Monday, December 28, 2015

Progress and a Different Paradigm for the New Year

by Bill Duesing

We've made good progress in the past year having our voices heard on the food and farming issues we care about: healthy food for everyone, support for beginning farmers, GMO labeling, food justice, fair wages for workers throughout the food system, excess nutrient pollution and climate change. We have also made progress in animal care issues. Some restaurant and food chains are planning to eliminate routine use of antibiotics for animals and gestation crates for sows.  Sellers of unhealthy foods and beverages are struggling; organic farmers have trouble keeping up with demand.  As consumers and activists, we are feeling our power to change the paradigm. And, of course, this is all good.   However, the news of the climate, environmental and/or social chaos in so many parts of the world shows that we are very far from the path to achieving a livable future for our children and grandchildren.

Taking a longer view can keep us focused on what is important. A paradigm is a model or a way of thinking. Unless we respect and use a cyclical, biological paradigm, as opposed to a linear industrial paradigm, we don't have a chance for a sustainable and fulfilling future.

For many years, the image above has provided me with a useful tool for explaining the kind of problems caused by and changes needed in the currently dominant, industrial paradigm.

The Industrial Paradigm

The industrial model is especially damaging in combination with an economic system focused on continual growth.  There are often distant and tenuous connections between the human and physical inputs needed to create a product or service, the consumer or user, and the land, water and air where the products and pollutants ultimately end up. Because of this, the external costs of this system, (the tax, environmental and human costs of production, transportation and disposal), are hidden from consumers. This results in lots of environmental and human health damage that the consumer doesn't see or directly pay for.

A biological paradigm, in contrast, provides essential connections between the inputs and outputs. This model provides greater transparency and encourages more localization and cycling of resources. This is good for communities but not so good for global corporations.

We can begin to understand the differences between these two paradigms using an agricultural example:  how we get nitrogen out of the air and into the soil to nourish plants.  All nitrogen comes from the atmosphere which is nearly 80 percent nitrogen.  Nitrogen in the air can be converted (or fixed) into a form plants can use by either industrial or biological systems.

In the current industrial model, developed intensively over the past two hundred years, nitrogen-bearing substances come from far away: in the 19th century from mineral deposits in Peru and Chile.  Since the early 20th century, nitrogen fertilizer has been produced through the Haber-Bosch industrial process that now begins with fracking the earth for natural gas which is then used to make hydrogen.  That hydrogen is combined (under great pressure and high temperature) with atmospheric nitrogen to make ammonia. Then that material is converted to another form, packaged and shipped to its point of use on a farm, garden or lawn. From there, some of the nitrogen is taken up by plants but much of it is moved by water either into the ground, where it makes well water dangerous to drink, or into streams, rivers and eventually into estuaries.  Higher nitrogen content makes it much more difficult to process river water for drinking. (See Des Moines' water supply problems.) It also encourages eutrophication of estuaries by encouraging the growth of algae.

In contrast, a biological approach involves using cover crops (e.g. clover, hairy vetch, alfalfa and field peas) to capture nitrogen from the air with the help of bacteria living on their roots. Other more local sources of biologically-fixed nitrogen include rotating leguminous crops (such as peas and beans) through the growing area, rotating animals through crop land and applying compost from local manures and other organic wastes.  All of these methods can provide the necessary nitrogen, especially if harsh and toxic chemicals and most tillage are avoided.


Much of NOFA's work since its founding has been informed by the development and understanding of the benefits of the biological paradigm developed over the past century.

In 1971, a group of organic agriculture and healthy food pioneers came together in Vermont to start the Natural Organic Farmers Association.  That organization is now the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) with chapters in seven states and almost 6,000 members, including farmers, gardeners, homesteaders, landscapers, scientists and educators. 

