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  You are here:  PublicationsMaine Organic Farmer & GardenerFall 2007Organic Matter   
 Organic Matter: A Compendium of Food and Agricultural News Minimize


Subsidized Row Crop Ag Should Step Aside for Local, Organic
Meanwhile, Genetic Engineers Tinker Too Simply …
Organic Issues
Pesticides Poison Kids, Disrupt N Fixation
The Good News
And finally …

Subsidized Row Crop Ag Should Step Aside for Local, Organic


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says taxpayer-subsidized row crop farmers flush about $391 million worth of nitrogen fertilizer down the Mississippi River each spring, the source of more than 70% of the total nitrate pollution entering the Gulf of Mexico each spring. Taxpayer subsidies encourage excess fertilizer use to produce corn and other commodities.

The EWG says nitrate pollution is greatest where crop subsidies are concentrated and where some counties get 10,000 times more in crop subsidies than in water quality conservation dollars.  While thousands of farmers signed up for federal programs supporting clean water, best management practices and conservation, many were turned away because most money is being spent on traditional subsidy programs.  The EWG suggests more support for environmental farming practices.  (“Dead in the Water,” Environmental Working Group,
www.ewg.org/reports/deadzone/)

And why not?  A University of Michigan study found 293 examples in previous studies indicating that organic farming is more productive than industrial agriculture and can feed the world. "Model estimates indicate that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base." 
(“Organic Farming Can Feed the World,” Organic Bytes #113, Organic Consumers Assoc., July 12, 2007; 
www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_5996.cfm; and “Organic farming could feed the world,” by Catherine Brahic, New Scientist, July 12, 2007; http://environment.newscientist.com/article/dn12245-organic-farming-could-feed-the-world.html)

Industrial row crop production is not helping us eat better, either.  In the past year, the global price of corn doubled, raising many food prices.  In the United States, milk prices nearly doubled.  Butter prices in Europe are up 40%; pork in China is up 20%; Mexicans rioted in response to a 60% rise in tortilla prices; and U.S. food prices increased more in the first half of 2007 than in all of 2006 – largely because 18% of our corn was distilled into ethanol. World grain reserves are at the lowest level in 34 years.  Of the 2008 U.S. grain harvest, 30% will go to ethanol.  (Organic Bytes #112, July 27, 2007;
www.organicconsumers.org; “U.S. food prices spike upward,” by Patrik Jonsson and Bina Venkataraman, The Christian Science Monitor, June 13, 2007, www.csmonitor.com/2007/0613/p01s01-usec.html)

Still, considering crops for biofuels, USDA scientists predict a 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions if ethanol and biodiesel from corn-soybean rotations are used instead of gasoline and diesel--about twice the reduction from using corn grain alone; and using switchgrass and hybrid poplar would reduce greenhouse gas emissions nearly three times as much as corn-soy rotations.  (Source: “Biofuel Crops Double as Greenhouse-Gas Reducers,” Agricultural Research Service News Service, USDA, Jan Suszkiw, (301) 504-1630,
jan.suszkiw@ars.usda.gov, June 8, 2007, www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr)

Here’s another biofuel-related product to watch: agrichar. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries’ (DPI) Wollongbar Agricultural Institute has studied this black carbon byproduct of pyrolysis (heating biomass without oxygen to generate energy). Agrichar is a stable carbon compound, which, added to soil at a rate of 10 tons/ha, doubled or tripled crop growth while storing carbon for many years (thus reducing CO2 and nitrous oxide emissions from soils.) Wheat grew as well with agrichar alone as with N fertilizer. The product raises soil pH and calcium levels; can reduce aluminum toxicity; improves soil biology and soil water-holding capacity; and reduces the need for fertilizers. DPI researchers say that one application of agrichar may equal decades of annual compost applications of the same weight.  The product will not be available until pyrolysis plants are built.  (“Soil offers new hope as carbon sink,” New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, Science Blog, June 1, 2007, 
www.scienceblog.com/cms/node/13355/print; Link:  www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/research)

