Popular Posts

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

King Kamsa's Bhoga-Mart: Why Are We Still Nourishing The Infrastructure Of Dependency

Editor's Note: This blog began in 2008 as a chronicle of the sustainable farming efforts, led by Terry Sheldon (Tapahpunja Dasa), at the Small Farm Training Center at the New Vrindaban Spiritual Community in West Virginia.
We return to that original spirit with a report from the Small Farm Training Center on its 2012 projections, proposals, and challenges
"The Small Farm Training Center (SFTC) is a land based educational center and a hands-on working organic farm. Our purpose is to create community—a web of supportive relationships—by making locally grown organic foods readily available and affordable with the use of simple technology."
Click here to learn more.

King Kamsa's Bhoga-Mart:
Why Are We Still Nourishing the Infrastructure of Dependency?
Dispatches from The Front Lines of Rural KC Development
By Tapahpunja Dasa (Terry Sheldon)
The Small Farm Training Center’s (SFTC) is a land based educational center and a hands-on working organic farm within the boundaries of New Vrindaban Community.  Pursuant to Srila Prabhupada’s specific instructions for New Vrindaban, its mission is to create a green economic model that makes organically grown food affordable and available. The Training Center has expanded it’s activities to include an urban gardening outreach project, called the Green Wheeling Initiative, which was recently awarded $70,000 in grant monies for it’s work in addressing the looming issue of food security.

 The following report was submitted to New Vrindaban’s management team in advance of the 2012 agricultural cycle. It outlines the challenges faced by agrarian devotees attempting to create a genuine rural Krishna conscious lifestyle. For information about the Small Farm Training Center’s projects and apprentice training programs, check out their website at or email Tapahpunja dasa at

Small Farm Training Center
2012 Production Projections, Proposals and Challenges

1), Assessing The Need By Asking The Right Questions
2).   Three Steps Towards Local Food Production
         a). Recognizing Climatic Limitations
         b).  Differentiating Between Small Scale vs Mass Production
         c).  Mixed Spiritual Messages: Separating Rhetoric from Reality.
3). Plan of Action and Projections for 2012
          a). Targeted Vegetable Production for 2012
          b). Key Factors Affecting Vegetable Production Goals
          c). Missing Links in The Food Supply Chain
          d). Prioritizing Basic Infrastructure Development
4). Summary Statement
1). Assessing the Need By Asking The Right Questions
New Vrindaban Community management recently submitted a twelve month vegetable “wish list,” divided into two, six month consumption periods, namely a peak consumption period—April through October—and the off-season consumption period—November through March. The vegetable wish list reflects what the temple and snack bar kitchens are accustomed to purchasing from a local wholesale outlet, Jebia’s Market in Wheeling.

Can local agriculture—the Small Farm Training Center and a combination of area growers—satisfy two large kitchens dependent on a twelve month supply of certain vegetable varieties?  The short answer is “No!,” not easily. We can grow some specialized vegetables in limited amounts (Deity quantities). We can also grow large quantities of greens like chard, root crops like potato and certain “in season” specialties like tomatoes. To consistently supply the most favored varieties—eggplant, cauliflower, and broccoli for example—is beyond the reach of our current production capacity. Why is it beyond our production capacity? What are those challenges? How do we boost production, cater to diversity, address our weaknesses and stimulate dialogue about the role of agriculture in shaping New Vrindaban’s future? Please read on.

2). Three Steps Towards Local Food Production
a). Recognizing Climatic Limitations: The most obvious reason we cannot match Jebia’s year round availability is weather. Imported vegetables from Mexico or California are grown in mild climates. Our growing season of 145 days is interrupted by weather extremes. Incessantly long, wet Springs, followed by blistering hot early summers have become the norm. In the late summer of 2011, for example, record setting amounts of rainfall soaked New Vrindaban’s growing fields for eleven consecutive weeks from August 21st until November 15th.  That eighty day wet spell seriously impacted the fall harvest, spoiled the opportunity to plant annual cover crops and called into question the hope for a successful 2012 growing cycle.

b). Differentiating Between Small Scale and Mass Production When vegetables are grown under favorable conditions, farm workers are repeatedly reseeding and re-transplanting the next generation of crops in large plots of acreage. Even before a mature crop of broccoli is harvested and packed for shipment, a new crop of broccoli transplants is readied to replace them. The new production field is spray saturated with chemical fungicide, followed by a blast of herbicides for pre-emergent weed suppression. Finally, a planting crew poke the baby broccoli transplants through a layer of black plastic mulch that stretches as far as the eye can see. This is not family farming. This is mass production agribusiness, pumping out chemical broccoli for Jebia’s customers—ISKCON New Vrindaban included—365 days per year.

