Spell It Out

 

This Memorial Day weekend, millions of Americans will gather for cookouts, enjoying grilled foods of all sorts, and many of those people will eat something that includes the following ingredients:

Arsenic, bacteriophages, benzoic acid, chlorine, copper, melengestrol acetate, potassium bisulphite, ractopamine, sodium benzoate, sodium proprionate, tilmicosin, transglutaminase, trenbolone, urea, and zeranol.

And that is by no means a comprehensive list of all the chemicals that may be found in hamburgers made from ground beef produced from factory farmed cattle and sold at grocery stores nationwide. Just about everything we eat can be made to sound pretty scary when it’s broken down like this into terms only chemists might understand.


Critics of the Impossible Burger, a substitute for hamburger that contains no meat, have been using the tactic of decrying the unpronounceable ingredients in its production as well as tacking on the argument that an Impossible Burger is no healthier than a regular burger. The Impossible Burger is necessarily highly processed in order to imitate ground beef in flavor, texture, and the many other characteristics that signify to our bodies and brains that we are eating meat. The goal is to offer meat eaters an alternative to factory farmed beef which contains residues of hormones, antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides, heavy metals, disinfectants, and which is wrought at the cost of enormous animal suffering and the dehumanization of people working the production line.

Burgers and hotdogs flaming on the bbq grill
Burgers and hotdogs cooking on a charcoal barbecue grill. Photo by Luke.

The argument that the Impossible Burger is not a health food is a straw man, set up not by the makers of the product but by critics so that they can knock it down, and by extension get people to dismiss the whole crazy idea of a meat alternative. Critics intentionally ignore that Impossible Foods never claimed its burgers were a health food, and that if consumers are seeking healthy dietary options, perhaps hamburgers should not be high on their list. Vegetarian options have always been synonymous with health food, and whether that was ever entirely true was besides the point since it was the perception people had that vegetarian food was healthier food. The Impossible Burger is a vegetarian meat alternative, hence it’s supposed to be healthier than a regular hamburger, right?

The point again of producing a meat alternative that appeals to meat eaters is to wean them away from supporting the factory farming of animals, with its disastrous consequences for the animals, the environment, and ultimately for the people producing and consuming the meat. The beef industry has a powerful lobbying influence on government, and it has the means and the ability to employ mouthpieces everywhere who can disguise their links to the industry. It’s still early in the development of competition between the beef industry – and agribusiness as a whole – and producers of meat alternatives, but perhaps the meat producers see down the road to where consumer preferences shift away from them in a big way as buying satisfying meat alternatives becomes easier and cheaper.

Oingo Boingo performing “Weird Science”, with songwriter and film composer Danny Elfman singing lead.

It’s wise to read labels and to be skeptical of genetically engineered foods, keeping in mind not all of them are inherently as harmful as Roundup Ready crops, which introduce herbicide residue throughout the food supply. Making informed decisions requires at least a modicum of research rather than merely listening to the loudest voices in print, on the air, or on the internet. It’s also prudent to look ahead and not stay stuck in old ways of doing things when newer, better alternatives present themselves. Ask the makers of BlackBerry smartphones, and any of the other true believers in the status quo throughout history as changes swirled around them. This Memorial Day weekend, if you’re able to grill some tasty, ethically produced meat substitutes then that’s great, and since the holiday cookouts will most likely be hot and thirsty occasions, you may like to accompany your meal with a glass of cool, refreshing dihydrogen monoxide, otherwise known as water.
— Techly

 

Facebooktwitterredditmail

Change at the Grass Roots

 

It may seem like hyperbole to compare growing a lawn with smoking (not combining the two, as in smoking grass), but when weighing the environmental and health effects of both rather useless activities, they may not be all that dissimilar. A lawn is purely ornamental and serves no practical purpose when it is not used as pasture for grazing animals. Deer may come out of the woods to clip parts of a suburban lawn, but for the most part keeping a lawn within the height limits deemed proper by neighbors is left up to the homeowner. Anything higher than about six inches meets with disapproval from neighbors and, in the case of a homeowners association rules, may merit a written slap on the wrist.