Buying milk directly from farms may cut food costs – and increase health. A study of thousands of children suggests that drinking “farm milk” (milk purchased from or consumed at a farm) can reduce the incidence of asthma and hay fever – whether the milk was boiled or raw (as reported by parents).  The researchers warn, however, that raw milk may contain pathogens, but they add that unpasteurized milk may contain protective compounds.  (“Drinking Farm Milk Reduces Childhood Asthma And Allergies, But Raw Consumption Remains Unsafe, Study Finds,” Science Daily, May 11, 2007,
www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070510093349.htm. Original study: Inverse association of farm milk consumption with asthma and allergy in rural and suburban populations across Europe. Waser et al. Clinical and Experimental Allergy, 37, 661-670. May 2007)

Do high food prices have you thinking of switching from milk to water?  If so, avoid bottled water. Tap water quality is more strictly controlled, and some bottled water is tap water. Still, each U.S. citizen drank over 22 gallons of bottled water in 2004. Some 1.5 million gallons of oil are used to make plastic water bottles each year, and thousands more gallons of oil are used to transport water. Only about 10% of the bottles are recycled. In some areas, extracting water is causing shortages for nearby consumers. Two gallons of water are wasted to purify every gallon of bottled water. So, bottle your own water, preferably in glass. (“Is Bottled Water Better?” Greentips, June 2007,
http://ucsaction.org/ct/Pp_h4oK1MzJd/)

Is Maine wine another drink alternative?  Clem Blakney and Ron Rudolph are creating an organic vineyard and winery on their Unity properties. They have planted 1,200 vines and anticipate a winery where customers enjoy their organic product with local cheese, bread and art, and a view to Sugarloaf.  Blakney chose the spot for its view, southern exposure, and for the community, including MOFGA, the Unity Barn Raisers and Unity College.  Blakney learned to grow grapes in the Pacific Northwest.  He sees potential for the wine industry in Maine as temperatures rise in California’s Sonoma Valley, but Maine growers and horticulturists note Maine’s difficult climate. (“Unity men join forces to create state's largest vineyard,” by Craig Crosby, Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel, June 10, 2007)

Farmers’ markets can cut the cost of buying food.  Between 1994 and 2006, the number of U.S. farmers’ markets more than doubled to over 3,700, and the value of U.S. agricultural products sold directly increased 37% from $592 million to $812 million.  (USDA Agricultural Marketing Service,
www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/)  

Composting operations can help farmers grow that food for farmers’ markets, and Maine officials developed a new process in June for overseeing commercial compost operations.  Previously, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had authority over these operations because of potential pollution from runoff, but some lawmakers wanted Maine’s agriculture department to regulate the businesses, because they help farmers. A compromise was developed in light of a 2005 case of pollution in Lyman, when heavy rains caused retention ponds to overflow at Winterwood Farm and nutrients ran into a brook. (Winterwood settled with the DEP over the complaint and reportedly is developing a plan to prevent runoff.) Now, the DEP will review standards for commercial composting permits; and the agriculture department will help develop compost management guidelines. The Maine Association of Agricultural Composters says the compromise will help the industry. (“Compromise reached over state control of compost operations,” by John Richardson, Portland Press Herald, June 20, 2007)

That good compost can help fight climate change. The Rodale Institute has shown that sustainably-farmed soil absorbs 30% more carbon than conventional agriculture, and switching U.S. farmland to organic would cut U.S. greenhouse emissions by 10% (20% in most of the rest of the world).  A 10-minute video explains how. See "SOIL: The Secret Solution to Global Warming," at
www.quantumshift.tv/v/1181028043/. (Organic Bytes #112, July 27, 2007; www.organicconsumers.org)

A USDA study supports the move to organic. Organic farming can build soil organic matter better than conventional no-till farming, according to a nine-year USDA study in Maryland.  No-till eliminates plowing and minimizes even light tillage to avoid damaging organic matter and soil erosion, while organic farming often relies on tillage and cultivation to kill weeds; but the study showed that organic farming's use of manure and cover crops more than offset losses from tillage, and organic plots had more carbon and nitrogen and yielded 18% more corn than other plots. (“Organic Farming Beats No-Till?” Agricultural Research Service News Service, USDA, Don Comis, July 10, 2007; Agricultural Research, July 2007,
www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/jul07/soil0707.htm)

