Toward an Organic Twinkie
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Have you noticed that more and more products at the organic markets are simply the same kind of processed foods you can buy at the conventional supermarkets, only made from organic ingredients? Mmm—organic pizzas, frozen dinners, snack crackers and chips; heavy on the organic fats, organic sugars, and organic sea salt. How long before we find organic Hot Pockets, donuts, and Twinkies?
Granted that processed foods made with organic ingredients don’t carry the typical load of agricultural chemicals, or any of the hundreds of chemicals used to flavorize, texturize, emulsify, preserve, and color the conventional products. But they are still processed foods, drained of their life force, less than whole, mere mouth fun instead of delicious-and-nutritious, and usually with a lot of fat, sugar, and salt.
Now, I’m all for occasional mouth fun. One of my local organic supermarkets offers a scoop of ice cream in any flavor of your choice, served in an eat-all cone, for $1. Maybe once every month or so, I’ll indulge. Everything in moderation, right? Including moderation. But that kind of thing doesn’t replace good whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and even a decent sandwich. When was the last time you had an apple and a carrot, with maybe a bit of good cheese, for lunch? They’re whole, they’re filling, and they are good for you.
One of the reasons we eat organic is to enhance our health. Heavily processed foods, even if they are organic, don’t help in that department.
The environmental press reports that in addition to continued reports of Colony Collapse Disorder — a still mysterious phenomenon in which entire bee colonies disappear, leaving not even their dead bodies behind — bee populations are suffering poor health in general, and experiencing shorter life spans and diminished vitality. And while parasites, pathogens, and habitat loss can deal blows to bee health, research increasingly points to pesticides as the primary culprit.
Of particular concern is a group of pesticides, chemically similar to nicotine, called neonicotinoids (neonics for short), and one in particular called clothianidin. Instead of being sprayed, neonics are used to treat seeds, so that they’re absorbed by the plant’s vascular system, and then end up attacking the central nervous systems of bees that come to collect pollen. Virtually all of today’s genetically engineered Bt corn is treated with neonics. The chemical industry alleges that bees don’t like to collect corn pollen, but new research shows that not only do bees indeed forage in corn, but they also have multiple other routes of exposure to neonics.
A Purdue University study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, found high levels of clothianidin in planter exhaust spewed during the spring sowing of treated corn seed. It also found neonics in the soil of unplanted fields near those planted with Bt corn, on dandelions growing near those fields, in dead bees found near hive entrances, and in pollen stored in the hives.
Bees, of course, pollinate many of our most important food crops, such as apples and other fruit trees, squashes, as well as annuals that support beneficial insects in the rural ecosystem. Without them we are in trouble.
Speaking of Bt corn—corn into which a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a caterpillar toxin, has been spliced using genetic modification techniques—people around the world are beginning to catch on to Monsanto’s plan to corner the world market on seeds.
According to an article published this month in the journal Nature Biotechnology, Monsanto is facing biopiracy charges in India. In an unprecedented decision, India’s National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), a government agency, declared legal action against Monsanto (and its collaborators) for using local eggplant varieties to develop a genetically engineered version of eggplant that carries the Bt gene–but without prior approval of the competent authorities, which is considered an act of biopiracy in that country. Let’s see how far the government of India can get against Monsanto.
In the United States, Monsanto has been challenged by many environmental and family farm organizations for introducing Bt corn and other GMO seeds into the environment, contaminating nearby organic crops. According to the Public Patent Foundation, Monsanto has one of the most aggressive patent assertion agendas in history. Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto admits to filing 144 lawsuits against America’s family farmers, while settling another 700 out of court for undisclosed amounts. The farmers’ violation? They let their crops be contaminated with Monsanto’s GMO frankengenes, and that’s a patent violation. It’s like a guy walking up to you on your own property, punching you in the nose, then suing you for getting your blood on his suit.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s response has been to approve genetically modified alfalfa and soybeans as well as corn, and to name a Monsanto executive to head up our nation’s food safety program.
Good luck, India.
