Monday, July 22, 2013

“Mycelium is Earth’s Natural Internet.”

Six ways mushrooms can save the world.

Paul Stamets gives this wonderful TED Talk about mushrooms that are organisms that cover our earth and are very important for the life on earth.

Paul Stamets believes that mushrooms can save our lives, restore our ecosystems and transform other worlds.

Entrepreneurial mycologist Paul Stamets seeks to rescue the study of mushrooms from forest gourmets and psychedelic warlords. The focus of Stamets' research is the Northwest's native fungal genome, mycelium, but along the way he has filed 22 patents for mushroom-related technologies, including pesticidal fungi that trick insects into eating them, and mushrooms that can break down the neurotoxins used in nerve gas.

There are cosmic implications as well. Stamets believes we could terraform other worlds in our galaxy by sowing a mix of fungal spores and other seeds to create an ecological footprint on a new planet.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Farm for the Future

“All of the debts for society’s century-long industrial fiesta are coming due at the same time. We have no choice but to transition to a world no longer dependent on fossil fuels, a world made up of communities and economies that function within ecological bounds. How we manage this transition is the most important question of our time.”       
              ~ Richard Heinberg

A Farm for the Future is a video about changing the way we garden/farm - it is made in the UK, but so much applies here in the U.S. and throughout the world.

This video starts off examining animal farming, but develops into a holistic examination of growing and providing food in the future.  The scope of this video and what changes need to be made in the future are eye-opening and thought provoking. We are all in this together, so it is encouraging to see some successful examples of farms for the future.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Maine House Gives First Nod to GMO Labeling Bill in Landslide Vote

By Steve Mistler     Portland Press Herald, June 11, 2013

AUGUSTA — Maine is on track to join several other states attempting to require food producers to label food containing genetically modified ingredients, following a landslide vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday. 

The House voted to support L.D. 718, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, sets the stage for a legal entanglement between the state and agribusiness and biotech industry giant Monsanto, which has already threatened to sue states that pass similar labeling laws. The political battle between industry interests and the well-organized supporters of L.D. 718 has raged behind the scenes for several months at the State House, as the biotech industry fights to blunt a popular movement that has taken the GMO fight to at least 18 other state legislatures following failed attempts to pass labeling legislation in Congress.

The House voted 141-4 in favor of a amendment that would trigger the labeling requirement once four other contiguous states, including Maine, pass similar labeling legislation.

Supporters of L.D. 718, a bill co-sponsored by 120 lawmakers, including Democrats, independents and Republicans, relished the looming fight with Monsanto, the litigious international company widely vilified by supporters of the organic food movement. Harvell blasted the company, saying lawmakers should not give the industry "veto power" over a bill that tells people what's in their food.

"In this body alone we have routinely taken on the federal government, which is supposedly the most powerful government in the world," Harvell said. "And yet, if a corporation threatens us, we fear them more? Are we going to give these people veto power over this body and the people of the state of Maine? Do we really live in a world where they have more power than our federal government? It's a question that we should ask."

A lawsuit likely may await Maine if the labeling bill goes into effect.
Attorney General Janet Mills, who was asked to review the constitutionality of the bill, told lawmakers on the Agriculture Committee that it is "almost certain" to face a legal challenge from the industry. Mills did not guarantee that her office would be able to defend its constitutionality.

Proponents of the bill, including the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, said it is up to states to take on industry to ensure that it discloses whether food is bio-engineered — its DNA has been spliced with that of an unrelated plant, animal, bacterium or virus — because Congress has failed to enact federal legislation.

No state has passed such a labeling law. At least 18 states are considering them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut recently passed a GMO labeling law that is nearly identical to amended version of L.D. 718. Vermont is on the verge of doing the same. A similar bill is under consideration by the New Hampshire Legislature.

Lance Dutson, a spokesman for the business and industry coalition that's opposing the bill, told the Portland Press Herald in May that Mills' review of the bill essentially reaffirmed the proposal has "serious constitutional concerns."