 

There was a time not long ago when most people smoked, and smoked everywhere. Movies of contemporary stories from the 1940s and 1950s showed actors portraying their characters as human chimneys. Few people thought much of it up until 1964, when the Surgeon General issued a report on the dangers of smoking. Even then, it took another generation for the momentum of social disapproval of smoking to build to a tipping point, largely because of the obstructive practices of the tobacco industry. In the matter of lawn growing, the balance is now tipped in favor of the people who dump fertilizers and broad leaf herbicides on their lawns to achieve an ideal of carpeted green perfection, and then burn up fossil fuels in order to keep that exuberant growth clipped to a manicured standard.

20101020 Sheep shepherd at Vistonida lake Glikoneri Rhodope Prefecture Thrace Greece
Sheep, goats, and a shepherd near Lake Vistonida in Thrace, Greece. Photo by Ggia.

Gras
Grass, with buttercups. Photo by Steffen Flor.

Given the information available about the toxic effects of fertilizer and herbicide runoff, and the deleterious effects on the climate of continued burning of fossil fuels, it seems insane to idealize the perfect lawn and what it can take to achieve perfection. Yet as things stand now, the people with model lawns are the ones who look down on everyone else and appoint themselves as standard bearers. Perhaps if more people understood the destructive effects to their own health and to the environment of all their fussing over lawns, then the balance would start to tip the other way toward saner practices.

When homeowners apply fertilizers and herbicides to their lawns, there is no obvious puff of smoke to notify everyone else of the activity. It is not as obvious then as smoking, and therefore general social disapproval will take a long time to build, and may never build to a tipping point the way it did with smoking. Education will probably be the main factor in changing people’s behavior. There are state laws which require commercial herbicide or pesticide applicators to post signs on lawns they have treated. Those are the 4 inch cards on sticks stuck into lawns, and to the extent that most passersby and neighbors give them any attention, they can easily mistake them as advertisements for the lawn care company.

The opening scene of Blue Velvet, a darkly satirical 1986 film directed by David Lynch. Besides demanding large amounts of fertilizers and herbicides to look their best, lawns gulp huge amounts of water in order to stay green throughout the warmest months.

Most people are away at work when lawn care companies do their treatments, and so they aren’t around to catch a whiff of the cabbage smell of the typical broad leaf herbicide as it drifts around the neighborhood. And of course, the homeowner who does his or her own applications, usually on the weekends when neighbors are also home, does not bother with any formal notifications at all. A neighbor might ask such a homeowner “What’s that smell?” To which the enterprising amateur lawn care enthusiast might reply, without apparent knowledge of or concern about the collateral damage of his or her efforts, “That’s the smell of the green, green grass of home!”
— Izzy

 

Facebooktwitterredditmail

The Top Banana

 

Since the loss of most of the Gros Michel, or Big Mike, banana plantations due to a destructive root rot by the middle of the twentieth century, the Cavendish has taken over as the most productive banana variety worldwide. By all accounts the Gros Michel was a more flavorful variety than the Cavendish, but growers who wanted to continue producing on a vast scale for the international market had no choice but to switch after fungus reduced the productivity of Gros Michel to an uneconomical level. Now the Cavendish faces similar destruction from another strain of the same fungus, and agronomists are scrambling to find a replacement for the Cavendish.

The Cavendish banana, like the Gros Michel, is a clone. One plant of Cavendish is exactly like the next plant of Cavendish. Such a monoculture is extremely susceptible to pest and disease problems because it cannot adapt through genetic accidents brought about by sexual reproduction. It’s a stationary target. Growers could turn to the extraordinary variety of other, sexually reproduced bananas, and they do just that locally in the tropical areas of the world where bananas grow. The problem for growers who sell internationally has always been finding disease and pest resistant varieties that would hold up under less than ideal shipping conditions and still be economically viable on a large scale.

The first in a series of animated commercials produced by the United Fruit Company in the 1940s for display in movie theaters. The singer was Monica Lewis.
Bananas naturally contain numerous large, hard seeds, making eating them a challenge. It is easier to comprehend the relationship of bananas to berries when confronted with all those seeds. Besides being unavoidable to banana eaters, the seeds were also viable. Modern commercial varieties like the Cavendish have been bred to have seeds that are barely noticeable, turning those varieties into convenience foods. Peel, eat, and don’t worry about the seeds. In the process of hybridizing banana varieties for less inconvenient seeds, agronomists also rendered the seeds unviable. The Cavendish, like the Gros Michel before it, reproduces only exact replicas of itself from parts of an existing plant, without benefit of differing input from any close relatives.


