“In Billings,” the letter said, “we value neighborhood and community efforts to maintain a beautiful City.” The problem was, the letter maintained, that I had not been doing my part in these efforts. My yard represented a “nuisance” to the “public health and welfare” because it contained “untended vegetation” more than a foot tall. If I failed to rein in this excess and refused to pay the variety of fines that could build up in response to said failure, a lien would be placed on my property.
I thought about the six years of my residency at the address referred to in the city letter and the care I had taken to choose just the right plantings. I thought about my aching hands, knees and back from all the yard work I had done. I wondered, to be succinct, what exactly the complaint was.
So I assessed my yard. Ah, there was bindweed growing up the fence in back and bindweed in the front flowerbeds. Now, bindweed is about the most vile plant known to man, and I have been working all these years to control it. I could understand any complaint lodged against bindweed.
But, as I soon discovered upon talking with one of Billings’ two code enforcement officers, bindweed was not the problem. No, it was my blue grama grass out front, a plant with lovely seedheads and a rich green hue in summer that turns golden in fall and winter. I also — gulp — had a patch of sunflowers.
Blue grama is a warm season grass and, I admit, it does look pretty ratty until it greens up. However, it requires very little water (about 12 inches per year seems to work well), no fertilizing, and little (if any) mowing. It also effectively chokes out bindweed and other noxious intruders, and thus requires no applications of herbicide.
However, to please the good people of Billings, I will keep it trimmed so that it looks like an almost grown-out crew cut.
Frankly, though, I have to wonder at the popular definition of “public health and welfare,” and how growing region-appropriate plants constitutes a “nuisance.” A quick exploration of neighborhood yards has led me to several conclusions in this regard:
1. Codes are enforced haphazardly. As the very kind code enforcement officer explained, there are only two such professionals in Billings, and they must respond to complaints. Perhaps they have little time for problems that do not generate outrage.
2. Bindweed and other noxious invasives are ubiquitous. Thus, there is no concern for quality of vegetation. It’s all about cosmetics. If I keep a crop of goat-head thorns at a tidy 4 inches, there is no health hazard or public nuisance even though all the neighborhood kids will have flat bike tires and their dogs will limp.
3. No particular effort is made by the city to trim weeds in public spaces.
4. Vegetation that obstructs drivers’ vision is not deemed a “nuisance.”
5. Drenching a lawn with herbicides does not constitute a health hazard and, is, in fact, quite common.
My explorations of the neighborhood and, indeed, the city itself have led me to characterize the choices we citizens of Billings make about our living space. We prefer monocultures to diversity, convenience to beauty, and order to disorder. Certainly, these preferences are understandable if biologist E.O. Wilson is right when he claims that we humans innately crave the open, grassy landscapes in which we evolved.
Still, given our dwindling resources and tight pocketbooks, why doesn’t the city encourage (and why don’t citizens demand) a more suitable use of our yards? They are, let’s face it, basically prairie. What should grow here are bunch grasses, skunkbush sumac, cottonwoods, deer, rabbits, and bison.
Ay, there’s the rub. Though going a bit “natural” in our landscaping would conserve water, save money, and limit chemical runoff into our rivers, it would also force us to consider our presence in this place. Why did the wild things that lived here have to be “cleared” away? And what about the human cultures that inhabited our neighborhoods, say, a hundred years ago? What of them?
No, most of us don’t want to think about that. So we cultivate our Kentucky blue grass at great effort and expense, put money in the pockets of chemical companies, and rarely (from what I have observed) venture outside at all. This lack of pedestrian traffic must also be why very few homeowners shovel their walks in the winter, preferring to leave them an icy hazardous mess ... but that’s another argument.
Cara Chamberlain teaches at Rocky Mountain College.
Last Updated on Thursday, 05 September 2013 20:15
Joan Hurdle, 81, who died here Aug. 10, devoted herself to innumerable causes pivotal to social justice in Billings, including issues relating to children and incarcerated women.
