Saturday, March 28, 2009

Starring Monsanto as the Big Bad Wolf!

This recent Slate article by James McWilliams posits that GMO and organic forces need not be at odds with each other, and that genetically modified crops could be good for the environment. I agree with his premise, but note the rampant use of the word "could" in his piece. The way things stand now, it's unlikely that these two entitites will be working together anytime soon. And here's why: The aims of the GMO behemoths like Monsanto and organic farmers are at odds with each other.

Monsanto's only goal is to make lots of money by any means possible. Of course, organic farmers want to make money, too, but their ethics underlie their efforts. Monsanto's genetic modifications solve short-term problems by making their seeds resistant to drought and to pesticides like Roundupwhich is sold by Monsanto, of course. McWilliams doesn't mention the problematic notion of corporations patenting seeds, a concept that directly contradicts the tenets of organic farming, which encourages plant diversity, preserving unique and heirloom varieties, and most important, saving seed.

Monsanto sells its patented GMO seed to farmers with the caveat that they are not allowed to save any seeds to plant again the next year, forcing customers to buy new seed every year from the only provider available. Even farmers who don't buy genetically modified seeds can't protect their crops from cross-pollination with GMO crops, which are becoming widespread, so their harvest ends up containing Monsanto's patented genetic material. Monsanto legally owns any seed that contain those genes, so they canand dosue farmers essentially for replanting their own seed. In many states, corporate operatives are legally allowed to wander onto farms without permission and take samples to spy on farmers, although some remarkable individuals are fighting back like this North Dakota collective.

Science is a wonderful thing. I'm right in line with Obama's cheerleading; we absolutely should "restore science to its rightful place." Bioengineering has the potential to contribute the amazing benefits McWilliams describes, and then some. But as it stands right now, I would be suspicious of any claims made by GMO folks that include dicey terms like "organic" or "humanitarian." Take the controversial golden rice, for example, which is a genetically modified grain containing additional beta-carotene, designed for farmers in poor nations to help allay Vitamin A deficiency, a particular problem for certain populations in Africa and Southeast Asia. It sure makes for good PR, but golden rice has met with plenty of opposition.

No one is disputing that world hunger is a profound problem; what some take issue with is its oversimplification. The truth is that there's more than enough food in the world to feed all 6.7 billion of us. The problems are availability, distribution, poverty, corrupt governments, and loss of biodiversity. Some scientists make the point that golden rice treats just one symptom rather than the source of malnutrition and argue that it could even increase Vitamin A deficiency in the long run. And even though this "wonder grain" is touted as a humanitarian tool, it's no surprise that the Syngenta corporation, which holds intellectual property rights, is looking to make a fortune out of this situation.

This situation sounds very familiar to me. I used to work for a global non-profit organization that brought technology education to developing countries. They did great work and expanded quickly. When Microsoft became a major funder, they started suggesting nations where they wanted us to direct ourr efforts. We discovered that the areas they targeted were ones where open-source was gaining a foothold, and it became clear that they were scrambling to make these populations reliant on their proprietary software so they could make money off them later. Unsurprisingly, much of their support came in the form of Microsoft products. As with agribusiness, we were looking at corporate PR and strong-arm tactics in the guise of humanitarianism.

GMOs run rampant here in the US. In fact, you can bet that whatever you ate today has some genetically modified ingredients unless they're explicitly labeled otherwise. Note that the FDA actively discourages labels to alert consumers to GMOs in our food. I'm not against GMOs in principle, but I do object to the way they are developed and used here. Monsanto has spent countless dollars and months trying to ban labels that identify milk as hormone-free; other biotech companies won't let independent scientists research the environmental impact of their products. So far the bigwigs are using these powerful genetic tools as little more than a get-rich-quick scheme. On the other hand, true organic farming has been working for centuries to feed people and animals with delicious, nutritious food in a sustainable manner. Score one for organic.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Signs of Life

As soon as we saw buds on our neighbor's pussy willow tree, we started itching to put sweet peas in the ground.

The broccoli and greens are already hardening off in the garage, and soon they'll go out in the makeshift hoop houses to brave the elements for real.

I know we'll probably see a bit more wintry weather this year, but hope is now visible and tangible. Signs of life are all over the yard--rhubarb, iris, daffodils, garlic, and lots of strawberries. Maybe we'll actually get some fruit this year. Does anyone know if we should be nipping off the runners to encourage berry production? I'm reluctant to prune if it's not necessary.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Little Patience

Had some broccoli trouble due to overcrowding. Those suckers got big fast. A few of the smaller plants shriveled and died, and the leaves on a couple others started turning yellow. I transplanted the larger seedlings into more spacious containers and all of the plants have rebounded. My conclusion is that the soil blocks are great for starting broccoli but are quickly outgrown after about four weeks.

The alliums continue to do well; not much to report there. The brassicas are also thriving. We planted lettuce, arugula, spinach, chard, and New Zealand spinach, and all had multiple seedlings by the end of the first week. We will be transplanting these and the broccoli into improvised hoop houses at the end of this month.

