December 31, 2008

Passing the buckyball

"For the more than 800 consumer products using nanotechnology, the NRC has said that no federal agency including FDA and EPA "has failed to prove that the diminutive particles are not dangerous." Plain english: we don't know if they are safe and they are out in the marketplace for us to discover. Read it here.
Click the picture for "studies showing that they can cross the blood-brain barrier and alter cell functions, which raises a lot of questions about their toxicity and what impact they may have if released into the environment."

On my side of the border, Health Canada is using regulatory frameworks drafted before the technology was introduced: "Currently, the Department is using the existing legislative and regulatory frameworks to regulate applications of nanotechnology, but it is recognized that new approaches may be necessary in the future to keep pace with the advances in this area". here

Farmer's Markets Booming

by Brent Warner,

If you want to get a handle on just how hot local food has become, look for the ATM at a farmers’ market.
In Saskatoon, I’ve seen customers lined up a dozen deep, many already loaded down with purchases. They’ve come, spent their cash and now they are lining up for more. ATMs at larger markets will dispense tens of thousands of dollars on a Saturday, but it’s a scene played out on a smaller scale in markets across the country.
There’s one farm family at the Saskatoon market that began selling artisan bread a few years ago. They’ve now upped their production to 700 loaves and still sell every loaf they bring. At up to $5 a loaf. In two hours or less. There’s another fellow at the same market who began selling his Angus beef four years ago. When he started, a box of beef would last him the day. Now he has eight freezers and slaughters up to 10 cows a month
I have been observing farmers’ markets for nearly 30 years and the last few years have been like nothing I’ve ever seen. There is a tidal wave of consumer interest in local food and farm-fresh products, and markets across the country are scrambling to find enough farmers to meet the demand. more

December 30, 2008

Climate Geo-engineering with 'Carbon Negative' Bioenergy

Climate saviour or climate endgame?

Almuth Ernsting and Deepak Rughani, Updated December 2008

This is a critical analysis of proposals for 'carbon negative' bioenergy, including biochar (agrichar) and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, as a means of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and mitigating climate change. It includes a wider discussion about the impacts of large-scale bioenergy, and about alternative adequate responses to the current crisis.

The statements and conclusions contained in the report are the sole responsibility of the authors.

It may be downloaded as sections or as a full document:


Executive summary

Section 1. Introduction: Abrupt climate change and the search for solutions

Section 2. Proposals for cooling the planet

Section 3. ‘Carbon negative’ bioenergy from vast monocultures?

Section 4. Biochar: cooling the planet with charcoal?

Section 5. Five Hundred Million Hectares of Plantations to Cool the Planet? (1.0 megabytes)

Section 6. BECS, Biochar and the converging ecological and social crises

Section 7. Towards an adequate response to the converging crises

click on title for full article.

Instant fixes often lead to trouble

We live in an age of instant gratification. The practise of sending dilutions of high concentrated organic chemicals through fertigation systems to produce hectres of salads, etc. is a practise that Earth Bound and other large US Organic farms have relied upon to provide instant nutrients to demanding crops. One of the most popular fertilizers from a California company, a fish and chicken feather brew, approved for by OMRI for Organic use...and used over a year after discovery (and California state neglect to inform) that it had been doped with ammonium sulfate.

Organic farms unknowingly used a synthetic fertilizer
By Jim Downing
Published: Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008 | Page 18A

For up to seven years, California Liquid Fertilizer sold what seemed to be an organic farmer's dream, brewed from fish and chicken feathers.

The company's fertilizer was effective, inexpensive and approved by organic regulators. By 2006, it held as much as a third of the market in California.

But a state investigation caught the Salinas-area company spiking its product with ammonium sulfate, a synthetic fertilizer banned from organic farms.

As a result, some of California's 2006 harvest of organic fruits, nuts and vegetables – including crops from giants like Earthbound Farm – wasn't really organic. read the whole article

December 29, 2008

The Trojan Terra Preta?

I received a very long reply to my post Inadvertent Biochar from Erich who is clearly very impressed with the promise of biochar "the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!" Wow, all that? How about one more: a sugar coating to a bitter pill; its kinship to bioprocessing fuel from agricultural "wastes" (wastes here referring to the carbonous materials that are worked back into the soil to build microbial communities, biomass/tilth and fertility).

"Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration,10X Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.
Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration, Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle." The report does go on to note however that the fuels are required for the supplying of energy of what is the point? Organic farming systems are carbon negative and a much less wasteful virtuosity. Probably the real motive for coupling biochar and biofuel can be seen in the funding breakdown of the U.S. Farm bill :The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007; A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:
Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

# Bioenergy Program/Feedstock Residue Management Program: (pg. 7 of S.1884) Provides assistance to cellulosic biorefineries in the form of transition payments in preparation for bioenergy operations; requires that land conversions for such operations ensure the protection and enhancement of soil quality and the prevention of soil erosion and nutrient leaching, and other impacts. Provides a total of $1.458 billion over the 5-year period FY 2008-2012.
# Biochar Demonstration Projects: (pg. 18 of S.1884) Provides that demonstration projects on a farm and cooperative scale be carried out to demonstrate the advantages of using biochar production systems to improve renewable energy production and protect and enhance soil quality; and for demonstration projects that demonstrate the manner in which biochar may be used to generate agricultural credits for carbon trading within greenhouse gas emissions reduction programs. Promotes high-priority biochar research and demonstration projects in three areas: biochar production and commercialization; biochar’s behavior in the environment; and economic and life-cycle analyses of biochar systems. Provides upwards of $100 million for the section, by authorizing “not less than” $20 million for each of FY2008-2012.
Sorry to be cynical, but follow the money. While I'll fish out the charcoal from my early morning stove and add it to my beautiful compost and even marvel at ancient Amazonian farmer's ingenuity in creating these durable and fertile soils, coupling modern biochar and the synthetic biology driven cellulosic fuel industry sets off some red flags.

A missing link: Symbiosis

When I began this blog (was it only last month!) one of the first things I found important to write about was the startling and revolutionary idea that symbiosis has a role in evolution and that bacteria have an important role as instigators of that change.