Theresa Schneder, a Billings attorney and current president of the League of Women Voters here, said she read “Every Dam Place,” Ms. Hurdle’s autobiography of nearly 500 pages when it was published in 2011.
“What struck me about her book was how honest she was,” Ms. Schneider said. “She stood up for what she believed in and she was fiercely independent. ”
Ms. Schneider and others, including friends in the Billings Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, were mourning the death of Ms. Hurdle, who had been an environmentalist, teacher, legislator and feminist who sought change for families on Billings’ South Side.
Merry Ann Peters, 55, who works at Yellowstone Public Radio, said, “She was a huge advocate for the South Side. I just got such a kick out of watching her ride her bike everywhere around town. She was one of the fiercest fighters we ever had, especially for alternative transportation in Billings. She got us involved in transportation studies, she got the LWV invited to city planning meetings, and it was a really good government exercise.”
Ms. Schneder said Ms. Hurdle made massive achievements in improving life for Montanans, including members of Native Nations on nearby reservations. In her autobiography, Ms. Hurdle wrote, “The twentieth century in America was a century of segregation and a struggle for equality. It was a struggle for minorities, for women, for the handicapped, and for everyone who was judged by those in power, to be ‘less than.’”
Mindy Nielsen, a 49-year-old postal clerk from Plentywood who has lived in Billings for 27 years, said she met Ms. Hurdle at an “info picket” at former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg’s office in 2011. Nielsen said, “I invited a lot of political people and she was the only one who came who was not a postal employee. She brought Pam Busey (Montana State Department of Labor administrator) with her to the picket.”
Nielsen said she also was engaged in issues high on Hurdle’s list. “I used to keep track of her when she was in the Montana State Legislature and I used to read all her letters to the editor,” said Ms. Nielsen.
In the epilogue to her autobiography, entitled “Words from 2050,” Ms. Hurdle wrote as if she had accomplished most of her lofty environmental and transportation goals: “By 2025 the nations of this planet were finally able to reduce the amount of [carbon dioxide] in the air of this planet back down to 350 parts per million. Along with many worldwide significant energy saving methods, transportation has changed everywhere. Montana trains, which run along the old heavy-line right-of-way, are supplemented here in Billings, as everywhere else, by bus loops or electric train routes, running everywhere at all hours; to the colleges, education centers, hospitals, dorms, play areas, farms, greenhouses, and shopping areas.”
Merry Ann Peters recently began an initiative to purchase a bench to honor Ms. Hurdle. Call (406) 860-7879 to contribute.
Last Updated on Thursday, 29 August 2013 10:19
If you consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight. Do the reverse and you lose weight. This formula seems simple enough, but contains a world of nuance that we are just beginning to understand. Eating fats, for example, ends to satiate, which can reduce caloric intake, while carbohydrates and sugars can inspire hunger. And evidence is accruing that the timing of your meals can affect metabolism. When you eat may be as important as what you eat, or how much.
A study in the June 2012 issue of Cell Metabolism looked at two groups of mice. Both groups the same number of calories worth of the same diet. The only difference was one group ate whenever they wanted, day or night, while the other was allowed to eat only during an eight-hour daily span. The mice that ate whenever they wanted grew fatter, exhibited higher blood sugar, decreased insulin sensitivity, decreased motor skills and more fatty deposits on their livers.
This is one of many recent studies pointing to the benefits of a dietary regime called intermittent fasting, or “IF” for short. Many IFers, as they’re called, combine IF with exercise during fasting periods, an approach called fasted training. Martin Berkhan, author of the Leangains blog, is grotesquely ripped, regularly eats ungodly amounts of cheesecake, and has a Beleiber-esque following of eager disciples. He advocates a schedule similar to that of the experimental group of mice in the above study: an eight-hour feeding window during which he eats whatever he wants, and a 16-hour fasting window, which he concludes with a workout before eating his first meal of the day, in early afternoon.
