The use of a type of pesticide called neonicotinoids is on the increase, much to the dismay of beekeepers, who view ‘neonics’ as contributing to a decline in bee numbers. A worldwide reduction in bee populations poses a serious risk to the global food supply. ‘Bees are required in the pollination and reproductive process of food crops to make them viable. If we didn’t have those bees we could take a third of the food off our plate,’ said Melbourne beekeeper Carey Priest.
Neonicotinoids are applied to the seed or to the soil where the plant is to be grown. The plant takes up the poison into its tissue. ‘The whole plant becomes toxic,’ Priest said. The amount of chemicals that find their way into the pollen and nectar that bees feed on isn’t enough to kill them outright but peer reviewed studies have linked neonicotinoids to bee mortality. Priests thinks that one of the things that makes neonicotinoids worse that the pesticides that preceded them is that the effects aren’t immediately obvious, ‘If a bee goes and forages where RoundUp has just been sprayed they will cark it,’ whereas the effects of neonicotinoids are more ‘insidious.’ He is concerned about the sub lethal, cumulative effect of neonicotinoids. Priest said, ‘We haven’t dedicated the time to understanding the cumulative or cross multiplying effects.’
The European Union has partially banned the use of neonicotinoids until further studies have been carried out. While only a partial ban, Priest thinks the Australian government should impose similar restrictions here, or better yet, take its cues from French beekeepers, who forced a top down response from their government. Priest said ,‘They were up in arms and got active enough and vocal enough to lobby the politicians to put a partial ban in place.’
#EatBuyGrow Talks Feb 19 Melbourne
Salatin finishes and my friend, a boy crazy cheese maker, texts me from three rows behind where I sit at the #EatBuyGrow talks to ask, ‘Who are you sitting next to!?’ I haven’t looked at his face (we are the tightly packed sardines fighting the apocalypse in here) but our elbows and shoulder are touching and I like how his left thigh looks. He probably thinks I’m Monsanto, sitting here with recording gear on my lap dressed in corporate clothes. To my left is a woman who is running an organic business and is entangled in bureaucratic red tape- behind is a Pomonal sheep farmer with a Keyline obsession- and I can see the back of David Holmgren’s head.
The second speaker is a woman trapped in the eye of a media storm. Vicki Jones, from Mountain View Organic Dairy, is the farmer the media has blamed for the death of a toddler who allegedly died after drinking raw milk.
Jones starts by talking about how inspired she felt upon seeing Salatin in the 2008 doco Food Inc and explains her background, ‘My parents were from Europe so we were blessed to have a very free range and organic upbringing…Always had raw milk…Dad never let us eat white bread or cocoa pops which we thought was really horrible…We had the European understanding of good quality food.’ Jones married her neighbour, a dairy farmer and saw things in the dairy industry, like calf induction, that didn’t sit well with her. ’For a young wife I remember walking around the paddock with my husband and they had needled 80 cows and my husband was knocking these premature cows on the head.’ Jones lists practices like tail docking, the killing of bobby calves, the use of RoundUp, that she was ‘very determined to stop,’ and did. ‘Every time we did something like this it would come at a financial cost but we weighed up the financial and ethical and we were prepared to take the financial loss for the ethical gain.’
In 2002 the farm grew; they got some Holstein Friesan cattle, renowned for their productivity. ‘We got the experts out and they told us what to feed them: soy, corn, canola…’ but, ‘We got stuck when we hit a drought and prices of feed went through the roof.’ In 2005 following the get big or get out line they bought a bigger farm, ‘We were good farmers, used a lot of grain, a lot of nitrogen…The fertiliser and grain people loved me because I used to spend about $300 000 a year.’ Their farm was productive but during this time Jones was paying attention to what was happening globally in the industry: Foot’n’mouth disease, the collapse of Argentinian beef, escalating costs, the 2008 dairy scandal in China and the 2009 GFC. In Australia the price of milk dropped 50%. The Jones’ switched to organic. In 2011 they opened Mountain View Organic Farm.
