Dinner with Elephants

Another preview on the Botswana self-drive…

Elephants were heading for the water as the sun set. I was cooking dinner while this happened so we wouldn’t eat and then have to climb into the tent in the dark.

You can probably guess how difficult it was to finesse a gas-top-cooked Spanish omelet while all this was going on behind me.

The omelet survived, dinner was delicious as the sky turned violet, and we just made it into the tent by dark.

Unscathed by morning, and there I am back in the kitchen. We started another day with coffee, then collapsed the tent and set out for a game drive.

What Multi-Nationals Don’t Want You To Know About GMOs

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Shouldn’t we all have the right to make informed decisions about the foods we may wish — or, more significantly, not wish — to consume? The US is one of the only industrialized nations that does not require the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). More than 40 other countries recognize the consumers’ basic right to such information and have made the labeling of GMOs mandatory. European Union countries led the way and introduced a standard; since 1998, all products with more than .9 percent GMOs are labeled as such. In the US there is no such standard — but California voters may be about to change that.

In November, with Proposition 37 on the California ballot, we will have the opportunity to vote for a law requiring the labeling of all GMO ingredients in raw and processed foods for sale to consumers. This law would finally do away with the misleading labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients as ‘natural.’

Is there anything natural about genetically modified foods? If so, who would want to prevent them from being properly labeled? By what other means can consumers make informed choices?

So what exactly is at stake with GMO labeling?

Let’s look at the basics of GMOs. Here’s a brief explanation from Wikipedia:

“A genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These techniques, generally known as recombinant DNA technology, use DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes. Transgenic organisms, a subset of GMOs, are organisms which have inserted DNA that originated in a different species.”

Scientists, farmers, and gardeners may attempt to bring out the best traits in — let’s say a tomato — by cross breeding. But, cross breeding is nearly always done within the same species — to bring together those features in one type of fruit or vegetable that improve yield, pest and disease resistance, flavors, textures, etc., within a single variety. This is not genetically modifying or genetically engineering a tomato, but cross-breeding tomatoes with tomatoes.

However, in taking the genetic material from one organism and inserting it into the permanent genetic code of another, biotechnologists have engineered some novel, if not frightening, creations — for example, “super” pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle growth genes, tomatoes with flounder genes (for resistance to cold temperatures). These are combinations that simply can’t occur in nature. This is literally altering a species, even if slightly. There are thousands of genetically altered plants, animals and insects; and, these artificial creations are now being patented at alarming rates. A realistic danger is weakening the gene pool and destroying the integrity of a particular species from unintended interbreeding with genetically altered individuals accidentally released into the wild.

California is poised to be the first state to require the labeling of GMO in foods, which could activate a veritable revolution of better agricultural practices. Since California is the 8th largest economy in the world, as the Organic Consumer Association has observed, mandatory labeling of GMO foods could affect packaging and ingredient decisions nation-wide. A win for the California Initiative could also put into effect a serious check on the biotechnology industry. Consequently, such corporations as Monsanto and Dupont, who have billions invested in GMOs, are spending millions to defeat it. Try googling “Proposition 37,” and the first in the line-up of search engine results from that query will be a site that opposes mandatory GMO labeling, referring to it as a “deceptive food labeling scheme.”

It takes a lot to remain in that top position, and it’s achieved by costly search engine optimization methods deployed all over the Internet by high-power public relation firms. The site opposing labeling, http://www.noprop37.com, claims to be paid for by a coalition with “major funding by Monsanto Company, E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co”. (Check out kcet.org for a breakdown of who is supporting and opposing Proposition 37, and with how much funding. Aside from the two biotech giants, you’ll find Pepsico Inc., Nestle USA Inc. Coca-Cola North America, General Mills Inc., Delmonte Foods Company, Kellogg Company, Kraft Foods Global Inc. and many other big food manufacturers.) As of October 3, 2012, Monsanto and DuPont alone spent $12,500,00 opposing mandatory labeling with the argument that it will cost both consumers and producers — costs that will ultimately be passed on to the consumer. They claim that mandatory labeling would add more government bureaucracy as well as increase taxpayer costs because of the need to monitor “tens of thousands of food labels.” Yet, the big food manufacturers already label their products for most of the world. Ironically, the opposition to the California Initiative, sponsored by these high-power corporations, claims that the proposed law would lead to frivolous lawsuits and create “a new class of ‘headhunter lawsuits’ allowing lawyers to sue family farmers and grocers without any proof of harm.”

