thing on the same field year after year. Advantages: keeping pests and disease in check, reduced need for synthetic fertilizer, soil health)

  • conv farm QA (2 of 3)Yes, we rotate crops. We’re in a ten year battle over raising canola because we’re looking for crop rotations that are good fits
  • Don’t most people? Grow too much of the same thing, and it is like watching inbreeding!
  • Oh yes. We grow ten different crops. We rotate according to market demands, crop history, weed history, soil needs. Our soils are in excellent condition.
  • Yes, we rotate our corn and soybeans every year, and we no-till.
  • Yes, intensively. Typically winter wheat, corn, safflower or sunflowers, malt barley. If needed we’ll then go to summer fallow or back to wheat. Also this would be when we’d put ground in alfalfa and leave it for a few years.

Question #3: Do you use Integrated Pest Management (IPM)? (Note for readers: the strategy behind IPM is to try to control pests before they become a problem using things like beneficial insect populations and judicious use of pesticides.)

  • On our farm we hardly use insecticides because of crop rotation and the use of GMO crops.
  • We keep beneficial insect habitats in place
  • Yes, we use a variety of chemicals from different groups to avoid resistance issues, including organic options if that is the best fit, soil tillage or lack thereof (no-till). Several oat varieties we grow naturally suppress nematode activity, and we pay attention to protecting/enhancing beneficial insect populations.
  • To an extent. Not very formally, but we have a crop consultant who advises us, and we never blindly spray, just because we are told. We often weigh the cost/benefit of spraying. We don’t release natural predators, but we do consider carefully if it is worth spraying.
  • I have used IPM for decades. That is one thing that drives me up a wall about internet farmers. They come up these ideas that farmers have done for decades

Question #4: How do you limit pesticide use?

  • conv farm QA (3 of 3)First off, pesticides are expensive, so we don’t want to use any more than we have to from a financial perspective. Furthermore, when we chose which crop to grow, we take into account the history of the field, and if we can predict a weed or insect problem, we may chose not to grow that crop, or to grow it in a different location. Also, by planting wheat later in the year, we can avoid aphids. We may choose to plant a variety that we know has better disease resistance thereby potentially eliminating a fungicide spray.
  • We never use more then we should on herbicides, it’s not beneficial to the crop, soil, environment, and it’s expensive! When we spray we always choose a day with little wind and cooler weather. We are always mindful of where it may drift.
  • We grow non-organic oats and alfalfa, which get sprayed with nothing. Our Roundup ready corn and soy get sprayed as minimally as possible.
  • We raise GMO crops, scout fields, apply as needed – for insecticide when the count per plant reaches a specific threshold, and for herbicides we use the maximum rate (really cuts down on the need for additional applications which in the end is less pesticide) and time it so that other methods (canopy of rows) controls weeds.
  • Scout fields – especially when looking for pests to see if they meet at economic threshold for applying pesticides
  • GMOs
  • We use bt corn and cotton. When we don’t have to spray for worms we don’t kill off beneficial insects and then we don’t have to spray for secondary pests such as spider mites.

Question #5: Do you reuse by-products or take advantage of other farms’ by-products?

  • We run cattle too, so after we combine our grass seed, we bale straw for winter feed/bedding, and also bale wheat straw for bedding. Once straw is gone and fields start to re-grow, we use them as summer pasture. Also, a silly example – we got five goats to eat brush. When we bale alfalfa, I pick up the alfalfa the rake missed into a garbage can and take one to the goats every night until the alfalfa gets too big to drive on.
  • We try to keep our straw on the farm and just chop the straw finely. In the end of the hot summer it shades the soil, keeping it a little cooler and helps retain a little moisture and protects the plants and soil a little from the intense late summer heat. As it breaks down it adds organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.
  • I graze all of my grain crops. Reduces tillage.
  • Examples from farms I’ve visited for my Farming in Focus series:
    • by products (1 of 1)Lynn Trupp (March – sheep farmer) uses spent brewers’ grain that he gets for free from a local brewery.
    • Brenda Frketich (April – nine different crops) has an arrangement with a nearby cattle farmer where he cleans up her field by baling leftover plant material from the pea harvest and feeds it to his cows.
    • Marie Bowers Stagg (July – wheat) bales up leftover wheat stubble and sends it to a mushroom farm to become a home for baby mushrooms.
    • Ben Coleman (August – hops) composts leftover plant material and spreads it back on the fields.

Question #6: If you use irrigation, are there ways you’ve made it more efficient? (And other thoughts on water)

  • We adopt new technologies and are constantly looking for ways to conserve water. We’ve gone from flood irrigation to sprinklers to sprinklers heads in bubble modes. Those sprinklers are 97 percent efficient. This year I am installing drip irrigation. Very expensive but it is almost 100 percent efficient.
  • We have done drip, sprinkler, and flood. We now have 100 acres on the underground drip that uses the same amount of water that used to only flood about 40 acres. Using the low drops on the sprinkler has been an excellent upgrade for our 160 acres of alfalfa. As far as water efficiency, the drip is better than the pivot sprinkler and a bizillion times better than flood.
  • water (1 of 1)We have linears with low flow, drop tubes if possible rather than hard hose big guns as they are much more efficient (Sara’s note for the reader: “linears” are big spraying metal arms held between two wheels that slowly rolls across a field and waters from above. “Big guns” are stationary single pivots that water in a circle like you might do in your lawn.) We also have a field in wheat that has a few gently, rolling hills in it and must be worked before planting green beans, so in that field we are leaving all the wheat residue. When we work the soil in the spring, that wheat residue will provide a nice amount of mulch around the surface, which will help prevent the water from running down the hills.
  • We use drip irrigation. We manage storm water through installing roof run off management, critical area stabilization, a heavy use area, woodland management, and structures for water control, including a sediment control pond that has been in use for over 60 years. We use stream fencing to exclude livestock from accessing local streams. Our detailed Nutrient Management Plan is evaluated and updated every three years to address the nitrogen and phosphorous loading into local groundwater that feeds into Chesapeake Bay tributaries. We continue to remain vigilant and do our best to monitor and improve the watershed and soil health of our property.

Question #7: How do you preserve soil quality?

