Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Cows, Swedes, and Dodgy Seeds

The mainstream media has sort of glossed over the mysterious illness and deaths affecting several hundred dairy cows in rural Southland in New Zealand, first reported in early September. Initially it was thought confined to just one farm and blamed on lead poisoning caused by the farmer grazing his animals on ground that used to belong to a gun club, but when similar symptoms[i]were reported from farmers elsewhere in Southland, on some 30-50 other farms, other options had to be considered.

The culprit, it appears, is the swedes (Swedish turnips, usually called rutabagas in the US) the cows were feeding on. Cold-loving brassica crops such as swedes and kale are often used as a primary feed for pregnant dairy cows in the colder areas of New Zealand where winter grass growth is poor, often grazed on site but sometimes provided as supplementary feed. New Zealand farmers have been feeding cows swedes in the winter for some years without problems (see here for a paper on this practice). Now there is a problem. Vets who examined strickened animals report severe liver and some kidney damage (see here).  So, what has made this year’s swede crop so deadly?

Green MP Steffan Browning has been investigating. He reported in a recent public Facebook Post “PGG Wrightson Seeds partnered with DuPont and Plant & Food Research to design Cleancrop Braccisca System which locks HT seed buying farmers into a high fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide regime which is light years from sustainable.”

Steffan goes on to say, “The Best Practice Guide directs grazing of glyphosate and broadleaf herbicide sprayed pasture ahead of planting with their seed treated with a systemic insecticide and two fungicides, in heavily nitrogen and phosphate fertilized land and then either pre or post-emergent spraying with DuPont's Telar chlorsulfuron herbicide and an insecticide.”

Plant seeds that are resistant to herbicide screams GM (genetic modification, or GE—genetic engineering) to me, although Steffan says they claim it is “mutagenesis rather than GE”—fine lines drawn in murky waters,[ii] I reckon. New Zealand food crops are supposedly GM-free (see my related posts Genetic Modification in New Zealand and Genetically Modified Animal Feeds Used in New Zealand and  Why Genetically Modified Foods Are Big News). Is this, to use an old cliché, a thin edge of a wedge?

The issue of treated seed—seeds infused with systemic insecticide and fungicides—is an equally disturbing issue. I’ve seen a couple of articles lately (like this one) about grass seed. You know, if you go to your local garden centre, your grass seed now comes in pink, blue, or green, but plain, uncoated seed is only available online from a few places. That colourful chemical coating is to supposedly discourage bugs, fungi, and birds from eating or damaging your seed, but it comes at a peril. An article I read recently—I think it was in Organic NZ, but it might have been an item on tv One’s Rural Delivery—talked about how clover treated with systemic insecticide produces flowers that are toxic to the very bees needed to pollenate them (and presumably, what pollen makes it back to the hive becomes a honey contaminant). Yet farmers, like home-owners, are increasingly coerced into buying pesticide/fungicide-treated seed due to an increasingly limited availability of untreated seed. (See Ravensdown website for an example, where treated pasture seed is recommended to farmers.)

Downstream from all this on-the-farm business is our food supply. A few hundred sick cows on Southland dairy farms don’t even make 3rd page news in the major daily newspapers. It’s just “farmer stuff”, and editors are probably right in assumed the average urban or suburban Kiwi isn’t all that interested. But they should be. Although the cows on the first farm in this story (the supposedly lead-poisoned ones) were put down, I find it unlikely that farmers on the other 30-50 affected farms—once lead shot had been ruled out—were as likely to do a blanket cull of their dairy cows, nor to make major changes in their overall farming practices (other than take the cows off the swedes).

So, once these cows calf (assuming they recover), will the milk from these cows be tested? Will the milk go into our milk supply? Will the cows be slaughtered and the meat end up in your dog food? Should our dairy cows be grazing pastures that have been heavily dosed with herbicides and insecticides? Are these the same swedes and kale going into our supermarkets for human consumption? Should you be eating swedes and kale? Are the swedes and kale on your table (or the kale leaves in your “healthy” green juice) full of fungicides and systemic insecticide? Is the clover honey you spread on your toast a safe, pure product? What other fruits and vegetables on your plate have been grown with modified seeds and heavily dosed with pesticides and herbicides?

You can rest assured that the powers that be will assure everyone that our food supply is safe, but the truth is, little food is tested for anything unless a problem shows up. Since people eat a more varied diet than cows, whole populations are unlikely to suddenly turn sick, and who wants to test for causes of problems that aren’t even apparent? Furthermore, humans experiencing compromised livers or kidneys, for example, would hardly consider their diet as a likely cause. Food, we assume, causes gastro problems, right? Not organ damage. But is that a reliable assumption?