The constitutional issue centers on free speech, specifically compelling food manufacturers and retailers to disclose ingredients that don't pose a known public health risk. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Farm Bureau and the Grocery Manufacturers Association say the bill would stigmatize genetically modified foods despite a dearth of scientific research proving that such products are any less healthful than those that are grown conventionally.

Maine law now allows retailers to label products voluntarily as certified organic or "GMO-free."

Harvell's bill would prohibit retailers from labeling a product "natural" if it contained GMOs, genetically modified organisms.

Advocates of new regulations say scientific evidence is emerging that genetically modified foods can increase health risks and food allergies. They say federal regulators have left testing up to the industry that is producing and profiting from genetically modified products.

Labeling supporters argue that independent testing on GMO foods hasn't happened because industry patents prohibit it.

"If it's so unique that it requires a patent, then I say that it's time that it requires a label," Harvell said.

Harvell, during a rousing floor speech, said Tuesday that if GMO foods are so unique that they require a patent, the public can't be sure that it's safe to eat.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates genetically modified foods but does not approve them. The agency assumes the foods are safe until confronted with evidence that they're not. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, has worked on labeling legislation in Congress. He told lawmakers during a public hearing on Maine's bill that federal regulators have ceded review of genetically modified products to ensure that the industry — not the government — is legally liable if health problems surface.

Opponents say a labeling law would be costly to farmers and sellers, who would have to review affidavits to determine whether the food they're selling contains genetically modified ingredients.

The Legislature previously has rejected four GMO-labeling bills, but supporters say there is growing support for a law.

The proposal endorsed by the House differs from the original bill. It would not take effect until five other contiguous states pass similar legislation.

Some lawmakers worried that the amended version would doom the labeling effort because one state could derail the effort if it doesn't pass labeling legislation. Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, said the altered bill effectively would grant New Hampshire veto power over Maine's effort if Granite State lawmakers don't pass a labeling law.

Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough said the amended bill would help defray some of the anticipated legal costs and "send a message to the federal government."

The bill now moves to the Senate for a vote. The bill may face a steeper climb among Republican state senators. Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, on Monday described the bill as a Democrat-led effort on a conservative website.

The LePage administration testified against the bill during the public hearing. Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the governor had not yet taken a position on the amended bill.

In May the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that would give states the power to require genetically modified food to be labeled as such. U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, voted for the amendment. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted against it.

Steve Mistler — 620-7016

For related articles and more information, please visit Organic Consumers Association - OCA's  Genetic Engineering page, Millions Against Monsanto page and Politics and Democracy page.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Connecticut First In The Nation To Pass GMO Labeling Bill

by Jacqueline Wattles | Jun 3, 2013 6:32pm

 Tara Cook-Littman, an advocate who pushed for the bill celebrates her victory

A bill that would mandate labels on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients passed the House Monday, making Connecticut the first state in the nation to pass this type of legislation.

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are crops that have been manually altered using modern technology in order to be resistant to herbicides and pesticides or take on other characteristics such as a longer shelf-life. Connecticut’s legislation came in response to a national campaign to mandate labels on foods that contain GMOs.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy joined activists and House and Senate leadership to celebrate the bill’s passage, assuring them that the bill’s last step before enactment - his signature - would not be an issue.

“This is important stuff. . . and I think the rest of the world is starting to understand that,” Malloy said. “I know a lot of you are surprised. I’m not. I saw it coming. It’s an appropriate thing to do.”

Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said the bill would make a “critical difference.”

“We have made history in the state of Connecticut, and this issue is so important in terms of the safety of our food supply and the health of the men, women, and children in this country,” Williams said. “We know these GMO foods are tied directly to increased use of herbicides and pesticides that are wreaking havoc in our environment.”

The bill’s passage came after a different version of the bill was shuffled between the House and Senate for weeks before leadership in both chambers came to a compromise.