  • We soil test before making fertilizer blends.
  • We currently hold the award for farmers of the year in soil and water conservation for our region in Iowa and enroll in as many conservation stewardship programs as possible to preserve soil quality and minimize pesticide use. By lowering boom height on sprayers, having wider buffer zones from waterways, using no-till methods and cover crops, keeping beneficial insect habitats in place, etc. we are pretty proud of our farm practices.
  • Over the last 30 years our conventional farm has been inducted into our state Ag Hall of Fame and been awarded our county Soil Conservation Farm of the year (twice!) and Small Business of the Year, partially for our work in improving our farm to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
  • We use a variety of methods for soil quality – soil testing, amendments, micronutrient application, minimum and no-till when applicable.
  • This is huge to us. Our farm was not in great shape when we bought it, and we have put so much into improving the soil. The biggest issue to us was low pH, so we have put on lots of lime and our pH levels are now perfect for what we grow. This is important as nutrients in the soil are more available to the plant when you have the right pH. Furthermore, we switched to mostly no-till. This turned out to have huge, unexpected benefits to the soil. Increased earth worm activity, increased organic matter which improves water holding capacity and makes the soil more “mellow.”
  • We do conventional tillage but our equipment leaves a lot of plant material on the surface to control erosion (54 mph winds yesterday and the soil wasn’t blowing), we use field tile to control surface runoff, we have buffer strips along waterways. We also don’t remove plant matter (corn and soybean stalks) but till it in.
  • We are exclusively no-till and have been for 15 years. We keep water ways and highly erodible land in grass. We soil test and apply nutrients accordingly. We also use a stripper header for our cereal grains which leaves 99 percent of the crop residue in the field.
  • No-til when possible which greatly reduces soil erosion. We soil tests every year and put on compost and manure.

That’s all for the Q&A – I hope you learned a few cool things. I’ll leave you with a final thought on sustainable farming from one of the farmers who responded, “Personally, I’m in favor of taking the very best out of all management systems and combining them to suit your own farm. We can do best for our farms and soils if we adapt our management based on our own situation, and not get tied into a set of inflexible rules. I have nothing against organic agriculture. In a lot of ways, organic farmers have done a better job of nourishing and protecting their soil than conventional farmers, but I think conventional farmers are catching up. We can always learn to do better, and that is one of the things that is really exciting about being a farmer.”

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Are Conventional Farmers Doing it Wrong? 1 of 2

I just finished reading the book Tomorrow’s Table. It’s co-written by an intriguing married couple: he’s an organic farmer and she’s a plant genetic scientist.  I had really high hopes for a book that argues in support of combining organic agriculture and biotechnology.  If this book could reach the organic consumer, we might be headed to the middle ground necessary to feed our growing population.

It took me four months to finish it and it’s less than 200 pages. I finally got tired of it looking at me from the bedside table, and I reached the renewal limit at the library so I forced myself to finish it.

I should be fair. There are excellent points made in this book, especially for people who are solidly in the organic, GMO-hating camp or even those who are only leaning that way and working to form a fact-based opinion. The book does a good job of softly addressing and alleviating concerns associated with GMOs and clearly outlining the benefits and necessity of biotechnology for solving problems unsolvable by other methods. The take-home message is a truly important one – biotechnology has a place in organic agriculture, the two are not and should not be mutually exclusive. Getting over the ideological hurdle that divides GMOs and organic is a monumental task, and these authors offer a uniquely personal perspective on how we can bridge that gap.

IMG_20140705_122648136But back to why I didn’t like it: I really wanted to be open-minded and like Raoul, the organic farmer who wrote only two chapters. But in the end, I just couldn’t stomach his I’m-better-because-I’m-organic attitude. One page into his first chapter I read this, “The goal of conventional farming is high yields and inexpensive food. The goal of organic farming is health: health of the soil, the crop, the farmer, the environment, and the consumer.”

And that’s only just the beginning. He makes conventional farmers out to be pesticide-wielding, mono-cropping old-timers who only care about the bottom dollar and just haven’t gotten the memo about caring for the “soil, the crop, the farmer, the environment, and the consumer.” In contrast, he makes organic farmers out to be agricultural martyrs – hard working, salt-of the earth big thinkers who are doing it the “right” chemical-free way, even if it doesn’t make a lot of money, yields less and means sometimes you get worms in your corn.  I was so pissed off when I read that chapter that I literally got out of bed and booted the computer back up so I could write down my idea for this post.

Are conventional farmers doing it wrong? Are organic farmers the only ones using crop rotation and cover crops? Are they the only ones who have heard about beneficial insects and are the only ones thinking about soil quality? Are they the only ones with concerns about water quality and pesticide run-off? Are they the only ones thinking about the consumers who eat the food and the families that live and work on the farm?

No, of course not. To suggest that organic farmers care about the health of the soil, the crop, the environment, and the consumer and conventional farmers don’t is at best disingenuous at worst just flat out lying.

The very common insinuation that they are, in fact, doing it wrong is the reason conventional farmers get pissed off about organic agriculture. It’s the reason almost every conventional farmer I’ve ever met does an eye roll when they read organic marketing. I’m not even a farmer, but I’m tired of implications that conventional farmers don’t care, don’t know, are old-fashioned, and are ignorant because if they weren’t those things, they’d farm organically.  Don’t fall for that nonsense because it’s just not true.

Frketich_preview-1I put out a few messages on Facebook asking conventional farmers to tell me what I already know: conventional farmers do farm sustainably, in the true sense of the word – in a way that can be sustained long-term.  I wanted examples I could share that would help people see that conventional farmers are doing it right, and constantly working to do it better.  I asked seven questions, and tomorrow I’ll post verbatim answers I got from farmers who responded, but here’s the bottom line: many conventional farmers do the same things organic farmers do in terms of caring for the soil, environment, crop and consumer. They use cover crops, crop rotation and beneficial insect populations when it makes sense on their farm. Every single farmer who responded to my questions had detailed ways that they reduce pesticide use and preserve soil and water quality. Are there some farmers who probably aren’t doing it right? Maybe, but that goes for organic farmers, too. People are people, and a label, be it organic, local, or natural is not going to help you distinguish the right from the wrong.

I’ll be back tomorrow with specific questions and answers about conventional farming practices, but for now I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the farmers who responded to my questions, “We’re in farming because it’s in our blood. It’s what our families have been doing for generations, and it’s why we CARE. We care about the land, because it’s as important as family, it’s part of who we are. We care about the environment because it’s what makes up the land. We care about the animals because they allow us to make our living and we are grateful for them. We care about the crops we raise because we care about the consumers that buy them. We care.”

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Cyber Threats and Why I Remain Anonymous

Last February I started a petition in Oregon supporting a bill that would have eliminated the non-medical vaccine exemption. I’m pretty proud to say the petition gathered almost 2,000 signatures. Unfortunately the bill was dropped (look for mention of me in that story) because the senators were unprepared for the onslaught from the anti-vax community. While I’m disappointed in the result, it was a strong learning experience for me. The reporter who covered the bill for the Salem-based paper wanted to interview me on why I started the petition, but as you all know, I don’t disclose my last name on this blog and the paper has a policy against anonymous sources. This was the one time that I really wavered on maintaining my anonymity. I was extremely tempted to let her use my last name and give her a great quote on why I feel so strongly about this issue. But, in the end, I’m glad I didn’t.  bleach screen shot closeupThat’s an actual comment from the petition page. Probably that crazy person won’t show up at my house and try to do any real harm. It’s one thing to write nasty things from your computer and it’s an entirely different thing to truly make an effort to hurt someone, but that doesn’t make that sort of thing easy to read. Thankfully, this is the only real example of a cyber threat that’s been directed at me. But I’m just small potatoes compared to some of my blogging/social media buddies. farmers daughter usa

That’s from my friend Amanda at The Farmer’s Daughter USA.

