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It’s been named the “David & Goliath” story of agriculture in Canada: one small farmer, Percy Schmeiser, versus one international mega-corp, Monsanto. It started in 1997, when drift from a neighbor’s Roundup-Ready canola contaminated Schmeiser’s own field. Monsanto sued him for planting patented seeds without paying for them (Schmeiser saves seeds from year-to-year) and won. But Schmeiser fought back, and has now won a case against Monsanto, asserting that if Monsanto owns the patented plants, it should pay for the genetic contamination and damage to Schmeiser’s canola fields.

Monsanto does have a program in which it removes unwanted “volunteer” plants from fields. But it also requires to sign a release form with a confidentiality clause. Schmeiser refused and took the company to court, and on March 19, 2008, Monsanto agreed to pay the $660 it took to have the offending plants removed.

It seems like a small victory, to be sure, but it sets a precent of responsibility (in addition to ownership) of genetically altered and patented plants to the companies that purport to own them. And if GM crops ever contaminate wild, organic, or heirloom crops, companies like Monsanto should have to pay for the clean-up.

On a related note, organic food is apparently just as productive (in terms of yield) as conventional ag, and is a whole hell of a lot nutritious as well. Here’s the original article on the Daily Grist.

Planning meeting for my gardening collaboration on Monday. Am really excited. Will hopefully have time to read up on companion planting beforehand.

Also, just finished reading “Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally” by the B.C. creators of the 100-Mile Diet. It was pretty awesome, actually. I highly recommend it. I’m also reading a history of kitchens as the center of the American home during the 20th Century. It’s pretty interesting so far.

And yes, I’ve finally learned that I’m a bit of a foodie. And that I kind of want to be a culinary historian. *grin*

She’s baaaack!

Wow. I’ve been extremely neglectful of this blog. Almost criminally so.

My non-profit job is working more and more closely with a community garden and up-starting farmer’s market. I’m going to try and convince some friends to band together to create a mini-CSA and rent a couple of plots together and share the produce. I’m also trying to grant-write to get some federal start-up funds for the gardens. We’ll see how that works.

I really want to grow lots of good, easy veggies this summer. Here’s a partial list of what I really want: spinach, tomatoes, basil, green beans, zucchini or squash, lettuce, snap peas, green onions, cucumbers (English, if I can manage them). And I think that’s pretty much it. Oooh! Radishes would be fun, as would carrots, though I don’t know how well carrots will grow. And potatoes, if I could manage them.

I think it’s strange that while I know global warming is a huge problem, I’m most passionate about food. Although, I think I’m also passionate about local anything. Supporting local businesses, eating local food, producing energy locally, etc. But food is good. As in, delicious. And essential to life.

I’m a disciple of Michael Pollan, though I’ve yet to read all the way through any of his three books on food. Though to be fair, I haven’t started “In Defense of Food” yet. But I bought it! It’s actually sitting right in front of me, waiting to be read. Alas, I have grants and work and Dresden Files to get done. *grin*

Anyway, I suppose I should say something about the current political climate. As in the national election and candidates for the Presidency. I have to say, I’m not a huge fan of Hillary. I was, in fact, a fan of Edwards. He was populist and progressive, which I loved. Obama has potential. If only because he represents a shift in political climate. Hillary is too old guard for me, too tied to big business, and still attached to an increasingly fumbling Bill. But Obama is not perfect either. So I am torn. I do think, however, that if Obama wins the nomination and picks Edwards as his running mate, they will have a fantastic chance. Unless, of course, the Democratic Party really fucks something up, which they’re kind of good at from time to time.

What I really want is someone reminiscent of the Roosevelts, both Teddy and FDR. I want Teddy’s conservation efforts and populism, and FDR’s social programs and talent for reaching out to the common man. I want someone who’ll do something about global warming and our crumbling foreign policy and poverty and our economic recession. I want someone who’ll tighten the belt of the defense budget without taking shortcuts with the safety of our soldiers. I want someone who’ll see the absolute stupidity of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border while doing nothing to improve conditions for Mexican citizens. I want someone who’ll subsidize fruits and veggies, not corn and soy. I want someone who’ll go after the credit card companies and payday loan places who fleece the American public. I want someone who’ll make it easier to get a college education, not harder. I want someone who’ll fix healthcare, and make the pharmaceutical companies pay for it. I want someone who’ll do some serious trust busting, and I’m not talking about Whole Foods buying Wild Oats.