Industrial agriculture—Big Ag.—is a nexus of complex relationships and enterprises. To insure market share, Big Ag. requires contractual agreements, full time office personnel, law firms to guard against liability suits, flat farmland in the thousands of acres,  greenhouses pumping out a continuous supply of new transplants, a flotilla of gigantic farm equipment, dump trucks worth of toxic chemicals and a small army of wage slave migrant laborers. When all these ducks are lined-up—a complexity of relationships antithetical to New Vrindaban’s plain living high thinking mission—you’ll find broccoli on Jebia’s shelves all year long. Broccoli is there consistently and predictably because Big Ag. has declared war—chemical warfare—on mother nature.

New Vrindaban’s topography, climate and culture are not conducive to agri-business.  Instead of wasting time hoping to imitate a mega-scale production model not suited to our small scale mountainous bio-region, we should zero-in on foods we can grow, store and depend on without defying the laws of nature.  If—and only if—there is surplus, should the excess production be sold in the marketplace. That, in a nutshell, is how Srila Prabhupada described the tone and tenure of Krishna conscious rural life.

c). Mixed Spiritual Messages: Separating Rhetoric from Reality
The third step—and biggest hurdle—in attaining a local food supply is ideological. We’re not really convinced that we want food independence…or put more succinctly, we don’t really want to pay the price. Compared to just picking up the phone and calling in an order to Jebia’s Market, the challenge of mapping out the route towards an authentic agrarian Krishna conscious lifestyle is a great inconvenience.

 It’s a challenge that requires an oceanic shift in priorities and a serious commitment to take responsibility for our ecological foot print, especially our waste stream. To insist on eating out-of-season is to invite the consequences of that habit. Getting our ideology on the same page with our purchasing and consumption patterns—and then realigning those habits around our farming practices—is hard work.
Failing to do so, however, is a lapse of consciousness and a sobering confession that we’re not seriously committed to enacting Srila Prabhupada’s mandate for plain living. We long for “seeing Krishna everywhere” and “in all things” but not if it disrupts our international food supply. From a farmer’s point of view, “seeing Krishna everywhere” means recognizing boundaries. It implies not challenging the natural order because that natural order is ….”working under My (Lord Krishna’s) direction…..” (BG 9:10).

The rhetoric: Purchasing produce from anywhere is acceptable because everyone along the supply chain is purified when the bhoga is offered to Lord Krishna.

The reality: At what point does “needing certain vegetables” sour into complicity with chemical warfare against nature? At what point does “Everything can be used in Krishna’s service,” replace local self reliance? Some outside purchasing of vegetables is unavoidable at this point in time.  A review of New Vrindaban’s purchasing pattern over the past 15 years, however, reveals the flight of close to one million dollars ($1,000,000,000) to outside vendors. When the money you’re spending on food from the outside, exceeds the money spent on developing your own food growing capacity by hundreds of thousands of dollars, something is dramatically wrong.

Jebia’s produce is chemical produce—vegetables that cannot be grown without dependency on the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer and toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Those toxic residues cannot be washed off. They are systemically permeating every cell of the plant. By choosing to farm organically, we’ve chosen the path of integrity, a spiritual commitment to honor our seven mothers, most notably Mother Earth and mother cow. Poisoning the soil is Bhumi aparadha. When we offer vegetables to our Deities that are grown in glycophosphate contamination soils, are we committing seva aparadha? To depend on Lord Krishna for what grows easily, organically and locally means to humbly accept those yields and vegetable varieties with gratitude and appreciation.

The rhetoric: Organic is too expensive to buy and too expensive to produce, Jebia’s   retail and wholesale vegetable are affordable.

The reality: Jebia’s wholesale and retail prices are artificially low because they are subsidized by tax payer money. Whether you buy a bundle of broccoli or a box of broccoli, the price you pay does not reflect the actual production costs. The consumer is actually paying twice: once at the cash register and again through hidden taxation This may sound inconsequential to a New Vrindaban housewife who feeds her family on food stamps or to a temple manager looking for food bargains, but it’s a death blow to developing a real rural economy or the ability to grow what we eat, eat what we grow, and transmit those values and location specific skills from one generation of devotees to another.  In truth, we are insensitive or unaware—Krishna unconscious, if you will—about where and how our current food supply comes to us.

The rhetoric: We trace our ideological origins and understanding of environmental wholesomeness to the ancient Vedic culture, the remnants of which are still partially visible in modern day India.

The reality: We’re quick to eulogize India’s Vedic culture but slow to admit that Vedic culture operated within an agrarian social and an agrarian economic context. The backdrop of everyday civic life was the presence of flourishing food production and cow care.  That is, in essence, Srila Prabhupada’s image of what he wanted for New Vindaban.

If we fail to understand this point, we’re not really living in New Vrindaban, the Western replica of Krishna’s original Vrindaban.  Instead, we’re living in the city limits of Kamsa’s Mathura, where every food purchase serves to fatten King Kamsa’s treasury.