Consumers continue to support the goodness of organic foods and soils. The Organic Trade Association's (OTA's) 2007 Manufacturer Survey says U.S. organic food sales totaled nearly $17 billion in 2006, representing approximately 3% of retail sales of food and beverages – up from 1.9% in 2003 and approximately 2.5% in 2005. Sales of organic foods grew by 22.1% in 2006 to $16.9 billion. Sales in 2005 were $13.831 billion. The OTA launched HowToGoOrganic.com for producers and processors transitioning to organic. (“U.S. organic sales show substantial growth,” Organic Trade Assoc. press release, May 6, 2007.  Full report sold at
www.ota.com/bookstore.html).

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Meanwhile, Genetic Engineers Tinker Too Simply…

Genes don’t function in simple, independent ways (as in the one-gene, one-protein theory) but instead seem to work as complex networks. The biotech industry is regulated according to the simple scenario, as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office defines a gene as a sequence of DNA that codes for a specific function.  The new view raises questions about patents and safety assurances based on the old view. (“A Challenge to Gene Theory, a Tougher Look at Biotech,” by Denise Caruso, The New York Times, July 1, 2007)

These new scientific views haven’t stopped the biotech industry, yet. Rice containing human genes that produce proteins found in human breast milk is being grown in Kansas for Ventria Biosciences – even though the product is not FDA-approved. The product is intended for drinks for babies to combat severe diarrhea.  Critics argue that safer cures exist – and question the safety of growing GE “pharma” rice in open fields, after two instances of contamination of U.S. food crops by unapproved GE rice within the past year. (“Rice made with human genes: GM menace or saviour?” by Geoffrey Lean, The Independent, June 3, 2007. 
http://environment.independent.co.uk/lifestyle/article2609301.ece; “Farmers Worry About Genetically Modified Rice Approval, Environmental News Service, May 21, 2007.)

Nor have the new discoveries stopped the GE treadmill.  Scientists at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, engineered a bacterial gene into broad-leafed plants so that the crops resist the herbicide dicamba. This is a response to numerous farmers reporting glyphosate-resistant weeds. (Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup.) Most U.S. corn and soy crops are now Roundup-Ready GE crops, which have created selection pressure for Roundup-resistant weeds. Dicamba-resistance genes are in chloroplast DNA only, which spreads through maternal tissue and not through pollen. (“Scientists create new crop of genetically modified crops,” Posted by Maywa Montenegro, May 31, 2007, Gristmill,
http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/5/31/105543/484)

Moving along the food web: Scientists who analyzed data from 42 field experiments say that organisms such as ladybird beetles, earthworms and bees tend to be more abundant in fields of GE Bt cotton and Bt maize than in fields of non-GE cotton and maize treated with insecticides – but fields of non-GE crops that were not treated with insecticides had larger numbers of certain animal groups than fields of GE crops. (“A Meta-Analysis of Effects of Bt Cotton and Maize on Nontarget Invertebrates,” by Michelle Marvier, Chanel McCreedy, James Regetz and Peter Kareiva1, Science, June 8, 2007:  ATTRA, Weekly Harvest Newsletter, June 20, 2007)
 
Bt crops may be better than insecticides for those organisms in the narrow view, but an extensive, well-referenced report by Jeffrey Smith addresses the broader view. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is used by organic growers as an insecticide because the naturally-occurring soil bacterium degrades quickly after application. However, reactions after widespread Bt applications, reports Smith, have included flu-like symptoms; eye, nose, throat and respiratory problems; skin irritation; seizures; and an antibody immune response. People with compromised immune systems are warned against exposure to Bt sprays..

Plants that are genetically engineered to express the Bt toxin produce about 3,000-5,000 times as much toxin as sprays – continuously and persistently in every cell.  Smith notes problems that may be associated with GE Bt crops:

•    illnesses among Filipinos living near Bt corn crops that were shedding pollen
•    immune responses in animals exposed to Bt corn
•    studies showing that the Bt toxin is not completely destroyed in the digestive system of mice.