As long as we’re talking about Monsanto and its frankenseeds, Anthony Gucciardi reports in L’Osservatore Romano that on January 5, 2012, a prominent member of the Vatican spoke out against genetically modified crops. Cardinal Peter Turkson said that genetically modified crops are a “new form of slavery,” and went on to discuss the impact that they have on both the environment and the economy. Farmers have risen up against Monsanto and genetically modified seeds, with Monsanto’s control of seed sales forcing thousands of farmers into debt worldwide. In India, Monsanto has ruined the lives of so many farmers that the prevalence of their suicides has led a large farming area to be called the “suicide belt of India,” the article states.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., our Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration still won’t require big corporate food producers to disclose on their labels whether their any of their ingredients are genetically modified. Such disclosures are required in Canada, Europe, and Australia—but not in “the greatest country in the world.”
Top 10 Ways to Eat Local Year Around
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From midsummer to late fall, it’s easy to eat local. The summer fields and orchards are full of locally grown vegetables, seeds, nuts, and fruits. But what about the other seven months of the year, from December to June? How can one eat locally when nothing is growing?
Remember that when a food is in season in your area, it is at its best quality and its lowest price. If it’s a wild food, like wild berries, it is not only at its peak quality, it’s free. So when foods are in season locally, that’s the time to stock up for the off months.
If you grow a garden, think about planting enough to see you through the off months. Here are 10 tips for extending summer’s bounty through the whole year. Many involve a freezer. If you don’t have a freezer, consider buying one. It will pay you back many times over. Buy one that self-defrosts. Defrosting a freezer yourself is a time-consuming, messy business. Take it from someone who knows.
1) When spring garden peas are in season, don’t open their pods, but blanch them for one minute in boiling water, then freeze the pods in plastic freezer bags—enough for a meal in each bag. When you want to use them, place the bag in a bowl of hot tap water on your kitchen counter about an hour before dinner. By dinnertime, they will have thawed. The pods will have turned to mush. Discard them. The peas inside will be perfect. Heat them gently on the stove top and serve.
2) In August, buy lots of summer-ripe, delicious tomatoes. Make tomato sauce from them. Set a large pot of water to boil on the stove, then put batches of tomatoes into the boiling water for about two minutes. The skins will then be easy to slip off. Put the skinned tomatoes into another large pot and cook down into sauce. Can the sauce. Make enough for one quart a week for seven months—about 30 quarts. Or, even easier, Freeze whole tomatoes in freezer bags and thaw them for sauce or ingredients as needed in the off months.
3) Grow or buy thick-skinned winter squash, such as Butternut, Acorn, or Hubbard, in the fall when they are plentiful and cheap. Lay newspapers on the floor of a cold room like a garage or outbuilding and place the squash on them so the squash don’t touch each other. Most of the squash will keep through the winter, getting sweeter as they get older. Discard any that soften.
4) Grow or buy onions and garlic with the tops still on. Braid these and hang them in a cool, dark place. Sweet onions like Maui, Vidalia, and Walla Walla won’t store well, but yellow onions with tight necks, and garlic, will last through the winter.
5) Summer stone fruits like peaches, nectarines, cherries, apricots, pluots, and others have remarkably short seasons. In the late spring or summer when they are at the farmers’ markets, buy plenty. Preserve their summer-fresh flavor this way: make a syrup of spring water, lemon juice, and honey. To one gallon of water add a cup of lemon juice and a cup of honey and stir until dissolved. Cut stone fruits in half and remove pits. Peaches and nectarines can be cut into slices, but other stone fruits are best frozen as halves. Place a serving’s worth of fruit in a pint or quart freezer bag and add enough of the freezing syrup to just cover. Close the bag, excluding air, and twist-tie shut. Freeze. To thaw, place a bag in a bowl of hot tap water for an hour. Don’t reheat or add more hot water. The fruit will be almost as good as in the summer.
6) When either wild or farmed berries are in season, buy plenty for the winter months. These include red and black raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, or, if you live in the far north, salmonberries, cloudberries, and watermelonberries. Place them in a single layer on cookie sheets and freeze. When they’re frozen, put them into freezer bags, twist-tie shut, and place them back in the freezer. This keeps them from making a large frozen clump. Add berries to your frozen stone fruits for fabulous winter desserts.
