Sunday, February 20, 2011

Victoria Seedy Saturday 2011

Ah, Spring. Victoria's Seedy Saturday was heaving again this year. I didn't make it to any of the talks, and was too preoccupied to make thorough visits to all the stands, but once again the interest in seeds - both flower and vegetable - was there in (ahem) spades.

The seed swap was as popular as ever. Bring something to trade, or put a loonie down and take your pick of local seeds:

Gabe and I were there representing the Gorge-Tillicum Urban Farmers (GTUF) on the CR-FAIR table, and were pleased to find so much interest in neighbourhood food security.. and meet a couple of new members too.

Linda Geggie's "Test Your Seed Smarts" was hugely popular. A few sniffed they didn't need to see the back of the card to know what the seeds were, but most who stopped found the self-test highly entertaining,

particularly the younger gardeners.

Haliburton Farm was there; and LifeCycles.

Dan Jason with some Salt Spring Seeds.

And many more besides.

Can't believe it's over.

Actually, it's not: many more Seedy Saturdays (and Sundays) still to come across the country.


Thursday, February 17, 2011


We were in the company of about 150 others last night, at the Harvey Stevenson Southam lecture given by Ojibwa story-teller Richard Wagamese.

Invoking the likes of CS Lewis and Norval Morrisseau, Wagamese spoke on the roles of stories in self-actualization; affirming childhood's freedom with narrative; community building; and even the building of garden sheds. Demonstrating with a few stories of his own, and framing the talk with an Ojibwa story about the bringing of light into the world by a spider (which is also the story behind dream-catchers) he spoke to an attentive audience, mostly white, partially students. Wagamese is one who embraces contemporary tools - Facebook, Twitter, blog - unapologetically ("I welcome all those who are friends I don't know.."). I confess my favourite lessons were those of Lewis (You don't have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.) and Morriseau (who urged Wagamese to tell the story for the story's sake). Perhaps that only affirms the role of the story teller as sharer of wider wisdoms.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

When teachers agree not to be paid for their work, I'll be prepared to give my work away for free too

Some clarity about why Canadian writers are concerned about proposed copyright legislation... in under 3 minutes. Join the cause, send a letter to Ottawa, and/or learn more at Copyrightgetitright.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who was where and voted how

Thanks to CBAN for providing a list of the MPs who voted on Bill C-474 (defeated 176-97). Interesting to see that Michael Ignatieff was missing from the vote and so was our own Keith Martin.



I have been a student in my day. Several times over in fact. And I know the pain of textbook costs, which is a large pain. As a poet, I also know the pleasure of being included in textbooks, and it is a large pleasure. Though relative to the pleasure of a living wage, it is a veritable widow's mite.

I know we live in Google's world, which promises to deliver free information to everyone, and I know that Google doesn't really care how that information is created or obtained, so long as it's provided free to the user in ways that help Google boost its revenues through other channels.

And in keeping with this spirit of largesse, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a revealing article (which, it has to be said, I read for free) about the struggles of Washington State to meet the cap of $30 per online textbook that will unlock a large grant from Bill & Melissa Gates, with the aim of reducing textbook costs for the state's students.

What I find most interesting about this article is that it makes not the slightest attempt to address the reasons why textbooks are expensive, which include - but are not limited to - that irritating cog in the wheel of free information: the textbook's author, who must be paid. Or more typically, the several authors and/or editors who put the material together. All the article does is bemoan the fact that it's very hard to find good quality educational materials for free or cheap.

Like many of us, I sit on both sides of this particular fence. I benefit greatly from all the free information that's available online. On the other hand, for many of the past few years if I were living on my earnings from writing alone I couldn't have afforded to pay for what I accessed, had the authors been fairly compensated for their work. Because the opportunities for me to earn a living wage from my writing - once a respectable and reasonably lucrative profession - dwindle with the days.

In discussing course materials for the online course I teach, for a college with a less than ample budget, it became clear that new online program areas in bricks 'n mortar institutions take a while to catch up with details like copyright fees and electronic rights. So for the time being I point students to a lot of free newspaper articles and other freely available materials to augment the (reasonably priced) textbook.

Are these freebies the best available materials? Possibly not, but who knows? It's as hard for academic publishers to keep up with changing trends and topics as it is for today's academics to monitor the listservs and discussion boards, the conferences and webinars and workshops, the tweets and the blogs. And of course the published materials, whether online or in paper.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Women in literary arts (or not)

VIDA has published a revealing set of pie charts based on a count of the number of women publishing or reviewed in some big name journals, including The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harpers, Poetry, London Review of Books, and others. They've broken the figures down into overall figures, reviewers, authors reviewed, etc. as relevant.

Interesting viewing.

Shame on everyone.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Countdown - Bill C-474

There's so much going on in the GMO world right now. All a-flutter about GM Alfalfa down south, and tomorrow there's the final debate on Bill C-474, with the vote on February 9.

If you're Canadian, it's worth writing your MP. CBAN makes it easy...