What’s anecdotally interesting about IF and fasted training is how vocal practitioners are, not only about their killer abs but also benefits like increased mental clarity and productivity and a generally enhanced sense of well-being, while reporting how little they miss food while fasting.
An April 2013 study in the British Journal of Nutrition offers some of the most concrete support to date for the idea that IF can promote lasting weight loss. A group of overweight women followed an IF format called the 5-2 diet, in which they ate freely for five days and consumed a low-calorie diet the other two days of the week. The control group followed a conventional weight-loss diet of smaller portions of low-cal food on a typical, three-meals-a-day schedule. The 5-2 diet group lost significantly more weight than the control group and showed improved insulin sensitivity, which indicates a move away from a diabetic condition.
One of the subjects told NPR’s The Salt blog that she not only lost weight, but “felt quite refreshed and healthy” on the 5-2 schedule, and plans to “carry on” with it.
Mark Mattson directs the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, and is a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He studies the roots of age-related neurodegenerative decline, and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Lately his research has focused on the effects of intermittent fasting on these and other age-related problems.
Working primarily with rodents, his lab has found significant health benefits to both IF and exercise, both of which he views in an evolutionary context. In a recent article in Health Naturally magazine, Mattson wrote:
“From an evolutionary perspective, IF is normal and eating 3 meals a day plus snacks is abnormal. Going without food for most of the day or even for several days is a challenge that we are very capable of meeting. Similarly, humans are capable of quite remarkable amounts of physical activity, particularly endurance running, which has been an important factor in their evolution. Challenges such as IF and exercise are not only tolerable, but we thrive on them because they make our cells and organs stronger, and more likely to recover from injuries and illnesses.”
Mattson’s rodent experiments have shown that mild stresses like hunger and exercise can stimulate the growth of new brain cells, among other examples of cellular resilience. His lab has also linked IF to decreased blood pressure, improved recovery from stroke, decreased diabetic neuropathy, lowered cholesterol, decreased cancer rates, improved cognitive function and reduced inflammation in many parts of the body, including the lungs of asthmatics.
An IFer himself, Mattson rarely eats breakfast or lunch. His research and practice have turned him into a vocal critic of the food and drug industries for taking the low road with respect to public health. From his Health Naturally article:
“While the scientific evidence conclusively shows that IF is good for health, particularly in individuals who are overweight, health care providers rarely or never prescribe IF diets to their patients. Why? Sadly, the reason for this lack of effort by primary care physicians is that no one profits from IF prescriptions. The processed food and agriculture industries collaborate to produce and market energy-dense foods that include chemical additives that are addictive. ... Drugs are promoted by pharmaceutical companies with their implicit mantra: ‘don’t worry about getting a disease, we have a pill you can take for that.’”
The calories-consumed-vs.-calories-burned formula is not broken, but it certainly isn’t as simple as it’s often portrayed. And there is more than body fat at stake. Even though the medical establishment has yet to embrace IF, the good news is no prescription is required, and it might even save you money. By Mattson’s estimates, IF can cut about 20 percent of your food bill, along with that stubborn belly fat.
Last Updated on Thursday, 15 August 2013 11:03
RiverStone Health officials have identified an increase in Shigella infections in Yellowstone County. To date, five cases have been confirmed and an additional two cases are pending confirmation. Three individuals required hospitalization.
In a typical year, Yellowstone County may report only one or two cases. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services reports eight additional confirmed cases in the state. Montana usually sees 11 cases of shigellosis annually.
Symptoms of Shigella infection include diarrhea, often bloody, fever and stomach cramps and may appear 12 to 96 hours after exposure to the bacteria. However, some infected people may not show any symptoms. The infection usually resolves in four to seven days and hospitalization is rarely required.
“Five reported cases of Shigella infection may not seem large, but we estimate that for every reported case, the actual number of cases could be 20 times greater,” said John Felton, president and chief executive officer of RiverStone Health and Yellowstone County health officer.
