Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bees knees and labelling of GMO produce - it exists!

I was trying to regain a bit of poetry in my life by looking through a birds & bees-ish poetry collection that's been by my bed for a few weeks now. I belong to the Poetry Book Society which brings surprising books into my life every few months. This one was Weeds and Wild Flowers, by Alice Oswald, which is a beautiful-looking book as well as another skilled collection of poetry. See how she describes a snowdrop:
A pale and pining girl, head bowed, heart gnawed,
whose figure nods and shivers in a shawl
of fine white wool, has suddenly appeared
in the damp woods, as mild and mute as snowfall.
She may not last. She has no strength at all,
but stoops and shakes as if she'd stood all night
on one bare foot, confiding with the moonlight.
And as for bees, Seeds of Diversity Canada has a campaign going to try to find out just what pollinators we have out there. Pollination Canada has a downloadable kit to allow you to be a Pollinator Observer and take measure of the bees, beetles, birds and other critters out there helping plants to propagate. There's another organization, the North American Pollinators Protection Campaign, which also aims to help endangered pollinators.

Back to the battles with crawlies: Haliburton has been fighting wireworms

for a while. Lately these little devils have developed a technique of attacking cucumber seedlings by crawling up the stem and sucking the life out of them, so they end up keeling over like this:

The organic solution is to use potato bait, for a wireworm loves nothing so much as a nice feed of spud. So the farmers have been cutting potatoes into pieces, skewering them with wooden skewers, and burying them near the seedlings they're trying to protect. Every so often you just pull them up by the skewer and pick out any perpetrators for a swift dispatch. Results:

Meanwhile, I was thunderstruck - delightedly so - to learn that despite the best efforts of our legislators, there is in fact labelling of genetically modified foods in North American produce sections! Who knew? But if you check the Produce PLU - A User's Guide 2006, you will find the following right there on page 17:
Q How is organically grown produce coded on a PLU label?
A The number 9 is added to the front of the regular four digit PLU code. (e.g. an organically grown banana would be 94011.)

Q How is genetically engineered produce coded on a PLU label?
A The number 8 is added in front of the regular four digit PLU code. (e.g. a genetically engineered vine ripe tomato would be 84805.)
We owe this to the International Federation for Produce Standards, for establishing PLU (Price Look-Up) codes, which are 4- or 5-digit numbers primarily used on fresh produce items and typically appear on a small sticker applied to the individual piece of fresh produce (info from the Produce Marketing Association). My lingering question is how much GMO produce actually gets labelled in this way, when it's still something that is only, by law, done voluntarily in this country.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Of organic compost, and of meatlessness

The business about what gets called "organic" when it comes to compost horrified me so much that I asked for guidance from my new best friends at the appropriately-named farm & garden suppliers Integrity Sales. They were helpful and sympathetic. The key, they said, is to look for OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certification (was relieved to discover my favourite soil amendment, Sea Soil, is OMRI certified.. and guaranteed free of sewage sludge).

So I guess "organic" is one of those loophole words, like "fair trade", that has been pounced upon for marketing purposes. Anyone can use the word, and a lot of opportunists will do so, counting on public ignorance of what it should properly mean, to make a quick buck. So you have to be alert and remember to look for certification.

Bernadette posted a link to the Meatless Monday website: a grand idea, I thought. It describes itself thus:
Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. Our goal is to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.
Which, given what I'd read in Food Matters, by Mark Bittman, back in January (he quoted an FAO statistic, that "global livestock production is responsible for about one-fifth of all greenhouse gases - more than transportation") is a nice, easy-to-remember way of reducing consumption. (Hopefully people are not simply replacing meat with fish in this day and age.)

I'd think the meatless Mondays should be added to any meatless Fridays our Catholic friends might already be practising, of course. And speaking of religion, anyone wanting to go for the weight control and health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet should be aware that the people studied for this (Cretan men in the 1960s) were actually eating very little meat to start with, and reducing their meat consumption in large part because of the numerous fasting days prescribed by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Something not to put on our fields

The National Film Board's treasure-trove of free films includes an hour long 2003 documentary called Crapshoot: The Gamble with Our Wastes. Well worth a look, it covers the basics of waste treatment and some of the truly monumental problems in dealing with sewage sludge.

