Friday, October 30, 2015

How Science is used as a cudgel to advance political and corporate agendas

 By Bill Duesing

Science is the way we study, learn about and organize information about the world we live in, building a body of knowledge that may help us understand the ways of the physical world. However, Science is ongoing; it keeps discovering more big picture concepts and important details about the way things work.  Even after centuries of scientific research, some areas of our world are still largely unknown - the soil and the human microbiomes, the details of cancer and of climate change. However, too much reliance on Science can lead to an unwarranted and dangerous hubris, especially among non-scientists with an agenda.

Recently, Science has also been used extensively as a weapon to convince us of the validity of a specific corporate or political agenda. (Remember the doctors who promoted a brand of cigarettes in the 1950s and the experts who told us we'd be better off eating margarine or using chemical fertilizers.) This strategy involves Science that is very reductionist and applied to extremely complex systems - and the notion that Science has the final answer. It was easier to promote smoking, hydrogenated fats and fertilizers as scientific before we understood about microbiomes, cancer and climate change. Yet, without knowing the Scientific explanations, many traditional cultures intuitively nurtured those microbiomes with compost and fermented foods.

I first noticed this manipulative use of Science when CT NOFA was working with our partners to pass a law prohibiting the use of pesticides on Connecticut school grounds.  Of course, the folks who apply pesticides wanted to keep applying them.  After all, that's their business model.  They planned to work with the scientists at UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources to get "science-based" answers about the use of these pesticides to maintain school grounds.  But those answers would be in the context of horticulture, because that is the expertise of this branch of UConn.  They likely wouldn't include the very complicated science of how pesticides might effect children and their rapidly growing bodies differently from the healthy adult males used as the threshold for pesticide safety. Such a science-based study wouldn't include the effects of the so-called "inert" ingredients  that make up most of those pesticides because they are trade secrets, even though they may be more toxic than the active ingredient. Science can't really provide the whole risks and benefits picture of using pesticides on school grounds because so much of Science is narrowly focused on part of a system with lots of variables- timing, weather, skill of applicators and human behavior, especially children's.  It just doesn't make sense to apply poisons where young people play.  Yet, narrowly based Science can say otherwise.

Science of GMOs

Genetically-engineered seeds or GMOs is an area where the corporate and political backers are using "science-based" research to belittle those who question the wisdom of the genetically-engineered foods experiment which now has most of our food plants sprayed with at least one herbicide. Soon two dangerous herbicides will be applied.

They say get with the GMO program or you are anti-science and denying the facts. Never mind that those facts are skewed and limited.

If the GMO folks want us to think about Science, perhaps they shouldn't design a system which is bound to fail if nature's ways are taken into account.  Of course, if you spray the same herbicide year after year on the same field, weeds will become resistant to that herbicide and evolve into superweeds. This genetically-engineered, herbicide-tolerant system is doomed to fail as it demands more and more herbicides.

Altered Genes, Twisted Truth

Steven Druker's remarkable book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the venture to genetically engineer our food has subverted science, corrupted government and systematically deceived the public, got me thinking about the use of Science as a propaganda tool. Jane Goodall calls this book "one of the most important books of the last 50 years." 

Druker documents nearly four decades of the arrogant use of selective Science to promote a political and corporate agenda which favors biotechnology. From the early discussions in the 1970s of whether this technology was safe and could be contained in a lab, through President Reagan's deregulatory push in the 1980s, to the discussions of whether the products of genetic engineering were safe to release into the environment or for people to eat in the 1990s, there has been a clear pattern of generalizing biotech safety to the whole field from very limited data. Dissenting scientists have been ignored and others who question this technology or the safety of genetically-engineered food have been discredited.

A public interest attorney, Druker initiated the lawsuit that forced the US Food and Drug Administration to release its files related to genetically-engineered foods. He found that the FDA ignored the concerns its own scientists had about the safety of foods made from GMOs.  The FDA actually violated the law when it declared that GMOs had a "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) status and therefore could be included freely in our food system, without longitudinal studies to determine their safety.

The author details how after a small, select conference in the 1970s found that adding genes to one kind of bacteria seemed safe, folks with political and PR skills used that limited finding to declare that genetic engineering of other organisms must also be safe.  He also details how the finding that a specific novel protein made by bacteria in a lab is safe to consume (at least in very short term tests these decisions were based on) leads to approval of that protein when it comes from an engineered corn plant sprayed with glyphosate. Scientists who dealt with whole organisms and with ecological relationships were largely excluded from the decision-making process. Holistic methodology was ignored.

