Category Archives: Food

Real food, as your grandmother knew it; not plastic!

Do you GMO?

Happy New Year everyone!

During the holidays someone asked me about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and I thought it important to further expound on this. Because my thinking is definitely gray on parts of this, but very strong on two aspects – medicines and labelling of GMO foods!

First, what is a GMO? Well, it is creature or plant or virus, that’s been genetically engineered, i.e. had its DNA modified via direct human intervention affecting both itself and its progeny. But let’s be clear, humans have been modifying other species for as long as agriculture and husbandry has existed – by selecting which variants of a species to save, care for, protect, feed and water, prevent or encourage reproduction; AKA, artificial selection verses ‘natural selection’. Domestic dogs in all their variation are a sub-species of the gray wolf created by humans!

Since 1973, humans have had much greater ability to modify DNA, via direct biotechnology manipulation, including the transplant of genes from totally unrelated species. For example, using a bio-luminance gene from a fish in a bacteria, along with other changes, such that the new bacteria species will glow in the presence of certain toxins; or implanting other genes to allow the bacteria to produce human insulin, etc. The medical research, pharmaceuticals and even industrial resources (e.g. making bio-fuels to replace fossil fuels) enabled by genetic engineering methods have been hugely beneficial to the humans species and show great potential for our environment too. So I am highly supportive of this!

But I’m less supportive of genetic modified crops in food production. No, I do not believe there is any ‘built-in’ risk or safety concern about human consumption of a GMO (if you’re a US resident, then surely you’ve already eaten some, I’m certain; it’s been prevalent since the late 1990s thanks to our highly industrialized food supply). Rather my concerns are about the legalities and commercial aspects, the potential for ecological impacts, and the future risks of specific/multiple modifications.

By US patent law GMOs are patentable; meaning the company awarded the patent will have a minimum of 17 years of exclusive use of it, a.k.a. a legal monopoly. An example might be a company that modifies rice to increase its nutritional value as well as improve yields. There are plenty of examples, including the tomato with a thicker skin that makes it easier to transport, and a squash with enhanced mold resistance. But at least one seed company has taken their monopoly to the extreme, with an internal staff of >75 whose sole purpose is to investigate, threaten or prosecute farmers (or others) who use their herbicide-tolerant GMO seeds or the resulting crop in any fashion other than what the company dictates. The person may not have even signed a licensing agreement with them (the farmer does, and is supposed to require that anyone further down the chain also agrees to the licensing terms). Anyone who handles, processes, purchases, saves seeds to replant, or even has their own nearby non-GMO crop contaminated by GMO pollen is at risk being sued or threated with a lawsuit. Maybe in the future just cooking it ‘wrong’ or eating it will become a violation! This, IMHO, is commercial agriculture gone wrong.

Given the behaviors of the second company, I surely want to know when their GMO is in a product, so that I can boycott it. Correspondingly, if the first company distributed its rice without restrictions in poverty stricken areas or countries, I might decide to purchase more of that company’s products when spending my well-earned dollars. But to know this, I need more information than just is a product (or component) GMO or non-GMO.

And let’s look deeper at that herbicide-tolerant seed. The company is making out really well, selling the seed year after year as well as lots of the specific herbicide to the farmer. The farmer plants the seeds and sprays just that one herbicide to combat weeds (maybe even spraying overall less that they might have in the past). But after a few years, interesting problems could start to arise. Other herbicides might be taken off the market when their owners no longer find them economical. Certain insect pollinators that are necessary for the crop to produce well could be struggling because they no longer have a food source during the remaining 11 months of the year. Then without certain weeds in the fields (nor in the neighboring areas that are impacted too by the herbicide applications), the migrating birds and butterflies no longer have a food supply either and stop coming. Or, perhaps certain weeds start to develop their own resistance to the herbicide (like the corn has)… What now is the farmer to do? Spray more, with what?!  These are possible unintended commercial and ecological effects. We know monocultures are bad for resilience and sustainability. GMO crops seem perfected intended to create even larger use of monocultures in our food supply. Small farmers (and consumers who like variety) beware.

But as the field of synthetic biology and especially the iGEM contests illustrate, this won’t be always as simple as just a couple of genetic modifications at a time. The technology holds huge potential; both in what GMOs can do positively, but as well as for massive abuse. What happens if a peanut gene is used in wheat (just to make up an example) and some people with deadly peanut allergies consume that wheat… even if only a very small percentage is affected!?  How can these people know that this particular GMO is bad for them, but others are fine?

