Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Considering Genetically Modified Food in a broken food system

We organize a small food co-op which involves buying direct from farmers/small businesses (and a couple of medium sized businesses), at wholesale prices. Once a month, we supply this food to order, to about 30 families. 

We have a few motivations for running the group (which is one amongst quite a few such groups around the city): thinking about how to support access to healthier food, more ethical food, food that supports more sustainable farming practices, food that focuses on short supply chains where possible, rather than giving all power and money to distribution channels.

It’s evolving: we don’t supply everything we’d like to, and not everything we supply is from small farmers, or local, or organic (it is usually at least one, often two, of the three). The balance of the amount of time we have, the relationship we have with suppliers, the reality that we eat oats and certain legumes even though they’re not really grown in South Africa for human consumption, etc. It’s a great learning experience for us, and I know much more about the South African food system than I did a couple of years ago.

I’m a bit nervous about the exclusivity that such a group may foster, especially at a time when money and health are closely tied together (i.e. the wealthy eating from a growing set of ever-more-nutritious [add your adjective here] healthy foods, while the impoverished eat from a shrinking set of ever-less-nourishing foods). I’m not quite sure how to navigate this dynamic, except to name it and commit to figuring out what food attributes seem important to our family, and then think more about how to make these attributes a less exclusive option.

One question we get a lot is about whether the products we supply are non-GMO. In fact, we have some foods that suppliers proudly declare “non-GMO” even though there is no GMO version of that particular crop (various legumes, popcorn are often-labelled “Non-GMO” despite the fact that South Africa does not have GMO versions). I find these labels misleading. These labels suggest that GM foods are a key evil to organize around (and implicitly, that they’re hard to avoid if you do want to do so). I get the sense that label is added as a value statement, because the product isn’t certified organic, and the supplier wants to put something to show values, even when the product is coming from a large farm in Turkey (in the case of many legumes) or Australia (in the case of oats).

So I’ve been looking a bit more into GM foods in South Africa, as I think the GMO conversation can become a distraction (or sometimes shorthand) for a much more complex set of issues within our food system. It can be quite difficult to find trustworthy, neutral resources on GM foods: large commercial farmers put out information in favour of genetic modification* and rarely acknowledge downsides in a serious way. On the other hand, there is a also a fairly large anti-GMO lobby that tends to be quite sensationalist, without necessarily having much evidence to support their position— Mercola and the Weston A. Price Foundation are two groups that I’d consider examples of this category, where their articles are widely referenced on SA health sites, but if you follow the citations back to the actual research, there is a confusing mix of good science and pseudoscience published in dodgy journals (I say this with sadness because I like Nourishing traditions/Weston A. Price type stuff quite a lot).

So, I’ve been digging through journal articles to learn more, in the hopes it can help us navigate who we buy from, how we ask about their product claims, and how we think about good food more generally:

How widespread are GMO foods in South Africa?
GM technology is expensive and tends to be developed mainly for cash crops in very large scale production. There are three GM crops in commercial production in South Africa: Maize (not popcorn), cotton, and soya/soy— if you consume maize or soy you’re likely eating a GM crop, as a large share of the market is GM. The two main modifications of these crops is herbicide resistance- which is where the glyphosate concern comes in, and insertion of the BT gene which kills a specific corn pest- this is where pesticide resistance comes in. It’s not clear if any canola on the market is currently GM-- there may be a little, or there may in the future. There’s also interest in the development of GM sugarcane, and talk of GM wine yeast. Legumes (excluding soy) are never GM, and nor is oats (i.e. there is no GM version in commercial production anywhere in the world).

Maize and soy crops affect a wider array of foods because they are an important part of animal feed and processed food (partly because they are grown so cheaply and on such a large scale). For farmers farming chickens and livestock, unless they have a huge amount of space, it becomes fairly difficult to avoid GM animal feed. Soy lecithin is part of most chocolate products, and corn starch is also widely used as a thickener.

What issues with GMO seem most important to think about?
First off, I think it’s valuable to disaggregate the potential issues with GM foods, NOT to stoke vague fears and start labelling everything “non-GMO,” even when there is no GM version of that food. The gene transfer itself is potentially distracting as an issue: It is too easy for the farming tech giants to brush off unsubstantiated claims about the health effects of GM foods (and indeed, those claims are largely unsubstantiated to date). 

