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I want to be like Malvina

As I was reading The New York Times discussions on whether organic food is worth the cost, I bumped into many “disbelievers” and skeptics.  Well, most of you probably already know where I stand on this issue; but mind you, that this confidence and certainty did not come out of nowhere.  The credence in me sprouted from years of analyzing the facts and learning about different cultures.  Different cultures, you ask?  Yes, not everyone in the world lives the way people in the U.S. do.  Farming practices differ from country to country based on the political climate, poverty levels, and education.  Let me bring you a few examples which I’m sure will sway you to reconsider and strengthen your view-point on organics to a favorable stance.

1.  Political climate

Have you heard about what happened in Cuba?  Well, after the Soviet Union collapsed, which was supplying Cuba with its fertilizers, pesticides, and agricultural machinery, Cuba was forced to become self-reliant in its agricultural production and she did this by creating “organoponicos” or urban organic farms.  When the collapse happened, 80% of Cuba’s sugarcane trade was lost.  Consequently, in the beginning of 1990’s the land that was used to grow industrial amounts of export crops was switched to domestic food production, and tractors were switched for oxen.  More people moved from the city to this land and began implementing organic farming methods.  They really went all the way:  incorporating crop rotation, implementing composting and soil conservation, and integrating pest management.  Almost overnight, people became experts in techniques like worm composting and biopesticides (which is now one of Cuba’s biggest exports).  Those that stayed in the city established an urban gardening culture.

The way an organoponico works is by allocating an amount of land in an urban area to local gardeners, who get to keep 50% of the profits.  The produce is sold by the people who work in the garden to the people who live nearby.

The system is not perfect – Cuba is still importing 80% of its food, which I think has a lot to do with its lack of machinery.  Cuba’s imports are largely composed of wheat, corn, powdered milk, flour, and soybean oil.  Wheat, for example, requires planting, watering, harvesting (grain separation and winnowing); now imagine doing all that without machinery…  And if you notice, most of Cuba’s food exports are those that provide a high yield and can be harvested at high densities with the right machinery.  My conclusion from this is that with a little imagination, proper machinery, and constrains, Cuba can become self sufficient in a matter of time.

2.  Poverty levels

Poverty is a tricky category.  If you would draw a graph with the levels of income on x-axis and the instances of organic farming on y-axis, the graph would be a total mess with the lines jumping up and down.  This is because poverty levels are at many times correlated with other issues.

For example, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Luxembourg, has only 3% organic farms out of its total farms.  The demand, however, is rising.  Luxembourg ranks third in the European Union on the amount of euros spent on organic food per person.

Norway, similarly, owns 4.3% organic farms, but the rate has been declining throughout the last few years.  Reasons for the decline include unexpected, frequent, and stricter organic standards changes; requirements of high long-term investments; problems with weed control; difficulty obtaining 100% organic feed; low sale prices; and high employment rate and salaries in off-farm job market.

Rwanda, however, is a developing country where many people live from dollar to dollar each day.  To your surprise, there has been a steady movement towards organic farming recently.  Similarly, rural communities in Haiti are moving toward organic farming which provides prospects for young adults and creates a secure and sustainable source of food.  Humanitarian organizations come to these small villages and train families to farm organically to decrease food shortages and dependence on outside support.

There are many other reasons for the lack of or an abundance of organic farming as it relates to poverty.  For example, wealthy countries might want to import organics rather than give up land that they can better use for other more profitable production; poorer countries might be willing to farm organically if that means more exports to wealthier countries; there are also politics in effect.  Notice the situation that we have here in the U.S:  conventional farming is closely tied to the Republican political party because of its preference for less regulation and more subsidies.  It’s also the mindset of the people; I find that people who are less tied to material things and have a connection with their natural environment tend to be more open and eager to be eco-friendly.

Here are some statistics of the worldwide makeup of organic farming:

Shares of organic agricultural land in the regions 2010

Very disappointing to see that North America is way down on the list…

The countries with the highest shares of organic agricultural land 2010

Falkland Islands, hmm…  I should do a post specifically about this curious place.

The ten countries with the most organic agricultural land 2010

Now this chart is a little misleading since some countries are huge and the size of their organic agricultural land is just a small percentage of the total size of the country.

3.  Education

Education has a lot to do with organic farming.  People who buy organic tend to be more educated than people who choose conventional, causing countries with high average education index to have higher organic farming rate.  The biggest market in Europe can be found in Germany, Denmark and Switzerland which experience the highest per-capita organic food expenditure and are some of the countries with high education index levels.

Also, going back to the examples of organic farming in rural Haiti, many farmers damaged their environment by clearing trees and bushes to plant more produce due to the decreased harvest caused by worsened conditions.  They did this because they lacked the knowledge of the ecosystem and the importance of trees in keeping healthy soil and preventing unsteady ground.  After learning the methods of organic farming, they realized they can work with their environment to cultivate their farmland.  This example is not directly related to preference for organic food but it just shows how someone inexperienced and untrained can have a hard time making informative and beneficial decisions.