It’s a good thing that in the US GMOs are tested against known allergens prior to be authorized for consumption or any “open” planting/testing. But what I want to see is a label that indicates the specific modification(s) made. It can just be a simple number, much like the existing PLU 5-digit numbers used for fresh produce. In the ingredient listing, it would say something like “corn syrup GMO#1033” and maybe there’s a competitor corn seed provider that has GMO#2045. I could then decide which (or neither) I prefer to buy. Plus, we’d need an on-line database with more information, with those numbers as an index. Yes, this is more complicated and potentially confusing to the ‘standard’ consumer compared to just a GMO or non-GMO label. But it’s more meaningful and aligned better (and traceable) to the possibles risks and (at least to my) concerns.

To learn more about GMOs, I strongly recommend reading this 26-part series from what is normally a very “green”, likely anti-GMO-biased source. It seems to me to be well researched and written (if somewhat long-winded and sometimes drifting off focus). If you don’t GMO, then the good news is that since 2000 USDA rules prevent GMOs from being labelled “Organic”, so go for it! (but then again the bad news is there’s that GMO pollen in the mix,… ouch!) – Jack

What is Sustainability?

This morning I attended a wonderful talk given by Dr. Scott Smith, retiring Dean at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment during the monthly “First Friday” breakfast event, hosted by the Sustainability Working Group of the college. During his 13 years in office, Dean Smith has overseen/participated in the radical (though he didn’t use that word) transformation of the college, Kentucky agriculture and perhaps even some Kentucky culture. He told some wonderful stories and was very insightful on the rapid KY-wide transition from a “tobacco, cattle and grain” family farm culture with a ~100% male student body (in 1978 when he joined the faculty) to one that is now highly inclusive and diverse, both in its people (60% of the students are women! and with e.g. chefs, economists, etc. on the facility) as well as in the topics and species/crops/products that the college supports and that Kentucky produces. He highlighted the fears of the unknown future that the Kentucky farm community had when he took office on what would happen after the federal tobacco pricing program stopped (in 2004). He said it turned out to be very much about sustainability, organic, ‘value-add’ programs, investment and marketing (e.g. Kentucky Proud, etc.) All concepts which were almost unheard of in his own agricultural education and early teaching days.

I can’t hope to capture all the components and insights of Dean Smith’s talk here. But one particular (and small) question that he addressed really caught my brain and is very aligned with my own recent thinking. The question was “Will there ever be a Department of Sustainability?” His answer: No. Rather, sustainability is an integrated concept in most, if not, all the college’s courses and activities, and perhaps in all of our culture. This is also very true for me. And while he didn’t discuss sustainability in exactly the same way as my own thinking, he did touch on many of these same elements.

Sustainability in my thinking has at least three major elements or themes; or, being the engineer that I am, I’d say it has three “necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, requirements” to be true:

  1. [My engineering viewpoint:] The “system” of input resources, processes and outputs has to be in balance over time. If, over time, an input resource will be depleted, then the system is NOT sustainable (obviously)! If a process produces an output (whether waste or other) that accumulates over time without a place for it to go and for it to become an input (with similar flow rates) into some other process (whether natural or human-driven) then that’s not sustainable either! The “lifecycle” of each resource/element, including also the energy used/produced, must be quantitatively in balance for it to be sustainable. Math is required! Others may label this theme an environmentalist’s viewpoint, but to me it’s the fundamental concept of “systems engineering.”
  2. [Also having a ‘product manager’ mindset:] The economics of any human-driven process must be positive! Without being value-additive, a process cannot be operated for very long. A business case must exist with positive financial gains (math, again!) for those involved. When a process depends upon charity or donations, then it may be helpful (or even necessary) to get started, but it won’t be sustainable over time. And unlike any of the “resources” in #1, the human concept of this thing we call “money” has no law of conservation.
  3. [The social (a.k.a. human) being prospective that:] Any human-driven process must not cause injustice to any of the people involved. Others may use the term morality, or some other wording. And I wish I find a positive wording of that statement, rather than the “not cause” wording here (that software logic mindset again…). This theme (of the three) was not something I had understood as a young engineer (I was oblivious). But as I age (wiser?), it is ever clearer to me that “human resources” is NOT appropriate terminology! Human beings should never be viewed in the same mindset as taken with the other things we call “resources”, whether a component, natural resource, chemical compound, or any animal or a plant species, etc. Justice (not the same as fairness!) must be present in our society and communities, or else they (we!) are not sustainable! In practical terms, injustice is cause for civil unrest which leads to civil disorder which is not at all sustainable (and this is not the same disorder as in Chaos Theory).