The issue was whether to allow the law to go into effect automatically, or tack on a “trigger” that would require neighboring states to pass similar legislation before Connecticut’s law would become effective. The idea behind the trigger, as House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said, is to ensure that Connecticut won’t “stand alone” with the bill and cause undesirable economic consequences.

But the House and Senate resolved their differences last week when compromise legislation was passed by the Senate. The new version requires that four other states pass similar legislation in order to “trigger” Connecticut’s labeling requirement. One of the states must share a border with Connecticut and their combined population must equal at least 20 million people.

If the trigger is met, sellers or distributors who sell products containing GMOs that are not labeled would be subject to a daily $1,000 fine per product and the Department of Consumer Protection would be able to embargo the products.

Sharkey said he was pleased with the compromise.

“We were able to come together and compromise to protect consumers and the economy in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “I think it’s a tremendous achievement.”

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said the reason the bill came back after hitting so many legislative roadblocks was because of the grassroots activism that was louder than ever this session.

“Everyone was committed to making sure we got something passed,” he said. “Sitting down, doing the hard work, listening to the advocates, and getting the bill passed…[the advocates] are the reason.”

The bill received bipartisan support, passing the Senate unanimously and winning a 134-3 vote in the House.
Though the compromise weakens the Senate’s original bill, which would have gone into effect in 2016 regardless of whether other states were on board, the advocates that pressed the legislators for action said they support it.

Tara Cook-Littman, the face of the Right to Know GMO campaign in Connecticut, has spent the past two years lobbying for GMO-labeling legislation. She said was “thrilled” about the legislation and is not concerned about the trigger clause.

“This is a very strong bill . . . it represents the highest standard developed by GMO-labeling leaders throughout the country,” Cook-Litmann said. “To all those concerned about the trigger clause, we have nothing to fear.”

Rep. Diana Urban, one of the bill’s main proponents, said Maine, New Jersey, and New York are “well on their way to passing similar legislation.”

“This is history,” Urban said. “It’s a doable trigger, and I am just thrilled. Sixty-two other countries either ban [GMOs] or label them, and we’re the first in the nation to stand up and do this.”

Sharkey added that passing this bill is instrumental in getting other states to follow suit.

“The hardest thing that we can ever do is get that very first state to say to the country that this is the way we as a people want to see our country go, and Connecticut is going to lead the way,” he said.

Activists that lead GMO-labeling advocacy groups in Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all traveled to Hartford to celebrate with the Connecticut advocates.  and said they are hopeful Connecticut’s bill will help push proposed legislation in their own states through.

Jim Garrison, a potato farmer and a member of Maine’s Right to Know GMO coalition, said the Maine House of Representatives may vote on a GMO-labeling bill as early as Friday and the bill has 123 co-sponsors.

Martin Dagoberto, a member of the Massachusetts Right to Know GMO coalition, said he felt Connecticut’s action would pressure other states to follow suit.

“This win for Connecticut is a win for all of us,” Dagoberto said. “It feeds our collective momentum, and we will not be stopped. The trigger clause is nothing more than a way to encourage other states to share the burden of defending the integrity of our democracy and our food supply because powerful corporate interests want to keep us in the dark.”

GMO-labeling legislation has also been proposed in the lower house of the New York State Legislature, a state Urban said is instrumental in getting on board because of its big economy, but no votes have been taken yet.

CT First In The Nation To Pass GMO Labeling Bill

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why Organic Produce May Be Worth The Money

Nature's way of balancing pest management and why organic produce is the mightier choice for you.

Researchers concluded that the additional “stress” of an organic farming operation makes the plants boost their production of phytochemicals. In other words, the plants must cope with greater challenges from natural insect predators and disease so they respond with a higher output of defensive compounds, which can benefit people, too. 
From: Organic Consumers Association

Why organic produce may be worth the money

By Paul Taylor
The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013

Organic fruits and vegetables may not be as big and beautiful as regular produce, but appearances can be deceiving. A study of organic tomatoes found they are packed with a much higher concentration of healthy compounds than the conventionally grown variety. And that suggests being smaller and less attractive can sometimes be better for you – at least when it comes to the food supply.