Commodity based agriculture—the system that produces King Kamsa bhoga—and community based agriculture are irreconcilably opposed world views. Small scale independent farming—the core activity that engenders Srila Prabhupada’s New Vrindaban--cannot compete with a system that hides the real cost of food while destroying the productive capacity of the soil.

As Vaisnavas, we have a moral obligation to reject a food system that represents violence to the land, the cows and land based culture. That may mean taming our tongues by eating a simpler, local diet. It may mean not offering eggplant sabji to our Deities when we know that the production schedule of a California grown eggplant involves spraying the plant with pesticides seventeen times before it’s picked and shipped to Jebia’s.

3). Plan of Action and Projections for 2012

a). Targeted Vegetable Production for 2012: The Small Farm Training Center plans to grow the following vegetables in large quantities in the 2012 growing cycle. The bracketed numbers represent the number of transplants we hope to put out. The numbers in bu (bushels) and boxes is the anticipated harvest of those varieties.
1). Tomato   (400))                                                                  
2). Peppers   (1000)                                                                                           
3).  Okra        (500)                                                                           
4). Cucumber  (200)                           
5). Lettuce (30 boxes)             
6).  Broccoli              (600)                                                   
7). Summer squash   (30 bu)
8). Cabbage (600)
9). Spinach (15 boxes)
10). Radish (15 boxes plus greens)
11). Chard (60 boxes)
12). String beans ( 25 bu).
13). Lettuce (30 boxes)
14) Winter squash (50 bu)
*note: For the past 4 years, 2007-2011, West Virginia State University (WVSU) has donated the seed, the greenhouse bench space, the labor, the starting medium, the containers and even the delivery (450 miles round trip) of approximately 130 flats
of vegetable transplants per year. The retail value of WVSU’s donation was over $2,500/yr. Due to budgetary constraints, WVSU is no longer able to render that service.

b). Key Factors Affecting Vegetable Production Goals:
New Vrindaban Community currently has no available greenhouse for starting either early season or late season vegetable transplants. For this reason, the Small Farm Training Center has hired Nichole Shipman, the vocational agriculture teacher at John Marshall High School, to start 75 vegetable flats of early season transplants including pepper plants, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbages.

The remaining late season vegetable transplants will be grown in the now damaged high tunnel greenhouse adjacent the Garden of Seven Gates. Repairs on the greenhouse will begin in mid February. Money in needed for paying outside help to grow our early transplants.  Funds are also needed for starting our own on-the-farm  transplants,. This includes funds for seeds, potting soil and repair materials for the damaged greenhouse.  

In addition to capitalization—money for the right things at the right times—the  2012 production plan cannot be executed without a reliable labor force—the right people doing the right things at the right time. As vegetables emerge and grow, they require protection from insects, weeds and ground hog attacks. Daily vigilance coupled with a rapid response to potential problems is imperative. The absence of any one link in this chain of stewardship—namely, capitalization, labor and vigilant maintenance—spells failed crop production.

c). Missing Links in The Food Supply Chain: Foods not mentioned in the 2012 projected production list are basic staples like dry beans, grains and fruits.  Berries and other perennials such as asparagus are also absent. The reason for this omission is that there is no acreage (besides the ½ acre Teaching Garden and 6.5 acre Garden of Seven Gates) developed to support expanded production. Newly developed growing zones will require nutrient management, a crop rotation scheme and fortification from the ever present deer pressure. 

 d). Prioritizing Basic Infrastructure Development: No crop plan, however ambitious or modest, can prevail without a well financed infrastructure to support it. “Land, capital, management and labor,” Srila Prabhupada noted, must precede any successful endeavor.  New Vrindaban currently has:

-no root cellar facility.
-no grain silo storage.
-no bean silo storage.
-no canning facility.
-no heated greenhouse for starting vegetable transplants.
-no high tunnels for season extension.
-no composting facility to transform raw cow manure into field ready compost.
-no recycling facility.
-no seed storing facility for cover crop seed.
-no designated area (free from deer invasion) for grain and legume production.
-no dependable labor force, except for volunteer apprentices, to supply manpower.

In 2012, we hope to enhance production by retrofitting the 6.5 acre Garden of Seven Gates with field drainage, irrigation, and the erection of two pole barns for maintaining and sheltering farm implements. We are also working on a program of nutrient management and soil structure improvement.

4). Summary Statement: My purpose in documenting the status of the Small Farm Training Center’s food growing capacity, is two fold: First, I wanted to provide a measuring stick to future growers and managers to evaluate performance.  Secondly, I wanted to paint a human face on the act of food production—an occupation that Srila Prabhpada called “the most noble profession.”

Farming, if it is real farming, is not about yields and dollars and cents. It is an art form revealing a portal into Lord Krishna’s creation. The Brajabhumi farmers and cowherders in the original Vrindaban are not shilling and pence men, their motivation is growing foods to offer to Krishna with love and devotion.

