Monday, May 4, 2015

Hail to the Dandelion!

By Bill Duesing

Little is more emblematic of our culture's dysfunctional relationship with Earth than our relationship with the dandelion. We spread cancer-causing, chemical toxins around our homes and public places to kill plants that produce healthy and delicious dark green leaves (and may also help cure cancer). Check on pesticide toxicities here. Meanwhile we eat store-bought dark green leaves (which are mostly water), packaged in plastic and grown 3,000 miles away in a state in its fourth year of serious drought.

I really enjoy snacking on dandelion leaves when I'm working in the garden. Dandelions were the last food I harvested outside in January before the snow buried everything and the first green leaves we ate this spring.  Besides garden snacks, we've used these vitamin-rich greens in salads and stir fries for at least a month now.

Although I've long appreciated the dandelion as a harbinger of spring, have snacked on and cooked the leaves for decades and have even made earthy wine from the flowers, I hadn't actively cultivated dandelions until last year.  I started getting serious about this when the advantages of growing perennials to improve soil health finally sunk in.  Disturbing the soil damages it.  Perennial crops cause far less soil disturbance.  We've grown a number of perennials for years: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, hazelnuts, mints and other herbs, garlic chives, comfrey, horseradish, grapes and more.  Dandelions are perennials that already grow in the garden.  Why not weed around them as we do with clover, another valuable perennial, and learn to harvest and eat them?

Important Connections

Dandelion roots
Plants connect the atmosphere and the soil.  Whenever they are photosynthesizing, they are pumping a variety of carbon-containing compounds (called root exudates) into the soil to feed soil organisms.

Those organisms - billions of bacteria, fungi and the rest of the soil food web - respond to chemical signals in the root exudates and provide the specific nutrients that plants need.  Managed properly, this process can also result in carbon being sequestered in soil organic matter, helping to fight or reverse climate change.  That's why bare soil is such a violation of nature - it starves the soil organisms.

Dandelions photosynthesize between nine and ten months a year, so they are feeding soil organisms all that time, probably with a variety of helpful exudates mirroring the complexity and richness of the leaves' contents. Their tap roots open up passages deep into the soil for water, air and organisms.  When leaves are picked, some of the roots die and slough off to keep the plant in balance. This adds more carbon to the soil. (Managing this process on pastures with careful grazing can result in large increases in soil carbon.)

The dandelion is scientifically known as Taraxacum officinale which translates roughly to "the official remedy for disorders." All parts of the plant have been used medicinally for more than 1,000 years. Dandelion greens have at least as much vitamin A per gram as any food except red hot chile peppers and liver, more potassium than bananas and more calcium per gram than whole milk. Its leaves have been fed to English racehorses to build strength and health and used to make beer.  Recipes are here for the flowers, here, here and here for leaves. I favor the last one with the double garlic and ginger or capers.  We've never boiled the dandelions before cooking.

The bright yellow dandelion flowers also make an earthy wine. About one gallon of flowers makes a gallon of wine. The leaves are said to get more bitter once the plant flowers, but that is a matter of taste.

Dandelion root is a diuretic. As such, it may be useful for premenstrual syndrome, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. It is said to be good for the liver and to help prevent gallstones, too. A dandelion root extract is currently in clinical trials in Canada to study its cancer-killing effect.

Dandelions provide important above-ground benefits to the ecosystem too. Honeybees and at least 92 other insects collect its nectar and/or pollen. Birds are fond of its seeds.

Dandelion as Target

Yet, advertising images of dandelions are a marketing tool for toxic pesticides.  That's the way most Americans probably think about dandelions. Selling more of and getting greater profits from whatever it is that you are making or selling is the name of the game in this system.  But if certain real costs (to the environment, taxpayers or society) aren't included in those calculations, we have flawed and expensive results.

Our current system is clearly not sustainable.  Undifferentiated, exponential economic growth is a dead end. A simple example is the increase in bigger garden centers stocking larger piles of weed and feed lawn products (combinations of one or more herbicides with water-polluting fertilizer) to sell to more homeowners and landscapers who become further disconnected from reality. Where will it end? In many ways and places, we are reaching the limits of the damage we can do to our environment and still live here.  There are definitely limits to the disconnection we can tolerate between marketing and ecological reality if we are to survive.

Cultivating lettuce in the California desert
In our kind of economic/political/cultural system, the costs (toxicity, fewer soil organisms and bees, less stored carbon and perhaps more cancer and disease) are spread broadly throughout society and the environment. Concurrently, the profits are concentrated more and more in fewer and fewer hands.  A recent report compiled for the United Nations showed that many of the world's most profitable industries would not have any profits at all and could actually have very large losses if environmental impacts were considered.  And that study ignores social costs and taxpayer subsidies which would decrease the profits of pesticide, big ag and many other industries even more.