They stopped feeding the cows grain, ‘I pretty much made the decision that we would never feed grain again.’ Next they developed a model where instead of putting their milk on a truck never to be seen again they got to know their consumers and built partnerships. ‘It was like being born. I didn’t realise how disconnected we were…It is so important for the farmer to know the community.’ Part of their model is not sending bobby calves off to be killed and instead raising them then selling them as dairy beef to their milk community. Dairy beef doesn’t fetch top dollar but ‘The bottom of a good market is good.’ Jones echoes Salatin and the pigness, ‘I really love the fact that we can honour our cows and let them do what they love doing being Mums.’
2013 is talked about as being the hardest year on record for Australian dairy farmers, ‘The tsunami of everything that could go wrong went wrong. It was dry, prices were down, feed was up, fertiliser was up, good farmers were taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt just to keep going.’ By this time Mountain View had reduced their herd size from 400 cows to 120. This concerned their bank who saw their downsizing as high risk even though they had never missed a payment and they put their interest rates up dramatically, in 2014 to a whopping 18%.
Despite the obstacles, Mountain View Organic Farm kept on trucking. They changed banks, supplied an organic factory, started doing work with refugees, ‘And then the big bang hit. December 2014.’ Mountain View got a phone call from the Health Department saying that some children were sick from drinking raw milk. The media showed up at the farm. Mountain Organic initiated their own independent inquiry, ‘They did have access to our milk but what he media didn’t tell us was there was a bit of a time delay. The first child got sick in May. They actually tested our milk for e coli and the test came back negative…There was no proof that the milk was responsible. The Health Department at the time said “It wasn’t your milk”. The other child, it was in the paper at the time and it read something like, “Child drank milk. Child turned grey. Child went to hospital..”’ Jones explains, ‘It should have said, “Child drank milk in September…went to hospital in October.”’ At this point the emotions hit Jones when as talks about the child who died, ‘That child drank the milk in August and he died on the 13th of October.’ Jones says the report will be out shortly.
It gives pause to think of the amount of media scrutiny the Mountain View Organic Farm have been placed under in the absence a coroner’s report when this week 18 people have contracted hepatitis from cheap berry imports. Vicki Jones receives a standing ovation and a bearded heretic like a young Socrates takes the stage.
Costa Georgiadis, clad in black, hirsute, demands to know, ‘What is this?’ of the scaffolding staircase at the front of the stage which he starts kicking. Costa quotes Salatin, ‘The pattern drives the function drives the form,’ and jokes, ‘This staircase reflects the orthodoxy of fear around every workplace.’ Costa reflects on the #EatBuyGrow rally that took place on the steps of parliament earlier in the day, ‘I think the ramifications of today are going to ripple far and wide.’ He talks about the prospect of Salatin incubating ideas up the East coast of Australia. ‘I spend my time deep in the regional and local, fertile compost piles of weirdos across the country and I think in many ways there is a lot of you here tonight that are those weirdos living on the fringe, in the compost that Joel is talking about… I’m in the privileged position to go around and dig around in that compost and take those ideas and then sprinkle that to inoculate.’ I love a good fungi metaphor. I forget about the man seated to my right and decide to start a new life with Costa.
Costa runs through a list of the things of things that are happening in the food movement. He talks about the imported berries that have resulted in an outbreak of hepatitis in Australia this week, ‘It’s the classic little upwelling of a news cycle story but what we need to do is keep talking about it and talking about it through the things that we’re doing to illustrate that it is not just a little upwelling, it’s a freakin’ tsunami…It’s not just about berries. What about the garlic? No one is labelling that it is dipped in methyl bromide.’ Costa implores, ‘We need, as the weirdos on the fringe, to bring that information out.’
Costa reels off a number of innovative projects: the Farm Incubator project, the Hills Food Frontier, ‘My good buddy Steve from Ballarat Permaculture here. He’s been chipping away down there doing amazing things with courses. He’s an incubator, he’s a shaper and he’s a weirdo on the fringe sharing this information,’ The Permaculture magazine, The Urban Farmacy and the Eastern Sustainable School’s Network.
Costa is a big fan of spreading the word. He suggests putting a tube of eco toothpaste on the dining table next to the salt and pepper as a conversation starter. ‘Think about ways you can share this information. You know, it doesn’t have to be standing on this over orthodox safety frame in front of people, you can do it just to your neighbour.’ He reels off sustainable initiatives that are happening all over the country and starts jumping up and down. ‘It is why we are here today. It is about making farming and food a priority.’ He tells how last year Clive Blazey from Diggers asked him to help judge the inaugural tomato festival and how at that festival he showed a kid called Noah how to save tomato seed and this year Noah turned up with every type of tomato he had grown himself. ‘Each and every one of you have Noahs all around them so just look out for them.’
