Tag Archives: getting informed

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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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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Farming in Focus: July Wheat Harvest and a bonus at the end

I’m slow this summer, so forgive me. I know we’re half-way through August and I’m just posting my July Farming in Focus. That’s life. I’m just happy I’m getting to this at all with two kids running around my legs all summer!!

At the end of last month I visited my friend Marie Bowers Stagg’s farm just north of Eugene to see how they harvest wheat. Then, earlier this week I got to tag along with her husband Tristan as he delivered almost 60,000 pounds of wheat to the grain elevator in Portland. Read on to see my adventures – and as a reward, if you make it to the end you’ll get to see how blueberries are harvested by machine! I finally caught back up with last month’s blueberry farmer in Albany and got to climb aboard a mechanical blueberry harvester!

Bashaw land and seed-4Bowers Stagg (who blogs at Oregon Green) is a fifth generation grass seed farmer on her family’s nearly 100-year old farm in the Willamette Valley. Her family primarily grows annual rye grass seed on a few thousand acres, but they also grow about 500 acres of wheat, 200 acres of meadowfoam, and this year grew about 50 acres of forage peas for cover crop. As is the case for all farmers, one of the most challenging aspects of farming is dealing with the unknown of the weather. This spring and summer in Oregon have been extremely hot and dry, so much so that it’s the first year Bowers Stagg has had to carry around a water tank in the bed of her truck everywhere she goes in case something catches on fire. Dry wheat is highly flammable and Bowers Stagg told me merely a spark from hitting a rock in the field with the combine can catch the wheat stubble on fire, something that happened in July on their farm. When I was visiting, Bowers Stagg had to stop to spray water on a compost pile consisting of leftover combine remains that ignited itself.

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One of Bowers Stagg’s primary concerns this year is fire hazard, but the heat and dry weather have also impacted their (and almost all farmers she knows) yield. This year their wheat yields are down about 30-50 percent. The last field they harvested yielded about half of what it did the previous two years.  Not only that, but because it was such a dry spring, the amount of protein in the wheat is higher than it usually is, which may sound like a good thing but it’s not. Eastern Oregon is expected to grow high-protein wheat because it’s always dry there, but western Oregon is expected to grow low-protein wheat because we get more rain. These two balance each other and the final product has just the right amount of protein. Except this year we didn’t get that rain and as a result, when Bowers Stagg’s husband Tristan delivers the wheat to the grain elevator, they get docked for having too much protein.

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One of the ways Bowers Stagg’s farm can off-set losing money on that low yield and high-protein wheat is to store it until the price of wheat goes up later in the year when demand is down. Pictured here is about 15 truck loads of wheat, or about 15,200 bushels that they’ll be saving and selling later in the year. Bowers Stagg grows soft winter wheat, which is primarily used in flatbread, crackers and wheat noodles (like Yakisoba) as it’s not the right consistency for bread. Most bread that we’re familiar with is made from hard red wheat.

Bashaw land and seed-5I have to say, this was what I was looking forward to the most during my visit to Bowers Stagg’s farm: riding in a combine! I was super excited about it, but after taking a few turns in this thing, I can honestly say I have very little interest in doing this full-time. This might be one of the most boring jobs I can think of. This is 15-year-old AJ’s first summer working for Bowers Stagg, and he seems to like it, but I honestly cannot imagine driving a combine around for 14 hours a day. Yes, that’s right, 14 hours a day of sitting in that cab moving at the speed of molasses!! Important and necessary, yes, but not exactly thrilling. I understand why they hire teenagers to run the combine, but I was a little shocked to discover that a 15-year-old is allowed to work 14 hours a day. Bowers Stagg told me agricultural employment allows for exceptions enabling them to employ minors. They cannot work more than 14 hours a day or more than 72 hours per week. Because this is AJ’s first summer, he’s making minimum wage, but next summer if he comes back he’ll get a raise. He says he’s saving his money up to buy a truck he has his eye on. That’s certainly more dedication than I had at 15, I’m not sure I did anything for 14 hours a day except drive my parents crazy.

Bashaw land and seed-7As the combine fills up with harvested wheat, one of AJ’s co-workers drives this wagon up next to the combine and AJ off-loads about 12,000 pounds of wheat and keeps on driving. AJ will finish early today because harvest is almost over. One of the benefits of a hot, dry spring and summer is that the wheat harvest is early this year. Bowers Stagg told me this is the first time that she can ever remember being done with harvest so early.

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While the focus of my visit was wheat, as I mentioned, Bowers Stagg primarily grows grass seed. They were already finished harvesting grass seed when I visited – they finished that the second to last week in July even though they aren’t normally done until August 1st. As a result, Bowers Stagg said this is the first time in her life that she’ll be able to take a vacation in August. She said her dad is planning to go camping in August just so he can say he did it. Her family primarily grows  forage type grass seed – seed used in pastures to feed livestock. One of the reasons they grow so much grass seed is because the soil where they live isn’t suited for much else. It’s mostly clay and doesn’t drain well enough to grow other crops. Bowers Stagg said they’re always looking for other crops to rotate in, but there aren’t many options.

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One way farmers improve their soil quality, at least enough to grow crops like wheat, corn, and mint in climates that are overly wet in the winter and dry in the summer like where Bowers Stagg lives, is through something called tiling. Basically, they dig these huge trenches in the field and run perforated tubing underground. This helps water drain off the surface and out the tubes into ditches and streams. Seems brilliant, right? So why doesn’t Bowers Stagg do this on all her land so she can have more crop rotation options? “Well, as my mom says,” Bower-Stagg told me, “you’re pretty much buying your land again.” The cost of tiling is so high, it’s almost like you’ve paid twice for your land. Then, even if the soil is good enough to grow corn or mint, you’d need to install irrigation as well, which is also costly. One complication of lack of rotation crops is that pest control can be very difficult. If you keep the same crop on the field year after year, it gets difficult to get rid of the bugs and weeds who damage or compete with that crop. Bowers Stagg said they used to be able to burn their fields every few years to get rid of slugs and other pests, but that has since been banned. Now instead of burning the wheat stubble, they bale it up and send it to a mushroom farm to become a home for baby mushrooms. And, they end up using more pesticide to get rid of pests.

Bashaw land and seed-14After the wheat is harvested, it’s delivered to the grain elevator on the Willamette River in downtown Portland. The wheat is dumped from trucks into a pit in the ground and then literally elevated up to those tunnels in the sky of this picture. From there, the wheat is poured into ships on the river where it travels mostly to Asia. Tristan told me that 74 percent of agriculture in Oregon is exported, including the majority of their wheat where it is made into Asian noodles.

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Tristan has only been a farmer since he married Marie. He’s actually a paramedic and still does that part time. He says he likes farming better because while the hours aren’t great, he gets to work with really nice people, unlike his job as a paramedic where he often works with “unsavory” people (his words, not mine.) This is Tristan’s sixth load of wheat he’s delivered to the elevator this year. Thankfully when I got to tag along harvest was almost done and it was only a 20 minute process. Last time he delivered wheat he had to wait almost three hours in line behind other trucks. First Tristan uncovers the tarps from the top of the truck and then drives the truck onto a scale that weighs the truck full of wheat. It’s at this point that the wheat is also probed to determine protein and moisture content.

