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Build A DWC Hydroponic Garden in Less than an Hour — August 9, 2019

Build A DWC Hydroponic Garden in Less than an Hour

Ever have the urge to grow something green? Since most of us live in cities, access to space to grow plants is practically non-existent, and soils are often contaminated with heavy metals and other industrial pollutants. Despite these conditions, people are using creative hydroponic growing techniques that do not rely on traditional methods of growing food.

Hydroponic systems are unique in that they do not use soil to grow plants, but rather delivers nutrients to plants using nutrient-rich water, also called nutrient solution.

Recently, I created a container deep water culture hydroponic system by re-purposing an old plastic storage tote. In deep water culture (DWC) systems, plants sit directly in nutrient-rich water, and an air pump & air stone keeps the water from getting stagnant by blowing bubbles into the water.

It was super easy, and I’ve outlined the steps here so you can construct your own DWC hydroponic herb garden for your home today!

Step 1: Gather your materials (see links at end of post):

-Storage tote,
-Drill,
-2″-3″ hole saw drill attachment,
-Net pots (2″, 3″),
-Coco coir plugs,
-Dry nutrients part A and B for lettuce (also good for herbs),
-Digital EC meter & pH meter,
-Measuring spoons,
-Air pump,
-Air stone,
-Herb & lettuce seeds

Step 2: Drill holes into the lid of your storage tote.

You can drill as many holes as you think will fit the size of your tote’s lid. I went with 13 holes after spacing out each plant site about 3″ apart from one another. When complete, remove all plastic scraps and debris by rinsing the tote out.

last1.jpg @Hydroponics.NYC

Step 3: Fill the container nearly to the top with tap water & add dry nutrients.

A simple method for making nutrient solution is to to take a quart-sized container (like an old Chinese food container) and fill it nearly to the top with tap water (you can use the water that is already in your tote.) Then, add a teaspoon of part A and a teaspoon of part B of the dry nutrients. Add nutrient solution to your reservoir where your plants live, and measure the electrical conductivity (EC). You want the EC to measure 900-1300 ppm to grow most herbs and lettuce, and you can add another teaspoon of each part A & B as necessary to reach the desired EC level. After each harvest, check your EC and add nutrients & water when necessary to maintain 900-1300 ppm range.

Step 4: Installing the air pump and air stone

The air pump attaches to the air stone via a small plastic tube (usually provided). Place the air stone in the nutrient solution and the air pump at a higher elevation than the level of the water in your deep water culture system (to prevent a siphoning of water out of your system).

DWC3 @Hydroponics.NYC

Step 5: Insert the net pots into the holes you cut for each plant site.

You want the bottom of the net pots to be submerged in nutrient solution, so push the net pots in and then add a coco coir plug to each plant site.

Step 6: Plant your herb and lettuce seeds & place under light source.
Now you are ready to plant your seeds in each plug (1-2 herb/lettuce seeds per plant site).

*Be sure to place your system under sunlight or an artificial light source to ensure your plants can photosynthesize!

Recommendations:
-If it’s summer, consider placing your DWC hydroponic garden outside under the direct sunlight, or if one of your windows gets a ton of sun, place it there.

-If you have space under a coffee table, consider installing these lights on the bottom of the table and placing your DWC hydroponic garden under there: https://www.amazon.com/Integrated-Fixture-Extendable-Greenhouse-Installation/dp/B07FZTKYXV

-If none of your windows get enough sunlight, you can purchase an LED lamp to provide your plants with the lights it needs.

DWC.JPG @Hydroponics.NYC

Links to Materials I used:

-Storage tote: https://www.amazon.com/Rubbermaid-FG2214TPDIM-Roughneck-Storage-Metallic/dp/B075WXMPBF/ref=sr_1_4?crid=1CPO0ONHQAR5J&keywords=10+gallon+rubbermaid+tote&qid=1565441533&s=gateway&sprefix=10+gallon+rubber%2Caps%2C132&sr=8-4

-Drill: https://www.amazon.com/BLACK-DECKER-LDX120C-Lithium-Driver/dp/B005NNF0YU/ref=sxin_5_osp48-6ac4fb34_cov?ascsubtag=6ac4fb34-e401-481a-a17e-9630f5769850&creativeASIN=B005NNF0YU&cv_ct_id=amzn1.osp.6ac4fb34-e401-481a-a17e-9630f5769850&cv_ct_pg=search&cv_ct_wn=osp-search&keywords=drill&linkCode=oas&pd_rd_i=B005NNF0YU&pd_rd_r=0939e467-0503-4191-b33d-b9d55ccdc15e&pd_rd_w=9gylW&pd_rd_wg=oV85b&pf_rd_p=c501273b-119a-4fc9-ad78-eda5006b0be9&pf_rd_r=CTRQQHPXZNJH81RGY6PT&qid=1565440579&s=gateway&tag=spyonsite-20

