Turns Out, the Future of Food Lies in These Old Seeds

Scientists, farmers, and chefs are developing new varieties of produce from heirloom seeds. It will make life better for organic farmers—and yummier for everyone else.

Original Post – November 18, 2014
Kristin Ohlson has written for The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Salon, Smithsonian, Discover, Gourmet, and many others. Her book The Soil Will Save Us was published in March by Rodale.

Sarah Kleeger pointed to a goldfinch perched on a waist-high millet plant and scowled, tightening her grip as the black cat in her arms twitched with interest. “That bird is just looking at us.”

“I’d like to shoot all the birds,” said Andrew Still, her husband and business partner.

“We don’t shoot birds,” Kleeger clarified for me.

“Yes, but I’d like to shoot them,” Andrew said. “We just lost half our crop of Castelfranco chicory seeds to the birds.”

Kleeger, 35, and Still, 34, can be forgiven their avian antipathy. They don’t sell the Castelfranco chicory or Red Bull brussels sprouts or Aprovecho fava beans or the hundreds of other vegetables they grow in their fields. Their plants don’t look like produce—they are all tall and shaggy, even the three-foot lettuces rattling with seeds. Kleeger and Still sell the seeds from these plants to other farmers through Adaptive Seeds, the small company they founded on their five-acre organic farm in Sweet Home, Ore., in 2009. The birds, not unreasonably, consider Adaptive Seeds’ products their food.

Later, Still squatted and plucked two dwarf Danish melons, pale yellow with green stripes and not much bigger than billiard balls. The couple brought the seeds for these melons from Europe, along with seeds of 800 other varieties of food crops, with the hope that in addition to their good taste and texture the fruit might show robust performance in organic fields in the Pacific Northwest, which, like Denmark, is typically not melon territory. So far the Danish melon experiment is going great. “I’m looking for my ideal melon,” Still said. “Medium-small that’s green and juicy and sweet, with early traits. Northwest adapted, so that it matures in August and not late September.”

That would give farmers more choice of what to plant, potentially raising their incomes, and the ability to pass that choice on to consumers. Gesticulating with one of the diminutive Danish fruit, Still said, “Our goal is to create a healthier, more resilient and sustainable food system. We need to correct the problems of the industrial food system, and seeds are one way to do that.”

Adaptive Seeds has a John Deere combine that’s not quite old enough to appear in a parade of vintage farm equipment at a 4-H fair, a shed overflowing with garlic, a winnowing room where Still dumps seeds from one bucket to another in front of a window fan that blows away the chaff, and an office where they handle seed orders from down the road and around the globe. Kleeger and Still’s living room is full of corn, hanging to dry from racks near the ceiling, for next year’s catalog.

The couple began working on an organic farm right after college but were dismayed to find, over dozens of seasons raising and selling vegetables, that farmers planted the same handful of varieties year after year. That seemed limiting. They decided to seek out varieties of vegetables not available in the United States and spent their savings on the trip to Europe, collecting seeds from varieties that seemed promising. Today they are leaders in a movement that could alter local food systems and economies, as well as strengthen the hand of organic and small farmers.

IMG_4637Andrew Still, holding Danish melons, and Sarah Kleeger on their seed farm in Sweet Home, Ore. (Photo: Kristin Ohlson)

The 20th century saw the rise of a consolidated agriculture sector that demanded volume and efficiency. That led to a drop in the number of varieties available to farmers from commercial seed companies and the resulting handful of mass-produced vegetable varieties in our grocery stores. But farmer-entrepreneurs like Kleeger and Still have joined with plant-breeding scientists and even high-profile chefs such as Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant to remake food from the seed up. Such collaborations could serve as a model for others around the country seeking good organic varieties for their own fields and kitchens. Already, Stephen S. Jones, a wheat breeder and professor at Washington State University, says he’s contacted at least three times a week by farmers in other states, seeking new varieties or wheat tailored for their region and needs. If successful, they’ll soon be providing more of us with fruits, vegetables, and grains bred to thrive in the various microclimates around the country—suiting the needs of small farmers, artisan bakers and brewers, and chefs—and with correspondingly greater flavor, texture, and nutrient density.

John Navazio, formerly an organic seed specialist for Washington State University who now works for an organic seed company, says a new generation of farmers, chefs, and diners is demanding something better than the commercial seeds being developed and designed for industrial agriculture. “They want real seed from real farmers in their region, and…seed from the biggest companies does not suit their needs,” he says. “This is the DIY crowd, and they get it more than anyone has ever gotten it.”

