Thursday, July 29, 2010

Are We Round Up Ready?

As we were riding our bikes past the farm fields near our house this weekend, my husband commented, “Look! Round Up resistant corn growing in the Round Up resistant soybeans!” Sure enough, there were corn stalks here and there within the neat rows of soybeans. No weeds, but occasional corn stalks. Round Up resistant seeds are GMO seeds engineered to survive applications of Round Up. That way, the farmer can spray his fields with Round Up and kill everything but the seeds which just soak it in. Pretty neat, huh? 91% of soybeans, 85% of corn and 88% of cotton in the US are grown from GMO seeds according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Must work great as it’s so popular.

It does work great, but at what cost? I’ve been reading Maria Rodale’s book Organic Manifesto and learning enough to become alarmed at our government’s complicity, the ignorance in the general population (I’m one of those ignorami), and the rock and hard place that farmers are caught between. Here’s the thing with Round Up – it’s not just ON the plants, it’s IN the plants. So when you eat that soy product (and believe me you do eat soy products since soy is added to nearly everything, just ask someone who’s allergic to it!), you’re eating some lovely Round Up altered cells. You can’t just wash off the pesticide because it’s now part of the genetic make up of the plant. Dr. Warren Porter, a zoology and environmental toxicology professor at the University of Wisconsin points out, Round Up is “in the plant, not just on the plant. Fat soluble chemicals in Round Up have the master entry key into the plant and into our bodies, because every cell in our body is a fatty membrane. So anything that is fat soluble can cross the blood-brain barrier and also the placental barrier.”

I must confess that there is Round Up in my garage. My husband, like all of us, has been convinced that Round Up is safe for home use. Monsanto (imagine me invoking this name with a very cynical and disgusted voice as I believe their ethics are right on par with Enron management), the maker of Round Up, has a powerful marketing department and even more powerful government lobbyists. Before Roundup Ready soybeans were on the market, the acceptable ppm (parts per million) was 3, but the new Round Up Ready soybeans had something in the neighborhood of 20ppm. Somehow that year the EPA decided that 20ppm was a more appropriate limit. Hmmmm. Makes you scratch your head, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of a bait and switch – we’re all worried about run-off from the fields and the toxins in the air from the Round Up as it is sprayed and here what we really need to be worried about is the Round Up in the food we eat. As Maria Rodale points out, we may not just be exterminating weeds and pests, we may just be exterminating ourselves.

So what’s so bad about Roundup Ready Seeds and GMOs anyway? I mean, the government allows its use, so it must be safe. Tell that to the European Union where GMO seeds are currently banned. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine has called for an immediate “moratorium on genetically modified food.” The reason? “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.” But I’m not sure we really need a doctor to tell us this if the food we’re eating got to our table because it’s toxic to weeds and pests. It is only logical that it is toxic to us also.

So how do we avoid GMO foods?

Check out the sticker on the produce you buy, if it’s organic it will have a five digit number that starts with 9, but if it has five digits and the number begins with 8, put it back in the bin because it is a GM product. Conventionally grown (non-organic) produce has four digit numbers.

Most processed food contains GMO ingredients, no way around that and because our government hasn’t done the research to determine if GMO food is safe, you’re taking the risk yourself. I know I always come back to this, but make it yourself – avoid processed food. Know what you’re putting in your body.

If you insist (or can’t avoid) eating processed foods, read the label carefully, if any of the following ingredients are found and aren’t specifically labeled as organic, you are most likely holding a food that contains GMO ingredients:

Soybeans (including oil, flour, protein, and concentrates), corn (including oil, syrup, starch, flour), canola oil, dairy products, and meat products.

I highly, highly, highly recommend the book Organic Manifesto by Maria Rodale as important reading for all of us. She is sounding an alarm and her carefully researched and thoughtfully expressed opinions could shape our futures – if we let them. It’s a short book, she keeps to the point and it’s a fascinating read – I promise you’ll have trouble putting it down. I can’t promise it will help you sleep at night.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Eating Your Beliefs

My Groupie obligations led my kids and me to attend a church in Maryland this past weekend. After considerable WTB (Whining, Threats and Bribery), we cleaned ourselves up and headed down 83 to attend the service because dear friends were singing in the service, and I rarely pass up an opportunity to hear them sing. They sing as a family (think the Von Trappes with all grown up beautiful children). I can’t imagine my own children singing the same song, let alone standing so near each other. My kids were mildly impressed (although they were wildly impressed by the donuts – with sprinkles!). I thought they were great (the singers, not the donuts).