Smith discusses these problems in Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods. His first book was Seeds of Deception. (“Genetically Engineered Foods May Cause Rising Food Allergies – Part 2: Genetically Engineered Corn,” by Jeffrey M. Smith, The Institute for Responsible Technology,
www.responsibletechnology.org/)

You may find out about Bt toxicity yourself, since foods from engineered crops are not labeled in the United States. And now, the European Union's Agricultural Ministers, who previously required no GE contamination in  organic food, say that organic food contaminated with up to 0.9% GE organisms can still be labeled "organic." Friends of the Earth, at
www.naturalchoices.co.uk, accuse EU ministers of favoring the biotech industry over consumers’ interests, adding, “The EU and UK must now introduce tough legislation to protect organic and conventional farmers from genetic pollution." (PANUPS News Update, June 21, 2007, www.panna.org)

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Organic Issues

Foods labeled as organic in the United States may contain some nonorganic ingredients.  In June, the USDA published an interim final rule to amend its National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances to include 38 nonorganic, minor ingredients recommended by the National Organic Standards Board, when organic ingredients are not available.  The interim final rule, effective June 21, 2007, provided a 60-day period for additional comment.  This is the same rule that the USDA published on May 15, 2007--with a 7-day comment period, after which some 1,250 people commented  that the comment period was too short. (USDA Agricultural Marketing Service press release No. 133-07, Joan Shaffer and Billy Cox. The interim final rule is posted at
www.ams.usda.gov/nop.)

Organic advocates such as the Cornucopia Institute are watching factory farms that allege to be organic.  In June, authorities suspended organic certification of the 10,000-cow Case Vander Eyk Jr. Dairy in Pixley, California.  In 2005, Cornucopia filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA against large factory-farm operators, including Vander Eyk, alleging violations of organic law by confining animals. Quality Assurance International (QAI), a USDA-accredited certifier, suspended Case Vander Eyk’s organic certification for questions about records of antibiotics, hormones, feed and grazing. Mark Kastel of Cornucopia questions why QIA certified the farm in the first place. (Cornucopia Institute press release, “Factory Farm Producing ‘Organic’ Milk Shutdown – Industry Coalition Demanding Organic Integrity Prevails,” June 7, 2007, Mark Kastel, 608-625-2042)

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Pesticides Poison Kids, Disrupt N Fixation

More than 6,000 Canadians (nearly half under age six) are directly poisoned by pesticides annually, says the David Suzuki Foundation.  "The mere presence of pesticides in a home, garage, or garden creates a risk to homeowners and children, as does the application of pesticides," says Lisa Gue of the Foundation. "Governments should ban the use and sale of cosmetic pesticides on lawns and gardens to eliminate a probable source of many of these poisonings."

"The best way to prevent these tragic pesticide poisonings is by banning toxic lawn chemicals," says Dr. Kapil Khatter of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. More than 125 Canadian municipalities restrict cosmetic pesticide use, and Quebec province prohibits the sale of pesticides containing any of 20 active ingredients. (“Thousands of Canadians poisoned by pesticides each year,” press release, June 21, 2007, David Suzuki Foundation. Full report, “Northern Exposure: Acute Pesticide Poisonings in Canada,” at
www.davidsuzuki.org/Publications/Northern_exposure.asp.)

Pesticides can also disrupt communications between crops and soil bacteria that fix nitrogen, thus reducing yields or delaying growth, say University of Oregon researchers. Legumes secrete chemicals that signal N-fixing bacteria, which convert atmospheric N into ammonia for plants to use. More than 20 commonly used agrichemicals bind to and block connections to receptors in N-fixing rhizobia bacteria. (University News, University of Oregon, “Pesticides can block nitrogen path,” June 6, 2007,
www.uoregon.edu/newsstory.php?a=6.6.07-Crops-Jen.Fox.html, Jennifer Fox, 541-346-1537)

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The Good News …
 
Maine is showing how to landscape without endangering children or N fixation – or Portland waters (where yard care chemicals have been found). The Maine YardScaping Partnership broke ground on the Back Cove YardScaping Demonstration Site in June. The site will showcase low-maintenance, ecologically sound plantings. See www.yardscaping.org.  And Paul Tukey’s
SafeLawns.org received an award from the Garden Writers Association for its video, "Making the Organic Transition in Lawn Care." (Pesticide Action Network News Update, June 14, 2007; www.panna.org)

