Saturday, March 5, 2011

GMO's Explained-The not so good, the bad,and the ugly

Many times in this blog, and other places on the internet, I've mentioned my thoughts and cautions on GMO's. They're a big controversy because there are concerns over long term exposure and health risks. There are many reports from lab tests involving animals, and many medical studies linking them to diseases like cancer. Though there is nothing 100% definite that can state that these are a danger to human health, why take the risk?

I've tried explaining GMO's to family and friends, but, as always, most think I'm crazy or paranoid, just like they do about many things that I choose in my life. Some of them do listen, but not a single person I know personally has made the choice to avoid these crops as much as possible. Generally I hear the same things-"The FDA wouldn't let them give us anything that bad", or "I can't make a difference", or simply "I don't care what's in my food as long as it tastes good". It's strange to me how people can worry about the enviornment, using antibacterial cleansers and hand sanitizers, or cars with safer emissions, but not have much, if any, of a concern about what they eat on a daily basis. My thought behind this post is that maybe, just maybe, to get just one person to think about their food and GMO's. One at a time, we CAN make a difference.

First of all, for those that don't know what a GMO is, let me explain. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms.Genetic engineering is used to alter the genes of the very organism, using DNA molecules from different sources to create a new set of genes. These genes are transferred into a living organism (in this case a plant), giving it the traits of those modified genes. Generally, GMO's are in the plant world, but others exist and even more have been tried. Once, the DNA of atlantic salmon was modified and introduced into a tomato to attempt making the plants more frost and cold weather resistant. Is anyone seeing this? Frankenplants?

As far as I have been able to find in my research, the first GMO plant was a tomato in 1994. It was "designed" to ripen on the vine faster, stay firm longer, and have a longer shelf life after being picked. There were no GMO plants used commercially in 1997, but now in 2011 nearly 10% of all worldwide farmland is dominated by GMO crops. There are many GMO cops grown commercially worldwide, with 81% being soybeans, 64% being cotton, 29% being corn, and 23% being canola. Other crops also grown with GMO seed are sugar beets, alfalfa, summer squash, potatoes and sweet peppers. In the United States alone, 93% of the soybeans, 86% of the corn, and 95% of the sugar beets grown are genetically modified. Land devoted to growing GMO crops grew 10% in 2010, and 7% in 2007 in the United States. 29 countries plant crops of GMO's, with the United states using 165 million acres, Brazil 63 million acres, and Argentina using 56 million acres, just as the top 3 in terms of size.

GMO crops, for all intents and purposes, started off as trying to design strains of crops that would be less prone to disease, cold weather, and many other instances which can produce poor yields or crop failure. After a short time, plant genes were modified to contain the gene called Bacillus Thuringiensis. This gene comes from a soil bacteria, and through it's introduction into plant DNA, allows the plant to produce it's own insecticide. 17% of all GMO crops contain this gene. Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) works as a toxin, which binds the digestive system of insects, therefore killing them. BT is harmless to humans, so it is fairly common to be used in organic gardening or crops. OK, this isn't so bad, right? A plant, somehow through the magic of modern science, can produce it's own "natural" insecticide? While it may be "safe" to use, I simply cannot get away from the fact that man is changing nature in a laboratory. Whether it works or not is not my issue. My issue is the act itself. Are we really meant to mess with nature?

To myself, and many others across the globe, there is a much more scary part of GMO crops. These crops are modified to withstand the effects of a chemical known as Glyphosphate; which is commonly known as Roundup. Seeds are with this gene are marketed as "Roundup Ready". Fields of these seeds can be planted, and be totally sprayed with glyphospate, causing them to be nearly completely weed free. From my own research, I've found that 61% of all GMO crops in the United States are "roundup ready", while 17% of the same GMO crops are grown worldwide. What does that mean? It means that the US grows more of these crops than anywhere in the world, which also means that the US sprays more glyhosphate than anywhere else. It has been estimated that 7.3 million pounds of it was used in 1994, compared to 119.07 million pounds in 2005. That's a 1500% increase in use in just 11 years, and a LOT more chemical than I can even begin to comprehend. I honsetly can't conceive 119 million pounds. That number itself is staggering.