Anyway, during the children’s time, the church highlighted their children’s camp held the previous week. The theme was making choices about food that impact the world. I’m sure you can imagine my delight.

As committed as I am to sustainable living and organic food, I have never considered it from a spiritual perspective. The premise, I imagine, put forth during this camp was that our faith is reflected in the choices we make about the food we eat. How basic. We have an opportunity several times a day to enact our beliefs.

If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals, that should include the farmers who work hard to raise healthy food. We can choose to pay them a living wage for the food they produce. Sometimes that means paying a little more at the register or seeking out the farmers themselves so we can buy direct. It might mean supporting our farmers markets or requesting more local, sustainably grown food from the stores where we shop. It can mean reading labels about how a product was produced before we put it in our cart.

If we believe that we are responsible for the other living creatures that inhabit our planet, then we can choose to buy from farmers and manufacturers that treat their animals with respect and care. We can buy meat that has not been grown in feedlots. We can support legislators and legislation that restricts the increase of these operations and questions the conditions in which these animals are raised and our food is processed.

I am not a vegetarian. I believe our bodies were designed to eat meat. At the same time, I feel strongly that we owe our gratitude and best care to the animals raised to support us. Choosing to buy meat directly from farms where animals are raised on grass and treated with kindness helps me to live that belief.

We raise our chickens ourselves and give them the best possible life we can because they produce the eggs we eat. As much as I joke about them, they are important to our lives and we treat them as such. Next week, I am taking my kids to the farm where the cows live that provide our milk. I think we need to say thank you and see for ourselves that they are living in happy and healthy conditions.

And here’s a powerful motivator for eating healthy - if we truly believe that God created our bodies as temples, then we will treat them as such. We will take care with how we nourish it. We make a decision about the value of our bodies every time we put something in our mouths. The next time those campers reach for a bag of Doritos, perhaps they will pause before they consume the entire bag. And when they open the fridge (and stand there for what seems like hours letting all the cold air out and running up the electric bill), maybe they’ll take a gander in to the fruit drawer and consider their options.

I’m impressed with a church that recognizes the personal power that our food decisions grant us. I’m even more impressed when they find it so important that they plan an entire children’s camp around the theme.

The service we attended was wonderful – beautiful music, a strong and important message, but it was the children’s time that really challenged me and made me think. (I think this is the case at many services, yes?) As you do your shopping this week and as you plan your menus, consider whether you are living what you believe. When we eat our beliefs, we eat well and we make a difference.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A 13-year-old's Thoughts on Organic Food

I asked my 13-year-old son to write about organic food for this blog. Being 13, he gets a little side-tracked, but I think he has some helpful advice to share. His plan this summer was to “do nothing” – no camps, no sports, no job. Asking him to write this post was an interruption in his do nothing summer, so I suppose I’m lucky to get four paragraphs. When he first proposed his do nothing summer, I worried that I was raising a slacker, but upon further reflection I realized there will be very little opportunity for him to do nothing in this life, so this summer is our gift to him. Following his lead, I’m trying to carve out a little do nothing time this summer too. You’ve probably noticed my posts have been fewer and further between. But maybe you’re finding some do nothing time of your own and haven’t been following closely. Let’s hope that’s the case and if it isn’t, well, maybe you need to find a little do nothing time of your own. Enjoy.

Some Advice on Convincing Kids to Eat Organic Food

by Brady Achterberg

It seems that everything invented over the last one hundred years was something that we were better off without. TV and video games are taking up time that we would spend exercising. Cars smog up the atmosphere and cause global warming. Cell phones and microwaves may be radioactive, computers cause geekiness, Velcro takes away people’s ability to tie shoes, plastic makes landfills, and robots take up job spaces. And non-organic food… well, everyone reading this blog knows about non-organic food by now.