Shigella bacteria is found in the stool of infected people and passed on to others via the fecal–oral route or by eating or drinking contaminated products. People who are infected with Shigella bacteria should not prepare food or beverages until they have had no diarrhea for at least two days. Infected individuals working in food/beverage service, patient care or child care, should not go to work until they have been symptom-free for two days. In addition, children who have been infected should not attend any daycare facility or school until they have been symptom-free for two days.
Shigella infection is most likely to occur among toddlers who are not fully toilet trained and for this reason, special precaution should be taken to ensure that diapers are disposed of in a closed-lid garbage can, the changing area is wiped down with a diluted bleach solution or other disinfectant and that those changing diapers wash their hands and the child’s hands with soap and warm water after changing the diapers.
Shigella infections can be prevented by:
• Washing hands with soap and warm water carefully and frequently, especially after going to the bathroom, after changing diapers, and before preparing foods or beverages.
• Disposing of soiled diapers properly.
• Disinfecting diaper changing areas after using them.
• Keeping children with diarrhea out of child care settings.
• Supervising hand-washing of toddlers and small children after they use the toilet.
• Not preparing food for others while ill with diarrhea.
• Avoiding swallowing water from ponds, lakes, or untreated pools.
“The number of reported shigellosis cases is a concern and outbreaks can quickly get out of hand,” said Felton. “To aid our efforts in controlling the spread of disease, it is extremely important to follow good hand hygiene practices as well as to teach and assist young children with proper hand-washing techniques.”
Last Updated on Thursday, 15 August 2013 11:01
Billings Clinic hospital has been ranked No. 1 in Montana for 2013-14 and is recognized among the Best Hospitals in the Custer region by U.S. News & World Report.
Billings Clinic is high-performing in gastroenterology and GI surgery, geriatrics, gynecology, nephrology, neurology and neurosurgery and pulmonology. The annual U.S. News Best Hospitals rankings, now in their 24th year, recognize hospitals that excel in treating the most challenging patients.
U.S. News evaluates hospitals in 16 adult specialties. In most specialties, it ranks the nation’s top 50 hospitals and recognizes other high-performing hospitals that provide care at nearly the level of their nationally ranked peers.
“A hospital that emerges from our analysis as one of the best has much to be proud of,” said Avery Comarow, U.S. News Health Rankings editor. “Only about 15 percent of hospitals are recognized for their high performance as among their region’s best. Just 3 percent of all hospitals earn a national ranking in any specialty.”
U.S. News publishes Best Hospitals to help guide patients who need a high level of care because they face particularly difficult surgery, a challenging condition, or added risk because of other health problems or age. Objective measures such as patient survival and safety data, the adequacy of nurse staffing levels and other data largely determined the rankings in most specialties.
The specialty rankings and data were produced for U.S. News by RTI International, a leading research organization based in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Using the same data, U.S. News produced the state and metro rankings.
The rankings have been published at http://health.usnews.com/best-hospitals and will appear in print in the U.S. News Best Hospitals 2014 guidebook, available in bookstores and on newsstands Aug. 27.
Last Updated on Thursday, 15 August 2013 10:59
The Joint Commission, in conjunction with The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, recently recognized Billings Clinic with Advanced Certification for Primary Stroke Centers.
Achievement of Primary Stroke Center Certification signifies an organization’s dedication to fostering better outcomes. Billings Clinic’s Primary Stroke Center Certification has demonstrated that their program meets elements of performance to achieve long-term success in improving outcomes for stroke patients.
Billings Clinic underwent an on-site review in June 2013. A Joint Commission expert reviewed Billings Clinic’s compliance with the requirements for The Joint Commission’s Disease-Specific Care Certification program as well as primary stroke center requirements, such as collecting Joint Commission core measure data and using it for performance improvement activities.
Billings Clinic will be able to display The Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval.