It's been about three weeks since we planted the eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, and a few stragglers continue to sprout. All in all, we managed to get 6 Nyagous, 6 Isis Candy, and 7 San Marzano tomato plants, which is right on target for our needs. The hot peppers sprouted quickly, though the sweet varieties have been a little slower to germinate. Top performers include the Ancho Gigante (poblano) and Golden Treasure peppers. Kevin's Early Orange and King of the North have been very slow, yielding only 4 and 3 plants respectively to date. The small quantities of eggplants we planted have yielded two or three of each variety which is more than adequate. The lesson learned in here is the importance of patience, patience, PATIENCE. The old adage is certainly true: A watched plant never grows, but a watched spouse certainly grows angry. Quickly.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Planted the peas last night. This is the earliest point in the season we've managed to get our peas in the ground. The weather was perfect; the soil was moist but not soggy from a steady drizzle all day. The ground was cold but workable, since the daytime soil temperature in the raised beds is significantly higher. Of course, this can be a detriment as well, since the temperature range can change much faster in the reduced soil volume of the raised beds. But once the peas have sprouted, this becomes less of an issue. We did miss the boat as far as the lunar planting schedule goes, but we'd rather take our chances now than wait another 2 or 3 weeks to get the peas started. Planting delays in years past have resulted in decreased yields, and we really want to take advantage of the pea plant's affinity for cold weather.

To speed germination, we pre-sprouted the peas 48 hours in advance by sandwiching the seeds between 2 layers of damp paper towels with some plastic wrap on top. After two days, about 50% of the peas had sprouted and all were noticeably swollen with water. In addition to pre-sprouting, we decided to use pea inoculant for the first time this year. Inoculant is an organic, naturally occuring bacteria that allows legumes to more easily fix nitrogen. The nitrogen is pulled out of the soil and 'fixed' to the plant roots in the form of storage nodules. In addition, the nodules help keep nitrogen in the soil even after the plant has died. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant health but is ephemeral in soil when not bound up in some kind of molecule. Nitrogen fixing is the primary objective when planting legumes such as clover and alfalfa as cover crops. We will also be employing bean inoculant at planting time in May.

The inoculant is packaged as a dry powder but is best applied directly to the peas by creating slurry with water. After thoroughly coating the peas, they should be planted as soon as possible. This isn't easy when your assistant is a two-year-old, but it can be done, especially since said two-year-old is easily distracted by shovels and dirt. Of course, immediately after planting, we received a light dusting of snow overnight. This shouldn't be a problem for the peas (famous last words) but we'll be keeping our fingers crossed anyway. The next step is to throw some row covers over the beds to keep the damn squirrels and possibly toddlers out. Although neither critter seems interested in devouring the peas, they are both attracted to recently disturbed soil and should be regarded as pests. Then again, the common house cat seems partial to napping on top of row covers as well, so you really can't win. Nature sucks.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


The Environmental Working Group has published a terrific cheat sheet on the cleanest and dirtiest produce at the grocery store in terms of pesticide residue. It's the perfect size for you to cut out and keep in your wallet.

The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen are handy lists to help you decide which fruits and veggies you should seriously consider buying organic and when you can get away with cheaper, non-organic produce. If you're interested in the science behind the list, you can read more about that here. (link via the venerable Marion Nestle at Food Politics)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lady of Shallot

The broccoli now has three sets of leaves (this is thrilling news to all of you, I'm sure), and the leeks are thriving. The little tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings are sprouting. So far they seem to have beat out the mold that started growing in their warm, damp cells. A light application of peat moss on the surface seems to have done the trick. We're especially stoked to see the shallots sprouting--we're actually growing them from seeds instead of sets. A lot of our choices for what to grow this year are determined by what's expensive at the store, and by what we don't get from our Genesis share. I'm trying to figure out why shallots are so expensive--does anyone out there know? Even the sets were pricey, especially the organic ones.

As we try to find our way in year four of our garden, it's interesting to note the lessons learned by these folks after a decade of gardening. It's encouraging to see that they've learned a lot of the same lessons we have, and that in the end they decided to keep things simple. They attempted a nonlinear planting pattern before settling on traditional raised rows, which makes us a little nervous because we plan on breaking out of the rigid geometry of rectangles this year. It looks like their approach was mostly aesthetic, though, while we're trying a combination of companion planting and permaculture principles. We also don't have the full sun they do, so it makes sense for us to plant little plots all over our property where we can find the best light.

Last weekend we started lettuce seeds indoors, and this weekend we may even plant peas outside. It may seem a bit too cold and too early, but Mike McGrath doesn't usually steer us wrong. He recommends St. Patrick's day as the best time to plant peas in our area, weather permitting. With that said, no seeds will do well in frozen or waterlogged soil, so we will play it by ear.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Chilly Progress

We're making progress indoors, even if the weather outside is not cooperating, what with this week's March nor'easter and all. The broccoli sprouts have second leaves on them already. The germination rate of our leeks could have been better, but there are still new slowpokes coming up every day, and the first sprouts are already getting all gangly. The other alliums--Spanish and red torpedo onions, shallots, and scallions--are already sprouting, and we just planted pepper and tomato seeds last weekend. Since we're always on a mission to speed and improve germination, for the fussier tomatoes and pepper seeds we filled trays with potting mix only halfway, planted the seeds, and then put them on heating mats so there would be less distance for the heat to travel and less dirt to be warmed up. Those mats aren't very strong; in fact, a friend of ours uses more powerful reptile heating mats instead for his copious pepper plants. Right now our seeds are getting all steamy under a layer of plastic wrap; we should see some heads poking up any day now.