Flash in the Pan 

Local grub, GMOs, both gained ground in 2007

New Year’s Day arrives January 1st, but according to my biological calendar the year begins with the winter solstice, which, as you read this, is already in the rear-view mirror. Yippee!

2K7 didn’t produce a nation-wide e-coli scare over bagged spinach like that of 2006. But maybe someday we’ll look back on the spinach scare as a trigger for mainstreaming local food-ism, which arguably came into it’s own this year. This claim is supported by developments like the Oxford American Dictionary selecting the word “locavore” as word of the year, or the celebrated publication of Michael Pollen’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explored the many sides of organic, local, and industrial agriculture. And let’s not forget the uncelebrated publication of my 300th installment of “Flash In the Pan” hitting the press!

And on the local scene, Missoula City Council, by a 7-5 vote, recently denied the Sunshine Addition subdivision in Target Range, which by many accounts should have been a slam-dunk. The main reason cited by the swing voters is that Target Range—like neighboring Orchard Homes—has dirt of such high agricultural potential that Missoula can’t afford to take it out of circulation.

Another decisive victory for local food was Missoula’s adoption, finally, of a policy to legalize small quantities of chickens for personal, locavoric purposes. Most people seem to think that chickens’ contribution to local food is limited to eggs and meat. But the biggest benefit of chickens, in my opinion, is their production of high-quality manure. Whatever I would have put in the compost pile, plus meat and other goodies, goes to my girls instead. Thus, kitchen and yard waste get turned to eggs, fertilizer, and fun!

Meanwhile, GMO giant Monsanto recently surpassed the “one billion acres planted” mark for its genetically modified crops. Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant reacted by noting that at this point, “the conversation moves from ‘what if’ to ‘what is.’”

BusinessWeek dispassionately agrees, reporting that Monsanto seems to be winning the ground war over the use of GMOs, due in no small part to “the undeniable fact” that “during the 12 years since the first biotech seeds were planted, the most dire predictions of Monsanto’s opponents have so far failed to come true.” That’s prompted some swaggering at company headquarters. In interviews with BusinessWeek, Monsanto executives variously described the safety objections of adversaries as “scare tactics,” “Chicken Little theatrics, “mischief,” and “misinformation.”

While disaster, so far, has not struck, it’s an undeniable fact that many modified genes have not remained confined. Many GMOs are escaping their planted fields, and the genes themselves are jumping from host plants to other organisms. The ramifications of drift of exotic DNA, like invasive species, cannot be predicted, and to many GMO critics it seems a matter of when and not if there will be a problem. And as BusinessWeek pointed out, there is considerable risk to Monsanto’s current strategy of betting the farm on GMOs—which currently generate 60% percent of its revenue. Nonetheless, Monsanto stock has soared over 1,000 percent—from around $8 a share to over $100—in the last five years.

Monsanto achieved this measure of success by adopting a more friendly corporate veneer, toning down on its habit of suing farmers, sharing its scientific research in peer reviewed journals, adopting a more conciliatory attitude toward GMO critics, and most importantly, by getting out (at least for the moment) of the vegetable business. Instead of trying to sell genetically modified tomatoes, for example, to an unwilling public, Monsanto has suspended its produce projects and focused on commodities like soy, corn, cotton and canola. This allows GMOs to enter the market and the fields in lower-profile packages, like biofuels, T-shirts, animal feed, corn syrup and cooking oil.

While the organiphiles and locavores argue for local, sustainably-produced food, Monsanto strategist Carl Casale argues that such movements  are “not going to replace how the vast majority of food and produce is grown. There are not enough cities to tear down to bring the extra land into production that we would need to farm with those practices to feed this country and this planet.”

Casale reminds me of the petroleum lobby disputing the science behind global warming, or creationists denying evolution. A recent University of Michigan study demonstrated that organic practices can out-produce conventional practices—in some cases by three times as much food per acre. At the very least, you can say that there are so many ways to ask this question, you can get any answer you want. 

And you won’t hear Casale admit that worldwide demand for GMO crops is fueled in no small part by the growing wealthy classes in India and China who want meat every day. Growing animal feed may be a grossly inefficient way of feeding people, but it’s good for business—just like the conventional practices that brought us e-coli laced spinach.

So don’t panic, buy local! And happy New Year!

Ask Ari: Bad apples really can spoil the lot

Q: Dear Flash,

What’s up with the expression about “one bad apple?” I mean, I guess I understand what it means because I’m looking at my stash of rotten apples from last fall. But why is it that one bad apple can ruin the whole batch?

—Sister Apple Sludge

A: Dear SAS,

Ripening fruit gives off a gas called ethylene, which acts like a plant hormone because it induces physiological changes in plant cells. Like yawns, colds, and other contagion, ethylene can cause a self-fueling chain reaction among fruit that’s kept in close proximity to other fruit in a non-ventilated space. For the most dramatic example of ethylene in action, try wrapping a banana in plastic and see how fast it ripens itself.

You can apply the same principle to help speed the ripening of fruit that you want to mature, like when you pick your green tomatoes before the first killing frost of fall. Wrap the tomatoes in newspaper, which captures the ethylene produced by the ripening tomatoes and speeds the ripening process, but still allows enough air circulation to prevent the tomatoes from rotting.

Gene jockeys have figured out how to tweak ethylene production in tomatoes to slow down or speed up ripening, depending on which is desired. But as alluded to above, a majority of consumers don’t want GMO tomatoes.

To keep your apples and other fruit crisp—as well as onions and potatoes—you need to go through and remove any fruit that’s starting to get soft. Be merciless. Also remove specimens with spots and bruises, which can also release ethylene. Then keep the fruit in a cool, well-ventilated area, and go through it periodically to remove the next generation of ethylene bombs.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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