January 12, 2011

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California Recipe: Strawberries with a dose of Methyl Iodide Several years ago, looking into the differences between organic and conventional farming methods, I focused on strawberries as a case study. At the time, conventional growers depended on methyl bromide, a potent neurotoxin that is injected into the soil to kill pests and diseases. The applicators wore full body suits with gas masks. The ground was covered in plastic to help keep the toxic gas contained. These fields looked like something out a futuristic moonscape, covered in plastic with workers in full hazmat suits. It was just one of the many toxic chemicals used in the conventional strawberry regime. I described all this in a chapter of my book Organic, Inc. Many people told me that after they read that chapter they never bought a conventional strawberry again. Methyl bromide was always particularly controversial. Law suits were filed because of drift of this pesticide to nearby public schools on the central coast of California, the heart of the strawberry industry. The issue for the courts: Was the drifting chemical at sufficiently low levels to be safe? You had the usual sides drawn, with growers who feared losing a cherished tool and farmworker and environmental advocates worried about toxicity. The result was that the state set what it considered a "safe level" of use, with widened buffer zones and requirements on when the chemical could be sprayed. But I found the evidence of a "safe level" less than convincing. Knowledge about the effects of chronic exposure to the chemical were not...
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Worldwatch report highlights the lopsided discussion on Africa and food Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Zambia for a project for Worldwatch. State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, released Wednesday, focuses on many projects that were highly effective in both feeding people and raising incomes in Africa. Much of this work was chronicled on Nourishing the Planet blog, as researcher Danielle Nierenberg logged thousands of miles criss-crossing the continent meeting with farmers, researchers, NGOs and government officials. It was a refreshing perspective because so much of the discussion about agriculture in Africa focuses on production. Plant more. Increase yield. Improve seed technology. But there is really no silver bullet when it comes to food production and access and the relentless focus on technology ends up being lopsided and incomplete -- as I saw in Zambia. The nation produces more than enough food, much of it by small-scale farmers without tractors, irrigation or any form of transportation. But this excess food ends up rotting in warehouses and causes price crashes when it hits the market -- good for buyers but dismal for small-scale farmers who depend on these sales for their meagre income. Even so, some areas of the country still suffer from malnutrition and shortages. Why? There are many reasons, inadequate roads and supply networks among them, since it isn't always easy to get the food from areas where it is surplus to areas where it is in short supply. In this reality, hi-tech seeds are the least of the nation's problems. And...

Sam Fromartz

Writer, Journalist focusing on food, environment and bread

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