Finally, education drives the ability of a person to find out why organics are more beneficial and many schools are promoting organic food initiatives in their communities.

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So, where was I?  Oh yes, skepticism.  Skepticism is a wonderful thing until there are cold stone facts to wipe it away.  My advice (and this is addressed towards some of the debaters from The New York Times article) is before making a final decision on whether you are for or against organics, try to do some research, get the facts, see the root of the issue at hand, and only then when you are as informed as anyone can be, only then make your decision to rebuke or praise something.  Until that point, we are all only fanatics.

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Falling into the loopholes

After recently learning that USDA approved a final rule (at least until October 21, 2014) allowing organic apple and pear growers to use antibiotics when “natural methods are insufficient to address critical issues of production”, it made me wonder what other loopholes the USDA has created for the farmers to take advantage of.  I did an analysis of the main food categories: meat, fruits and vegetables, and dairy and here is what I learned:

Meat

naturalremedyreports.net

The amount of space or time outdoor and stocking density (crowding) are not regulated for any animals.  Some producers have a small outside space added on the buildings that house tens of thousands of chickens, but only a few birds can access it.  Access to outdoors, does not require that animals actually spend time outdoors which the free-range/free-roaming label implies.  Access may be insufficient relative to the number of animals needing access.  Outdoor access and stocking density (crowding) are not regulated. Chickens may be severely crowded and still labeled as “cage-free.”

Chickens raised for meat may be kept in continuous lighting, which does not allow rest and promotes excessive eating.  This creates a sick and stressed animal that then gets labeled “organic“.  Because the USDA does not permit the use of antibiotics sick animals may not receive needed treatment because they will lose this certification and will either be slaughtered for meat in their sick state or left to die.

Grass-fed is also a fun label full of loopholes.  Cows may be confined, yet grass-fed.  The label does not equate to grazing in a pasture.  The label may include in small print “grain-finished,” indicating that the cow spent some time confined in feedlots.

In products from birds or pigs, the label “no antibiotics” is misleading as hormones are already outlawed.

At last, with the certified humane label, there is no requirement that pigs or chickens have access to the outdoors.  Chickens may be debeaked and pigs may have their tails docked (cut off without painkillers) and still be labeled certified humane.

Fruits & Vegetables

Organic standards require that produce be grown from organic seeds, which means they are not genetically modified (GM), unless the organic seeds are not commercially available, then the conventional seeds are allowed (non-GM).

National regulations require that organic produce be grown for three years without synthetic pesticides.  Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries go through at least one rotation as non-fruiting plants, but virtually all plants — whether they will go on to produce conventional berries or organic ones — are treated with fumigants and other synthetic pesticides, including methyl bromide, a soil sterilizer and pesticide known to be depleting the ozone layer.

In 2007, the USDA released a list of 38 non-organic ingredients that could be allowed into organic packaged/processed foods and still be labeled 100% Organic.  The list includes hops, which allows Anheuser-Busch to market its Wild Hop lager as “organic,” even though the hops are grown with pesticides.

mypapercrane.com

The loopholes for fruits and vegetables are rather serious and because many people cannot buy organic all the time, the chart above will help you decide on when it is important to choose organic based on the pesticide content.

Dairy

In 2010, the USDA closed a loophole in their organic regulations, so all organic dairy cattle must now spend much of the year grazing in open pastures, as opposed to feed lots or indoor feeding pens.  There will also be an increasing the number of unannounced inspections conducted by certifiers without any prior notice.  This is probably the biggest move towards transparency in the organic market.  With all my research on the loopholes of dairy, I feel like I can honestly say that organic dairy regulation is the most transparent and trustworthy out of all other food categories.

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Reading about these issues made me realize that most, if not all, big organic producers should be denied an organic label because most of them use loopholes.  Specifically, Horizon (Dean Food’s), Cascadian Farms (General Mills), Kashi and GoLean (Kellogg’s)…

The following chart graphically focuses on the organic brands with ties to the top 30 food processors in North America and I would avoid them like the plague:

On a good note, the next two charts show major independently owned and private organic brands, respectively, which are more or less reputable:

Disreputable meat producers take advantage of the loopholes that allow inhumane practices; disreputable organic fruit and vegetable growers take advantage of the loopholes which allow for the use of pesticides; and only organic milk has become what it was supposed to be from the beginning.  In my point of view, fruits and vegetables regulations are the most disturbing because of the frankness of the law which openly allows pesticide use and will still be labeled organic.  What can we, Consumers, do?  Many things!