The Alliance for Science organization at Cornell University is one organization which has been using Science to promote GMOs and diffuse the opposition. It is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote biotechnology around the world. Major newspaper articles generated by the Alliance earlier this year linked GMO skeptics with those who deny man-made climate change and evolution.

However a very recent article by Steven Druker recounting his visit to the Alliance for Science suggests that there may be an opening for a more thorough and honest discussion about GMOs there. Let's hope so. The Bioscience Resource Project arranged this visit.  The project also publishes IndependentScience News. Both of those sites are good sources of information.

However, late October produced another story of the influence those who want to sell pesticides have over government researchers, in this case a USDA scientist who faced retaliation after publishing a study of the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides to monarch butterflies. Read this whistleblower story here.

While an appeal to Science is used to push a toxic corporate agenda, organic agriculture is often deemed not scientific, even though is it much more respectful of the way nature works.  Jill Richardson describes the scientific support for organic agriculture in her recent essay.

What can you do?

You should support the efforts to keep the Senate from passing the Safe and Affordable Food Act which would prohibit state and federal laws requiring GMO labeling. You can see why it is more commonly known as the Denying Americans the Right to Know or DARK Act. Read here about the Senate hearing on this bill which the House has already passed.  If it is passed in the Senate, our last hope is that President Obama, who once promised to label GMOs, will veto it. If the DARK act becomes law, our CT Labeling Law becomes illegal.

If the DARK Act doesn't become law, there is reason to believe that in the next legislative session we can pass a Connecticut law which will reduce the requirements (called the trigger) needed before our state law goes into effect. Currently, it requires four states with at least 20 million people to pass similar laws.

Things are different than they were when the law was passed two years ago. The Vermont labeling law goes into effect next July. Maine has a law similar to Connecticut's.  Massachusetts and Rhode Island are close to passing labeling legislation.  We also know more about the dangers of glyphosate than we did then. We know that soon many of our foods will be sprayed with 2,4-D (half of Agent Orange) in addition to glyphosate.  So there is no reason we shouldn't have the right to know what is in our food now.  Get the fact sheet on why legislators should remove the trigger here.

If you are interested in helping make this change a reality, there are several things you can do now.
1.    Call your state representative and senator and talk to them about removing the trigger.  Let them know how you feel and explore their thoughts.
2.    Find local farms, businesses and organizations that will support us in this effort.

Get involved.  This is important work that effects the future of our food system.

Sourcing Local Food for My Wedding!

By Jenna Messier
Organic Land Care Program Director, CT NOFA
Jenna Messier and Chris Antezzo, Sr.
From the beginning of our October 12th wedding planning process, my husband Chris and I knew we wanted to have local and organic food at the Lighthouse Park, New Haven, reception. We both believe in supporting CT NOFA member farms, we prefer healthy organic produce and we want to support local businesses.
I expected it would be difficult to find a caterer who would be willing to spend time sourcing locally from multiple farms. Fortunately, we found an energetic, young couple who were up to the task, and as our guests can attest; the food was absolutely local and delicious!

I started meeting with Jim Calkins and his wife Michelle of Seasonal Sweets and Catering last summer, as I outlined our desired menu and the particular farms and products which we would like to source.  It took 3 to 4 meetings to work out the many details. Jim spent a lot of time reaching out to busy farmers over the summer to identify product availability and costs. We planned for 100 guests with 15 children and 85 adults.

appetizer table next to the carousel
I imagined fruit and cheese plates with veggie crudité for the appetizers and a bar with organic wine, local soda and apple cider, and kegs of local tasty beers.  And voila, all of this came to fruition!  Our guests were thrilled with the varieties of local cheeses and veggies for appetizers.

wines and re-usable glass mugs are lined up at the back counter
We selected sodas from New Britain's Avery Beverages and cider from Beardsley Cider Mill in Shelton.  I selected a few organic wines of my choice including Eppa SupraFruta Organic White Sangria from the North Coast of California and the red was Le Grue Cendree Cabernet Sauvignon from France.  I just have to insist on organic wine, so local was not an option!  The beers on tap were from Two Roads Brewery located in Bridgeport, CT and Brooklyn Brewery.

