July 31, 2015

The Buck Stops Here

BY Peter Schutt

After leading many tours of our farm for both young students and mature adults, I have come to realize that hardly anyone really understands the why’s and wherefore’s of what is known in today’s narrative as the “local food” movement.

To those who come to tour Winchester Farm see the context of our food system by understanding the practices of conventional grain farms that surround ours. All these farms grow either soybeans or corn as a primary crop, and some grow winter wheat during the colder months.

To begin, almost every acre of these farms is sprayed with herbicides, first to kill the weeds growing prior to planting, then another “pre-emergent” herbicide that prevents the sprouting of weed seeds not killed by the first spraying.

Almost every ounce of these chemicals sold to the farmer are made by either Monsanto, Bayer Crop Science, Dow Chemical, Dupont or Sygenta. All these are multinational corporations with offices around the world and CEOs who are paid many millions of dollars per year.

Almost every one of the billions of corn, soy and wheat seed planted in the soil around our farm is likewise produced by a multinational corporation, sometimes the same corporation that produces the herbicides sprayed on the fields.

Local farmers generally buy or lease very large tractors, harvesting machines and irrigation systems. Most of this equipment is made by multinational corporations with manufacturing plants located outside the U.S. This includes John Deere and Case-International brands of tractors and equipment. Most Deeres for years were made in Illinois, today most are made in India, Mexico and other countries outside the U.S.; International, of course, used to be made in Memphis and is now owned by Case New Holland, which is controlled by the Italian firm, Fiat. They also own Ford-New Holland, the third large tractor maker.

Further, the equipment (and land) is often financed by very large companies such as life insurance or specialized farm credit companies.

Once harvested, the corn, soy and wheat is loaded onto large tractor-trailer rigs and usually hauled to large grain storage facilities on the Mississippi River, who buy the grain and load it onto barges. Almost all the grain is barged and then trucked again hundreds or thousands of miles to be used as either animal feed, feedstock for ethanol plants, or in some small percent of cases, for actual human food.

About the only thing local used in conventional grain farming near our farm is the labor and, when farmers decide to use it on their soil, lime, which comes from a quarry near the Tennessee River.

When a farmer then buys all his seed, chemicals and equipment with borrowed money, he is paying interest, usually to a non-local lender. He is using this borrowed money to buy his materials from multinational corporations. So if you follow each dollar he spends, very few pennies of each dollar stays in the local economy, unless the farmer is one of the fortunate ones to make a profit. In which case some money goes into his pocket.

But still, almost every grain of corn, soy and wheat he produces is shipped far miles away.

Winchester Farm presents a stark contrast.

After eight years in the livestock business, almost all the cattle and hogs we now graze and raise were born on our farm. We bought the original Angus cows from Claybrook Farm just up the road. The rootstock of our Berkshire hogs and our laying hens came from various farmers within 100 miles or so.

We buy our non GMO corn and alfalfa seed from small, independent suppliers; though they’re not all within 100 miles, they’re not multinational corporations, either.

Our tractors and equipment are almost all second-hand and made in the USA, although we do plan to buy a new John Deere soon.

Our fertilizer comes from a small manufacturer in Ohio. We buy what mineral supplement for our cattle and sunflower seeds for our hogs from a family owned business 12 miles away.

Our lender is a family owned bank in Paris, TN.

We sell all of our pork and eggs and much of our beef locally, from Brownsville to Memphis. When we have an animal butchered, it is by local butchers.

So, rather than spend our money in a way that almost all of every dollar leaves the local economy, and sell what we grow in a way that all of it also leaves the local economy, you can see that the effect of all our work is to keep the money and resources circulating locally.

* * *

I am reading a book now, “American Catch”, about the state of the seafood system in America and around the world. The author has researched the current and past of the seafood industry and points out that today, Americans import about 91% of the seafood we consume. And we export about 75% of the seafood we produce.

