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A New Place Called Cascadia

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By Kirk Schlesinger, Food Production Team Intern

Now that O.U.R. Insight Into GMOs Symposium has taken place, what have we learned and where do we go from here?

First, the learning – and it was considerable!  An entire Saturday afternoon was devoted to an in-depth exploration of GMOs.

Lisa Haché-Maguire, OUR lead symposium facilitator, summarized the ecovillage’s educational process on food to this point.  Lisa listed the multiple motives of folks; quantity, money, power, and fear that have created the present petrochemically dependent, industrial food system.  This system has lost so much biological and social diversity that it is nearing the point of unsustainability.  Lisa asked one of the Big Questions in food security: is resiliency through diversity the way out of our increasingly vulnerable and unhealthy food production system?  To help answer this question, she proposed adopting the “triple bottom line” of social, environmental and economic measures of success utilized in the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).  Another part of the answer lies in embracing the “precautionary principle” of slowing down or delaying technology and waiting for definitive answers about the consequences of GMOs.  In the meantime, the best chance for a sufficient supply of safe, healthy food lies in looking beyond the individual farm or homestead to increasing the role of the wider local community as an “abundant resource of support”.
Dr. Don M. Huber of Prudue University, USA then explained the scientific ins and outs of Roundup, Monsanto’s brand-name for “glyphosate”.  It turns out that this is what is called a ” broad-spectrum” herbicide ( weed killer), which means it starves any plant life around it by “chelating” (pronounced “KEY-lating”; which means, leeching out) vital minerals and nutrients from the soil.  Of course, this would kill desired crops as well, unless those crops are made “Roundup-Ready”, a term coined by Monsanto.  The way you make a crop “Roundup-Ready” is to alter its DNA so that it can continue to absorb certain minerals that it needs to grow.  This is the point where crops become  Genetically Modified Organisms – GMOs.

So what’s wrong with that?  Why should we care if the “Roundup-Ready” trait is passed along to other crops and plants through cross-fertilization?  Might that not be a blessing in disguise?

Dr. Huber started to answer these questions by telling a story.  Once upon a time a merchant needed seven days to cross the desert to make a big sale, but the camels could only survive six days.  The merchant consulted all the camel experts, and none of them could offer any solutions.  Finally, the merchant found someone who claimed he could squeeze one more day out of camels, by pushing stones up their hind quarters to make them drink more water.  When the merchant asked if this would hurt, the so-called expert replied, “only if your fingers get caught between the stones!”

The moral of the story, Dr. Huber explained, is that by not caring about the living things we rely on, and by focusing only on our own immediate needs, we put too much stress on natural systems.  This degrades the quality and soon enough even the quantity of what we seek to produce, and can create long-term environmental damage for all.  This is what appears to be happening with Roundup-Ready GMO crops.  Even with altered DNA, a number of micro-nutrients essential to long-term healthy plant growth are blocked by the application of Roundup, essential to plant growth.  The genetic modification also appears to create more intense vulnerability to other kinds of problems, particularly a resurgence of “Fusarium root rot”.  With GMO traits likely to spread throughout major grain, feed and oil crops such as corn, soy and canola, the systemic stresses may prove all but irreversible.  As Dr. Huber concluded, “The root of our problems lie in the roots!”.

Jon Steinman, host of Deconstructing Dinner, a one hour syndicated radio program out of Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson BC ( 2006 till November 2010) and food security activist in the Kootenays region of southeast British Columbia, then examined GMOs from a social standpoint.  Jon began by noting how much we have adapted ourselves to a lifestyle dominated by machines and technology, and have often done so without reflecting too much about what it means and what it costs.  Quoting from Jerry Wheeler’s book In the Absence of the Sacred,  Jon set out the following principle: “Never judge a technology by the way it benefits you personally.  Seek a holistic view of its impacts”.  At that point my thoughts wandered back to Dr. huber’s camel story.