Planning the main course proved more difficult, and trying to stick to our budget was even harder. It appears that local, organic growers are not producing at a large enough scale to sell at wholesale rates to caterers and restaurants.  This was our experience.  So we had to create a menu with a mixture of local and organic produce and meats as these products could be sourced. In the end, our guests were thrilled with all of the dining options.  The full menu and list of contributing farms are listed below.
Pear cupcakes were delightful AND local!
My favorite part of the meal was our dessert. I really wanted to use our Anjou pears which we cook down and freeze every August. Let's just say that the pears are our family heirlooms, as Chris' grandfather planted the trees 70 years ago! I worked with Michelle to create a recipe for pear cupcakes.  She is such a talented baker, to say the least!  She came up with a pear cupcake recipe using small chunks of pear, a cream cheese frosting and a honey-pear glaze using with the remaining juice from the bags of frozen pears.  Luckily, we have some left over and frozen so we can sample them on future cold and wintry days.

Flowers in barn prior to bunching
I am so grateful to my best friends from North Tabor Farm in Chilmark, Massachusetts for picking every flower in their field and bunching the loveliest, brightest, most magical flower bouquets ever! While the flowers were not from Connecticut, they did travel by car along with my guests instead of by plane. A heartfelt thank-you to the Miller-Dix Family! And, don't forget to buy local flowers.

Matthew Dix, Ruby and Rebecca Miller


I am sharing this very personal story with you all for one reason: so I can spread the message that we will only be able to eat local and organic food - if we ask for it, seek it out, and are willing to pay a higher price within our own personal limitations. I am so happy that we did!  Food for thought...

Full Menu and Farm List for October 12th, 2015 Antezzo- Messier Wedding

Stationary Hors D’oeuvres
Local Artisan Cheeses, Fresh and
Dried Seasonal Fruit, with Flatbreads
Seasonal & Local Vegetable Crudité and Dips
Main Course
Artisan Bread
Vegetable Infused Butter
Local Organic Garden Greens Salad
Roasted Garlic Potato Salad
Pasta, Local Tomato Marinara
Basmati-Ancient Grain Rice Pilaf
Seared Salmon Medallions
Smoked Local Raised Pulled Pork
The Finale
Organic Pear Cupcakes with Local Honey Glaze
Local Organic Fair-trade Coffee & Hand Crafted Artisan Tea
Local CT Farm & Business Sources:
Before & After Farm - CT NOFA Business Member
Beardsley Cider Mill
Massaro Community Farm - CT NOFA Business Member
Laurel Glen Farm
These Things Take Thyme
The Farmers Cow
Stone Garden Farms
Shearwater Organic Coffee Roasters

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Farm Strategies to Adapt to Climate Change

By Bill Duesing

In the face of increasingly disturbing news about the challenges farmers face due to climate change, there is encouraging news. According to Kip Kolesinskas, Consulting Conservation Scientist for the American Farmland Trust, there are strategies farmers can use to adapt to the flooding, drought, heat stress, insect invasions, less reliable weather and super weeds that are just some of the increasing challenges that farmers are and will be facing with the changing climate.

On a delightful but very dry first evening of autumn, CT NOFA and its partners presented a workshop at Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge on ways farmers can address some of these challenges.

Massaro Community Farm was established in 2008 with a mission to "Keep Farming, Feed People and Build Community."  A group of dedicated citizens convinced the town that farming would be a better and more appropriate use of this former dairy farm than sports fields would be. The Massaro family donated the 57 acre farm to the town in 2007. Now in its sixth year with a farm manager, the farm is certified organic and provides vegetables for a 175-member Community Supported Agriculture program, sells at a New Haven farmers market and to a number of restaurants. The farm also donates at least 10 percent of its produce to those in need in Woodbridge, New Haven and other nearby towns. In just six years, this program has provided almost 15 tons of healthy organic food to organizations that feed hungry people.
At the workshop, Kolesinskas gave a presentation on the probable effects of climate change and some of the ways they will affect farmers before participants took a tour of the strategies used at Massaro farm, led by farm manager Steve Munno.

According to Kolesinskas 2014 was the hottest year on record and 2015 looks like it will be hotter. Very warm days will get hotter, affecting crops, animals, farm workers and pick your own customers. We will see fewer very cold days, a longer freeze-free season with a later end to the growing season. Farmers will see more rain, primarily in the winter, more extreme rainfall events with longer dry periods and less predictable weather.