Last Updated on Thursday, 15 August 2013 10:58
HELENA – Montana Gov. Steve Bullock released a plan in June that aims to lead to a healthier Montana. The plan is entitled, “Big Sky. New Horizons. A Healthier Montana: A Plan to Improve the Health of Montanans.”
“We all know that healthy children are better students, healthy adults make a more productive work force, healthy seniors enjoy more satisfying retirement years, and a healthy population is essential to a healthy economy,” Bullock said. “This plan focuses on prevention, saving health care dollars and creating a common agenda for health improvement.”
The plan was released in conjunction with a meeting of the Association of Montana Public Health Officials and the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) at the Great Northern Hotel in Helena.
DPHHS led the effort to examine the health of Montanans and develop strategies to address critically important health issues using the best science available. Participation from more than 130 organizations provided essential input into the plan from stakeholders across Montana.
The plan focuses on six health priority areas:
• Preventing, identifying and managing chronic diseases;
• Promoting the health of mothers, infants and children;
• Preventing, identifying and controlling communicable disease, preventing injuries and reducing exposure to environmental health hazards;
• Improving mental health and reducing substance abuse; and,
• Strengthening Montana’s public health and health care system. Within each health priority area are strategies for action.
The document is available at www.dphhs.mt.gov.
Creating a healthier Montana will take strong partnerships among state, tribal and local governments, as well as private, non-profit and other community organizations. The governor will appoint an oversight body to direct and oversee the implementation of this plan.
Gov. Bullock encouraged all Montanans to join him in taking responsibility for their health by following recommendations from the plan.
“Stay active and eat well; get age appropriate immunizations; take simple steps to prevent injuries; see a healthcare provider regularly; and contribute to and enjoy a healthy environment,” he said. “Together we can create a healthier Montana.”
Last Updated on Thursday, 15 August 2013 10:57
More than two dozen art galleries and businesses host free receptions for local and regional artists during the Summer ArtWalk.
The ArtWalk runs from 5-9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2, downtown. Maps are at the galleries and on Page 19 of this issue of the Outpost.
Among the highlights:
• The Western Heritage Center is holding its Western Artists of America show, which runs through Aug. 31.
• The work of Billings artist Mana Lesman is shown at Barjon’s Books. Ms. Lesman calls her work “graphic surrealism.” Many pieces are concerned with the history of the written word, belief systems and the forms of decoration humans have invented to adorn the objects in our world.
• Big Sky Cheap Trees shows works by Kerry Epley and Kevyn Pust. Ms. Epley says her son is her greatest inspiration: “I believe I am a super creative genius ... a very abstract artist, and given more space to paint, my possibilities would become limitless.” Mr. Pust, a 17-year-old from Bozeman, says his “exhibit is based completely on space and nature all painted with cans of spray paint.”
• At CTA Architects, artist Dick Moulden says, “I try to put on canvas what I see in nature, and hope the viewer sees something that reminds him or her of a special place or time.”
• Canvas, a local volunteer-powered arts advocacy collective, holds a “reverse auction” in connection with its Extended Exposure exhibition at the Babcock Theater arcade. Live music and refreshments are included. For information, go to www.exposemt.com.
• Photographer Ellen Erikson, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree from Seattle University, shows “A Selection of Photographs” at Good Earth Market. She says, “I shoot the vast majority of my photographs on film, developing the negatives and prints myself. The darkroom is my sanctuary.” Recently she has been working on “old school” techniques that require even more of a hands-on approach.
• Stephen Haraden shows his newest paintings and discusses his works in progress at the Stephen Haraden Studio.
• Jens Gallery opens a new exhibit, “Sticks and Stones,” with an artist’s reception during ArtWalk. The work of two Montana artists is showcased: jewelry artist Kris Kramer of Whitefish and furniture designer Todd Clippinger of Billings. Metal sculptor Laura Walker of Montana State University Billings is the featured student artist of the show. Her work “gives objects a second chance through the fabrication of steel.”