Here is Lynn Margulis, emminent Biologist, describing our ancestors: Bacteria are us

What is my dangerous idea? Although arcane, evidence for this dangerous concept is overwhelming; I have collected clues from many sources. Reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's claim that "even true things can be proved" I predict that the scientific gatekeepers in academia eventually will be forced to permit this dangerous idea to become widely accepted. What is it?

Our sensibilities, our perceptions that register through our sense organ cells evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors. Signals in the environment: light impinging on the eye's retina, taste on the buds of the tongue, odor through the nose, sound in the ear are translated to nervous impulses by extensions of sensory cells called cilia. We, like all other mammals, including our apish brothers, have taste-bud cilia, inner ear cilia, nasal passage cilia that detect odors. We distinguish savory from sweet, birdsong from whalesong, drumbeats from thunder. With our eyes closed, we detect the light of the rising sun and and feel the vibrations of the drums. These abilities to sense our surroundings, a heritage that preceded the evolution of all primates, indeed, all animals, by use of specialized cilia at the tips of sensory cells, and the existence of the cilia in the tails of sperm, come from one kind of our bacterial ancestors. Which? Those of our bacterial ancestors that became cilia. Read it here

December 28, 2008

Jim Thomas debates Drew Endy on Synbio

Jim Thomas from the Etc Group sent me the link to a debate between himself and Drew Endy on Synthetic Biology, by the Long Now foundation. You can watch the 2 hour debate here . This 10 minute video is Jim's presentation in the debate, but the debate that follows the questions and the dynamics of body language between the 2 is well worth watching the full thing. To be so articulate and focused given such an incredibly complex but essentially unreported and frankly, frightening topic is well, watch the video.

The only thing I think wasn't addressed in the video was how students and biohackers are potentially being exploited to speed the pace of the technology because the faster this occurs the more the stakeholders "diffuse the powerful technology as quickly and most extensively as possible before civil society has a chance to discuss it"

Also I wonder about the nature of evolution and what we don't know about it.
We are "constrained" by natures slow evolution of one generation to the next, of direct descent and replication with error but Synthetic Biology changes how nature propogates over time. What if Lynn Margulis is right about Symbiogenesis? (freaky how close the term) That "all life is bacteria and bacteria are units, living beings, living units. Everything else, which we see as animals or plants, are living beings made up of more than one type of bacteria. That is they are the result of a symbiogenesis between more than one type of bacteria". source
Or see for example symbiotic microbes induce profound genetic changes in their hosts
What kind of evolutionary future might we face given the fantasy bacteria of students and profit driven microbes of corporations?


December 27, 2008

Synthetic Biology - Video

Pretty coloured viles, mobilizing hoards of students to expand the registry of parts, the latest grab on life conducted without definition, regulation or ethical debate, and in a garage basement near you. Here is the simplest description I've seen for Syn Bio.

Here is another video about Fab Labs: Mits outreach to mine the minds of the world to design molecular machines that can "make just about anything"

"As with several other innovative technologies a key issue concerns its definition : there are parallels with genetic engineering, but considerable differences in terms of precision (much greater). Without a precise definition, regulation will be difficult. Even with a clear definition, there is then a need to decide on the degree of novelty and, as a result, whether regulators should treat synthetic biology as path-dependent (using existing structures and processes) or path-breaking. Regulators must also decide whether synthetic biology constitutes a technology or a biological science. The regulatory pathway will depend on how these question are resolved."
".. there are also some potential risks and governance issues arising from the design of synthetic biological components. For example, there are ethical issues surrounding converting nature into market commodities and the ownership of what has previously been seen as a “public good”, as well as potential unintended harmful consequences for human health or the environment (e.g. due to accidental release) or deliberate misuse (e.g. recreation of known pathogens). Another risk may result from the fact that the technology is cheap and easy to acquire and a lot of the coding being developed and used is made public through the Internet : this could both decrease the potential for patent protection and increase the potential for an emerging hacker culture to exploit this public information.". Here

December 26, 2008

An evolutionary first for E coli... but is it evolution?

Using E Coli To Make Better Biofuels

"For the first time, researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have successfully pushed nature beyond its limits by genetically modifying Escherichia coli, a bacterium often associated with food poisoning, to produce unusually long-chain alcohols essential in the creation of biofuels".

There are thousands of varieties of E.Coli, many of them very dangerous. Just what a strain of E.Coli that oozes out long chain alcohols would do in our guts, and the guts of fish, and other living organisms is something I don't see being addressed in this mad rush to engineer biofuel producing organisms, ie, to make money patenting new life. Is this what we mean by fuel cell? Forcing a bacteria to do something it never achieved on it’s own through evolution without asking ..why has it never evolved to do that? Symbiosis. Interconnection. Perhaps these are things we need to study more of.
It was a little more than a decade ago that a genetically engineered soil bacteria Klebsiella planticola, engineered to produce alcohol, was almost released until shown by independent researchers to be lethal to plants and other soil microbes. source. How is it Synthetic Biology is taking place in the absence of regulation and independent research, even given "authoritative" voices of caution and concern. The fact that these organisms are patentable, therefore lucrative is driving the inventions...this is the engineering of new life. And this unmoderated gold rush could conceivably unleash an ecological disaster. " such a prospect raises concerns about their accidental release into the environment, as by their very nature such biological machines could evolve, proliferate and produce unexpected interactions that might alter the ecosystem." source
I've written about this before here, where there are some good links to read on.

Biohackers and DIY SynBio

"The movement is getting much of its steam from synthetic biology, a field of science that seeks to make working with cells and genes more like building circuits by creating standardized biological parts. The dream, already playing out in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition at MIT, is that biology novices could browse a catalog of ready-made biological parts and use them to create customized organisms. Technological advances have made it quite simple to insert genes into bacteria..."from here

Amateurs trying genetic engineering at home
By MARCUS WOHLSEN, Associated Press Writer
SAN FRANCISCO – The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself.