The broader— much more substantive I think— issue is that large commercial farms are designed to focus entirely on profit, at the expense of soil health or broader ecology. GM crops supports a type of farming that depends heavily on fossil fuels and very large acreage of single crops. In turn, this type of farming shapes our diets in important ways: they affect the soil our food draws nutrients from, and shapes the affordability of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods on the shelves of our supermarkets. So GM crops form one part of that important discussion of food as a commodity.

Some potential issues with GM crops that seem to be borne out in the literature:
More broadly, GM foods undermine food sovereignty to the extent that farmers who used to own their seeds are increasingly pressed to purchase seeds. The production of cheap staples of soy and corn encourages ever-more concentrated animal operations, where feed is bought in— and this is driven the world's increasing demand for animal products.GM crops often present technological fixes to much broader, more complex issues— e.g. yield can be improved by supporting smaller farms in improving their soil over several years. However, supporting smaller farms is incredibly complex: markets favor bigger farms, because everyone (big or small) is forced to compete on equal footing, so smaller farms need a really wide range of supportive mechanisms to get their products to customers while earning a reasonable living.

So the issues with GM foods are intertwined with broader systemic issues in our food system. I am convinced that food should not be a commodity traded like any other commodity on the open market, because when it is, the costs to environment or health become invisible, and it is very difficult for impoverished people (and small scale farmers) to survive/make a living. It is too easy for bullies to monopolize farming practices for their own gain, even though it’s apparent that this style of farming cannot feed the world.

So I think it’s valuable to say what/how we WANT our farmers to be growing, to articulate how we will support small and medium scale farmers, and to figure out in very practical terms how to do that, perhaps by bypassing existing structures (supermarkets) as well as by actively creating alternatives.  Relationships with farmers are a key part of this: if we are not producing the food ourselves we need to learn about the priorities and logic of those who do, so that we can make alternatives viable for them. The thing is, small and medium scale farms are competing against larger operations, and it’s an incredibly difficult competition to be a part of, because ecological damage/nutrient density is not factored into price. 

One thing I’m always afraid of is making farmers claim to be something they’re not, because that’s what this emerging niche market demands. This creates false expectations for emergent farmers as well as consumers, because consumers think that they can request something that is terribly difficult to actually supply and still make a living, at least for the first five years of farming. Sustainability is not just about the earth’s resources, it is also about Human Resources: all too often, in order to compete, farmers are faced with the choice to either pay their workers too little to sustain them and their families, or burn themselves out.

How we navigate GM foods in our family
We generally don't eat much processed food in our family (a goal is to bypass supermarkets completely by year-end), and this is where one would eat GM foods. I try to acknowledge that a large range of foods are enjoyable to eat, and I try to think with gratitude about the farmer/worker growing our food, no matter how far removed s/he is from us. On the occasions where we consume processed food, I try to enjoy the food rather than panic, and I try to see if there are lesser evils (e.g. chips from a smaller company with fewer ingredients). I don't really worry about these occasions, I see them as learning experiences for my kids who are growing up in a big, beautiful, world where we are often the odd ones out. I focus on making it possible and pleasurable for our family to eat from scratch most of the time, for the long-term. While large scale systems are at fault (one could argue that the evil is unleashed when a company becomes an entity), I doubt that specific farmers, scientists, or even specific company employees, are deliberate villains. I tend to think that we need margin to eat well and to think of alternative models (at the expense of our work and/or time and/or our money). 

On our small permaculture farm we buy in supplemental feed (which inevitably contains GM maize) for our chickens and ducks. We also grow organic barley micro greens for them. Our farm can support a larger number of free range ducks and chickens (currently around 25 chickens and 10 ducks) if mixed fowl feed is a supplemental option, because we don’t have time to do enough barley micro greens and there’s not enough diversity in the farm to support the chickens and ducks without supplemental feed (we’ve tried— using chickens to process compost was a useful supplemental feed option but wasn’t enough).So, the chickens and ducks obtain much, but not all, of their nutrients and calories from eating scraps, weeds, insects, and having supplemental barley sprouts when I have enough time to grow them consistently. I.e. they’re consuming about 15% of their overall diet in supplemental grain, which is partly corn. We even soak the mixed feed because I read somewhere that that helps with digestibility. I think the supplemental feed improves their health (they know they have enough food, which is important for preventing annoying chicken behaviour, which is not pretty). The eggs we consume have a very low carbon footprint relative to others. We have extremely happy chickens, though my time with chickens suggests they are not terribly sentient. Let's just say they get to live free as chickens.

