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Midwives Discover Organics

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jeffcoxOne of the aspects of a midwife’s work is to give her clients good information about nutrition during pregnancy and lactation. The idea is not to load up on high density foods in hopes of providing super-adequate nutrition for the developing baby. In that direction lays big babies and therefore difficult labors. The idea is to eat well but wisely so that the baby is thrifty—a word that in gardening means a plant that’s well-nourished and sturdy, but not forced into big growth. You want a tight, compact, and well-nourished infant who’ll traverse the birth canal with the minimum of difficulty.
One of the topics at a recent conference of midwives in North Carolina was the question of organic food, and the midwives were all for it. Not only does organic food—thrifty in and of itself–promote thrifty babies, but it does so without the chemicals and the harmful techniques used in conventional agriculture.
Of course, some midwives have long been advocates of organic food. Ina May Gaskin at The Farm in Tennessee has been a supporter since the 1960s. But let’s face it—the 1960s are now a half century ago, and there are at least two generations of midwives that have come along since, and maybe three.
People who aren’t familiar with the world of birth and babies may not understand just how important good midwifery is for young mothers. What organic farmers and gardeners are for the world of food, midwives are for the world of childbirth. The alternative to organic food is conventionally-produced food, grown in fields scoured clean of life by the use of poisons—pesticides, fungicides, herbicides. The alternative to drug-free childbirth at home is a hosp-ital birth, with epidural drugs injected into the mother’s spine so she can’t feel the strong—and yes, sometimes painful—natural process of her pelvis opening to allow a baby to be born. And yet Mother Nature provides benefits for women who experience natural childbirth. Certain hormones are released through the process that encourage bonding and promote euphoria once the baby is delivered. Natural home birth is safer than hospital birth—hospitals after all are where sick people go and really nasty germs reside. But there’s nothing pathological about childbirth. The caesarian rates in our hospitals are a national scandal. A caesarian section sounds great but is a major surgery, with all the complications that can entail. Among the countries in the world with the lowest rates of maternal and infant mortality are those with the highest rates of home birth—Holland among them. Where would you rather give birth—in a hospital or at home? If complications arise, as they sometimes do, 911 is a phone call away and a hospital is usually nearby.
A home birth, attended by a competent midwife and a doula (a labor coach), is the safest, most natural, most empowering, and organic way to give birth. I know. My wife is a midwife and I’ve attended births with her and marveled at her skill—and especially at the courage and determination of the women who were giving birth. Men show courage in different ways, but let no one denigrate the sheer courage of women as they perpetuate our race. Few men are ever called upon to show the steadfast courage of a woman in childbirth.
My wife Susanna is the author of “Water Birth—A Midwife’s Perspective,” and she’s available at www.northbaymidwife.com if you have any questions. No matter where you live, she can help you find a midwife in your area.
The fact that midwives are accepting organic food as an important part of what they have to give to their pregnant clients is not surprising to me at all.