-2″-3″ hole saw drill attachment: https://www.amazon.com/10-Piece-Hole-Saw-Kit-Wood/dp/B07DNT1D4V/ref=sr_1_9?crid=HK4MQH3R07Y2&keywords=hole+saw+attachment&qid=1565440732&s=gateway&sprefix=hole+saw+atta%2Caps%2C128&sr=8-9

-Net pots (3″): https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B073WJ78MM/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Net pots (2″)
https://www.amazon.com/Zicome-Garden-Plastic-Cups-Pots/dp/B06XJ2G6FS/ref=sr_1_2_sspa?keywords=net+pots&qid=1553617516&s=gateway&sr=8-2-spons&psc=1

-Coco coir plugs: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0002IU8K2/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&psc=1

-Dry nutrients part A and B for lettuce (works for herbs too): https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00MSW5LQQ/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&psc=1

-Digital EC meter & pH meter:
https://www.amazon.com/VIVOSUN-0-05ph-Accuracy-Readout-Temperature/dp/B06XKMH86J/ref=sr_1_6?keywords=ec+meter&qid=1565442108&s=industrial&sr=1-6

-Measuring spoons:
https://www.amazon.com/1Easylife-Stainless-Measuring-Spoons-Ingredients/dp/B00IE2J0SO/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?keywords=measuring+spoons&qid=1565441240&s=industrial&sr=1-1-spons&psc=1&spLa=ZW5jcnlwdGVkUXVhbGlmaWVyPUFKQUc3OEI2SDdKV1omZW5jcnlwdGVkSWQ9QTEwNDM2MjcxUkZTV0tRRk1NTUZXJmVuY3J5cHRlZEFkSWQ9QTA0NjIyOTM1U0NRQzBHVVNNOVcmd2lkZ2V0TmFtZT1zcF9hdGYmYWN0aW9uPWNsaWNrUmVkaXJlY3QmZG9Ob3RMb2dDbGljaz10cnVl

-Air pump:
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0009YJ4N6/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&psc=1

-Air stone: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07FZY71K6/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&psc=1

-Herb & lettuce seeds: https://edenworks.com/

IG accounts:
@Hydroponics.NYC
@Matthew_Gerard_

Empowering Youth to Grow Food: Teens for Food Justice — April 15, 2018

Empowering Youth to Grow Food: Teens for Food Justice

I’m humbled to be volunteering as a mentor to teens at Clinton DeWitt High School in the Bronx with a non-profit organization called Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ). The mission of TFFJ is to create a realistic solution to food insecurity, or lack of access to healthy and nutritious food, by empowering youth to build and maintain sustainable food systems in their community.

IMG_0680 Lettuce growing at Dewitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NYC. @matt_horgan

TFFJ leads a team to train students in Title I schools in the unique craft of urban farming through the “building and maintaining of indoor farms that yield more than 22, 000 lbs. of fresh produce annually at each location” in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx (http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/).

IMG_0681 Cucumbers and a variety of leafy greens and herbs growing hydroponically by students at Dewitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NYC. @matt_horgan

Additionally, these youth-run urban farms are feeding students nutritious and fresh meals in their cafeteria, as well as increasing the food security of the area by distributing fresh produce people in the surrounding local community. There is also a focus on teaching students about advocating for policy on the local, state, and federal levels of government to ensure that funding and other resources are given to increase people’s access to healthy food options.

IMG_0685 @matt_horgan

Moreover, the mentorship program I am participating in has been really rewarding. I help facilitate a wide range of activities aimed at teaching the students about creating and sustaining hydroponic systems, advocating for food justice in the policy setting, cooking healthy and nutritious meals.

IMG_0683 Students participate in a cooking challenge to create a veggie burger, chocolate avocado pudding, and pasta salad. (Secret ingredient: parsley grown in the schools hydroponic farm) @matt_horgan

Finally, the students put on a Leadership Conference at Agritecture Consulting where students presented data they collected from surveys they designed and conducted in the community around their school to see what fresh, healthy food was available to stores and restaurants.