In the act of thinking deeply about how to make this report meaningful, I learned a valuable lesson, a lesson I needed to be reminded about. Most New Vrindaban residents know very little about where their food comes from, and even less about the challenging conditions under which it is grown.

May the information harvested here serve as fertile ground for growing  a community of devotees native to the Holy Dhama.

Tapahpunja Dasa
Small Farm Training Center
New Vrindaban Community
February 6th, 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

Tech Conversion: India's Richest Shrine Goes Green

By Shilpa Kannan for BBC News on 10 Feb 2012
Surrounded by seven hills, high above lush green forests is the temple town of Tirumala.

The crown jewel is the dazzling gold-plated temple of Lord Venkateshwara. Located in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, this is not just one of Hinduism's holiest shrines, but also one of the richest.

It has an annual income of $340m - mostly from donations.

Between 50-100,000 people visit this temple every day. This puts enormous pressure on water, electricity and other energy resources.

Now the temple is using its religious influence and economic might to change the way energy is used here.

Sustainable sources

Developing reserve forests around the temple to act as carbon sinks, the management has transformed the environment.

They are promoting the use of sustainable technologies and hope to influence public opinion.

LV Subramanyam is the executive officer of the temple trust.
"While we currently use a mix of conventional and non-conventional energy sources, our aim is make the place more reliant on sustainable sources of energy," he says
"Most of our devotees are progressive. In a religious place like Tirumala, we can set the example by going green. Probably the impact will be much more than normal government advertisements or publicity."

Inside the temple complex, a large multi-storey building is dedicated to just one thing - cooking free meals for pilgrims.
Several cooks work in tandem stirring large pots of rice, curry and vegetables. Nearly 50,000 kilos of rice along with lentils are cooked here every day.
Open all day, this community kitchen is the biggest green project for the temple.

Located on the roof of this building are rows of solar dishes that automatically move with the angle of the sun, capturing the strong sunlight.
Generating over 4,000kgs of steam a day at 180ยบ C, this makes the cooking faster and cheaper. As a result, an average of 500 litres of diesel fuel is saved each day.

Credit score

By switching to green technologies, the temple cuts its carbon emissions and earns a carbon offset, or credit, which they can sell.
"This was the first project to get a gold standard certification - it's a registered project and it is issuing carbon credits," he says.
"From a monetary value, carbon being a tradable commodity - the prices keeps going up and down ... we sold the carbon credits of this and various other projects to the German government."
Read more:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Let's Move She Said-And We Have

From Ezekiel J. Emanuel at the Opinionator from the New York Times

During the first spring of the Obama presidency, the First Lady broke ground on a White House vegetable garden. Then, in February 2010, she announced the Let’s Move initiative, a campaign to change the way America’s children eat and exercise, with the goal of ending childhood obesity in a generation.

In the years since, what has Michelle Obama’s work accomplished, besides (and I can say this from experience) the harvesting of some delicious lettuce, green beans and honey?

The answer is: a lot. One of the most important results has been increasing public awareness of the importance of obesity. In 2008, over two-thirds of adults and a third of adolescents and children in the United States were obese or overweight. Although most Americans already saw obesity as a major problem, a majority opposed increasing federal spending to combat it. This attitude has begun to change. By 2011, a Pew survey found that most Americans believe the government should play a significant role in reducing obesity among children. Today, 80 percent of Americans acknowledge that childhood obesity is a serious problem.

Mrs. Obama’s campaign has also led to improvements in the access to and content of school meals — which are where many children get the bulk of their calories and nutrition. In late 2010, the lame-duck Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which, for the first time in 30 years, increased funding for school breakfasts and lunches above the inflation rate. The act also gives the Agriculture Department authority to set health standards for all foods sold on school property — including those in vending machines. Best of all, it reduced government paperwork to establish eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals, ensuring that tens of thousands more children will get healthy food they need.

In conjunction with the Let’s Move campaign, three of the largest food service companies that operate school cafeterias — Sodexo, Aramark and Chartwells — committed to meeting recommended levels of fat, sugar and whole grains in the next 5 years and doubling the fruits and vegetables they serve over the next 10. Then, just last month, after a long struggle that included a fight over whether pizza sauce should count as a serving of vegetables (the final verdict was that it does), federal regulations upgraded the quality of food in the school meals to ensure they contain more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less sodium and saturated fat.

There has also been important progress in the private sector. Walmart, Walgreens, Supervalu and other smaller grocers have promised to build or expand 1,500 stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables in communities without access to healthy food. The FreshWorks Fund, a team of grocery industry groups, banks and health care organizations, committed $200 million to eliminating these so-called “food deserts” in California, bringing access to nutritious groceries to millions.

