Monday, December 29, 2014

Thoughts on Glyphosate to end the year

Well, yet again, an entire season has gone by with no blog posting on my part. I will post a review in the new year, but for now, let's just say that I'd like to leave 2014 as a vegetable growing season behind me and really hope there's more sunshine, literally, in 2015 ;P

In addition to farming, I have also been a director of the National Farmers' Union - Ontario (NFU-O), Grey Local 344 branch, for the past three years. This year, we were able to sponsor part of a speaking tour by Dr. Thierry Vrain in our area. The following is a newsletter piece I wrote for our membership summarizing the talks.


On November 1, 2014, our NFU-Ontario Grey Local 344, sponsored Dr. Thierry Vrain to speak in Flesherton and Owen Sound. Dr. Vrain is a retired 30 year employee of Agriculture Canada working in the field of genetics. Dr. Vrain is touring Canada to spread information about what he believes to be the dangers of glyphosate use to our health. GM refers to genetically modified, but Dr. Vrain pointed out that really, the 'G' should refer to 'glyphosate' which is the active ingredient in Roundup. This is because the only widespread food GM crops are corn, soy, canola and sugar beet, which are all engineered to be 'Roundup Ready' (RR), meaning that they survive being sprayed with Roundup while all the
weeds die. Currently, around 500 million acres of RR corn, soy, canola, sugar beet and cotton are grown, sprayed with close to two billion pounds of glyphosate (Roundup) each year worldwide.

Dr. Vrain presented the patent history of glyphosate which was eye opening on its own. It was first created in 1960 by Stauffer Chemicals as a descaling agent to clean out industrial pipes and boilers. When the cleaning residue was poured out on vegetation, it was found to kill everything, which is when Monsanto bought the molecule, and then went on to patent it as a herbicide in 1969. Glyphosate functions as both a descaling agent and herbicide because it's a chelator, meaning it binds with metal. In a plant, glyphosate bonds with the manganese atom at the centre of the EPSPS (5-Enol Pyruvyl Shikimate-3 Phosphate Synthase) metalloprotein, thereby preventing the plant from making certain amino acids, which kills the plant. Glyphosate has no apparent immediate toxicity to mammals, but previously there had been no research to see if there are any effects beyond three months.

Since the original descaling and herbicide patents, glyphosate has also been patented as a dessicant and antibiotic. As a dessicant, glyphosate is sprayed on non-RR crops, like wheat, barley, beans, peas, etc., to kill the crops before harvesting, which matures and dries the plants quickly to make them easier and cheaper to harvest. This means there is glyphosate residue not just on the RR food crops, but also non-RR food crops (organic crops cannot be sprayed with glyphosate). Many, but not all, farmers use glyphosate as a dessicant on their non-GM crops, but it's impossible to find numbers to determine how many Ontario farmers do follow this practice.

The most disturbing patent of all is glyphosate as an antibiotic. Given widespread concerns on the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming, it is even more alarming to consider the long-term effects of glyphosate as an antibiotic on millions of acres of soil. And glyphosate didn't just become an antibiotic when it was patented as has always had antibiotic effects! Varying levels of glyphosate residue are found in pretty much all non-organic foods (anything with grain, soy, sugar (whether from corn or beets), etc.), which means our guts are receiving constant antibiotic doses. Glyphosate disrupts the shikimate pathway of beneficial gut microbes, which have far reaching effects on our health. There has been much talk of the current trend to gluten-free diets due to 'wheat belly' issues; on further reading into the subject, it appears this may not be a problem of wheat, but possibly of glyphosate residues. In the past few years, scientists are starting to discover more and more how human health is influenced by its microbiome, which is the community of microorganisms that live in our bodies (mostly our digestive tract), helping us to digest, produce various proteins, and even heal ourselves. Nancy Swanson performed a number of statistical analyses on the US Centres for Disease Control's health statistics compared with statistics from the US Department of Agriculture about the spread of RR soy and corn. Her correlation analyses showed high coefficient values linking glyphosate residues in RR food, and many chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and autism. Though this is not proof of causation, it is certainly strong cause for concern, and calls for more research on the long-term effects of glyphosate residue on human health.