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Next Tristan opens the back of the truck and the wheat comes pouring out into the pit below. Tristan takes care to remove his sunglasses and and anything else important that he’s wearing because if it falls off, it’s gone.

Bashaw land and seed-12It takes less than five minutes for 60,000 pounds of wheat to pour out of two trailers. The wheat falls out so fast that there is a risk that the sides of the trailer might implode if it falls out too fast. It wouldn’t even be possible with the tarps on top.

Bashaw land and seed-15I noticed a bunch of geese hanging around the elevator and after Tristan is finished he tells me why. They eat the leftover grains on the ground. Before getting back into the truck, Tristan empties his pockets out onto the ground that got filled up with wheat when he opened the back of the truck and the wheat fell out all over him. And that’s the end of my wheat story!

But wait, there’s more!

mechanical harvest update-1

This is what it looks like to drive a blueberry harvesting machine! Don’t worry, it moves slowly.

blueberry harvester-1The harvester is driven over the rows of blueberries and as the bushes pass through the arms of the machine, the berries are shaken off the bush and caught in trays.

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Then they travel up above onto a conveyor belt where they are caught in containers.

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Then they are dumped into bigger totes and offloaded by a fork lift onto a refrigerated semi truck and taken to be processed into frozen blueberries. Watch the video below to see the whole process.

 

 

 

 

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The Miracle Mineral Solution Sham and What You Can Do About It

I’m thrilled to share today’s article, written by another volunteer summer guest blogger, Mommy PhD (also known as Alison). As her stage name suggest, Alison has a PhD in Biology and Biomedical Sciences and post-doctoral training in neurotoxicology and epigenetics. Aside from being a mommy, she also currently works at Emory University as a post-doctoral fellow.

I follow Mommy PhD’s page on Facebook (you should, too!) and we’re in a few sciencey groups together, so I’ve been following along with her recent efforts to bring attention to what can only be described, in my opinion, as a group of terribly misguided parents engaging in horrific acts of (hopefully) unintended child abuse led and encouraged by a fanatic cult. This topic is a bit outside my usual realm of issues, but I asked Alison to write this post because, as a mother (and a human), I was appalled when I learned about it, and I think parents should be aware that this is happening and know of ways to help. Fair warning: some of the information and images below are a bit shocking – it turned my stomach, it might turn yours as well, but I hope bringing attention to this underground movement will help stop it. Thanks for reading, and thanks to Alison for her hard work.

——By Mommy PhD ——

Over the past few months, I have been working with an amazing group of people from all over the world to raise awareness about the use of Miracle Mineral Solution (chlorine dioxide, or CD, an industrial bleaching agent) as an enema to “cure” autism. Proponents of MMS claim that autism is caused by parasites and that bleach enemas remove these parasites and thereby “cure” autism. But what they think are parasites are really the lining of these children’s intestines that have been stripped away.

Some people blame the parents, but the real blame lies with the proponents of MMS who take advantage of parents who are searching for support and are overwhelmed with trying to help their child. In a way, as a mother, I can understand this. Parents will try anything to help their child. I have two kids and when it comes to protecting my children, I can turn into quite the mama bear. So when the proponents of MMS sell the false hope that autism can be cured, I can see how parents who can’t figure out what to do might fall for this. However, the proponents of MMS misrepresent science and flat out lie to support their lies. MMS has no benefit and can only cause harm.

  • There is no scientific basis for the use of MMS to treat autism (or anything else for which it is claimed to be used).
  • At the suggested doses, the chemicals in MMS are toxic. In fact, the most concerning effect observed in the toxicity studies of chlorine dioxide and sodium chlorite is neurodevelopmental delay.
  • Using untested, unproven and unregulated treatments on children is childhood experimentation. To experiment on children without appropriate regulation and approval is highly unethical.
  • There are many resources for support for parents and evidence-based information on autism. You can contact these places for recommendations in your area.
  • The authorities are beginning to crack down on those who sell and promote MMS and related products.

What is chlorine dioxide/MMS?

Chlorine dioxide/Miracle Mineral Solution is an industrial strength bleaching agent that can be used in very low concentrations as a water purifier. CD/MMS is sold as a 28 percent solution of sodium chlorite and an activator (an acid like citric acid). When these are combined, chlorine dioxide is formed. However, as an analysis carried out by an independent lab at the request of investigative journalists in the UK, this reaction is highly inefficient and most (90 percent) of the sodium chlorite remains in this form. This produces a solution with a concentration of chlorine dioxide and unconverted sodium chlorite many hundreds of times higher than the acceptable limit set by the EPA.  So when people use this product, as an enema or orally or as eye drops or however they use it, the toxicity results mostly from sodium chlorite.

Is chlorine dioxide a bleach?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Yes. It is most definitely a bleach. See this article by Emily Willingham for a demonstration of what chlorine dioxide does to a navy blue cloth napkin.MMS is a bleach

Proponents of MMS will tell you that CD is not a bleach since it’s not household bleach (sodium hypochlorite). However, bleach is a general term that includes any compound that removes color. Chlorine dioxide is a bleach. It’s not household bleach, but it is most definitely a type of bleach.

Andy Brunning from Compound Interest created this graphic to demonstrate some of the many different chemicals that are classified as bleaches.

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Who invented Miracle Mineral Solution and the CD Autism protocol?

MMS was invented by Jim Humble. He is not a doctor, yet claims that the CD/MMS protocols cure Ebola, malaria, HIV and other diseases. He invented this “cure” while on a gold mining expedition in Guyana in 1996. In online videos, he claims to be a billion-year-old god from the Andromeda galaxy, specifically from the Planet of the Gods.  He founded his own “non-religious” church (their choice of words, not mine), the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, to protect himself and his “Ministers of Health” against legal action relating to his promotion of this protocol. They do not even try to hide that they formed this so-called church to protect themselves against prosecution and share information about how to avoid the authorities. This church looks very much like a cult.

Kerri Rivera is a “Minister of Health” within this church and has written a book describing her CD Autism protocol, which discusses CD/MMS given by enema or by drinking to “cure” children of autism.  She is also not a doctor. The justification for this protocol is that CD/MMS “cures” autism by removing the parasites (rope worms, not a real thing) that cause it. However, there is zero scientific plausibility that this treatment works. Autism is a not a disease to be cured. Research shows that autism is largely genetic. There is no link at all between parasites and autism.  What Kerri Rivera and other proponents of MMS say are parasites are really the lining of these children’s intestines that have been stripped away.

Intestinal parastiesFor comparison, here are some images on the left posted by parents of what falls out of their children after treating with MMS by enemas. Compare to the images on the right of actual intestinal parasites that infect the human gut. Worms have symmetry and structure, which the intestinal lining does not. What you see on the left are mixtures of intestinal mucus, undigested food, fecal matter and blood. They have no structure, no defined morphology, no symmetry. These are not parasites.

How do the kids react to being given MMS enemas?