Reliably predictable results are great news for economic giants in any sphere, and agriculture is no exception. The American agribusinesses United Fruit and Standard Fruit, which eventually morphed into Chiquita and Dole, respectively, built themselves into indomitable international forces largely on the predictability of first the Gros Michel and then the Cavendish. They became enormously powerful, vertically integrated corporations that controlled the internal politics of many Latin American countries – the so-called banana republics – and pulled the strings of the United States’ foreign policy. All so that people in wealthy, temperate zone countries could enjoy a fruit that grew only in the tropics.

Banano costa rica (1)
It is possible to buy bananas in the U.S. that have been grown in a more ethically sound and environmentally friendly manner than those produced by the huge international companies, but expect to pay a premium. Photo by Axxis10.

Unlike the spice trade, which also dealt in commodities that mostly grew in the tropics, bananas were and are a superfluous item in the diets of people outside the tropics. Spices were valued in the days before refrigeration on account of their utility in preserving other foods or making them more palatable. Bananas are high in potassium, an essential mineral, but so are potatoes and beans, both of which grow well in temperate zones, as well as being available for winter eating due to their good storage qualities. Bananas sold in temperate zone countries are luxury items available at affordable prices due to the ability of powerful international corporations to exploit cheap labor in tropical countries for growing a dependable crop capable of surviving shipment halfway around the world and arriving in salable condition.

The economic model developed by United Fruit and Standard Fruit in the early twentieth century has been copied and adapted ever since by growers and shippers of other produce, from grapes to mangoes, available now in temperate zone countries even in the middle of winter. As nice as it would be for large international banana producers to abandon monoculture with its reliance on pesticides and fungicides, only to have to abandon that one variety when its production is no longer economically sustainable, they may have no other choice if they want to continue with business as usual. It’s in the nature of their economic model. Locally sustainable small scale agricultural production would of course apply to bananas consumed in the tropics, as it always has, but not in colder countries, where they do not grow.

For all the convenience in the past century and more of being able to pick up a bunch of bananas at the grocer’s in countries where the average person would be more likely to see sub-tropical citrus fruit orchards than tropical banana plantations, not everyone enjoys bananas, or at least not the texture of actual bananas. They may like banana flavor, but they don’t care for the texture, which can be mushy and sticky, activating their gag reflex. For those people, the absence of bananas from the grocer’s would not be a painful loss. Certainly they would still like to have overripe bananas to use in banana bread and other delicious recipes. But unlike the supposedly fresh bananas for eating out of hand, bananas for cooking don’t have to look perfect. In that case, imperfect is just fine.
― Izzy

The last scene of Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot, with Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon.

 

Facebooktwitterredditmail

Long Live the Monarch

 

The Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, may not seem to have any connection to Halloween other than its orange and black coloration, but in Mexico, where they overwinter, the butterflies are hailed as the spirits of friends and relatives who have died in the past year and are returning at the time of Halloween for one last visit with the living. The important dates for Mexicans, and indeed for many Hispanic peoples, are October 31st, and November 1st and 2nd, known as The Days of the Dead, or Los Dias de los Muertos in Spanish.

From the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum as a murderous and greedy self-anointed preacher sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, while Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper protects the children inside her house from harm.

Before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples believed Monarch butterflies were returning human spirits. After the Spaniards imposed Catholicism throughout the region, the Native Americans transposed some of their ancient beliefs onto the new religion. In the case of the Monarch butterflies, since their annual migration brought them to their winter home in the mountains of Mexico more or less at the end of October and the beginning of November, it was a simple matter for Native Americans to meld their traditional celebration of the dead and honoring of the return of the butterflies at that time of year with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Eve (Hallow e’en, or evening) on October 31st, All Saints’ Day on November 1st, and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.


This mixing of indigenous traditions with Christian beliefs and holidays follows a pattern seen in Christian communities throughout the world. In Ireland, for instance, where the version of Halloween celebrations started in a way that most Americans would recognize, the Christian holidays were overlaid on existing Celtic harvest festivals and honoring of the dead. It seems in the northern hemisphere at least, where the harvest occurs approximately in September, October, and November, that honoring the dead at the same time was commonplace. People prayed to their honored dead for a good harvest, and when the work was done they often symbolically shared the bounty with their dear departed at altars in the home. It was a short step for the Church to substitute, or merely add, saints and martyrs to the list of honored dead.

Monarca 1 (60725860)
Overwintering Monarch butterflies in November 2005. Photo by Samuel from Toluca, Mexico.