So, with all of the statistics I have quoted in this extremely long post, you're probably asking what my point will be. I have lots of concerns over GMO's, especially the last one. No matter what any company or laboratory might say, I cannot begin to think that 119 million pounds of herbicide sprayed on the ground can be good for not only the earth itself, but us as humans. There are lots of companies and labs that have researched the affect of this stuff, and some of the results are downright scary. There are links to cancer, low birth rate, low sperm count, birth defects, DNA damage, hormone damage,and many others including the most deadly of all.....death! Besides affects on humans, continuous spraying will ensure that most any plant that does not contain that gene will never grow on that land again. No matter how much companies claim is dissipates and loses toxicity over time, built up amounts make up the difference. It's also gone another way with weed-type plants in that the weeds build up an immunity to it over time, therefore causing them to grow different strains, which in turn mean more or a stronger dosage or mixture of the herbicide is used each year. Imagine that weeds keep evolving and becoming more resistant. What next? There are also links and studies about the runoff of the chemicals into waterways and eventually the ocean. Studies show disease in fish and ocean areas totally free of life of any kind. These areas are known as dead zones, and the largest known is in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Mississippi river. It spans approximately 7800 square miles, roughly the size of the state of New Jersey. While these areas cannot be linked totally to use of this herbicide, it is known to be a large factor due to runoff from large commercial farms. Dead zones are also increasing worldwide. Studies showed roughly 146 in 2004, and 405 in 2008.

So, what can we do to change all of this? I really wish I knew. Until the world stops consuming more food and resources than we can grow naturally/organically, these practices will continue to grow. More and more farms will use the GMO seeds, more herbicides will be sprayed, and the companies producing these seeds and chemicals will have even more of a hold on our entire food industry. These companies already dominate the industry both in farming and in home use by buying smaller seed companies so their products can expand to even our very own backyard gardens. Quite frankly, they want it all.

These GMO's are one of the many reasons why I tell everyone that possibly can to grow their own food. If you can't grow your own, try buying as much produce as possible that is grown with organic methods. Read labels.Find seeds from companies that are not just non-GMO, but aren't owned by the company who produces them, because even if you don't buy their herbicide or use it, you could be still giving them your dollars. I, for one,. want to make sure these companies never see another dime of my money.
Do your own research. Pay attention. If you can't buy your own, buy from local farmers or farmers markets who don't use GMO products. Take back our food and once again make it safe for us and for the world. One at a time we can add together and change all of this. To quote from a podcast and online forum that I frequent daily-"The Revolution is You". Remember that.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Grow your own, and please, keep it simple

As anyone who reads this blog knows, last season we managed to produce nearly 1100 pounds of our own food here at home. Sometimes even now, I look at that number and realize what an accomplishment it was. While it seems like that may have been an endless amount of work, it really wasn't. Other than the initial sod pulling, the rest was a breeze. With all of that out of the way, this year will be even easier.

That very part leads me to the reason behind this post. I've been asked many time, in many place, how we managed that much produce from just one acre. There isn't just one answer to that question, but there is one main point, and it's easy-make it a priority.

I read about and hear of so many people that have, or want to, start their own backyard gardens, and honestly, they turn it into something more complicated than building a space shuttle. I've read about people who have built a raised bed from lumber, purchased all of the "proper" ingredients to make the perfect soil, made a cumputer spread or data sheet on each and every plant, spent countless hours laying out the perfect grid to within 1/8 of an inch, and end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to grow $75 worth of vegetable. I commend anyone who makes the decision to grow even some of their own food, but at times I have to stand back and ponder the logic behind it.

It's hard for most people to consider their property to be anything more than the typical suburban lot. As much as I'd love to convince people otherwise, they've been programmed by generations of suburbanites to think of it as nothing but a lawn to be mowed and decorated with flowers and a perfectly green grass. Lawns are ingrained in our brains as the norm, but at one time were only for the wealthy. Most people had simple dirt yards (ever heard of someone sweeping the yard?), or had small gardens with a mix of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. No one owned a lawnmower, or at least one that we think of. If the grass wasn't cut with a scythe, it was kept down with livestock. The first available lawn mower wasn't available until 1870,and it was nothing more than a large scale production of a machine that was used to cut the nap from velvet in factories. The first commercial mower was born, and sales boomed as people let the grass grow. Largely after World War 2, with the growth of what we now know as suburbs, the simple reel mower has changed into the machines that we all know today, machines that can cost upwards of $5000 with one single purpose-cutting grass that has no real purpose. Most don't see it as anything but normal. Dad had a lawn to cut, so did grandpa, and now we have our own. Figure in the cost of a mower, fuel for that mower, maintenance on that mower, trimmers, edgers, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and we Americans spend $30 billion annually on our lawns. Think about that number. Thirty Billion Dollars.......on grass. It makes my head hurt.