The factors shaping our decision-making include time, best use of land, costs, etc. (and where we are in our own learning and experience). And the fact that I really like the guy who drops off grain for us each month, and that it takes a while to be brave enough to ask him about alternative feeds. I suspect that as we learn and our farm improves, our need for this supplemental feed will fall away— our animals don’t particularly like the corn in the feed, anyway. Our experience is shared just to highlight that farmers’ priorities should not be judged too quickly; as far as possible, they should be carefully understood (and vice versa), to promote transparency and common ground.

Some last thoughts (sorry this is so long)
As our co-op tries to buy direct from farmers, knowing how hard it is to make a living: I want to focus on learning (in an open interested way) about how farmers cultivate their soil, about how they prioritize, about how they improve the lives of their farm workers. That is, I do want accountability. 

To me, this type of accountability is much more important than asking more stark "do you ever" questions. Open and interested questions may lead to increased knowledge about sustainable food practices and supporting common priorities. On the other hand, avoiding farms where GM feed is used may squeeze out other priorities, because of how difficult it is to be profitable. Over time, when other priorities are realized, it becomes easier to consider the issue of GM feed. Taken alone, a one-to-one substitution of non-GM feed, for example, would not necessarily result in a substantive benefit (just an expense), whereas gradually building up the soil and building capacity to grow alternative feed on site, may facilitate a more sustainable and resilient system.

 Small farmers fight an uphill battle and my sense from dealing with small farmers and companies is that if they seem to be perfect (or worse, put in a lot of effort to seeming perfect), there's often something that we're not seeing.

If we return to the issue of divergent diets between wealthy and impoverished South Africans, one key goal would be supporting suppliers/farmers in providing viable, dignified livelihoods for themselves and their workers, while caring for their soil and their animals. Supporting sustainable livelihoods through farming is an important piece of facing up to inequality. Promoting healthy soil and healthy workers when we buy from farmers and suppliers, and finding ways to support reasonably diverse, relatively unprocessed diets, to me goes a long way to creating a better food system. GM crops are a symptom of problems in our food system (where it is very hard to make a living unless you go big and farm a certain way), and we need to be thinking of the illness itself.

*[This publication does a fairly good job of laying out some of the evidence simply, though I balk at the continued mention of food security, since in South Africa food security is an issue of access, not overall supply, and there’s virtually no evidence that GM crops make nutritious foods more affordable.]

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Vegetable gardening: biting off more than you can chew

A lot of vegetable gardening advice emphasizes starting small and growing your garden very gradually. This advice assume that it is better to grow a small area well than a large area badly. Or that you'll burn out attempting to keep up with a larger garden if you're not experienced enough. The goal of this narrative is help you garden long-term, rather than giving up, which seems a very good thing and is probably true.

And yet...

I fear this approach promotes perfectionism. I think the size of your garden depends on your personality, available space, water, and whether you have opportunities for free sources of carbon/nitrogen (manure, bags of leaves, etc.).

Finally, we have hundreds of granadillas and some other dillas coming along.

We're harvesting a lot of tomatoes, basil, spinach and zucchini, and our other kinds of squash and peppers are coming along pretty fast, so hopefully in a month we'll be eating those also.

can you see the bananas in the background? and the bags of dirty raw wool. I came to terms with the fact that my windfall of wool was never going to become a beautiful carpet, and am using it as a really useful mulch. This year is all about Serious Mulching.

Our reservoir stores our rainwater for irrigation (and to have a nice place for dragonflies and frogs). Behind it are 2 of our beehives, 2 mango and one quince tree (and a lot of kei apples, all around). 

I've actually never eaten Hubbard squash before, so I'm REALLY hoping we like it, because we have so many.

So I am an advocate, within reason I guess, for gardening a large area badly... or rather, as best you can. I'm not entirely convinced I could garden any area (big or small) brilliantly. I think "better to do a small area well!" narrative is condescending and promotes a sense that if only you were knowledgeable enough, you're guaranteed a great vegetable yield. Which in turn leads to increasingly protected and controlled types of gardening-- hydroponics is perhaps the epitome of this. While experience is a wonderful teacher, I don't think there are ever any guarantees of success; failure should be considered normal, unless one is completely dependent on success for survival. Try again! Use all the resources you have been given! One of my favourite neighbours has a truly amazing vegetable garden, and even with their skill and experience, they lose a lot of food because the baboons have decided their garden is a good place to forage. Even when you're doing everything excellently you can still lose crops.