One of the things that I’ve really gotten into over the last three years is chickens. I am obsessed with chickens. (When you have them, you become obsessed with them; there’s no way around it.) Chickens really helped me (and maybe my little brother Ian, too) become more familiar with organic food, and now, curses, I can’t stand the taste of normal chemical-addled hot dogs and milk. But before we had chickens, I absolutely refused to eat natural foods, I boycotted maple syrup, and I went out of my way to eat “normal” food. I don’t actually know whether this has to do with chickens or not, because my little sister is about my age when I hated organic food and she’s of the same mindset of me at that time, but I would advise any person who’s trying to get their kids to eat organic (and I’m told that’s why I’m writing this post) to get some kind of farm animal to show around. Not as food, in case you already have plenty like that, but as a pet. It worked for me.

For those of you in cities, where you can’t legally own a chicken, I can’t help much, but I would suggest getting organic food without telling anyone that it’s organic. Sometimes kids can taste the difference (maple syrup, cheese crackers, most kinds of milk, hot dogs), but many times they can’t, and by the time they realize what they’re eating, they’re used to it. Also, if they are really, really insistent about a certain kind of food, then don’t bother shoving the organic version down their throats. Lastly, give them foods that taste good to them, and the kid’s definition of “good” is adult-speak for “simple:” in other words, they like stuff that has one taste, has a normal texture, is appealing in the visual sense, and has a simple taste.

So that’s about all the advice that I could give someone trying to get a kid to eat organic, but I have to say that I’m just saying what worked for me; there’s not necessarily any guarantee it will work for you. Also, to any kids reading this blog: I’m sorry I betrayed this information to the enemy. I had no other choice.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The "Amazing" Cucumber!

And here I thought we were the only ones overrun by cucumbers. A friend recently forwarded me an e-mail about “the amazing cucumber” which lists lots of surprising uses and attributes of cucumbers. (I promise this post is G rated!) Apparently there are people out there with too many cucumbers (like me) who have too much time on their hands (unlike me).

I only planted six cucumber plants this year. Three White Wonders and three Long Greens. Last year I planted nine cucumbers and it was much more than we could handle. I was pawning cucumbers off on every unsuspecting soul that ventured near our property, even taking a basket of them to the dentist with me. (The employees loved it!) So I thought six was a more reasonable number.

I have a theory that it doesn’t matter how many cucumbers you plant, they will produce cukes until you say uncle, and then just a little longer. I haven’t mastered a pickle recipe, although I keep trying, so canning them doesn’t make much of a dent in the mass. They make a great base for salsa, but the tomatoes are slow ripening this year. My youngest can eat an entire cucumber (plus half a bottle of ranch dressing) in one sitting. Besides layering them on salads and setting them out for snacks, though, too many cucumbers go to the chickens around here. So the forwarded e-mail was perfectly timed. What else can I do with all these dang-gum cucumbers?!

As I read through the list, I found myself succumbing to my skeptical nature, especially in regards to e-mails forwarded with no credit given to the original author. So I checked Snopes. They acknowledged that the e-mail had been circulating since December 2009 (who would write about cucumbers in December??). The Snopes site stated that the e-mail is “under investigation”. So I googled the title “amazing cucumbers” and found multiple blog references to a New York Times article that apparently reported much of the original claims, but still no author. So I checked out and couldn’t find any article in the past 100 years with this information. Hmmm.

So I decided that I would investigate the claims for myself. Here’s what I discovered (feel free to share this with snopes):

The Amazing Cucumber

1. Cucumbers contain most of the vitamins you need every day, just one cucumber contains Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B3, Vitamin B5, Vitamin B6, Folic Acid, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, and Zinc.