The autumn of 1971 was a time of domestic turmoil over race, the Vietnam War and the environment.  However, these (mostly young) people were concerned with two things: how to grow food without toxic chemicals and with getting healthy food to those who needed it. One of NOFA's first projects was trucking organic vegetables from New England farms to day care centers, women's shelters and food coops in New York City.  (Note 1). A year or so later, the focus changed to more local markets as the need for good food was discovered closer to home.

This occurred less than a decade after Rachel Carson's Silent Spring documented the damages that pesticides were doing to human and environmental health. At that time, unless you were connected with the chemical or the agricultural establishment, it was natural to be concerned about spreading toxic pesticides on our food.  Hence the interest in organic farming. It is very instructive to read the Wikipedia entry for Silent Spring.  The dynamics of environmental issues haven't changed much. Corporations which profit from the industrial paradigm by polluting the environment and damaging human health use bought science, scientism and shady, despicable tactics to discredit the honest messenger. They also use their ill-gotten gains to buy cooperation from their friends in government. Cigarettes, pesticides, GMOs, flame retardants, fossil fuels, hedge funds, lead in paint and fuel, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and synthetic fertilizers are just some of the areas where this pattern has played out since Silent Spring.

Aside from the turbulent times and the environmental issues, many of these enthusiastic young people who founded NOFA were inspired by books from earlier in the 20th Century including:

1.  Soil Scientist FH King's Farmers of Forty Centuries (1911) which describes his visits to Korea, China and Japan in 1909 to learn how those countries managed to feed themselves for over 4,000 years from small land areas. (Spoiler alert: Intensive cultivation, multi cropping, cover cropping, composting all organic wastes and human labor were the keys to their success.)

2. Sir Albert Howard's An Agricultural Testament (1940) describes his work in India beginning in 1905.  He was sent there to teach farmers proper British agriculture (fertilizers, pesticides and the whole industrial approach). Instead, he learned from the Indian farmers about making and using compost. From observing the health of villagers and their soils, he learned that "the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible."

3. Louis Bromfield's Pleasant Valley (1945) and Malabar Farm (1948) describe what happens to the dust bowl ruined Ohio farms he bought in 1930s as a result of using cover crops, compost (inspired by Sir Albert Howard) rotational grazing and sustainable forestry. Springs that had dried up started running again as soil health improved and natural water cycles functioned again.

4. Edward S. Hyams' Soil and Civilization (1952) connected the dots between the way a society cared for its soil and its long term success or failure.

The Biological Paradigm

The early 1970s were full of reasons to move toward the biological paradigm. The first Earth Day was held in 1970. In 1971, Barry Commoner's The Closing Circle, Nature, Man and Technology was published.  It increased interest in ecology and inspired many of us with Commoner's Four Rules of Ecology:

1. Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.

2. Everything must go somewhere. There is no "waste" in nature and there is no "away."

3. Nature knows best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is, says Commoner, "likely to be detrimental to that system."

4. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.

In 1972, we first saw a photograph of the whole earth from space.  So, it was hard to be content with a linear industrial paradigm after that.

Fast Forward                        

Now well into the 21st century, with the new challenges from climate change, we can see the advantages of using the biological paradigm.  It turns out that organic methods of soil and fertility management are among the best strategies for both mitigating and adapting to climate change.  Careful organic practices can return carbon to the soil while also resisting the increased droughts and downpours a changing climate brings.  Industrial nitrogen fertilizer not only releases nitrous oxide (a very powerful greenhouse gas) when it is applied, it also encourages the decomposition of organic matter, impoverishing the soil ecosystem and driving further climate change.

Keeping these different paradigms in mind should help us create a more just, sustainable and resilient food system. They will help us see the differences, for example, between systems which consume electricity to provide light and run pumps indoors to grow leafy greens and those that use sunlight, soil and compost to grow food nearly everywhere.

In the new year, we need to continue to use our buying power as well as our actions (i.e., gardening, cooking, supporting farmers markets, joining CSAs, talking to legislators) to effect the changes we want to see in the future. 