Parents who are carrying out this protocol share their stories online. They share stories about their children crying in pain as they are held down and an industrial strength bleaching agent is forced into their rectums. They share pictures of the lining of their children’s intestines falling out, toenails falling off, and hair falling out. They share that their children stop showing emotion and have a loss of appetite. These are all signs of chronic poisoning and chronic abuse, but in these groups parents are congratulated for “curing” their children of autism. When parents post about disturbing symptoms their children are having in response to this “treatment”, the answer from the leaders is always – give more enemas.  These children are in pain but children trust their parents. This is an utter betrayal of that trust.

Is CD toxic at the dose recommended in the CD Autism protocol?

Yes. In fact, the FDA issued a warning about using this product in 2010:

‘FDA warned consumers not to consume or use Miracle Mineral Solution, an oral liquid solution also known as “Miracle Mineral Supplement” or “MMS.” The product, when used as directed, produces an industrial bleach that can cause serious harm to health. The product instructs consumers to mix the 28 percent sodium chlorite solution with an acid such as citrus juice. This mixture produces chlorine dioxide, a potent bleach used for stripping textiles and industrial water treatment. High oral doses of this bleach, such as those recommended in the labeling, can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and symptoms of severe dehydration.’

In 2000, the EPA did a comprehensive review of all the literature on the toxicity of chlorine-based disinfectants including chlorine dioxide and sodium chlorite. They used this review to determine safe levels for oral ingestion of these chemicals. They also determined the effects of toxic doses.

EPA Toxicology Review of ChlorineThe EPA concluded that oral ingestion of chlorine dioxide and sodium chlorite is safe below 0.03 mg/kg/day. This “reference dose” indicates the dose that is safe to drink every day of your life with no adverse effects. This means that a 20 kg child can safely ingest 0.6 mg (0.00002 ounces). While the EPA says these compounds are safe below these levels, this also means that above these levels, they are not safe. Doses of CD/MMS prepared as directed are 10,000 times higher than the EPA reference dose and 520 times higher than the WHO maximum allowable daily dose.

These are also oral doses. Doses given rectally (by enema) are likely to have a greater toxic effect as they are likely to be absorbed more readily. Rectal exposure was not tested by the EPA as it is not a common route of exposure for water disinfecting chemicals.

Perhaps the most shocking thing in this report is that the most consistent finding of long-term and developmental toxicity studies in animals was NEURODEVELOPMENTAL DELAY. So not only are people pushing a toxic substance, they are pushing a substance that is likely to cause the sorts of issues in children that they claim it prevents.

How do proponents of CD/MMS distort the toxicity data?

In CD/MMS groups, people will often cite this 1982 paper as evidence that the EPA says chlorine dioxide is safe. There are numerous problems with this claim that show the ways that proponents of MMS manipulate information and lie.

  • They are misrepresenting the source of the article. The article was not a publication of the EPA or carried out by EPA scientists. It was carried out by scientists at Ohio State University and was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, which is published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
  • The paper showed that drinking up to 5 ppm of sodium chlorite or chlorine dioxide for 12 weeks was safe. There is nothing wrong with the research in this paper. It clearly states that drinking half a liter (about half a quart) of a 5 ppm solution of chlorine-based disinfectants is safe.  What dose is this?  Assuming an average weight of 90 kilograms (almost 200 pounds) for an adult male, this is a dose of 3.5 MICROgrams/kg.
  • Lab tests show that most (90 percent) of the sodium chlorite in MMS remains unconverted yielding a 391 ppm sodium chlorite solution with very little chlorine dioxide. This given as directed translates to a dose of 312 mg/kg daily (for a 20 kg child). That’s MILLIgrams.  312 compared to 0.0035. The safety of a 0.0035 mg/kg dose tells us nothing about the safety of a 312 mg/kg dose.

Medical experimentation on children

Another huge issue with using the protocol on children is that using unproven treatments on children is medical experimentation. Doing this without proper approvals and oversight is a huge ethical issue. The National Institutes of Health have strict guidelines governing when it is ethically appropriate to use humans and children as subjects in medical studies. All human studies performed by medical professionals must be approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), a committee of scientists, doctors and community members, to ensure that human subject research is conducted in accordance with all federal, institutional and ethical guidelines. To use an unproven treatment without approvals on a child is experimentation and violates all of these guidelines.

Where can parents of autistic children find accurate information and helpful resources?

I imagine that parents find CD/MMS because they are looking for support and resources to help them navigate raising an autistic child. It’s unfortunate that they find information about CD/MMS and other fake cures being peddled to parents, instead of the excellent resources out there that provide accurate information and resources. Here are a few reputable sources for different kinds of information about autism.

What progress has been made to prevent the use of MMS?

Fortunately, over the past few months, we have made a lot of progress to stop these people from abusing more children.

  • Products relating to MMS were removed from Etsy and the US eBay site (new ones are popping up on eBay and people are continuing to report them).
  • Louis Daniel Smith in was convicted in US Federal court “for selling industrial bleach as a miracle cure for numerous diseases and illnesses, including cancer, AIDS, malaria, hepatitis, lyme disease, asthma and the common cold”. He set up a fake water purification business to purchase the chemicals and to attempt to hide his activities from authorities. He was convicted of conspiracy, introducing misbranded drugs with the intent to defraud and smuggling.
  • We held a small, peaceful protest at the AutismOne/Focus for Health Conference in Chicago, which I have written about before.
  • During the AutismOne (known for promoting dubious “cures” for autism) conference in May, the Illinois Attorney General, Lisa Madigan, served AutismOne regular Kerri Rivera with a subpoena and Kerri signed an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, acknowledging that she has violated the Consumer Fraud Act and prohibiting her from giving seminars promoting CD/MMS and selling or promoting MMS in Illinois. Read more on this at Debunking Denialism.
  • There has been increased media coverage of this issue, especially by Phil Rogers and his team at NBC Chicago.

These are huge developments and the result of many months of hard work by many people. With the action by the Illinois Attorney General and the federal conviction of Smith, it is reassuring to see the authorities taking this seriously.

And, it’s not just in the US. In the UK authorities are also cracking down on the promotion and sale of these products and conferences promoting MMS in the UK have been cancelled after public outcry.

How You Can Help: Reporting products on Etsy and eBay

We were able to get Etsy to remove all CD/MMS related products from their site. We have made progress with eBay, but it’s been a little harder (their site is bigger and each country has it’s own site).  A few months ago, I emailed with them and they changed their filters so most of these products were blocked before they could be listed. Due to that, all products were removed from eBay, but there is a slow trickle of new products being listed as suppliers learn how the filters work.

However, it’s still fairly obvious that a 28 percent sodium chlorite solution with Jim Humble mentioned in the product description is not intended for water purification. There are also vendors selling only the citric acid activator. This is highly suspicious. Why would you need only citric acid activator? My suspicion is that when someone buys the activator, the order confirmation is followed by an email with instructions to purchase the sodium chlorite independently from eBay. We are continuing to monitor and report these products to eBay.

If you’d like to help report products, search eBay for chlorine dioxide, MMS, miracle mineral solution, Jim Humble, or sodium chlorite. At the lower right of the product page, below the “People who viewed this item also viewed” section, is a link to “report item”. (You do need to have an eBay login to report an item.) Report the item as a “prohibited and restricted item” and a “hazardous material”. Under detailed reason, select “pesticides and poisons.”