The irony, of course, is that Monsanto alone, which has spent upwards of $7,000,000 funding the opposition, has a formidable litigation team — and several front men behind the so-called “grassroots” organizations lobbying against Proposition 37. Tom Hiltachk, the PR top gun behind the “Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition,” (an anti-labeling front group), is a partner at the Sacramento-based lobbying firm, Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk LLP, which “specializes in campaign, election and administrative law and litigation at all levels of government.” Hiltachk also has ties to Big Oil and California’s Proposition 23. That Initiative, supported by big oil companies, would have repealed California’s clean energy and climate laws.

At the very heart of the matter, crucial to all of agriculture, is the question of seeds; control over them means control over the growth and production of our foods, feed, and other products, as Monsanto has demonstrated. After being forced to stop manufacturing DDT in the 1970’s, Monsanto shifted the focus from chemical to biological technology. Modifying and then patenting seed genes, Monsanto uses laws to criminalize farmers for patent infringement, or “seed piracy” — rationalized as a “technology protection system.” And, now they have created seeds genetically modified so that they will not germinate unless exposed to a chemical, either applied to a maturing plant, or in a seed coating. This chemical inducer permits germination of the single generation of seed, thwarting even small-time farmers (not worth litigating against) from collecting and using “free” farm-saved seeds. These aptly dubbed “terminator seeds” force the poorest, rain-dependent farmers to buy seed every year — seeds that make them dependent on Monsanto’s fertilizers and pesticides not needed with conventional seed. And though they were developed for “untapped” third-world markets, Monsanto now claims that these seeds (officially referred to as Genetic Use Restriction Technology seeds) will prevent unintended spread and contamination. They would have to be 100% sterile to prevent contamination, however — which is not proving to be the case, as many alarmed scientists are cautioning.

Intentionally phasing out the conventional seed supply in parts of rural India, Monsanto has gained a stranglehold over the availability of any seed. And, farmers there, born into traditional agriculture communities, have killed themselves in the tens of thousands out of shame and despair when they can’t keep up with Monsanto’s package as their debts mount, lenders gouge, and they lose their families’ land because of this “technology protection system.” (Bitter Seeds, a feature documentary by Micha X. Peled, “explores the controversy — from a village in India that uses genetically modified seeds to US government agencies that promote them”. The film is now screening in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater until October 13.)

Columnist Roger Cohen, in his New York Times Op Ed “Return of the Organic Fable,” of September 27, argues dismissively against the warnings of the “organic bourgeoisie.” In Cohen’s view, the unnatural creations by corporations such as Monsanto can help solve “the problem of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century”. Cohen suggests that without fertilizers and GM crops made more resilient to drought and disease, higher yields cannot be met to satisfy demand. He concludes his editorial with, “Elitist freakouts spurred by the organic ideology are no answer to the world’s food problems. In fact they are a distraction.”

A federal judge recently ordered that 258 acres of Monsanto GM sugar beets in Oregon’s Willamette Valley be destroyed, (95 percent of sugar beets in the US are grown from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds). Judge Jeffrey White ruled that the crops be destroyed because the danger of gene contamination was so great, and herbicide resistant crops like these have been shown to result in more toxic chemicals in our soil and water. Is this also an “elitist freakout”? What about the 1.2 million people who have contacted the USDA to tell them we have the right to know what’s in our food? (Join in at: justlabelit.org — or — carighttoknow.org.) Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds are genetically modified to resist the weed killer Roundup, and the crop strips the soil of vital nutrients; the soil erosion they cause is a realistic problem, and they spread without our knowing. Organic corn, for instance, is nearly impossible to find because it has been completely tainted by GM seeds.