Costa has an encyclopaedic knowledge of projects that are happening, ‘Geelong Sustainable Living Festival’,’one of the schools has turned one of their tennis courts in to a garden’ and ‘I’m launching the Fair Food film there tomorrow.’ He radiates excitement, ‘It is about how we engage…I was tooling around last night with Daz [Darren Doherty] and it was fairly late and somehow I wrote down I chew, I choose and I don’t know if it was a combination between auto-correct, a little bit of Greek, and a little bit of thinking…and it was like I Chew and I Choose. And that is what today is about. We Chew. We Choose. ..We’re gonna take this momentum and keep it going. The awareness that we have, the awareness that we share, can and will change the ethics of agriculture.’ Lucky for us Costa’s enthusiasm is as infectious as the hepatitis in those imported berries.
[The final instalment of this article will be out shortly. But I just have to go for a surf- ed]
#EatBuyGrow Talks Feb 19 Melbourne
In 1969 Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Santana, Grateful Dead, the Who, Creedence, Hendrix and a whole bunch of other legends played at Woodstock. I got to thinking about Woodstock sitting in the crowd at the #EatBuyGrow talks put on by the Regrarians last week. It wasn’t just the paisley revival or availability of kombucha that got me on this Woodstock trip.
How I arrived at Woodstock was in two ways- the first was the speakers are the rock-stars of the food sovereignty movement- Joel Salatin, Darren Doherty, Tammi Jonas, David Holmgren, Matt Wilkinson and Costa Georgiadis among other notables- and secondly the room felt like a tide of something- a wave of change set to burst out of Collingwood Town Hall to soak the soil of the nation. The movement is small- while a couple hundred of us were packed elbow to elbow in to the hall to watch the vision quest unfurl- most people would have been down at the supermarket shopping for pre-washed lettuce and hepatitis berries- but it is a start. I spotted a shearer and a cheese maker and Jonathon from 3CR’s Food Fight in the audience: Heretics + organic ham= Game on. The speakers were so great that I don’t doubt this thing is gonna catch on.
Regrarian Lisa Heenan smashed it out of the park by announcing, ‘There’s two things I’m addicted to: raw milk and sex.’ Then Joel Salatin, Mr egg-mobile-crop-rotation farmer and author of Folks This Aint Normal, took the stage. If you don’t know Salatin he is all of the synonyms for heretic: dissident, dissenter, non conformist, unorthodox thinker, apostate, freethinker, iconoclast, schismatic and renegade. Salatin is one of the great orators of our time. There is something about the way he tells a story that gets his point across and last Thursday his point was that the industrial food complex is built on some pretty shitty orthodoxies. He made this point by talking us through the various crackpot theories that once dominated human thought such as the earth is flat, ‘the spirit of whooping cough’, slavery, ‘breastfeeding is bad’ and bloodletting and then urged us to consider recent farming methods, ‘[T]he agricultural experts and the most accredited academic agricultural teachers around the world, especially the developed world, told us we need to be more efficient at growing beef and so, “Let’s take dead cows and grind them up and feed them to cattle!” and so farmers like me were taken to free steak dinners to teach us this new scientific orthodoxy.’ In classic Salatin style he cracks a joke, ‘You get status if you learn how to say Bovine spongiform encephalopathy.’ Then his microphone stand folds in on itself and Darren Doherty wanders over to fix it and cracks a joke about ‘Brewer’s droop’. (Maybe when you spend a lot of time pondering ecological destruction you crack more jokes)
Salatin points out other accepted norms , ‘Now there is a lot of orthodoxy around genetically modified organisms, that this is going to be the way to feed the world. We have an orthodoxy around chemical agriculture.’ Salatin goes on to list ‘a few cultural orthodoxies that I see in the techno-sophisticated West and dare to question them.’ He talks about how there is a prevailing belief bandied about by Big Ag and politicians that nature is sick; that if a cow is sick it is ‘pharmaceutically disadvantaged’; how there is no such thing as an ‘animal-less ecosystem’ and yet the mainstream farming method of our day is segregation, ‘We put all the animals in factory houses and then grow all our feed stuff with chemical petroleum based fertilisers!’ Salatin goes on to critique the idea in farming that animals don’t move which manifests as confining animals indoors on concrete floors. He suggests farming around the idea that animals move and need portable infrastructure like fencing, water and shelter. ‘You see how the pattern drives the function drives the form.’ Plant customs don’t escape Salatin’s attention either, ‘Another orthodoxy of our day is that annuals are more important than perennials.’ He points out that all of the grains that are subsidised in the US are annuals, ‘It gives you pause when you realise that the entire orthodoxy of the policy is to subsidise things that actually destroy the soil.’ He slays agricultural systems based on petroleum where carbon ends up in landfills or burnt, ‘The natural pattern is carbon centric- that is the ultimate way we build soil.’