Even more impressive, Walmart announced that, by 2015, it would remove all trans fats and reduce salt and added sugars by 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively, from thousands of packaged foods it sells. We know that when Walmart drops salt by 25 percent, everyone will drop salt by 25 percent, because when Walmart demands suppliers change how they make their products, it drives the whole marketplace. Walmart has also committed to making healthier foods more affordable.

In the restaurant world, Darden, which owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster, among others, has committed to reducing total calories and salt across its menus, and is offering vegetables, fruit and milk as the default side dishes and drink for every kid’s meal.

And there are plenty of other achievements: the Agriculture Department redesigned the cluttered food pyramid into an easier-to-follow circular symbol called MyPlate; the United States Tennis Association is building or refurbishing 3,000 tennis courts; 1,000 salad bars have been donated to schools; and, with the health care reform law, chain restaurants are posting calorie counts on their menus.

It has been only two years since Let’s Move began, and we can’t know yet if there has been any reduction in childhood obesity rates. After all, it took nearly 50 years to convert the country into a fat blob; it will take time to return to a slim fit. But it is possible.

Most powerful of all, Mrs. Obama’s campaign has already begun to change the way the food sector — producers, restaurants and grocery stores — approaches its youngest customers. With rising public awareness of the importance of good nutrition, companies are changing their business models, incorporating nutrition when they design and develop cereals, snacks, menus or school meals. While not all food companies have changed yet, the market is beginning to require them to come up with healthier products. At this rate, I believe we’ll start seeing childhood obesity rates declining after a few more harvests of the White House garden.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mindful Eating as Food for Thought

Jennifer May for The New York Times
Diners wait until everyone is seated at the Blue Cliff Monastery. More Photos »

TRY this: place a forkful of food in your mouth. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but make it something you love — let’s say it’s that first nibble from three hot, fragrant, perfectly cooked ravioli.

Now comes the hard part. Put the fork down. This could be a lot more challenging than you imagine, because that first bite was very good and another immediately beckons. You’re hungry.

Today’s experiment in eating, however, involves becoming aware of that reflexive urge to plow through your meal like Cookie Monster on a shortbread bender. Resist it. Leave the fork on the table. Chew slowly. Stop talking. Tune in to the texture of the pasta, the flavor of the cheese, the bright color of the sauce in the bowl, the aroma of the rising steam.

Continue this way throughout the course of a meal, and you’ll experience the third-eye-opening pleasures and frustrations of a practice known as mindful eating.

The concept has roots in Buddhist teachings. Just as there are forms of meditation that involve sitting, breathing, standing and walking, many Buddhist teachers encourage their students to meditate with food, expanding consciousness by paying close attention to the sensation and purpose of each morsel. 
In one common exercise, a student is given three raisins, or a tangerine, to spend 10 or 20 minutes gazing at, musing on, holding and patiently masticating.

Lately, though, such experiments of the mouth and mind have begun to seep into a secular arena, from the Harvard School of Public Health to the California campus of Google. In the eyes of some experts, what seems like the simplest of acts — eating slowly and genuinely relishing each bite — could be the remedy for a fast-paced Paula Deen Nation in which an endless parade of new diets never seems to slow a stampede toward obesity.

Mindful eating is not a diet, or about giving up anything at all. It’s about experiencing food more intensely — especially the pleasure of it. You can eat a cheeseburger mindfully, if you wish. You might enjoy it a lot more. Or you might decide, halfway through, that your body has had enough. Or that it really needs some salad.

“This is anti-diet,” said Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and meditation teacher in Oregon and the author of “Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food.” “I think the fundamental problem is that we go unconscious when we eat.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The GMO Battle: Does Whole Foods Support Monsanto’s Genetically Engineered Alfalfa?

If you’re a health nut like I am, you’ve likely already heard about the allegation that Whole Foods Market has apparently surrendered to the agricultural giant, Monsanto, and agreed to support the introduction of genetically modified alfalfa into our ecosystem. Genetically modified organisms (specifically, those which are being created for the sole purpose of human consumption) is one area of Holistic Nutrition in which I am exceptional passionate.

So the recent turmoil has prompted me to write this piece and hopefully explain the occurrences for those who may otherwise not be aware.

First of all, the controversy brewing in the United States over genetically modified alfalfa is not a new subject. It has simply reached a critical cross-road and the developments that have been unfolding over the last week or so have begun to aim a spotlight on the topic.

Monsanto, a corporation driven purely by financial gain with no regard for the human or environmental impact of its products, continues to push for the introduction of more genetically modified organisms. Why is this important to them? Because they hold the patents to the seeds. But why would farmers want to use these seeds? Because they are genetically modified to be resistant to RoundUp herbicide, meaning the farms can spray their crops to kill off other organisms, but allow the alfalfa to survive. But there’s a catch (actually, there’s many catches, but I’m just writing an article, not a book). Genetically modified organisms will not properly reproduce for future generations. With traditional farming practices, farmers would breed crops and keep the best seeds in order to have successful subsequent growing years. They would also practice crop rotation techniques to allow the soil to regenerate and replenish the nutrients used by the previous year’s crops. But this art is slowing dying as a direct result of the greed of Monsanto.