In 1985 Demeter Association Inc. was formed in the US as a non-profit — seventeen years before the USDA established the National Organic Program. Demeter’s long-established biodynamic practices and principles are an apparent alternative to the high cost of USDA organic certification. Demeter Association Inc. (the US representative of Demeter International) promotes biodiversity and helps enable people to farm successfully and create self-contained and self-sustaining farms. Asked for her response to Cohen’s suggestion that GMOs can feed the world, Elizabeth Candelario of Demeter Association Inc, makes several important points.

“It’s important for folks to realize that GMOs were not developed to feed the world, but to increase profits of agri-business by hampering efforts by farmers to save their own seed. Their solution to the ‘problem’ of farmers saving seeds was the introduction of patents and intellectual property rights on seed, which make saving seeds an illegal act. Instead of protecting seed diversity and farmers’ rights to save, cultivate and share seed freely, we now have a system where seeds are seen as commodities owned by private companies and traded on the open market. The true costs of this system are not factored into the equation, but the public is starting to wake up and realize that the environment, peoples’ health, and even the future of our food system is at risk. Even if we allow that reasonable people can disagree on the safety and efficacy of GMO seed, it will be a zero sum wager because co-existence of heirloom seed and GMOs has already proven to be impossible.”

As Candelario aptly notes, “Bees will be bees and the wind will blow.”

Regarding safety and human health, Cohen quotes the World Health Organization (WHO) on GM foods: “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” But WHO can account for only immediate effects. There are no long-term studies of GM products on human health. Science may be capable of transplanting a gene from one species into that of another, but cannot as yet predict or contain the results. Can we simply ignore these facts?

There has been an explosion of works coming from chefs, writers, filmmakers, and food-conscious organizations on the problems with corporate controlled foods. These folks are collaborating, networking, creating platforms through which people can take action, and raising consciousness about the damaging effects of monoculture crops. A great example of this is what has happened in the wake of Robert Kenner’s Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning documentary, Food Inc. While giving talks around the country, Kenner found that people repeatedly asked, “What can I do? How can I get more involved?” FixFood was launched as a result, a website that uses videos, links to information and petitions, and social media to raise consciousness and “empower Americans to take immediate action” on specific issues regarding our food system. “FixFood helps answer these questions by leveraging the latest social media tools and collaborating with leading nonprofit organizations and values-based businesses.”

Slow Food, another successful grassroots membership organization, is now a huge international movement that remains firmly against the commercial planting of genetically modified crops and promotes GMO-free food and feed. Slow Food, deriving its name as “an ironic way of saying no to fast foods,” describes itself as standing “at the crossroads of ecology and gastronomy, ethics and pleasure.” They oppose “the standardization of taste and culture, and the unrestrained power of the food industry multinationals and industrial agriculture.” Their simple yet powerful vision is “a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet”.

Addressing the world’s food problems, Slow Food President Carlo Petrini states: “When it comes to hunger, the United Nations says that family agriculture will protect the sectors of the population at risk of malnutrition. Multinationals instead promise that GMOs will feed the world, but since they began to be marketed around 15 years ago, the number of starving people in the world has only grown, just like the profits of the companies that produce the seeds.” (Ten Reasons to Say No to GMOs.)

The plain fact is that corporations, such as Monsanto and DuPont, rely on our ignorance. As we begin to understand more about what’s in our foods, our entire food system, and the supply chain itself, consumer demands are changing.

When asked what’s at stake in voting for Proposition 37, Robert Kenner said, “I believe in truth, transparency and trust in the food system, which includes mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. All Americans in every state should enjoy the same right to know what’s in their food. Supporting the California initiative is an important step on the path towards a national policy that will address this issue for us all. A win in California on Proposition 37 is a win for the whole nation.”

With this initiative, Californians have the chance to create a very direct change in our food system. It’s one of those rare opportunities to make a real difference. Now all we have to do is show up and vote.

(This piece was printed in Anderson Valley Advertiser, a Mendocino County newspaper, on Oct. 10, 2012.)

Giraffes in Chobe National Park, Botswana

During our eight day self-drive through Botswana we camped at Savuti, an area in the central western part of Chobe National Park. Exploring the area during a morning game drive, we found a waterhole and parked the Land Rover there to see who would come for a drink. We waited ten minutes watching a mongoose and a cory bustard, then three impala and a lone sable antelope came to the water and drank. Meanwhile, a large adult male giraffe remained in the cover of the bush nearby with only his head sticking up, cautiously checking us out.