Salatin asks, ‘Does it matter if we have happy pigs?’ He talks about how in the US scientists are trying to genetically engineer pigs that don’t have the porcine stress gene- instead of ensuring the pigs aren’t stressed by letting them ‘express their pigness’- the orthodoxy is to alter the pig instead of the farming practice. Salatin cautions, ‘A culture that wants to honour the Tomness of Tom and the Maryness of Mary has to start by honouring the pigness of the pig…If the orthodoxy says that the pigness of the pig doesn’t matter then it is very easy for the culture to run rampant over the individual desire, expression, interests of individuals within its society like people who don’t want to vaccinate their children from measles* or people who want to- imagine this- drink milk!’
Salatin explores the fault in practices like, ‘Efficiency requires mono speciation,’ and ’Home kitchens are unnecessary’ and makes fun of paranoid people who fear compost piles, ‘Complexity runs regulators into spasms of fear.’ He points out ,‘The orthodoxy is that a really productive, efficient farm is supposed to stink up the neighbourhood and pollute everybody’s groundwater.’ He discusses, the disconnect that occurs when people ‘spend more time researching the latest dysfunction in the Kardashian household’ than actually understanding their food. ‘50% of our customers don’t know that a chicken has bones!’
Salatin is preaching to the converted; when he says, ‘I think compost piles are sexy,’ everybody claps. He ends by describing how the less informed people are the more they fear the food system and rely upon the bureaucrats to protect them from the ‘bogeyman of raw milk’ and ‘the bogeyman of fresh fruit.’ He describes a warped system where ‘Coca cola is safe but raw milk is not safe.’ I’m on the same page as Salatin but the way he frames the discussion is enlivened and interesting, and makes me optimistic because he has the moxie to convert the people pushing their trolleys around Woolworths. He says, ‘What we need right now to create some sanity in this is to carve out a place of unregulated, direct, farm to table food transactions.’ A shortened food chain is an accountable one.
*[Author Disclaimer: I LOVE PEOPLE WHO VACCINATE THEIR CHILDREN FOR MEASLES]
BLOWING IN THE WIND
Steve Marsh is an organic farmer who lost 70% of his organic certification when GE canola allegedly blew onto his farm from the farm owned by neighbour Michael Baxter. A trial is scheduled to start in the Western Australia Supreme Court today. The case of Marsh v Baxter- where an organic farmer is seeking compensation for contamination by Genetically Modified Organisms- is the first of its kind in Australia. Sarah Coles spoke to Senator Rachel Siewert about the debate surrounding GMOs.
‘Obviously we are on the side of Steve Marsh. It highlights the failure in our laws in that it’s the farmer that has been contaminated that has to bare the cost of, or the impact of, the contamination. We should be reversing that, so that the farmer who chooses to grow GM is responsible for any contamination that occurs.’
The peak organic body, the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to GMOs. GM canola has been developed by Bayer Crop Science, Monsanto, BASF and DuPont. The GM canola that Baxter planted is a Monsanto product known as ‘Roundup Ready Canola’. According to the company website, ‘Monsanto has developed Roundup Ready canola (Brassica napus) plants that are tolerant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup Ready brand herbicides.’ Siewert is critical, ‘GE crops have increased pesticide use. We know that various crops are building pesticide resistance. There is not adequate labelling. Concentration of the ownership of GM seed or plant seed in a few multinationals is not in the best interests of farmers.’