What I really want is a candidate who cares more about the people he/she serves than the coporations who fund his/her campagin. Who isn’t afraid to take on the big dogs and win. Who’s smart and sensible and fiscally responsible but also has enough juice left in him/her to dream about making America a better place.

Is that really so much to ask for? *grin*

P.S. Ralph Nader is not that person. End of story.

And now, it’s time to go to work!

Wow. It’s been forever since I updated. I’ve been extremely caught up in my new non-profit job, which is essentially what I want to do for the rest of my life. To everyone who ever said non-profits weren’t worth it because they didn’t pay enough: you were wrong; they may not pay enough in cash, but they more than make up for it through experience and fulfillment.

Now, on to the title.

As we speak I’m watching a documentary on the Documentary Channel called “Subdivide and Conquer” and it’s all about urban and suburban sprawl. It’s a bit dated (it’s from 1999) but still is an important take on American culture. It all began, like much of what is wrong with our culture, with the military-industrial complex that developed in America following World War II.

Returning veterans needed a place to live, so a construction company called Levitt & Sons built the first mass-produced suburb of NYC starting in 1947, which they called Levittown (the Levitt family later created the extremely popular ranch house). The formula of near-identical single family homes on the outskirts of a major city proved popular and spread across the U.S. For returning veterans and their new families, the house with a “white picket fence” evolved as part of the American Dream.

A dream that centered around cars.

The American obsession with the personal automobile is perhaps the single biggest culprit in the disintegration of community. The car and the infrastructure created for it – suburbs, the interstate highway system, and strip malls – have homogenized America’s communities and destroyed cultural diversity (not to mention the environment and the public health).

Current zoning laws in most communities restrict or prohibit mixed-used development; that is to say, development where commercial mixes with residential and apartments mix with single-family homes. And increasingly, subdivisions and housing developments are grouped by cost, the less-expensive houses in one area, the more expensive in another, segregating communities by socio-economic status. But zoning laws did not come out of nothing; they were a reaction to dirty industry and meant to protect people from pollution. Ironically, the rise of the suburb and the skyrocketing number of cars on the road and commuter hours spent getting from place to place have brought the pollution to the people.

Suburbs have always been created by expanding populations. Paris, France, is an excellent example of this: within the city are rings of fortified walls created to protect its inhabitants from attack. But soon, the population spilled outside the first ring of walls, and eventually another ring was built, and another, and another, and so on as Medieval Paris expanded. This same formula was repeated over the centuries. But those suburbs were built as communities in and of themselves, with mixed-use neighborhoods that mimicked the city as a whole. You didn’t have to drive across town to do your shopping because your local grocer was just down the block.

You do today. That’s because American suburbs are not communities, they are housing developments, sometimes charmingly referred to as “bedroom communities” because the inhabitants only return there to sleep, as they work, shop, and play in the neighboring city. American suburbs feature what I like to call “cookie-cutter” houses; in the more affluent developments, they are McMansions. That is, houses built from relatively the same floor plan, with only a few varying shades of beige, blue, and white, and featuring the garage prominently in the front of the house. They have little or no backyard, often no sidewalks, and have winding, meandering roads meant to deter speeding, but which actually cause confusion and more traffic because there are only a few ways to get out. The backyards and front yards are small, often without trees (the either didn’t exist in the agricultural land the houses were built on or were razed during construction). Asphalt and roofs are the primary ingredients in suburbia.

But why would people live like that? For some, moving to the outskirts of town was a way to feel like they were living in the country while still having all the amenities of big city life. What most don’t realize is that if you don’t own the open spaces you live next to, you can’t guarantee that it, too, won’t be developed. For others, McMansions offer a visual display of wealth and status (similarly to SUVs). In reality, the exchange is often time, money, social life, and health.

Commuting takes time. A lot of time. So does running errands when everything is miles from where you live and accessible only by highway. Gasoline costs money, as do cars, as do the houses in the suburbs themselves. Suburbia is also a lonely place. In a development where everyone comes home from work or school by driving into the garage and closing the door before they even get out of the car, it’s rare to even see one’s neighbors, much less get to know them. Without sidewalks or community spaces like parks or cafes, you’re unlikely to see a single soul outside of their car. And then there’s the health issue. All that driving not only costs time and money, it means less exercise and more pollution.