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories. more

Organic farming combats global warming … big time

New Findings, from Rodale New Farm Institute.
Data from The Rodale Institute’s long-running comparison of organic and conventional cropping systems confirms that organic methods are far more effective at removing the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere and fixing it as beneficial organic matter in the soil. Watch this great video

Fast Facts

If only 10,000 medium sized farms in the U.S. converted to organic production, they would store so much carbon in the soil that it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road, or reducing car miles driven by 14.62 billion miles.

Converting the U.S.’s 160 million corn and soybean acres to organic production would sequester enough carbon to satisfy 73 percent of the Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction in the U.S.

U.S. agriculture as currently practiced emits a total of 1.5 trillion pounds of CO2 annually into the atmosphere. Converting all U.S. cropland to organic would not only wipe out agriculture's massive emission problem. By eliminating energy-costly chemical fertilizers, it would actually give us a net increase in soil carbon of 734 billion pounds.
read more

Hands in the soil for us

One of the things I noticed in my new home here in Nova Scotia, were the numbers of Jamaican agricultural workers in the vegetable fields in the Annapolis Valley. Harvesting lettuce, carrots, hoeing brassicas, crowds of colorful workers out in the hot fields all day long.
All across Canada, horticultural crops are coming under the care of workers who pay hefty administrative fees to come work for 8 months to in farm fields.

Over Christmas, over a hundred Mexican, Guatemalan and Jamaican workers in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program were terminated and evicted with a few days notice by Rol-Land Farms in Ontario, despite a recent court decision allowing workers to unionize.
"We lost everything over night, our home, our jobs and our dream of being able to stay and work in Canada," explained Carlos one of the recently fired farm workers employed at Rol-Land Farms. He added, "Rol-Land farms didn't even give us notice or an explanation. I can't believe that Rol-Land fired and evicted us so close to Christmas. This is a company with no heart." more

"Wayne Hanley, the National President of UFCW Canada stated, “these waves of firings and repatriations are testaments to the failures of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Canada needs programs that bring workers here as permanent residents, not programs that treat immigrants as second class workers and disposable tools.”
Read more and here

Here is the press release from Justicia for Migrant Workers, if you can help:

Community Support Alert!!!

Justicia for Migrant Workers is collaborating with UFCW to respond to the firings and repatriations of migrant workers at Rol-Land Farms who came to Canada through the "Low Skill Temporary Foreign Worker Program"

Workers were recruited from Mexico, Guatemala, Thailand and Jamaica and paid high recruitment and administrative fees in order to come to Canada to work through this program. Now they are being forced to go home without a cent back to their families for the holiday season.

Workers need the following:

1. emergency shelter/ short, medium and longer-term housing for
workers who choose to stay in the country (workers are able to remain in the country until their visas expire)
2. access to vehicles/help with transportation
3. translation (English - Spanish, Tagalog & Thai)
4. donations of toiletries
5. donations of food including Maseca flour to make tortillas
6. monetary donations to Justicia for Migrant Workers (Justicia does not have paid staff nor an office-we do this work voluntarily as community organisers alongside other paid employment and academic work)
7. advice/expertise on Employment Insurance and Settlement issues

contact us: info "at" justicia4migrantworkers "dot" org

December 25, 2008

Christmas river

A most spectacular warm front blew in over Nova Scotia last night: the snow is all gone, the wind hasn't let up and the river is running a crumbling, grinding mass of ice. I will post soon my video...need to get to the city for a chord. Against the green of the fall rye and pasture, it is something to behold! I am missing family and friends on the westcoast and hunkering down through this warm Christmas storm blasting this old house with gusts that shake it to its very bones. Warm wishes to my family and friends on the west coast and all my new blogger pals.

December 23, 2008

The life behind the symbols

I've been thinking about the symbols of Christmas and how we imbue certain days of the year with our values and expectation, even long past the days when we were rooted in the earth and celebrations were about the produce and the work that arose from them. The importance now is in the celebrity and symbolism of the day.
It reminds me of how we create and empower celebrities or leaders give them significance or infamy from a deep sense of human want or genetic memory. They are like our hedge funds or stand in for our values and our expectations. We create them and can live through them but they disappoint as quickly as they resound, because their symbolism shatters in the surfacing of their humanness. A deeper longings for belonging or wholeness has us entrust power to people as readily as we attach a symbol to a day. Leaders and celebrities come crashing down and pile up like christmas wrappers and heaps of dry tinseled trees.
I've known many food activists who have come to symbolize the voice of farming. They are in every city and have done honourable work in bringing forward the issues of food security. These are predominantly urban people whose detachment from the reality of farm culture is also evident in many of the projects: co-ops turned to businesses, endless grants without actual projects of the soil, policy change in favour of the next opportunity, food conferences and committees that farmers had no voice in. We have created this reality by giving over farm voices to a few, predominantly urban, cultural celebrities. We need these voices. But we need more farm voices. There are a few: Bove, Percy Schmeizer, Wendell Berry. The list is short, because the message is often one of desperation and urgency. Real issues pertaining to farming livelihoods like price and import controls, legal representation for right to farm or coexistence issue are virtually champion less. For a really dynamic local sustainable agriculture it is time to unravel the substance from the symbol. "Our culture today is mainly embarrassed about country things. we need to ask What is the nature of this place? And then: What will nature permit me to do here? Consideration of these questions might have led us to recognize the inherent economic connections between country and city, between what is grown and what we eat, between what natural resources are available and how they are consumed—and to accept and act on the responsibilities that those connections imply." source. The voices of those that struggle are often unruly, uncomfortable and of a different cultural milieu. Class plays a part.
It is a fabulous time for the celebrities of the organic/ sustainable farming movement to bring forward the voice and needs of the farmer they so often symbolize, to honour the dependency of urban existence to the primary producers out on the land. Not to speak for them, but to work for them. The opportunity of a special holiday is to stand back and reflect upon what our symbols mean. To connect that turkey with the goal of not just good healthy food, but with good healthy farmers on good healthy land. Every person, rural and urban, needs to come to the table to empower our food future and it is something well worth celebration. It is a connection of great magnitude and tremendous possibility.