When giraffes spread their front legs and lower their heads to drink, it is their most vulnerable position. So, the large male waited, watching us for another ten minutes before he decided it was safe. When he finished drinking, the rest of the family, the mother and their two babies, emerged from the bush one at a time to drink while the male stood behind safeguarding them from potential side or rear ambush.

Journey through Botswana — The Preview

Even though we’d been traveling for a few days in the 1992 Land Rover Defender, which we rented for a self-drive through Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park, I still didn’t realize what a tank it was.

Not until we encountered this:

In the Faraway Bush: At Chitake Spring, Part I

Of all the wilderness sites we visited in Southern Africa, the bush camp at the Chitake spring was the most remote and wild — wild in the truest sense of the word.

Visitors to Mana Pools National Park are allowed the privilege of walking in the territory of wildlife that can be dangerous — and we were heading into the depths of the bush at the height of the dry season. We would be visiting the spring during its most dramatic period of activity. Continue reading

On the Zambezi River — Canoeing, Part II

September 18 –

We arose at 5:30, and during breakfast said our goodbyes to our German friends who had capsized and lost equipment in heavy wind conditions the morning before. I told them how happy I was to make their acquaintance, and quickly added, “Of course, not under the actual circumstances.” They all laughed in agreement. What a great group. I was sorry to see them go. But they decided to take their leave of the river and continue on with their tour of Zimbabwe.

We set out on the river some time around 7:00 am in a light wind that was manageable. The cloud cover had vanished and the day was heating up within an hour; good reason to set out as early as possible. Also, the morning light is beautiful — soft but luminous, with the sun ahead of us as we traveled east down the river.

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On the Zambezi River — Canoeing, Part I

Bono, River and Walking Guide, and apprentice, Ali

September 17 — Soon after we arrived at our new river camp, the wind was still blowing strong. A group of 6 canoers, who had all capsized, were brought in by boat unexpectedly. They were still wet, wringing out their clothes and checking what they’d managed to prevent from being lost in the river. Our plan was to get out on the river just after lunch, but the other couple we would be canoeing with arrived much later at the camp than expected. Emily, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, and Steven, the founder of a business management consulting group had just climbed Mt Kilamanjaro in 3 days, and made transit from Tanzania to Zimbabwe, (and exhausted, had slept in late somewhere between here and there!) before making their appearance. We did not set off until around 4 pm by which time the wind had calmed significantly and I felt less hesitant.

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On the Zambezi River — Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

Mana Pools is part of a larger Parks and Wildlife Estate that runs from the Kariba Dam in the west of Zimbabwe to the Mozambique border in the east. With no physical boundaries, the wildlife is free to move throughout the area – even north of the Zambezi River into Zambia, where there are also large areas set aside for wildlife conservation. The Zambezi River flows through the middle.

Mana Pools extends southwards to the summit of the steep Zambezi Escarpment and the Zambezi River’s southern banks form its northern border with a view of the Zambia escarpment on the other side. Within this floodplain area, the river flows into a broad expanse of lakes, islands, channels and sandbanks. Mana means ‘four’ in the Shona language, and refers to the four large permanent pools inland that remain of the oxbow lakes the Zambezi River carved out thousands of years ago in the process of changing its course northwards.

A World Heritage Site, Mana Pools is one of the least developed National Parks, and the only one where walking is allowed. As much of it is seasonally inaccessible, it remains unspoilt. During the rainy season, most of the area’s wildlife moves up into the escarpments. But during the dry winter months Mana Pools arguably has one of the highest concentrations of large game on the continent. As the waters of the floodplain recede, great herds of elephant and buffalo return to the same places, and lion, leopard, cheetah, kudu, eland, waterbuck, zebra, impala and other antelope as well as 380 bird species move back in toward the river. Certainly one of the largest concentrations of crocodiles and hippopotami in Africa is found along the river in Mana Pools. It is unquestionably one of the most exciting places to camp, to explore on foot, and by canoe, for the varied amount of wildlife that can be seen in its true wild state.

I had no real idea what I was in for.

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