Mommy PhD - I hate youThat’s from my friend Mommy, PhDbomb monsantoThat’s from my friend Robert at Rationality Unleashed. There’s the example where an anti-GMO activist tried to take my friend Sarah’s nursing license away (at Nurse Loves Farmer). There’s also this example of someone who hates my friend Joni (Hawaii Farmers Daughter) so much that she bought her domain name and started a blog dedicated to why Joni is wrong on that domain. And then this:

combined MAMyths threatThat is from my friend Kavin Senapathy who received this threat for starting the March Against Myths movement. It’s really this last one for me that drives home why, even when I’m tempted to drop the anonymity part, I haven’t. Because it only takes one crazy person who wants to bomb Monsanto or stomp on your head or pour bleach down your kids’ throats. Yes, it’s unlikely those people would actually follow through, and maybe they’re just trolls trying to scare you for fun, but what if they aren’t? What if just one of those unbalanced, angry people decided to do a little digging and find out where my kids go to school? It’s unnerving.

When I decided to start this blog, my husband was initially against it. He’s a very practical, safe, and private person. He doesn’t do Facebook and even way before I started blogging he was always slightly uncomfortable when I would share stuff about our family on Facebook. So when I proposed that I start carving my controversial opinions out there in internet stone with our family’s name attached to it, he was very uneasy. It’s not just because I say things that a lot of people disagree with. I also used to work for Monsatan – the very “evil company” that the guy in the screen shot above wants to see bombed.  My husband stipulated that if I, a former Monsanto employee living in a city full of liberal minded hippies, was going to start blogging about things that get people all riled up, I was going to do it without using my last name. I agreed.

And so did my parents. After I started the blog, a long-time family friend of ours (who I’ll call Mary) told my mom I should be extremely careful. Mary should know –  at the time she and her husband (who I’ll call John) lived in Hawaii and John, who used to work with my dad at Monsanto, was kind of a head honcho at Monsanto Hawaii. I know this family well – I grew up with their kids, we used to have holiday dinners together, vacation together, the whole thing. I used to eat lunch with John and my dad in the Monsanto cafeteria on occasion when I worked there. Mary and John have been on the receiving end of more cyber threats and IN REAL LIFE threats than anyone I know. Does anyone know John's address

There’s someone asking for John’s address. time for bullets yetThat’s from a comment thread about John.

I could post more examples, but you get the idea. John was actually verbally assaulted in person while he was shopping for Christmas presents at Best Buy one time, which just goes to show that enough online anger does, in fact, sometimes translate to real, in-person threats. He’s not alone, either, there are plenty of other Monsanto employees who have been threatened as well. John and Mary have since left Hawaii, not necessarily as a result of the threats, but it certainly made the decision to leave easier.

And then there’s public scientist and recent media frenzy Kevin Folta who is being so disgustingly bullied by anti-GMO activists that someone created a craigslist ad using his own mother’s name to shame him. I don’t personally know Folta or I would have asked him for a few examples of violent threats that have recently been made to him, his family, and his laboratory. Folta is just the most visible example, but there are more than 40 scientists whose reputations anti-GMO activists are trying to smear by making it look like they get paid to do research, including Washington State University associate professor of nutrition Michelle McGuire who did a study debunking the claim that glyphosate (Roundup) shows up in breastmilk.

Then there was also the time that Mike Adams, who runs Natural News, called biotech supporters modern day Nazis, suggested that anti-GMO activists should consider murdering scientists and journalists, and then provided a hit list of scientists, journalists and news organizations to target.

While some of these stories are more extreme than others, these are not isolated events – the examples I’ve given here are not unique. This is the world we live in. Cyber bullying is not something that is limited to school-aged children, it happens all the time to adults, me included. I see it daily in online forums. Sometimes it’s as benign as simple name calling, other times it’s truly threatening, but it happens. A lot.

farmers wifeeThat’s from Krista, The Farmer’s Wifee, a dairy farmer and creator of Ask The Farmers.

I know I’m not Kevin Folta or a head honcho at Monsanto, or even a very influential blogger. But online conversations can quickly go from “I hate you” to “what’s your address” and “is it time for bullets yet” and “I’ll be watching you.” For a mother of two young kids, that’s kind of scary. I’m just not willing to make my family a target, even if the chances are extremely low that anything would even really  happen. I don’t even want my kids to see me get threatened, in person or online. I’m already taking a risk just by being outspoken about controversial issues, creating a blog, and becoming well known in online circles for my opinions. Not using my last name makes it just a tad harder for someone to  do something nasty, and that makes me feel a little more secure.

Anonymity is not always an easy position to take, though. Recently I participated in a #Moms4GMOs letter and was contacted by a journalist writing a story about the letter. He was challenging me on why I didn’t include my last name, implying that because I wanted to remain anonymous there might be something devious or underhanded about my participation. Anonymity limits me on how far I can take my advocacy, and there may come a time when it just isn’t practical to continue to be anonymous. But until then, this is why I do it. Not because I’m hiding something, or because I don’t want someone to find out that I’m getting paid to shill for Big Ag. I’m not shilling, I’m just a little scared of crazy people.

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Outside looking in: March Against Monsanto

MAMyths-18

Walk for the Cure shaming? Really?

Last weekend I went to my very first protest. I’ve never been to a protest because I’m not really the kind of person who intentionally puts myself in situations designed to stir up trouble. Especially not one like the March Against Monsanto that is pretty well known for being an anti-GMO angry mob. Usually, I would stay far away from those kinds of protests.  But, this time was different because this year there was a group called March Against Myths about Modification (or MAMyths) protesting the March Against Monsanto with pro-GMO messages. That’s a little more my style, except I still don’t really like the idea of poking a hornet’s nest. One of the reasons I started this blog was to give myself an outlet to talk about these issues, because I don’t really like to do it at dinner parties, in line at the coffee shop, or at the bus stop with my kids in tow. I was pretty reluctant to go at all; I’m generally non-confrontational and agreeable with strangers. I decided to go by promising myself (and my husband) I was only going as an observer, as a journalist covering the event for my blog. I wouldn’t get into any angry debates and if it got ugly, I’d just get back on the bus and go home.  I took my camera and my notepad in my shaky hands and rode the bus to downtown Portland. I spent much of the ride practicing yoga breathing and giving myself a pep talk.