Inadverent Biochar

I cleaned out my stove today and had some charcoal still in embers that I threw on to the manure pile (my bedding for the cows is old hay) along with the ash...after a walk down to the river to see its frozen expanse, watch the pheasants take flight from my intrusion and listen to Joni in my head singin "I wish I could skate away", I came back up to tuck in the cows. Well! My manure pile is smoldering and there is no stopping it. I piled on an icy snow cover...still smoldering...deep inside, like the peat bog fires that go on endlessly. I figure, oh well, its not my main compost; that is covered in its black gold agedness, all 13, handbombed, truck loads, and would never catch fire. So, perhaps I'm making biochar inadvertently. Its an interesting experiment.

December 22, 2008

Wetware for Wet noses

Adventures in Synthetic Biology; Life is what we make it. Comic book
starring: Bacteria Buddy, Device Dude, and System Sally
another strange product of the The MIT Synthetic Biology Working Group Read it here

December 21, 2008

The role of plants on solstice

There was a beautiful quality of light this morning with the shadows long on the pasture snow. My log in the fire was still in embers which is a good thing for "the household will be protected and see an abundance of crops, good health, and other desirable things in the coming year" if your oak log makes it through till morning. I've always loved bringing in green and sweet sappy smells this time of year.. pine, juniper, cedar.. and it occured to me that they are a storehouse of great energy that once was light. I came across this interesting article that gives some history on how plants connect us to winter solstice. Stay warm, bask in the deep mystery of the darkness and light a candle to celebrate the miracle of new light, that photon dance of electro magnetic wave.

December 20, 2008

Onion Johnnies

I have always harboured a secret wish to be an onion Johnny. It seems times are hard for Breton Farmers who come to England on Bicycles to sell their strings of shallots and onions.
Only 15 of Brittany's Onion Johnnies survive.

The wild cat in the barn

Winter has settled in a final frozen hush. Snow is now accumulating in layers belying the history of the weather: dry powder to crumble mud slush freeze ice sheet now big graceful crystal. It feels certain this time. The birds that come to the feeder are feathered up plump and the cows stay inside.
With the weather I am let loose with an endless list of inside jobs none of which have any urgency or compelling schedule. It is the chores with my cows that is the anchor of my day and is the time that I (and I'm sure they) look forward to most. Twice a day, a trudge out in the cold blowing snow to the big old Gamble roofed barn. I greet the cows who breath steam and pull the hose out of the pump room that I insulated this fall and clean and fill up their watering tubs. The ice settles up to a few inches if they haven't touched it; I have a trough on the side of the barn that is handy so I can whack and clean the tubs. Next step is to climb up into the loft of the barn and throw down some hay into their manger. I have a few types of hay, some with a good mix of clover and vetch and other things they seem to like and another of mostly grasses, so I mix it up for them. There isn't much alfalfa grown in these parts which I do miss. While they're happy with fresh hay, I get to the business of chopping turnips. They watch me do this, anticipating this new pleasure. They know when I'm almost done and pull back from the manger and come to the gate hurrying me along. I put a scoop of grain in each of their feed buckets with the turnips. While they are busy with their supper I clean out their manure. Yesterday when I lifted the freezer that I use as a chest to keep the grain away from vermin, a cat flew down from the rafter onto the lid, slid off and landed with a thud behind the freezer. It, dazed a moment, scrambled up and fled..somewhere. She must have been watching me in my rituals with the cows. She must have wanted to say hello! I called and called for it, tried to find its tracks out the trough that slips out of the barn but the ice sheet bore no traces of a trail. This cat was around several weeks ago and I thought it dead because I've been leaving food that hasn't been consumed. I felt terrible to have had our first eye to eye contact so traumatic. So feeling shockingly bad I went to the house and got a bit of haddock left over from my dinner and left it on the freezer. The old food (catfood) was still there. This morning when I went out to do the chores, the sun a sparking on the snow. Cold but brilliant. The fish was gone, the cat food gone. No sign of my little wild cat. I called again for her ...a gentle "I'm a friend" meow;the cows are mighty curious with this human meow but Cheeky Butt knew and pointed her nose over in the direction of possible flight with a most complicit look. Perhaps the rats moved in upon newly liberated digs ( which I doubt because a spill of grain was all intact) or she is here and here to stay! Yes, this is what I'm hoping.

December 19, 2008

Manna Co-op case taken up by Buckeye Institute

Columbus - The Buckeye Institute's 1851 Center for Constitutional Law today took legal action against the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) and the Lorain County Health Department for violating the constitutional rights of John and Jacqueline Stowers of LaGrange, Ohio. The Stowers operate an organic food cooperative called Manna Storehouse. ODA and Lorain County Health Department agents forcefully raided their home and unlawfully seized the family's personal food supply, cell phones and personal computers. The legal center seeks to halt future similar raids. The complaint was filed in Lorain County Court of Common Pleas.
"The use of these police state tactics on a peaceful family is simply unacceptable," Buckeye Institute President David Hansen said. "Officers rushed into the Stowers' home with guns drawn and held the family - including ten young children - captive for six hours. This outrageous case of bureaucratic overreach must be addressed."

The Buckeye Institute argues the right to buy food directly from local farmers; distribute locally-grown food to neighbors; and pool resources to purchase food in bulk are rights that do not require a license. In addition, the right of peaceful citizens to be free from paramilitary police raids, searches and seizures is guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 14, Article 1 of the Ohio Constitution. More

Here is a pdf of the filing.

The Stowers describe incident:

December 18, 2008

The lowly seed cleaner

Not content with owning the majority of the planet's key food patents, seed companies and contractual farmers, Monsanto is going after the lowly seed cleaners; those essential but unrecognized stalwarts of agricultural efficiency. Now's the time to dig out of the neighbour's grass, haunt the rural auction houses, liberate the lawn ornaments or cobble together your own.

"Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls". Matthew 11:29

Bloggers Seed Savers Network

Patrick at Bifurcated carrot has started a blogger's seed network that I think is another terrific way to share the diversity from our gardens. I've linked with this network. Having sorted through my bin of seeds, I am just offering those that I have saved myself and ask that if you would like some seed, contact me, send a stamped envelope and I'll send you some seed. If you have seed to trade, great!