It’s been a good spring and summer for the fight against MMS. The momentum is with us and we continue to identify and report sellers and distributors to the appropriate authorities. We will continue our outreach to educate parents and to help them find the resources they need so they don’t fall for false hope. Hopefully, we can make MMS a thing of medical history, like leeches and bloodletting.

 

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Farming in Focus: June Blueberries

I have been up to my ears in blueberries lately. We have four well-established bushes in our yard that keep my family (and some friends) well stocked in blueberries for almost the entire summer. And, since Oregon produces nearly 40 million pounds of blueberries each  year, making our state the second largest producer of blueberries (after Michigan), I thought it was fitting to visit a real blueberry farm to see how it’s done on a MUCH larger scale than my backyard. So, a few weeks ago I drove down to Albany and visited Berries Northwest for June’s Farming in Focus. (I put off this post a few weeks in favor of the two-part sunscreen guest blogs.) I hope you enjoy and are inspired to go make a blueberry pie.

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Anne Krahmer is a 6th generation farmer and a 3rd generation blueberry farmer. Krahmer’s family grows blueberries on over 500 acres, 350 of which are in Albany, OR and the remainder are in Claskanie and St. Paul. Krahmer’s father started the operation in the 1990s and Krahmer grew up on the farm. She was hand picking berries at five years old and started on the berry picking machines at nine. Krahmer joined the business in 2009 after working in farm and ranch appraising in Salem for seven years. “I like this better,” she said. “It’s never the same and you never know what’s coming.” This year has been a difficult one because of the weather. I expected Krahmer’s operation to be booming because of the heat wave we’ve been having but she said it’s actually the opposite of that. The heat impacts the quality of the fruit; a lot of the bushes have been over-fruiting, meaning when it gets hot the plants puts lots of resources into making fruit, but then they don’t all ripen or the size of the fruit varies tremendously.

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About half of Krahmer’s production is picked by hand for the fresh market. Hand picking is the best way to guarantee the finest fruit, which is what is needed and expected for the fresh market, but with that comes the complications associated with managing migrant workers. Krahmer doesn’t know on any given day how many workers she’ll have show up to pick in the fields. “On Monday we had 50 people show up, the next day we had 38. By Wednesday it had dropped to 16. Thursday we were back up to 48, then 58 on Friday.” A lot of that is dictated by what else is in season – for example, when strawberries and blueberries are ripe at the same time, workers will abandon picking blueberries  in favor of strawberries. Strawberries pay more because those farmers don’t have the option of harvesting by machine, but blueberry farmers do. As the season wears on, grapes ripen in California and workers move on to that market. Krahmer said sometimes the workers’ cell phones will start ringing and they’ll walk off the field right in the middle of picking and head to another farm where they’re paying more that day. She said she tried a weekly attendance bonus, but it didn’t work because it ended up being more trouble than it was worth.

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Hand pickers are paid by how much they pick at $0.35 per pound. Most are making about $100 to $150 in a four- to six-hour work day. The average worker picks about 40 to 50 pounds an hour, but the top pickers can pick as much as 80 to 100 pounds per hour.  Let’s compare that to my family of four that can pick about five pounds in an hour. Granted, about half of what my kids pick goes into their mouths, but still. That is seriously fast. I asked Krahmer for tips and she told me wearing the bucket right on your waist and cupping your hands leads to more efficient picking.

blueberry harvest-4

Almost all of Krahmer’s hand crew are migrant workers from Mexico, and very few of them speak English. The berry industry is facing a labor shortage that Krahmer says is changing the fresh market. A lot of that has to do with labor immigration politics. “These workers want to work here for eight months and then go home and see their families,” Kraher said. “Lots of these workers have families back home, but the border makes it hard to get back home.” Krahmer said part of the labor shortage is also because of an increase in the Mexican economy. If they can find jobs at home, there is no incentive to come to the US to harvest fruit.

blueberry harvest-3

I asked Krahmer why they don’t employ more non-migrant workers; for example, I only saw one white person picking by hand in the field. “We hired 15 white workers this year,” Krahmer said. “She [the one I met] is the only one still here. People think picking blueberries is easy, but when they discover it’s hard work they don’t want to do it.” If a picker doesn’t pick enough to make minimum wage, Krahmer is required to pay them minimum wage anyway. Krahmer said if the minimum wage goes to $15 as a lot of people hope, she won’t be able to afford a hand crew and she probably would have a hard time even getting a crew. “Who would pick blueberries in the sun all day for $15 an hour when you could work in an air conditioned building and make the same?” Krahmer said. “Consumers want more and more fresh fruit and organic options, but they don’t always understand what that means in terms of increased labor.” She said if the minimum wage goes to $15 an hour, she’ll only be able to do about 30 percent or less fresh market instead of the 50 percent she does now. That has an impact on her bottom line as well as reduced availability because she makes about $1.85 per pound for the fresh market compared to $0.75 per pound for the frozen market.

blueberry harvest-1

Krahmer’s operation uses a digital system to help workers keep track of how much they pick. Each worker wears a name tag with a bar code on it. After they dump their buckets on to the trays, the supervisor scans their barcode before weighing the berries. The system keeps a running total of how many pounds that worker picks each day and the worker gets a printout with their name, date and total pounds picked so far that day. Krahmer said the system is very good, but occasionally there are problems that she must sort out during the day. For example, once a worker checks in to one weigh station, they must continue to weigh at that station all day. If they go to another station, the system encounters problems.

blueberry harvest-11

All of Krahmer’s fresh blueberries go to Driscoll’s, which has a reputation for safe fruit and high quality. In order to sell to Driscoll’s, Krahmer’s operation must be Global G.A.P. certified, the highest certification available. That certification covers all stages of production, from pre-harvest activities such as soil management and plant protection product application to post-harvest produce handling, packing and storing. For example, all the buckets must be washed daily with a chlorine and water solution, and the buckets must sit on what’s called a “baby tray” in the field to keep them off the ground. After the berries are picked, they travel in a refrigerated semi truck that Krahmer leases to travel to Watsonville, CA where Driscoll’s is based. There they’re washed and sorted.

blueberry harvest-9

Krahmer gets an update from her field manager each day on the quality of the berries being picked. This is important because if there is too much red (not ripe enough) or the berries are too soft (overripe or too hot), Driscoll’s will reject the entire shipment. They’re also looking for damage from birds (shown on the left) or from pests and disease (shown on the right). Krahmer uses electronic bird squawkers to keep the birds away, and while she says they work very well, they’re not perfect. Krahmer also has to spray insecticide to prevent damage from the Spotted Wing Drosophila, a fruit fly that arrive in Oregon in 2009 and lays its eggs in the berries. Processors test the fruit for presence of SWD by soaking the berries in a salt water bath that causes the larvae to crawl out of the berries. Once SWD is detected in a grower’s berries, they’re essentially trash. Not even the juice market will take them.  In the spring, Krahmer sprays fungicide to prevent fungus that deforms the fruit. She says they’re very careful about what they spray because in April she hires between two and six bee hives per acre to pollinate the crop.  They also have instigated a new native pollinator project through Oregon State University on their farm this year that hopes to attract native bees. “We really watch what we spray,” Krahmer said. “We don’t want to kill the bees.” While it might seem like the vast majority of the work gets done during harvest, there is work year-round on Krahmer’s farm. After the harvest, they promote growth of the plants and starting in November they hand prune every single plant. That generally takes until February or March because at 1,200 plants per acre and over 500 acres, that’s a lot of pruning. They also do what they can to try to time harvest as early and as late as possible because that’s when the market is most lucrative. They do this by tenting some of the fields and selecting different varieties that ripen at different times.