Perhaps this third theme is better articulated by the fields of social science, politics (which is what Dean Smith referred to often), or the domain of the liberal arts and philosophers… Or, perhaps, this engineer is still learning new concepts… Which reminds me of the bumper sticker (and the series of books by Henry Petroski) that states “To Engineer is Human.”  Yet at this time, I can only hope that humanity is also sustainable! [Time to balance those equations!]

FSMA public comment deadline extended!

Below is the submission I made last Friday (the prior deadline) for public comments on the FDA’s proposed new farm/food regulations due to the 2011 legislation know as the Food Safety Modernization Act. However the deadline has been extended to this coming Friday, November 22nd. Be sure to file your own comments both here and here! We need to take control of our own food systems! – Jack

To FDA, I am a concerned citizen and strong supporter of my local community markets and farmers. We buy as much of our food from local producers as we possibly can, and prefer those that are organically certified or at least follow organic practices. These proposed rules scare me silly. It appears they are likely to devastate those businesses and the small farmers everywhere who work so hard to provide healthy and fresh food to us.

Specifically, I am worried about:
The manure and compost rules which clearly are in conflict with the current USDA organic standards.
The definition of small farms and how they qualify for exemptions. Using dollars of revenue threshold on all food is too broad and, for certain if you use a dollar amount, then it needs to be indexed to future FOOD prices such that farmers are not forced into the higher category in the future by the continuous march of inflation, labor & energy prices.
The impact of these standards on Aquaponic methods, systems and farmers. This innovative technology is capable of providing local produce and fresh fish from urban (as well as rural) farms with much lower use of potable water. Yet these standards would seem to prohibit it.
The failure of these rules to consider the relative dangers of other farming practices, specifically GMOs, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other high energy processes and their impacts (e.g. carbon emissions, dust, soil depletion, water pollution & consumption, allergies, etc) on the health and safety of both the public, farm workers and on the natural environment.

I urge you to modify the rules so that they:
Allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices, including those already allowed and encouraged by existing federal organic standards and conservation programs. Specifically, FDA must not exceed the strict standards for the use of manure and compost used in certified organic production and regulated by the National Organic Program.
Ensure that diversified and innovative farms, particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods, continue to grow and thrive without being stifled. Specifically, FDA needs to clarify two key definitions: first, as Congress required, FDA must affirm that farmers markets, CSAs, roadside stands, and other direct-to-consumer vendors fall under the definition of a “retail food establishment” and are therefore not facilities subject to additional regulation. Second, FDA should adopt at least the $1,000,000 threshold for a very small business and base it on the value of ‘regulated product,’ not ‘all food,’ to ensure smaller farms and businesses (like food hubs) fall under the scale-appropriate requirements and aren’t subject to high cost, industrial-scale regulation.
Provide options that treat family farms fairly, with due process and without excessive costs. Specifically, FDA must clearly define the “material conditions” that lead to a withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status in scientifically measurable terms. FDA must also outline a clear, fair, process for justifying the withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status and for how a farmer can regain that status.

Please reconsider, in better collaboration with the USDA organic standards, and reissue these regulations.
Thank you,

Jack Barnett


When Building with Straw, Beware of Pigs with Strong Lungs

Sorry to have been off-line for so long, but AT&T has no service where Mary Anne and I attended a week-long workshop on straw bale building techniques. Blue Rock Station is Jay and Annie Warmke’s home and farm (llamas, goats, chickens, fruits and veggies, but no longer any pigs!) in rural eastern Ohio. They, plus instructor Aaron and summer interns Michelle and Jina, had us working on multiple phases of three current building projects. We learned very hands-on about rammed earth foundations using old tires, framing with straw bales, sealing with cob and lime plaster finish coats, plus the nice artistic touches of glass bottle widows, built-in shelving, and using broken ceramics to create mosaics. We got very dirty and very tired, but had a great time! We learned a lot, and met many wonderful people (staff and fellow attendees) who are likely to become long-time friends!