Sick cows in Southland ARE a big issue—and these were sick enough that some died. That should be regarded as a warning not just to farmers, but to us all.

[i] Weight loss, irritability, restlessness, photo-sensitivity, general malaise.
[ii] A deliberately obtuse and absurd metaphor

Friday, 19 September 2014

Connections in Nature

The New Age fraternity touts the “we are all one” concept often. One would think the biologists and conservationists who work in nature would see and recognize this all the time in the natural world they study. Yet it seems to me that so many conservationists and biologists get side-tracked trying to “manage” wild spaces that they forget that even seemingly small changes in an ecological environment can have big consequences.

 This all comes to mind as I am currently reading an old book, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published a little over fifty years ago, and I’m thinking that little has changed since she wrote it. Carson was a biologist and conservationist, and her iconic book profiles numerous cases where trying to “manage” a problem in nature had unexpected and often catastrophic consequences.

For example, in trying to battle Dutch elm disease in the 1950s in the US and Canada, hundreds of  thousands of acres of elm trees were sprayed on a regular basis with the insecticide DDT (although caused by a fungus, the disease was believed spread by beetles). The resultant loss of birdlife was nothing short of spectacular. Although the birds weren’t sprayed, the insects that made up their food supply was killed off, including the worms that digested the contaminated leaf litter under the elms. Carson cites reports of dead and dying birds everywhere the spray was used, with mortality rates in the high 80% for the ubiquitous robin, and by-kill reported for some ninety other bird species. Those birds that did survive did not lay eggs, or if they did, the eggs proved sterile. Ironically, the spray offered little salvation for the elms, and hand-trimming of diseased branches proved in time the most effective remedy. Carson mused whether saving the elms, magestic though they are, is truly worth the death of so many birds.

DDT was also implicated in another example Carson documented in her book, when the spray was used to control the spruce budworm, an endemic insect that damages trees grown for timber and paper production in Canada. Downstream (quite literally) from the spray areas, insects disappeared and fish died in such prodigious numbers that the salmon runs were virtually wiped out and populations of game fish such as bluegill, bass, crappy, and suckers were decimated. Further downstream, estuary life was likewise affected. Carson’s book does not make for happy or uplifting reading. 

There are a couple of more uplifting stores regarding the interconnections of the natural world to be found on the net. This is one of my favourites, about Yellowstone National Park and what happened when they reintroduced wolves into the park--a trophic cascade titled "How Wolves Change Rivers". 

Another recent you-tube find is this one, from researchers at the University of British Columbia who have documented the communication and networking that occurs between forest trees. Rather than competing with each other (the usual biological assumption), these trees co-operate and help each other.

Shamans have known for thousands of years that plants communicate between themselves and can even, sometimes, communicate with humans, an observation raising many issues about what constitutes consciousness, awareness, and communication. Main-stream scientists have mostly scoffed at this idea. Indeed, a lot of scientists and other folk still argue that many animals (let alone plants) are not conscious beings in the same sense as humans, the old “they don’t feel pain like we do” mantra. So I reckon it’s nice when scientists stand up and say, “Well, actually….”

Morning glory.
I’ll end this post with a brief reminder of the New Zealand view of conservation. (I live in New Zealand, so this is pretty pertinent to me.) Conservationists here are really focussed on “managing” wild spaces, especially in the name of eliminating those plants and animals that are not endemic to these islands. Hence, poisons like 1080 are aerial dropped over vast swaths of wild forest to kill off rats, mice, deer, wild pigs, wild goats, and stoats (with significant bird by-kill rarely acknowledged), and plants designated as “weeds” such as gorse, banana passionfruit, passionflower, morning glory, cathedral bells, Kahili ginger, and Mexican daisies are often sprayed with herbicides such as RoundUp.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Messages from The Other Side

Over the years, I have read several books purporting to be words of wisdom channelled[i] from “the other side”, a rather general euphemism for that curious place/space where non-incarnate beings apparently reside, work, play, educate, learn, or do whatever it is they do there. In spite of this being a somewhat flippant beginning to this post, the amazing wisdom that seems to come from these beings and the various writers and authors who have shared their words with readers has often left me amazed. In this post, I’d like to comment on some of the books of this ilk that I have found most interesting, insightful, profound, sometimes moving, and often life-changing.