In January, I joined 430 self-described “seedheads” at the seventh Organic Seed Growers Conference in Corvallis, Ore., hosted by the Organic Seed Alliance, a national organization based in Port Townsend, Wash., that encourages and teaches farmers to select and save seed, and organizes collaborations among plant breeders, seed companies, chefs, millers, brewers, and others both up- and downstream from organic farms.

The conference thrummed with the buzz of farmers growing seed; plant breeders from universities; representatives of seed libraries, seed cooperatives, and seed companies of varying sizes; and seed enthusiasts from foundations, public policy groups, and student organizations. It confused me at first. Wasn’t organic seed just seed plucked from plants grown without chemicals, and if so, what was the big deal? Even though I skew heavily organic in my shopping and eating, it had never occurred to me to object to an organically raised tomato or cabbage grown from the seed of a nonorganically grown plant. I assumed organic cultivation rendered its origins moot.

Over the course of two days of talking to seedheads from across North America, I discovered that there’s more to organic food than what’s aboveground. Organic farmers want organic seed for the same reason they want to grow their crops organically: They prefer seeds not produced with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other tools of industrial agriculture. Federal guidelines set in 2000 require the use of organic seed in organic production, but farmers are allowed to use conventional seed if it is not available commercially. Many certified growers still avail themselves of that loophole—there just aren’t enough good sources of these seeds.

This is one problem Kleeger and Still are addressing. The bigger issue is that there aren’t enough varieties of wheat, lettuce, corn, or anything else, really, bred specifically for organic production.

“The basic adage in plant breeding is that you breed in the environment of intended use,” explained Micaela Colley, OSA’s executive director. Conventional seeds cultivated organically are going against that adage, which places organic farmers at a disadvantage. In other words, crop varieties for conventional agriculture are bred to flourish in fields with intense chemical inputs—not just the vast rows of GMO corn and soybeans, our nation’s biggest crops, but also the smaller fields where tomatoes and spinach and other produce are grown. According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports, 84 percent of Americans say they buy organic at least some of the time. But when varieties aren’t bred for organic cultivation—in which roots need to be vigorous enough to scavenge for nutrients and stalks and stems must soldier on without sprays to protect them from insects, disease, and weeds—they’re likely to produce less. Plants grown organically from conventional seed don’t perform as well as they should be able to, or as well as conventionally grown alternatives. The lack of organic seed and of plant varieties developed for organic production may be one of the reasons that organic fields only occupy 6 percent of American vegetable acreage.

If the seedheads are able to reduce this deficit of organic varieties, more organic produce at a lower price may result. At Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center, wheat breeder Jones—famous in seed circles for having rebuffed Monsanto’s bid to have him develop GMO wheat—oversees projects that are developing new wheat, barley, and oat varieties for both traditional and organic farming in Washington’s Skagit Valley. “We’re developing new varieties for flavor and functionality that have four to ten times the yield,” Jones told me. “This will eventually bring down the cost.”

Agriculture has been around for some 10,000 years, and until the 20th century, farmers saved seed that had produced desirable traits, such as sturdiness or large size, to plant again the following year. The practice changed food over the centuries as distinct varieties evolved in regions around the world, with modern plant breeders swapping pollen between two varieties with desirable traits, planting the offspring, and growing those that came out the best, generation after generation, until a new variety was stabilized.

We know some of these older varieties as “heirloom” seeds, a term that began to appear in seed catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds in the 1970s. Commercial hybrids developed in the 20th century had advantages: high yields, produce that ripened at the same time, uniform size and shape. Some transported and stored better. That suited the production standards of agribusiness just fine. But a generation of organic farmers turned eagerly to heirlooms in the following years for a number of reasons—not least of which was the food tasted better.

Heirlooms were prized for their flavor and texture, but they often had major drawbacks for farmers trying to make an organic living. “The heirloom tomatoes tasted great, but they often cracked and didn’t ship well,” recalls Navazio, who became an organic farmer in the 1970s and later learned traditional plant breeding, earning a Ph.D. in plant breeding at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “You could hardly even take them to town to sell them,” he says. Today he works at Johnny’s Select Seeds in Maine. “There was no one breeding varieties for the farmer marketing high-quality organic produce on a local scale.”