Because the problem with sludge (aka biosolids, "bioslurp" and "black gold" - the terminology is ever-changing) is that it is not just human faecal matter, but completely random combinations of chemicals and metals. As long as they have private control over what goes into sinks and toilets, people can and do flush all kinds of things - pharmaceuticals, bleach, hair dyes and perm chemicals, paint thinners, pesticides, cleaning agents - down the drain, and then there's effluent from industrial operations, and whatever chemicals, metals and toxins wash off streets and buildings and road accidents down the storm drains. So we really don't know what's in there.

Sludge from Edmonton's sewers is combined with household ("municipal solid") waste in a cruelly misnamed process called "co-composting" and used to produce something called NutriPlus, sold and labelled as an "organic" compost or "organic soil conditioner" (this is also done in the US). People are actually told to grow their backyard vegetables in this stuff. There appears to be no regulation of the term "organic" as it applies to fertilizer labelling (if anyone knows differently, please let me know) which seems crazy and dangerous. Sewage sludge is not a substance allowed into organic food production, but how would an unsuspecting gardener or farmer twig that an "organic" compost at the garden centre was actually made of municipal waste?

Edmonton's household waste is, I would have thought, pretty likely to contain one or more of the following: carpets, foam, pillows, bedding, cushions, upholstery, insulation, sofas, chairs, other items of furniture (housing for TVs, stereos, computers, faxes, telephones, microwaves, kitchen appliances), cabling, glue, textiles, drapery, furnishing backings and coatings. And all of these things contain brominated fire retardants.

Brominated fire retardants (BFRs, aka PBDEs or polybrominated diphenyl ethers) show up nowadays at alarming levels in human breast milk. According to University of Pittsburgh's Center for Environmental Oncology, these chemicals cause in experimental test animals:
permanent brain damage, abnormal development of sex organs, and defects in sperm. Many of these chemicals (and their combustion by-products) have also been shown to damage DNA (mutagenic), cause cancer (carcinogenic), and act like the hormone estrogen (endocrine disruptors).
They are linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (as well as hyperthyroidism in cats, a previously unknown feline disease that is now the second most common disease in North American moggies).

BFRs came to public attention in Sweden, where they were found in sewage sludge that had been used in agriculture; as we might think typical behaviour for governments, there was no government move to stop spreading this on the fields, but consumer reaction was such that the Swedish National Farmers' Union banned the practice. As has been done by farmers' unions in France, Germany, Sweden, Luxembourg and Finland; the Netherlands and Switzerland have banned it entirely.

Truly, where it meets the world of food, sludge is at its most terrifying. As one of the Swedish scientists interviewed in the film, remarked, if you think broccoli is a healthy food, maybe you need to have a closer look at what it was grown in. (And, it follows, from what may eventually leech into groundwater from the fields.)

The problem is, what on earth do you do with sewage waste? For lack of a better idea, all across Canada, legislators have simply agreed that sewage sludge is good for the land, and that there's no problem dumping it on our food crops: Ontario's website practically bursts with pride in sludge's benefits to soil health.

Here in Victoria, the city lumbers towards a decision about where to place its yet-to-be created sewage treatment plant, after years of taking stick for dumping raw sewage into the ocean, as do many other Canadian coastal communities. I guess in some ways it's hard to see which could win the moral high ground: spreading it "treated" on the fields or dumping it raw into our seafood.

The film's brightest notes came in its promotion of composting toilets as one practical way we can close our individual ecological loop. But stopping industrial pollution is a vastly more difficult task for political systems, although the film's instructions are simple:
Industrial waste has to be a tight loop. Every industry should recycle, in one way or another, its own wastes. And if you can't do it, you can't produce those things. That's what the policy should be.
The planet's health and life will depend on such policies. Unfortunately, life and health are not always considered conclusive arguments in human policy-making.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Salve that's hard on toads, mud pies, and Help Grow Your Soup

An arugula flower; if I were a bee I think I'd find this pretty irresistable...