On our property, last year I wanted to get things set up to vegetable garden in a serious way, and then put effort into improving over time. It's definitely more space than I can actively manage, and yet... I would prefer to extend myself and potentially grow at a scale that puts a serious dent in our food needs. I've already learned a lot-- I just need to work to find the time for weeding or watering or picking off insects (I've got starting seedlings covered- because there it's just as easy to do a lot as a little).  The costs of a crop also decrease significantly as you scale up-- in the case of our garden, we can take on weekly deliveries of free manure and hay because we are trying to improve the soil in a fairly large area (it is much more difficult to get these free inputs if you're picky about quantity). I am not against short-cuts when necessary: I had enough time and had made enough compost to start a couple of new beds in our garden, but not enough time to start another round of seedlings-- so I just bought seedlings for the new beds. With the garden bed prepped and set to lay empty for longer if I started from seed, a tomato plant only had to produce a few tomatoes to pay for the purchase.

On a small scale, I tend to be no more attentive a gardener than on a larger scale-- I think we have limited control of each season's crops so I am a strong believer in focusing on making sure the soil is in good condition, then hedging my bets and sharing with critters and weeds if that's the way it goes (I'm lying about being completely sharing here: don't talk to me about mole rats. Here, some lies are just better than the truth. The truth being that I can't figure out how to kill those mole rats.) If a weed gets out of control, I generally only fight it for a short while, and then I plan for the next crop to be better-- usually I won't lose everything at once (except for that one time that pig razed the garden). I also tend to try to grow various families of vegetables in 6 different places at once (I'm insane), trying to remember (I keep pretty terrible records) where they were last year and where I've added compost most recently. I figure while we will have losses, there will be something that does well. Over time, I'm developing a feel for the space and the water needs of a variety of vegetables. I no longer mulch the vegetable garden with waste straw or unprocessed horse manure, as it creates too many weeds-- the soil is good enough that I can make compost, and this year I invested in a load of woodchips to help with weed pressure.

With vegetable gardening and small-scale farming-- especially if we did not learn from our parents or grandparents, or we are not living in the house or region we grew up in-- we don't have a whole lot of time to build our skill sets. There's an urgency to get going. So go ahead and do whatever you need to do, and don't worry if you fail (certainly don't stop because you failed).

Our advantage today is that we have access to virtually infinite information, so can improve our skills rapidly. Yet so many of us are living in different climates, and different soils, with different conditions, and we have a limited time.  Each crop takes time to grow, and if we're really lucky, we have a maximum of 30 or 40 opportunities to grow a crop before we get too old, move, or die. Then there's climate change.... We have the advantage (or burden) of being able to grow year round in Cape Town, so with planning we can grow 3 or even 4 crops in one place in a year.

Some other things that cause burnout are overly high expectations and/or expecting that you can control a space. That, and very low vegetable prices due the dominance of very large scale supermarkets and Big agriculture. For me, it has been very meaningful to commit fully to staying in the space we're in, and improving the soil on a large scale. Digging in, literally, and being along for the ride long-term. The size that's actually actively cultivated year to year may change according to how many seeds I start or how organized I am-- but the potential to grow a lot is there.

I'm cheering you on in your vegetable gardening efforts.

Friday, September 21, 2018

A snapshot of things that come up unschooling three little kids

A lot of this is likely to change as we find a new rhythm with my parents on the property, but I thought my last post about unschooling was pretty abstract so I wanted to be more specific today. A lot of people ask about unschooling if you work or do other things-- and this is us-- we juggle and it works out!

The last few months of building my parents house has meant our schedule has been complicated and busy, and coincided with Noah (8) and Eli (6) getting really into Minecraft (and now Terraria), while Hana (2) has needed a lot of our hands-on time. Part of me thinks that they got so into Minecraft because we were not as available to do fun and interesting things with them, and because the winter has brought a lot more illness this year than previous years. So the boys have played a lot of Minecraft. I say that totally fearful of judgement, and yet supportive of their strategy because our house has remained peaceful and happy during a potentially intense, overstretched time.