Some non-heirloom hybrids worked decently in an organic system. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s 1980 decision to allow the patenting of life-forms, among other factors, led to consolidation in the seed industry. Big corporations started buying up small regional companies and increased their focus on splicing together traits to create patentable seeds (many of them with genes from altogether different species, ergo GMOs). Meanwhile, many of the hybrids that organic and other small farmers found most useful were soon forgotten.

“The big companies narrowed their offerings to focus on seeds that have the largest market, such as varieties that either do well in a lot of locations or ones that are used in centers of large-scale agricultural production like the Sacramento Valley,” OSA’s Colley says. “But the varieties that have a smaller market share often have unique qualities [beneficial to] regional growers—say, sweet corn that ripens quicker in northern latitudes, which is not a sweet-corn-growing area.” In 2000 alone, more than 2,000 hybrids disappeared from the marketplace when Seminis—at the time the world’s largest vegetable seed company—bought several smaller companies. Now it’s part of Monsanto, which has stopped producing these hybrids.

10379926_10152547140179490_3134662533450538828_oSarah Kleeger, harvesting at her farm. (Photo: Courtesy Adaptive Seeds)

At the same time, one of the major avenues for developing new varieties was also shrinking. Land grant universities founded in the 1800s to help improve agriculture saw funding cuts and changes to federal policy, including the 1982 Bayh-Dole Act, which encouraged the transfer of publicly funded research to the private sector. The number of researchers dedicated to cultivar development in public universities has fallen 30 percent in the last 20 years, according to a recent survey conducted by Bill Tracy, chair of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

By the early 1980s, organic farmers were conferring about their need for improved varieties and well-produced seed. Frank Morton—now the plant breeder and seed seller behind Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Ore.—recalls going to a meeting in 1984 at which a molecular biologist known as Mushroom stood up and announced, “If you grow organic crops, you need organic seeds. Those seeds don’t exist, and we have to create them.”

“It blew my mind,” said Morton.

Morton’s work inspires Kleeger and Still and others around the world. His varieties are grown in many countries and even in space: Outredgeous, one of his most popular lettuces—so named for leaves so red that the botany students who first saw it didn’t recognize it as lettuce—is being grown on the International Space Station. (It grows quickly, has a high concentration of antioxidants, and is highly bacteria-resistant—a concern for astronauts eating raw food.)

In July, I visited Morton at the 70-acre organic farm where he raises seeds between rows of organic crops grown for food. He offers a dazzling 81 varieties of lettuce in his catalog, created by selecting lettuces with certain traits, crossing them, and then carefully breeding them for years. As we walked the fields, he kept an eye out for plants with yellowed leaves or other signs of disease, for plants that were puny, for plants laced with insect bites. Even if these plants had other desirable characteristics, he would not bother saving their seed if they were not vigorous enough to flourish under organic cultivation.

Morton is a model for the kind of painstaking work good agriculture requires, as well as for the openness the new generation of seedheads expects. He does not patent his varieties. If other companies want to sell seeds grown from them, he wants them to pay him a 10 percent royalty. It’s a handshake agreement, and it’s worked so far. Morton assumes other breeders will shape new varieties from his and adapt them to other regions’ growing conditions and other customers’ flavor preferences. Which is to say he expects people to use his seeds as people have used seed for centuries.

IMG_4430Lettuces that have been allowed to grow until they produce seed. (Photo: Kristin Ohlson)

In 2010, organic vegetable farmers in the Pacific Northwest noticed that one of their favorite sweet peppers, an easy-to-grow, easy-to-harvest commercial hybrid called Gypsy, seemed to be disappearing from the marketplace. They were having a hard time finding Gypsy seed, and when they did, the resulting peppers were low in quality—a sign that a seed company has stopped doing the careful maintenance of the parent lines because it has lost interest in selling the hybrid. Gypsy was also beloved by area chefs, who started asking why they couldn’t find their red pepper of choice. All of this set off a sort of red-pepper panic, which soon came to the attention of Lane Selman.

Selman is a research assistant in the Organic Vegetable Research program at Oregon State University and a researcher with one of the big OSA research efforts called the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. Since NOVIC started in 2009, it has helped bring together plant breeders and researchers from Cornell University, Oregon State University, the University of Washington, Wisconsin-Madison, OSA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work with farmers to breed varieties that perform well in the shorter growing seasons of northerly regions, where many organic farmers must start seeds in greenhouses and transplant the shoots to their fields when the weather warms. NOVIC wanted to develop varieties that might eliminate that step and even help farmers grow crops rarely attempted in these environments—for example, sweet corn in Washington.