I was thinking about the zinc ointment my mother used to apply to our childhood contusions, Dr. Chase's Ointment, it was called, which led me to stumble upon this strange recipe for a toad salve for sprains, which sounds ghastly. Can't help but wonder how he devised the recipe in the first place. Why toads? Why 4 of them? What did it smell like as it ripened?
For sprains, strains, lame-back rheumatism, caked breasts, caked udders, Etc. Good sized live toads, 4 in number; put into boiling water and cook very soft; then take them out and boil the water down to a 1/2 pt. and add fresh churned, unsalted butter 1 lb. and simmer together; at the last add tincture of arnica 2 ozs. This was obtained from an old Physician, who thought more of it then any other prescription in his possession. Some persons might think it hard on toads, but you could not kill them quicker any other way.
I am greatly entertained by my new soil-blocker, which I used to make cubes for seeding my winter veg. It all looks oddly like brownies at this point.

Though I ran out and bought one, soil-blockers take many forms and can be made in various ways, as in these instructions.

On a more edible note, Campbell's Soup company is stepping into the realm of grow-your-own, by donating seeds to the National FFA Organization (formerly known as the Future Farmers of America) in the US. Visit the Help Grow Your Soup page to click them on their way.

Some nice things on the farm stand at Haliburton this week:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Something not to put in your compost

A series of unfortunate discoveries have led me to learn all about the spinach leaf miner, which is wreaking havoc on my spinach, chard and beets. Here is the innocuous appearance of one infected chard leaf.

Holding leaves up to the light shows the perpetrators at work. The little brown patch at right is a clutch of eggs.

A nasty case on some spinach.

Evil grubs (now deceased).

There appears to be no organic solution other than to remove damaged leaves (not into the compost!), check for eggs on the backs of leaves and get rid of them (but make sure you do not knock them into the soil, where they can still hatch).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Food, Inc. and weeds etc.

The new food movie, Food, Inc. is rumbling towards us, putting the North American food story into a form fit for mass public consumption. So galling are its discussions of large scale corporate interests that it's provoked Monsanto into posting a page about the film; protesting, one senses, a bit too much. Pretty good PR for the film-makers in any case. Looks like it will get lots of media interest, with features out already from Salon to the New York Times to the Rolling Stone with more certain to follow as the releases roll on.

Bonnie sent me this link to National Geographic's thoughtful assessment of the irreconcilable ratio between global food production and population growth: The Global Food Crisis: The End of Plenty.

Back here in "real" life, lest I think sometimes I'm spinning my wheels and accomplishing nothing, Haliburton Farm lets me see progress in my actions. Here's a row of peas surrounded by smartweed

And the same field an hour or so later:

And a heron, which despite Anton's attempts to make it fly-baby-fly, carried on minding its own business and finding much to munch in Cadboro Bay:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Home, invasion of garlic mustard, and Food Farms & Community conference

Stefan forwarded news of a new film released on YouTube which is worth a look. Home describes itself as
an ode to the planet's beauty and its delicate harmony. Through the landscapes of 54 countries captured from above, Yann Arthus-Bertrand takes us on an unique journey all around the planet, to contemplate it and to understand it.
Meanwhile in my home landscape, it's weed time. The latest scourge to reach us is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), which as its name suggests, is a garlic-like member of the mustard family, and according to one source is
A winter herb used in salads and as a garlic or onion substitute for recipes. It is high in Vitamins A and C. Contains antiseptic properties and was used to clean wounds and abrasions.
But in one of those life lessons where you learn that food that's good for you might not be good for everything, garlic mustard is otherwise a scourge and highly invasive, as well as toxic to other plants.

The ASLE session on invasive species that I attended raised some interesting discussion about the fine line between wanted and unwanted species, and how often it seems that the "invasive" label gets applied when human economics are jeopardized. And how often humans have created the problem through some idea that they can control nature by introducing one life form to take out another.

How I wish I could drop everything and jet off to Vermont next week, to take in the Food, Farms, and Community: Rural America’s Local Food Renaissance conference at Sterling College's Rural Heritage Institute.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

ASLE in a nutshell

Some of the ASLE conference sessions I attended this week included one about edible campus projects at Lafayette College (Corn on the Quad); the University of Central Arkansas - Allison Wallace's work with the Dee Brown Memorial Garden; and the College of DuPage's community garden.

In a session about sustainable agriculture, the topics included Ruth Ozeki's novel All Over Creation, about potato farming and commodity monoculture; Theatre Passe Mureille's legendary play The Farm Show; and Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing.

Then there was a session called Earth's Body: An Ecopoetry Anthology, which featured some great readings by Anne Fisher-Wirth, Laura Gray-Strelt, Patrick Lawler, Harriet Tarlo and (to me) most excellently the Amazonian fable-poems of Juan Carlos Galeana.

