Ancient Rice in a Modern World: Biopiracy and Bioengineering

by Michele McKay

In the course of 8,000 years, innovative Asian farmers have bred over 10,000 varieties of rice, each suited to different growing conditions and tastes. Today, centuries-old practices of traditional rice cultivation are threatened by corporate financial interests and technologies known as "biopiracy" and "bioengineering."

Biopiracy

Basmati rice, bred into many strains over thousands of years by Indian and Pakistani growers, is prized in the world market for its quality and fragrance. Approximately 80 percent of India’s Basmati rice is grown for export, and thousands of farmers depend on it for their livelihoods. In 1997 the Texas-based corporation RiceTec, Inc., was granted a U.S. patent on the name Basmati, giving it commercial ownership of the name for rice seed, rice plants, and rice grain. This case of “biopiracy” raised global outrage, as Indian rice growers and exporters would have to pay royalties to RiceTec if they sold their traditional product under the familiar Basmati name. International organizations launched a challenge to the patent, and in 2001 their effort was successful. In addition to forcing RiceTec to drop its Basmati venture, the campaign raised awareness and understanding about biopiracy and the issues associated with patenting living organisms.

Bioengineering

Although the Basmati patent was struck down, biotech giants Monsanto, Syngenta, and others are moving forward with genetic research and are patenting “bioengineered” rice. One controversial example is Golden Rice, a genetically modified organism (GMO) created by adding genetic material from flowers and bacteria to the DNA of rice. The resulting rice grain contains vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, and is touted as a solution to childhood blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. Scientists and activists who are opposed to the GMO-related corporate control of agriculture argue that vitamin A deficiency in developing countries is not caused by deficiencies in crops themselves, but by the loss of diverse sources of food. Golden Rice provides only a minimum percentage of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A, while a varied diet including leafy green vegetables, sweet potatoes, and fruit would provide families with plenty of vitamin A. If the money spent on developing Golden Rice could be spent instead on distributing seed for safe, naturally vitamin A-rich crops, a serious health issue would be addressed, while fostering biodiversity and sustainable traditional agriculture.

What you can do:

  • Vote with your dollars by purchasing GMO-free products.
  • Visit www.gefoodalert.org for information on global biopiracy and bioengineering issues.
Footnotes: 

Visit www.higean.org for information on GMO-related cultural and agricultural issues in Hawaii.

Make the Earth-Friendly Choice! Buy Organic

by Michele McKay

As the seasons turn and we enjoy the bounty of fall, September is a great time for the Organic Trade Association’s celebration of “National Organic Harvest Month.” Organic agriculture not only produces food that is tasty and good for our bodies, it is also good for the planet: organic methods work with the natural environment, they foster sustainability and they promote ecological harmony.

Organic crops are grown without the use of herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetic engineering, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Organic dairy products come from animals that are not given antibiotics or hormones to promote growth and milk production. In contrast to the many risks of commercial agricultural chemicals, organic farming provides these environmental and health benefits:

Organic agriculture protects land, water, and ecosystems through:

  • promoting biodiversity
  • fostering long-term soil fertility
  • encouraging insects that are beneficial to crops and the environment
  • supporting microbes that promote soil health
  • not harming wildlife
  • keeping hazardous chemicals out of groundwater

Organic farming practices are good for people and communities because they:

  • protect farm workers, communities, and consumers from the hazards of exposure to dangerous agricultural chemicals
  • eliminate toxic sprays that drift airborne into residential areas
  • protect water supplies from contamination

What you can do

In addition to keeping harmful chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones off our plates and out of our bodies, buying organic also supports those farmers that are practicing natural, sustainable agriculture. Consider the toxic toll of conventional crops and dairy products… then, help support the long-term health of the planet and its inhabitants by choosing organic whenever possible. Want to go one step further for the Earth? To have a truly eco-friendly diet, and to prevent the extreme suffering of animals, go vegetarian.

Footnotes: 

Visit the Organic Trade Association’s website at www.ota.com. The Organic Consumers Association has great information at www.organicconsumers.org, and on their Hawaii page at www.organicconsumers.org/state/HI.cfm. For additional local information, visit the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association (HOFA) website, www.hawaiiorganicfarmers.org or phone them at (808) 969-7789.

