Sunday, November 22, 2009

Biotech Beets, no thanks maan!

Biotech beets? No thanks, maan!

Pickled beets. Harvested from the back garden in fall when the sun takes a shorter path behind the outcrops; cut up and pickled in a toasty warm kitchen with the stove blasting enough heat to melt all of Antarctica. Pickled beets are nice with just about any meal served, from traditional Newfoundland Sunday dinner [a ‘tastyful’- as my kids would say - mix of cooked whole potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onion, salt beef] to a sushi sidekick. And then there’s sugar beets. What’d we do without them?

Here are two articles: one recent on new problems facing biotech beets, another from 10 yrs ago on the whole dang GMO thing. Enjoy! (with or without pickled beets).

Thursday, November 19, 2009
Bitter fight developing over sugar beets
Virtually the entire sugar beet crop in the United States is genetically engineered to protect it from herbicides. Now, a lawsuit claiming the biotech beets pose a risk to other varieties could threaten sugar production.
[to read rest of article:

ABC’s of the New Food:
A doubter’s guide to genetically-altered grub

Brave new world or biological catastrophe? Either way, genetic engineering (GE) is a technology that promises to jet stream us into an unchartered world. But GE food. Who’s eating the stuff? You, me and the baby next door. Our supermarket shelves are stocked with food containing GE ingredients.

Who is creating GE food? Why? Now that’s interesting. How about some of the makers of such late 20th century toxic nightmares as Agent Orange and PCBs. And if we believe some of their public relations departments, they are on a philanthropic mission to help feed the world.
But already the GE menu is serving up a dollop of controversy: from sick lab rats fed on GE potatoes, to unhealthy cattle injected with growth hormones, to a GE substance linked to several human deaths.

Developing alongside this revolutionary technology is a cryptic vocabulary, sugar-coated by its proponents, given bite by its critics, making for some indigestible fare. Here then is a short guide for the gastronomically-perplexed.

A Antibiotic Resistance marker genes, added to most GE food to indicate that it has been successfully engineered, is raising a concern - that they make animals and humans more susceptible to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

B Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt). Bt, in its natural form, has been used as a biopesticide for a half century by organic farmers. Now biotech companies are creating crops with a built-in pesticide. But research suggests that the buildup of Bt toxins in the soil, from GE Bt crops, are harming beneficial insects and will hasten the evolution of Bt-resistant insects.

C Cartagena, Columbia, where the passage of an International Biosafety Protocol Treaty was prevented earlier this year by six grain-exporting countries including Canada. Over 135 nations supported the Protocol which would have tightened regulations on the international transfer and trade of GE seeds, grains and food (see Labelling).

D Dairy Cows in the U.S. can be injected by farmers with a GE bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production. Citing animal health problems, Canada’s Health Department recently rejected approval of rBGH for use in Canada.

E Are We the Experiment? Leading GE company Monsanto’s director of corporate communications told the New York Times last October that the company should not have to vouchsafe the safety of its biotech food. "Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] job."

F Frankenfood is what many Europeans call GE food, still reeling from mad cow disease that shook their faith in food regulators. Many are now calling for an EU moratorium on these foods, following the vindication of British scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai, whose explosive research showed that GE potatoes fed to rats damaged their internal organs and immune systems.

G Genetically Modified Organisms (aka transgenic) can be plant, animal or any life form that has had its genes artificially altered by gene-splicing - or recombinant - techniques.

H Horizontal gene transfer. Transferring genes horizontally between species that do not interbreed is central to creating transgenic organisms. To do this, genetic engineers use vectors, like viruses and other infectious agents. Critics say these methods may create new viral and bacterial pathogens (see Antibiotic, and Virus).

I Introgression of genes - the flow of genes between plant species mainly through cross-pollination. Some scientists say that the same characteristics that enable GE crops to grow in marginal environments could be passed onto their wild relatives. This could upset ecosystems and result in costly weed control.

J "Just Say No to GEOs" is the message from Hain, a self-proclaimed leading U.S. natural foods company. Responding to consumer pressure, its products now have a ‘Pure Food’ label indicating they are free of GE organisms (see Labelling).

K "Keep the organic label off GE food" says the Council for Responsible Genetics, a U.S. group of scientists and public health advocates. Should the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopt a proposed regulation allowing GE foods to be sold under the organic label, consumers will be unable to choose non-GE foods.