Then there was a many-fingered session on the poetics and politics of water, with papers by Doug Thorpe and Mark Feldman, and an amazing presentation by artist Basia Irland, talking about her unusual book projects (also documented in The Water Library).

After that I went to an enlightening roundtable on the value of darkness. Paul Bogard, who'd edited an anthology (Let There Be Night) on the subject, introduced the many issues of darkness, and hosted readings by contributors Gretchen Legler, Christina Robertson, Thomas Becknell and John Tallmadge. Proceeds from the book's sales are going to FLAP and Dark Sky.

Yesterday's events included Narratives of Invasive Species, featuring Victoria Haynes from UVic, talking about the positioning of official communication about the mountain pine beetle (and the absence of blame on humans for the subsequent loss of pine forests); Kelsi Nagy spoke about the ethics of introduction and eradication attempts of island invasive species such as the brown tree snake in Guam and coqui frogs & wild boars in Hawaii; and Elizabeth Giddens talked about the loss of Georgia's hemlocks to hemlock woolly adelgid, and the effect of community literacy projects on monitoring and treating the infestation.

In the final session I attended, Anne Shifrer talked about poems by PK Page and Elizabeth Bishop; Dean Mendell spoke on WS Merwin; Tom Lynch on Loren Eiseley; and Ehor Boyanowsky told fishing tales about Ted Hughes.

There were several plenary sessions with interesting speakers; I made it to four of these, of which the best was Karsten Heuer, who got a standing ovation after his great talk about his journeys - following bear paths, joining migrating caribou and hiking, paddling and sailing the trail of Farley Mowat's books.

At a Saturday afternoon plenary called New Publishing Environments: The Changing Landscape of Reading, Andrew Revkin gave a talk about his career as an environmental blogger, on Dot Earth (since his visit, he's done a special blog on UVic's bunnies). Chip Blake talked about Orion's place in the digital evolution - mentioned that they add sound files for all the poems they publish (after all the electronic rights talk at the Writers Union meeting last month I wondered what the payment deal is for that). And we heard from Daniel Slager, of Milkweed Editions, who described himself as being both intrigued and perplexed by the possibilities of web publishing; mused about the future of literary publishing, of literary works whose nature is to go beyond the simple conveyance of information that the web does well.

The closing address was by Ruth Ozeki who led us through a curious relaxation exercise, which made up in some respects for the yoga class I missed on Friday.

I helped a couple of attendees find some good local food at Camille's and tucked into an artichoke and asparagus gratin myself.

Where are the UVic spelling police?

The cutest bunny on campus.

Friday, June 05, 2009

My ASLE environmental booklist

Some of the books (and poets and websites) that have been mentioned in the sessions I've attended, or which I've acquired, or which I recommended to people....

Film/YouTube clips/Slides
A Farm for the Future (on YouTube, in 5 parts)
Being Caribou
Design for Disaster (SlideShare)
Flight Patterns (YouTube)
Upstream Battle


Poetry: Books
Kupinse, William - Fallow
Lang Day, Lucille - The Curvature of Blue
Munden, Paul, editor - Feeling the Pressure: Poetry & Science of Climate Change (anthology)
Oswald, Alice - Dart (book-length poem on the river Dart, in Devon)
Voros, Gyorgyi - Unwavering
Washington, Peter, editor - Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Poems About Food and Drink (anthology)

Poetry: Individual Poems
Bishop, Elizabeth - The Map
Doty, Mark - Description
Frost, Robert - Aquainted with the Night
Hughes, Ted - September Salmon
Hughes, Ted - Wolfwatching
Jeffers, Robinson - Night
Merwin, WS - Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise
Neruda, Pablo - Ode to the fertility of the earth
Page, PK - Planet Earth
Scott, Duncan Campbell - Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon

Poetry: Poets
Loren Eiseley - poet and naturalist
Maggie O'Sullivan - recommended by Harriet Tarlo for her unusual engagement in the non-human world.