See more about becoming a mentor here: http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/be-a-mentor-2/

If you would like to support Teens for Food Justice, see the links below!

http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/donate

Instagram: @TeensforFoodJustice

Written by:

Matthew Horgan
MHorgan279@gmail.com
@matt_horgan @sustaineveryone
@hydroponics_nyc
SustainEveryone.com

A Shirf Towards Ecological Agriculture — February 20, 2018

A Shirf Towards Ecological Agriculture

The way we view the world is often a reflection of the paradigm of the day, that is the deepest set of beliefs and assumptions a culture has about any given topic at any moment in time. Needless to say, paradigms do shift over time to create the unique circumstance we see on a daily basis, and sometimes this happens rather quickly.

IMG_2960
The new shift in thinking seems to be towards sustainable urban food production. Photo taken at AgTechX @matt_horgan

Paradigm shifts: Thinking in cycles not lines

One paradigm of today seems to be the perception of our lives as a series of linear processes. We seem to idolize cause and effect relationships whenever possible in daily life and tend to view most of our experiences through this narrow lens without analyzing the entire picture.

dog.jpg

However, thinking of systems in terms of lines tends to be characteristically more predictable and simpler, while systems as cycles are naturally more complex.

natures cycle2
Nature’s Cycle by Virginia Lee 2001  

Shift towards interconnectedness

A personal shift in assumptions I experienced was while I was taking an ecological agriculture class during my time at SUNY Binghamton. My perception of self shifted from the individual, separate self to a more interconnected sense of identity.

muir

Ecological Agriculture: Nature as model

Ecological agriculture is a term used to describe a type of farming that raised food without any chemical or synthetic fertilizers, to create an agricultural system that mimicked ecological systems that sustain in nature.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 3.26.55 PM.png
By: permacultureprinciples.com

The general trend in agriculture since 1950 has been towards large-scale industrial farms that use synthetic fertilizers and chemical fertilizers, but a recent surge in interest in local, organic produce by consumers is causing a paradigm shift in the way we consume and produce food.

Ecological agriculture can be seen in the increased interest in urban farming in recent years. By incorporating sustainable food systems into the built environment, we can improve food security in urban environments.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 2.32.14 PM.png
Sky Vegetables February 2018 By @matt_horgan

We can also use underutilized spaces, like basements, to produce food on land to support the health and to educate our local communities
An example of a hydroponic food system, and what my neighbor calls a “permaponic system”, is seen below (Top: after 6 weeks/Bottom: the before picture).

before:after.jpg
By @matt_horgan

The potential for ecological agriculture to foster a more harmonious coexistence between human beings and the earth, as well as the practical implications for food security and positive impact on local economies leads me to think that this will become ever more present in our city in the near future.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 2.44.51 PM.png
By @matt_horgan While walking to class at CUNY Brooklyn College, I saw this incredible urban food garden someone created on their front lawn 🙂

I look forward exploring ecological agriculture more on this blog in the future 🙂

A Collaborative Space for Urban Farming — February 4, 2018

A Collaborative Space for Urban Farming

The key to success is collaboration: an idea so simple that it is often dismissed by introverts, like myself. It is easier to stay in my comfort zone than to venture out into new environments.

Recently, I couldn’t help but wonder, who else is asking similar questions as me in NYC?

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 10.46.02 AM

Specifically, which organizations, if any, were already established in the realm of urban farming here. I searched the internet ambitiously looking for any NYC-based organizations related to this topic. To put it simply, urban farming is the growing of food within cities, usually incorporated into the built environment. (See below image of my neighbor’s hydroponic system in a basement in Queens, NYC).

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 10.48.00 AM

Eventually, I came across a class titled ‘Building an Urban Farm Business Plan’ that is run by AgTechX. The founders of AgTechX, Ricky Stephens and Henry Gordon-Smith, are about connecting individuals looking for opportunities “at the intersection of urban agriculture, technology, and sustainability” (https://agtech-x.com/). The Co-lab they run in Brooklyn provides a space for those of us interested in getting involved in urban farming in NYC and holds classes in hydroponics and aquaponics. Members work to build a more sustainable food system right here in the dense urban jungle of NYC.

Finally, I imagine myself working somewhere at the intersection of sustainable food and education in the near future, and the team at AgTechX is a great place for me to meet people who could, at the very least, point me in the right direction.

See below a picture of hydroponic systems over at AgTecX’s Co-lab in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

IMG_2577 copy

After my trip over to Brooklyn this week, I’m inspired to see a group of dedicated and passionate young people interested in urban farming. In the coming weeks, I am going to explore the classes given by the team at AgTechX with the intention to learn more about the logistics of hydroponic and aquaponics systems in NYC. This will also be an ideal way to connect with like-minded individuals in this emerging field.