I won’t even get in to the aesthetic atrocities of suburbs. Who said living in a nice place had to mean ugly?

There are other factors to consider. As new developments and suburbs are built, older communities and downtown areas are abandoned to urban decay. Without taxes of middle class and affluent families, without children for schools, without business for stores, the city center shuts down. Historic buildings start to fall apart, crime rates go up, public institutions like libraries go underfunded. A city goes into cardiac arrest as its vibrant, unique heart starts to fail. Meanwhile, the homogenized suburbs don’t even notice. In cases like these, the suburbs really are a donut, all the economic activity is relegated to an outside ring, leaving a gaping hole in the middle.

So what’s to be done? Smart growth, for one thing. Building up, not out. Green spaces, sidewalks, mixed-use development, good public transportation. In other words, building communities, not developments. Places where the streets are full of people walking, strolling, or biking to work, school, the library, the corner grocery store, or a local cafe. Rennovating abandoned historic buildings for new uses, preserving others. Constructing new buildings that are well-designed, instead of cheap and quick.

That’s my dream place to live: where a good grocery store is just down the street, where there’s a farmer’s market in the city center every weekend, where libraries and museums are shoulder-to-shoulder with apartment buildings and office space and restaurants, where single-family neighborhoods are small and close-by and have trees and sidewalks and logical street layouts and houses that are different sizes and shapes and colors. Where parks and pedestrian-only zones and terraces create public spaces that are green and inviting. Where the grocery stores and restaurants and boutiques are locally-owned. Where people care more about their neighborhood than how much money they make, where people talk to their neighbors, where they have a local hangout, where they get involved in local government. A place where people care about not only the quality of their own lives, but of everyone in the city.

Of course, this dream city isn’t perfect. There’s still crime and poverty and lines between social classes. But the crime is less serious and less frequent, the poverty less abject, and the lines are a lot blurrier than they used to be.

We need to change the way we work and live. A pretty big task for anyone. So what’s to be done? Find out where your city Planning and Development Office is; go and visit. Talk to your city commissioners, lobby to change zoning laws to limit and penalize urban sprawl and encourage community revitalization downtown. Run for public office. Join the local Historic Preservation non-profit. Don’t have one? Start one (by visiting the National Trust for Historic Preservation). Communities are about people. They’re a lesson in civic duty and passion and compassion. Get involved. After all, it is your community.

I know I will.

Okay, so I don’t know who was too cheap to pay for a fact-checking intern on this article by William J. Broad, published under the “Science” section of the NYT, but this anti-Gore nonsense is getting more than a little ridiculous.

First, there was the unsubstantiated claim that Gore’s carbon footprint was huge (by the very same people who think dirty coal emissions are a good thing). Now this. Honestly, the right-wingers must be scared shitless of Gore, or they wouldn’t be so ardently risking their reputations as “honest,” “rational,” conservatives. Not to mention that they are once again earning the well-deserved title of Hypocritical Scandalmongers.

Ugh. It makes me ill to think that people like these perpetrators of disinformation are allowed to sacrifice the future of the entire planet in order to make a buck or two billion and pretend that their insular self-righteousness will save them from global disaster.

Not to mention how much the hot air they spew constantly is contributing to global warming. *grin* Okay, that last one was just in good fun. No seriously, everyone knows that it’s right-wing pundits’ farts that cause global warming.

Did I mention how much I love Grist? And David Roberts?

Hmmm. A dilemma… I live in the Upper Midwest and winters are harsh. And long. And very, very cold. So there’s always been a question in the back of my mind (and the front of my mother’s): Is an 100-mile diet sustainable in an area where six month winters are the norm?

Perhaps we have been spoiled by the availability of fresh food shipped in from warmer climes during the winter months. Or perhaps we just haven’t figured out a way to grow it ourselves.

Maybe our dependence on only a few dozen of the 7,000+ edible plant species worldwide hinders our ability to use diversity as our culinary ally.

I did a research project on a local pioneer who was an experimental farmer, and whose farm served as a northerly experimental station for the state horitcultural society. He grew all sorts of things unheard of in the region, like blackberries, blueberries, cherries, and lots and lots of apples. He got me to thinking. Maybe we’ve forgotten what we can grow, given the right mix of hardiness and native stock. Maybe by creating microclimates, we can grow more produce on a small scale than large scale ever imagined possible. Maybe by including more native plants in our diet, we can make strange foods from warmer climes rare delicacies, instead of necessities. Maybe we’ll find native foods more delicious than those tasteless things bred to be shipped and stored and imported from far away.