Monarch butterflies, meanwhile, have troubles beyond being Halloween symbols for human beings. Habitat loss, pesticides, and destruction of food sources have all led to a general decline in their numbers over the last few decades. They are not yet under the protection of the Endangered Species List, and they may not be anytime soon given the hostility toward environmental protection of the current presidential administration.

The ending of the 2010 version of True Grit, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, with Iris DeMent singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”.

It is more important than ever, therefore, for individuals to do everything they can to assure the continued survival of Monarch butterflies, rather than relying on governmental entities to take the lead. It’s not hard; the butterflies don’t ask for much. Leave some tall weeds standing at the edge of a property rather than mowing absolutely everything down to half inch high grass. Among those tall weeds, plant or encourage some milkweeds as fodder for the caterpillars, and some wildflowers as nectar sources for the adult butterflies. Stop using pesticides and herbicides, at least the general purpose ones that kill all insects or all vegetation. Pay attention, be observant and respectful, and in the end enjoy what you have helped along in a way you could not possibly enjoy yet more grass or asphalt. The spirits are watching.
― Vita

 

Facebooktwitterredditmail

A Midsummer Night’s Flickering Lights

 

July 4th has passed, and all the loud, boisterous fireworks with it, to be supplanted as we settle into summer by the quiet, flickering lights of what are known as fireflies in some parts of the country, and lightning bugs in other parts. They don’t live long as adults, which is when they are putting on their light show as a mating display. They typically live only a few weeks at that stage, and since the time over which a given population turns into adults may be staggered over six to eight weeks, their activity on summer evenings over a particular area spans June and July, more or less.

Fireflies are beneficial to gardeners not only in the aesthetics of their adult displays, but also when they are larvae residing in leaf litter and other detritus, where they prey on snails and slugs. Firefly larvae also eat earthworms, which is not beneficial as far as gardeners are concerned, but two out of three ain’t bad, as the saying goes. Firefly larvae, like all of nature’s creatures, have concerns other than whether their lifestyle choices benefit human beings.


Hotarugari Mizuno Toshikata
Firefly Catching, an 1891 Japanese woodblock print by Mizuno Toshikata.

 

Like too many creatures in the modern world, firefly numbers appear to be declining. Habitat loss and collateral damage from pesticide use are the most likely culprits. Well, actually, the culprits is us, to paraphrase Pogo. In this case, our culpability is of the bull in a china shop variety. No one sets out to destroy fireflies, not even children who catch them in jars and then forgot about them. With fireflies, when they lose a habitat to human development, they don’t simply pack up and move elsewhere, but instead they die out in that place.

In the 1933 Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup, Rufus T. Firefly, played by Groucho Marx, has some idiosyncratic views on how to woo wealthy widow Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, played by Margaret Dumont.

The fireflies children chase and capture are usually the ones out in the open, flying over an expanse of lawn. Those are the males, flashing their lights for the benefit of the females who, in most species, are incapable of flight and watch and wait from vantage points in the leaf litter and tall grass at the edge of wilder areas, sometimes flashing lights of their own in response. Those edge of the wild and wild areas are critical to the success of the firefly’s life cycle. We may notice only the fireflies flickering across our lawns on a summer evening, but mostly they spend their short lives in wilder areas where the grass grows tall and becomes meadow, and then past that where the trees become forest. Be careful where that pesticide spray drifts then, or better yet avoid using it as much as you can, and consider that the best light show of all on a warm summer’s evening doesn’t come with loud bangs and puffs of acrid smoke, but with an unassuming quiet beauty.
― Izzy

 

Facebooktwitterredditmail

Good In, Good Out

 

Gardening starts with good soil, and container gardening is even more dependent on quality soil because the plant’s roots are constrained. The container soil has to supply all the minerals and nutrients the plant might need, though the gardener usually has to replenish them at least once during the growing season on account of the original supply leaching away. Spending a little more on quality potting soil is well worth it if quality is indeed what the product delivers. The plants will be healthier and look better if they are flowers, and they will be healthier in themselves and for you if they are vegetables.

 

The best commercial potting soils don’t have synthetically derived fertilizers mixed in, but instead have naturally derived fertilizers which cover a broad spectrum of a plant’s nutritional needs. The difference for plants between potting soils with naturally derived fertilizers and those with synthetically derived fertilizers is like the difference for people between a nutritionally balanced, full meal, and an energy bar or drink. A gardener shopping in the garden center of one of the big home improvement chains is most likely to see options for plain potting soil (cheap), potting soil with synthetic fertilizer mixed in (middling), and the greenwashed version from a major manufacturer such as Scotts, makers of Miracle-Gro (expensive).