For the study, the researchers selected tomatoes from an organic farm and a conventional operation located 1.5 kilometres apart in northeastern Brazil. So the plants were raised in roughly the same weather and soil conditions.

The organic farm used animal manure for fertilizer and a naturally based fungicide, while the conventional farm relied on a chemical fertilizer and pesticides.

From outward appearances the organic tomatoes did not do so well – they were roughly 40 per cent smaller than those grown conventionally. But a detailed analysis, published in the online journal Plos One, revealed the organic variety contained elevated concentrations of vitamin C and other phenolic compounds.

“The contents in phenolic compounds and in vitamin C were 139 per cent and 55 per cent higher, respectively. That is quite a lot,” one of the researchers, Laurent Urban of the University of Avignon in France, said in an e-mail interview.

The researchers, led by Raquel Miranda of the Federal University of Ceara in Brazil, concluded that the additional “stress” of an organic farming operation makes the plants boost their production of phytochemicals.

In other words, the plants must cope with greater challenges from natural insect predators and disease so they respond with a higher output of defensive compounds, which can benefit people, too.

For instance, vitamin C and phenolic compounds act as antioxidants, neutralizing free radicals that can cause cell damage. Previous studies have shown that a plant-rich diet is associated with a lower risk of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.

The researchers noted that the agricultural sector has been primarily focused on increasing crop yields.

“This might be all right for staple food, but as far as fruits and vegetables are concerned, it may be argued that gustative and micro-nutrient quality matter more than energy supply,” they write in their study.

“Our observations suggest that, at least for fruits and vegetable production, growers should not systematically try to reduce stress to maximize yield and fruit size, but should accept a certain level of stress as that imposed by organic farming with the objective of improving certain aspects of product quality.”

In the meantime, Urban pointed out that many people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables to reap their potential benefits. Those grown organically at least contain more nutrients per mouthful. What’s more, this type of agriculture isn’t associated with the same level of pesticide residues found in some conventionally grown crops, he added.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Letter: Moving ahead on composting

Letter: Moving ahead on composting
Montreal Gazette February 19, 2013

Re: “Composting delay is a waste of good waste” (Editorial, Feb. 1)

I read with interest your editorial on the delay in setting up a compostables collection network. I’d like to add my voice to those suggesting finding local solutions and point to a couple of kinds of “low hanging fruit” in managing organic resources currently being treated as waste at great expense.

The first group are the materials that can be successfully “lawn composted”: grass clippings and deciduous fall leaves. The right tool for this is the now ubiquitous mulching mower. Research funded by the golf-course industry has shown that both grass clippings and a surprisingly large amount of fall leaves can simply be shredded into turf with no harm to turf quality, but instead, improvement of the soil. This costs less labour than collecting; fall leaves can be shredded into turf in a third the time it would take to rake and bag them, with no demand on the public fisc for hauling and composting and re-hauling the compost to your neighbourhood. In many ways, our old habits are dying hard for no good reason, since this is a method that requires not more work, but less.

The second low hanging fruit out there are spent coffee grounds. Coffee grounds are sterile, high in nitrogen compared to other compostables, and have no weed seed or pathogen issues. Once dried, they can be stored, bagged and resold to the public as a soil amendment, already in particles suitable for spreading with any ordinary fertilizer spreader. While the mulching mower is now everywhere, here a good technology needs to be developed to rapidly dewater and dry coffee grounds with minimal energy expenditure — some combination of draining, pressing and solar drying would probably fill the bill. Coffee sellers like Tim Hortons, McDonalds, Second Cup and Starbucks process hundreds of tons of coffee grounds in our area and have the resources to save the environment a huge amount of hauling around of unnecessary wet materials. Some combination of cost avoidance, sales revenues and positive PR should make this economically a winner.