L Labelling of GE foods is not required by current laws in North America, but consumers in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan are now demanding it of their governments. Labelling advocates say consumers need the freedom to choose what they feed their families, and stress that the early detection of harmful food will be difficult or impossible without labelling (see Unexpected).

M Monsanto. Once a major chemical conglomerate who brought the world Agent Orange and PCBs, Monsanto reengineered itself in 1985 into a ‘life sciences’ company. With an estimated worth of $35 billion U.S., it is the world’s dominant biotech corporation, and uses GE in its drug, food ingredient and agricultural divisions. Monsanto will likely appeal Canada’s decision to refuse approval of the use of its bovine growth hormone on Canadian dairy cows.

N ‘Novel’ foods, the industry term for genetically modified foods.

O Organic farmers in the U.K. are concerned that their crops could be cross-pollinated and contaminated by GE crops growing nearby. Loss of their organic status and business could thus result (see Keep and Bt).

P Patents are a cornerstone of the GE industry, providing ‘intellectual property rights’ over living things. Critics claim that patents threaten biodiversity, saying that a few corporate-owned GE crops will replace natural crops. And others stress that the world’s food supply will become controlled by a few powerful GE companies or ‘gene giants’.

Q Quotable quote: "Genetic engineering is often justified as a humane technology, one that feeds more people with better food. Nothing could be further from the truth. With very few exceptions, the whole point of genetic engineering is to increase the sales of chemicals and bio-engineered products to dependent farmers." - David Ehrenfield, Professor of Biology at

Rutgers University, in Resurgence magazine.
R Roundup-Ready. First Monsanto produced the herbicide Roundup. Then it created GE soybeans and canola seed tolerant of the herbicide. Farmers can spray these Roundup-Ready crops without killing them. Critics say the herbicide resistant genes could transfer to neighbouring weeds.

S Suicide Seed. When is a seed not a seed? When it’s a Kamikaze-style suicide seed (see Terminator).

T Terminator or Traitor Technology, a technique of genetically programming a plant to prevent its seeds from regerminating in a second growing season, has received wide opposition. Critics say that the technology, dominated by a handful of agro-industrial companies, may undermine the wellbeing of poor Third World farmers who depend on farm-saved seed.

U Other Unexpected effects. The death of 37 people and disabling of hundreds of others has been linked to the GE-produced food supplement Trytophan. The company was allowed to sell it in the U.S. without safety testing as they had been selling Trytophan produced with non-GE methods for years. Because the GE product was not labelled as such, the cause of the poisoning took months to discover .

V The Virus Hazard. Most GE crops contain virus genes to give the crop resistance to invading viruses. (A virus resistant squash, for use as baby food, is up for approval.) Some scientists are concerned that inserted virus genes could combine with a wild virus to produce a super, deadly virus.

W The late Dr. George Wald, Nobel Prize Laureate in Medicine, and one of the first scientists to speak out about the dangers of GE. In 1976 he wrote "Up to now, living organisms have evolved very slowly, and new forms have had plenty of time to settle in. Now whole new proteins will be transposed overnight into wholly new associations, with consequences no one can foretell...Potentially it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics."

X A nutty Xperiment - when a gene from the brazil nut was spliced into a soy bean, strong allergic reactions in people allergic to nuts but not soy beans resulted when they ate the GE soy product.

Y - You are what you eat. Some GE foods already on our supermarket shelves are: soybeans (used in breads, baby foods and formulas - soya occurs in about 60 per cent of processed food); canola oil; corn (in corn syrup, corn starch, sweeteners, corn chips); insect resistant potatoes; transgenic tomatoes; yeast (used in bread, spreads, food supplements, pizza base, beer and other processed foods).

Z - Zeneca. Across the pond, U.K.-based Zeneca recently merged with Astra of Sweden to create another gene giant. According to the Rural Advancement Foundation International, the biotech multinational is racing to patent ‘Verminator’ which, they say, will produce "junkie plants that are physically dependent on a patented chemical cocktail."