Once a farmer begins using Monsanto seeds, they are essentially hooked for life. They cannot easily go back to using traditional methods because the cross-contamination of their seeds with those from Monsanto results in an infringement of the patent and trademark laws. Many farmers who have never even used Monsanto seeds have fallen victim to these laws due to the cross-pollination effect of wind, that occurs naturally. Percy Schmeiser is probably the most famous of these farmers. His crops were contaminated when a truck drove passed his property carrying Monsanto seeds. Monsanto came after
Percy claiming he was in violation of using their patented product intentionally. Once genetically modified organisms have been unleashed into the environment, there is no way to control them or take them back. They will spread. Nature knows no borders.

As I mentioned, the battle of genetically modified food is not new. Monsanto has been trying to get approval from the USDA to allow them to provide farmers with alfalfa seeds for many years. Fortunately, there has been enough public protest and companies, such as Whole Foods, to stand up and fight against this abomination. Currently, 93% of soy, 86% of corn, 93% of cotton and 93% of canola (rapeseed) seed planted in the US in 2010 was genetically engineered. If we continue to allow more GM food to be grown, there will be little we can do to avoid consuming it even if we don’t want it. Not only will crops become cross-contaminated, but organic livestock (which would otherwise be GMO-free) could be fed genetically modified grains, threatening the integrity of the organic meat and dairy industries. We will inevitably be consuming more gmo in one form or another, without knowledge or consent.

As I mentioned, some companies like Whole Foods have attempted to stand up and be the voice for the public. Whole Foods has always been opposed to all GMO… until recently, it would seem. The USDA put forth a proposal to allow GM alfalfa to finally make its way to farmland. According to Whole Foods, the USDA presented the industry with two options: total deregulation of Genetically Engineered alfalfa, or deregulation with some conditions to facilitate coexistence and protection of non-GE farmers. Wholefoods reluctantly opted for the latter.

The options presented by the USDA were essentially to either allow Monsanto full control to do as they want completely unregulated, or to allow Monsanto to do what they want, but implement some regulation and attempt to control Genetically engineered alfalfa so it can co-exist with non-GMO varieties.

This is where the recent controversy really takes off. Upon hearing this news, the Organic Consumers Association immediately published an article detailing how Whole Foods Market (as well as Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm) surrendered to Monsanto and began supporting genetic modification. The information spread through the industry like wildfire. Within hours, Whole Foods was being bombarded with vicious attacks from loyal customers.

In an attempt to explain their position, Whole Foods has released a few statements and responded to countless angry inquiries. Their decision was not one that was made lightly. As I mentioned, Whole Foods has made it very clear that they do not support the USDA’s choice to allow for the introduction for Genetically Engineered alfalfa. However, they were forced to make a decision between the 2 options listed above, or else sacrifice their seat at the table and have no voice at all. The position in which Whole Foods was placed was not an easy one.

And so the dilemma continues to move forward. Thousands of angry consumers feel helpless. Many are upset with Whole Foods and argue that the company should have taken a harder stance in their position and not allow the USDA to bully them into making a decision between 2 evils. Why couldn’t Whole Foods have simply said “No, we do not support either of these options” and continue fighting the battle against GMO through other means? Or perhaps it was the right decision for them to keep their voice with the USDA so they can continue to fight from the inside? These are incredibly difficult questions to answer and begin to get very political, too.

There are many aspects of genetically modified food which could be discussed. For now, though, this article is merely intended to explain why there seems to be so much controversy surrounding this subject at the moment.

Want to read more:
How you can be help and take action:
Despite the efforts and recommendations of Whole Foods (and other organic companies), the USDA fully deregulated GE alfalfa on January 27, 2011. This means that farmers can plant the Frankenfood with no restrictions. But the fight is not over. President Obama has the power to overrule the USDA’s decision, and it’s important that he do so in order to protect the organic meat and dairy industry.
Please sign this petition to voice your opinion:
Here are some other resources for you to help:
If you’re interesting in helping organize or coordinate a Millions Against Monsanto and Factory Farms Truth-in-Labeling campaign in your local community, sign up here:
To pressure Whole Foods Market and the nation’s largest supermarket chains to voluntarily adopt truth-in-labeling practices sign here, and circulate this petition widely:
What do you think Whole Foods should have done (or should do now)?
About Rich Ralph
As a Registered Holistic Nutritionist in Vancouver, Rich took his passion for health and wellness to the extreme in 2007 when he became the first man to successfully roller-blade across Canada, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, in support of cancer research. He is committed to educating and encouraging people to make powerful and sustainable nutritional adjustments which will provide the greatest impact to your well-being.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Activists Crack China’s Wall of Denial About Air Pollution

Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times
Zhang Hao, 9 months old, has been diagnosed with rhinitis, a condition that may be caused by air pollution.