See what that shirt says on the far left? Classy.

See what that shirt says on the far left? And that child with a “Monsanto is hella sick” sign? Classy.

At first, I was afraid no one was going to show up. I arrived at the park and I didn’t see anyone holding a pro-GMO sign. At one end of the square was a stage surrounded by people holding signs that read, “Buzz Off Monsanto, You’re Killing Us,” “Monsanto is Murder,” “Hell No GMO,” and one pregnant lady was holding a sign that said, “Quit Trying To Get In My Genes.” There were little kids holding anti-Monsanto signs, people dressed up in bee costumes, people in straw hats passing out “GMO-free” organic tomato plants (I held back the urge to tell them that there aren’t any GMO tomatoes), a guy with an oversized bike, some people dressed up like clowns, and a couple of people wearing Halloween masks. I seriously started to re-think my attendance. But soon enough a few people came out of the woodwork wearing green and once a few people were standing together, 15 people emerged from nowhere. Understandably, no one wanted to be the first to hold up an, “Ask Me About GMOs” sign. But once there was strength in numbers, they set up a table, put some pro-GMO literature on it, passed out “I heart GMO” stickers, and turned to face the “angry mob.” There were about 20 MAMyths supporters facing about 200 who had come to March Against Monsanto.

MAMyths-25

See? Smiles.

And maybe they were a bit angry at the beginning, but amazingly, it never got ugly. People wandered over with pissed-off looks on their faces and started asking questions. One guy actually thought they were joking. But the MAMyths group faced them with smiles and calm voices. They handed out the flyer and started a conversation. I stood by the side and watched. Almost every single time, the anti-GMO person would start off really guarded and defensive but after a few non-hostile sentences from the pro-GMO side, their aggression deflated. They realized the group wasn’t there to fight. In fact, MAMyths had a sign that said, “Don’t start a fight, start a conversation.” And that’s what they did, conversation after level-headed conversation. A lot of them started like this, “Ok, I don’t know a whole lot, give me your spiel.” They talked about the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, and how GMOs have helped farmers increase yield and decrease the impact on the environment. For the most part, it was very civil. Some people remained unconvinced, agreed to disagree and walked away. Some talked for a good ten minutes or more and there were definitely a good number of people that seemed to walk away questioning their previous assumptions. Maybe a few were even fully convinced.

We love GMOs has a civil conversation with death bees.

We love GMOs has a civil conversation with death bees.

Some weird things did happen, though. A woman who seemed to be in charge of the march came over and demanded MAMyths get off the square because they had reserved the whole place. Fortunately, MAMyths had already called the city and confirmed they didn’t need a permit, so they stayed put and she didn’t bring it up again. One lady did a walk-by yelling, “I’m going to find out who funds you!” To which a few MAMyths folks mumbled, “Let us know when you find out.” One guy yelled, “You’re in the wrong F@!#ing place, you better get the f@!# outta here, I’m serious!” But the group ignored him. I overheard, “Oh, so you’re pro-vaccine, too?” and “You LIKE high fructose corn syrup?!” Then one of the MAMyths guys went and bought the whole group Starbucks coffee, which was awesome. But then the coffee drinkers caught flak for drinking Starbucks by one lady who walked by and yelled, “Starbucks? Really? Low wages and they treat their employees bad? Nice.” But that was balanced out when a lady gave the group a Starbucks gift card because she said her employer gave it to her and she wouldn’t use it, but they might. Maybe the craziest thing was when a lady dressed in a bee costume started doing a wavy dance at the group with her Stevie Nicks-style scarf and said, “I’m reprogramming you because you’re children of darkness.” Even though it was clearly a waste of time, one of the MAMyths crew engaged her in a very nice conversation about her conspiracy theories. All in all, I’d say it went pretty well.  I’m pretty sure most of the MAMyths crew felt good about it.

MAMyths-9There’s only one thing I’m really disappointed about. At the beginning of the event I looked around for reporters and spotted a few. I walked up to each of them to find out who they were and to make sure they knew about the counter protest. The Portland State University paper was there and a few other small publications, but I was pleasantly surprised when one guy said, “I’m with OPB News (Oregon Public Broadcasting).” I told him about the counter protest and said he’d know who they were because they’d be the ones wearing green and holding pro-GMO signs. I told him he’d be welcome if he wanted to talk to anyone in the group. He nodded.

Then he proceeded to ignore the whole group of 20 smiling people who were striking up difficult conversations about unpopular topics among people holding hate signs. Later that day he published 19 photos of the event, and not a single one of them included the MAMyths group. I can come to no other conclusion than he didn’t want to tarnish Portland’s “keep it weird” image with pictures of regular people supporting GMOs. I guess OPB would rather publish sensational images of clowns driving oversized bikes and people dressed up in bee costumes and people holding signs that say, “Monsatan Evil Seed” next to a hand-drawn picture of a skull, and a group of grandmothers singing anti-Monsanto songs.  Maybe he didn’t think a group consisting of farmers, scientists, moms, students and vegans who support GMOs was newsworthy enough. Maybe next year someone needs to dress up as a big dancing Arctic Apple if they want to get the attention of OPB. It would be one thing to deem the entire event not worthy of news coverage, like the Oregonian did. But to come to the event and only cover the part you want readers to see? As a journalist, I find bias like that pretty inexcusable. But, no worry. MAMyths will be back next year to give OPB another chance to do it right.

MAMyths-20

Wait, is that a Starbucks cup in your hand?! Oh the inconsistency!

I know they’ll be back again because we all learned something pretty important while we were there. March Against Monsanto is not intimidating. It took a lot of courage for that group of 20 people to show up to a GMO protest and hold a sign that said, “We Love GMOs.” But in the end, there was nothing scary at all. In fact, most of the people were just using the march as an excuse to get out and be angry about something. They weren’t even all angry about the same things – some people were marching with “increase the minimum wage” signs and some people were going on about chemtrails and government conspiracies. It was like everyone was pissed about a different issue and they were all coming together and talking about it like it was the same thing. They just use Monsanto as a catch-all for everything they’re upset about, even things that don’t make any sense. That’s not scary, it’s just well, kind of stupid.

I’m glad I went after all. It’s about time some reasonable people stood up next to March Against Monsanto so we can all see the juxtaposition of rational next to irrational. Maybe some people will change the way they think about GMOs, maybe not. But it’s a really good place to start.MAMyths-12

 

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Confessions of a Former Monsanto Employee

In March, National Geographic published an issue called “The War On Science,” and of all the cities in the entire United States, can you guess which city was called out in the very first paragraph of that article for its anti-science tendencies? Oh yes: it was Portland.  The article went on to say, “We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge … faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts… And there’s so much talk about the trend these days … that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme.”