blueberry harvest-10One of the coolest things I wanted to see on Krahmer’s farm was the mechanical harvest of blueberries. Unfortunately, all I got to see was the machine sitting in the field because by the time I got there they were finished picking. The crew started at 5 a.m. when the berries were cool and by the time I got there at 10 a.m. they were done. Krahmer told me as it gets hotter, they’re going to have to go to night shifts. I’m still hoping to get some images of mechanical harvest in the next few weeks, and if I do, I’ll be sure to post an update here (maybe even with a video!) so you can see it for yourself. Stay tuned!

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Sol Survivor: Shedding light on sunscreen ingredients Part 2 of 2

(This is the second in a 2-part guest post by Jen Phillips. Jen holds a PhD in biology and is a Senior Research Associate at Westerfield Laboratory Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon.)

Making sense of sunscreen controversies

Hello again!  In Part I of this series of posts, we explored the science behind sunlight, sunscreen and skin cancer.  That post left us with some pretty compelling reasons to cover up and slather on, but in this continuation we’ll be examining a few common claims out there that suggest sunscreen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and may, in fact, be bad for you.  To put your mind at ease up front, there are no legitimate health concerns associated with sunscreen use, and there are demonstrable health benefits to regular application. So what’s all the fuss about?  Let’s take a look:

Does sunscreen use prevent cancer?

At first, this might seem like a silly question.  UV rays causes cancer, sunscreen blocks UV rays, therefore sunscreen must reduce skin cancer, right?  Sure, but scientific evaluation to back up this conclusion has had some mixed results.

sunscreen 2The biggest and most well-designed study to date was conducted in Australia, beginning in 1992.  The study included over a thousand participants, divided into an experimental group who applied SPF 16 sunscreen daily for four years, and a control group who used sunscreen at their own discretion. Initial results were reported after the four-year testing period, and additional data were obtained by tracking participants in both groups for another decade.  Overall, the study showed clear benefit of daily sunscreen use in prevention of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), a benefit in prevention of Melanoma that was only noted at the end of the 10 year follow-up, and only a slight, statistically insignificant benefit in prevention of basal cell carcinoma (BCC.)

Why weren’t the results more spectacular, you might wonder, given the obvious correlation between UV radiation and skin cancer?  Based on its prevalence, one could hypothesize that BCC is easier to trigger than the other forms of skin cancer, and thus the SPF 16 sunscreen did not block enough UV rays to significantly reduce BCC rates. It’s also possible that UVA rays play a role in triggering BCC.  When this study was initiated in 1992, the sunscreen provided to participants—and indeed, all sunscreens on the market at that time—were UVB blocking only.

Still, even imperfect protection is better than none at all, right?  So using sunscreen would seem like a pretty straightforward choice.  Nevertheless, recent concerns over the safety of the products themselves have complicated the picture.

Does sunscreen disrupt hormones?

This claim is specific to oxybenzone–an organic UV filter that has been an active sunscreen ingredient for over 40 years.  The worry stems from in vitro studies showing that oxybenzone influences expression of estrogens and androgens in cultured breast cancer cells.  A study using mice also showed hormone related changes in uterine tissue when animals were fed oxybenzone daily.  Further potential for concern came from reports of oxybenzone being detected in urine and breast milk.

While it all sounds scary, the Paracelsus maxim (“the dosage makes the poison”) is important to keep in mind.  In vitro studies are notoriously lousy at predicting effects in functioning, multicellular systems like humans.  Further, the mice in the oxybenzone study were fed massive doses of the compound.  It would take several hundred years of daily sunscreen application to achieve similar exposure in humans, so it’s unlikely to be an issue for most of us.

What about the levels detected in urine and breast milk?  Well, oxybenzone is a popular ingredient in lots of products and materials beyond sunscreen. As such, it’s not surprising that it’s detectable in human excretions, and it’s not unique in that regard.  The key questions here are: are those levels attributable to sunscreen use and, more importantly, are those levels harmful?   To the first question, the urine study found no correlation between sunscreen use and oxybenzone levels.  To the second, a number of human studies specifically testing whether oxybenzone exposure from sunscreen use had any physiological effects showed no significant problems.  And finally, irrespective of the source of exposure, there have been no health problems of any kind linked to oxybenzone.  While it’s definitely valid to continue to monitor the chemicals in our environment, it’s also important to note that in nearly 5 decades of widespread use, no safety issues have come up.

Does sunscreen cause cancer?

This concern is primarily based on some in vitro studies showing that retinyl palmitate can generate biologically reactive molecules when exposed to UV radiation.  Retinyl palmitate isn’t a UV filter at all, but rather a Vitamin A precursor molecule that is a common additive to sunscreen formulas, as well as a great many other skincare and food products.  The factors generated when retinyl palmitate is exposed to light, called free radicals or reactive oxygen species, have a well-known potential to induce cancer.

Again, this a reasonable thing to test, but of the numerous studies conducted to assess the carcinogenic potential of retinyl palmitate, only a minority showed an effect, whereas most showed no adverse outcomes at all.  When weighed against the fact that widespread use of retinyl palmitate for years has resulted in no health problems, the few small in vitro studies suggesting harm are not convincing.

An additional cancer concern was raised by a couple of small studies that showed an increase in Melanoma in low-SPF sunscreen users compared to non-users.  The methods of these studies were relatively poor, compared to others that showed either no difference or a protective effect of sunscreen use.  Importantly the researchers didn’t evaluate other potential causes for the increase in Melanoma that they observed.  Stacked up against the better methodologies of larger studies, most particularly the comprehensive Australian study mentioned above, the data just don’t support a causative link between sunscreen use and Melanoma.

Is sunscreen toxic?

This concern arises from recent modifications to the inorganic sunscreen ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both of which filter UVB and some UVA rays.  Zinc oxide has been around for a while—you’ll probably recognize it as that opaque white stuff that beachgoers slather all over their noses.  Titanium dioxide is a more recent addition to the sunscreen arsenal, but is similarly pasty in appearance.

While such products are well-suited for small, high profile areas like the nose and cheekbones, their thick, pasty formulas are so difficult to spread that they’re not generally used for whole body protection, which is unfortunate because in addition to being great UV filters they’re also far less likely to cause skin reactions or allergies than some of the organic compounds.