Learning about dandelions, their relationship with other living things and the costs of having them as an enemy provide a model of the kind of holistic thinking needed for our survival.  Everything is connected.

Coming to the rescue is the idea of holism, of using all the costs and benefits to guide us to a sustainable future.  I'm not an economist, but I like what I see in the Capital Institute's report Regenerative Capitalism: How Universal Principles And Patterns Will Shape Our New Economy by former banker John Fullerton. In consultation with a diverse advisory group, he produced this report which explores using holistic thinking and planning to address the problems our very un-holistic system has caused. More on this in the future.

So next time you see a dandelion, think of it as an ecological champion and delicious food and remember the importance of holistic thinking.  It has long been a part of the organic gardening, farming and land care movement.

To learn more about caring for your yard organically visit and see especially this downloadable booklet.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Glyphosate News Round Up

By Bill Duesing

Our current, conventional food system is based on the use of glyphosate, an herbicide which is designed to kill all green plants.  (Remember for a minute that all of our oxygen and food comes from green plants. Then consider a business plan that depends on selling more of this green-plant-killing chemical every year.)

In 1970, a Monsanto scientist discovered that glyphosate killed plants. The company started marketing it as Roundup® in 1973 and held exclusive rights in this country until its patents expired in 2000.  Now glyphosate and its formulations are made by many other toxic chemical companies all over the world. Over 100 million pounds of this herbicide are applied in this country alone; about half a billion pounds are applied worldwide, every year!

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup.  You can buy it almost anywhere in a convenient spray bottle or by the gallon. You may presently have some in your home.   Town and state governments spray it freely along our roadsides. (For a long time Monsanto advertised Roundup as "biodegradable" and "environmentally friendly." In 1997, the New York Attorney General sued the company to stop that deceptive advertising.  Monsanto paid a fine and stopped using that marketing strategy, at least in New York.)

Glyphosate's most extensive use, however, is in the industrial food system where it is sprayed on the vast majority of our food crops.  That's because the plants have been engineered by the makers of Roundup and other herbicides to resist death when sprayed with this chemical.  What is actually sprayed on our food crops is mixture of glyphosate with various, undisclosed "other ingredients" that make up over half of this toxic cocktail. 

Roundup Ready® is the dominant brand in herbicide-tolerant crops.  Roundup Ready corn, Roundup Ready soybeans, Roundup Ready canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, cotton, lawn grass, etc.  You get the picture.  Roundup Ready wheat, potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce aren't on the market yet, but they have been in development for years.  (Just so wheat doesn't feel left out, helpful agricultural scientists discovered that they could spray Roundup on wheat just before harvest, to help it dry and kill weeds for the next crop.  More sales. Farmers are encouraged to spray Roundup before harvest, called dry down, to barley, oats, canola, flax, peas, lentils, soybeans and dry beans.)

The Classic American Glyphosate Meal

Go to a local fast food joint, get the classic American meal of a double bacon cheeseburger, fries and a soda and you are participating in a glyphosate-based food system. The cows (producers of the beef and milk for the processed cheese product) and the pigs (source of the bacon, all ate genetically modified Roundup Ready corn, soybeans and/or alfalfa.

The bun is made wheat that was sprayed with glyphosate just before harvest.  The sweeteners in the bun, the ketchup, and the soda are made from genetically-modified corn or sugar beets. The fries are usually cooked in one or more of the following oils, cottonseed, canola and/or soy -  all genetically engineered to resist death by Roundup.  Even the bubbles in the soda come from genetically modified corn sprayed with glyphosate!

Currently, almost all non-organic animal products, processed foods, vegetable oils and lots of food additives depend on crops sprayed with glyphosate.

Old News: Glyphosate is a Probable Carcinogen

It is not surprising that there was a big news splash last month about the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer finding that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen.

That "discovery" is really old news and barely scratches the surface of the problems connected with this chemical poison.  In 1985, an EPA panel classified glyphosate as a Class C Carcinogen (meaning that there is suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential). Six years later, just as genetically-modified crops were being readied for market, the EPA, under what some report as "industry pressure," reversed that ruling.  A bit of government slight of hand switched glyphosate to the Class E category, meaning "evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans."

This chemical poison is the brainchild of Monsanto, the company that also produced the toxic PCBs that contaminate fish in this region's rivers and polar bears in the Arctic whose icy environment we are melting.   Monsanto also produced DDT, Agent Orange, saccharin and bovine growth hormone. This company has a documented history of creating toxic substances and spreading them around as far as possible. It often takes decades before scientists, citizens and regulators are able to stop them.