Feed the People... Organically

by Michele McKay

The concept of sustainability is taking root in Hawaii as citizens and government officials awaken to the benefits of self-sufficiency. Growing food organically is both a “natural” step toward sustainability and a profound opportunity to cut our dependence on fossil fuels, shipping, and agricultural chemicals.

Corporate agribusinesses have long argued that farming without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers produces low yields; they maintain that chemicals and genetic engineering are necessary for production of food on a large scale. However, research published in July, 2007 shows that worldwide, organic farming can compete with standard agricultural methods.

Researchers at the University of Michigan analyzed several published studies on the yields of organic farming, reviewing 293 samples. Their report, published in the Cambridge University Press journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems states that “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.” They went on to say, “Data from temperate and tropical agro ecosystems suggest that leguminous cover crops could fix enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in use. These results indicate that organic agriculture has the potential to contribute quite substantially to the global food supply, while reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of conventional agriculture."

Ivette Perfecto, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, said in a statement, "My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can't produce enough food through organic agriculture." She added that "Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted . . . with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies, all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food.”

What you can do:

  • Consumers vote with their dollars, so cast your vote for organic farming and a cleaner, safer environment every time you shop. By buying local, organically grown products, you will be supporting Hawaii’s own organic growers and retailers, and helping our islands move toward sustainability.
  • Visit the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association (HOFA) at their website: www.hawaiiorganicfarmers.org or phone them at (808) 969-7789 to learn about issues and opportunities. Get involved in helping to spread the good word for organic agriculture in Hawaii.

Supporting a Healthy Planet with Organic Cotton

by Michele McKay

When you say "organic" to someone, the natural response is for them to think about food. Most conversations and discussions on organic are about fruits and vegetables, but the scope of organic products does not stop there. You can also purchase organic clothes. “Why should I buy organic cotton?” you ask. “I don’t eat my clothes!” Good point... but the answer is more serious than most people think.

Eating organic food makes common sense, of course – if we don’t want to be around toxic chemicals, we certainly don’t want them in and on our food. (See more about what it means to “eat organic” in this month’s feature article) Even though we don’t eat our clothing and linens, we can understand the importance of organic cotton products when we learn a little bit about what goes into the production of conventionally grown cotton.

Textile labels often describe “100-percent pure cotton” content, leading buyers to believe they are purchasing a natural, chemical-free product. In reality, there is not much that is “pure” about conventional cotton. It is grown with mega-doses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and defoliants that contaminate the soil, make their way into ground water, and drift airborne into residential areas. They create health hazards for farmers, workers, communities, and wildlife. They kill the beneficial insects and microbes that promote soil health.

Did you know:

  • 25 percent of all the insecticide used for crops worldwide is applied to cotton.
  • 8.5 million tons of pesticides are sprayed on cotton crops annually in the United States.
  • Cotton is grown on only 1 percent of U.S. agricultural land, yet it accounts for 10% of all agricultural chemicals used annually.
  • 1/3 pound of chemical pesticide and fertilizer is required to produce one pound of conventional cotton.

In contrast, organic cotton is grown with sustainable, time-proven methods that include the use of organic fertilizers, cover crops, crop rotation, ecological pest management and beneficial insects. These methods foster soil fertility and ecosystem diversity rather than dependence on the chemical industry.

Organically grown cotton products are becoming more available as public awareness and interest increases. Leading names in the clothing industry are including organic cotton in their lines, and as demand and production rise, the costs go down. Everyone wins when more acres go into organic production.

What you can do:

Consider the toxic toll of conventional cotton, and help support the long-term health of the planet and its inhabitants by choosing organic whenever possible. You don’t need to eat your clothing to make a positive impact.

Ocean "Dead Zone" Solution: Buy Organic!

by Michele McKay

The basic principle of organic farming is to work with the natural environment, rather than against it, employing Earth-friendly techniques that eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Organic methods are widely recognized as protecting land, ecosystems, consumers, farm workers, and communities from the hazards of exposure to toxic agricultural chemicals. But did you know that organic farming can also play a life-or-death role in the sea? Recent studies reveal that the widespread use of chemical fertilizers in agriculture is causing the suffocation of marine life, the starvation of fish, and the creation of large oceanic “dead zones.”

Chemical fertilizers leach from farmlands into rivers, and then into the sea, where they cause massive algae blooms. When the algae die and decay bacterial action occurs, depleting the water of oxygen. Heavy, oxygen-deficient water sinks to the ocean floor, and bottom-dwelling organisms – those that sustain creatures up the food chain – are asphyxiated. The disastrous result is that lower marine organisms disappear, fish starve, and "dead zones" form in the sea.