Rainbow indian corn, short season (6 colour...saved in B.C. in remote location away from GMO)
Purple dragon carrot
scarlett nantes carrot
yellowstone carrot
red mustard

December 17, 2008

The World According to Monsanto

Everytime I mention Monsanto in a post, they come to visit. Happy to oblige with some more publicity.

The whole 2 hr video is online here

Hail Vilsack, King of Big Corn

Reuters is reporting that Obama has picked Vilsack as agriculture secretary. The former Iowa Governer, frequent traveller on Monsanto's jet, pharma and biofuel corn supporter and the origin of the seed pre-emption bill of 2005 "The law that strips local government’s right to regulate genetically engineered seed". source
In Obama`s words `` To lead a Department of Agriculture that helps unlock the potential of a 21st century agricultural economy, I can think of no one better than Tom Vilsack. As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision, promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use. Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oilfields abroad, but in our farm fields here at home. That's the kind of leader I want in my Cabinet.`` Change indeed.

December 16, 2008

The miracle of parsley and comfrey

I had a three legged dog who is now long gone after a long happy life of chasing coyotes, digging for voles and terrorizing marmots. In her later years she developed arthritis in her single front limb and I consulted The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable for treatment advice. It was with some scepticism that I began to follow Levy's advice of a tablespoon parsley and tablespoon comfry leaves in a bit of meat for palatability. Juliette de Bairacli Levy, Jewish Turkish-Egyptian, friend of the gypsy and collector of peasant herb wisdom. Her advice was a miracle to my dear dog Tri-pod. After a few weeks she was back to her tri-hippity-skip self. I lapsed after awhile after she recovered, and it set back in, so as long as I kept up the parsley/comfry in her diet the arthritis was kept at bay. I highly recommend Levy's book for farm animal care and the parsley/comfry treatment to anyone suffering arthritis (Dad).

December 15, 2008

Coexistence? Maybe not...get the bully off the playground

Despite a Mexican Government moratorium on transgenic corn, corn fields deep in the State of Oaxaca and in the corn belt of the south have been contaminated with GMO. It is possible the contamination arrived via the corn seed of Pioneer, a large seed distributor which was found to contain 1/3 transgenic contaminates. Monsanto has succeeded in lobbying to prevent labeling this seed.
Read about it in the Organic Consumer Association. Or in the translation of the Le Monde article.

How realistic is it to keep our planet's corn and canola genetic heritage free of transgenic contamination? What far flung corner of it would one have to farm in, or save seed in. Is the contamination intentional? Will this happen systematically to all our food? This is significant. We're not talking crossing between varieties or species. This is cross phylum, cross domain. It is tragic because we don't know the long term health and environmental consequences of viral, bacterial, fish, etc genes in our basic food plants. An earlier similar study was met with an industry attack that discredited the research and quickly silenced public debate. I believe the full out attack on this kind of research conceals the real motive - profit through control of food and genetic resources. It is vigorously imperialistic, deviously clever and certainly not ignorant of the fact that many of the world's food crops cannot coexist with transgenics.
Biosecurity means taking the power away from the Big Gene companies. A handful of Western Governments with Canada, the US and Australia particularly culpable, have so complicitly bestowed ridiculous license to bully, harass, contaminate and control the bread of life and those who produce it. Perhaps the economic tsunami will provide the opportunity to resculpt the free trade agreements that have penalized small indigenous farmers in favour of industrial corn for feed or ethanol. Perhaps Obama will have the wisdom and independence to appoint a new Ag Secretary that has some integrity and objectivity. Perhaps a coalition of the left and willing will sweep Canada in the new year. My sinking feeling is however, that the alienation of the masses from the life of the land, of sun and rain, soil and seed, buries deeper those human genes that understand the horror of a food supply composed of intertwined domains, and mourn the loss of a right to grow what has been our human heritage for thousands of years.

photo from: Revolution of the New Commons

December 14, 2008

Ethanol worst energy option - Stanford Study

Mark Jacobson director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University published a study that appears in today's online edition of Environmental Science & Technology, a publication of the American Chemical Society. Here

"Ethanol is being promoted as a clean and renewable fuel that will reduce global warming and air pollution...But our results show that a high blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater risk to public health than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage." from S.F. Gate

"The Tier-4 combinations (cellulosic- and corn-E85) were ranked lowest overall and with respect to climate, air pollution, land use, wildlife damage, and chemical waste. Cellulosic-E85 ranked lower than corn-E85 overall, primarily due to its potentially larger land footprint based on new data and its higher upstream air pollution emissions than corn-E85. See
Wind with electric vehicles ranked first.

December 13, 2008

this is completely natural

Facts are meaningless! You can use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true. - Homer Simpson

Saturday morning thoughts

There is an unusual stillness in the air this morning: not a stir of wind. It is not raining, nor snowing, no blzzard or squall: I've seen nothing like this for weeks. The weather has been swinging from -15 c to +15, from drifts of foot deep snow to torrential sheets of rain that melt it as promptly as it came leaving a splatter of red mud and squelchy softness. This morning it is still, perfectly still. I wonder what can be next as a the birds are high in the innocent sky.
All these categories of weather thrown at us this past couple of weeks have given me a good idea about the vulnerabilities and needs of the old house I've moved into recently: the spots where the roof leaks, the windows that rattle like dry old bones, the eves that the vermin have pulled insulation from, the electrical outlets tht breath icy cold air. I respond to her as she groans and drips and pull my chair closer to the fire.
I live alone in this grand old house that has room for a dozen, on a farm that used to encompass what are now 10 other holdings. I am a long way from what I still think of as home, the west coast of Canada, and I am rooted here now by the presence of the cows and my new field turned, covered cropped and ammended for the garden to come. But I am lonely today without the distraction of extreme weather and the emergency repairs it requires. An unavoidable opportunity to reflect upon the state of loneliness that the choice between freedom and obligation has imparted and the vulnerabilities and needs that the reality of my new world brings. I am a woman of the soil who cannot live without a garden of her own but who could not afford that where her deep and meaningful relationships lived. For now it's the sweet grainy breath of cows and outrageous phone bills that fill that need. But I am part of a legion of farmers with land and space for others, who struggle alone and dream of attracting the rare breed of idealist with common sense and ethic who can work as passionately as they think. I'll list my farm in SOIL or LLAF, perhaps the Intentional Communities, perhaps WWOOF. Perhaps I'll write away for a mail order bride or fill the house with Haitian children. What I do know today, in this stillness, is that I will not groan and drip in old age with just cows, earthworms and virtual farmers for comrads. That as basic as land without debt obligation is to me, so too is community that resides on the land.