NOVIC set out to test varieties that could replace Gypsy. Selman soon discovered some likely candidates among the produce at the stand she manages for Gathering Together Farm, of Philomath, Ore., at the Portland farmers market. It turned out that Morton, in response to requests from his farmer friends at Gathering Together, had already bred five new sweet peppers that grew beautifully in the Pacific Northwest. Unbeknownst to the other farmers desperate for a successor to Gypsy, Gathering Together was growing them and sending them to market.

NOVIC’s trials confirmed that Morton’s peppers grew as well as, if not better than, Gypsy. But every Saturday morning at the farmers market, Selman had to face another constituency: Portland’s picky chefs, who were still pining for Gypsy. So in October 2011—about two years before Dan Barber convened international chefs and plant breeders at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture in Tarrytown, N.Y., to discuss the role of seeds in selecting produce for flavor—she invited Portland chefs to Portland’s Tabla Mediterranean Bistro for a special tasting of 10 peppers. At the end of the evening, the chefs’ top three choices were all Morton varieties, including one called Stocky Red Roaster.

It quickly moved into the space in the chefs’ hearts formerly occupied by Gypsy, and now chefs come to the farmers market asking for it. Selman hopes that the chefs and ultimately consumers will become aware of the breeders behind all the varieties. “Restaurants already drop the names of farms on the menus,” she says. “I’d like to see something like ‘This month, you’re eating Stocky Red Roaster, a variety developed by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed.’ ”

In late September, more than 100 farmers, chefs, and food aficionados cruised a party room in the back of Chris King Precision Components, a Portland bike factory. The event was sponsored by the Culinary Breeding Network, which was organized in the aftermath of the 2011 red-pepper tasting in Portland. The group includes plant breeders, seed growers, fresh market farmers, chefs, and produce buyers who are developing a vision and an agenda for vegetables in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a fusion of the agricultural and the culinary, of breeders, growers, and eaters, and it’s taking the concept of local food to an entirely new level.

Twelve plant breeders had turned over some of their favorite new varieties to 12 chefs to see what they could come up with. The assorted grazers sampled dishes such as hominy and shrimp soup, polenta, and caramel popcorn, prepared by Portland chef Greg Higgens from the Amish Butter corn developed by breeders Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Ore. Breeders also brought along samples of varieties in development. Guests filled out questionnaires: Which of the mild habañeros offered up at one table had the best flavor, color, shape, size, and pungency? How did the cherry tomatoes at another table fare in terms of appearance, flavor, sugar-acid balance, aftertaste, and skin thickness?

Selman calls this “community-driven plant breeding.” She’s planning more such events, and hopes to hold “farm days” in which chefs walk the fields looking for varieties that please their eye. She wants chefs and breeders to meet with a flavor consultant, who will teach them to speak the same language in matters of the palate. As far as she knows, this kind of thing “is not going on anywhere else in the country.”

Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still were at the bike-factory party. They brought Adaptive Seeds onions and its seed catalog, with its many varieties new to Americans. Unlike Frank Morton’s Wild Garden Seed catalog, which I saw tucked under the arms of many a guest, Kleeger and Still’s catalog wasn’t crammed with varieties they’ve bred themselves. But they’re eager for the challenge of adding their own innovations to the Northwest’s agriculture and cuisine. “We’re lucky,” Kleeger told me. “We’ve got another thirty years to do this.”

The burgeoning network represented that night could provide new resources for farmers and may help the chefs it’s pulled into the mix expand the possibilities of local food and what it tastes like.

“The more people getting involved in seed projects, the better,” says Matthew Dillon, who cofounded OSA in 2004 and is now the director of Seed Matters, an arm of the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which advocates for the improvement and protection of organic seed. “For the last 50 years, there’s just been a handful of people and companies controlling our seed future and thus our food future. The more public-based seed projects that are going on, the harder it’s going to be for companies that want to control via patents to win. They can’t come and take it all.”

Don’t Ask How to Feed the 9 Billion

nytlMark Bittman; NY Times Opinion – November 13, 2014

At dinner with a friend the other night, I mentioned that I was giving a talk this week debunking the idea that we need to grow more food on a large scale so we can “feed the nine billion” — the anticipated global population by 2050.

She looked at me, horrified, and said, “But how are you going to produce enough food to feed the hungry?”