In the past twenty years, oxygen-depleted areas in the tropical Pacific and Atlantic have expanded significantly in size, and the number of global oceanic dead zones has increased from 162 to 405. Researchers now agree that chemical agriculture poses as great a threat to marine life as over-fishing and habitat loss.

Robert Diaz, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary, and his colleague, Rutger Rosenberg of the Department of Marine Ecology at the University of Gothenburg, call for a change in agricultural practices to address the problem. In the journal Science, the two researchers say the dead zones are a major environmental threat worldwide, writing that "There is no other variable of such ecological importance to coastal marine ecosystems that has changed so drastically over such a short time." They report that keeping chemical fertilizers out of the sea is our best recourse.

What you can do

Organics Rid Your Body of Pesticides, Study Shows

Common sense suggests that fruits and vegetables grown without the use of hazardous pesticides and insecticides are safer to eat. This is particularly true of organic produce, which is grown without using conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.

While this is a very important point of differentiation with conventional produce, it is one of the least understood and most important considerations in choosing healthy food. A recent study published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science shows why parents should be concerned about this difference.

The peer-reviewed study found that the urine and saliva of children eating a variety of conventional foods from their local grocery stores contained traces of organophosphates (this is the family of pesticides derived from nerve gas agents created in World War II—including malathion and chlorpyrifos). According to Chensheng Lu, the principle author of the study, "It is appropriate to assume that if we are exposed to (this class of) pesticides, even though it's a low-level exposure on a daily basis, there are going to be some health concerns down the road."

In light of this study, it is undeniable that organic produce is a safer choice. When the same children ate organic fruits, vegetables and juices, signs of pesticides were not found. And when switching from conventional food to organic, the pesticides that were previously measured in the urine disappeared within 36 hours. Not surprisingly, the pesticide levels immediately returned when the children went back to the conventional diets.

While the EPA insists that "dietary exposures from eating food crops treated with chlorpyrifos are below the level of concern for the entire U.S. population, including infants and children," others beg to differ. Chuck Benbrook, (chief scientist of the Organic Center, a nationwide, nonprofit, food research organization) says that this statement by the EPA is simply "not supported by science.” Pointing to “the almost daily reminders that children are suffering from an array of behavioral, learning, neurological problems,” he questions, “doesn't it make sense to eliminate exposures to chemicals known to trigger such outcomes like chlorpyrifos?"

So what’s the solution? The gut reaction of some parents might be to limit the consumption of fresh produce, but that would be a big mistake. According to Lu, “It is vital for children to consume significantly more fresh fruits and vegetables than is commonly the case today." While it may not be practical for some people to switch to a 100% organic diet, parents should at least avoid conventional produce with high levels of pesticide residue (peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, nectarines, strawberries and cherries are among those that most frequently have detectable levels of pesticides).

For over 30 years, Down to Earth has been offering our customers a wide selection of organic and locally grown, fresh produce. While many of you already know that organic foods are safer, tastier and more nutritious (not to mention better for the environment), we hope that you’ll share this information with your family and friends.

At the end of the day, most people are very sensitive to the safety of the food they and their families eat and want to be confident that the food they consume is wholesome and will cause no harm. Going “organic” is an important step in the right direction, and they will appreciate information to help make healthy choices.

Aloha!

Tips for Growing Your Own Garden

Photo: Garden with Fresh Lettuce

by Manjari Fergusson

One of the best and most rewarding ways to live sustainably is through gardening and growing some -- or even all -- of your own produce, even if it’s just on your lanai or in a backyard garden.

Some tips to get you started:

  • Start small with pots or a 4’x8’ box bed.
  • Don’t plant too much! Just what you can handle, as you first get going. You can always add later.
  • Start composting in earnest to get your soil as healthy as possible. Also, pick up soil from a home improvement store or from a soil company – the dirt in your back yard may not be the most nourishing.
  • Make sure your plants will be in a spot where they can get at least 8 hours of sunshine each day.
  • Plant seeds that will grow well in our island climate: radishes, onions, lettuce, bok choy, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, kale, kabocha squash, taro, chayote, katuk, cabbage, green onion, Chinese greens, and daikon are some examples to get you started.
  • If you only have a small space to grow things, try to plant vining crops such as squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans. You can use a trellis or a stake to optimize space and production.
  • Water regularly.