Some people seem to think that quality, fresh, diverse food is the realm of snobbish foodies who live in California. What they forget is that other nations around the world, particularly in Europe, view quality, fresh, diverse food as a right, a necessity, a heritage. France in particular is viewed as obsessed with food, but over there they simply enjoy it. Food is a part of life. And each province and region has its own type: champagne is from the Champagne region, nowhere else, and salad Nicoise comes from Nice. This is, after all, the nation who famously (or perhaps infamously) has over 400 different types of cheese.

Perhaps the U.S. (best known for hamburgers, pizza, and apple pie; German, Neapolitan, and Dutch imports respectively) would do well to follow suit. After all, our nation encompasses some of the most diverse biomes in the world. Shouldn’t we have foods and fruits and veggies specific to states or cities? American cuisine, already diverse from ethnic and immigrant influence, would become even more so. Can you imagine? Minneapolitan wine? Iowan casserole? Or better yet, fresh fruits and veggies as they were in the old days: heirlooms that differ from every other in every city, county, and state.

Without having to ship things halfway around the world, can you imagine the taste that would result? Fruits picked at the peak of ripeness, instead of ripening in the grocery store? Or greens so fresh they retain all of their nutrients, instead of slowly wilting in a plastic bag?

Hmm. I muse and wish. Perhaps I’d do well to learn more about prairie edibles beyond rhubarb, rosehips, and chokecherries. *smile*

 *sigh* And now I’m hungry…

An Inconvenient Truth

It’s truly inconvenient that many Americans still have not seen the Oscar-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Luckily, now you don’t have to find an indie theatre still showing it or rent it from your local video store. You can see it online for free. Yep, the whole damn, feature-length thing. Okay, so it’s a little pixelated and the clarity isn’t as great as in a movie theatre, but it’s still worth seeing!

So go ahead, watch “the year’s scariest film” and then share it with your friends.

Corn vs. Grass

Ethanol has come to the forefront in both local and national politics. And so, big agribiz, ever-eager to expand, has brought up the argument that increased ethanol production will put such a strain on American corn production that new lands, even those earmarked for conservation efforts, must be put into production to make up for the demand for both ethanol, and human and livestock needs.

This argument is flawed for several reasons. First, cows and other ruminants are biologically engineered to live on grass. That’s right, plain ol’ grass. Not the corn and ground up animal bits (including other cows) that provide the bulk of conventionally raise cows’ feed. The very same feed that spread Mad Cow disease (through ground up bits of brain and spinal cord from infected cattle being fed to other cows). Grass-fed beef doesn’t get Mad Cow because it doesn’t come in contact with the infected brain matter of other cows. Grass-fed beef is also lower fat. Beef began to be corn-fed to increase bulk and fat content, desireable traits at the turns of the last two centuries. But our increasingly health-conscious and modernized society no longer has the need for such calories and grass-fed beef is an obvious solution.

Ranchers who raise grass-fed beef are also fundamentally different from conventional ranchers in one way: their first priority is caring for the land and the grass it grows. Once that is healthy and taken care of, the cattle will thrive. Another benefit of raising grass-fed cattle.

As for human corn consumption, this is primarily through corn-based sweetners like high-fructose corn syrup. These sweetners have pervaded almost every sector of processed food, everything from bread to candy to fruit juices and even canned vegetables, because they’re cheap (from the corn surplus and artificially low prices) and uber-sweet. Unfortunately, they’re also very unhealthy for people. More so even than refined sugar or honey. So, the obvious solution is to rely more on cane and sugarbeet sugar and honey. And I doubt human consumption of fresh cobbed corn, or frozen or canned corn is so great that it would influence ethanol production.

Increased use of honey would also help the flagging U.S. honeybee sector, plagued by destructive mites and low prices due to cheaper imported honey. This in turn has worried farmers across the country, who rely on all bees, honey-producing or not, to pollinate their crops.

That being said, I’m still not an ethanol convert, especially not of corn-based ethanol. But I think it’s a start. And I’d be all for breaking the American addiction to high-fructose corn syrup and stopping Mad Cow disease in its tracks. Wouldn’t you?