7) Make peach nectar for the holidays. Make an inch-thick layer of sugar in the bottom of a crock. Put in a single layer of whole peaches—no stacking. Cover these peaches with another layer of sugar, then add another single layer of peaches, until you almost reach the top. Finish with a layer of sugar. Cover the crock with a cloth and secure it tightly so no fruit flies can enter. Place the crock in the back of a closet. Around the end of December, bring out the crock and ladle the liquid you’ll find into a funnel set on a gallon plastic jug, preferably one that held water. When the jug is nearly full, leave an inch or two of headspace for expansion and freeze the jug. When it’s frozen, put it in a large bowl, cut away the plastic, and, using an ice pick, break the frozen parts away, catching the remaining liquid in the bowl. It’s this liquid that’s the peach nectar and it is delicious.
8) Grow or buy a large supply of hard root vegetables like potatoes, beets, turnips, rutabagas, and carrots when they’re cheap and in season. Place these in mixed single layers in a clean plastic garbage can, layered with dry peat moss, and store the can in a cold basement, garage, or storage shed. They’ll keep fine all winter.
9) Grow or buy lots of culinary herbs when they are in season. Chervil, for instance, has a lovely anise flavor but is hard to find except for its short season in late spring. Tie up bunches of these herbs with string, making a loop at the string’s end. Place each bunch of herbs in a large paper bag and tie off the bags with the stem ends of the herbs and the string with the loop protruding. Hang these bags in a warm, dry, dark place such as an attic. When the stems break with a snap, the herbs will be dry. Crumble them by crunching the bags with your fingers. The crumbled dried herbs will fall into the bags and you can gather them and store them in marked jars for off season use.
10) Fill jars with de-pitted summer stone fruits and fill the jars with vodka. After a few months, you’ll have fruit flavored vodkas for making mixed drinks to tide you through the rest of the year.
According to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks corporate lobbying practices, Monsanto spent more than $5.1 million in 2011 lobbying the federal government. In 2010, Monsanto spent over $8 million, and in 2009, over $8.6 million. Monsanto’s largest lobbying year was in 2008, when it spent nearly $9 million lobbying the federal government and your elected lawmakers.
And what did all these millions buy? Well, its patents on its genetically modified organisms are safe. GMO alfalfa and sugar beets just got the go-ahead. A Monsanto exec is in charge of U.S. food safety. And there doesn’t appear to be any serious regulation of GMOs in sight. And, oh yes, you still can’t find out from food labels whether there are GMOs in your food. Monsanto won’t hear of it.
Remember the OLS
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You see the word “sustainable” a lot in regard to agriculture these days. But it’s rarely explained. Some people use it as a broad term to indicate that farms are using environmentally-friendly methods. Others use it merely as a marketing gimmick. Mostly it’s a mushy word without a precise meaning. But forget about “sustainable” as jargon, and let’s go back to what the word meant before it became trendy. It meant something that could continue in perpetuity, using whatever renewable resources were available.
Now let’s apply that definition to agriculture. Conventional agriculture has never been, is not, and never will be sustainable. It is so resource intensive that it will eventually exhaust its energy resources, or will create such super-insects that farming in the open air will become impossible, or it will destroy the soil so completely that erosion will render farmland useless.
The only sustainable form of agriculture is organic, with a small “o.” So that includes regular organic farming, French intensive agriculture, Biodynamic farming, traditional Chinese peasant farming methods (read “Farmers of Forty Centuries,” written a century ago about how Chinese peasants replenish their soil and keep fertility strong in perpetuity), and other wrinkles in what is organic farming.
That’s because organic agriculture recycles organic matter such as crop wastes, animal manures, and—when we become more enlightened—household garbage through a composting system and back to the land. When renewable sources of energy come on line, organic farming will be completely sustainable in every way. Right now farmers are still using fossil fuels in their tractors and to heat their buildings, but that will change as hydrogen fuel cells and other renewable energies become available. Organic farming as currently practiced isn’t completely sustainable yet.
One reason it isn’t is that, as it has become successful and even mainstream, many techniques used to move organic food to market are based on the conventional system and are not sustainable. Blueberries in January from Chile, garlic from China, jet-fresh pineapples from Hawaii, winter crops from Florida and southern California and Mexico—nothing sustainable about that.
True sustainability in the food supply will approach optimum only when the farms are organic and use only renewable energy, when the food is locally produced so it’s not trucked halfway around the world, and when it’s seasonal, which is a consequence of its being locally grown. Obviously, all local produce is seasonal by nature or farmers wouldn’t be able to grow it. You just don’t grow melons in January in Minnesota unless you do it in a heated greenhouse, and that’s not sustainable.