 

HandsInSoil
Hands sifting through potting soil in a garden bed; photo by M. Tullottes.

 

The plain potting soil offered at the big chains is often very low quality stuff not worth the savings. The middling priced stuff is better quality soil, but it almost always has synthetic fertilizer mixed in. Paying extra for the greenwashed version is more likely than not giving your money to a corporation that doesn’t need it, but wants to crowd out honest competitors, because that is simply how big corporations operate. They’re cynically manipulating your interest in doing the right thing and your willingness to spend a little more to further that interest. It’s doubtful in that case whether spending the little extra does more for you the consumer than it does for their executives.

 

UNEP Stop Greenwashing Bayer
A protest sign hung over the sign announcing the 2007 International Youth Conference of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Leverkusen, Germany; photo by PhilippM2. The German pharmaceutical company Bayer manufactures neonicotinoid pesticides which have been implicated in the collapse of bee colonies worldwide.

 

There are excellent potting soils available without synthetic fertilizers from honest manufacturers, but chances are you won’t find them at the big home improvement chains. Your best bet is a locally or regionally owned farmers co-operative or garden center. The price will be higher than the green-washed version available at the big chain, but it’s quality will probably be better, and there’s the satisfaction of paying that extra bit to decent people instead of fat cat executives for whom a few dollars more means nothing other than another martini on their expense account. A conscientiously managed local garden center or farmers co-operative is a gardener’s golden nugget amid the commercial tailings of the big chains. The customer service is almost always better at the mom and pop places, and that alone can be worth the higher prices.

 

One purchasing option that people are turning to more and more, even for bulk items like potting soil, is Amazon and other online retailers. They have the widest selection of anybody, and often the best prices even after including the cost of shipping. It’s hard to deny that combination, and then add in the convenience of shopping online and it’s completely understandable why more and more people shop for everything at Amazon. Keep in mind how they treat their employees, however, and balance that with brick and mortar stores, especially the mom and pop ones, where you can see for yourself at least part of the operation and how it is conducted. What you put into the soil shows itself in the plants which grow from it, and what you put into your community will just as surely show itself sooner or later.
― Izzy

 

Facebooktwitterredditmail

Where Have All the Bees Gone?

Imagine going to the grocery store as usual and discovering after ingesting some of the food you brought home that it made you ill, weakened the immune system of some of your family, and killed others. You had no way of knowing what was about to happen, and if you want to eat you have no choice but to return to the same grocery store next week, taking your chances. There is no alternative. This is the situation for bees and other pollinators, whose grocery store consists of the flowers they have visited for thousands or millions of years. Massive die-offs of bees and butterflies have been in the news for many years now, and recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the yellow-faced bees of Hawaii on the Endangered Species List, the first bees to be included.

Bombus veteranus - Trifolium pratense - Keila
Sand bumblebee on red clover. Photo by Ivar Leidus.

Pollination Bee Dandelion
Pollination of dandelion by a bee. Photo by Guérin Nicolas.

Use of broad spectrum pesticides in agriculture is partly responsible for the decline in bee populations, but an often overlooked contributing factor is the part homeowners play when they distribute similar pesticides on their lawns and gardens. Unlike the use of pesticides in agriculture which is done in the name of food production, homeowner use of pesticides is solely in the interest of aesthetics. Individuals can change this behavior more readily than they can the practices of large agricultural concerns.

Change starts in our own yards, and it starts with a change in perspective about what is acceptable and beautiful. Instead of insisting on a monoculture of grass in the lawn, change the definition of the lawn to include some flowering plants. Look on dandelions and clover as beneficial for the bees, rather than as weedy pests to be exterminated at whatever cost in time, money, energy, and collateral damage. An important aspect of Integrated Pest Management is tolerance of a certain amount of pest damage, however “pest” is defined, and the realization that perfection is neither attainable nor even desirable. Nature is messy. The bees prefer it that way, and will thank you for your part in letting it be. The hard part will be in convincing your neighbors of it while fluff from your dandelions drifts into their yards.

– Izzy


Dandelion fluff
Dandelion fluff. Photo by Djordjer.

Facebooktwitterredditmail