I'm not [yet] an unschooling mom who totally understands when my kids want to spend large chunks of the day gaming, but I have learned that it's all in how your perceive the situation (even if there are limits how far you can stretch yourself in the moment). I have said on various occasions to Eug "I think they are playing too much Minecraft!" I like that that hasn't led to us reverting to control. If a partner or another loved one was doing something you were concerned about: you might talk to them, see if they perceive an issue, discuss how to support them, protect your own boundaries, see what their motivations were or what they were going through or getting out of their approach. This is more or less what we've done,  and it's been an opportunity to reflect, and to think through how to support the kids in their interest, while also figuring out the extent to which they're playing to numb difficult feelings. It has been a chance to notice and appreciate that they have found ways to to meet their own needs and spend their days tremendously gracefully during a busy time. I appreciate that they'll know themselves better from these few months-- we talk about what we're doing with our days and why-- not in judgement but with interest, to reflect and think through choices and options. In doing this, I also notice that I'm making not-perfect choices: I have kept up with farm chores and propagation for our nursery, and with from-scratch cooking-- both of which require a huge amount of time and energy-- because that's was what I needed to do for myself. Yet this has come with costs and I could have sat with Noah, Eli and Hana more than I have done. So I'm working on doing that, now. In an ideal situation, we'd be giving them plenty of opportunities to connect and do other things if that's what they want. We were working to bring up the adult-child ratio on the farm, and so the temporary trade-offs seemed right to us.

Most days, either Eug or I wakes up early to start work (I sometimes go into work when I need to be at meetings, and then I leave very early to avoid traffic), and the other person gets to wake with the kids, start coffee and oats, feed the animals, and check on the state of the farm with Hana. When Eug is working, the boys don't play Minecraft because we don't have enough devices, so the kids and I will do something inside together, or work on something out on the farm (or sometimes I'll work on something, and they'll just join me). I bake a lot with Hana and occasionally do some cooking with Noah; Eli's favourite thing is to play boardgames and make up elaborate stories together. When with Eug, they'll often play Minecraft, with Eug in the background participating where he can (he'll sometimes play with them also).

Eug and I will switch after a few hours, and whoever is caring for the kids will make lunch. In the later afternoon, we will either be with individual kids, or Eug will work on the house and I will take the kids out to the beach, or to a couple of classes they participate in (clay lessons, swimming lessons, speech therapy, Scouts). I do speech therapy practice with Eli, while playing Star Realms, his favourite card game! It's not rushed most of the time. I will sometimes walk down the street with one or two kids, to our nursery and check in on how things are going. The kids will sometimes pair up and play together for a while-- legos, magnatiles, or telling stories outside, until something happens (If Hana is involved) and conflict comes and goes. I sometimes feel very busy if I look at the number of jobs I seem to have in addition to my actual full time job at the university. Then I settle into the actual day: what I actually need to do, and it is always doable-- though the issue of our kids' less visible needs is definitely something I'm thinking about more, as I tend to go from one task to the next, and kids are not tasks.

Amidst the imperfection, all three kids seem to learn what is relevant to navigate their day-to-day life, and what they enjoy-- I remain convinced that we can learn naturally, given interested and supportive people around us. We try to offer lots of interesting options, which sometimes are taken up, and sometimes aren't. I am not measuring whether they progress similarly to others of their age, though I do try to observe if they are stuck in a rut and if we can help. I do marvel at all they know from our reading of copious fiction and non-fiction together, and from watching Youtube-- this is even without me understanding all their skills from playing Minecraft-- and those are abundant. We discuss so many things together during the course of the day. I read quite a lot for work (and enjoyment), and talk to them about what I'm learning, and about what I'm learning about farming, also. All three kids can spot a spekboom from 100m (CUTTINGS MOMMY-- they even know the spekboom-on-pavement map of our routes and sometimes will generously say "There's a spekboom coming up soon, you can stop the car"). They know the kind of pelargonium that only grows naturally on Ou Kaapse Weg, know the difference between English, Dutch, French and Spanish lavenders (I learned this like a month ago) and can identify which chicken laid which egg based on size and colour. They know how to care for many different animals. More than what they know or don't know, we are learning how to relate to one another, and how to relate to other people, also.

Star Realms

We still get to the beach a lot


Soap carving

Found a lizard tail- it was still moving!

matching Minecraft and real life stones

Silvermine dam- it was too cold to swim so we walked around the dam instead. I could not keep up with my 2 year old, which is a bizarre twist.

dinosaur tea party.