To learn more about the collaboration among the urban farming community in NYC visit:
Website: https://agtech-x.com/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/agtech-x
Instagram: @agtechx
MeetUp: https://www.meetup.com/AgTech-X-NYC-Meetups/

Follow my Instagram accounts for more urban farming/nature photos:
@matt_horgan @SustainEveryone @Hydroponics_NYC

Relaunch: New Blog Name @SustainEveryone — February 1, 2018

Relaunch: New Blog Name @SustainEveryone

Hello there! I’m an aspiring environmental writer, who was born and raised in Rockaway Beach, NYC and I’m passionate about finding a healthy way to live sustainably within the natural world. My studies in the environmental field brought me to Upstate New York, Texas, France, Vermont, and Costa Rica. During this time, I grew to see the potential for urban farms to increase people’s access to healthy and nutritious food within cities. More recently, I became fascinated by hydroponic systems and their ability to produce food quickly using no soil, little water, and marginal nutrient inputs. Urban agriculture is an ideal solution for the issue of food security in cities, which is why I see it as more crucial today.

Finally, I recently decided to change the name of my former blog (Sustainable Future through Food) to @SustainEveryone with the intention to explore existing urban farming throughout NYC and to inspire people to become actively engaged in organic urban food production. I hope you will follow along with me on my journey as I discover the beauty of small-scale organic urban farming in New York City.

Follow me on Instagram 🙂 @SustainEveryone @Hydroponics_NYC @matt_horgan

Future Plans for a Conservation and Environmental Education Project in Costa Rica — November 17, 2015

Future Plans for a Conservation and Environmental Education Project in Costa Rica

Often it is hard to focus on the present moment, and it is in our nature to think in terms of the past and the future. After studying tropical ecology for my Bachelor’s degree in Costa Rica for the months of July 2012 and July 2013, I have since been drawn to return to the country.  Likewise, as I mentioned in a previous post, the Professional Science Master’s program in Environmental Management and Sustainability that I am currently pursuing requires for its last semester that each student complete a research internship project, related to sustainability, anywhere in the world. The requirements are broad, but this allows us to actually explore something we wish to pursue as a career. Despite having the opportunity to explore somewhere new to complete my last semester of , my classmate, Tessa, and I are choosing to return to the same small village where I learned and grew a tremendous amount during my undergraduate experience with SUNY Binghamton University in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica.

As I am finishing up my semester in Angers, France, I cannot help but think of the upcoming research opportunity that I am so fortunate to have available to me. In July 2012, I enrolled in a tropical ecology class through my university, SUNY Binghamton University, which was taught a class in tropical ecology in Tres Piedras de Baru, Costa Rica every July and Spring. The property in the village was referred to as the Tropical Forestry Initiative (TFI) at the time, which was owned by a small group of professors and environmentalists. The property was used by professors to teach students, conduct research projects, and carry out reforestation efforts in the region. Unfortunately, SUNY Binghamton no longer brings students to the area anymore, but the TFI property is now in the hands of a local resident who would like to continue using the property for conservation and educational projects. Although Tessa and I will be expected to design, complete, and present our own independent research projects for our degree, we intend to help the new owner of the property with outreach initiatives that could bring student groups back to the area to partake in similar sustainable development projects and in research opportunities to the activities that used to be done with TFI.

The plans for outreach are still in their preliminary stage, as we work with the owner of the property to develop a program. My hope is to provide a site that offers students the ability to conduct their own independent research projects on site, as well as have the opportunities to volunteer on sustainable development projects and provide support for outreach efforts relating to conservation of the property and surrounding ecosystems. Ideally, we could aim to attract graduate students who could perform their research studies on a topic related to the tropical forest on the property. These students would also be willing to learn about and participate in sustainable development projects on and off site relating to reforestation, sustainable food systems, and community outreach.

Although my plans are incomplete and lacking much detail, I have high hopes for what can be accomplished in Tres Piedras, CR. Tropical ecosystems are threatened around the globe, and we need people to start environmental conservation and educational initiatives like this one to mitigate the damage we are doing to our planet. Often there is so much that is presented to us in our lives that we do not make the most of for many reasons. Yet, there might still be great potential for having a profoundly positive impact in taking advantage of what life offers you.