Organic Food Equals Good Health

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Jeff CoxAt the core of organic gardening and farming is the quality of health. Like beauty, goodness, kindness, or insightfulness, it’s not something you can hold in your hand, but it is a transcendental quality of the first importance. You’ll know it when it’s gone. In fact, growing plants organically—for food, ornament, as part of an environmentally sound ecology, or for a practical purpose like a windbreak or for firewood—is to foster the health of all the creatures and systems that bear on that growth.
The organic grower recycles all his or her organic matter—pulled weeds, leaves, hay, farm animal manure—through the composting process and back to the soil. This not only conserves valuable organic matter that might otherwise be relegated to a landfill, it feeds the soil.
Soil teems with microorganisms and larger organisms like earthworms, too. There are over two billion living cells in each tablespoonful of rich, compost-amended soil, tons of living creatures in the top foot of every acre of enriched, organic soil. Compost is what the soil microorganisms need to be healthy. A healthy soil prevents disease. For instance, potato scab is a fungus that makes ugly, black, scabby patches on potato tubers. But an organically-amended soil resists potato scab. That’s because possession is nine-tenths of the law in the soil system. A rich, organic soil is thoroughly colonized by beneficial bacteria and other microscopic creatures. Potato scab can’t gain a toehold in such a soil. It’s a healthy soil—health being defined as either the absence of disease or the ability to resist disease. And what is disease except an outbreak of destructive organisms that overwhelm the defenses of a creature, whether that’s an immune system or a scabby soil.
So health is built from the ground up in the organic system. Once you have a healthy soil, you can plant it. Plants and soil organisms have co-evolved over millions of years. Plants prefer their food delivered to them by microorganisms in the soil. The healthy soil gives plants what they want, when they want it, at the rate they need it. Let’s look at those three statements:
–What They Want: Microorganisms tear apart organic matter and flood the soil’s moisture with nutrients biologically formed for plants’ benefits. As they reproduce and die, the microorganisms’ slightly acid cell contents dissolve minerals from bits of rock in the soil. These minerals also feed the plants. Neither Monsanto nor a farmer knows the optimum way to feed plants. Soil microorganisms do.
–When They Want It: Plants have different nutritional needs at different stages of their growth. Soil creatures feed them exactly the right nutrients at the right time.
–At the Rate They Need It: In early spring, when the soil is cool and the seedlings are just emerging, the microorganisms are also just waking up and feed the new plants just small amounts of nutrients. Flooding seedlings with lots of nutrients would force them into tall, spindly, weak growth. The microorganisms know just how to feed plants at the proper rate for optimum health. As the soil warms and plants put on major growth in early to mid-summer, the soil life gets cooking, too, and feeds plants at greater rates. It’s a system, set up by nature, to optimize the health of the plants. Instead of weak growth, plants become thrifty—a term of art meaning they are stocky, compact, and strong.
Now animals–cows, ducks, chickens, goats, sheep, pigs, or humans–come to eat these healthy plants. Because the plants have grown with all the nutrients they needed to make all the compounds they were capable of making, they can supply us with the full panoply of molecules nature intended. No only do our bodies absorb these molecules, allowing us to build our health, too, but they feed the intestinal flora within our digestive systems. Nine out of every 10 cells in our bodies are intestinal bacteria, and when they are fed what they want, when they want it, at the rate they need it, they greatly augment our health.
Many of our intestinal bacteria are similar in function or even related to soil microorganisms. And so health makes a giant swing from the soil through the plants to the animals and back to the soil again, leaving a trail of good health and glowing good feeling behind. That’s why organic gardening and farming means good health. When people complain that organic food is too expensive, I realize that they are not aware of all the benefits of that food. In the big picture, it is far less expensive than the consequences for environment and personal health of eating conventionally grown food.
Believe me when I say that health is not a factor on the factory farm.

News from the Organic Front

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jeffcoxAnd now, a quick run-through of some topical news stories of interest to the organic community.
Food-borne illnesses kill more than 5,000 people and sicken 76 million every year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And so both Democratic and Republican Senators sponsored the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), the most important piece of legislation to protect the public to be proposed in a generation.
But then the word came down from the Republican leadership in the Senate to kill the bill. Even its Republican sponsors backed away from it. Recently the Senate voted for the bill was 57 in favor and 27 against, and as you know, it takes 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate. Why would the Senate Republicans prevent the bill from going forward? As Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said, the GOP’s top priority is to make sure President Obama doesn’t get a second term, and passage of the food safety bill might win him some friends.
So I guess the bottom line is that another 5,000 people will have to die and millions be sickened so Republicans can do their political posturing.


The FDA is getting ready to approve the sale of genetically-engineered salmon (aka frankenfish) in American markets. And the agency doesn’t want you to know whether the salmon you’re buying is genetically altered or not. It’s not requiring fish farmers to label their fish GMO. The Obama administration evidently thinks that American consumers have no right to know what they are buying and eating and should be kept in the dark. “Change has come to America” apparently meant coins jingling in the pockets of Monsanto executives.


The 300-acre organic farm of the Rodale Institute in Maxatawny, Pennsylvania, has finally added cows to the diversity of life forms on its farm. The farm is not meant to be a working farm as much as a place to test organic farming ideas. Those ideas have always included the central place of animals in the organic farming system and it’s nice to see the farm managers bring in farm animals to augment the testing of field crops.