Some similar dehydration technology might be used in the treatment of other kitchen wastes, which, like grass clippings, are mostly water, and which become rapidly putrid when enclosed in an air-free container, like a plastic bag or even a green bin. This is why central composting will always generate some nuisance factor in its immediate neighbourhood, since the anaerobic wet materials will always bring in a stench, even if composting will eventually eliminate it.

Local worm composting is a potential solution in some situations where a stream of kitchen-type wastes can pass directly from the kitchen to the worm area without being closed up and allowed to get stinky. This can also serve as a way to use some of the paper that flows through our city, including The Gazette, soiled cardboard and paper that might otherwise not be eligible for paper recycling. Vermicompost thus made can also be dried down somewhat before being taken for use in gardens, yards and other applications, thus lightening the load on hauling requirements.

Keeping organic resources out of anaerobic landfills is a worthy goal, and even hauling them to compost sites instead is better than letting them generate methane, 30 times the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is. But, the right approach to organic resource management is to find the best and lowest cost way of treating them as locally as possible. In this way we can improve our soils and capture carbon there while burning up the least amount of carbon fuels in the process.

Frank Teuton

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette
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Monday, February 18, 2013

Saving Seeds: 7 Reasons Why and Dozens of Tips for How

Saving seeds can help gardeners save money, grow better crops and become more self-reliant. Learn all about saving vegetable seeds.

When you save your own seeds, you are joining a chain of farmers, gardeners and seed savers that dates back to the Stone Age. All domestic crops were once wild plants that early humans selected to feed themselves or, later, their livestock. Today, gardeners save seeds for many reasons.

Photo By Dwight Kuhn

1. Money Savings. Every time you buy a seed variety, you invest in your future. For example, I just bought some expensive ‘Midori Giant’ soybean seed, and I feel better about the high price tag because I know I’ll have the variety as long as I continue saving seeds from my plants. (With soybeans, you simply let the last picking dry on the plant and you have next year’s seed.)

2. Seed Security.
Hundreds of excellent plant varieties have been discontinued as big corporations have consolidated the seed industry and focused on more profitable hybrids. If you save your own seed, however, you control the supply. I save seed for ‘Miragreen’ and ‘Blizzard’ peas, ‘Lutz Green Leaf’ beets, and ‘Scarlet Keeper’ carrots because these varieties all grow well here in Maine but have become difficult to find in seed catalogs.

3. Regional Adaptation.
This is where saving vegetable seeds can get exciting. Most commercially available seed has been selected because it performs fairly well across the entire country if given synthetic fertilizers. (Several companies now offer seeds selected specifically to perform well in organic conditions — but this isn’t the norm.) When you save seed from the best-performing plants grown on your own land and with your unique cultural conditions, you gradually develop varieties that are better adapted to your soil, climate and growing practices.

4. Consistent Quality.
To keep their prices competitive when producing open-pollinated (OP) seed crops, large seed suppliers rarely “rogue” the fields to pull out inferior or off-type plants. This means the OP seed they sell to retail seed companies may have a lot of off-types in it. For gardeners and market farmers, that translates to loss of production per foot of row. To avoid this loss, either save your own seed, or pay more for premium seed produced by small, organic producers whose seeds cost more because they properly select for uniformity and rogue out any plants that aren’t true to type. (See our Seed Company Directory for profiles of more than 100 seed companies, some of which do their own variety trials and follow careful selection practices.)

5. The Joy of Learning.
Some people are drawn to the science of seed saving because they want to take their gardening experience to a higher level. The more seeds you save, the more you inevitably learn about botany and the plant kingdom.

6. Explore Heirloom Varieties. Some folks like to grow heirloom varieties because doing so gives them a connection to our garden heritage. Others choose non-hybrid seeds because they don’t want to support the industrial agriculture system that increasingly controls our food supply. Plus, some older, open-pollinated varieties produce more nutritious crops than do modern hybrids bred mostly for high yields and long shelf life. 