Prose: Books
Armstrong, Luanne - Blue Valley: An Ecological Memoir
Benstein, Jeremy - Way Into Judaism and the Environment
Berry, Thomas - The Dream of the Earth
Berry, Thomas & Swimme, Brian - The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era--A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos
Berry, Wendell - The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture
Bogard, Paul, editor - Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark
Coe, Sue - Dead Meat
Deakin, Roger - Waterlog
Franklin, Adrian - Animal Nation: The True Story of Animals and Australia
Galeano, Juan Carlos - Amazonie / Amazonia
Howard, Russell D., Forest, James J.F. & Moore, Joanne - Homeland Security and Terrorism: Readings and Interpretations
Hughes, Ted - Poetry in the Making
Irland, Basia - Water Library
Knechtel, John, editor - Food
Kohak, Erazim - The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Moral Sense of Nature
Laporte, Dominique - History of Shit
Lessing, Doris - The Grass is Singing
Menzel, Peter - Hungry Planet
Nabhan, Gary Paul - Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods
Pears, Pauline & Kruger, Anna - Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
Pollan, Michael - Second Nature: A Gardener's Education
Raymo, Chet - The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage
Smiley, Jane - A Thousand Acres
Vileisis, Ann - Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back
White, Richard - The Organic Machine: The Making of the Columbia River

Prose: Individual Essays/Articles
Barcott, Bruce - Kill the Cat that Kills the Bird
Berry, Wendell - The Pleasures of Eating
Diamond, Jared - The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race
Steinbeck, John - The Harvest Gypsies
Thoreau, Henry David - The Bean-Field

International Dark-Sky Association: non-profit member organization that teaches others how to preserve the night sky through factsheets, law references, pictures, and web resources.
Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP): Information on how light pollution affects birds, and what steps must be taken to save the lives of birds by reducing lighting
The Organic Center - Peer-reviewed scientific studies on the benefits of organic farming.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

ASLE underway

I've been short a few iambs here at the Cafe lately, but this week should catch me up. The "Island Time"-themed 2009 edition of the ASLE biannual conference is underway in Victoria, running until Saturday. Much to say about much of interest, but as it's late with an early start, I'll just report that I enjoyed my reading this morning with three excellent south-of-the-border poets: William Kupinse, Lucille Lang Day (who's also written a jell-o poem!) and Gyorgyi Voros. Our session was called Poems on Ecological Themes: Science, Technology, Food, and Ferment and we had a pretty good audience, particularly considering it was the first slot on the first day of the conference. We covered a lot of poetic ground between us, including science, sustainability and atom bombs, with gravy on top.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Creepy crawlies

I am about to declare this the international year of creep. I have been spending hours standing on a ladder pulling tent caterpillars off my apple tree, wisteria, house etc., not to mention the scores of them I have trampled underfoot, and the slugs I have been drowning and the cutworms I have been stomping, Maybe, lacking vegetables to protect, I just never noticed many of these critters before. However, this is the first year my poor and well-pollinated apple tree has been tented and I am struggling to save what I can.

Not reassured to read this message about these guys, who are northern tent caterpillars:
It is important to realize that, no matter what steps are taken to control tent caterpillars on individual trees, that the overall populations will increase over several years and then drop to low levels naturally as diseases and predators catch up with the population.
This winter I will look out for the larvae, though, to see if I can slow them down next year (though I read they can stick around for up to 6 years!), or at least divert them away from my favourite tree.
The egg masses look like 1-2 cm long masses of hard brown foam, usually wrapped around branches less than 1 cm in diameter.
Oh well. Here's a recipe for slug bait, in case you share my reluctance to feed them good beer (apparently they like fresh beer every day) (cheap grape juice is supposed to work too) :
1 cup water
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4-1/2 teaspoon yeast
(I have also heard you can add 2 tbsp flour as well)
One site suggested leaving twigs in your containers to allow beetles to climb out. My slugs loved this home brew very much. Too much. (I will spare you photos of where greed gets a gastropod...)

Monday, June 01, 2009

Defending our backyard, with our forks

Perfect weather, perfect venue yesterday for the Island Chefs Collaborative festival, Defending our Backyard. They were expecting around 1000 people who, once their arms had been stamped with a tater stamp

would be turned loose with a wine glass and eating board

to graze and sip the afternoon away.

Lots of preparation...

There was a good selection of foods to buy as well, in the farmers' market section

Decorative cob ovens, from Earth Institute:

Young gelato eater.

Lots of lineups for food...

but music to keep all entertained while they waited...

Slow Food wuz here:

A day both educational

and cute (3 weeks old).