Note 1. Organic certification didn't exist at that time but organic growing methods were based on the books listed in this essay and the publications of J I Rodale.  Rodale was inspired by Sir Albert Howard's writings to start an experimental organic farm in 1940 and Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942.  His How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method was published in 1961 and provided important guidance to early organic growers.  Organic certification began in the 1980s with NOFA chapters and other organizations developing state standards.  CT NOFA certified farms from 1989 until the USDA took control of "organic" in 2002.

Friday, October 30, 2015

How Science is used as a cudgel to advance political and corporate agendas

 By Bill Duesing

Science is the way we study, learn about and organize information about the world we live in, building a body of knowledge that may help us understand the ways of the physical world. However, Science is ongoing; it keeps discovering more big picture concepts and important details about the way things work.  Even after centuries of scientific research, some areas of our world are still largely unknown - the soil and the human microbiomes, the details of cancer and of climate change. However, too much reliance on Science can lead to an unwarranted and dangerous hubris, especially among non-scientists with an agenda.

Recently, Science has also been used extensively as a weapon to convince us of the validity of a specific corporate or political agenda. (Remember the doctors who promoted a brand of cigarettes in the 1950s and the experts who told us we'd be better off eating margarine or using chemical fertilizers.) This strategy involves Science that is very reductionist and applied to extremely complex systems - and the notion that Science has the final answer. It was easier to promote smoking, hydrogenated fats and fertilizers as scientific before we understood about microbiomes, cancer and climate change. Yet, without knowing the Scientific explanations, many traditional cultures intuitively nurtured those microbiomes with compost and fermented foods.

I first noticed this manipulative use of Science when CT NOFA was working with our partners to pass a law prohibiting the use of pesticides on Connecticut school grounds.  Of course, the folks who apply pesticides wanted to keep applying them.  After all, that's their business model.  They planned to work with the scientists at UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources to get "science-based" answers about the use of these pesticides to maintain school grounds.  But those answers would be in the context of horticulture, because that is the expertise of this branch of UConn.  They likely wouldn't include the very complicated science of how pesticides might effect children and their rapidly growing bodies differently from the healthy adult males used as the threshold for pesticide safety. Such a science-based study wouldn't include the effects of the so-called "inert" ingredients  that make up most of those pesticides because they are trade secrets, even though they may be more toxic than the active ingredient. Science can't really provide the whole risks and benefits picture of using pesticides on school grounds because so much of Science is narrowly focused on part of a system with lots of variables- timing, weather, skill of applicators and human behavior, especially children's.  It just doesn't make sense to apply poisons where young people play.  Yet, narrowly based Science can say otherwise.

Science of GMOs

Genetically-engineered seeds or GMOs is an area where the corporate and political backers are using "science-based" research to belittle those who question the wisdom of the genetically-engineered foods experiment which now has most of our food plants sprayed with at least one herbicide. Soon two dangerous herbicides will be applied.

They say get with the GMO program or you are anti-science and denying the facts. Never mind that those facts are skewed and limited.

If the GMO folks want us to think about Science, perhaps they shouldn't design a system which is bound to fail if nature's ways are taken into account.  Of course, if you spray the same herbicide year after year on the same field, weeds will become resistant to that herbicide and evolve into superweeds. This genetically-engineered, herbicide-tolerant system is doomed to fail as it demands more and more herbicides.

Altered Genes, Twisted Truth

Steven Druker's remarkable book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the venture to genetically engineer our food has subverted science, corrupted government and systematically deceived the public, got me thinking about the use of Science as a propaganda tool. Jane Goodall calls this book "one of the most important books of the last 50 years." 

Druker documents nearly four decades of the arrogant use of selective Science to promote a political and corporate agenda which favors biotechnology. From the early discussions in the 1970s of whether this technology was safe and could be contained in a lab, through President Reagan's deregulatory push in the 1980s, to the discussions of whether the products of genetic engineering were safe to release into the environment or for people to eat in the 1990s, there has been a clear pattern of generalizing biotech safety to the whole field from very limited data. Dissenting scientists have been ignored and others who question this technology or the safety of genetically-engineered food have been discredited.