In light of what I have written above, I think it’s important to regurgitate a few sentences from this book:

“Two thirds of all Alaska seafood, much of it salmon, is sent abroad. And much of the Alaskan salmon that does make it to American consumers is flash-frozen whole, shipped to China, defrosted, filleted and deboned. It is then refrozen and shipped back to the U.S. as twice frozen boneless product.

“Nowadays, however an increasingly large part of the seafood we send to China stays there for consumption. This trend is augmented by the dissolution of the American fish processing industry. From scallops and haddock in New Bedford to spiny lobsters and black cod in central California, I found again and again that fishermen had poor access to selling their fish locally. In American coastal communities, fishermen are being pushed off the dock by the real estate business and as a result it is easier and cheaper to send their catch, unprocessed and in bulk, to China.”

* * *

So why have we Americans veered so far off course, in that every day we nourish ourselves blindly, without regard to where what we eat comes from or what the cost of eating is, beyond the cost in dollars and cents? Who is to blame?

As Wendell Berry says, “we all are implicated”.

Americans, thanks to decades of incessant messaging thru mass media, are hand conditioned to measuring the value of things in dollars and cents and of perceiving food as a commodity that we must pay as little for as possible – again, without regard to the consequences of such a choice.

The local food “movement” is in many circles adhered to by those who think it to be trendy – a conversation piece and an idea whose main purpose is to make us feel good about ourselves. The reality is that understanding eating to be agricultural act rather than simply another box to check in our busy daily routine, is necessary to “right living”.

In the Judeo-Christian history, eating is nigh onto a sacrament to be savored as an event that nourishes our bodies and our spirits. Taken from that perspective then, the cost in dollars and cents is not as important as the process of how and where we get our food. Those who grow their own food, or at least buy or barter their food from a neighbor or local farmer, I contend are truly living in community.

Today’s narrative of the “global economy”, put forth by those who say we now live in a global community, by contrast encourages citizens to ignore their immediate neighbors and tends to justify a food system that we are now realizing is just plain broken.

The Haida people of coastal British Columbia have a folk tale about a hummingbird’s effort to put out a raging forest fire that is consuming the home to all animals. While all the bears, deer and other animals flee the fire, the hummingbird flies back and forth from the sea, unloading from its beak one drop of water at a time on the fire. The grizzly scoffs, asking the tiny bird why he is so silly as to think one drop of water can help extinguish the fire. The hummingbird explains – no matter how small the effort to put out the fire, one must still try to solve, rather than run from, the problem.

Get the point?

June 8, 2015

OMG . . . GMOs!!


The alarm over what the current narrative calls foods that are, or contain, “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs”, is interesting to me and, perhaps, a bit misguided. Not that the alarm is not appropriate, rather that I suspect most people who are alarmed don’t really know why they should be alarmed or concerned about the role of new genetic technology in our food system.

By way of background, humans have been manipulating the genetic makeup of food for many thousands of years; but this genetic manipulation has always been accomplished by simply expediting nature’s way of breeding for specific characteristics in plants and animals. During the earliest times of human agriculture, our ancestors slowly learned to take native plants, such as wheat, and animals, such as cattle or chickens, and cross pollinate or hybridize them through controlled breeding in order go to cultivate the most desirable qualities and quantities of nutritious foods.

Such selective breeding began with hardly any technology as we know it today, and it has only gotten more sophisticated with modern technology. But selective breeding has never involved modifying the genes of plants or animals; rather it merely takes the genes that nature provides, specific to each plant or animal, and either encourages or discourages the presence of  certain genes based on the expression of these genes in the plants or animals that result from the selective breeding.

What the current narrative calls GMOs, however, is a different story. The genes in these plants or animals are not just modified, rather the genes from entirely different plants or animals are introduced into the resulting food crop in order to create a trait in the food would not appear there naturally. In my view, GMOs would be more accurately termed “GEOs” or genetically engineered organisms. In most cases that I’ve studied, industries are not just modifying the genetic makeup of food, but engineering entirely new unnatural plants and animals.