All of glyphosate's effects relate to its metal binding properties. That's how it kills plants, bacteria and fungi. More recently, scientists are starting to sound the alarm as to the impact of glyphosate on animal and human cells. In the human body, glyphosate binds to the iron atom at the centre of CYP enzymes, which are oxydizers, the first line of digestion and detoxification of most substrates. And glyphosate accumulates in our bodies, the soil and water. Glyphosate also binds metals in soil, rendering them inert and unable to be taken up by plants, potentially reducing the nutritional quality of those plants. Given the very nature of glyphosate and given what we are learning about the importance of our gut microbiome, it seems foolish to consider it to be safe for human consumption, and yet, it is everywhere in our food supply. Given the various long-term studies that are finally coming out about glyphosate's effects on human health, we, as farmers and eaters, Vrain said, should consider whether we think its use is healthy for our bodies or the environment, and we should pressure our governments to do the same. Certainly, more scientific study is needed, but in the meantime, perhaps more attention should be paid to the precautionary principle and the value of organic foods and farming, along with more independent and publicly funded research.

I post this here not to alarm or depress, but to provide information that many of us have probably never heard before. Some of this information was certainly new to me when I heard it, and I work in organic agriculture. The major diet change that I will make in response to this, is to switch to organic flours, making more of my own bread (I'm also lucky in that my partner grew up baking bread for home and so is quite skilled at it!), and buying organic pasta. I already eat mostly organic vegetables and fruits, but you can also rest assured that glyphosates aren't used on vegetable crops once they're planted, though I can't speak for if Roundup is sprayed on non-organic fields prior to vegetable planting. I also stick with organic, pasture raised meats, which I buy in many pound bundles in late fall and keep in deep freezers for use throughout the year. It is possible to reduce our exposure to glyphosate residues by eating more organic foods.

We should also lobby our governments for more transparent food labelling, as well as publicly funded research to see exactly what's going on. Check out:
Tony Mitra is a BC activist, who was also with Dr. Vrain on the speaking tour. He has an excellent idea for how we, as citizens, can take glyphosate residue testing into our own hands and share the results with everyone, so that we can all be better informed about where it is in our food supply.

Mr. Mitra shared many stories of how we can influence government, especially at the municipal level, and work for change successfully. It was very inspiring and gives me hope that we can indeed effect change beyond our purchasing choices. This year, I added my voice at the county level to oppose the removal of wetlands protection from Bruce County's official plan. Enough other people and organizations did the same, and so Bruce County is not going ahead with the removal of wetlands protection. I (and the NFU) have also spoken up about neonicotinoid use and its detrimental effects on pollinators, and now the Ontario government is looking to phase out widespread use in the next few years. This is not a done deal yet, with much consultation still to be had and a lot of opposition from the producers of neonicotinoids (Bayer, Syngenta) and industry (Grain Farmers of Ontario), who have taken out major national ads opposing the Ontario government's announcement. I will continue to speak up for pollinators and encourage you to do the same.

If you're wondering how to 'speak up' other than signing on-line petitions...the various levels of government usually have open, public consultation for changes such as these, where you can submit a letter with comment. Here's where to go to comment on the neonicotinoid issue:
You have until January 25, 2015 to read up and share your thoughts.

Corporations should not be in charge of the foods we eat, we should be.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

CSA subscriptions open for this year!

I've got a handful of new spaces open for this year's vegetable CSA. If you've ever considered joining a CSA for a season, this is the time to sign up! Joining a CSA supports local farming, contributing to a viable sustainable farming sector in Ontario.