Nowhere is this culture more alive than in the city where I live. We’re one of only a few major American cities that don’t fluoridate our water, despite the scientific and medical consensus that it is a cheap and safe way to improve dental health for everyone. We also just narrowly avoided being one of the first states in America to label GMOs; the vote literally came down to less than half a percentage point – I’m almost certain it will return to the ballot and possibly pass next time. There’s a county in Oregon that has banned the growth of GMOs, and there’s another county currently trying to do the same on a ballot measure next week, even though the state has passed legislation to prohibit county-by-county bans. To get around that, Benton County is trying to give legal rights to plants.

Yes, I  used to work for Monsanto.While all this is going on, I’m sitting here shaking my head. And sometimes, shaking in my boots. Why? Because when I’m at the bus stop talking to another neighborhood parent and they say to me, “What did you used to do before you became a stay-at-home mom?” I get this sinking feeling in my stomach. Do I tell them that I used to work for the very company that created GMOs? A company that many Oregonians consider representative of all that is evil and wrong with our world? Sometimes I just say, “Oh, I used to be in public relations” or “Oh, I’m a photographer.” Neither of those are un-true.  But sometimes I just say it: “I used to work for Monsanto.” Every single time I’ve done that it stops people in their tracks. I mentioned it to my dental hygienist the other day, and she literally pulled her tool out of my mouth and looked at me, “Oh…. oh. Really?!” Yes, really.

And the thing is, in all honesty, I’m freaking proud of it. I loved working there – I got to go to work every day and do something I feel passionately about. I got to help people better understand a technology that I think holds immense promise to change our world for the better. The people I worked with were awesome, and the company was great – I got amazing benefits and reduced summer hours! Sometimes I still kick myself for ever leaving. If Monsanto had an office in Portland, I’d be knocking down their door trying to get a job.

But I don’t talk about that here. There’s a very real reason I don’t share my last name on this blog – I know Monsanto employees who have been threatened in climates similar to Portland. I don’t wear my Monsanto jacket here (even though it’s a really nice jacket.) And I certainly have never shown up at a March Against Monsanto.

Except maybe that’s changing. Why? Because there’s a new grass-roots movement that’s standing up to March Against Monsanto and making an effort to help people better understand GMOs. Next Saturday, for the first time, there will be a group of pro-GMO people (YES! Pro-GMO people in Portland!) standing up for logo w proper coilscience. They’ll be standing right next to a horde of protesters carrying posters with sculls and crossbones, blaming GMOs for every health problem under the sun, and accusing Monsanto of controlling the food supply and killing bees, butterflies, and everything in between.  The pro-GMO group will be holding signs that say, “I heart GMOs” and “Ask me about GMOs.” They’ll be handing out leaflets that talk about all the amazing things GMOs have actually done:  like resurrecting the American chestnut tree from the brink of extinction, saving the Hawaiian papaya, and reducing carbon emissions associated with agriculture equivalent to removing almost 12 million cars from the road for one year. They’ll be approachable. They’ll be honest. And they’ll be accurate. They’ll be everything that March Against Monsanto isn’t.  They’ll March Against Myths About Modification. (That’s their name, MAMyths.)

Now that is the kind of movement I can get on board with. And it couldn’t come at a more necessary time. I really believe that in my lifetime, we’ll be facing problems that have the potential to make or break our species. I could give you a bunch of statistics here, but the bottom line is that we have too many people for this planet to support. We’ll Fork and knifeneed to make some drastic changes if we want to stay on this planet at all. There are lots of ideas about how we’re going to make that happen, but one thing is for sure: we already have a technology that has the potential to help address many of those problems. Is it the magic bullet? No. Can biotechnology feed every starving person in Africa? No. But it can help. If only we’ll let it.

How can we convince people that GMOs are not evil? How can we convince people that the story is not about Monsanto, or chemicals, or patents? The story is about the next generation of GMOs and their potential to help. Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • rice with beta-carotene that could help the 124 million children in the world who are chronically deficient in vitamin A, a deficiency that accounts for about one-quarter of the total global burden of disease from malnutrition
  • insect-resistant eggplant that would allow farmers in Bangladesh to spray less pesticide where pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem
  • cassava (a staple for millions of people in developing countries) with increased protein, beta-carotene and other nutrients
  • crops that are self-fertilizing that would allow farmers in developing countries who don’t have fertilizer to grow more productive crops
  • crops that can photosynthesize better and produce 50 percent more food per acre
  • drought-resistant crops that can produce more with less water

Some of those are ten or more years away from development, but some of them, like Golden Rice and  Bt eggplant, already exist but are being blocked somewhat in part to hysteria fueled by activists like March Against Monsanto.

That brings me back to next Saturday in Portland. This is where we can help. This is right here, right now. For a long time, academics and scientists have been doing what I call the “soft sell.” They’ve been rather quietly and calmly explaining the science, the safety, and the benefits of GMOs and hoping that eventually it catches on. And maybe for some, it is working. But it’s not working fast enough. We are badly losing the information war on GMOs. Perhaps now is the time to be a little more forceful, and that’s exactly what MAMyths is doing. They’re standing up proudly and loudly to say, “I support GMOs and I want to tell you why.”

Of course, that’s a little scary. Especially in a city like Portland where people might get a little riled up over that. But the good news is they have the facts on their side.  And, even better, they’re real people who aren’t backed by industry. They’re people just like me: with children whose health we care about, who have a very serious vested interest in the sustainability of our food supply.

Maybe you should go. You could always go get a beer or some dried GMO papaya afterward. Or, if you don’t want to go, I understand. But you can at least join the movement online and use your voice to support science.

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Take the GMO quiz: how much do you know?

I’ll admit it, I kind of like taking those stupid online quizzes. You know: what city were you meant to live in, what Harry Potter character are you, etc. These are pressing, important issues, right?! Not so much, but they’re fun, I like doing them, and I bet you do, too. So I decided to make a quiz for you guys! It’s in the vein of a personality quiz, and I fully expect all my dedicated momsensians to get the “Big Ag Shill” title! Make me proud. If you don’t, don’t fret, scroll down below the quiz and read the answers and discussion, and take the quiz again.

 

[playbuzz-item url="http://www.playbuzz.com/saramomsense10/how-much-do-you-know-about-gmos"]

 

*************************SPOILER ALERT*************************** The answers to this quiz are below! Don’t cheat! Take the test first, then read the answers.

 

Question: What does GMO mean?

Answer: GMO stands for genetically modified organism.

 

Question: How many crops come in GMO (transgenic) varieties?

Answer: 6-10 There are currently eight crops that are commercially available as GMO: Corn (field and sweet), soybeans, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beet, squash and papaya. *Edited for clarification* This is excluding food that may be considered “genetically modified” in the sense that it’s a result of selective breeding. You can make an argument that everything we eat is “genetically modified” through selective breeding, which we as humans have been doing for hundreds of years.  But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll consider GMOs to be those produced through genetic engineering or transgenics.

