Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cloned Cows and Garden Seeds


I obviously haven't got enough to do in the middle of winter. I've been writing a lot, not just here. I've decided to just riff on a few ideas that have been kicking around in my head the last few days.

I've been making up my lists of seeds that I have on hand and also coming up with ideas for things that I am going to order. I have a lot of really interesting seed catalogs. I like Johnny's the best. It is a little expensive, but it also has the best variety of seeds and a lot of organic options. They also include tips on marketing and using the different varieties, and that is very nice, as I would like to be organized and productive enough to be able to try farmer's market sales within a few years. Erie has a really nice farmer's market in summer on Thursday afternoon, and it is my goal to find some way to get sourdough loaves from my planned outdoor oven for sale there. Right now, I have the foundation built and I have been using Kiko Denzer's book "Build Your Own Earth Oven" as a guide. I'm a little leary of trying to sell bread commercially, however, because of PA department of agriculture rules. You can get certified for home baking products pretty easily, actually, but one of the rules is that there can't be any animals on the premesis. I'm hoping that having a separate outdoor oven shed will be enough to get legal to sell at a farmer's market.

I know the Amish sell baked goods right out of a little stand a couple different places, but the houses that do that are a little more on the main road than mine is. I read in a book by Eliot Coleman that his organic farm stand was situated in something of the same position as where I'm living now, a few miles down a dirt road and that his produce was good enough that his location was cancelled out by the desire people had to purchase it. I have a hard time believing that I could trick people into coming out here for a loaf of bread, however, especially when the Amish are selling their right on the main road!

Anyway, to get some inspiration for planning out my gardens for 2008, I have been reading a lot of gardening books, both of the "how to" and the more nebulous "garden design" variety. I also watched a video lecture by Dr. Vendana Shiva, my hero! She was talking about artificial scarcity. One of her main themes is that globalization and cash cropping is not a survivable system because it places too much stress on people and and on the land. Even though she sounds radical, all you need to do is remember that her main point is that the old traditional ways of doing things were good enough for the earth and the animals and humanity to make it this far, and now because of new methods and because of farming for money and not for food, we are messing things up. Whenever I think that I am ordering too many kinds of tomatoes or too many melon seeds and pumpkin seeds, I like to remember that on and eight acre farm in India, growing my traditional means, there are mover six hundred varieties of plants growing. And they are all mixed together in a successive crop system that involves up to twelve different plants all in the same row!

At a time when embracing plant diversity has the possibility of helping the poorest farmers in India (and also can preserve the countless varieties of plants we used to grow) I keep hearing about how it is safe to eat meat and drink milk from cloned cows and goats. That the products from these animals are just as safe as the other meat and milk. Now, if that is not a loaded statement, I'm not sure what is! I'll admit that I haven't eaten meat for going on fifteen years, though I have no qualms about cooking and serving meat to people who do want it, but I really don't think it is safe. As soon as I have the option, I'd like to raise something I can feed to my own personal carnivores right here and know that it has not been part of the commercial meat production system. Read "Fast Food Nation". As for milk, I get raw milk from a local farm, and if I can't get it, I get soy milk because I don't like storebought milk, and I don't want milk from cows that have chronic udder infections from being fed bovine growth hormone, which is not used where I buy my milk. Also, my milk is like milk used to be. It comes from a small herd of cows and all from one farm. What you get at the store is about three weeks old before you even see it, and it has the milk from hundreds of cows all mixed together. But, I'm getting off point.

What I actually have been thinking about this debate is how fantastically small minded it is. Is cloned meat or milk safe to eat or drink? It's the smallest piece of the debate that we could possibly have. It's not the tip of the iceberg. it's more like the slight eddy of cool water that might have brushed by the iceberg a few miles back. That question is shallow to the point of irrelevance.