To get around this problem, recent formulations use microsized” or “nanosized” titanium dioxide or zinc oxide mineral particles.  These preparations have the dual advantage of making the product easier to spread and less opaque.   However, the small size of these particles has raised concerns about their ability to penetrate the skin and reach toxic levels in the living cells beneath.  Fortunately, all the evidence indicates that these particles aren’t able to enter the body through the skin. Most were even tested on broken skin and showed no tendency to penetrate to the living cell layers.  This seems to be due, at least in part, to the fact that although the individual particles are indeed very small, they tend to aggregate together in solution, forming chemical bonds that keep them from moving around independently.

swing-1Does sunscreen cause vitamin D deficiency?

This concern seems reasonable on its face. Skin cells in the epidermis produce a vitamin D precursor that is activated by sunlight (by UVB rays, specifically). Block the sunlight, and you could potentially block vitamin D synthesis.  Studies have shown that sunscreen can indeed reduce vitamin D production.  Vitamin D screening is common in primary health care, and is now a cornerstone of the supplement industry, as well as a popular scapegoat for a wide range of maladies in the ‘wellness’ community.

There is a great deal of variation in the definitions of what might constitute a clinically normal vitamin D level in adults, so much so that experts don’t actually recommend routine screening at all.  However, legitimate vitamin D deficiency can lead to some well-characterized developmental problems, like rickets, so it is important to do due diligence when considering the effect of sunblock for children.  Fortunately, research has shown that the use of sunscreen doesn’t contribute to vitamin D deficiency.

Why the discrepancy? In short, it seems that no one is perfectly compliant when applying sunscreen.  A little sun exposure, literally 15-30 minutes a week, is all an otherwise healthy fair skinned person needs to synthesize sufficient amounts of vitamin D.  A few minutes in the sun without sunscreen, or maybe just on that one spot you couldn’t quite reach, appears to be enough.  This is borne out by both the lack of correlation between sunscreen use and vitamin D deficiency, and also the low incidence of rickets and other known outcomes of vitamin D deficiency, in the sunscreen-using population.

Are spray-on sunscreens safe?

A couple of years ago, the FDA announced that it was collecting more data on spray-on sunscreen, which at the time was relatively new to the market.  This was interpreted as an ominous development by some, and a number of unofficial advisories were issued about avoiding use on children, risk of inhalation, etc.  The FDA didn’t issue any sort of follow up on their findings, but based on the number of consumer bulletins about spray-on sunscreen on the FDA website, it seems pretty clear that there are no specific health concerns regarding the sunscreen part of the ingredients.  Much more emphasis has been placed on regulating the ‘dosage’, if you will, since it is applied so much differently than sunscreen lotion.  There are also a number of common-sense precautions that also apply to many other spray-on products. For example, it’s a terrible idea to apply an alcohol-based spray around an open flame, no matter what the other ingredients are.  It’s probably not a good idea to spray sunscreen into your kid’s face, any more than it would be a good idea to spray insect repellent or hairspray.  Inhaling aerosol products in lieu of air is typically an unpleasant experience.  However, aside from these fairly broad safety guidelines, there isn’t any specific reason to shy away from spray on sunscreen.

In summary,

-sunscreen continues to be recommended by healthcare professionals to prevent burns as well as to protect skin from premature aging and from cancer.

-sunscreen safety has been well established.  No health issues have been linked to sunscreen ingredients, despite extensive testing.

-sunscreen provides maximum protection when used appropriately—applying a thick, even layer and reapplying regularly.

One last thing:  the FDA requires sunscreen to be tested for stability and durability, and the expiration dates are usually around 3 years from the date of manufacturing.  These dates are backed by sufficient testing so as to be trustworthy, but also require the liberal application of common sense.  If your sunscreen is stored in extreme temperatures for a long period, for example, or if it changes consistency from one year to the next, it’s a good idea to replace it even if it’s not technically expired.

So, be smart about sun exposure, wear hats and water shirts when possible, seek out a broad-spectrum product with high SPF, slather up, and have a beautiful summer.  I’ll see you at the pool.

 

For more tips and information, see this sunscreen FAQ from the Skin Cancer Foundation

Also, see the Skin Cancer Foundation’s response to some of the recently renewed claims.

 

References:

Burnett and Wang, 2011. Current sunscreen controversies:  a critical review. Photodermatology, Photoimmunity & Photomedicine. 27, 58-67

Jansen, et al., 2013. Photoprotection: Part II. Sunscreen: Development, efficacy and controversies. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 69(6). 867.e1-867.e14.

LeFevre, et al., 2015. Screening for Vitamin D Deficiency in Adults: U.S. Preventative Services Task Force Recommendation Statement.  Annals of Internal Medicine.162(2): 133-140.

Green, et al., 2011. Reduced melanoma after regular sunscreen use: randomized trial follow-up. Journal of Clinical Oncology  29(3):257-63.

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Sol Survivor: Shedding light on sunscreen ingredients Part 1 of 2

I’m very excited about this post for two reasons. One: it’s the first time I’ve recruited a guest blogger to write for It’s MomSense. This is cool to me because it means someone thinks my blog is influential enough to take their own (unpaid!) time to research and help us parents wade through the misinformation running rampant in parenting circles. The second reason is that this is a topic that I have meant to look into for some time. I am very fair skinned and burn easily and I’ve managed to pass this trait on to my red-headed son. I feel like I’ve spent every summer since he was born running around after him with a tube of sunscreen and a hat. Every once in a while there’s a small voice in the back of my mind asking if I’m actually doing him a disservice by routinely rubbing chemicals into the skin on the back of his neck. As a result, a while ago I added “sunscreen ingredients” to my running list of things to research and blog about.  Now that summer is in full swing and the sunscreen and I are best buds again, I’m glad to check this one off my list.

Because this topic is pretty involved, we decided to split it into two posts. So today and next week you’ll be hearing from Jen Phillips instead of me! Jen is the mom of two kids (one teen, one darn close) who has a PhD in biology.  She is a Senior Research Associate at Westerfield Laboratory Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon. There she uses zebrafish to study the molecular genetics of human diseases. When she’s not hunkered down in a dark microscopy lab, she likes to romp in the sunshine with her family and dog. Jen plans to start her own blog at some point this year under the name Clutch Science. For now, you can follow her on twitter @ClutchScience. Here’s Jen to shed some light on sunscreen ingredients. Hope you enjoy. -Sara

 
Part 1:  The dark side of our closest star

Confession time:  I love the sun.  Swimming, running, working, reading, eating, lounging, it’s all better done outdoors, as far as I’m concerned.  But, as a fair-skinned woman, and mother of two lightly pigmented kids, I’d be foolish to ignore the risk involved, or to fail to take preventative steps to keep us healthy.  I am a stickler for sunscreen use, and, much to the chagrin of my children, I will not hesitate to halt a fun outdoor activity if it’s time to reapply.

It’s not news that sun protection is an important part of preventative health.  Ultraviolet radiation damages skin in a number of ways, the most serious of which can lead to cancer.   Recently, though, concerns about sunscreen ingredients have made headlines, raising questions about whether sunscreens are effective at skin cancer prevention and even whether the use of sunscreen carries inherent health risks.   **Spoiler alert:  sunscreen is safe and effective and you should use it with confidence.  If you’re interested in knowing more about the basis for the concerns and why you don’t need to worry, though, please read on!**

In the first of this two-part series, I’ll outline a bit of the biology and strategic chemistry behind the interactions with our closest star, in order to set the stage for discussing the most popular current controversies in Part II.