What it comes down to is that Organic, Local, and Seasonal are the definitions of sustainability in farming. We can do our part in making sure our food is sustainably grown by making sure it’s as OLS as possible.
Time to Plant the Onions
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If you’ve never grown your own onions, you have a treat coming.
How many kinds of onions do you find at your market? Two or three, maybe four? Well, if you look at a seed catalogue, you’ll find many more. Some will be sweet onions with a short shelf life. Others will be skinny-necked onions that will keep through next winter. Some will be big slicers, like the red onions you put on hamburgers. Choices run into the hundreds.
Onions are easy to grow. Bugs seldom bother them. But there are a few things you should know. First, order your seeds now. Pick a variety that sounds good to you. In early February, sow seeds according to the packet directions in a flat of potting soil somewhere away from freezing temperatures but where they get plenty of sunlight. If you live in USDA Zones 7 or warmer, you can put the flats outside. Keep the soil moist but not sopping wet, making sure there’s good drainage in the bottom of the flat.
After a couple of weeks, the onions will send up a single spear-like leaf. When this leaf is about four inches long, using a fork, prick out each little plant and transplant it to its own small paper cup with a hole for drainage punctured in the bottom and filled with potting soil. Water it in well and let it continue to grow.
Onions don’t mind the cold weather of early spring. About mid-April, dig up an area of soil about four by six feet. Amend the soil with plenty of compost—four bags would be ideal—but don’t dig the compost into the base soil. Spread it out evenly on top. If it’s put on thick enough, it will smother the weeds seeds below.
Plant your onions by turning the paper cups upside down and keeping the spear-like leaf between open fingers. Take this plant, turn it right side up, and plant it in the compost, firming it in. Space the plants six inches apart in rows eight to 12 inches apart. There’ll be room for about 50-60 onions.
Onions hate weed competition. Keep weeds down by covering the soil between the onions with an inch deep sprinkling of grass clippings (make sure the grass hasn’t been treated with herbicides). If any weeds poke through, pull them out as soon as you can. Weed free is the motto of your onion patch.
Onions will grow and enlarge until the summer solstice, at which time, most varieties will stop growing and start maturing. As they mature, they develop a tough papery outer skin and their tall, hollow spear-like leaves begin to turn brown. When the tall leaves are about half brown, push them over so they lay flat on the ground. In about two weeks, they will have dried and withered. Using a spading fork, gently lift the onions and place them in warm, bright shade—not full sun—such as under a tree. This cures them for storage. At this point make onion braids. If you have grown yellow onions with skinny necks rather than sweet onions, you can hang the braids in an outbuilding where they’ll keep just fine until freezing weather arrives. Then hang them in a dry basement or cold attic so they don’t freeze. Sweet onions will last into fall but no longer.
All winter, as you need an onion, you’ll have your own, self-selected variety, organically grown, right at hand. And remember, every good meal starts by chopping an onion.
The following is a report from Dave Murphy at Food Democracy Now. If you want to know more about this group or make a much-needed donation, visit www.fooddemocracynow.org.
“In retrospect, 2011 will be remembered as the year that our federal government let Monsanto go wild.
“Right now there’s a battle being waged for the future of our food and our democracy and you and your family and everyone who eats is on the front line.
Over the past 20 years Monsanto has led the way in corrupting our democratic institutions, rotating their lobbyists in and out of our federal agencies (Michael Taylor, former Monsanto super lobbyist is now the current FDA food safety Czar), and writing the rules that govern their genetically engineered products while high-jacking science and our democracy.
“Currently, with Monsanto’s help, the USDA has intentionally weakened the agency’s own oversight, handing over the power to complete the required environmental impact statements (EIS) on Monsanto’s own products back to the company. Once again, our government is happy to let the fox guard the henhouse.
“This is at a time when the dangers of Monsanto’s flagship products, such as Roundup Ready crops, are being increasingly linked to crops diseases and livestock infertility, and their genetically engineered Bt insecticide gene is failing in fields all over the Midwest.
“In 2011, Food Democracy Now! helped expose these major flaws in Monsanto’s GMO products and stood up to our government’s continued collusion with the world’s leading seed and biotech giant.