Have you noticed that more and more beverages are being sold in hard plastic containers instead of glass? There may be a significant health danger in that. Food and beverages are by far the main source of human exposure to the estrogen-mimicking chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, according to a panel of expert scientists at the World Health Organization and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Studies have linked the chemical to breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes, male infertility, and other health problems. One of the chief concerns of the scientists is that containers for baby food and baby bottles may contain the chemical, which can adversely affect the development of infant and toddler endocrine systems.
The bottom line: opt for glass instead of plastic containers or canned food whenever possible.

The Debate About GMOs

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The Debate About GMOsjeffcox

The Economist magazine chooses a topic for debate from time to time and invites readers to agree or disagree with the premise of the debate. The readers’ remarks are often cogent. Such was the case during a recent debate as to whether genetic modification of food crops and other techniques of bioengineering are compatible with sustainable agriculture, a term that I take to include organic agriculture.

Here’s the premise of the debate: “This house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory.” You can read the full debate at www.economist.com/debate/debates/overview/187. But I thought several comments were of enough importance to share them with you.

Comment # 1

Dear Sir,

Some relevant facts for the discussion:

All current GMOs are [created] to resist pesticide applications or to spread pesticides indiscriminately; i.e., not targeted applications (Roundup Ready and BT). Both these methods are prohibited in organic agriculture systems.

Not a single GMO crop has higher yields.
Not a single GMO crop has achieved any improvements to drought resistance.

Organic does not attempt to “combat” nature- and altering genes and DNA of species in a laboratory is not a method that is compatible with the organic philosophy of mimicking nature, but is a violent overriding of nature’s method of protecting species purity. Fish can’t breed with cows, bacteria can’t breed with corn and sustaining this is for a good reason–but now some scientists are playing God and overriding this through laboratory interventions. This can never be a tool used to further organic or sustainable production as the method is a violation of nature’s [way of separating] species. It’s simply not compatible, and the risks are unknown.

If we think we can sustain humanity’s existence while destroying the existence of the natural world and other species, we have gone too far down a road of arrogance and the ones that will pay are ourselves.

The motion is a bit of an oxymoron also, as sustainability is about sustaining something, in this case agriculture and the components of agriculture, one of which is plants. Biotechnology like genetic engineering is precisely NOT SUSTAINING current species or their natural evolution through cross breeding according to natural law, and [is an] attempt to replace plants and animals with forms not existing in nature. The motion is not logical or coherent; it is a confused and contradictory statement. Like saying that I want to have my cake and eat it too.

Comment # 2

Dear Sir,

The key to sustainability for farmers is being able to save their own seed. Even in a bad year, you will have some seed to save. If you are forced to buy all of your seed, then one bad year means economic devastation. For those who see consolidation of agriculture into the industrial monocrop model, this is not a problem. For farmers like us devoted to sustainability, we focus on maintaining genetic diversity, spreading (and thereby diluting) safety risk among many small farms instead of one huge contamination, and keeping small farm businesses viable.

Exporting GMO seed in the name of improving food production is disastrous; poor farmers in the Third World living at the margins of the monetary economy are precisely the wrong people to pay that kind of price.
We also still do not know the health effects of the protein modifications in engineered foods. No science yet clearly links them to the increases in food allergies, but that may just be because the real science has yet to be done. We just don’t know. Meanwhile, GMO continues to contaminate all of our crops though cross pollination making it almost impossible to pull back this headlong experiment with our food and health.

Comment # 3

Dear Sir;

It is important to note and remember what sustainability means and this is being lost in the complexity of this debate.

Sustainability means honoring and balancing the three Ps: People, Prosperity, and the Planet. This is a very simple but powerful concept.

GMO food products certainly honor the prosperity of Monsanto and other companies that are trying to force the use of these products on an unwilling public. However, GMOs do not honor people, or why else would the [agribusiness companies] oppose labeling tooth and nail? Given the worries of [GMOs] spreading into the environment, they do not honor the planet.

They actively dishonor people when companies sue farmers for pollen drift, seek to destroy seed bank companies, and to [control] agriculture, which belongs to all people.

The words GMO and Sustainability are unfortunately mutually exclusive.Read

Comment # 4

Dear Sir,

The current approach to GMO is too focused on selling more herbicides like Roundup, as opposed to creating crops that are more resistant to the challenges of Mother Nature (temperature, water, etc). As we have seen with Roundup, [GMOs give us] Pyrrhic victories, and we [only] create a new class of superweeds, which need more aggressive herbicides, and so on. This is not sustainable and a battle we won’t win from Mother Nature.