I suggested she try this exercise: “Put yourself in the poorest place you can think of. Imagine yourself in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example. Now. Are you hungry? Are you going to go hungry? Are you going to have a problem finding food?”

The answer, obviously, is “no.” Because she — and almost all of you reading this — would be standing in that country with some $20 bills and a wallet filled with credit cards. And you would go buy yourself something to eat.

The difference between you and the hungry is not production levels; it’s money. There are no hungry people with money; there isn’t a shortage of food, nor is there a distribution problem. There is an I-don’t-have-the-land-and-resources-to-produce-my-own-food, nor-can-I-afford-to-buy-food problem.

And poverty and the resulting hunger aren’t matters of bad luck; they are often a result of people buying the property of traditional farmers and displacing them, appropriating their water, energy and mineral resources, and even producing cash crops for export while reducing the people growing the food to menial and hungry laborers on their own land.

Poverty isn’t the only problem, of course. There is also the virtually unregulated food system that is geared toward making money rather than feeding people. (Look no further than the ethanol mandate or high fructose corn syrup for evidence.)

If poverty creates hunger, it teams up with the food system to create another form of malnourishment: obesity (and what’s called “hidden hunger,” a lack of micronutrients). If you define “hunger” as malnutrition, and you accept that overweight and obesity are forms of malnutrition as well, than almost half the world is malnourished.

The solution to malnourishment isn’t to produce more food. The solution is to eliminate poverty.

Look at the most agriculturally productive country in the world: the United States. Is there hunger here? Yes, quite a bit. We have the highest percentage of hungry people of any developed nation, a rate closer to that of Indonesia than that of Britain.

Is there a lack of food? You laugh at that question. It is, as the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler likes to call it, “a food carnival.” It’s just that there’s a steep ticket price.

A majority of the world is fed by hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers, some of whom are themselves among the hungry. The rest of the hungry are underpaid or unemployed workers. But boosting yields does nothing for them.

So we should not be asking, “How will we feed the world?,” but “How can we help end poverty?” Claiming that increasing yield would feed the poor is like saying that producing more cars or private jets would guarantee that everyone had one.

That is, the kind of farming we can learn from people who still have a real relationship with the land and are focused on quality rather than yield.

The best method of farming for most people is probably traditional farming boosted by science. The best method of farming for those in highly productive agricultural societies would be farming made more intelligent and less rapacious. That is, the kind of farming we can learn from people who still have a real relationship with the land and are focused on quality rather than yield. The goal should be food that is green, fair, healthy and affordable.

It’s not news that the poor need money and justice. If there’s a bright side here, it’s that it might be easier to make the changes required to fix the problems created by industrial agriculture than those created by inequality.

There’s plenty of food. Too much of it is going to feed animals, too much of it is being converted to fuel and too much of it is being wasted.

We don’t have to increase yield to address any of those issues; we just have to grow food more smartly than with the brute force of industrial methods, and we need to address the circumstances of the poor.

Our slogan should not be “let’s feed the world,” but “let’s end poverty.”

MA Farm Bureau Invites UMass Agricultural Community to “Farmland” Movie Screening, December 4, 2014

farmland Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) has arranged for a special screening of Academy Award®-winning filmmaker James Moll’s feature length documentary, “Farmland” for their annual meeting, which will be held at the UMass Hotel in Amherst. MFBF is extending a special invitation to the UMass agricultural community to join them for this event.

The film offers viewers a firsthand glimpse into the lives of six young farmers and ranchers across the U.S., chronicling their high-risk/high-reward jobs and their passion for a way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation, yet continues to evolve.

“Farming in Massachusetts is growing and for the first time in many years more acres are being farmed, due in part to young farmers like those featured in this film,” says MFBF President, Rich Bonanno. “Farmland gives the audience real insight into what it takes to be a farmer nowadays. We think that the UMass agricultural community will find it informative and entertaining.”

Many Americans have never stepped foot on a farm or ranch or even talked to the people who grow and raise the food we eat, yet are increasingly passionate about understanding where their food comes from. “This is a film for anyone who eats,” says Moll. “It’s not what you’d expect. The world of farming is complex and often controversial, but the farmers themselves are some of the most hard-working and fascinating people I’ve ever met.”  

A limited number of seats will be available for the screening, which is scheduled for 7:15pm on December 4th. Please call 508-481-4766, or email liz@mfbf.net by Nov. 20th to reserve a seat.