December 12, 2008

Why there are no pesticide sniffing dogs

Cartoon from Kootenay Co-op Radio's Deconstructing Dinner

Canadian Food Inspection Agency Spending Freeze

CFIA spending freeze compromises food safety

OTTAWA, Dec. 12 /CNW Telbec/ - A spending and hiring freeze at the
Canadian Food Inspection Agency is making a dangerous situation worse when it
comes to food safety and inspection, according to the Agriculture Union - PSAC
which represents Canada's food inspectors.
The Union released a recent memo from CFIA senior management which
declares the agency will "defer, scale down, or cancel all non-essential
staffing, training, conferences, hospitality, professional services, travel
and overtime", among other measures.


December 11, 2008

Berkeley National Lab Director to be US Energy Secretary

The Berkeley National Lab has engaged in "world-leading and pioneering work in nanotechnology and synthetic biology" to convert biofuels from biomass, generate biofuels by algae, convert water and carbon dioxide to fuels. Source. Its director since 1994, Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu will be named as Energy Secretary.

Read Chu-ing the fat of the land? In the Gristmill

And in related news... yesterday the National Research Council issued a critical 97 page report on the safety and regulatory standards of nanotech:
Research Council: Nanotech Safety Needs a Closer Look. Much Closer.

A day in the garden

The cows and I spent the day in the light misty rain and was pleased to see Cheeky Butt back to her leaping and high kicking self. All the snow has gone (again) with an amazingly warm wind and rain for the past couple of days. I was working in the garden on my hoophouse which is starting to look pretty decent. I'm excited about this new garden, now shin high in fall rye, and receiving Johnny's and Vesey's catalogues in the mail yesterday planted a little seed of sweet anticipation. It was also good to have a break from the computer, which has become too time consuming and peculiar in the attention my posts on synbio have generated; I estimate 1/2 the hits to these posts are from industry sources...Monsanto was here today. I regret not having the time to peruse more blogs to find common voices to link with, but am grateful to all of you who have linked to me. Thanks! I've made a start in the blogroll in the sidebar and I want to welcome the steady stream of folks from North America and Europe who visit.

December 10, 2008

Upcoming Webcast on Ethics of Synthetic Biology

Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars
Synthetic Biology: Is Ethics A Show Stopper
Webcast Jan 8 12:30 - 1:30

WASHINGTON – Synthetic biology promises to enable cheap, lifesaving new drugs to treat the 350-500 million people who suffer from malaria, and to create innovative biofuels that can help solve the world’s energy problems. But the science and its applications are raising questions: Are synthetic biologists playing God? Are these scientists purposely changing the definition of what is life? Are synthetic biology researchers unintentionally equipping terrorists with frightening new biological weapons? And will synthetic biology’s expected products and profits be stymied by policymakers and the public who object to researchers’ soon-to-be-realized attempts to build life from scratch in a lab?

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, will explore unresolved synthetic biology ethical questions at a January 8 program with Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Chief Science Advisor Andrew Maynard. Dr. Caplan is at the forefront of ethicists, theologians, scientists, engineers, government leaders and civil society groups working to weigh synthetic biology’s potential risks and benefits.

Caplan is the author or editor of 25 books and over 500 articles in professional medical, science and bioethics journals. He has served on a number of national and international committees including as chair of the National Cancer Institute Biobanking Ethics Group, and chair of the Advisory Committee to the United Nations on Human Cloning. His most recent book is [*Smart Mice, Not So Smart People*](

The Rathenau Instituut, a unit of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), describes synthetic biology as the convergence of molecular biology, information technology and nanotechnology, leading to the systematic design of biological systems. The U.S. is considered the world leader in this emerging field of science. Some estimate that by 2015, a fifth of the chemical industry (worth $1.8 trillion) could be dependent on synthetic biology.

Arthur Caplan, Chair, Department of Medical Ethics and Director, Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania

• Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

December 9, 2008

A few multi-purpose cows: milk, meat and draught

From top clockwise: canadianne, kärntner blondvieh,
aure et saint-girons, lourdais, and milking devon.

Diversity in cattle has diminished at a rapid rate over the past 100 years. Many breeds that fit in well on a small self-sufficient farm are now classified as rare breeds, or have disappeared altogether. Some like the pineywoods and dexter are making a comeback. Often these breeds were tough and bred for local conditions as well as utility. The uniformity of the super breeds may be well suited for industrial farming milieus, but like plant biodiversity, sustainable farms would do well to research and breed livestock that represent some of the oldest and most robust genes for ecological farming.

Getting ready for seed starts

A blizzard blew in early yesterday morning, took the power out and froze the ground up hard. Now it is an icy white world with a few inches of snow. My hoophouse project is buried and I'm still awaiting the arrival of the pvc pipe so I'm hoping we don't get much more snow for a few days. The foundation is all set for these ribs and I want to get ready so all I need to do is wing up the plastic in the early spring. I have my potting soil curing ready for the seedling starts that will commence next month. I thought I'd share my recipe for those of you that are looking to make their own. I don't sterilize the soil, as I've never had big problems with damping off, given the right moisture, airflow and microbial balance. I don't want to kill the mycorrhizae and other beneficial microbes. So I like a good compost as the basis of the mix, to provide that community of organisms that keep things healthy. We had a problem with mold in the greenhouse once and solved the problem with a horsetail and chamomile spray. (mix 1/8 cup of dried horsetail, and 1/8 cup chamomile in 1 gallon of boiled water, let steep for a couple hours. strain.)