Documentary Film Review- Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret — October 11, 2015

Documentary Film Review- Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Few documentaries have the ability to make you question your fundamental morals and convictions. For me, Food Inc. was one of my favorite documentaries for this reason. There is, however, a new documentary on Netflix that does an equal or better job at doing this in my opinion. In Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, directors Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn are on a mission to expose the leading cause of environmental destruction, and in the process they reveal information about our food system that will have you asking yourself: “Can I really call myself an environmentalist and still eat meat?” The purpose of the film is to illustrate how there is one industry that out ranks any other in causing deforestation, climate change, species extinction, ocean dead zones, and water depletion, and how the top environmental organizations have focused their attention elsewhere when talking about how to mitigate these problems.

Throughout the documentary, Kip Anderson is on a quest to find out how to be more sustainable. He takes all the typical approaches of environmentalists, like recycling and taking shorter showers, but he is shocked when he finds out how many resources go into eating just one hamburger. He wonders why he was never aware of how intensive animal agriculture is in today’s world. It becomes clear that the top environmental organizations are not focusing on this issue when Kip does his research, so he becomes determined to find out why.

If you ask the average person what they think the single biggest contributor to environmental degradation is, they will probably tell you the fossil fuel industry. Shockingly, the leading environmental organizations like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and Oceana (just to name a few) do not focus on animal agriculture as the number one cause of the destruction of the planet. The inability and unwillingness for these organizations to talk about the problems with animal agriculture was the most eye opening part of the documentary for me. You would expect for these organizations, who claim to be advocates for protecting our lands and oceans, to be speaking about the root cause of our most serious environmental harms.

What can you do if you truly want to make a positive difference for the planet? Recycling and taking shorter showers is not going to cut it, as you will see after you watch this documentary. The statistics given throughout this film are almost unbelievable. It is hard to comprehend why more people are not talking more about animal agriculture, but Kip explores the many possibilities for why this is the case. It is actually extremely difficult to justify eating meat at the rate we do today after watching Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. If you want to be a well-informed person on the most important environmental issues of our time, then you must see this documentary. It will have you questioning something that is so fundamental to life culture, and being human: food.

Here is a link to the official trailer: https://vimeo.com/95436726

French Hospitality — September 14, 2015

French Hospitality

People often come together for a meal for various occasions. Moreover, food is often the perfect way to experience a new culture. Shortly after moving to France, I met someone I now call my boyfriend. This is totally new to me, but I am learning so much from Matthieu. I was extremely grateful to be invited to his sister’s surprise birthday a couple of weeks ago on his aunt and uncle’s farm. The farm is situated about 40 minutes outside the city of Angers, in Cheffes, France. They raise cattle for dairy and meat, corn, rabbits, and chickens (among other things).  Despite my fascination with the agriculture, I was captivated by his family’s welcoming nature towards someone who can barely speak a full sentence of their language.

When we arrived at the farm, about 30 of his family members and friends greeted us. To say I was intimidated is an understatement. I was nervous, not only to meet my boyfriend’s entire family, but also I was afraid to interact with people who speak a completely different language than me. I wondered if I would unintentionally offend someone, yet this was not the case at all. Since I had already met Matthieu’s parents the previous week, his mother was quick to introduce me to her siblings, cousins, and countless other family members and friends. Although we could not say more than a few words to each other, they seemed to be happy to meet me. I felt a sense of belonging and was honored that they let me be a part of this special occasion.

At the beginning of the party (around 9pm), we drank some red wine, which was followed by some champagne. Matthieu’s sister, Margaux, was extremely surprised and pleased to see all of her family and some of her close friends at her aunt and uncle’s house to celebrate her 18th birthday. Matthieu and Margaux are about a year apart in age, and their relationship reminded me so much of my relationship with my sister Alexa. Being so far away from home and watching them interact made me miss Alexa greatly. I was still so happy to be in the presence of a wonderful family celebrating such a joyous occasion, even though I missed my own family.

As the night progressed, we sat down for a fantastic home cooked meal: paella (see picture above). I have not eaten a better meal in France till this day. Followed by a birthday cake and other delicious desserts, we drank a tasty, strong after dinner pear liquor called “Liqueur de poire.” There was loud music and a place for people to dance. Nearly everyone sang and danced until the early hours of the morning. If I learned one thing that night, it was that the French know how to eat and drink (and party). Matthieu’s family was warm and friendly towards me and made me feel like I was part of their family. Above all, they seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, which was refreshing to see.