Although there is no evidence that such foods are dangerous or unhealthy in an of themselves, people should understand two things: 1) the system of growing these foods is, indeed unhealthy and unnatural since it requires the use of chemicals that are known to be unhealthy to humans and the environment; and 2) GMO plants such as soya and alfalfa can cross pollinate with conventional varieties and create unintended consequences that may not have been considered by the farmers who grow them.

The use of genetic engineering in foods started innocently enough in the early 1990s with the introduction of  the Flavr Savr tomato, which added a trait to the strain allowing it to ripen on the vine and maintain a level of ripeness for  a long time. This was simply to improve shelf life of the tomato, but it wasn’t a commercial success and it, pardon the pun, died on the vine.

With the advent of glyphosate-based herbicides in the 1970s (Roundup, etc.) came the blockbusters of Monsanto – “Roundup Ready” soybeans, corn and cotton seed. Roundup Ready crop lines contain a gene derived from Agrobacterium sp. strain CP4, encoding a glyphosate-tolerant enzyme, the so-called CP4 EPSP synthase (1, 2). In other words, Monsanto took one gene from a bacteria and added it to the corn, soy, cotton, etc., seeds that it engineered, in order to make those crops impervious to the effects of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup).

Likewise, since 1996 crops have been modified by adding to plants short sequences of genes from the naturally occurring bacterium –  bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) – to express the crystal protein Bt makes. There are at least two proteins snatched from Bt and implanted in crops to kill many species of insect pests that prey on cotton, corn and potatoes – mainly worms.

More recent food crops mutated by man are rice, apples, salmon, bananas and potatoes.

In the case of rice, scientists have taken a gene from a cold water species of fish along with one from carrots, and added them to rice in order to make a rice crop that is yellow and containing higher levels of beta carotene, an important anti-oxidant and source of vitamin A in humans. This strain of rice has not reached commercial success as yet.

Just this year, the FDA approved the Arctic apple, which has actually had a gene removed that causes an apple to turn brown after it’s cut. Granny Smith and Golden Delicious are the two varieties to look for on the grocery shelf that won’t brown.

Ditto with Simplot’s potato, the Innate, which the JR Simplot company has produced. It contains no foreign genes; rather scientists have modified genes already in the potato (Russets) so that, if we fry these potatoes, the Innate russet Burbanks will have less than half as much of a worrisome chemical called acrylamide. That chemical is supposedly not good for human health. This potato’s flesh also is less likely to turn black when bruised.

For the past 19 years, a company called AquAdvantage has been developing a strain of GMO salmon. It’s an Atlantic salmon with one gene from a Chinook salmon and another from an ocean pout which, together, ensure that the fish produces growth hormone year-round, rather than only part-time. The AquAdvantage fish reportedly grows more than twice as fast as its unmodified brethren. It has its production facility in Panama, but the fish has not yet been approved by the FDA. It would be the first genetically engineered animal to be introduced into our food system.

Finally, the ubiquitous banana has entered the realm of genetic engineering. Among the controversial projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the development and testing of a biofortified GMO banana developed to boost its iron, Vitamin E and proVitamin A content.  To this end the Foundation, via its Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, has so far given $15 million to Queensland University of Technology for the program run by Professor Dr James Dale, with a latest tranche of $10 million handed over this year. The declared purpose is to roll out nutritional benefits across the tropics, but initially to India, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda – all countries that suffer from widespread nutritional deficiencies.

They say you are what you eat. The research thus far shows that our GMO food is not “bad” for human health. But being “not bad” is not the same as being good or healthy. Certainly the growing trend of using pure science to determine the health of our food and the system in which it grows, has its pitfalls. With the introduction of animal and bacterial genes into plants and so forth, it seems that we are trying to make one too many improvements on the natural order of things. All this is going to have some unintended consequences that even the smartest scientists have not dreamed of.

Let’s hope those consequences are not some that we cannot reverse.





May 29, 2015

Fit to Bits


Walking 10,000 steps a day is supposed to be one key to a healthy life.