We need to look a little deeper, apparently, so let's get at it:

Right now, there is little danger of any one of us actually going to the supermarket and unknowingly picking up a package of hamburger meat from a cloned cow. Cloned animals cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. It's like the old joke about the farmer with the three legged pig. When asked why the pig has three legs, the farmer tells all these stories about how the pig saved him from drowning, rescued the family from a burning house, etc, none of which explains why the pig has three legs. That's the punchline of the joke: "A pig that valuable, you don't want to eat him all at once!" You don't eat a cloned animal that has such a high cost of production.

The cloned animals are going to be made from particular breeding stock that is considered "ideal" and those clones will go on to be used to create naturally reproduced offspring. What this means, however, is that the breeding stock used will come from a pool of animals which all carry the exact same DNA strands in their genes. I find this extremely problematic for many reasons, but I only need to go into two here.

Think of the loss of diversity in both farm animals and garden plants that has happened since the industrial revolution. There are a lot of web sites that deal with this. I was just on the web site for the American Livestock Breed Conservancy the other day looking at horse breed and turnkey breeds that have been lost, and because I'm a spinner I am very interested in rare sheep breeds, too. A lot of the books that I have been reading also touch on the huge amounts of different localized types of plants and fruits and vegetables that used to be raised in colonial gardens and which have now all but disappeared.

Essentially, nothing was "wrong" with any of these plants or animals. Fiber from different kinds of sheep and goats, even from different animals within the same breed is really amazing in its many forms. Therein lies the problem, however. The modern means of transporting food and using machines to harvest and process food and fiber require that there be certain parameters or the machinery will either not work at all or not work as well. When the human element and the eye and the hand are removed, there is not the potential for the kinds of minute adjustments that need to be made to deal with the natural variations between different breeds or even withing the same breed. Thus the need for standardizing breeds of everything. Add to this the trend of creating monoculture for cash crops, meaning a farm that used to produce the range of food that a family would consume on the spot now sells one main crop for money and purchases the necessities of life, and the pressure to eliminate anything that does not suit the forms of machine production is even more pronounced, as now machines are needed to handle the huge amount of one thing that is produced.

Food that is grown must be food that can be shipped and stored and stacked on shelves with the efficiency and regularity of cardboard boxes, no matter how it tastes compared with old varieties. Mass numbers of only merino sheep produce wool in amounts which simply can't be processed by hand as a cottage industry as in the past. The many breeds of cows have been narrowed down to only the black and white Holsteins. I was very upset to find out my favorite cow the Guernsey is considered threatened. They are little and tan and sweet and gentle and give rich milk full of butterfat, but they are also about two thirds the size of an average Holstein cow and give far less milk. Diversity and locality have been sacrified for mass production, and anyone who cannot compete on a mass production scale no longer has a place in the market.

With cloned breeding stock, things will only get worse. Within the tiny narrow range of what is considered ideal to run through production machinery, there will now be a pool of mass-breed, very closely related cattle which will allow meat packing producers to even further restrict the variation permitted in market animals. Because of the cost of creating the cloned breeding stock, the smaller operations which are not backed by mega-corporations which already control the grain and seed markets will not be able to afford to produce clone-bred animals to conform to these new standards. Like the increasing regulations on direct consumption for food that has tried to basically outlaw homemade food, the advent of cloned animal breeding will further consolidate the production of food in this country in the hands of a few very large corporations which also seek to control water supplies and power generation.

This consolidation has more physical danger than just the safety of eating cloned meat and drinking cloned milk. For a perfect example of the new threat to the food supply, we need only turn to the plant world where "cloning" has been a practise from anciant times. Roses and apples and fruit trees are all most effectively propagated by grafting a twig or branch onto an existing root of another plant. This is essentially cloning. A lot of people who defend cloning animals will often cite cloning practises in plant growing as a strategy of debate.

There are dangers in plant cloning that go far beyond whether or not it is safe to consume fruit from grafted plants, however. Simply look at the number of trees and plant varieties which fall victim to very specific blights and pests. Every garden seed catalog I receive has elaborate codes and lists of what plant resists what blight and most reputable gardening books talk about the need to move plants around and not plant the same thing in the same place every year.