Although causing cancer may be a big problem, there are many other health problems associated with glyphosate. As an endocrine disrupter it messes with our hormones, often a route to cancer and other problems. Glyphosate was patented as an antibiotic (with all the problems that suggests, e.g. antibiotic resistance) and was originally patented as a metal chelator.  Chelators grab onto metals, including those critical to plant, microorganism and human health, and doesn't let them go. (A new study by Seneff and Samsel (2015) links its chelation of manganese to a host of neurological diseases including autism, Alzheimers, Parkinsons and Prions, anxiety and depression, as well as reproductive and developmental problems. Another study finds problems from phosphorus chelation.)

Endocrine disruptors, antibiotics and chelators all have negative effects on living systems. There is good evidence that glyphosate plays havoc with the microbial communities upon which soil health and human gut-health depend.  This is yet another mechanism for disease.

Dr. Don M. Huber, emeritus professor of plant pathology at Purdue University, discovered in his research that Glyphosate draws out the vital nutrients of living thingsin turn removing most nutritional value from foods made with Genetically Engineered Organisms, (GMOs).

For those of you who want to know more about the health effects of glyphosate and Roundup, look at this thoroughly referenced document from The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. 

A recent study published in the Journal of Organic Systems finds close correlations between the use of glyphosate, with the concurrent percentage of genetically engineered corn and soy grown in this country and the rise in 22 chronic diseases, including diabetes, obesity, hypertension, Alzheimer's and other illnesses.  Although correlation doesn't prove causation, this work suggests that further study of glyphosate's effects on human health is needed.

It is easy to see why most Americans want to know which foods contain GMOs (and therefore glyphosate or other herbicides as well) and why Monsanto and its allies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on lobbyists, politicians, information suppression and propaganda to keep us from knowing.

There's more. Earth's current rapid loss of biodiversity is one of the greatest challenges we face. As an herbicide designed to kill all green plants except GMOs, glyphosate is a very effective biodiversity eliminator. The use of glyphosate and a few other broad spectrum herbicides on GMO crops is blamed for the steep decline in the monarch butterfly population. The milkweed on which they depend has been killed by herbicides, as have the many wildflowers native to farm country which nourish pollinators

In a 2013 study on glyphosate the authors found that glyphosate's negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.  Consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimers disease.

Just like PCBs and DDT, glyphosate and its breakdown products are now found in air, water, breast milk and many other places where we'd rather not find manmade poisons.

Where's the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in all this.  Surely, they must carefully regulate the residues of this chemical on our food.

Not so! In 2013, under industry pressure and/or petition, the EPA raised the allowable limits on glyphosate residues in our food.  Glyphosate residues allowed on oil-seed crops such as flax, soybean and canola were doubled from 20 ppm to 40 ppm, and residues on food crops were increased from 200 ppm to 6,000 ppm.

The tightly connected revolving door between Monsanto, the FDA and other important branches of government surely had an effect on this decision.

Do GMOs Work?

Is this genetically-modified system of growing our food a success?  Not really.  It worked well for a while.  The Roundup killed most weeds.  But then, as any student of evolution and science could tell you, a few weeds became resistant and spread.   Now there are at least 16 types of resistant weeds in at least 24 states.

So, having created "monster weeds" with glyphosate, these chemical companies have a new solution:  more complicated and toxic chemical cocktails.  Mix some 2,4-D with that glyphosate and spray it on a new breed of GMO seeds engineered to resist two deadly killers. 2,4-D is one half of Agent Orange, widely used as a chemical defoliant during the Vietnam War.  This use decades ago is still creating human misery for our soldiers, their families and for the Vietnamese people and their environment.

Even as the biotech/chemical industry's multimillion dollar campaign to cast those who want GMO labeling as anti-science, the whole idea of herbicide tolerance goes against all we know about the way plants behave over time in response to being poisoned.

Where will this chemical warfare end?

What to do?
Grow more of your own food using organic methods.

Buy organic food.  More and more people are doing that. Between 2007 and 2012, farms sales of organic went up 83 percent.

Eat more fruits and vegetables.  They are good for you and, except for GMO sweet corn, you know they are not sprayed with glyphosate.

To learn more about the long strange road that got us to a food system dependent on one toxic chemical, read the new, highly recommended book Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public, by Steven Drucker.  In her forward, Jane Goodall calls it "one of the most important books of the last 50 years."

Monday, March 2, 2015

What Should Americans Eat?