Lawn grass has no purpose, none at all. Why have it? Why spend money year after year to grow something that you have to mantian, to do nothing with it but cut it and look at it? Why not turn that land into something usefull? In 2008, the EPA estimated that the area in the United States covered by lawns was bigger than the state of Texas. Can you imagine if that entire area, or even half of it, was used by people to produce their own food? We used close to half of our one acre for growing food last year. Just for example, the area the size of Texas is 172,000,000 acres of land. If just half of that was used (86,000,000 acres) to produce the same 1100 pounds that we managed last year, it could easily be used to produce an astounding 86,000,000 pounds of food. That figure is breathtaking. But, instead of all of that food that we could feed our family, friends, and nation with; we use it for grass. Do you see where I'm going?

My approach in the past few years has been simple. Eliminate as much of that worthless grass as possible. I've hand-dug the main garden, along with beds for strawberries, potatoes, peas, greens, carrots, cucumbers, and all of the other fruits and vegetables that we've grown here. I took the food production as a priority, and not just a hobby. To me, producing our own food is more important than nearly anything else we do. When I put it at the top of the list and dug up more areas for it, I not only was able to produce more, I was able to not spend as much valueable time on mowing, trimming, and maintaining that same worthless grass that I have mentioned many times. The initial work was hard. I can't lie about that. Every bed last year was hand dug with a shovel before tilling; but I enjoy the labor and refuse to rent equiptment to add to the cost of gardening. It is partly about saving money, right?

That brings me to the next part. As I mentioned earlier, I've seen or read of people spending hundreds or thousands of dollars putting together a vegetable garden no bigger than our car. My garden areas are extremely simple. I mark them out with stakes and string, then pull the sod layer up with a shovel. The sod is piled generally behind the garage, grass down, and covered with plastic until the following year. This way, the grass is burned off, and I have clean soil to add to areas before I till in the spring. When available, I border the beds with landscape timbers at ground level. This way, I can just mow the grass around them right to the very edge of the bed, and never have to worry about needing to use a trimmer. I use no pretty fencing or stained lumber. Just those timbers to keep the grass from growing into the beds. As always, my garden is to produce food, not to impress anyone or try ending up in some magazine. While I try me best to keep things presentable, I never, ever strive for "pretty".

We were lucky enough to have soil beneath that horrible grass that once held a vegetable garden. We haven't had to add any kind of fertilizer or other additives at all, other than the normal spring dose from our compost pile. While I'm sure that many who want to garden haven't been blessed with good soil, and they may need to work with it so it is suitable for gardening, I see lots of people that make it a lot more work than necessary. I've seen people go for a certain mix that they got from a gardening book that I won't mention. This mix, is to the author and his followers, THE only way to grow vegetables. Sure, it's a great mixture that will work wonders, but again, it isn't necessary. All you need is rich soil, and the basic old time super-secret garden soil amendments that our ancestors used for thousands of years, and still continue to use to this day. They get rather complicated, so grab a notebook and pen to write them down. Here they are-Garbage and shit. C'mon, that's all the garden needs, right? Compost and manure? Sorry to put them into such blunt words, but that's what they are. We only need terms like compost and manure to sound like we're reading straight from the gardening bible. It's no different than calling cow meet beef, or pig meat pork. It's just a made up title to cover up what it really is. But, for now I'll stick with those terms and use them, just for the sake of playing nice and non-offensive.

Anyway....back to my point. All of this soil testing and additives aren't necessary at all. Look back in time at how our ancestors fed their families year after year from their gardens. They never had to run to the local hardware store to get bags of this, packages of that, and sprays for another. They used nothing more than compost and/or manure. No peat moss, no vermiculite, and no chinamart bags of ready-to-go vegetable garden soil. They used physical labor, and what they had around them to gorw their food, and this is the very main point to this very long and outspoken post. Keep things simple. Use the basics that you have already available. Don't try to follow each and every thing that these books say. If you must use these books, use them as a guideline and not a bible. Seriously folks, don't make your garden more work than it actually is or needs to be. It's not that hard, it's not that complicated, and it's not that much work when you put it first.