Perhaps, not so surprisingly, Jay and I share a passion for solar energy. He’s the current vice-president of Green Energy Ohio, who I had just learned about last month at the ASES conference. More surprisingly, it turns out Jay was previously the executive director of BICSI, so we had good time reminiscing on the heydays of the telecom industry. Then about 13 years ago Jay and Annie decided to “chuck the whole corporate way-of-life” and moved to Europe for 3 years. They then decided to return to their roots in rural Ohio, where they had previously purchased their dream property: a 38 acre abandoned farm and ex-logging camp on a south facing ridge overlooking a beautiful aspen-oak-maple forest valley. They built their earthship home themselves, and have been farming, writing books and teaching to spread the word to others ever since. Their message is much more than about straw bales or green building techniques. It’s about living sustainably while living richly (and without much money). A great life lesson, especially for me, with my recent exit from nearly 30 years of corporate life and currently searching for my best path forward — Argh! That’s definitely corporate-speak, so I guess I’m not fully weaned as yet!

Thanks to all! – Jack

Growing Local Food in Cities

A few weeks back when talking about food systems and our preference for local and/or organic foods, a few people pointed to the “impossibility” of growing sufficient volumes of such food for the urban masses. Yes, this is a challenge, but I have to disagree on “impossible.” There are well documented examples elsewhere of using brown-fields and rooftops for urban gardening and also commercial scale farming. Many of them use vermiculture (yes, that’s with worms) to quickly turn high volumes of food waste into beneficial compost for these urban farmers.

Last week I got to visit an exciting and new urban food demonstration project happening just a few blocks from downtown Lexington KY. Food Chain is a non-profit that recently took up residence in an ex-bread factory (alongside a great micro-brewery, a new micro-lot coffee roaster, and some other arts studios/offices) that just got their small-scale indoor integrated farm running in the past five weeks. The project is fearlessly led by Rebecca Self and Mims Russell. They soon expect to have a consistent monthly production of 125+ lbs of Tilapia and even more hydroponically grown vegetables, to be available at local restaurants and retailers. This aquaponic method is great example of re-thinking farming, a la (one of my favorite topics) Systems Engineering. All the nutrients needed for the green veggies are conveniently derived from the fish waste by naturally occurring bacteria that covert ammonia into nitrates (see this video of it). The water is fully recycled, with only about 1% daily loss (due to transpiration and evaporation) plus the water content of their harvest. Currently, the main inputs are electricity (for the pumps, space heating and artificial lighting) and the fish feed, plus some daily labor (it’s a farm!), seedlings and the fingerling fish (currently provided by the nearby Kentucky State University aquaculture program). They’re already thinking about how to reduce those inputs, possibly via solar thermal and PV, and using the spent grains from the brewery as a majority (but not all) of the fish feed. I previously visited a similar scale teaching system at Berea College that uses a greenhouse for natural sunlight and passive heating (but therefore also has seasonally variable production volumes).

My forward plan: volunteer my time to help reduce their inputs further (e.g. solar technologies), and expand their outputs to other food products (using that vermicompost), including mushrooms grown on more of that brewer’s grain. Oh, I guess I have never mentioned here that another hobby we greatly enjoy is mushrooming – cooking and eating them, of course!, but also foraging for fungi in the wild and growing some at home. Yes, that’s fun-gi-culture! So it’s sure to be fun!, and I’ll try to keep you up to date on our progress. – Jack

Where does your food come from?

Another aspect of sustainability that we have been caring more and more about over the past few years is food. Yes, that stuff that we can’t get by for long without stuffing in our face; that stuff that grows in dirt and compost, and yet produces tastes so extraordinarily wonderful; all that stuff that makes us so highly content and satisfied. A good meal is the second best feeling in all of life! Yes, I’m a closet foodie!

One of the projects I’ve had a lot of fun doing these last few weeks is volunteering at our local food co-op, very appropriately called Good Foods. Specifically we are working a new vision for the year 2020, and I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with Joel DiGirolamo from Turbocharged Leadership, who is facilitating the process. As part of that, and of course being the systems engineer that I am, we had to define what is the “food system” and our places in that. Well, I’m most impressed with this representation (used with permission):
FoodSystemDiagram640x480I have adopted a specific definition of food, per Michael Pollan: “that which your great grand-mother would recognize.” And mainly because, physically, chemically, etcetera: you are what you eat, exactly!

These days our food of choice comes from local farmers, or is certified organic. We’re not 100% always able to eat this way, and not everyone can afford it. But I want to be made up of exactly that, rather than something chemically or genetically constructed by the big agri-companies. The next time you sit down (or rush-through) a meal, stop and think for a minute about what you are made of? And where do you want your food to come from…? For me the answer is quite dirty!, and also chemical-free!