“If you need any evidence that the Monsanto train is not slowing down, consider this: in the past twelve months Monsanto has had five new GMO crops greenlighted by the USDA, including Roundup Ready alfalfa, GMO sugar beets and a new “triple-stack” GMO sweet corn that will put both Monsanto’s Roundup Ready and BT insecticide genes directly on your plate.
“In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the Obama administration quietly approved 2 brand new Monsanto GMO seeds, including Monsanto’s drought tolerant corn and Monsanto’s GMO Soybean Vistive Gold, which is engineered to lower its fat content.
“If you don’t think that Monsanto won’t stop at anything to push their untested GMOs on the world, think again.
“Right now Monsanto’s CEO is working to raise money with the United Nation’s World Food Program to peddle their toxic seeds in troubled countries around the world under the guise of alleviating hunger. If there’s one thing we now know about Monsanto, it’s that they never let a crisis go to waste, but this is appalling.”
Organics and Probiotics—Friends or Foes?
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What’s up with all these “probiotic” products on the shelves these days? Are they organic—not only certified, but do they figure into a truly healthy organic lifestyle?
The answer is yes, probiotics are a part of a healthy lifestyle even if you never buy a probiotic product. That’s because probiotics refers to beneficial bacteria that inhabit our intestines. Did you know that nine out of every 10 cells in your body—and 99 percent of the DNA in your body—are your intestinal flora. These are bacteria that have important functions within each of us.
First, they help decompose the food we eat into nutrients that our intestinal walls can absorb and pass along to our bloodstream, where they are used to build tissue and bone. Sound familiar? Sure—like the bacteria in a compost pile or good organic soil that decompose dead vegetable and animal material, reducing it to soluble nutrients that plant roots can absorb into their internal sap and use to build leaf and root and seed and fruit. Not only do bacteria share these functions in our intestines and in the soil, but in some cases are the same kinds of bacteria.
Second, the bacteria within us and in the compost or soil produce vitamins that we might otherwise not have access to. They are intimately bound up with the health of the plants that grow in the soil and with the health of our bodies.
Third, these bacteria within us form colonies that protect our intestinal walls from pathogens that we may have ingested in our food. They prevent disease even as they promote better health. In the soil, microorganisms colonize plant roots and help deliver scarce nutrients to the roots that the plants might otherwise not get from the soil solution, the nutrient-laden natural moisture in the soil.
Probiotic products, whether bought from the store or made at home, deliver trillions of beneficial microorganisms to our intestines. Some set up shop there. Some stay for a while and do some good. Some pass through our digestive systems quickly, but do a lot of good on their quick tour. The mix of bacteria within us is always shifting, depending on what we eat. Probiotic products help maintain a great diversity of these one-celled organisms. A healthy ecology is defined by its great diversity. So while the kinds of naturally-occurring bacteria in our intestines are shifting this way and that, probiotics help keep a constant flow of diverse organisms in the mix, and that spells health.
And yes, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on kombucha or kefir at the store. Both of those probiotic beverages can be easily made at home. In fact, I’m making both right now. Here are a couple of links to introduce you to kombucha and kefir. They are far from the only fermented, probiotic products on the market or that can be made at home, but they are powerful probiotic sources.
Visit www.yemoos.com/milkkefirguide.html and www.yemoos.com/waterkefirguide.html for kefir information.
For kombucha, visit www.GetKombucha.com and snoop around the site.
Did you know that most brand-name mattresses are soaked in chemicals? Flame retardants, preservatives, adhesives, and more are used in fiber-based beds, and they have dozens of toxic chemicals in them. Synthetic memory foam mattresses of polyurethane, like Tempurpedic, are loaded with chemicals like toluene, dimethylformamide, vinilideine chloride, and others.
But you can buy organic mattresses, made from natural materials grown organically, using natural rubber in the latex form, and made without toxic chemicals. The only trouble is the organic mattresses are usually prohibitively expensive, but they don’t have to be if you buy the organic mattress direct from the manufacturer.
A store that makes organic mattresses to order—eliminating the wholesaler, the whole brand name infrastructure, the costs of advertising, the bloated CEO payouts, and all of it—is The Natural Mattress Store in San Rafael, California. My wife and I just bought a brand new mattress there, to be made to our specifications for size, firmness, and materials, for half the price of brand name organic mattresses sold at nearby sleepware stores. If you’re interested, visit www.thenaturalmattressstore.com.