I like the use the potato for an example of how badly monoculture can effect food production. A lot of people are really surprised that potatoes are in fact one of the most pesticide-intensive crops in modern production. The majority of potatoes are grown in this country for consumption in the fast food industry, and there are hundreds of fields of potatoes all of one variety which are propagated though replanting the same potatoes to regenerate tubers. These are extremely similar in size and texture, and they are planted over and over in the same fields in huge numbers every year. Because of the concentration on only potatoes in these huge fields, and on only potatoes of one variety, everything that exists in that field is a blight or bacteria or pest which preys only on that one type of potato, and there is no dormancy or crop rotation or anything of the sort to break that cycle.

To continue to grow potatoes in those conditions, the potato farmers must go through at the beginning of each season and completely kill anything that is in the soil. They have to kill the bacteria and the larvae and the earthworms and the nutrients alike. The soil itself must be dead. Then, they supposedly scientifically, can calculate the amount of fertilizer it will take to produce a crop of potatoes and add that amount of chemical nutrient to the soil and plant the potatoes under essentially sterile conditions. Potatoes are grown, of course, under the ground, and that makes it that much easier to spray the bejeesus out of the plant above ground to control pests and weeds which might steal nutrients from the potato crop.

If an increasing number of meat production animals all share the same genotype, then they will all be suceptible in the same ways to the same diseases. One little illness which might have been an unfortunate loss in a few related animals could conceivably, in a food production system dominated by breeding from masses of geneticially identical animals, threaten huge portions of the food system. And what if those masses of identical cows become susceptible to a disease which has the potential to cross the species barrier like Mad Cow Disease? If such drastic measures must be taken to control disease in the potato crop, what might be the solution to a vulnerable mass "crop" of nearly identical cattle which are already raised under stressful feed lot methods?

The Mad Cow example is extreme and alarmist, and that is intentional. But we don't need a crisis like mass numbers of people coming down with KJD to understand that diversity is a defensive strength in everything but the modern food market. Take my ongoing obsession with trying many kinds of seeds. Last summer, I planted a lot of different types of tomatoes, and we had a very dry beginning to summer and a very wet ending. I carried water to a lot of the plants, but I really couldn't do it in the amounts they needed. Some of the tomatoes were put out into the garden and never seen again. Just naturally , some varieties are drought resistant and others are not. But planting a variety of things, I was able to get something out of my garden, even when the bad weather killed off other things. For me, that was just a fun and interesting gardening season, but for people who really do depend on subsistance style farming for food, losing the staple crops of grains that will grow in drought and grains that will grow in flood or cold or heat is a serious business. And modern, standardized farming is crowding these varieties out of the world.

The market is huge and doesn't listen that much to the concerns of individuals. I'm all for letter writing, but you also have to put your money where your mouth is. I spend a lot of time and effort doing what I can to buy anything that I have to buy as close to the source as I can. I spend even more effort trying to come up with ways I can make the things I want to eat myself. When more and more people run away from the mass market and let their behaviour match what they believe, there is the opportunity for real pressure on the way the market works.

I return to the ideas of Eliot Coleman who wrote in his book "The New Organic Grower" about the concept of "One-percenters". The idea is that, given the opportunity to make a slight change for the betterment of your growing system (or your household management) you should do it, even if the change is not even perceptible. All of these one-percenters will slowly begin to accumulate and create an improvement of the whole. In life as in gardening and growing, overnight change is probably not possible, and if possible, not good. You should not expect it, and you probably will fail if you attempt to make a clean sweep and change everything all at once. The urge to make everything the same, to change everything, to control everything comes from a deep seated anxiety that is one of the weaknesses of the human condition, and one of the best ways to relieve that anxiety is not to tighten control even further, to regulate even further, to tolerate less variation. Rather, we need to smarten up, learn some coping skills and quit putting all our eggs in one cloned chicken basket!

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