Here is the recipe for potting soil mix:

2 parts screened, mature (2/3 year old) compost
2 part peat
1/2 - 1 part soil
1 part vermiculite

I pile up these ingredients onto a large plywood sheet in my shed, mix with a shovel, make an indentation in the center and add water into this bowl. When absorbed I mix again and repeat until the soil balls up and crumbles without any water squeezing out. If it doesn't hold together adequately I'll adjust the materials (more compost) until I get it right.

I like a mix with some plasticity as I use a blockmaker rather than flats or plastic for most of my starts. They come in several sizes and the blocks fit into one another in an ingenious way so fine roots are not as disturbed as traditional transplanting. Johnny's Select Seeds carries them. The challenge is in achieving a plastic soil without it being too heavy. I do broadcast some seeds densly in flats and transplant later (parsley for e.g) to save on space under the lights.
For fertility I rely on my good compost and soil, and use kelp, fish bonemeal, foliar fish and have used bloodmeal in the past but have given this up.

I've started my seedling under florescent lights hanging from ropes on tiered shelves... . but I like the idea of this simple design and may set up this system. Its important that air circulation isn't compromised and that the room is warm to maximize quick growth. Once the early starts: onions and leeks are up, healthy and have a few inches of growth, I'll transfer them to the hoophouse to free up space for brassicas, parsley, basil, tomatoes, etc, under the lights. The hoophouse in march and april will keep the killing frost off of the hardier starts and provide warmth for growth when its sunny. I'll start lettuce right in the hoophose.

December 8, 2008

Cleantech's synbio shh shh

Image: "the Escherichia coli bacterium, one of the many microorganisms used in synthetic biology experiments and in bioconversion of biomass into both cellulosic ethanol as well as biohydrogen". source
I'm not a scientist, I'm a farmer, and yet I feel it is important to have a debate about the ethics of synthetic biology and its break-neck race to the biofuel future. What unexpected interactions might we expect between genomically engineered microbes and our ecosystems?
Venture capital is swarming to "cleantech" like thistle on idle plowed land. The promise is clean energy and big profits. The nextgen biofuels require an ample source of biomass and microbes designed to efficiently digest the material within their own factory cell walls. It is the sugar/synbio century that industrialists, big Ag and governments hold as the holy grail of expansion that will see us to the next boom time. In Canada, legislation was passed this spring requiring 5% ethanol in all gasoline by 2012 and has endowed clean tech foundation, the Sustainable Development Technology Centre with $1.05 billion for investments in cleantech The NextGen Biofuels Fund received $500 million of this and distributes funds to support "first-of-kind large demonstration-scale facilities for next-generation renewable fuels".
Where is the debate about the genome modified or synthetic microbes that are being designed for bioprocessing? If you read the disciple and industry websites the potential dangers are clear and the lack of regulation pertaining to Synbio, equally so. Andrew Balmer & Paul Martin Institute for Science and Society University of Nottingham in a report Social and Ethical Challenges of Synthetic Biology describes some of these concerns, for example: "One of the main aims of synthetic biology is the creation of novel genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which may have utility in the production of energy and bioremediation. However, such a prospect raises concerns about their accidental release into the environment, as by their very nature such biological machines could evolve, proliferate and produce unexpected interactions that might alter the ecosystem." If their function is to digest biomass into alcohol, is that the kind of interaction possible on accidental release into the biosphere? And if Synthetic biologists are notorious for asking not "What have you learned?" or "What do we understand?" ... but instead asking.. "What have you made?" and "How did you make it?", will the unraveling of the complexity of these synthetic organisms fall to biologists funded by the public purse, after the fact, with regulations from 1999 ?. The potential for "bio-error" as well as bio-terror" are very real. Its time to let the people in on the decisions for the future of our planet.

What are Parts?

Life reduced to lego. Most bizarre quote:
"make them do stuff like (bacteria)...mysteriously commit suicide after listening to Beethoven's 9th symphony....and other things that will prove useful to society at large."

December 7, 2008

cows love turnips

If you were wondering what I was meaning by a mangle chopper in my post the other day, my friend Isabelle found a picture of one. The roots ( fodder beet or carrot or turnip) get dumped on those tines, fall down onto an iron drum with blades that cut them to pieces so the cows won't choke. Click on it to go to a series of old farm equipment from the Cottonwood House Historic Site of Pioneer Farming in B.C

I have my turnips all loaded up for the cows and they got a few tonight and seem to like them better than carrots but not quite up there with apples. My chopper doesn't have that elaborate wheel on the side, just a big iron handle. I suppose you could use it to make coleslaw, or chop potatoes too if you had a really big crowd for dinner; a farm grrl food processor.

December 6, 2008

Food Sovereignty Can Cool Down the Earth!

Via Campesina's position on NFCCC (United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change)

"Small-farmers and peasant communities are among the first victims of climate change. Everywhere, in our fields, amongst the plants we cultivate and the animals we raise, the consequences of climate change are palpable. ....

However, it seems that farming communities are more threatened now by the so-called solutions to climate change promoted by corporate interests, G8 countries, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, than by climate change in itself. Industrial agrofuels, climate-ready seeds, fertilization of oceans and carbon-trading schemes, both deepen and widen the privatization of all natural resources on Earth and thus exclude local communities from access to those resources which where once called the Commons: land, water, seeds and now, perhaps, even the air we breathe" read it here

Reports of Swat team raiding Ohio food coop

From Saltspring News:
Apparently undaunted by past legal rebukes, the Ohio Department of Agriculture recently raided a food coop in La Grange that was providing grass-fed beef, lamb, pastured poultry other local foods...
“Manna Storehouse, a food co-op in La Grange, providing grass fed beef, lamb, pastured poultry and other Weston A. Price foods was raided yesterday [Monday, Dec. 1st] by SWAT, ODA officials, and local authorities. The family that runs the co-op tells me they were herded into the living room for 8 hours while the home and business was torn apart. They were not given reason, saying they were under investigation. All of their computers and phones, and customer information were taken, as well as $10,000 worth of beef. A ‘warrant’ which didn’t appear to be valid, showed the reason for investigation, was ‘beef’.