  1. Buy from meat, fruits and vegetables from local farms where you can check the quality of organic produce or from private and independent farmers.
  2. Support pending state laws to label Genetically Engineered Foods or tell President Obama yourself.
  3. Sign up to Cornucopia Institute‘s and Organic Consumer’s Association website where you can keep track of new developments in the organic industry, support pending laws, and check the score cards on its organic for different produce.

 

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about a necklace

I’m working on a big topic now for this blog, which is taking me longer than I thought.  I recently read somewhere that great ideas and insights usually come late at night when you release your concentration and let your mind sink into total ambivalence.  The logic to this is that when you let go and reevaluate, you start looking at a problem “outside the box”.  The step essential in this process is letting go.

Sometimes it’s difficult to let go.  As humans, we instinctively prefer familiar rather than strange because the latter suggests danger, whether it’d be emotional or physical; we like to predict the future.  And this instinct for familiarity is contradictory to personal evolution – how can a person grow without taking chances and being impulsive?  I once heard a story on RadioLab about a man who had a brain tumor removed, inadvertently causing him to lose his ability to make impulsive decisions.  This condition ultimately caused him to spend hours in a supermarket trying to decide which cereal to buy.  My point is that impulsion does wonders in small doses.  Just think about it, you primarily make rational decisions in your life by eating, going to work, crossing the road on a green light, watering your plants, servicing your car, etc, etc.  But sometimes we only lack the smallest raindrop of courage that can change our whole life.  Courage is evolution.

I had a big epiphany a few months ago, when my husband and I visited a bonsai tree farm.  The owner of the farm was a quiet man in his sixties who was an enlightened artist and a bonsai lover.  He inherited many of his trees from old friends and he exulted at the ages of his favorite specimens.  Our stop at his farm was totally impromptu and we were walking around it a few minutes before Jay came out of his house and greeted us with a warm and content smile.  He patiently began touring us around his garden, showing his prized possessions.  I really wanted to buy a tree as a souvenir of our impulsive and rewarding decision to turn around into the parking lot that plainly said “Bonsai Trees”.  As we were walking around the garden, we stopped by a miniature ivy and I knew she was the one.  Her stem curled into a 7 and she had the tiniest little leaves that followed the branches like paws.  And then Jay told me something that really made me reevaluate everything that I know; he told me that the secret of a bonsai is training.  So aside from manipulating the branches to form pleasant shapes, a grower must also train the leaves.  This is done by cutting those that grow too big and leaving the tiny ones.  That way after a few years of discipline, the bonsai tree will only grow small leaves.  He concluded by saying that although some house plants love the sun, many of them die when taken out of the house for the first time after winter.  This is because their leaves are very tender from the sunless room it lived in during the winter and they need time to adapt to direct sunlight; they should be taken out gradually with shade first, direct sunlight last.  I was in awe.  I never knew that plants adapted to their surroundings, just like people.  I realized also that a person can be trained to do anything, just like the plants.  There is a Russian tradition called “zakalyanie”, which means to gradually train the body, whether it is become insensitive to germs or to function in cold temperatures.  The latter is more exciting though – people train by running naked in the snow and swimming in ice-cold water.  This helps a person not be sensitive to cold winters and remain in good health throughout the year.  So People, get out there, train yourself to do something that you thought was impossible.  It is possible.  Everything is.

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I was going to write about one idea, but ended up with a whole necklace!  Speaking of necklaces, during my “letting it go” time, I finally completed a forgotten project of mine.  I made this wonderful crocheted necklace  from two very thin strands of cotton thread and, of course, a little bit of love.

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My first garden

I have been planning to grow herbs and berries all year now.  I even ordered a gooseberry bush last autumn and because the growers don’t want you to ruin the plant on your first planting, ahem!, they send it to you at the time designated for that plant to be planted.  Whew!  That was a lot of “plant” in one sentence!  Well, my peppers arrived a while ago and were just hanging on a pin, waiting for the right time to be seeded, while my gooseberry bush only arrived today!  I took that as a sign to begin gardening on the balcony.

Since this is my first time seeding the herbs, I decided not to waste a ton of money on potting supplies.  I made this box out of a cardboard box for cloth diapers and used the extras to make the dividers for each type of seed that I will be planting.  So far, I have many free squares, so as I buy more seeds I will eventually fill all of them up.

Then I planted the rooted branch from the gooseberry bush that I received today.  I forgot how the plant itself is very thorny, so I ended up with a few pricks and scratches.  But in the end, it was quite beautiful!  Even my dog, Benya, liked it 🙂

At last, I used the leftover organic fertilizer to water my plants that needed a little “pick-me-up” from the dry, sunless, winter that exists in my house.  But don’t worry, they are now fully revived!

And this is a jasmine tree that my husband and I received as a wedding present.  It smells great in the summer, but in the winter it becomes pretty sad.  I was happy to give it some life 🙂

Well, it turned out to be a very productive day considering my due date has passed.  It was a great way to keep my mind off of it…