• At McCormick Café, artist Terri Porta is a Billings native who drew inspiration from her 3-year-old son, Isaac. Work in photography, original oils and a few acrylic masterpieces are shown. Austin Martin plays live music.
• The Toucan Gallery features two artists whose work was recently brought to Billings by the gallery. Ryan Mitchell is a potter from Bozeman whose ceramic vessels represent a stated goal to create beautiful objects meant for everyday use. Brian Reed founded Old School Stationers in Portland, Ore., in 2004. He and his wife, Amy, work without computers, using techniques and equipment from an earlier era.
• The Sandstone Gallery shows pottery and paintings by Jennifer Baretta, paintings and sculptures by Leo Olson and turned wooden bowls by guest artist Gary Lavine. Live music is provided.
• Terry Moore Photographers Studio shows art on the theme of water, drawing on the work of the African Reflections Foundation, which builds wells in African villages.
She recently made a trip to African, and ArtWalk also showcases the work of photographer Jeff Reiter.
Last Updated on Thursday, 01 August 2013 12:04
“The Tree of Lights,” by Curt Layman. Tate Publishing and Enterprises, LLC. $9.99
Curt Layman sits in front of a couple of hundred kids and asks them what they think of the opening line of his new book, “The Tree of Lights”: “Once upon a time … .”
Before he can continue the gym at the Bridger Elementary School erupts in laughter and jeers. Curt muses, “I think they’ve heard this one before.”
The allotted time passes quickly, the Billings author and carpentry contractor clearly entertaining the young audience while thoroughly enjoying the wide-ranging discussion, as the students keenly question him about book writing, the publishing business, how much money he makes from writing and profit margins.
Mr. Layman doesn’t do a reading, per se, as the whole hour is spent answering questions and exploring ideas. He says, “I could write another book on just their great questions and unique ideas; and the younger they are the more voluble and the more imaginative their comments.”
The eighth-graders toward the back of the room tend to be more aloof. He tries another opening: “Once upon a most frightful night … .” This one gets some applause, and he can tell it hooks a lot of them.
This is Mr. Layman’s second book. His first, “The Christmas Cheese,” was published last year. It introduced the thimble-size world of a mouse family and the main character, Junior Mouse, and what happens in a typical human home when the ‘tall ones’ leave at Christmas.
With his core characters now known, Mr. Layman is free with this second book to move Junior Mouse into unlimited opportunities of adventure (and probably further books).
The blue-black of the book’s cover with its dark shadow of an old sailing ship on a foaming, ghostly sea leads the young reader directly into “a most frightful night.”
From there it is nonstop action in a world where — not only do animals communicate with people — but a forgotten clan of leering trees can plot in silence, their twisted branches forming spindly arms and gnarly hands to snatch the unaware.
Last Updated on Thursday, 11 July 2013 15:02
In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed the discovery of an acre-sized group of genetically modified wheat plants growing on an eastern Oregon farm. The farmer notified the agency after becoming alarmed when an application of the herbicide Roundup failed to kill them.
Investigators identified the plants as Roundup Ready wheat, which was engineered by Monsanto to withstand application of its signature herbicide. This strain of wheat had never been approved by USDA, and was last grown experimentally in 2004, when the project was scrapped.
How this stubborn wheat patch ended up in an Oregon field years after it had ostensibly been removed from circulation is a mystery that scientists from USDA and Monsanto have been scrambling to solve. However it came to be, this incident has serious implications for the idea of “coexistence,” a scenario wherein GM and non-GM crops are grown and sold, separately and simultaneously, by U.S. farmers. Coexistence is the policy embraced by USDA chief Tom Vilsack, and his agency.
A big risk posed by coexistence is that GM and non-GM plants will mix, jeopardizing markets for non-GM crops. Immediately after the Oregon GM wheat discovery Japan, one of the U.S.’s largest export markets for wheat, slapped on restrictions on U.S. wheat imports, and South Korea quickly followed suit.