See also this link
As well as The Morning Journal, the local paper

December 5, 2008

machine parts

I used to have a very sweet tractor. It was an International Super C with underbelly hydraulics and it had a very simple engine that even I could maintain and keep running smooth. I had a parts book that I used to order the bits and pieces that I needed... and it looked eirily like this very spooky registry of parts to put together synthetic life.

Root Chopper and interesting Visitors to my blog

I found an old manglewurser chopper in the grass behind the barn a few months ago. It is ancient and rusty, with old chipped red paint, but still intact and useful. I had one on my old farm that we used a couple of season when we had the time and gumption to grow mangles (big fodder beets - some are yellow, white or orange but ours were striped red and white like chioggas) and I enjoyed the cold mornings in the barn cranking the handle as the wet pulpy chunks landed in the buckets for the cows salivating in a row. Yesterday a friend called to say he had a ton of turnips that he would plow in if he couldn't find a home for them. Well now there is a home for them turnip. I even have an insulated room in the barn.
So I want to assure the folks at Darpa (US military) and those from the Innovative industries that have come to visit my blog recently, that I really am a simple farmer, a curious one maybe, who chops turnips, grows food and writes silly poems.

post script: this might help explain the visitors

December 3, 2008

The language maze of GMOs

There are far too many words out there to label GMOs: In this article on the global food crisis spurring China's immanent release of a host of GM grain varieties, there are 5 terms used: bioengineered, transgenically engineered, genetically manipulated, genetically engineered and genetically modified. We could add Frankenscience/food and perhaps novel to the list.
Is this confusing us or am I missing something?

December 2, 2008

Hoophouse on the cheap

It was a beautiful sunny day and I spent it outside. I moved the electric fence giving the cows a little green space, which happens to be right beside my garden (which is now in fall rye) and where I was working today on building a hoophouse. It is 12 by 40 and to get the corners square I used the handy Pythagorean Theorem.
A2 + B2 = C2
(Length of Building)2 + (Width of Building)2
= (Hypotenuse of Building)2
Example: A (12-ft.)2 + B (40-ft.)2 = C2
144-ft.2 + 1,600-ft.2 = 1,744-ft.2
√1,744 = 41.76-ft.
C = 41.76-ft.
I don't carry that kind of stuff in my head, I had to look that up. Once the corners were square, and this took far too long (the cows chewing their cuds looking at me like I was nuts) I put a string around the 4 corner posts. I pounded 5/8 rebar of 4' pieces every 4 feet along my string on either side - 3' would have been fine but I want to ground her in the earth so I'm going overboard here. The 1 inch PVC schedule 80 pipe will fit over these rebar. I'm using 20 foot lengths which the building supply had to order for me and they are yet to appear (how I plan to get them home will be the subject of a poem soon will a tune about the flying farmers on the end of a plastic sheet I was singing to the cows today...
Ok, the foundation plate, 2 by 8, I rubbed with sunflower oil to keep it from rotting as fast. The cows chewed them cuds enviously watching this. I connected the sills with short pieces of more 2 by 8 on the inside plane of the sill and used ample screws. I'll wait to connect the foundation until after the hoops are slipped over the rebar - now it is in 4 pieces - ends and sides. It will fit flush up against the pipe bottoms and then I'll screw it all together. I'll use strapping on the inside to connect the pipes to the plate/sill, again not scrimping with screws. My wood stove takes 2 foot lengths so last night I heated up 4, took them out with salad tongs and whacked them on a hunk of railroad tie to a J shape. These I'll pound down to hold the sill in the corners.
I'll continue this saga later in this same post as I progress. My technique comes from past trials and tribulations and from a sample and synthesis of this and this and this.

December 1, 2008

warm weather motivates grrl

A warm wind has blown in from the south and it was warmer outside than in today. So I went to town with my list of lumber and hardware that I had determined I would need to build my hoophouse. I was going to wait till spring - do the starts in my sunroom and build a tunnel in the garden when I needed to transfer them. But the weather has me motivated. I can't afford a greenhouse so I'm going for the poor woman's version - just about as good and if it goes up slightly off the level no biggy. Although I have made one from scrounged materials before, I'm going deluxe this time so it stands up to wind which can come in like a fury. That will be a challenge. I was putting up greenhouse plastic with my partner several years back and the wind came up just as we were strapping the side of the plastic down onto the sill. That gust came in under the sheet, billowing it, and we were both up off the ground sailing. The gust would die back, we frantically scrambled with 1 by 4 strapping and drills and the gust would plow back in and up we'd go. That is a true story: our feet were both off the ground. The neighbours saw us and came running, and we were able to secure it back. I always wished that they had taken a picture first. But a poem will have to do. Securing the hoophouse down onto a solid foundation secured deep into the ground is my plan. If you'd like my simple hoophouse design let me know and I'll post it.

Famine in Haiti

The idea that the serious hunger crisis in Haiti is a matter of the recent hurricanes flooding out the rice fields laying below deforested hillsides is only telling part of the truth. Haiti was self-sufficient in rice 30 years ago. There have been many years of serious nutritional deficiencies culminating in this threatening famine, and it is caused in great part by a determined undermining of local farming, peasant organizations and democratically elected governments that provided infrastructure for farming and the local food system. U.S. rice (subsidized at $1.3 million per annum) flood Haiti and international lenders prohibit local rice subsidies. It is a huge, sad, under-reported story that Canada shares a role in. If you want to read about the history of oppression in Haiti, find Paul Farmer's book, The Uses of Haiti in a library - and if they don't have it, ask them to get it.
In all that tragedy there are a few inspiring gems of hope when it comes to collective farming and the persistence of women to fight for self-sufficiency in food. I spent some time looking for the stories I read a few months ago about these grassroots women farmers growing tradtional foods - damn if I can find them now. Stay tuned I'll persist or would love help if anyone else knows of hopeful developments toward food security in Haiti.