The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation is a non-profit, member-driven organization representing over 5,000 family members across the Commonwealth. Its mission is “to protect the rights, encourage the growth, and be of service to its members, in the best interest of agriculture.”


Farm Events in Massachusetts

There is so much going on, and we can’t list it all here, but for a complete list check out our Culinary & Agriculture Events calendar. Don’t forget, Topsfield Fair runs through Columbus Day, October 13.

Thanks to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources for putting this list together!


Climate Change and Organic Agriculture

By Bill Duesing…..

Many of us participated in the inspiring People’s Climate March on 9/21/2014 in New York City. Marchers represented a wide variety of religious, educational, environmental, energy, social justice, peace, health, labor, cultural and other organizations.  Though they all had their own agendas for solving problems and making the world a better place, they agreed that climate change is very serious and needs to be addressed.

From right, soil scientist, permaculturalist and CT NOFA founding Board member Cynthia Rabinowitz, CT NOFA Executive Director Eileen Hochberg and former executive director Bill Duesing at the beginning of the People’s Climate March.

Organic farmers and consumers marched with the “We Have Solutions” section. We’ve known for a long time that organic food and agriculture are an important part of the solution to many of our environmental problems.  Organic methods and systems are valuable tools for building health and biodiversity in the soil, in our communities and in our bodies.

Organic Solutions

We are just now understanding how organic agriculture not only slows down climate change and increases our resilience in the face of it, but also actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil.  Organic agriculture even has a powerful potential to reverse some of the damage we’ve already done to the atmosphere.

The key organic methods which encourage carbon storage reduce or eliminate tillage and bare soil, keep the soil covered with a diversity of growing plants and eliminate synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.  Soil that is not disturbed encourages greater soil biodiversity, especially more fungal growth.  Fungi function as liquid carbon pathways, carrying energy-rich carbon compounds from plant roots to the billions of soil organisms surrounding the roots.  Between 30 and 60 percent of the carbon plants take out of the air flows out through the roots.  This carbon energizes nitrogen-fixing and other soil organisms which eventually turn it into long-lived humus, a safe carbon repository which greatly increases the soil’s water-holding capacity.

The Chemical Contrast

This organic advantage is nearly the opposite of what chemical agriculture does.  In many ways, from its production to its leaching into the environment, synthetic nitrogen damages our planet.

University of Illinois scientists studied the nitrogen fertilizer records and soil carbon levels at the Morrow plots, the nation’s oldest experiment field with records going back 100 years. Researchers found that chemical fertilizers deplete the soil’s organic carbon.  They discovered that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer had not only stimulated decomposition of all the organic residues (corn stalks, soy plants) that had been added to the soil over fifty years, but also had volatilized almost five tons per acre of carbon from the native soil.  Read the study HERE

All told they found that chemical nitrogen fertilizers had driven about 100 tons of carbon out of the soil, and into the air as carbon dioxide, from each acre of the experiment farm. Inorganic nitrogen, especially when combined with tillage, greatly damages the soil ecosystem.  It inhibits nitrogen-fixing organisms and the fungi that feed them with carbon exuded by plant roots.

In contrast, studies on four continents have shown that organic farming can store from just under a ton to over three tons of carbon, per acre, per year.  Multiply that by the number of crop acres world wide and you get a number close to the amount of excess carbon we need to remove from the atmosphere to stabilize the climate. Only the ocean can hold more carbon. Amazing!

The application of nitrogen fertilizer is also responsible for about three quarters of this country’s nitrous oxide emissions.  Nitrous oxide has 310 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

All these greenhouse emissions are in addition to those released as inorganic nitrogen is taken from the atmosphere by the energy-intensive process to create nitrogen fertilizer using natural gas.  The whole process likely releases even more greenhouse gases if that natural gas is the result of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) which is becoming the norm these days. Read Tom Philpott’s explanation of how cheap gas from fracking and hefty subsidies from taxpayers are encouraging greater domestic production of this soil and climate destroying substance.

After all that pollution from its making and application, 60 to 90 percent of the applied nitrogen fertilizer is leached into water, volatilized into the air or immobilized in soil. Nitrogen pollution is responsible for dead zones on our coasts and undrinkable well water in the heartland. (See photo.)

Notice in a Kansas State Park, August 2014. Nitrates are from nitrogen fertilizer.

Look at the Summer and Fall issues of NOFA’s The Natural Farmer for more details on the soil, carbon and nitrogen connections.  Dr. Christine Jones’ articles are especially helpful.  (While you are looking at the Summer issue, be sure to read Connecticut “carbon farmer” Bryan O’Hara’s article, “No-Till Vegetables at Tobacco Road Farm.)