By Bill Duesing

With the February release of the "Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee" comes increased attention to the question of what we should eat. This report is used by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to issue the guidelines they make every five years for what Americans should eat.

This whole process exposes the great tension between foods that are good for us and foods that are profitable for big food and industrial agriculture - between the health we want and the growth in profits that the food and agriculture industry wants.

The report summed up its recommendations this way:
The U.S. population should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains. These dietary patterns can be achieved in many ways and should be tailored to the individuals biological and medical needs as well as socio-cultural preferences.

Based on what I've learned about diet, food, health and farming over the decades, these recent recommendations (except perhaps for the low fat dairy part) make sense for both human and environmental health.  There are lots of ways to meet these guidelines, which is another positive step.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

It's Time to Rethink the Aluminum Can

Organic Advocate
By Bill Duesing

Each week Americans toss roughly a billion aluminum cans into the landfill and roughly another billion into the recycling bin.

Our country should be leading the way toward a more livable future, but with our profligate energy and resource use, we are leading in the opposite direction.

Americans use more energy per capita than residents of any country except Canada and several small, Middle East oil producers.  Based on 2011 numbers each American uses almost 50 percent more energy than the average Russian, almost twice as much as the French, Germans and Japanese, over twice as much as the British and Italians and three times as much as the Chinese.  We use 11 times what the average Indian uses and 34 times a Bangladeshi's daily energy use!

Yet, we all have roughly the same basic needs and live on the same planet.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Food and the Environment

By Bill Duesing

Should we take the environment into consideration when we eat? 

That is a very critical question because crises with both food and the environment loom large as we look ahead to the New Year and beyond.
Food and the environment are intimately linked.  Food comes from the environment. How we grow food has environmental consequences.  They can be, and currently are, very serious. 

The good news is that recent research and traditional knowledge point to ways of growing and eating that produce health both for the environment and for people.
For the first time ever, the advisory committee charged with creating the 2015 version of USDA's Dietary Guidelines was considering including environmental costs in writing those guidelines. Sounds like a good idea to me.  But not to everyone.

Language slipped into the Cromnibus Bill, that massive piece of legislation (a.k.a., the agreement) that Congress cobbled together quickly (!) and passed in December to keep the government running, squashed any hope of connecting food choices with environmental consequences:

... The agreement directs the Secretary to only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors, in the final 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Those extraneous factors are identified in the bill language as "agriculture production practices and environmental factors." Note 1.  
Biodiversity loss, the nitrogen cycle and climate change are the three earth vital signs that are way outside the safe zone.  All are directly caused by the industrial approach to agriculture, especially synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides.  An increase in any of the three makes the others worse.

If the government can't tell us about how our food choices effect the environment, we inherit that responsibility. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Organic Farming and the Age of the "Locavore" Movement- Getting Started in Organic Farming 2015

With 2014 coming to a close, it is time to look at what educational opportunities CT NOFA is offering in the new year!

On January 24th CT NOFA will be heading to Connecticut College for the 10th annual Getting Started in Organic Farming Conference where there will be a ah-mazing line up of speakers to motivate attendees to start their careers in organic agriculture. 

Organic Farming and the Age of the "Locavore" Movement
Presented by Patrick Horan, Waldingfield Farm

A discussion about the "locavore" movement , and how organic food production was a principle reason for the local food movement's rise in the Northeast. But cost of production and the availability of locally produced conventional product has made it increasingly difficult to survive. How do we survive?

Patrick has been working at Waldingfield full time since 2006. He is responsible for all marketing, sales, and operations, as well as day to day farming duties. He and wife and son, Suzie and Griffin, divide their time between Brooklyn, NY, and Washington. CT.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Winter Conference Teaser: Improving Food Access, Raised Bed Gardens and Seed Saving!

The Winter Conference is 3 1/2 months away!

We will begin counting down to CT NOFA's largest celebration of local and organic food, farming and community with a glimpse into to line-up each week showcasing a few workshops we have recently announced.  

Improving Food Access Through Farmers Markets, CSAs, and Mobile MarketsDan Gregory & Pauline Zaldonis
"In this workshop, we will give an overview of Hartford Food System's efforts to improve food access in the City of Hartford. We will also go over various low-income inclusive CSA models and how to increase market revenue by accessing state and federal initiatives such as SNAP, WIC, and FMNP."

Dan Gregory is the farm manager for the urban farm, Grow Hartford. The farm offers subsidized low-income CSA shares and sells at local farmers markets in Hartford. Pauline Zaldonis is the program coordinator of the Hartford Mobile Market and policy analyst for Hartford Food System.