Even if the Oregon wheat turns out to be some kind of well-contained and neatly explained anomaly, American wheat farmers will still have lost market share, to Russia, Australia and others, that may prove difficult to recover.
This was not the first instance of economic fallout from GM contamination of non-GM foods. In 2006, Bayer’s LibertyLink rice contaminated the U.S. rice supply, which tanked export demand for U.S. rice. And in 2000, contamination of non-GM corn by StarLink’s GM corn caused significant economic blowback.
But rather than a red flag, USDA appears to consider events like this as the price of coexistence, as the agency expects such events to be the new normal.
A Feb. 21 USDA report summarizes recommendations made by its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture. This committee was convened to address coexistence, and its mandate implies more escapes like Oregon’s Roundup Ready wheat are expected.
The committee’s central task is to address the question, “What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate to address economic losses by farmers in which the value of their crops is reduced by unintended presence of genetically engineered (GE) material.”
American wheat farmers might have some questions about this proposed compensation, given what’s transpiring in Oregon. Chicago Attorney Adam Levitt litigated cases against Bayer and StarLink corn, winning judgments of $920 million and $110 million respectively.
He told NutraIngredients-USA.com that his phones have been “very busy” since the Oregon discovery.
Neither StarLink, LibertyLink, nor Monsanto’s un-named Roundup Ready wheat have been shown harmful to humans (though some people believe that StarLink triggered allergic responses). In fact, there is no rock-solid evidence of any human health problems created by (approved) GM foods. But in the marketplace, perception is reality, and if the Japanese aren’t buying GM wheat, that’s the reality that matters.
One of the many unknowns about the Oregon GM wheat situation is whether the plants are a direct descendent from the decade-old trials or the result of GM pollen passing along the resistance to wheat. Monsanto, unsurprisingly, claims this is unlikely, as wheat typically pollinates itself rather than crossing. But it’s not impossible, as some crossing does occur. In fact, there have been several instances of GM plants passing their engineered constructs to other, related species, including weeds, via pollen.
“There has always been a worry with wheat, being in the grass family,” David Ervin, environmental management professor at Portland State University in Oregon, told the New York Times. If there was a transfer of the gene into grasses, he said, “There’s going to be difficulty in controlling those grasses, and you might have to resort to stronger herbicide treatments, some of which have more environmental consequences.”
While instances like the wheat found in Oregon have resulted from supposedly unforeseeable events, USDA’s 2011 approval of GM alfalfa almost dares such escapes to happen. Alfalfa is the main forage crop for dairy cows and one of the principal foods for beef cows, including grass-fed cattle. Alfalfa is bee-pollinated, which means that wherever GM alfalfa is planted, every other alfalfa plant within about five miles will be subject to contamination with GM pollen. Alfalfa is a perennial, commonly living 10 to 25 years. A single plant can produce 16,000 seeds per year, which makes it seem inevitable that organic and grass-fed cattle will eat some GM alfalfa. What happens next isn’t clear. Organic standards prohibit any quantity of GM material in certified-organic products. If GM alfalfa genes travel as far as seems likely, it could mean a change in the definition of organic, or the end of organic meat and dairy entirely.
But instead of concern about this possibility, it appears USDA plans on watching it happen. A Feb. 21 document discusses the need to “Develop monitoring procedures for transgenic alfalfa pollen load and for assessing transgenic presence; this effort will be an important building block for field-based tools.” This isn’t the language of an agency committed to strict separation of GM and non-GM food.
Coexistence, it’s becoming increasingly clear, doesn’t mean two systems, existing side by side in peace. It means that practitioners of one system, non-GM farming, will have to learn to exist with the economic and ecological problems created by its GM counterparts. Given how difficult this counterpart is to control, “accommodation” seems like a more appropriate word than coexistence.
Last Updated on Thursday, 04 July 2013 11:12