Put simply, chemical agriculture releases great quantities of greenhouse gases while organic agriculture sequesters them.

SLOW change

Despite the dismal reality, don’t expect a swift change away from chemical nitrogen to organic methods without a lot more activist pressure.

We’ve known about many of the advantages of organic agriculture for over 100 years. Knowledge alone won’t do it in the face of some giant corporations wanting to make and sell more chemical fertilizers (and pesticides and the seeds that need both). Other corporations demand access to low-cost feed for confined animal feeding operations, and to low-cost ingredients for soda, junk food and even beer.

Some rich and powerful entities are able to manipulate government programs and public opinion for their benefit while financially squeezing farmers and driving them off the land.

As a University of Minnesota ecologist notes in another Philpott article: …the problem lies not with farmers but with farm policy and the market/political power of agribusiness—a “behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government.”

Revisions to Produce Safety Rule Now Available for Comment

fdaPosted: September 29, 2014
Based on FDA’s outreach efforts and public comments, the FDA is proposing revisions to its proposed rule on produce safety.  It is very important to submit your comments if you want changes in the rule!

Summary of Key Revisions from FDA; http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA/ucm334114.htm

1. Water quality standard and testing more flexible

The FDA is proposing various revisions to the microbial standard for water that is directly applied during the growing of produce (other than sprouts). The agency is updating the microbial quality standard to reflect data that supports the 2012 Environmental Protection Agency recreational water quality criteria.
Farmers with agricultural water that does not initially meet the proposed microbial standard would have additional means by which they could meet the standard and then be able to use the water. These options include establishing a sufficient interval of days between last irrigation and harvest to allow time for potentially dangerous microbes to die off. They could also apply an interval of days between harvest and the end of storage using appropriate microbial die-off or removal rates, provided there is adequate supporting data. And there is an option to calculate and apply appropriate pathogen removal rates for activities such as commercial washing.
A number of commenters felt that the FDA should allow for microbial die-off that occurs naturally in the field before the crop is harvested. This provision provides that flexibility. However, any of these options would have to provide the same level of public health protection and not increase the likelihood that the covered produce will be adulterated.
Recognizing that water sources have different levels of contamination risk, the FDA is proposing a tiered and more targeted approach to testing each source of untreated water that will be less burdensome on farmers while still protective of public health. The revisions reduce how often the water is tested, with the frequency depending on the water source (i.e. surface or ground water) and on the results of prior tests.

2. Manure strategy to be further studied

The FDA is removing the nine-month proposed minimum-time interval between the application of untreated biological soil amendments of animal origin (including raw manure) and crop harvesting. The agency is deferring its decision on an appropriate time interval until it pursues certain actions. These include conducting a risk assessment and extensive research to strengthen scientific support for any future proposal, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other stakeholders.
At this time, the FDA does not intend to take exception to farmers complying with the USDA’s National Organic Program standards, which call for a 120-day interval between the application of raw manure for crops in contact with the soil and 90 days for crops not in contact with the soil.
The FDA is proposing to eliminate the previously proposed 45-day minimum application interval for compost (also known as humus), including composted manures. Properly treated and handled compost is safer than raw manure from a public health standpoint and this change to the proposal would help facilitate its use while still providing an appropriate level of public health protection.

3. Covered farms better defined

The FDA is proposing that farms or farm mixed-type facilities with an average annual monetary value of produce sales of $25,000 or less will not be covered. The original proposed rule defined that monetary threshold in terms of all food sales. The FDA is also proposing corresponding changes to the definitions of “very small business” and “small business” to base those monetary thresholds on produce sales rather than food sales. The monetary threshold for the qualified exemption with modified requirements, however, would not change because that exemption is defined by statute.
The definition of “farm” would be revised; a farm would no longer be required to register as a food facility merely because it packs or holds raw agricultural commodities grown on another farm under a different ownership. The FDA is proposing that such activities would be subject to the produce safety rule rather than the preventive controls rule for human food.

4. Withdrawal of qualified exemptions process further clarified

The proposed revisions would establish procedures to guide the FDA in withdrawing an exemption for a farm for food safety reasons as specified in the proposed regulation:
The FDA may consider one or more other actions to protect public health prior to withdrawal, such as a warning letter, recall, administrative detention, or seizure and injunction.
The FDA must notify the farm of the circumstances that jeopardize the exemption, provide an opportunity for the farm to respond, and consider actions taken by the farm to address the issues raised by the agency.
The revisions also provide procedures for reinstating a withdrawn exemption.