Now that’s quite a laundry list of health! claims that the flesh of cucumbers is a very good source of vitamins A, C, and folic acid. The hard skin is rich in fiber and a variety of minerals including magnesium, silica, molybdenum, and potassium. But what about the Vitamin B? I’m all about getting more Vitamin B – the energizing vitamin. I looked everywhere and could only find one document that gave any evidence of Vitamin B in cucumbers. It said one serving contained 0 mg and 1% of the Daily Value. I’m not sure how 0 mgs equals 1%, but it all looked very official. So on number 1 of the Amazing Cucumber, I’ll be generous and say the e-mail is 50% accurate, but certainly not the nutrient rich wonder claimed.

2. Feeling tired in the afternoon, put down the caffeinated soda and pick up a cucumber. Cucumbers are a good source of B vitamins and carbohydrates that can provide that quick pick-me-up that can last for hours.

OK, here we go again with the B vitamins. I already covered that. As for carbohydrates, states that a serving of cucumber slices contained 2grams total carbohydrates which equals 1% of the Daily Value. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure 2 grams of carbs would pick me up. Dark Chocolate seems to work just fine.

3. Tired of your bathroom mirror fogging up after a shower? Try rubbing a cucumber slice along the mirror, it will eliminate the fog and provide a soothing, spa-like fragrance.

This morning I turned the shower on and waited for the mirror to steam. When it did I took a cucumber and rubbed it across the surface. Guess what happened? It cleared! But only for a moment and then (just like when my youngest child leaves mirror messages for me while I’m in the shower) it fogged back up. My tea tree oil shampoo overpowered any “spa like fragrance” the cucumber might have been offering, so that was a bust, too. Later in the day, the only evidence that it was a cucumber and not a child’s finger that left the smudges on the mirror is the seeds stuck to the bottom edge. This one really has me laughing. If you rub anything across a mirror, it will clear the fog momentarily. So using that reasoning, you could say that a marigold will clear your mirror or an onion or the cat’s tail – pick your amazing item.

4. Are grubs and slugs ruining your planting beds? Place a few slices in a small pie tin and your garden will be free of pests all season long. The chemicals in the cucumber react with the aluminum to give off a scent undetectable to humans but drive garden pests crazy and make them flee the area.

This sounds too good to be true. While I don’t have grubs or slugs ruining my plant beds (thanks to the chickens), I do have potato beetles and other unidentifiable flying insects that I’d like to get rid of. And since I have cucumbers to spare, this seems harmless enough, so I’m going to give it a try. I’ll have to get back to you on this. I checked Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening on this one, figuring if anyone was promoting this simple, organic method of pest control, they would, and found no mention. Maybe it will make the next update.

5. Looking for a fast and easy way to remove cellulite before going out or to the pool? Try rubbing a slice or two of cucumbers along your problem area for a few minutes, the phytochemicals in the cucumber cause the collagen in your skin to tighten, firming up the outer layer and reducing the visibility of cellulite. Works great on wrinkles too!!!

Now, you gotta love this one. But somehow I believe if this was true, I wouldn’t have such trouble giving away my cucumbers. In fact, I’m certain that if cucumbers got rid of cellulite, it would be too expensive for me to even buy their seeds.

6. Want to avoid a hangover or terrible headache? Eat a few cucumber slices before going to bed and wake up refreshed and headache free. Cucumbers contain enough sugar, B vitamins, and electrolytes to replenish essential nutrients the body lost, keeping everything in equilibrium, avoiding both a hangover and headache!

Enough with the undocumented B vitamins! And as far as sugar, one serving of cucumber contains 1g. Still, I felt I needed to at least attempt to verify this. So last night after watching my hubby have two glasses of red wine with dinner and then a beer during the movie, I left a few cucumber slices out and instructed him to eat some before bed. He smiled and said, “Sure,” but either he was too tipsy to remember the cucumbers, or he was truly only humoring me to begin with, because the slices were still there this morning. Alas, I have no data to share on this one. Cucumbers do have a lot of water in them, though, and consuming plenty of water is always good for a hangover or headache, so I’m sure it can’t hurt. I just wonder how smart it is for drunk people to be using knives or cucumbers before bed.

7. Looking to fight off that afternoon or evening snacking binge? Cucumbers have been used for centuries and often used by European trappers, traders, and explorers for quick meals to thwart off starvation.