Trials of GE canola were carried out in 2003 and in 2003 the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) deemed GE canola safe. In 2004 Western Australia passed the Genetically Modified Crops Free Areas Act 2003 and was declared a GM free area. In 2008 an exception to the rule snuck in. Agriculture and Food Minister Terry Redman passed through legislation which allowed for the commercial cultivation of GE cotton in the Ord River area. In 2010 the WA Government allowed the commercialisation of GM canola; the Agriculture and Food Minister Terry Redman approved an exemption order under the Genetically Modified Crops Free Areas Act 2003. Senator Siewert says, ‘There’s tremendous pressure…from the multinationals around the world, and there has been here, on the political process to allow GM trials and cropping and also from some sections of the farming community.’ WA Premier Colin Barnett has expressed pro GMO views saying ‘WA farmers are some of the best in the world but they need to have access to new technology like GM canola to remain competitive in the global marketplace.’
Back in 2010 almost 90% of submissions made to a review of the Genetically Modified Crop Free Areas Act 2003 opposed the introduction of GM crops. After the bill was amended Opposition agriculture Minister Mick Murray warned, ‘WA’s green, GM free image has been lost forever.’ The 2010 decision by the State Government to lift the ban on GM canola allowing for the commercial cultivation of GM canola is the decision behind next week’s court battle.
You may wonder why Baxter is being sued and not the company that manufactured the product. The answer is Monsanto ensures that farmers sign a Monsanto Technology Stewardship Agreement; a no liability agreement. Marsh is being represented pro-bono by Slater & Gordon. Baxter is being supported by the Western Australian Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) chaired by a pro-GE canola farmer John Snooke. When questioned about the PGA Siewert says, ‘There are a group of farmers that have decided that they don’t want to grow GM crops and those organisations are failing those farmers because they’re not representing their interests… We shouldn’t be facilitating multinational ownership of seeds.’
Other states have a ban on GMOs; South Australia has a moratorium in place until 2019 and Tasmania until 2014. Reading the Hansard from 2003 the Leader of the Liberal Party in WA Mr P.D.Omodei predicted the future, ‘The idea of having regional areas exempt from GM crops would be very difficult to monitor. Areas of GM crops that are planted with buffers create a very complex issue.’ Complex indeed. The court case opens today. Both sides of the debate will be watching.
Link to Safe Food Foundation’s live court blog here: http://safefoodfoundation.org/steve-marsh-trial-daily-blog/
Months back I attended the EcoCity Food Lightning Talks and looked at people’s fingernails as they reached for the free felafels. Most of them were office worker clean. I wondered if I was looking at the future of urban food. I didn’t know who any of the guest speakers were except for Ben Falloon but as I bit into a felafel I pointed to a man in an unusually patterned spearmint milk coloured shirt and said to my erstwhile companion, ‘That guy.’
Great speakers. Ben Falloon came straight from Taranaki Farm noting, ‘I’ve still got shit on my boots.’ His is an inspirational story of rejuvenating the family farm and mentorship with Joel Salatin. Tammi Jonas used to grow vegies in a Fairfield backyard and now she is a pig farmer exposing the merits of social media in farmer direct sales. ‘That guy’ turned out to be Robert Pekin, my favorite speaker of the night who kicked off with this quote from Buckminster Fuller:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Robert Pekin from Food Connect refers to himself as an ‘actionist’ and uses words like ‘chutzpah’. He spoke about getting into ‘a bit of mischief…but in a professional way” Everything he said was fantastic, my favorite quotes being: “The final frontier for humanity is to get fucking along…We’re actually getting close to a tipping point” and “Coles and Woolies own 80% of the market,” (he smiles like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet) “That’s 80% for us to take…because they’re doing a pretty shithouse job.”
A few days later I went on a road-trip with a cynical friend who had also attended some of the talks. He had post forum depression that comes from being someone with dirt under the fingernails listen to people brainstorm and mind map in preparation for the peak oil collapse. Its hard to figure out what to do about any of this.
There’s gold in them there hills. And by gold I mean people that are standing up for the right to live a life free of corporate control.