And if you're interested in knowing more about why it's worth trying to protect our organic and non-GM growers, there are good reasons why you as a consumer might not want to be eating genetically modified foods. Or exporting them elsewhere.

Because there is no mandatory labelling of GM foods in this country, at the moment your only option not to eat genetically modified foods in Canada is to buy organic .

And here's why organics might be worth your investment, excerpt from the American Academy of Environmental Medicine’s Position Paper on GMOs (from May, 2009):
Natural breeding processes have been safely utilized for the past several thousand years. In contrast, "GE crop technology abrogates natural reproductive processes, selection occurs at the single cell level, the procedure is highly mutagenic and routinely breeches genera barriers, and the technique has only been used commercially for 10 years."

Despite these differences, safety assessment of GM foods has been based on the idea of "substantial equivalence" such that "if a new food is found to be substantially equivalent in composition and nutritional characteristics to an existing food, it can be regarded as safe as the conventional food." However, several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.
According to Dr. Arpad Pusztai,who exposed risks to the immune system associated with GM potatoes, “it's not the foreign gene that's added to a food product or animal hybrid that is dangerous - these things taken on their own had little to no effect - but it's the entire process of changing the genes that creates the problem” (quoted last March). And that’s the outcome on which we’re gambling our health and that of our children.

The other thing to remember about genetically-modified foods is that they're not developed for better flavour or nutritional qualities. They're developed to tackle weeds by making the patented seeds resistant to a patented pesticide, the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). So that means that when you eat genetically-modified foods, you are consuming foods produced with ever-increasing amounts of pesticides, which are proving ever less effective.

We have Monsanto’s assurance that glyphosate is not harmful to us. Curiously, it’s been deemed safe for us to eat, but is labelled a groundwater contaminant and is toxic to fish and marine life. I can’t help but wonder what long-term effect will it have if it reaches human digestive systems through seafood or groundwater?

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Alfalfa thing and final debate & vote on C-474

A year or two ago I was interviewing someone about organic issues and genetically modified something or other and the topic of GM alfalfa came up. She told me that GM wheat had been on the regulatory table some years ago, but the public outcry was such that it was soundly defeated.

Which she thought was great, but the real problem would come when GM alfalfa came knocking at Canada's door. That, she said, would kill organics, and the public wouldn't even know to get excited because who cares about alfalfa? Wheat we can identify with; it's part of being Canadian. But alfalfa's just hay or something, right? Actually it's at the bottom of our food chain, and so you had better care deeply, because it's about to change your life.

As you may have heard, the American government has not just opened the door but laid down a red carpet for GM alfalfa, so it seems we have pretty much lost the battle before the bugle has even sounded. Alfalfa is the fourth most widely-grown crop in the United States behind corn, wheat and soybeans.

It is the primary animal feed - forage crop - in Canada. It is heavily used to feed dairy cattle, as well as horses, beef cattle, sheep, chickens, turkeys and other farm animals. Which means it feeds the dairy industry and the meat and egg industries. It's popular in animal feeds because it's high in protein, vitamins and minerals; this is why people eat alfalfa sprouts as well.

Organic producers are not allowed to use genetically modified ingredients or feeds, so if you buy organic eggs, milk, cheese, butter or meat, get ready to kiss them goodbye. Likewise organic alfalfa sprouts.

One thing to know about alfalfa is that it's pollinated by bees, so it will travel. The bees who pollinate it are specialized (alfalfa leafcutter bees/Megachile rotundata). Honeybees can't do the work because of the mechanics of the flower and the size and shape of the bee. Alfalfa leafcutters do not have the range of honeybees, but travel they will, and the GM alfalfa pollen with them.

Alfalfa is hugely important in farming because it's a legume, meaning it has nitrogen-fixing qualities for gardens as well as farms, and so it's frequently grown as a cover crop, as well as a forage crop.

Because of its position in our food chain, contamination of organic alfalfa with GM alfalfa means no more organic meat, eggs, dairy or sprouts for us, but it also means no more organic *or* conventional meat, egg or dairy products can be exported by Canada to protected markets like the EU which refuses to buy GM foods.

Surely this situation gives Canada grounds to sue the USA for violation of NAFTA's environmental and trade protections? I think we should be questioning long and loud why Obama's government's love affair with the biotech industry is allowed to rob Canada of the right to choose whether or not to allow GM plants and foods into our environment and agricultural production. Won't the American decision cause Canada clear economic losses by crippling our ability to produce organic foods and supply our export markets?

Therefore, this is a particularly important time to heed CEBan's call to action over Bill C-474 which is thoroughly entangled in the alfalfa issue. Bill C-474 aims to protect farmers who wish to export non-GM crops into protected markets; it came up because of the accidental contamination of Canadian flaxseed with GM flax.

The final debate takes place February 8; the final vote on February 9. We need the Liberals to vote for this bill, so if you are in a liberal (or even conservative) riding (or care to drop a line to Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper) write, phone or otherwise harangue your MP today.

Write to Tom Vilsack and Barack Obama while you're at it. Do not let them say that nobody complained so they did what they liked.

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