7. Influence Crop Traits. Gene pools are incredibly elastic. By carefully observing your plants, you can save seed from those plants that best meet your needs for germination, ripening time, yield, specific fruit shape, flavor, storage qualities, less seediness, better disease resistance, bloom color, or other unique traits within the variety. With time, most of the plants you grow will have your desired traits. For instance, I obtained ‘Elka,’ a Slovakian poppy seed traditionally used before walnuts became commercially available. The Slovaks saved seeds from only the seed heads with the smallest vents — the little holes below the cap that allow the precious nutty seeds to disperse — until eventually their variety had all unvented heads that shed no seed. When I first grew ‘Elka,’ only two-thirds of its seed heads had no open vents. I started selectively saving seed only from the poppy heads that had closed vents. Within three years, all of my plants had seed heads with no open vents, and I didn’t lose any more seed.

Know Your Seed-Saving Goals

Think ahead and create specific goals as you save seed. If you’re saving an heirloom, are you trying to keep it true to its original traits? Are your seed-saving practices changing the plant? If you save seed from the first lettuce plant to bolt, you are selecting for lettuce that bolts early — not a good trait in lettuce. If you save seed from your tomato plants that did not succumb to late blight, you are selecting to improve that variety’s disease resistance.

When I started growing ‘Czech Black’ hot peppers, the fruits varied greatly in shape, from fat peppers with large seed cavities to slender ones with almost no seed. Most were medium-sized fruits that came to a blunt point. If I’d just wanted to save the most seeds with the least amount of work, I could have saved the fat peppers that had the most seeds. But I was trying to produce a seed crop to sell and it needed to be true to the plant type, so I saved seed from the medium-sized peppers growing on the sturdiest, highest-yielding plants. After four years, the peppers were uniform in fruit size and heat — plus, the plants were sturdier and more productive.

Seed-Saving Tips

You should always choose open-pollinated varieties for seed saving. Open-pollinated (OP) plants are non-hybrid plants with seed that is true generation after generation. A hybrid is the offspring of a cross between two parent varieties. Its seed will not be true to type if saved and replanted. Hybrid varieties will be labeled in catalogs and on seed packets as “Hybrid” or “F1.”

 There are two main types of open-pollinated varieties: self-pollinating and cross-pollinating. The easiest crops to save seed from are peas, beans, tomatoes and peppers, all of which are self-pollinating crops. Self-pollinating plants pollinate themselves, usually before the flowers open. The seed that you save from these plants and grow the next year will yield plants just like the original ones. To maintain the plant’s genetic diversity, you should ideally grow and save seed from 20 or more plants. If you save seed from only one self-pollinating plant, the plant will reproduce, but you are narrowing its genetic diversity.

Unlike self-pollinating plants, cross-pollinating plants, such as brassicas, corn, carrots, beets, squash, cucumbers and melons, must receive pollen (usually via wind or insects) from other plants of the same variety to produce viable, true-to-type seed. Cross-pollinating seed crops need to be isolated from other varieties of the same species. The simplest solution is to grow only one variety of a given species. You can save seeds from just one or two plants, but to maintain long-term health and vigor, you should buy new seed every few years unless you can collect from much larger populations than the 20 plants recommended for self-pollinators. Grow a minimum of 50 to 100 plants, and at least 200 for corn. Keep an eye out for plants that seem off-type (like my fat ‘Czech Black’ peppers), and don’t include them when you collect seed. (Go to the Seed Savers Exchange’s Planting and Seed Saving Instructions for details on isolation distances and other specifics for dozens of crops.)

To save seed from legumes, such as self-pollinating peas and beans, simply allow some pods to dry on the plant. Save the leftover seed at the end of your picking stage, or cordon off a section of the row. As the plants will need to be in the garden longer than the “green” stage, allow for this in your garden plan. Different varieties grown right next to each other will have minimal or no cross-pollination, but ideally you should separate varieties by 20 feet to avoid rare cases of cross-pollination.