OK, this one makes no sense. There is a big difference between binging on Ben and Jerry’s and starving on a trapping expedition in the Alps. But cucumbers are filling (thanks to the high water content) and I do use them to fight off my 8-year-olds just-before-dinner starvation complaints.

8. Have an important meeting or job interview and you realize that you don’t have enough time to polish your shoes? Rub a freshly cut cucumber over the shoe, its chemicals will provide a quick and durable shine that not only looks great but also repels water.

Uh, huh. My hubby wouldn’t let me try this on his good shoes, but I did take a cucumber to a pair of his leather work boots. In the end they were a little darker (and crusted with cucumber seeds), but they didn’t look any better, in fact, they look a bit worse. Don’t try this one at home! Better to have dingy shoes, than cucumber seeds trailing you at the interview.

9. Out of WD 40 and need to fix a squeaky hinge? Take a cucumber slice and rub it along the problematic hinge, and voila, the squeak is gone!

I had to try this on our bedroom door hinge, which squeaks horribly. (Of course, it’s a wonderful warning signal that small people are approaching in the night) Amazingly enough – this one works! At least for 24 hours now. And as far as living the organic life, cucumbers are certainly better for the environment than WD 40. Their shelf life isn’t quite as good though.

10. Stressed out and don’t have time for a massage, facial or visit to the spa? Cut up an entire cucumber and place it in a boiling pot of water, the chemicals and nutrients from the cucumber will react with the boiling water and be released in the steam, creating a soothing, relaxing aroma that has been shown to reduce stress in new mothers and college students during final exams.

It’s 100 degrees today, so boiling a pot of water is out of the question. Besides, I haven’t got any new mothers or college students handy, so I have to just take their word for it on this one. There are enough expensive cucumber spa products out there to verify that this is either true or one of the greatest marketing hoaxes of the century.

11. Just finish a business lunch and realize you don’t have gum or mints? Take a slice of cucumber and press it to the roof of your mouth with your tongue for 30 seconds to eliminate bad breath, the phytochemicals will kill the bacteria in your mouth responsible for causing bad breath.

And if you don’t have gum or mints handy, I’m sure you have a cucumber slice in your purse! This is another one too dangerous to try at home. Holding a cucumber slice to the roof of your mouth for 30 seconds may sound simple, but not only is 30 seconds an eternity when you have a cucumber stuck to the roof of your mouth, it’s very hard to breathe and leads to drooling.

12. Looking for a “green’ way to clean your faucets, sinks or stainless steel? Take a slice of cucumber and rub it on the surface you want to clean, not only will it remove years of tarnish and bring back the shine, but it won’t leave streaks and won’t harm your fingers or fingernails while you clean.

Now, you know me. I’m all about ‘green’ cleaning, so I was all over this one. Sadly, again the only real difference I saw in the stainless steel was the cucumber seeds that clung to the still dingy sides of my old tea pot.

13. Using a pen and made a mistake? Take the outside of the cucumber and slowly use it to erase the pen writing, also works great on crayons and markers that the kids have used to decorate the walls!

I enlisted my daughters help on this one. But after a good 30 seconds of rubbing slowly and then with increasing intensity, I gave up. She did claim, "one of the letters seems a little smudged now." Glad we didn’t try it on a wall.

The e-mail concludes with the advice to “pass this along to everybody you know who is looking for better and safer ways to solve life’s everyday problems.” While it did provide some entertainment for our family, there isn’t a whole lot to take away from this list. But cucumbers are really good for you – especially fresh, locally grown ones.

Cucumbers have high water content (95%), fiber-rich skin, and plenty of potassium and manganese which all help regulate blood pressure, so that’s good. You can apply cucumber topically to reduce swelling and pain in sunburns and dermatitis. And placing cucumber slices on your eyes, not only helps reduce puffiness, but makes you look incredibly silly to your children.

If you don’t have any cucumbers of your own, it’s not too late to plant some in your own garden. There are a few varieties that are only 50 days from seed to maturity. They can even grow vertically in a pot with a strong trellis. You want to pick your cucumbers before they get too bloated and overripe – pick them when they are still bumpy and ridged. Once they become yellow or white streaked they are past their prime. They still taste good, but they lose their firmness and aren’t so good for recipes or pickling.