A public interest attorney, Druker initiated the lawsuit that forced the US Food and Drug Administration to release its files related to genetically-engineered foods. He found that the FDA ignored the concerns its own scientists had about the safety of foods made from GMOs.  The FDA actually violated the law when it declared that GMOs had a "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) status and therefore could be included freely in our food system, without longitudinal studies to determine their safety.

The author details how after a small, select conference in the 1970s found that adding genes to one kind of bacteria seemed safe, folks with political and PR skills used that limited finding to declare that genetic engineering of other organisms must also be safe.  He also details how the finding that a specific novel protein made by bacteria in a lab is safe to consume (at least in very short term tests these decisions were based on) leads to approval of that protein when it comes from an engineered corn plant sprayed with glyphosate. Scientists who dealt with whole organisms and with ecological relationships were largely excluded from the decision-making process. Holistic methodology was ignored.

The Alliance for Science organization at Cornell University is one organization which has been using Science to promote GMOs and diffuse the opposition. It is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote biotechnology around the world. Major newspaper articles generated by the Alliance earlier this year linked GMO skeptics with those who deny man-made climate change and evolution.

However a very recent article by Steven Druker recounting his visit to the Alliance for Science suggests that there may be an opening for a more thorough and honest discussion about GMOs there. Let's hope so. The Bioscience Resource Project arranged this visit.  The project also publishes IndependentScience News. Both of those sites are good sources of information.

However, late October produced another story of the influence those who want to sell pesticides have over government researchers, in this case a USDA scientist who faced retaliation after publishing a study of the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides to monarch butterflies. Read this whistleblower story here.

While an appeal to Science is used to push a toxic corporate agenda, organic agriculture is often deemed not scientific, even though is it much more respectful of the way nature works.  Jill Richardson describes the scientific support for organic agriculture in her recent essay.

What can you do?

You should support the efforts to keep the Senate from passing the Safe and Affordable Food Act which would prohibit state and federal laws requiring GMO labeling. You can see why it is more commonly known as the Denying Americans the Right to Know or DARK Act. Read here about the Senate hearing on this bill which the House has already passed.  If it is passed in the Senate, our last hope is that President Obama, who once promised to label GMOs, will veto it. If the DARK act becomes law, our CT Labeling Law becomes illegal.

If the DARK Act doesn't become law, there is reason to believe that in the next legislative session we can pass a Connecticut law which will reduce the requirements (called the trigger) needed before our state law goes into effect. Currently, it requires four states with at least 20 million people to pass similar laws.

Things are different than they were when the law was passed two years ago. The Vermont labeling law goes into effect next July. Maine has a law similar to Connecticut's.  Massachusetts and Rhode Island are close to passing labeling legislation.  We also know more about the dangers of glyphosate than we did then. We know that soon many of our foods will be sprayed with 2,4-D (half of Agent Orange) in addition to glyphosate.  So there is no reason we shouldn't have the right to know what is in our food now.  Get the fact sheet on why legislators should remove the trigger here.

If you are interested in helping make this change a reality, there are several things you can do now.
1.    Call your state representative and senator and talk to them about removing the trigger.  Let them know how you feel and explore their thoughts.
2.    Find local farms, businesses and organizations that will support us in this effort.

Get involved.  This is important work that effects the future of our food system.

Sourcing Local Food for My Wedding!

By Jenna Messier
Organic Land Care Program Director, CT NOFA
Jenna Messier and Chris Antezzo, Sr.
From the beginning of our October 12th wedding planning process, my husband Chris and I knew we wanted to have local and organic food at the Lighthouse Park, New Haven, reception. We both believe in supporting CT NOFA member farms, we prefer healthy organic produce and we want to support local businesses.
I expected it would be difficult to find a caterer who would be willing to spend time sourcing locally from multiple farms. Fortunately, we found an energetic, young couple who were up to the task, and as our guests can attest; the food was absolutely local and delicious!