BEIJING — Weary of waiting for the authorities to alert residents to the city’s most pernicious air pollutant, citizen activists last May took matters here into their own hands: they bought their own $4,000 air-quality monitor and posted its daily readings on the Internet.

That began a chain reaction. Volunteers in Shanghai and Guangzhou purchased monitors in December, followed by citizens in Wenzhou, who are selling oranges to finance their device. Wenzhou donated $50 to volunteers in Wuhan, 140 miles inland. Officials have claimed for years that the air quality in fast-growing China is constantly improving. Beijing, for example, was said to have experienced a record 274 “blue sky” days in 2011, a statistic belied by the heavy smog smothering the city for much of the year.

But faced with an Internet-led brush fire of criticism, the edifice of environmental propaganda is collapsing. The government recently reversed course and began to track the most pernicious measure of urban air pollution — particulates 2.5 microns in diameter or less, or PM 2.5. It decreed that about 30 major cities must begin monitoring the particulates this year, followed by about 80 more next year.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection also promised to set health standards for such fine particulates “as soon as possible.” Last week, after years of concealing its data on such pollutants, Beijing began publishing hourly readings from one monitoring station.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing nonprofit group, credits the Chinese public for the breakthroughs. “At the beginning of last year, we had almost lost hope that the PM 2.5 would be integrated into the standards,” Mr. Ma said. “But at the end of the day, the people spoke so loudly that they made their voice heard.”

The fine particulates, caused by dust or emissions from vehicles, coal combustion, factories and construction sites, are among the most hazardous because they easily penetrate lungs and enter the bloodstream. Chronic exposure increases the risk of cardiovascular ailments, respiratory disease and lung cancer. The Chinese government has monitored exposure levels in 20 cities and 14 other sites, reportedly for as long as five years, but has kept the data secret.

It sought 18 months ago to silence the American Embassy in Beijing as well, arguing that American officials had insulted the Chinese government by posting readings from the PM 2.5 monitor atop the embassy on Twitter. A Foreign Ministry official warned that the embassy’s data could lead to “social consequences” in China and asked the embassy to restrict access to it. The embassy refused, and Chinese citizens now translate and disseminate the readings widely.

While China has made gains on some other airborne toxins, the PM 2.5 data is far from reassuring in a country that annually has hundreds of thousands of premature deaths related to air pollution. In an unreleased December report relying on government data, the World Bank said average annual PM 2.5 concentrations in northern Chinese cities exceeded American limits by five to six times as much, and two to four times as much in southern Chinese cities.

Nine of 13 major cities failed more than half the time to meet even the initial annual mean target for developing countries set by the World Health Organization. Environmental advocates here expect China to adopt that target as its PM 2.5 standard.

Wang Yuesi, the chief air-pollution scientist at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, estimated this month that Beijing needed at least 20 years to reach that goal. 

The embassy’s monitor showed that fine particulate concentrations over the past two years averaged nearly three times that level, and 10 times the World Health Organization’s guideline, said Steven Q. Andrews, an environmental consultant based in Beijing.

In fact, Mr. Wang told Outlook Weekly, a magazine owned by China’s official news agency, Xinhua, that Beijing’s PM 2.5 concentrations have been increasing by 3 to 4 percent annually since 1998. He said the finer particulates absorbed more light, explaining why Beijing so often is enveloped in a haze thick enough to obscure even nearby buildings. Air pollution in the city and in nearby Tianjin is so severe that “something must be done to control it,” he wrote on his blog.

Such sentiments are increasingly common on weibos, the Chinese version of microblogs like Twitter, especially among elites. International schools here are doming their athletic fields because pollution so often requires that students stay indoors.

In November, Pan Shiyi, a Beijing real estate tycoon, asked his seven million microblog followers whether China should employ a stricter air-quality standard. Shi Yigong, a molecular biologist who left Princeton University in 2008 to lead Tsinghua University’s life sciences department, complained in a December blog post that air pollution was the single “most upsetting and painful thing” about life in China.

Some Chinese citizens remain stoic or unaware. One afternoon last week when smog cloaked Beijing and the American Embassy monitor edged toward the top of the chart, parents flocked to the Capital Institute of Pediatrics, a children’s hospital in downtown Beijing, towing children with respiratory ailments.