 

Question: Where in the grocery store are you  most likely to find GMOs?

Answer: Packaged food. Aside from papaya and a small amount of sweet corn and squash, packaged/processed foods are where you’ll find the majority  of ingredients that have been derived from GMOs. Examples include corn oil, cornstarch, cornmeal, soybean oil, soy flour, soy protein, soy lecithin, sugar (from beets, not cane), canola oil, cottonseed oil, and corn syrup. These products are often found in baked goods, cereals, snack foods, foods containing corn sugars/syrup, etc.

 

Question: Which of the following is a source for the transgene in the commercially available GMOs?

Answer: Bacteria. Bt crops produce their own protection against insect damage using a protein from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. Interestingly, the Bt protein is also used as a spray by organic farmers and gardeners.

 

Question: Monsanto is the only company that makes GMOs.

Answer: False. Monsanto is one of the “big six” companies investing in biotechnology in the private sector. The other five include Pioneer, BASF, Syngenta, Dow, and Bayer. But there are plenty of other smaller players around the world working on biotechnology as well.

 

Question: GMOs allow farmers to

Answer: Spray less pesticide and adopt no-till and reduced-till practices. Bt crops have greatly reduced the amount of insecticide applied to crops, as much as an 18-fold decrease in corn between 1976 and 2010. In fact, in the first 17 years of adoption, biotechnology has reduced pesticide spraying by 503 million kg and has reduced the environmental footprint associated with pesticide use by 18.7 percent. The technology has also significantly reduced the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture equivalent to removing 11.9 million cars from the roads. Part of that is due to reduced or no-till practices  made possible by herbicide-tolerant crops like Roundup Ready. Reduced and no-till practices help sequester carbon in the soil.

 

Question: How can you avoid GMOs?

Answer: (all answers with the *) Buy USDA certified organic, buy food with the Non-GMO Project label, or look at the ingredients. Food labeled USDA certified organic is by definition GMO-free, as is food with a GMO-free specific label. Additionally, as I said above, there are only eight crops that are commercially available in GM varieties. Turn the package around and look for the words: corn, soy, cotton, sugar, canola, squash, alfalfa (not in food anyway) or papaya. If those words aren’t listed on the ingredients, it’s not GM. If they are, assume it is GM, because in most of those crops (corn, soy, cotton, canola) more than 90 percent of the crops grown in the US are GM. The exceptions are sugar since only about half the sugar in the US comes from beets, squash and sweet corn (which both have lower adoption rates.) The percentage is closer to 70 percent for Hawaiian-grown papaya, so you can pay attention to the country of origin if you’re interested in avoiding GM papaya.

 

Question: GMOs are banned in 64 countries.

Answer: False. GMOs are not banned in 64 countries. GMOs are only banned in one country: Kenya. In some ways this is semantics, but take the EU for example: while some countries (but not all) in the EU have banned the growth of particular GM crops, the EU imports almost three-quarters of it’s feed for livestock, much of which is GM. Additionally, they are not disallowed there due to safety; it’s more of a political and public perception issue in the EU.

 

Question: The scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe for human consumption.

Answer: True, every leading health organization in the world stands behind their safety, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the International Society of African Scientists, and the European Commission, to name a few.

 

Question: We’ve been eating GMOs for how long?

Answer: 15-20 years. About 18 years, in fact. GMOs were introduced in 1996 when Monsanto commercialized Roundup Ready soybeans.

 

Question: How many documented human health incidents (that can be attributed to GMOs) have there been since GMOs were introduced?

Answer: None. Not a single one.

 

Question: Organic growers can lose their organic certification because of cross contamination from GMOs.

Answer: False. In fact, no US organic farmer has ever lost organic certification this way. The National Organic Program explicitly states that as long as an organic farmer didn’t intentionally use “excluded methods” (like GMOs), unintentional presence of GM material won’t impact organic certification.

 

Question: GMO corn seed is blue and regular corn seed is not.

Answer: False. (so, so very false.) The only reason I included this question is because there has been an extremely deceptive picture floating around the Internet that came from the Yes on 92 campaign in Oregon (and a terrible commercial) that implies that GMO corn seed is blue BECAUSE it’s GM. No. It’s blue because it contains a seed treatment, which has nothing to do with the seeds being GM. Seed treatments are a pesticide (fungicide or insecticide) that is applied to the exterior of the seed before planting to help protect the young seedling during emergence and initial growth. This is very common for conventional and GMO seeds alike. Regulators require that seed treatment preparations contain dyes to color-mark seeds that have been treated so that they can be recognized on sight and not introduced directly into the human food supply. Even organic farmers use some seed treatments. Additionally, seed treatments allow farmers to use small, very targeted application of pesticides.

 

I hope you learned something today! And if you already knew all of this, congratulations, you’re using your momsense.

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Why you should oppose mandatory GMO labeling

Note: Today’s post corresponds to a radio interview I did that aired today on the Ag Information Network’s Daily Farm and Ranch Report (audio clip at the end of the post.)

Next month Oregonians will vote on whether to require mandatory labels for foods that contain genetically modified organism (GMOs). While the supporters of Measure 92 want you to believe this is about your “Right to Know” what’s in your food, that it’s about transparency,  consumer preference, and choice, it’s not. What it’s really about is getting more people to buy foods that don’t contain no on 92GM ingredients (like organic), and in the end, it’s about banning the technology all together. Mandatory labeling is not based on science, because there isn’t any debate in the scientific community about the safety of GMOs. This measure will prevent progress of a beneficial technology, it will mislead consumers, and it will force all of us to pay for one group’s ideological preference. Not only that, but two nation-wide, voluntary labels already identify GM-free products for consumers who do want to pay extra – organic and voluntarily labeled non-GMO products.  Here’s why you should vote no.

Mandatory labeling presents an unnecessary barrier to the progress of a technology that is immensely beneficial

The United Nations estimates that food production will need to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to feed our growing population. Not only will we need to rise to that immense challenge, we’ll have to do it with more people on the planet taking up more space and using more natural resources while climate change is making it even more difficult to grow food. Even though this seems like an unattainable goal, we have tools to make it happen, and biotechnology must be one of them. Let me be clear, biotechnology is not a magic bullet; it won’t solve the problem alone. We’re going to need everything we have, every production method, every idea, every innovation. Instead of embracing all of the tools we have, what we’re doing with mandatory labeling is putting up a warning sign to consumers that will likely encourage them to buy something else. Why is that a problem? Because if consumers send a loud and clear message that they don’t want this (safe and useful) technology, researchers will stop investing in it. It’s already incredibly difficult to get a biotech product to market (and it should be, the safety testing and regulation is and should be rigorous), but with less interest and less funding, it will be even harder and the result will be less innovation. And that may not bother you because you have plenty of food now and plenty of money to buy food, but it will have consequences for those who don’t have plenty of food, money, and land, and it’s irresponsible not to consider the welfare of that portion of the population.