The next day we awoke around noon. I immediately went to explore the farm in the daylight with Matthieu. I saw the rows of corn, the cattle roaming in their paddocks, the rabbits eating in their cages, and the chickens. It might sound mundane to some (Matthieu grew up around all of this so it was nothing new to him), but I was in awe at the diversity on the farm. There were pear trees and a home vegetable garden as well as two baby calves that were born two days earlier. They were, by far, the cutest animals on the farm. I had Matthieu to help me talk to his aunt about the farm. He translated for me as I asked some basic questions about their home. They raise the cows primarily for milk production, so generally they do not keep the male calves (which meant one of the two baby cows I saw were going to be turned into veal). I did not get a chance to ask them about their specific farming techniques, as Matthieu was exhausted from having to be my translator the night before. Their farm, however, was breathtakingly beautiful and full of life. I felt at peace there and not at all out of place. I am thankful to have had this experience with Matthieu and his family.

Another thing I learned on this trip to the countryside was that the French do not like to say quick goodbyes. After exploring the farm in the daylight, whoever remained from the party sat down to eat a late lunch and to continue celebrations for Margaux’s birthday. We ended up staying until the about 6pm, after many of Matthieu’s family members helped with the cleanup from the party the previous night. Once the house was back in order, we said goodbye to his family in the traditional French way of two (or sometimes four) kisses on each cheek. It may have seemed like a long goodbye, but when I think back on it I believe the reason it was not a quick goodbye was because no one wanted to leave. Their family is very close and they did not want to say goodbye or leave without helping clean up. I felt this was truly thoughtful of them and so adorable.

I do not normally write blog posts that are this personal, but I am glad to be able to share my wonderful experience with others. With an approaching research internship that I must complete next semester (which could take place anywhere in the world), the future of me and Matthieu’s relationship is far from certain, yet I am still so happy to have met such an incredible and thoughtful human being. I am trying to live in the present moment and enjoy our time together without letting the future ruin today. We can never know what could happen in the future 🙂

“Tomorrow is tomorrow.
Future cares have future cures,
And we must mind today.”

– Sophocles

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Should we be concerned? — August 19, 2015

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Should we be concerned?

The simplest answer to this question, for me, is a clear and unequivocal yes (This is also my second post about GMOs, so I clearly believe we should be, at the very least, aware of the issues surrounding the topic). Recent reports from news media have questioned whether or not food products containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) should be labeled as such, so that consumers can choose if they will, or will not, buy the product. This has sparked a serious debate concerning the safety GMOs in our food system. Although some people argue against the labeling of GMOs for causing unnecessary fear surrounding the safety of these products, there is legitimate reason to approach GMO products with caution for political, social, and environmental reasons.

The most important reason to oppose the use of GMO crops is the environmental consequences from the form of agriculture that is necessary to grow these crops: monoculture systems. In short, monoculture farmers plant only one crop in a given area to maximize the yield of this crop. When a farmer choses (or is economically forced) to grow GMO crops (like corn, cotton, or soy), they adopt a monoculture style of growth to maximize the yield of the crop. One reason for planting all of the same variety of plant in the same area is that it makes it easier for the farmer to spray pesticides without killing the other crops (Since most GMO crops are designed to withstand the poisonous nature of pesticides, they will not perish in the presence of excessive pesticide use). Moreover, planting monocultures makes your farm less resilient because if the crop fails, there is no other crop variety to fall back on for food. If farmers cannot produce and sell enough of their one crop, then they cannot feed themselves. Still, it is more efficient to grow GMO crops in monocultures under the current economic system. Large seed companies are then able to sell farmers seeds and pesticides, often with the promise of increased yields.

The argument of increased crop yield is used all the time in favor of the use of GMOs, but it is simply not true that GMOs yield more food. For example, in India, GMO cotton was sold to small farmers with the promise that their yields would be higher than organic, traditional farming methods (Small farmers account for about 80 percent of food production in India). Today, about 95 percent of the cotton grown in India is a Monsanto GMO product.  It is true that cotton yields increased with the introduction of GMO crops in India because people started to just grow cotton instead of maintaining their traditional polyculture system of planting cotton alongside other nutritious food crops. Overall food output has not increased because of the monoculture systems implemented by GMO cotton crops in India. The result was an influx in cotton production and a decrease in the production of nutritious crops that feed people. Now, this would be a good thing if farmers were selling their cotton and receiving enough money to purchase what they need to eat, but this is not the case. Agriculture output decreased and yield of the specific cotton crop increased. People do not eat cotton and increased supply means a decrease in the price of cotton. This caused enormous economic pressure on India’s small farmers because they were now indebted to buying seed and pesticides from these companies, like Monsanto.