Down to Earth sells a variety of seeds that you can pick up:

High Mowing Organic Seeds brand has sprouting seeds that sell for $5.79 including red clover, alfalfa, broccoli, and fenugreek.

Smaller bags of vegetable seeds from High Mowing Organic Seeds go for $2.79, and include basil, beets, broccoli, snow peas, gold rush bush beans, carrots, cucumber, lettuce, sweet pepper, artichoke, cilantro, kale, pac choy, dill, chard, shell pea, snap pea, parsley, spinach, tomato, squash, jalapeno, pumpkin, and radish.

With Hawaii’s year-round growing climate, even just growing a small amount of your own produce isn’t too hard and does a world of good for the planet.

Organic Food: Good for You and the Environment

by Tandis Bishop

When we think about consuming the freshest and healthiest food possible, it is important to consider two questions. One – what makes organic food natural? And the other – what impact do your shopping choices have on the environment?

On Organic food

If you’re reading this article, you are probably someone who wants to become more health conscious and to make healthier choices in your eating habits and lifestyle. You are likely to be interested in foods containing as little chemicals, preservatives, additives, or pesticides as possible. And certainly you would prefer eating foods that are not irradiated or genetically modified. In general, you want to eat food that is by nature’s arrangement, all natural.

Organic food gives you all the things you are looking for, grown naturally the way nature intended it. When you buy organic foods, you don’t have to worry because organic farmers follow strict standards to grow the most natural fruits and vegetables. They don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, hormones, antibiotics, sewage sludge, irradiation, or any genetically modified organisms. Just look for the “USDA/Organic” label, and you can be confident that stringent guidelines have been followed to bring you that wholesome natural product. Down to Earth is proud to offer you an enormous selection of such organic products.

On the Environment

Along with this awareness of wanting to eat healthy foods usually comes a concern for how we treat the environment. As we become more educated about how conventional farming methods destroy top soil and pollute our waters, etc., it is only natural to want to buy food that has been grown by sustainable agricultural methods that avoid the unnecessary pollution caused by chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Genetically Modified Organisms are another concern. Through scientific intervention to “improve” crops, mankind has potentially opened a Pandora’s box by messing around with Mother Nature. The long-term damages caused by these biological experiments could be irreversible. While government agencies argue they are perfectly safe, the jury is still out. One example of the damage that can be done by “arranging” nature is when people brought mongooses to Hawaii to get rid of the rats. It did not work, we still have plenty of rats, and now, unfortunately, there are not as many native birds.

The Easy Answer

If you want to eat healthy and/or help the environment, choose Organic foods.

Healthy Living = Healthy Planet

Photo Illustration: Green Earth

by Michele McKay

If we really want our world to have a cleaner, safer environment the most effective action we can take involves a simple thing we do every day: choosing what products to eat and to use. A healthy vegetarian diet based on organic, natural foods and the use of non-toxic household products work together to promote sustainability and a clean environment in a host of ways. When we make eco-friendly choices we foster clean air, water, and land, which benefit us in return by supporting our good health as individuals and communities. Healthy living and a healthy planet go hand-in-hand.

What you can do

Go veggie

Choosing a vegetarian diet is the single most important thing you can do for the environment. Consider the ecological havoc caused by raising animals for meat:

  • Global warming – Raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gas than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Reducing meat production could rapidly lower the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
  • Pollution – In the US, 130 times more sewage waste comes from livestock than from people. The livestock industry causes more water pollution than any other activity and is responsible for the contamination of soils, rivers, and streams with pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, manure, and heavy metals.
  • Water use – Producing one pound of meat requires 100 times more water than growing a pound of soy, and 1,000 times more water than a pound of wheat.
  • Deforestation and loss of biodiversity – 70% of all agricultural land is used for livestock (this represents 30% of the earth’s entire land surface). Forests are burned to create pastures, destroying habitat and causing incalculable loss of plant and animal species. In addition, slash-and-burning releases vast quantities of CO2.
  • Soil erosion – Animal farming is responsible for 85% of the soil erosion in the United States, and contributes heavily to the loss of irreplaceable topsoil.