Mandatory labeling is misleading because it implies that food produced through genetic modification is harmful

Source: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/

Source: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/

Current mandatory food labels (like allergy warnings about peanuts or trans fat declarations) tell consumers about nutritional differences and potential health risks in food. Consumers will likely infer a warning from this GMO label that foods containing GM ingredients might be harmful or different when the science supports just the opposite. GM food has been on the market for almost twenty years without a single incident of adverse health effects. Thousands of studies, from both industry and independent sources, have verified, and continue to verify the safety of these products – they are the most researched and tested products in agricultural history. In fact, every major scientific body and regulatory agency in the world has declared these foods safe, including those in Europe (they are not disallowed there due to safety.) There is no debate in the scientific community about the safety of these products, so there is no need to scare consumers away from them with a punitive label.

Additionally, these labels don’t actually provide good information about what consumers are eating – this measure would require that some foods that don’t actually contain any detectable GM ingredients (like sugar and oil) be labeled as containing GM, and some foods (like meat and dairy) that have also been produced with GM ingredients won’t require a label. Genetic modification is achieved by changing DNA, which leads to changed proteins. Food that does not contain DNA or protein (like purified sugar, oils, and corn starch) do not contain these detectable markers of GM and cannot be tested as GM or non-GM. The only way to know is by following the ingredients from farm to table. Supporters of this measure claim that other countries label GM, but many of those, like New Zealand, don’t require labeling for these kinds of ingredients. The only way manufacturers would be able avoid Oregon’s required label is by providing “sworn statements” declaring these food ingredients have not been made with genetic modification. Without this paper trail, even ingredients that didn’t come from GM crops would require the warning label.  And because there’s no way to test for it, it opens the door for a lot of he-said/she-said disagreement and lawsuits.

Mandatory labeling forces all of us to pay more for one group’s ideological preference

My friend Tiffany Marx, mom, farmer, and vice president of Oregon Women for Ag, is voting no on 92.

My friend Tiffany Marx, mom, farmer, and vice president of Oregon Women for Ag, is voting no on 92.

Studies of measures similar to Oregon’s suggest that this will cost about $400 a year for a family of four. The proponents of this measure want you to believe that the cost is as little as printing a label on a product, but that’s naïve about how complex the food production business is. Even if you put aside the considerable cost associated with the record-keeping systems required for conventional foods to avoid the “contains GM” label, there are unavoidable costs down the road. Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume there is no cost associated with just slapping a “contains GM” label on a product that’s going to be sold in Oregon. What do you think the response will be to this label? You can probably group consumers into three categories: those who already oppose GM, those who support it, and those who are on the fence. The first group already avoids GM by buying organic or foods voluntarily labeled as non-GM. The second group won’t change their buying habits. It’s the third group that this label targets – and their likely response will be to not buy that product because it appears to be a safety warning. So sales of that product will plummet in Oregon and the manufacturer could make the decision to drop GM ingredients. That forces the price up considerably because non-GM ingredients cost more. Who do you think will end up paying for that?

Which leads me to the point: if you choose to avoid GM you already have that choice, and you, and you alone, should be the one who pays the extra cost for an extreme precautionary decision not based in science. We currently have two options for consumers who choose to avoid GMOs: organic that is by definition non-GMO, or foods voluntarily labeled as GMO-free. This is not about safety, it’s about preference. Why should we all pay more when options already exist for those who want to avoid food made from GM?

This measure doesn’t address the problems people have with agriculture

Too often the conversation about GMOs is muddled up with people’s dislike of modern agriculture. There was a great quote in this month’s National Geographic article “The Next Green Revolution” about GMOs. Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice Research Institute said, “We do feel a bit betrayed by the environmental movement, I can tell you that. If you want to have a conversation about what the role of large corporations should be in our food supply, we can have that conversation – it’s really important. But it’s not the same conversation about whether we should use these tools of genetics to improve our crops. They’re both important, but let’s not confound them.” A lot of people are pushing for mandatory labeling because they want to send a message to Monsanto, or they don’t like pesticides or patents on seeds, but mandatory labeling is the wrong way to address those issues, and it won’t even do that. Read this article from Grist about four issues GMO labeling won’t solve, and see if you still think it’ll accomplish what you think it will.  If we really need a labeling system for GM ingredients, it should be done on a national level, not by a patchwork state-by-state approach, and it should be implemented by the FDA and based on sound science, not fear mongering and marketing.

ban gmo image

Source: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/

One of the great things about US agriculture is its ability to provide diverse options for consumers. There’s room, and necessity, in agriculture for all types of production: conventional, organic, and GM. This labeling initiative disparages one type of agriculture solely for a marketing advantage, and that’s unacceptable. There is a lot of talk in the media about who’s contributing to the No on 92 campaign, highlighting that Monsanto has contributed the most. But the “Yes” side is getting funded by groups who make money by getting you to fear conventional and GM agriculture. Not only will their bottom dollar be impacted by this labeling initiative, they have openly stated their end goal is to ban GM technology. Mercola.com is one of the biggest contributors to the Yes campaign. Yes, the same Joseph Mercola who sells controversial dietary supplements on his website, has been warned by the FDA to stop making illegal claims about his products, who is anti-vaccine, and who apparently doesn’t believe HIV causes AIDS. He also said in an article on his website, “Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this. Since 85 percent of the public will refuse to buy foods they know to be genetically modified, this will effectively eliminate them from the market.” Other groups like Whole Foods, the Organic Consumers Fund, and Bob’s Red Mill are contributing with the hope that mandatory labeling will increase their market share and ultimately their profits. So don’t let them convince you it’s about your “Right to Know.” They don’t want you to have the choice at all, they want you to boycott GMOs and buy their products.

Please vote no on Oregon Measure 92 and stand with science. Below are more resources for you to explore.

Mom Brings Science to Her Blog, It’s Momsense

Vote No on 92

Oregon Citizens Review Panel rejects measure 92

The Oregonion editorial panel recommends a No vote

Oregon’s Right To Know by Marie Bowers Stagg

GMO Labeling in Oregon by Brenda Frketich

Why I Think Mandatory Labels for GMO’s is Bad Policy and Why I Think It Might Be Good Strategy and Why I Still Can’t Support It by Marc Brazeau

Oregon Voters Should Say “No” to Measure 92 by The Farmer’s Daughter USA

Sugar beet growers believe labeling requirements are misleading

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You can have your own opinions, but not your own facts

Often on this blog I write about things that I think aren’t alarming, and that I don’t think you should be overly worried about, like pesticides and GMOs. I thought maybe I should tell you about something that does actually alarm me.  I wouldn’t want you guys to think that I’m all, “nothing to see here, move along.” So I’m going to tell you about some things that I do think are troubling.