One crucial social aspect of this issue to understand is that farmers in the past had no need to buy seed from anyone. Nature provided seed to the farmers (specifically women in India assumed the role of traditional seed saving techniques). Seeds are the source of life, but large companies have now patented life and made it illegal for farmers to save their seeds for the next growing season. This created a cycle of planting and buying expensive GMO seeds for many small farmers in India. When their crops did not produce enough to sustain the farmers, there was a stark increase in suicides among farmers in India since 1997 and 1998. Granted, there were suicides among farmers before this date (as there are unfortunately in every society), but there was a clear increase in the number of suicides among farmers when this economic pressure of debt became greater with the use of GMOs and the accompanying pesticides. (Vandana Shiva is an inspirational advocate against the use of GMOs, specifically in India but also around the world, and she writes/speaks extensively on the topic). Putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea, especially when you are an economically vulnerable small farmer.

Similarly, in the United States, farmers receive subsidies from the government to grow corn (which is dominantly GMO corn), and most of this crop is turned into ethanol for fuel. Less food is being produced on these large monoculture farms because food is now a commodity to be sold efficiently in the global market. If the government is going to pay you to grow fuel instead of food, you will grow GMO corn for fuel because of the economic gain. There is still a huge social and environmental cost. As Vandana Shiva (environmental activist and physicist) puts it, if we were growing food for nourishment, then we would maximize nutrition by planting biodiverse polyculture agricultural systems. Instead, we are growing food to maximize profits, which supports a monoculture model of agricultural production.

Furthermore, there are political and legal consequences to the debate around GMO use in agriculture. As I mentioned earlier, the contracts small farmers enter into with large seed companies, like Monsanto, legally restrict farmers from saving their seeds. They are forbidden from planting these seeds again, and they cannot share seeds with anyone. In the United States, there are many cases of farmers who were sued by Monsanto for illegally growing their patented seeds, and often these farmers do not even know that they are growing GMO crops because of the nature of pollination. If your neighbor decides to grow GMO corn, your crop of organic corn is at risk of being contaminated by patented GMO pollen from the neighboring crop because corn is pollinated by the wind. You then are vulnerable to being sued by Monsanto for stealing their patented seed. The concept of having ownership over life is a new one, and it has allowed Monsanto, and other companies, to put small, organic farmers out of business. Once the small, organic farmer can no longer afford their land after litigation, the neighboring GMO farm is eager and ready to take over the farmland to plant more GMO crops.

Moreover, the enormous backlash against labeling GMO products in the United States is serious political problem. With the upcoming presidential reelection campaigns in full swing in the United States, we can see the corrupting influence money has on the political process. (Recent polls have Donald Trump leading the race for the Republican nomination, even after his racist and insensitive comments about Mexicans. Do I need to explain the power of money in politics any further?)  If we allow seed production and dispersal to be controlled by large corporations, politicians will undoubtedly be influenced by these companies when implementing food policy. There is no way your average citizen in the United States can compete with Monsanto lobbyists. The result is that these companies will have the access to politicians that they need to create the laws necessary to perpetuate the cycle of control over seed dispersal and secrecy surrounding products that contain GMOs. Currently, citizens of the United States do not even have the right to know if they are consuming GMO products because GMOs are not labeled on packaging. There is even a push by some politicians to make it illegal to label GMO products for what they are: GMOs. If there is nothing wrong with GMOs, why not label them?

Although many people believe the future of GMOs provides us with great hope for innovation and higher efficiency in food production, we must consider the environmental, social, and political implications of GMOs. The high cost of non-renewable seeds for small farmers, the increased pesticide use on GMO crops, and the huge political influence companies have on politics are a few great reasons to be concerned about the production and consumption of GMOs. Moreover, traditional selective breeding methods can be extremely effective at adapting a certain plant species to a specific region, and this has tremendous potential for helping farmers deal with the changing climate. Small farmers still feed most of the world. Rather than looking to large corporations to solve the problem of food insecurity, we should place higher value on the traditional knowledge of ecological-minded small farmers around the world.

To see Vandana Shiva answer some hard questions surrounding GMOs in a BBC interview watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbIQF72IDuw

An International Food Perspective — August 12, 2015

An International Food Perspective

Landing in Paris one week ago was a little overwhelming to say the least. I was extremely lucky to be traveling with Tessa Rager, a great friend and classmate. She and I know very minimal French, so awkward miscommunication was becoming part of our daily experience. More so than anything else, I experienced an overwhelming feeling that I had made the right decision. As we moved further and further away from the airport in Paris on the train ride to Angers, this feeling got much stronger. I stared out the window observing all that I could about my new environment.

One aspect of my new environment that I noticed right away was how many farms were outside the city of Paris. It was significant in my mind because this was a sign that food is grown locally here. The French stereotype that they care for their food was soon obvious to me after a few meals. The ingredients are certainly fresh and delicious. After settling into Angers, Tessa and I decided to make some loose plans to travel to Belgium and the Netherlands before classes start here. What we discovered was unexpected, eye-opening, and thought-provoking.