5. Clarifying provisions on wild animals

The FDA states in the proposed revisions that the proposed produce regulation does not authorize or require farms to take actions that would constitute the “taking” of a threatened or endangered species in violation of the Endangered Species Act. There were concerns expressed that growers would interpret the original proposed rule in ways that would harm wildlife, including taking measures to exclude animals from outdoor growing areas or destroying animal habitats. This clarification is intended to relieve those concerns.

The FDA is accepting comments for 75 days after the publication date. The comment period opens September 29, 2014.

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Climate Action in Amherst


The Climate March in New York City is over…

Now what?

In my last blog, I suggested that the big news coming out of the United Nations Climate Summit in N.Y. City –  following the largest climate change march in history is……. what WILL NOT happen.

Tonight I attended a meeting in Amherst to help think about “whats next?”  The organizers from 350Massachusetts and Climate Action Now in Western Massachusetts offered us several options for getting involved.  Here are a few:

1.  Divest UMass – The UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign (Divest UMass for short) is a dedicated student-led campaign organizing to confront the present and future issues created by climate change.  Here is how to GET INVOLVED.

2.  Divestment Massachusetts – College students, people of faith, environmentalists, economists, unions, mothers, and others converged on the State House on Sept. 10 to support S. 1225, a bill that requires MA to divest from fossil fuels!  To support the effort to divest sign here – Divest Massachusetts from Fossil Fuels.

3. Mothers Out Front are mothers, grandmothers, and other caregivers who can no longer be silent and still about the very real danger that climate change poses to our children’s and grandchildren’s future.  To connect to the Amherst group, go to; Amherst Mothers Out Front.

4. No Fracked Gas in Mass is working to stop the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in Massachusetts and to promote expanded efficiency and sustainable, renewable sources of energy and local, permanent jobs in a clean energy economy.  Here are some suggestions on what you can do!

5. Climate Action Plan in Springfield – support the community actions of our neighbor to the south (and the biggest polluter in Western Mass).  Help us to plan the march from the North End of Springfield to Springfield City Hall on October 20!  Join the planning meeting October 1, 2014 at 6:00 pm at the South Congregational Church, 45 Maple Street, in Springfield.


Many people are motivated to take action around climate change out of anger or fear, and this is a powerful force.  For those of us who are motivated out of love for all of creation and concern for our sisters and brothers living in poverty, you are invited to join us on Saturday, October 4 from 2:00-4:00pm to learn from each other and ask…..

So…. what would Francis do?

For those of you who agree with Pope Francis, who tells us that environmental degradation is the “sin of our time,” join us to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis at the Newman Catholic Center at UMass on Saturday, October 4 from 2:00-4:00pmin the Burke Lounge for a program titled From St. Francis to Pope Francis to You – Creating a Climate for Solidarity.

This workshop and discussion will focus on climate change from the perspectives of “the two Francises” – St. Francis and Pope Francis.  If you are curious about the Catholic position on climate change and its impact on the poor, PLEASE JOIN US!


Here is something else you can do right now!

Write a letter or send and email to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy like this one:

SUBJECT: Docket ID:  EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0602 – Support Carbon Pollution Standards for Power Plants

Dear Administrator McCarthy:

As someone who takes climate change seriously, I have committed myself to advocate on behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, and all of Creation.  

Unfolding climate change caused primarily by our consumption of fossil fuels threatens both the planet and poor people. In light this,I believe that the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants (Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule) can help limit damaging greenhouse gas emissions, uphold human life and dignity and demonstrate a greater respect for the planet.

At the same time, I urge the EPA to offer clear guidance to states on how to protect low-income individuals and families from undue suffering under potential energy rate hikes.  Additionally, I encourage the EPA to work with policymakers to help workers impacted by the Plan transition to other employment.

If such steps to protect poor and vulnerable populations are taken seriously, then I support the Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule, Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0602.


Send the email to: a-and-r-docket@epa.gov

Or send a letter to:

USEPA Headquarters
William Jefferson Clinton Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N. W.
Mail Code: 1101A
Washington, DC 2046


Want to stay connected, please join the Climate Action Now Weekly Newsletter and update alerts: http://climateactionnowma.org/email-list-sign-up/