I recently read a book called Denialism by Michael Specter, a journalist who writes on science and technology for The New Yorker. I recommend it highly. The book was about how people often stare into the face of scientific evidence and fail to accept it. This is something that concerns me, and frankly, should concern you. I’ve seen this happen first hand on both the Internet and in person. In fact, recently I had to take a break from Facebook because I’m overwhelmed and depressed by the denialist and anti-science crowd.  I’m hopeful that much of this movement is a fad, because if it’s not, I fear we’re headed to a very bad place.

My grandpa had polio when he was a child. Thankfully, he survived, but it crippled him. He limped and wore a brace from his foot to his hip for the rest of his life. When he got engaged to my grandma, my great-grandparents pulled her aside and told her to reconsider – they didn’t think Grandpa would live past the age of 20. Amazingly, he lived past 90. I wouldn’t be here if he had died of polio, and countless others aren’t here because thousands of children died from diseases that have since been mostly eradicated with vaccines. Today, we’re bringing those diseases back. Oregon has the highest rate of non-immunized children in the country. Why? Because our generation doesn’t remember the suffering these diseases can cause.

OMSI photoI was recently at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and saw an exhibit about the leading causes of death in the US over the years. In 1850, six of the top 11 causes of death we now have vaccines for: diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, tuberculosis, meningitis, and typhoid fever. There’s a reason those diseases aren’t the leading causes of death anymore: scientific progress. Yet it feels like today, more than ever before, people have forgotten that much of what we have today is because of science. Vaccines are one of the most effective public health measures in human history, yet one study (described as fraudulent) showed a link between autism and vaccines, and now parents are ignoring the science and believing the anecdotes. Jenny McCarthy took that fear and ran with it. I understand the fear. We don’t know what causes autism, and as a parent, that’s scary. I understand wanting to have something to blame it on and vaccines seem easy. We don’t know anyone who’s died of measles, and so we don’t see any benefit to the vaccines, but we do see a risk. And it feels like the risk outweighs the benefit. But it doesn’t. The scientific evidence is undeniable: vaccines work and there is no link to autism. Yet plenty of parents don’t want to hear that because they’re afraid. They are staring into the face of a mountain of scientific evidence and consensus and putting their fingers in their ears and squeezing their eyes shut. And the result: those diseases are coming back. That’s what we should really be afraid of.

That’s troubling to me. How did we get here? How did we get to a point where people so freely dismiss scientific consensus? Well, unfortunately, science is not perfect, it’s a process. There have been mistakes. Vioxx is one that Specter discusses in his book. Chernobyl, Thalidomide, DDT. It’s very easy to say, as I recently heard from someone very close to me, “They say it’s safe until they say it’s not.” We’ve lost trust in the experts and in the data. There’s nothing really wrong with questioning the experts. In fact, that’s what science is all about. Have an idea, test the idea, interpret the data, and test it again. Then encourage others to test and question it, too. Adjust, and then test it some more.  That’s fine. What’s troubling is resisting the evidence when the evidence is compelling. You should question it, but when the data and the proof are there, accept it as truthful.  Often I hear people say, “but there isn’t enough evidence, there haven’t been enough studies yet.”  The problem is, denialists are so entrenched in their beliefs that no amount of evidence will change their minds. There will never be enough studies, enough evidence, and a strong enough scientific consensus. I’ve heard, “you haven’t proven it’s safe.” Nothing can be proven safe. Ever. Science can’t do that. It can only prove that it isn’t unsafe. And no one is walking around eschewing cell phones or automobiles or light bulbs because no one has proven them safe.

I understand people being skeptical. But don’t confuse skepticism with denialism. To me, one of the red flags of a denialist is when they start pulling out the conspiracy theories. This idea that Big Ag, Big Pharma, or Big Oil are hiding studies and data and paying off scientists and PR firms to lie for them. Or that the government and corporations are in bed together with the goal of taking all our money at the expense of our health and the environment. It’s all a big conspiracy. Look, you don’t have to like Monsanto or Pfizer or Exxon Mobil. If you don’t like the role that large corporations play in our society, that’s fine, let’s talk about that, but let’s not ignore the science or worse, dismiss it, because you don’t like the company that developed the product. We have real problems to solve: feeding our growing population in a changing climate; health care; and dwindling natural resources being used by more people at a higher rate. Let’s not muddle up the solutions to those problems with misplaced fear and frustration over corporate America.

I got called a shill the other day by the associate editor of a weekly paper in Oregon.  I was taking issue with some factual errors in a story about GMOs and she publicly called me out and made it look like the information I was providing was questionable (and paid for) because I used to work for Monsanto.  Surprisingly, this is the first time I’ve actually been called a shill. But I find this attitude everywhere, and frankly, it’s concerning. To many people, my knowledge on a subject is completely and utterly tainted (and apparently dismissible) because of my association with Big Ag. And I’m not the only one getting called a shill. There will always be corrupt scientists, and corporate executives who make bad decisions. But that doesn’t mean that all scientists are corrupt or that all companies are evil. Just because you don’t like the mouth that the information is coming out of, doesn’t make it less true. But knowledge is often dismissed because the listener doesn’t like the delivery mechanism. Just because Pfizer did the study, doesn’t mean it’s all a big lie in the same way that just because I used to work for Monsanto doesn’t mean that the inaccuracies in their story are less inaccurate.

Specter said, “We’ve never needed progress in science more than we need it right now.” And instead of making progress, what we’re doing is a lot of wheel spinning. We’ve got people like the Food Babe, Dr. Oz, and organizations like Natural News, and the Environmental Working Group enabling denialism by fueling the misinformation fire. I would like to think that the vast majority of people are reasonable, but you wouldn’t know it by reading those websites. You can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts. These activists are not contributing to a solution, they’re making money by selling you fear.

Here’s my bottom line: you don’t have to take a side on these issues. You don’t have to start a blog, or try to get out there and change people’s minds. Just don’t contribute to the problem. Don’t let yourself be a denialist. Even if you come to a different conclusion than I have on an issue, do some real reading on a subject and not from only one side of the issue. Don’t just read the Food Babe’s website or listen to a speech by Vandana Shiva and think you’ve got all the information. For that matter, don’t read one story in the New York Times and think you have all the information you need to make a decision.  Know that you may never know all the information, but be open to convincing evidence and scientific consensus. Don’t turn your back on science, reason, and logic because you heard this one story about this one child who got autism. Understand the difference between correlation and causation.  And most of all, don’t let fear and ideology cloud your ability to see the truth.

 

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