One mother of a 6-year-old awaiting treatment for her child’s chronic cough said: “I think it’s good for the child’s immune system to be exposed to tough weather like today’s. It will make them tougher.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Organic Can Feed The World

From Barry Estabrook at The Atlantic

Given that current production systems leave nearly one billion people undernourished, the onus should be on the agribusiness industry to prove its model, not the other way around
"We all have things that drive us crazy," wrote Steve Kopperud in a blog post this fall for Brownfield, an organization that disseminates agricultural news online and through radio broadcasts. Kopperud, who is a lobbyist for agribusiness interests in Washington, D.C., then got downright personal: "Firmly ensconced at the top of my list are people who consider themselves experts on an issue when judging by what they say and do, they're sitting high in an ivory tower somewhere contemplating only the 'wouldn't-it-be-nice' aspects."

At the top of that heap, Kopperud put Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, a contributor to Atlantic Life and the author of Food Politics, the title of both her most well-known book and her daily blog.

"There's a huge chunk of reality missing from Dr. Nestle's academic approach to life," Kopperud wrote. "The missing bit is, quite simply, the answer to the following question: How do you feed seven billion people today and nine billion by 2040 through organic, natural, and local food production?" He then answers his own question. "You can't."
What is notably lacking in the "conventional" versus organic debate are studies backing up the claim that organic can't feed the world's growing population.

As a journalist who takes issues surrounding food production seriously, I too have things that drive me crazy.

At the top of my list are agribusiness advocates such as Kopperud (and, more recently, Steve Sexton of Freakonomics) who dismiss well-thought-out concerns about today's dysfunctional food production system with the old saw that organic farming can't save the world. They persist in repeating this as an irrefutable fact, even as one scientific study after another concludes the exact opposite: not only that organic can indeed feed nine billion human beings but that it is the only hope we have of doing so.

"There isn't enough land to feed the nine billion people" is one tired argument that gets trotted out by the anti-organic crowd, including Kopperud. That assertion ignores a 2007 study led by Ivette Perfecto, of the University of Michigan, showing that in developing countries, where the chances of famine are greatest, organic methods could double or triple crop yields.

"My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can't produce enough food through organic agriculture," Perfecto told Science Daily at the time.

Too bad solid, scientific research hasn't been enough to drive that nail home. A 2010 United Nations study (PDF) concluded that organic and other sustainable farming methods that come under the umbrella of what the study's authors called "agroecology" would be necessary to feed the future world. Two years earlier, a U.N. examination (PDF) of farming in 24 African countries found that organic or near-organic farming resulted in yield increases of more than 100 percent. Another U.N.-supported report entitled "Agriculture at a Crossroads" (PDF), compiled by 400 international experts, said that the way the world grows food will have to change radically to meet future demand. It called for governments to pay more attention to small-scale farmers and sustainable practices -- shooting down the bigger-is-inevitably-better notion that huge factory farms and their efficiencies of scale are necessary to feed the world.

Suspicious of the political motives of the U.N.? Well, there's a study that came out in 2010 from the all-American National Research Council. Written by professors from seven universities, including the University of California, Iowa State University, and the University of Maryland, the report finds that organic farming, grass-fed livestock husbandry, and the production of meat and crops on the same farm will be needed to sustain food production in this country.

The Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute is an unequivocal supporter of all things organic. But that's no reason to dismiss its 2008 report "The Organic Green Revolution" (PDF), which provides a concise argument for why a return to organic principles is necessary to stave off world hunger, and which backs the assertion with citations of more than 50 scientific studies.

Rodale concludes that farming must move away from using unsustainable, increasingly unaffordable, petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and turn to "organic, regenerative farming systems that sustain and improve the health of the world population, our soil, and our environment." The science the report so amply cites shows that such a system would
  • give competitive yields to "conventional" methods
  • improve soil and boost its capacity to hold water, particularly important during droughts
  • save farmers money on pesticides and fertilizers
  • save energy because organic production requires 20 to 50 percent less input
  • mitigate global warming because cover crops and compost can sequester close to 40 percent of global CO2 emissions
  • increase food nutrient density
What is notably lacking in the "conventional" versus organic debate are studies backing up the claim that organic can't feed the world's growing population. In an exhaustive review using Google and several academic search engines of all the scientific literature published between 1999 and 2007 addressing the question of whether or not organic agriculture could feed the world, the British Soil Association, which supports and certifies organic farms, found (PDF) that there had been 98 papers published in the previous eight years addressing the question of whether organic could feed the world.

Every one of the papers showed that organic farming had that potential. Not one argued otherwise.
The most troubling part of Kopperud's post is where he says that he finds the food movement of which Pollan and Nestle are respected leaders "almost dangerous." He's wrong. The real danger is when an untruth is repeated so often that people accept it as fact.

Given that the current food production system, which is really a 75-year-old experiment, leaves nearly one billion of the world's seven billion humans seriously undernourished today, the onus should be on the advocates of agribusiness to prove their model can feed a future population of nine billion -- not the other way around.
Image: Marykit/Shutterstock.