Jon spoke about the many myths that have grown up around the supposed economic and nutritional benefits of GMO crops.  Under cover of these myths, the major GMO crop producers – Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, bayer – have purchased between them nearly 100 seed companies since GMOs came on line in 1996.  Jon displayed a telling graphical representation of this industrial consolidation, created by Professor Philip Howard of Michigan State University.  Jon concluded by outlining the campaigns undertaken in Canada since 2004 to declare official ” Genetically Engineered Free Zones” (GE Free Zones) in towns and villages.  O.U.R. Ecovillage is hard at work preparing to adopt it’s own GE-Free Zone and make it part of OUR land covenant.

At first glance, responding to what some have called an attempt by the GMO producers to “take over the world” (or at least the world of seeds – the essence of life) with limited and highly localized GE-free declarations seem inadequate.  It feels like we are playing in a game where someone else controls the rules and does not have our best interests at heart.

The panel discussion following the formal Zero Mile Meal Feast on Saturday evening and Jon Steinman’s “Deconstructing Dinner for Resilient Food Secure Communities” talk the next day, pointed the way towards a different kind of local response.  Nicolette Grenier, proprietor of the Community Farm Store in Duncan, BC, spoke passionately about how trusted local growers and sellers are the single greatest protection against GMOs.  Nicolette related that even supposedly “green” markets now appear willing to accept GMO ingredients in certified organic foods they would sell to their customers.  She urged that we follow an ” 80-20″ model: at least 80% of our time and effort devoted to developing the local food economy, and no more than 20% given over to food politics and advocacy in the wider world.  Sharon Proske, author of a study assessing the ethics of using GMOs from a spiritual perspective, supported Nicolette.

At lunch the following day, Jon Steinman offered one possible way to apply Nicolette’s “80-20” model: creating regional food security umbrella groups to bring to life the vision of local community as the “abundant resource of support” that Lisa spoke about at the beginning of the Symposium.  Toward that end, Jon related how over the past several months he has been working on a survey of regional food security networks in the USA and Canada.  His work is nearing completion and he plans to release it over the internet in the near future.

As the Symposium closed, it seemed to me as if an answer to the questions “Where do we go from here?” was beginning to take shape.  Jon Steinman had once featured on ” Deconstructing Dinner” portions of a talk given by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, authors of The 100 Mile Diet (2007), which warmly supported the Kootenay Grain CSA  (community supported agriculture) project as a rime example of how local food production could work for staple crops.  I found the entire talk on the internet in video.  In that talk Alisa Smith offered the following conclusion:  ” There are all kinds of opportunities for transformation in the food system…, [for] change in local economies for the better, and all it takes is everyone thinking about their own 100 mile radius.  That’s a really manageable place to start.”

If you place OUR Ecovillage at the center of a 160 kilometer circle ( equivalent to 100 miles), then you discover that some very interesting institutions lie inside.  One that immediately stands out is Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead near Dear Harbour on Orcas Island, Washington USA.  The Bullock Brothers have been at it for nearly 30 years, and permaculture’s founding father Bill Mollison has said some very complimentary things about their work.  Another US island-based organization is Lopez Island Community Land Trust, which has a grain restoration project, a mobile agricultural processing unit, an award-wining zero-energy affordable housing initiative, food and building internships, and has authored a land, water, energy and resource use manual.  The Land Trust’s grain project was featured on one of the last episodes of “Deconstructing Dinner” in October 2010 ( audio and transcript).

Both of these places are about 50 km as the crow flies from O.U.R. Ecovillage.  Even taking into account twisting roads and indirect ferry trips, the distance is still within the 160 km / 100 mile limit.

These three entities, all committed in their own ways to a different, healthier approach to life, could take the next step toward creating a new local reality, utilizing everything from zero-energy sail boat commerce to international cross-border exchanges of people and ideas.  It could just be that the “Cascadia Co-operative Zone” is about to be born.

Note: Cascadia refers to the geological area along the West Coast beginning in Southern British Columbia and extending down to Northern California.

Permaculture. Sustainable Food Production. Natural Building. Education. Community.