Urine could help meet the N needs of plants.  Urine makes up 1% of the volume of wastewater but contributes about 80% of the N and 45% of the phosphate. Some Europeans use urine separation toilets to divert urine from the sewage stream, recycle the nutrients, and save energy and water. Civil engineer and urine-separation expert Jac Wilsenach, at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, calculated that separating half our urine would create sludge that is richer in organic matter and generates more methane, turning sewage works from net consumers to net producers of energy. Separated urine can be used as fertilizer, which could be helpful as the world's phosphate mines are expected to run out in 100 years. Others are experimenting with extracting N and K from urine in forms that can be sprayed onto crops. (“Pee-cycling,” by Graham Lawton, New Scientist, Dec. 20, 2006)

Young children who regularly eat homegrown produce eat more than twice as much of those healthy foods as kids who seldom get garden-fresh produce, say researchers at Saint Louis University Medical Center. Interviews with some 1,600 parents of preschoolers in Missouri found that children who grow up eating homegrown produce prefer the taste of fruits and vegetables to other foods. Parents should plant a garden or encourage schools to do so, conclude the researchers. (“When Produce Is Homegrown, Kids Eat Better,” by Robert Preidt, Health Day News, MedLine, May 18, 2007. Link expired; go to 
www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/newsbydate.html for recent news.)

Maybe those gardens could be rooftop gardens. Environmentalists from the nonprofit New York City Sun Works say that hydroponic systems on New York's 14,000 acres of unshaded rooftop could feed as many as 20 million people all year. Rooftop gardens on schools would help reduce vandalism and support winter gardening. (“Environmentalist Dreams of New York Rooftop Farms,” by Sinead Carew, Planet Ark World Environment News, Reuters, Aug. 6, 2007)

How about a little hemp on rooftops … or fields … at least in North Dakota?  In June, two North Dakota farmers (including State Rep. David Monson) sued in federal court, trying to end the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) ban on commercial hemp farming.  The North Dakota Legislature recently removed the requirement that state-licensed industrial hemp farmers obtain DEA permits, and North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson licensed the two farmers to grow hemp. The question now is whether federal authorities can prosecute state licensed farmers who grow non-drug hemp for oil and fiber. "The legislative action was a direct response to the DEA's refusal to waive registration requirements, including $3,440 in non-refundable yearly application fees, and the agency's inability to respond reasonably to the farmers' federal applications in time for spring planting," says Eric Steenstra, Vote Hemp's president. (“North Dakota to DEA: Out of Our Hemp Fields,” press release, Vote Hemp, April 30, 2007,
www.votehemp.com/PR/04-30-07_north_dakota_to_dea.html)

And if aphids attack the hemp … get out the iridodial. Iridodial, a compound in catnip oil, matches the chemical structure of the male lacewing’s pheromone and attracts these predators – male and female – that eat aphids and mites. Researchers have developed a way to separate the oil from catnip and use it as a lure, which is being commercialized. (“’Cologne’ Attracts Beneficial Lacewing Predators,” Agricultural Research Service News Service, USDA, Rosalie Marion Bliss, June 4, 2007; see the May/June 2007  Agricultural Research magazine,
www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/may07/insect0507.htm.)

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And finally …

In May 2007, Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) gave MOFGA member Tin Smith the 2006 Land Heritage Award.  Smith helped found the Great Works Regional Land Trust, for which he has volunteered for 20 years, including serving six years as its president. Great Works stewards  3,400 acres in southern Maine.  Smith helped launch the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve at Laudholm Farm and is its stewardship coordinator. In 1998, he spearheaded creation of the Coastal Mosaic Project at the Reserve, which provides natural resource data and maps to conservation groups and is a leading GIS center in southern Maine.  Smith also helped found the Maine Land Trust Network, an education and training resource.  A resident of Wells and an organic farmer, Smith is a common fixture at the Common Ground Fair, where he sells entrance tickets.

For more news about organic farming and gardening, please visit the home page of
www.mofga.org, where current stories are posted almost daily.

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