UV radiation:  what’s in a wavelength?

UVA_UVB raysUV radiation occupies the electromagnetic spectrum between visible light and x-rays.  The UV portion of the spectrum can be divided into quite a few subcategories, but the two that we’re most concerned about in sun exposure are known as UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays (also known as “burning rays”) can’t penetrate beyond our epidermis, or outer skin layer.  In addition to causing sunburn, DNA damage to epidermal cells by UVB rays is a driving factor in the development of skin cancer in light skinned people.  Until recently, UVA rays were alternatively called “Tanning rays” or “Ageing rays” depending on what product was being marketed.  In contrast to UVB rays, UVA rays penetrate more deeply, through the epidermis to the dermis below.  UVA rays cause inflammation and damage to structural proteins in the dermal layer, which have historically been associated with wrinkles and saggy skin.  More recently, UVA radiation has also been implicated in DNA damage that can lead to skin cancers.  This reclassification led the FDA to upgrade its caution on the use of tanning beds, by the way, which use primarily UVA wavelengths and were often advertised as a ‘safe’ form of tanning before the carcinogenic potential of UVA rays were better understood.  Now that we know better, let’s talk about skin cancer.

Your epidermis is showing

Cancer of any type arises through DNA mutations that alter cellular behavior.  UV radiation has been used in laboratories to induce mutations in cells for nearly a century.  Our skin is exposed to UV radiation on a regular basis, and while the pigments in darker skin offer protection against cell damage, those of us with fair skin have an increased risk of skin cancers as a result of sun exposure.

All skin cancers originate in the epidermis, which is composed of a tightly packed basal cell layer and a more mobile layer of cells known as squamous cells.  Our skin sheds and renews itself regularly, so the epidermis is constantly cranking out new cells that progressively travel from deep in the epidermis up toward the surface, changing shape as they go.

Skin cancers are classified into three broad categories according to the cell type affected:  Basal cell carcinoma, Squamous cell carcinoma, and Melanoma. Genetics and environment influence susceptibility, but in light-skinned people, sun exposure is a major risk factor for all three types.

Epidermis

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer in people of European and Hispanic descent, with nearly 3 million cases diagnosed each year.  It is also the most benign, as it rarely spreads to other cells beyond the original tumor site.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) Is the most common form of skin cancer in dark-skinned people (who have a lower incidence of skin cancer overall because of the protection of higher melanin levels in their skin) and the second most common form in light-skinned individuals.  About 700,000 cases are reported each year.  SCC can be disfiguring if left untreated, and can, more rarely, spread to other regions of the body.

Melanoma, a cancerous overgrowth of melanocytes, accounts for only 2% of all skin cancers overall, but has the highest death rate of them all.  Melanocytes, which produce skin pigment, are found in the basal cell layer of the epidermis, but their developmental origins and cell biology are distinct from the other cells in this layer.  These differences, which amount to different gene regulation for things like cell division and migration, contribute to the uniquely aggressive nature of malignant melanomas.

Considering the varied ways that things can go wrong in living skin cells, it’s important to understand what preventative steps we can take.  Limiting sun exposure during the peak hours is always a wise recommendation, as is the use of hats and clothing to cover the most exposed areas. But as lots of outdoor activities aren’t compatible with those guidelines, protection that can be applied directly to the skin is a great advantage.

How does sunscreen work?

All available sunscreen products contain UV filters that absorb, reflect, or diffuse UV radiation.  Ingredients with these properties are classified as either organic (carbon-based), or inorganic (based on other elements).

Lots of chemistry goes into choosing compounds that make the best sunscreen ingredients.  Compounds are tested for the particular range of UV wavelengths they can intercept and for durability.  The best compounds will block a wide swath of the UVB spectrum without being easily degraded.  No one wants to wear sunscreen that has to be reapplied every 15 minutes, right?  These qualities must then be weighed against the utility of the ingredient in a product designed to be applied to human skin:  Does it stink? Does it have a texture or color? Does it irritate skin or cause allergies?  Are there other safety or toxicity concerns?  FDA approval is required for all sunscreen ingredients, and their standards for safety testing are quite rigorous.  In fact, a number of organic sunscreen ingredients approved for use in Europe haven’t made the grade as far as the FDA is concerned.

What about SPF?

Sun Protection Factor of a product, or SPF, is usually framed for marketing purposes as the amount of time you can spend in the sun before burning when using the product versus time spent in the sun without it.  More specifically, the SPF value is the quantifiable effectiveness of the UVB filtering capacity of any given ingredient—or combination of ingredients. This is a non-linear numerical scale.  An SPF of 15 corresponds to blocking about 94% of UVB rays, while an SFP of 30 increases blocking capacity to 97%.

Note that SPF rates the product’s effectiveness of blocking only UVB rays. Since learning more about the damage that UVA rays can create, Sunscreen formulas have expanded to include UVA filtering alongside UVB (SPF-rated) protection.  Again, there’s a bit of a difference between how we do things in the US vs. abroad.  Other countries have a rating system (out of 5 stars) to indicate the strength of the UVA blocking compounds.  The FDA hasn’t implemented any such system yet.  The presence of UVA filters added to the SPF-rated UVB compounds in US products isn’t quantified, and only the words “broad spectrum” let you know that your sunscreen contains both UVA and UVB blocking ingredients.

To sum up this overview of the science behind sunscreen, both UVA and UVB rays can have detrimental effects on the health of your skin, so in addition to limiting exposure in as many ways as are practical, having a good sunscreen product on board is essential.

However, for the past several years a number of controversial warnings about the safety and effectiveness of sunscreen products have emerged.  In Part II of this series, I’ll examine those claims one by one to determine if there is really cause for concern.

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Farming in Focus: May – Green beans and more

I know, I know. I’m late on this post again. Think of it this way – my Farming in Focus post will just surprise you – you never know when it will show up! I have a really good reason for holding this post for almost a week, though. I was waiting for the pea harvest! The peas in my garden were getting pretty close to picking in May a few weeks ago, so I emailed a farmer friend who I know grows peas and said, “Hey, when do you guys harvest peas? I’d like to profile you for my May Farming in Focus!” Unfortunately, they weren’t harvesting peas, but they were getting ready to plan green beans, so I jumped at the opportunity to photograph some green beans going into the ground. I was all ahead of schedule with this post until I got an email just a few days before the end of the month that said, “We’re getting ready to harvest peas now!” So I decided to hold it to include some pea harvest photos (because… obviously that’s worth waiting for.) But then it rained, and rained, and rained some more. So we waited, and waited, and waited some more. Which is a good lesson about farming – you can’t control the weather. I took the pea harvest photos just yesterday. Hope you enjoy.

This month I visited Kirsch Family Farms in St. Paul, OR and met up with third generation farmer, Brenda Frketich.

Frketich-5Frketich and her family grow nine crops on a total of 1,000 acres. About 300 of those acres make up the home farm where Frketich’s parents live. Right down the road Frketich lives on 55 acres with her husband, Matt, and son, Hoot. Those nine crops include hazelnuts, ryegrass seed, tall fescue grass seed, green beans, peas, wheat, radish seeds, cabbage seeds and crimson clover seeds.