(First published in The Telegram, Saturday May 1/99)
© Alison Dyer

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Low down on low flush - for World Toilet Day

just in time for World Toilet Day...
The Low-down on Low flush

Some of them have a dirty reputation. And while they’re the law in the U.S., stories about homeowners trickling over the border to Canada to buy elicit older and bigger brothers abound. The low-flow toilet, since its introduction in the early 1990s, has produced quite a flush of debate.

Believe it or not, there are regularly updated reports and studies on toilets that ‘exceed customer performance expectations.’ I don’t expect much from my toilet. In fact, it might well be the poster child for neglected appliances. But when some recent household plumbing highlighted the possibility of new bathroom fixtures I got eyes and face, so to speak, into the lowdown on toilets.

For example, did you know that testing the efficacy of the low flow is now done with a soybean mixture encased in latex (condom) in 50 gram specimens? Similar in density and moisture content to human waste, this may kill the soybean industry as a palatable alternative protein. But I digress.

So, what does a green need to know about going low? Well, let’s take a brief look at the histoire of the pissoir: In the home, the toilet uses the most water, accounting for about 30 per cent of indoor water use. Older model (pre-1980) toilets flush with 20 litres of water (that’s about what the average person living in Africa uses per day). Considering that over the course of a lifetime, one flushes the toilet nearly 140,000 times, using one of these hummers is akin to wasting a waterfall.

In the ‘90s, the 13 litre toilet came on the market. Then in 1996 the Ontario provincial building code required 6 litre toilets (often called ultra-low-flush) for all new homes. This all time low legislation has not been met in any other province or territory although some municipalities, like Vancouver, have decided to see how low they can go including offering rebates on low-flow toilets a program which, St. John’s does not have. (But with the increasing costs associated with the new sewage treatment system, such a program would benefit everyone by helping to reduce the amount of water being processed).

In the U.S., federal law states that toilets may not exceed 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf)—that’s about 6 litres-- and many of their High-Efficiency Toilets (HETs) go beyond that standard and use less than 1.3 gpf. This is a nice twist to prevalent thinking that everything is larger in the U.S. Seems they can still flush it with less. And in case you’re wondering, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has adopted 350 grams as a minimum performance threshold (the average male dump is 250 grams) for High-Efficiency Toilets (HETs).

Meanwhile, down under, Caroma, the dominant supplier of sanitary fixtures to the Australian and New Zealand market, tested for plumbing problems using its dual-flush (half flush for liquid waste; full flush for solid) toilet system. The manufacturer concluded that to achieve water conservation objectives the entire plumbing system should be of the highest standard. In other words, and as others have found out, low flow toilets may experience problems when installed in locations with degraded or damaged drain line systems (e.g., root intrusion, sagging or broken lines, buildup of solids, etc.).

Still, let’s say your plumbing is dandy. The thing to remember is that not all toilets are made equal. Many first generation low flow models didn’t flush properly. But over the years, flushing systems have been redesigned and improvements in glazes, for example, help ensure that the bowl is as aerodynamic as possible. A good place to look at information on low flush toilet ratings is This TV/plumber personality has produced a consumer report on toilets taking into account such concerns as gram ratings, ease and cost of repairs, sound when flushing, and how well the bowl is rinsed.

One more cautionary note. Toilets can be gravity flushed (the most common) or pressure-assisted. While the latter requires still less water it can be noisy and may be problematic in homes with older plumbing.

Fine. I’m ready to go shopping (as long as I don’t have to bounce on the bedspring, so to speak). And choices in St. John’s have improved over the past couple of years though I still can’t find my favourite—the ‘Toto’ listed on Love’s website—in St. John’s. Still, retailers like Kent and Home Hardware carry a selection of 6 litre models providing both single and dual-flush options, the former starting at $90.

Meanwhile, if you’re not quite ready to buy a new toilet, you might consider retrofitting your old one to make it less of a water hog. Several types of devices can be installed in an existing toilet tank to reduce the amount of water used in flushing that work by: water displacement (plastic bag or bottle); water retention (toilet dams); or alternative flushing (early closure or dual-flush). Local plumbing supply or hardware stores can help find out which type will work best for your toilet. But don't put rocks or bricks in your toilet tank: Over time they’ll break down and can cause damage.

And if you’re really cheap but determined to save that pure drinking water that’s flushing your bowl, consider adopting this adage: "
If it's yellow, let it mellow, if it's brown, flush it down."

(© Alison Dyer 2009 )