Furthermore, the ability to patent living organisms for the profit of a few is an outrageous abuse of the patent system. The onus should be on the seed companies to prevent pollution or make GMO plants easy to identify.

This is Jeff writing now:

I certainly don’t think bioengineering is compatible with sustainable—or especially organic—agriculture.

I would add that switching genes from various organisms into other organisms is akin to opening up Control Panel on your computer’s operating system and just clicking away to see what happens. Genetic structure in natural organisms is the end product of millions of years of evolution, and millions of years of nature trying random mutations to see what works and what doesn’t. If a strand of DNA includes code that will create a terrible disease in a person, then I can see the necessity of snipping off that bit of code and replacing it with the same bit of code carried by a person without that disease. But inserting caterpillar disease genes into crop plants so they kill any caterpillars that bite them (exactly what companies have done with the gene for the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin) or “improving” nature by putting mouse genes into corn, or other abominations, should be illegal. Do you really think humans have the wisdom to fool around with the control panel of life?

The fact that companies like Monsanto fight so hard to prevent the GMO labeling of food simply proves that Monsanto knows that people would avoid GMO food like the plague. Canada and the countries of the European Union require GMO food to be labeled as such. In the United States, our Congresspeople are in the pocket of Big Ag, literally bought by campaign contributions, and so we are not allowed to know whether our food has been genetically modified.

How do you like it here in the dark?

Who Is Dennis Cardoza?

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Jeff Cox

Who Is Dennis Cardoza?

Dennis Cardoza is a Democrat, a Representative to Congress from California’s 18th Congressional District in the Central Valley from Stockton to Fresno, home to intense agriculture, most of it conventional, some organic. He is Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Farming.
Or—at least he was chairman of the Subcommittee. It remains to be seen who will sit in the chairman’s seat now that the Republicans have gained control of the House of Representatives.
It could be Rep. Cardoza. He proudly calls himself a Blue Dog Democrat, which is another way of saying either a moderate Democrat or a centrist Republican. The League of Conservation Voters gave him a 65 percent rating on his votes for conservation legislation. That’s not a strong record. In fact, it was 14th from last among the 233 House Democrats in the last Congress. He may look better, however, compared with the corporatist Republicans who will now succeed him.
I contacted many folks in the organic farming community—farmers, activists, members of non-governmental organizations concerned with organic farming—asking if anyone had had contact with Rep. Cardoza, seeking to find out just what he’d done for the organic community, if anything. Only one correspondent had had contact with him—or rather, with his staff. That was a meeting to determine how much money Congress would appropriate for organic farming research and development in the 2010 Omnibus Farm Bill. The staff listened, commented favorably, and had a few ideas to chip into the discussion.
Other than that, Rep. Cardoza doesn’t seem to have been engaged in helping the organic farming community during his term as chairman of the Organic Farming subcommittee. I wrote to him two years ago asking him to recount for me any help he’d given organic farmers. Neither he nor anyone on his staff bothered to respond.
In fairness to Rep. Cardoza, his district is the heart of Big Ag, and conventional farmers make up the bulk of his constituency. They, too, need a Congressperson to represent them.
But it seems that once again, organic farmers are given short shrift. And that’s too bad, since organic farming is the only way to reclaim the Central Valley’s chemically-drenched landscape and clean it up for a sustainable future. The Central Valley is among the most polluted places on the planet because of the overuse of agricultural chemicals of all kinds there. Rep. Cardoza could have chosen to be a brave leader and carry the banner of organic farming—but it probably would have been political suicide. But maybe not. Times they are a-changin’. Organic food production is closing in on the $30 billion a year mark. Maybe some of those conventional farmers would have liked to have had an alternative to the use of poisons to grow their crops. Maybe the farm workers deserve better than to work in hazmat suits in the fields—or, worse, work without hazmat suits. Maybe an organic environment would have been safer for the kids growing up in the 18th District. Maybe the alternatives can both be offered and given real support—both conventional and organic.
I will report back in this space about the next chairman of the Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture. Maybe he or she will actually do something to support organic farming. I don’t want to be cynical, but I doubt it.