The cucumber is amazing even if it can’t do all the parlor tricks listed in the e-mail. It’s amazing because it’s easy to grow, good for you, tastes delicious, and is extremely prolific. Stop by – you can try one for yourself. And if you’ve got any great cucumber recipes to share – I’m all ears!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Bathroom Built For Two

Do you know what’s clogging up our landfills more than all the disposable diapers and lunchable containers? Construction materials. They make up approximately 20-30% of the debris in our landfills depending on whose report you’re reading. This kind of amazes me because we aren’t allowed to toss out construction materials in our regular trash. I just assumed there was money to be made on pickup trucks full of construction trash and a special dump just for them. I admit we occasionally hide a piece of drywall or the remnants of a pressure treated 2 X 4 in the bottom of our trash bag, hoping some animal doesn’t get in to the garbage overnight and expose our crime before the garbage truck carts it off unawares.

We are in the midst of a bathroom renovation. The walls of our master bath have had a creeping mold that I have been battling since the day we moved in. Finally those walls are coming down thanks to my diatribe about the mold (either that or the fact that there is only one sink and I’m a bathroom hog of sorts). I remember reading about some couple who had stayed together and in love for 60 years and when they asked the wife what the secret was, she said she kept her bathroom business private. In all those years her husband had never seen her tinkle or put on deodorant or scrunch up her face to put on mascara. I like the idea of keeping my personal business private, but that’s impossible when you share a bathroom so moldy and tiny, you feel it’s dangerous to shut the door.

So last week we set to tearing out those walls. And while we were at it, we decided to add another sink and a real bath tub (claw feet and all!). But doing this created some serious construction debris. It was just like when I clean out the car. It’s really hard to believe all that stuff came out of such a small space. We had dry wall, framing boards, tile, insulation, and bathroom fixtures. But we also had pipes, electrical boxes, a beat up door plus its frame, a shower rod, and lights. In my mind, everything had to go, but it didn’t have to go to the dump.

We added most of the dry wall to our compost pile up in the woods. I read the pros and cons and decided that it’s basically inert materials (gypsum and paper, plus a little glue and maybe some fiberglass), so it will decompose with the right amount of moisture and time, especially if it’s broken down in to small pieces. Since we let the kids have at it with hammers, the dry wall was in really small pieces. I dumped it on our long term compost pile where the barn and yard waste cook.

I pulled hundreds of nails out of the framing wood and we are re-using it to frame the new bathroom. My husband dubbed me the “Queen of De-construction.” Most everything else – the tub, sink, cabinet, medicine chest, lights, even the toilet who’s cap I broke in the process of moving it out to the driveway, plus the door and the all the electrical plates, will be picked up next week by an organization called ReStore York where they will be used in low-income housing projects or sold to penny-wise builders to be repurposed in useful ways.

The tiles have been stacked neatly in the shed for the kids to paint and use to create pathways in the garden. In the end, there is really not that much headed for the dump -a little carpeting, some moldy insulation (all the non-moldy insulation we re-used), some concrete boards from around the tub and some sewer piping, plus lots of bent nails (although I’m still trying to figure out if they’ll recycle the steel).

We throw out way too many useful things in this country. I remember volunteering at an orphanage in Tijuana with a group of teens many years ago. There was a garbage dump nearby. The images of the people who lived in that dump are still clear to me -the aristocracy of the desperately poor with first dibs on all the stuff that was thrown out, salvaging everything, doing the work of scavenger birds as they climbed and dug and sorted. The next time you are tempted to throw out the appliance you no longer need or the light fixture that is outdated, pause and figure out if there is any use left in it. If there is, pass it on. This country is full of many needs – you just might be able to fill one. Here’s some resources to help you do that:

ReStore York 717-852-7574 – works with ReStore, but also welcomes your donations and time - online green building information – a website that allows you to search for businesses that rent, repair, or sell used products across Pennsylvania

If none of these organizations can help you, there’s always Craigslist or Freecycle.