Get out there and get your hands dirty. Dig your beds and grow things to feed yourself and your family. No matter what your reason behind your garden, give it the attention and respect that it deserves. Feel the power within you to free yourself, even just a little bit, from the marketing trap of the grocery store. Feel the freedom of doing things for yourself that you once felt could only be done by others. Take it seriously and make it a priority, and it will reward you with food and satisfaction for years to come.

One last thing, for those that know who I am referring to. There is a somewhat famous family who has managed to feed themselves for years on a plot of land smaller than ours. They have written books and articles, teach classes, and run several websites. By recently turning themselves into one of corporate-like, money grubbing machines that the spoke out against for so many years, they have lost thousands of followers. They stood on common garden ground with many of us for many years, but now thanks to greed, and quite frankly, egos, they are nothing now but the manure between our toes. Use them as an example. Show them that anyone can do the same things they have by making it a priority. Show them that they aren't and weren't the kings of the movement to bring homesteading back to the suburbs. Prove to them, and to yourself, that it CAN and WILL be done by anyone. Knock them off that high horse they have been riding for so long, and put them in the compost pile where they belong, with the rest of the garbage.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

After many promises of coming back to the blog, here I am. Things around here have been tough for a while, and I just honestly haven't felt inspired to blog. I still haven't been able to find work, and unemployment benefits ran out the second week of January. While our persistence on storing food has kept us fed, paying the bills has been a challenge. We're working with creditors and the mortgage company the best we can. I've had a lot of interviews, but nothing has panned out yet. Some are for seasonal work, and we're still dealing with 8+ inches of snow. Hopefully soon, spring will rear it's head and something will open. Until then, we just go day to day and do everything we can.

Our situation and the economy in general has caused a lot of changes. We've drastically changed spending habits and have made a lot of lifestyle changes. We've taken them all in stride, realizing that we are doing better for ourselves in the long run. We both have a feeling that this economy will get worse before it gets better, and plan on changing nothing about the way we live at all. In fact, there will be more changes to come. This will be the year we really push things to the limits on being self sufficient here. This year we'll try to rely on outside sources as little as possible. This year, like many behind it, will push us closer to our goals. It may be difficult to see as we juggle one bill to pay the other, but that's where it will lead. We'll get there.

During this whole mess, I tend to watch those around me. Family, friends, neighbors, internet friends, I watch them all. It's sad, but also funny to me, how most still spend despite the state of our economy. I hear people talk about the new $1200 television they just bought, or how they got a great deal on this new car. Even someone we know came straight out of bankruptcy and losing their home, and took a Caribbean cruise. I shake my head often, and wonder if people like these will ever learn. It's doubtful to me that they will. I've even known people well into their 70's that have had to file bankruptcy. Not for medical bills or lack of pension or social security benefits, but for accumulating a lifetime debt on credit cards. People sometimes make fun of my uncle, who has never had any kind of credit in his life. He simply only buys something if he has the cash. It's funny how living that way is a long forgotten way of life and way of staying out of debt. Someday we'll be able to live the same way, and life will be better because of it as well.

In spite of the financial situation, plans for this year are still pushing the limits of what we've done before. I've not only inspired to out-do myself like I have in previous years, but also because I have less and less faith in food from the grocery stores. There are so many things to be concerned about, I can't go into detail about them now. Between growth hormones, genetically modified seeds, pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, artificial flavors, and many other things, buying from the grocery store is nothing more than a game of russian roulette. We plan to break even further away from the store, and rely more on ourselves. If we were able to produce just under 1100 pounds of food last year, 2000 pounds shouldn't be a problem. We'll also be utilizing some land at my uncles this year. We'll plant things that we can, for the most part, plant and leave alone other than the occasional weeding. As of now, we plan on corn, potatoes, onions, and possibly some form of grain. I'll track that property separately than what we produce here at home, but I will add it all together at the end of the year. I'm excited to see what that total will be.

I promise folks, I'll be back into writing. I have things in my head now as I finish this that I plan on using in the next one. Now if spring would just get here to motivate me just a little more...........

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