A CSA subscription with Black Sheep Farm gets you 10 vegetable packages over a 20 week season from mid/late June to end of October/early November. Depending on how this spring progresses (if it ever comes!), the first vegetables will be ready to harvest in June. Seedlings will be starting this month at the farm, like onions/leeks, soon followed by tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and then the various cucurbits (cucumbers, zucchinis, winter squash, pumpkin). I look forward to seeing seeds come to life soon :)

The total cost for the season is $400 ($350 if you're local to the farm and come to the farm to pick up your package). Even though fuel prices are much higher now than when I started farming in 2009, I'm holding the CSA subscription price steady for at least another year.

I'm trying a few new vegetables this year, like arugula (a gorgeous variety called Dragon's Tongue) and rapini/Chinese broccoli. I'm also adding a couple new tomato varieties, called Indigo Rose and Nebraska Wedding. On the bean front, I'm adding a fresh green bean called Black Valentine Bean and a striped bean called Tongue of Fire. For winter squashes, I tasted Sunshine at a pot luck in January and was smitten by its wonderful taste and texture, so that's been added to the growing list too! For zucchinis, I'm going to try out a new yellow striped variety called Sun Stripe.

I've also picked up a few new tools for this year. I bought a stirrup hoe from Johnny's which I'm super excited about. I've been wanting one for years and hoping that a Canadian distributor would start carrying it (Lee Valley, the Hula Hoe doesn't quite cut it...), but finally broke down and ordered it from the U.S. this year. Now I have one more tool to counter all those weeds this summer! I broke my dinky little harvest knife this winter cutting through bale wrap on my hay bales for the sheep, so I decided it was time to get real harvest knives (not random kitchen steak knives). So from William Dam, I got their produce knife (kind of like a mini machete, only 8" instead of 12"+!) and a curved serrated blade that I'm hoping will be good for all those salad greens, baby chard, etc. Hopefully now, I'm all set :)

Now I just have to make a trip to pick up more row cover (damn flea beetles and cucumber beetles!) and some peat/grower's mix. I'm also on the look out for black lumber wrap (not the woven kind) and unprinted cardboard as mulch for the field under the hot crops (peppers/eggplant) and cucurbits. If this summer's going to be as cool as predicted, I'm going to have to figure out how to retain more heat in the field!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Environment under Siege

I woke up this morning to saddening news. Federal scientists confirm that Alberta oilsands tailings ponds are leaking, polluting ground water and seeping into the Athabasca River. This is not new news. This didn't just happen yesterday. But this news is important because federal scientists are saying it, and not just maligned environmental groups. This information is from some of the few remaining scientists at the federal level, after many research facilities have been closed or had their funding reduced (see a very scary list here:, as our federal government continues to muzzle all voices that do not agree with them.

I cried this morning because of this news. I was born and raised in Alberta. My family took regular trips to the Rockies, driving along the TransCanada Highway, seeing the sparkling waters of the Athabasca river. When oilsands projects became more economically feasible with the rising price of oil (around 2006) and the rate of oil extraction increased, all I could think was that this is an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. We're like frogs coming to boil in a pot of water right now, not noticing the temperature increasing until we're dead. If the environmental impact is relatively slow and not glaringly obvious (though anyone visiting any tarsands site couldn't possibly think that), we don't notice, or want to notice. This is why environmental damage, aka climate change, can be ignored or denied by so many people. Because if we actually believed it was happening, how could we, as a society, vote in governments that deny, and in fact attack, environmental warnings from multiple scientists and environmental agencies? Yet, that is the political climate that we live in right now, with Harper's government at the federal helm.

I've never felt so afraid to speak my mind about government and the environment. I've always felt privileged to live in this Canadian democracy, naively believing in free speech and that my vote counts. I haven't written a blog post for many months because I've been afraid of how my own words can be twisted against me. This past year, in addition to farming, I've been appealing an Employment Insurance ruling against me from 2008/2009 that used as evidence, my own blog posts about finding a new career in farming. After much stress and time spent preparing a lengthy written rebuttal (with much welcome input from friends), I appeared before the Appeals Tribunal in July 2013 and I won my appeal. But along the way, I felt persecuted by my own government, shamed by their false accusations, and afraid of its power over me: to garnish my earnings, to take my land, to stop me from farming. This was the rotten cherry on top of a whole load of other government issues which have been raising my political ire for years.