I started meeting with Jim Calkins and his wife Michelle of Seasonal Sweets and Catering last summer, as I outlined our desired menu and the particular farms and products which we would like to source.  It took 3 to 4 meetings to work out the many details. Jim spent a lot of time reaching out to busy farmers over the summer to identify product availability and costs. We planned for 100 guests with 15 children and 85 adults.

appetizer table next to the carousel
I imagined fruit and cheese plates with veggie crudité for the appetizers and a bar with organic wine, local soda and apple cider, and kegs of local tasty beers.  And voila, all of this came to fruition!  Our guests were thrilled with the varieties of local cheeses and veggies for appetizers.

wines and re-usable glass mugs are lined up at the back counter
We selected sodas from New Britain's Avery Beverages and cider from Beardsley Cider Mill in Shelton.  I selected a few organic wines of my choice including Eppa SupraFruta Organic White Sangria from the North Coast of California and the red was Le Grue Cendree Cabernet Sauvignon from France.  I just have to insist on organic wine, so local was not an option!  The beers on tap were from Two Roads Brewery located in Bridgeport, CT and Brooklyn Brewery.

Planning the main course proved more difficult, and trying to stick to our budget was even harder. It appears that local, organic growers are not producing at a large enough scale to sell at wholesale rates to caterers and restaurants.  This was our experience.  So we had to create a menu with a mixture of local and organic produce and meats as these products could be sourced. In the end, our guests were thrilled with all of the dining options.  The full menu and list of contributing farms are listed below.
Pear cupcakes were delightful AND local!
My favorite part of the meal was our dessert. I really wanted to use our Anjou pears which we cook down and freeze every August. Let's just say that the pears are our family heirlooms, as Chris' grandfather planted the trees 70 years ago! I worked with Michelle to create a recipe for pear cupcakes.  She is such a talented baker, to say the least!  She came up with a pear cupcake recipe using small chunks of pear, a cream cheese frosting and a honey-pear glaze using with the remaining juice from the bags of frozen pears.  Luckily, we have some left over and frozen so we can sample them on future cold and wintry days.

Flowers in barn prior to bunching
I am so grateful to my best friends from North Tabor Farm in Chilmark, Massachusetts for picking every flower in their field and bunching the loveliest, brightest, most magical flower bouquets ever! While the flowers were not from Connecticut, they did travel by car along with my guests instead of by plane. A heartfelt thank-you to the Miller-Dix Family! And, don't forget to buy local flowers.

Matthew Dix, Ruby and Rebecca Miller


I am sharing this very personal story with you all for one reason: so I can spread the message that we will only be able to eat local and organic food - if we ask for it, seek it out, and are willing to pay a higher price within our own personal limitations. I am so happy that we did!  Food for thought...

Full Menu and Farm List for October 12th, 2015 Antezzo- Messier Wedding

Stationary Hors D’oeuvres
Local Artisan Cheeses, Fresh and
Dried Seasonal Fruit, with Flatbreads
Seasonal & Local Vegetable Crudité and Dips
Main Course
Artisan Bread
Vegetable Infused Butter
Local Organic Garden Greens Salad
Roasted Garlic Potato Salad
Pasta, Local Tomato Marinara
Basmati-Ancient Grain Rice Pilaf
Seared Salmon Medallions
Smoked Local Raised Pulled Pork
The Finale
Organic Pear Cupcakes with Local Honey Glaze
Local Organic Fair-trade Coffee & Hand Crafted Artisan Tea
Local CT Farm & Business Sources:
Before & After Farm - CT NOFA Business Member
Beardsley Cider Mill
Massaro Community Farm - CT NOFA Business Member
Laurel Glen Farm
These Things Take Thyme
The Farmers Cow
Stone Garden Farms
Shearwater Organic Coffee Roasters