The Afterlife of Billy Fingers by Annie Kagen is hot off the presses this year and has quickly gained popularity and fans. I picked it up at my local library—the title was so cheesy I never would have bought it—and I was quickly caught up by both the story and its implications. According to the author, after Annie’s “bad boy” brother Billy died, his spirit came back to communicate with her, and together they wrote this book about his experiences in the afterlife. Whether you believe that the premise is true or not, the book will leave you thinking about the implications for days.  It’s an easy book to read and the story is compellingly told, as each encounter Annie has with her dead brother’s spirit, in spite of her initial scepticism, increases her belief while building a picture of what might happen after death. I found the book surprisingly moving and insightful, and I think Annie is sharing an experience and information she believes is true.

I have long been a fan of Neale Donald Walsch’s wonderful Conversations with God series. A modern-day Job[ii], Walsch had lost his wife, a fire destroyed his belongings, and a car accident left him with a broken neck. In total despair, he pleaded with God, “Why me?” and got an answer, which he turned into the first of the Conversations with God books and which became an international best-seller in 1995. There are now three main Conversations with God books, and another six books on a similar theme, plus a movie and several inspirational organisations. The books are written in the format of Walsch asking questions and God answering, and they have become enormously popular. Walsch’s God reminds us that we are co-creators with God, gratitude trumps supplication, nothing is unforgivable, love is really all there is, and we are all one. (Find more principles of the series here.) If there was just one spiritual book I could recommend to most folks, it would probably be the first book in this series.

A Course in Miracles became very popular some years ago. Helen Schucman and William Thetford, both professors of medical psychology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and not of a religious/spiritual background, felt compelled to share with a wider audience the curious material Helen received from what she called “the Voice” (heard inside her head, but seemingly coming from elsewhere). Over seven years in the writing, this weighty tome is Biblical/Christian in flavour, and consists of a main text, a workbook for students, and a manual for teachers. I gave up shortly after starting the main text—it’s a plough!—but I did persevere through about half of the workbook for students, a series of short daily exercises that enable you to recognize the nature of reality and your relationship to it. (Example, Lesson 2: “I have given everything in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place] all the meaning that it has for me.”)

The biggest inspiration for writing this post is my recent discovery of the Seth material, channelled through Jane Roberts and transcribed by her husband Robert F Butts in the 1970s. Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul is the first one I read, and I am now part way through The Nature of Personal Reality. There are several more Seth books, some dictated as specific books and others documenting none-book sessions with Seth. (Seth is the non-corporal entity that channelled through Jane.) Along with Seth’s dictation, the books include Jane’s and Robert’s thoughts and observations about what they are doing, what happens during the sessions, what they think about who Seth is, how channelling works, and the significance of Seth’s messages to them personally, to others, and to the wider world. These books are considered seminal material for much of modern New Age thought.

Although I’d heard of the “the Seth material” before, I am astonished it has taken me so long to actually sit down and read it, and I am blown away by the information available here—who we are, why we are here, what happens to us when we are not here (before birth/after death), how reincarnation works, karma, the whole gamut. There are things I am not totally comfortable with: Jane and Robert lived in America, which in many areas was/is fundamentalist Christian, and there is a persistent Christian lean in some of Seth’s examples—it’s almost as if Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and other religions weren’t even on the planet. Also, while I can maybe buy references to Atlantis (after all, even Plato talked about Atlantis), I’m more sceptical of Lumaria. Still, these are amazing, fascinating, insightful, thoughtful, and worthy books for anyone interested in understanding what it means to be human. I’m sold.

Lastly, although it’s not a book, I’d like to do a little plug for Abraham-Hicks. Abraham is purportedly a group of non-corporal entities who channel through Esther Hicks. Branded under “Law of Attraction”, there is a whole series of books, videos, CDs, workshops and events smartly packaged around Abraham’s wisdom for life. While it may seem a bit slick, there is a lot of wisdom in the Abraham material. I subscribe to the free daily Law of Attraction quote, and almost always click my daily email message to see some wise words to start the day. You can find a number of you-tube clips with the channelled voice of Abraham on a variety of topics, like this one. This is Abraham's voice channelled through Esther, and obviously in front of an audience, on the topic of creating your own reality. 

[i] Usually “channelled” refers to an actual voice that comes through a medium, thus an incarnate spirit apparently “borrows” the body and speaking mechanism of a living person who often is in a trance state and unaware of what is being said. In other cases, the medium “hears” the voice and passes on the message either verbally or in written form and is fully aware of the message at the time of delivery.

[ii] See the book of Job in the Bible. Job was inflicted with all manner of trial and tribulation but never lost his faith in God, who eventually restored all to him and more.