Frketich-7Until recently, Kirsch Family Farms only grew two crops: grass seed and hazelnuts. For years they did what a lot of farmers do – they regularly traded fields with neighboring farmers in order to rotate crops on the same land to preserve soil quality. But, as Frketich said, “Every farmer has their own way of farming,” and in order to maintain consistency in practice, they decided to learn how to grow their own rotation crops. Over recent years they’ve picked up seven additional crops that allow a rotation model they control. Frketich told me it’s definitely harder this way, and some of the rotation crops are riskier to grow, but it’s still better to not have all your eggs in one basket.

Frketich-6Frketich told me her favorite crop continues to be hazelnuts, even though for a long time her family wasn’t planting additional hazelnut trees because eastern filbert blight made it really difficult to grow them profitably. Eastern filbert blight is caused by a fungus that creates cankers and die back on branches and requires multiple fungicide applications to control. That changed when Oregon State University recently released a blight-resistant hazelnut tree. Now, as Frketich is doing,  many Oregon hazelnut growers are planting new orchards once again.

Frketich-8As I drove to meet Frketich, I kept seeing fields of crimson clover dotted with tiny seedlings, and I could not figure out what was going on. It turns out that in the first few years while the hazelnut trees are getting established, farmers can grow crops in the rows between the trees. This makes total sense – the trees are not big enough yet to form a canopy and block the sunlight to the ground, but they must be planted far enough apart to accommodate their future growth leaving a bunch of open ground. That seemed so clever to me until Frketich told me that it’s actually more of a constant trade-off. Sometimes you want to spray to control weeds in the crimson clover but you’re limited in what you can apply and the timing of that application because it might damage the hazelnut trees, and vise versa. For these trees in the picture above, this will be the last year they grow side-by-side with any other crops.

Frketich-2There are only three crops Frketich grows to actually eat, and green beans are one of them (peas and hazelnuts are the other two).  This year they are planting about 52 acres of green beans, split into two different plantings – one in May and one in June. Frketich told me this is basically to split the risk; the weather in Oregon is iffy this time of year and splitting the planting dates helps alleviate some of the risk associated with lack of control over the weather. They know the risk all too well. This year one of their pea fields got too much rain after planting and rotted in the ground. Fortunately, they were able to rent the land to a pumpkin grower, but that’s not always the case, and it’s a huge investment of time, labor and input cost to have that field not produce a crop. Before the green bean seeds even go into the ground, Frketich told me they’ve already been over this ground about 15 times. That includes passes to work the soil, and incorporate fertilizer, pre-emergent herbicides and moisture. I asked Frketich why they didn’t use a no-till approach with green beans and she told me no-till only works for some crops. Crops like green beans and cabbage need loose soil to establish a root structure, whereas crops like wheat don’t, but they do use a no-till approach when possible.

Frketich-1This is what a green bean seed looks like before it goes into the ground. Why is it pink? It  has a seed treatment on it that helps protect the seed as it germinates and emerges. The planter creates a furrow in the ground and drops ten seeds per foot and then covers the furrow back up as it passes by. The green beans will emerge in about seven days.

Frketich-11While green beans are getting planted on one part of the farm, Frketich’s husband Matt is applying a fungicide to their grass seed fields on another part of the farm to treat for rust. You can see why it’s called rust – it looks just like metal rusting on the blade of grass. The fungus restricts nutrients that the plant needs to develop seeds, which is exactly the kind of thing a grass seed farmer doesn’t want. Kirsch Family Farms grows turf grass seed (as opposed to forage grass seed for animals). Most of the seed they grow ends up in residential use and golf courses.

Frketich-10I had never been on a sprayer before, so I was pretty excited when Matt agreed to let me climb up on the truck and go for a few passes with him. I was particularly impressed with the technology the truck uses to apply the fungicide. The GPS guided sprayer is so precise that it knows exactly where it’s already been, so even if you drive over the same area you’ve already sprayed, the “auto boom” feature will turn the sprayer off so you can’t over-spray. So I said to Matt, “You mean you could just drive around willy nilly all over the field and it would turn on and off as necessary so you’d never apply twice in the same spot?!” “Well, yes, you could do that,” he said. His tone told me that was probably the stupidest idea he’d ever heard, but I thought it sounded pretty fun. The truck also has auto-steer which means he doesn’t even need to touch the steering wheel on fields that are more or less rectangular.

Frketich-3I grow cabbage in my own garden, and most people know what a cabbage plant looks like, but I’ve never seen cabbage flower and go to seed. If you’re growing the crop to eat the cabbage, you don’t want it to bolt (produce a flowering stem) because it impacts the flavor of the cabbage. But when you’re specifically growing the plant for the seeds, that’s exactly what you want. Frketich told me they even split the cabbage heads to induce bolting.

Frketich-4Another thing I didn’t know is that cabbage seed production requires a pollinator. Sitting on the corner of this field of cabbage were about 40 bee hives that Frketich rents for the duration of the bloom on their 26 acres of cabbage. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the bees need the pollen and nectar to produce honey for the beekeeper, and Frketich needs the bees to pollinate the cabbage flowers so they get a good seed crop.

Frketich-14This is a pea harvester! Kirsch Family Farms has a contract with Norpac Foods, so all of the peas they grow end up in bags of Flav-R-Pac frozen peas.  Norpac determines the variety of peas Frketich plants as well as the planting date so they can properly stagger all the harvesting contracts they have. When it’s time to harvest, Norpac sends out its team of harvesters  operating on a 24-hour schedule. The workers put in 12-hour shifts from 7:00 to 7:00. In fact, the harvesters arrived on Frketich’s fields at 3:00 a.m. so by the time I got there Friday morning at 10:00, they had already moved on to the neighbor’s field. But, no matter, we just drove over to the neighbor’s farm to watch these bad boys harvest at one acre of peas per hour! The team operates four harvesters for a combined rate of four acres per hour.

Frketich-15That’s right, I climbed up on a moving pea harvester to get this shot! I could actually hear the pea pods crunching as I stood up there. Inside the harvester is a giant drum that spins and throws the pea pods against a screen to break open the pods and filter out the peas, leaving all the pods and plant material behind. I couldn’t help but marvel at the efficiency of this beast – imagine having to pick and shell all those peas by  hand.

Frketich-13When the harvester is full of peas, it off-loads them into this “dump chief.” Then…

Frketich-16… the peas are dumped into a truck to be carried off to the cannery for cleaning and packing. That’s a lot of peas.

Frketich-12In the end, all that’s left behind on the field are the empty pea pods and plant material. Frketich has a nice trade set up with a cattle farmer – he comes and rakes up the leftover plant material and carries it off to feed his cattle. He gets the feed, and it cleans up the field for Frketich. She says she’s talked to other farmers who have tried not cleaning up the field, but the vines take so long to break down that you end up fighting them for a long time after the peas are gone.

I hope you learned something, because I sure did. And I had a blast climbing up on farm equipment! If you want to learn more about the trials and tribulations of Kirsch Family Farms – check out Frketich’s blog Nuttygrass.

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