Buy organic

The Organic Label means organic produce is grown without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; ionizing radiation, or GMOs. Organic dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic products are good for our bodies, they are sustainable, and they promote ecological harmony. Organic farming methods keep toxic agricultural chemicals off the land and out of our water and air, serving to build long-term soil fertility, benefit wildlife, and support biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.

Use natural, non-toxic personal care and household products

Make earth-friendly choices to keep hazardous chemicals out of your home environment. You’ll also be keeping them from contaminating our planet’s environment via their production, their use, and their disposal. What you do for your own good health will ultimately benefit the Earth’s good health!

Organics Safer for Your Health

September is a time of year when people across the country are celebrating Organic Harvest Month. Sponsored by the Consumer Trade Association, this annual event highlights organic agriculture and the growing organic products industry. It’s a great theme for this month’s newsletter as we endeavor to increase understanding and acceptance of the importance of living a healthy lifestyle based on organic and natural products. In the case of produce, the arguments are rather compelling. According to the Organic Trade Association, based in Greenfield, Mass., there is mounting evidence to suggest that organically produced foods may be more nutritious. Research documented on their website shows that, “…organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains may offer more of some nutrients, including vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, and less exposure to nitrates and pesticide residues than their counterparts grown using fertilizers and synthetic pesticides.”1 This is important for good health because many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. In the long run, organic farming techniques provide a safer, more sustainable environment for everyone. Basically, however, common sense suggests that fruits and vegetables grown without the use of hazardous pesticides and insecticides are safer to eat. This is particularly true of organic produce, which is grown without using conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. While this is a very important point of differentiation with conventional produce, it is one of the least understood and most important considerations in choosing healthy food. A recent study published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science shows why parents should be concerned about this difference. The peer-reviewed study found that the urine and saliva of children eating a variety of conventional foods from their local grocery stores contained traces of organophosphates. This is the family of pesticides derived from nerve gas agents created in World War II—including malathion and chlorpyrifos, which is one of the most widely used organophosphate insecticides in the United States and, many believe, the world. According to Chensheng Lu, the principle author of the study, "It is appropriate to assume that if we are exposed to (this class of) pesticides, even though it's a low-level exposure on a daily basis, there are going to be some health concerns down the road."2 In light of this study, it is undeniable that organic produce is a safer choice. When the same children ate organic fruits, vegetables and juices, signs of pesticides were not found. And when switching from conventional food to organic, the pesticides that were previously measured in the urine disappeared within 36 hours. Not surprisingly, the pesticide levels immediately returned when the children went back to the conventional diets. While the EPA insists that "dietary exposures from eating food crops treated with chlorpyrifos are below the level of concern for the entire U.S. population, including infants and children," others beg to differ. “This statement by the EPA is simply not supported by science,” says Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist of the Organic Center, a nationwide nonprofit food research organization. Pointing to “…the almost daily reminders that children are suffering from an array of behavioral, learning, neurological problems,” he questions, “doesn't it make sense to eliminate exposures to chemicals known to trigger such outcomes like chlorpyrifos?"3 So what’s the solution? The gut reaction of some parents might be to limit the consumption of fresh produce, but that would be a big mistake. According to Lu, “It is vital for children to consume significantly more fresh fruits and vegetables than is commonly the case today." While it may not be practical for some people to switch to a 100% organic diet, parents should at least avoid conventional produce with high levels of pesticide residue. Fruits that most frequently have detectable levels of pesticides include peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, nectarines, strawberries and cherries. Organic agriculture minimizes children’s exposure to toxic and persistent pesticides not only in the foods they eat, but in the soil in which they play, the air they breathe, and the water they drink. Choosing organic products is an easy way to help protect yourself and your family. At the end of the day, most people are very sensitive to the safety of the food they and their families eat and want to be confident that the food they consume is wholesome and will cause no harm. Going “organic” is an important step in the right direction, and they will appreciate information to help make healthy choices. For over 30 years, Down to Earth has been offering customers a wide selection of organic and locally grown, fresh produce. While many already know that organic foods are safer, tastier and more nutritious (not to mention better for the environment), we hope you will share this information with your family and friends.

Footnotes: 
  1. “Conclusive study finds big nutritional benefits for organic” Organic Trade Association, http://www.ota.com/news/press-releases/110
  2. “Harmful pesticides found in everyday food products,” http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/349263_pesticide30.html?source=mypi
  3. Ibid.

Pages