I am not the only one who feels persecuted. The Harper government is shaking out the couch cushions, looking for every dollar given out that they can take back, and they seem to be targeting those people who don't have the resources to fight back. People supposedly like me, barely eking out a living, unable to hire lawyers, or take time off from work to put together a defense, or perhaps without the analytical and writing skills to do so. How many people get the government letter and go further into mountains of debt as a result, without the perseverance, sheer stubborness and/or energy required to sit on hold on the phone, get hung up on, sit on hold again, read through government documents, look up legal acts on line and all their changes over the years, and construct a meaningful defense? Meanwhile, those with great resources defraud the government with impunity. Much like the corporations who cause the pollution, benefit, and then our tax dollars are used to clean up their messes.

Harper is also targeting environmental groups because they keep speaking up about the negative impact of our country's continued preference for fossil fuels (oilsands & pipelines) as our major government backed resource. They currently face Canada Revenue Agency audits ( ). I remember a few years back when a Mennonite newsletter was threatened with losing their charitable status because one of their youth columnists asked people to make informed voting choices (thereby implying it wouldn't be for Harper's government). Harper's government doesn't have to send the police after you (though they did with the G20 protests in Toronto), they'll just use whatever government agency is at their disposal to persecute you.

The Harper government fear mongers...there won't be any jobs without the oilsands...our economy will tank...oil is inevitable. And they bully...unemployed people throughout Canada flock to Alberta for work, partly because new EI rules almost require them to do so. And we wonder why our kids suffer from so much bullying in schools and at such young ages, either as bullies or the bullied. Our own government and society set the tone, with adults bullying each other in government and corporations. They serve as the template.

Everyone needs to feed themselves and their families, but our country doesn't have to be so heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry. Profit at the expense of the environment doesn't have to be our only choice. The IMF released a study in March 2013 stating that countries need to rein in energy subsidies. For Canada, in 2011, that subsidy amount was $26 billion ( ) to the fossil fuel industry. Imagine if that money were spent on research and development into renewable energies instead! Maybe we'd already have more efficient and affordable solar cell technologies and wind turbines that aren't so controversial.

I live in a region that hates wind turbines. This is not essentially because they are green energy, but because they are imposed by the provincial government and outside corporations and do not benefit the communities into which they are placed. I don't blame people here for hating the wind turbine projects, which set neighbour against neighbour and increase the urban/rural divide. People in Toronto would fight even harder against them if they were made to install them in their neighbourhoods. Yet wind energy doesn't have to be harvested in such large scale, monolithic projects. Many other technologies could be developed at various different scales and installed accordingly in different environments. The same can be said for solar projects. Our government and society's obsession with large, corporate projects, means we've stopped considering other ways of doing things. Resilience and diversity are not  prized in the corporate world; economies of scale and efficiency are the buzzwords there, though they are the opposite of how our natural environment works.

I went into sustainable farming because I think it's somewhere I can impact personally, even if only on my 40 acres of land and spread out to the 60 odd families in the GTA I supply with food in a growing season. I believe if hundreds and thousands more of me could do the same at various scales, the world can actually change. I have been accused of great naiveté on this front, but I would rather do something, at whatever scale I can impact, then pretend the world is ok the way it is.

I refuse to be afraid any more. I'm writing this blog post today because I'm fed up. I've survived one government persecution, and while I hope to stay completely off their radar in the future, I can't be so afraid of poking the beast, that I say nothing at all in this public forum.

I believe there are many solutions to our environmental problems and that we need a society and governments that are willing to explore the various options. We do not need to be afraid to try new things, to say no to technologies that damage. We can disagree with our governments and vote for the people and ideas that represent what we actually want in our society (if they would actually have the courage to run for office!). I wish for a democracy not based on fear-mongering, that allows communities a say in their futures, where our political representatives are worthy of respect. I wish for a country whose various industries succeed without destroying the environment and without exploiting their workers. I wish for us all to feel empowered to bring about change.