I normally do not like to generalize about any one group of people, or assume any stereotypes because I do not think they are fair. I personally do not fit into many stereotypes, and nature is full of anomalies. This makes me hate generalizing even more because it does not tell the whole story of an individual or community.

While at a lounge/bar in Amsterdam, Tessa and I were enjoying ourselves over a drink after a long few days of travel. We could not help but overhear the conversation happening at the next table between a British woman, an Australian woman, and man (possibly from the Netherlands), all of whom were about my age. The topic: Americans. Naturally, Tessa and I were interested in hearing what they had to say about us. At first, they seemed to be kind of ignorant as to what they were saying, making comments like “Americans are disgusting,” without making any real arguments to back this up (looking back, I wonder if they were intentionally trying to provoke us). The conversation soon switched to the topic of food in the United States, specifically factory farming animals for meat production. This peaked our interest since both Tessa and I are studying food systems in the United States and elsewhere.

The women and man started by talking about the harsh conditions our animals endure before we eat them. The British woman exclaimed “If they (Americans) are going to kill the animal for food, why do they have to torture the animal beforehand?” I couldn’t help but agree with her in my head. The Australian woman then referred to legislation in the United stated that makes it illegal for people to expose the terrible treatment of the animals in factory farms. The first of these “Ag Gag” laws were passed in Utah and Iowa in 2012, making it nearly impossible for whistleblowing to occur on farms. This is extremely significant because many of us do not know about the truly awful conditions the cows, chickens, and pigs endure before they are killed for consumption. I understand the issue that the Australian woman was trying to articulate. With laws like these on the books, large agricultural businesses have essentially silenced farmers in an attempt to keep the masses ignorant to this moral issue. Right after this comment, the Australian girl continued with her rant. She said that “American’s don’t deserve the meat we eat,” and that “we don’t need it.” Granted veganism and vegetarianism are perfectly plausible options for the human diet, but to say that Americans do not deserve to eat meat is implying a sense of disrespect and hatred of Americans or the American lifestyle. This part of the conversation made me very uncomfortable and I am still not totally sure why I felt this way. It is possible I was analyzing the situation a little too much, but maybe she was trying to say that we could easily eat less meat, which is an idea I do agree with because we do not need as much animal protein as we think we do in the United States.

Now, to be completely honest, the people at the table next to Tessa and I did not seem to fully understand the issues they were discussing amongst themselves. This was fascinating and frustrating at the same time because Tessa really wanted to start a conversation about sustainable agriculture and the local food movement in parts of the United States to give them a better image of America. I was animate about not wanting to bother with them and convinced Tessa that it would not be worth the energy (we were exhausted from so much travel and I felt that it would only lead to a conflict). They also said some very offensive and provocative comments throughout their conversation, which gave me the impression that they were living in their own bubble, observing and traveling the world without researching any facts to back up their ideas. I felt my energy would be better put to work on a blog post about the issue, in hopes that my ideas will resonate further than their misguided opinions of all Americans. The Australian woman and the man also said that they buy organic, and the British woman said she was a vegetation, so they seemed pretty pleased with their life choices and had no problem looking down on the American population. The main problem I have with this train of thought is that it does not account for the price difference between non-organic food and organic food in the United States. If you are an average American, you shop at the grocery store when you are not working. The cheaper options are almost always worse for your health and almost certainly non-organic. This might not seem like a big deal at first, but it is a social justice issue because people with money can afford to be healthier than those without enough money for organic food in the United States. I do not think that the people talking next to us were aware of this issue.

To make such a sweeping generalization about an enormous country is irresponsible. The United States is full of people who do care about where their food comes from, how it is treated, and so on. At the same time, there are many of us who do not care. I truly do not think the people sitting next to us in that lounge were aware of the diversity of people in the United States. There is huge variation in opinions of people from state to state, even city to city when it comes to food. The sweeping generalization made by them was at best faulty logic. They did touch on some really critical issues of our time, but they certainly did not have the full picture to make such claims.

At the end of the day, I was very happy to be able to have the experience to hear what a group of people from other countries think of our food system and of us more generally. They frustrated Tessa and me so much because we know way more people who actually do care about their food than people who do not in the United States. I recognize now that we are not the majority, and this was hard to accept. The trend the United States seems to be heading towards a more food conscience society, which gives me hope that current agricultural practices could change drastically in my lifetime.