These changes will encourage more weeds, new pest insects, diseases and more generations of insects each year. Kolesinskas provided three levels of adaptation strategies for farmers: resistance, resilience and transformation.  That is, using management actions to resist the effects of climate change, using proactive actions to increase adaptive capacity to moderate the effects and then transitioning to a new system.  All of these strategies are likely to be necessary to insure that we can eat in the future. All the places where our food is grown are subject to the deleterious effects of climate change. Consider the drought in California and the likelihood that much of Florida's winter vegetable cropland will be under water during this century for examples.

This community farm, producing a wide variety of organically-grown food crops for the local community is a good example of the kind of transformation that is needed and is happening now.

The pictures below and their captions illustrate and explain of some of the strategies used at Massaro Farm. I've grouped them into five rough categories: Keeping the soil covered, encouraging biodiversity and ecosystem services, managing water, diversifying the farm's crops, growing environments and markets, and more aggressive plants. All of these strategies are also important for success with organic growing. 

CT NOFA's partners in this workshop were the American Farmland Trust, the University of Connecticut's Cooperative Extension System, the USDA's Risk Management Agency and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. In addition, representatives of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservations Service who provided expert guidance and funding for much of the work at this farm, were on hand. Contact the closest NRCS office to connect with their expertise and funding options, including the organic initiative.

Massaro Community Farm's Adaptation Strategies  

1. Keeping the soil covered
Growing plants protect soil from erosion while they pump carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. In healthy soil, underground organisms grab the carbon containing compounds and incorporate some of them into humus.This kind of soil is also better able to absorb water.  Avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides encourages more soil organisms which can store carbon and aerate soil.

This cover crop of field peas and oats protects the soil from erosion and builds soil health.
Grassy strips between raised beds. Steve planted a cover crop between plastic covered raised beds to protect the soil and avoid cultivation and the bare soil it would leave.  Earlier in the season these strips are mowed.
 2. Increasing biodiversity is a key strategy for organic success and adapting to climate change.  A biodiverse farm environment provides a number of ecosystem services, especially as it creates a habitat for helpful birds and insects.
Non-native invasive species were removed and native species were planted to create this hedgerow which provides a windbreak and habitat for beneficial organisms.

This large field was impassible because of non-native invasive plants.  After removing the invaders, a pollinator garden was planted, left, and a cover crop was sowed in the field to the far right.  Massaro has an apiary and a strong beekeeping education program. The pollinator crops also provide flowers now and eventually shrubs for sale.

3. Managing Water
One important goal is to keep water from eroding soil or running off the farm by encouraging it to infiltrate to recharge aquifers. 

Water flowing down this slight slope from right to left was flooding the crop field on the far left.  This constructed ditch collects and slows down the water while allowing it to flow around the growing area and move slowly into wetlands to recharge the aquifer. The farm uses wells for irrigation.
Close up of the ditch which diverts water around the field to the left.  The field no longer gets flooded and is usable earlier in the season.
A gravel pad installed on a farm road to allow machinery to pass without creating muddy areas.

Just a slight and careful grading of this farm road directs water away from growing areas and toward infiltration in the wetland.
On the advice of the NRCS, Steve changed the orientation of his beds from going up and down this slight incline to going across it in order to capture more water for his crops. Note the drip irrigation in the foreground and the white row cover toward the back protecting young brassica crops from insects.

4. Diversifying the Farm's Crops, Growing Environments and Markets
Climate change will bring more uncertainty and variability.  Growing a wider variety of crops, for a longer season, using high tunnels to protect sensitive crops such as tomatoes and to extend the growing and harvest season and having multiple options for marketing the farm's  produce all help address that uncertainty. Massaro grows over 50 kinds of vegetables. Weekly CSA shares can be adjusted depending on which crops are successful and which don't do so well.

High tunnel with a new crop of radishes for fall harvest.  At the rear are a few grafted tomatoes.  They did well and Steve may grow more of those next year.
Massaro Farm has two moveable high tunnels which provide options for growing environments and prevent the salt buildup that can happen in a fixed structure growing situation.

5. More aggressive plants
Higher levels of carbon dioxide and longer growing seasons increase the growth of some plants, including poison ivy, increase its toxicity and make herbicides and other control strategies less effective.
This field has lots of poison ivy growing in it.  It frequently can be controlled by regular mowing, but not here. Poison ivy is a native plant whose seeds are valuable bird food.