I see people wearing a FitBit wrist strap that counts those steps, 24/7. I think it sends the count to your phone.

Now the phone makers are making wrist watches that you can look at to see your step count. You can buy Apple’s watch for $350.

Of course, there also are arm bands that measure your vital signs. Chest bands, too.

Another company has come out with a watch that measures all that, plus counts the calories you burn. It sends a reminder to your phone when you have been sitting in one place too long.

Sitting, according to my yoga teacher, is the “new smoking”. That is, the more you sit, the shorter your life will be. Makes sense, though a bit scary to think about.

Iqaluit is the northernmost town in the world, the capital of Nunavut, which stretches from Canada’s Northwest Territories almost to the North Pole. It is inhabited by Inuit people aka Eskimos. For thousands of years before discovered by Westerners, the Inuit have lived off the land, or ice, that is.

The people of Iqaluit don’t have a weight problem, at least an overweight problem. In fact they’re now getting too skinny because they stopped eating their previously native diet of whale fin, seal blubber, etc. The Inuit people evolved over the ages to put on more body fat than other peoples in the world in order that they might better survive five or six months of the coldest weather on earth.

They evolved – survived and thrived – by living off the land. By eating what was available.

But explorers striving for the North Pole “civilized” the Inuit, and modern ways slowly edged out their native customs and diet. So now with a Western diet of fast and prepared foods, these people are mostly too skinny to stay warm outdoors. Instead of their time tested ways of hunting and whaling for food, they stay indoors on the couch, watching TV. Mostly.

Oh, and by the way, they have the highest suicide rate in the world. Per capita, 30 times higher than anywhere else. This may be due in part to the fact that Western culture has introduced them to all manner of illicit drugs. The Inuit people also have one of the highest per capita rates of drug abuse anywhere.

Beginning about 500 years ago, Europeans, then Americans, systematically destroyed the cultures of dozens of indigenous tribes who had lived off the land in North America for ages. Indians and their ancestors had lived off the land and managed not to drive the American bison to near extinction.

I have been to the Havasupai reservation next to Grand Canyon. There, almost everyone is overweight and almost 1 in 3 has Type 2 diabetes. The Havasupai, along with the rest of North America’s indigenous people were forced to adapt to a westernized high-fat, high-sodium, high-carbohydrate calorie diet, and became more sedentary, along with the rest of the U.S.


Many of the tribes don’t exist any more, much less their old ways, including language. American public education for most of the past 200 years hasn’t allowed the teaching of native American languages on Indian reservations.

History, right up to the present shows us that wherever and whenever a society moves away from having daily contact with the land, with nature in some elemental form, the result is then a decay in the health of the society and its individual members.

Closer to home, all my neighbors have been exchanging emails wondering about the incessant humming noise that begins each morning and continues till dusk. Our neighborhood is heavily wooded. Everyone has a burglar alarm, aka home security systems; some have video security cameras at their driveways. The consensus was that someone’s alarm was errantly triggered. Only one besides me understood that the once-in-fourteen-year emergence of cicadas is responsible for the noise.

Wendell Berry most astutely put it, “We are isolated within our unique human boundaries, which we certainly cannot . . . escape by means of technological devices.”

So for the past few decades we modern day, urbanized citizens of the so-called “developed countries” have become unbound from our natural ways but bound by our technological devices. We have become intent on relying upon these devices to tell us what we want to know – who we are, how healthy (or not) we are, how much exercise we need, what we need to eat, and so on.

John Muir famously pointed out that every time he tried to determine the purpose of one thing in nature, he found it to be attached to the everything else of the world.

Now it seems we are well on our way to become unattached to the rest of the world. In fact, a recent New York Times article reports that a group of U.S. scientists and scholars have determined that in order to provide enough food and energy for the world, humans must “de-couple” from the natural world instead of relying on it.

These “eco-modernists” opine that the business of food and energy production must more “intensively extract” these things from nature, while the world population becomes more urbanized.

That, to me, is the beginning of the end.