If you want to save seeds for several varieties of a cross-pollinated crop in the same garden, a physical barrier such as a screen cage or row cover can keep the seed crops isolated. I use wire hoops and row covers on some seed crops to keep them pure. I also alternate years, growing one variety one year and another the next. My ‘Lutz’ beet seed crop produced enough seed to last five to 10 years, leaving me free to produce other beet seed crops in the interim.

If you’re growing a crop for seed, think ahead of time about spacing. Tomato, pepper or bean plants don’t need more space as seed crops, but biennial beets and carrots do because of how large the seed-producing plants will be in their second year. Beet plants that I set out the second year from roots I stored in my root cellar grew to 3-foot-wide plants. As large seed crops grow, also think about feeding them. I give my seed crops extra nitrogen and minerals during seed production.

When saving seeds, good record keeping is essential. Label your seedlings, your planted rows and your stored seed. I keep a map as a backup record, too, in case a critter makes off with a row marker or weather washes away a label’s ink.

If you spot an interesting off-type, you can save seed and grow it out the next year to see what happens. You may be on your way to creating a new variety — or at least embarking on a little botanical adventure.

Seed crops are harvested at different times than food crops. I often tie off an entire section of a row with ribbon and save all of the seed from that section, leaving it long after the rest of the plants have been removed. Watch plants that produce pods; when the pods are dry but not shattering, they are ready to harvest. I find handpicking pea pods easiest, at least on a small scale. I harvest entire bean and soybean plants and hang them until they are completely dry, then thresh them in a clean bucket. Blow off the chaff using wind or a fan, or sift it through a screen.

Flower heads are usually hand-harvested as they dry. Morning glories and vine crops often mature their bottom seed husks or pods first and progress up the vine as the season goes on. Spread the seed heads out to dry, rub them back and forth between your hands to free the seed, and then winnow or screen away most of the chaff.

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and cucumbers can be picked as individual fruit. Let the fruit become very ripe to overripe to ensure mature seed. Leave cucumbers on the vine until they mature past the yellow blimp stage. Eggplant should be starting to brown and rot. Tomatoes and peppers need to be very ripe or just past ripe, or picked close to ripe, and then stored until fully ripe to overripe (a process called “after-ripening”).

Tomatoes and cucumbers are “wet” seeds: They have a gel sac around each seed that hinders germination and, in rare cases, can harbor disease. They need to be soaked to remove the gel sac. Squeeze the tomatoes or scrape the seed from the tomato cavities into a labeled container, covering it to keep out flies. Allow the seed to soak for 24 to 48 hours. Add more water after soaking. The good seed will sink while the immature seed will float along with the pulp. Pour off the pulp. Add more water and continue to pour off the pulp until all that remains is clean seed on the bottom. Pour this seed into a strainer to drain off all liquid, and then spread the seeds out to dry in a cool, airy place. I spread my seed on newspaper. Paper plates also work, but paper towels are too fibrous and will stick to the seeds. Label the newspaper or paper plate with the variety name. When the tomato seed is half-dried, stir it to make it less clumpy. After seeds have completely dried, break up any remaining seed clumps and pack the seeds for storage.

To save eggplant seed, grate the fruit or put it through a food processor, and then add it to water. The seed will sink and the pulp will float.
Peppers are even simpler: Just cut fruits open and remove and dry the seed.

For much more on seed-saving procedures for different crops, see the books Saving Seeds by Marc Rogers and The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds by Robert and Cheryl Moore Gough.

Store dried seed in glass jars, plastic bags or paper envelopes. Glass is best, as it does not allow moisture into the seed. Store seeds in a cool, dry place — ideally at less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit and at a relative humidity level of less than 50 percent. In general, for every 10 degrees colder the storage conditions, seed longevity doubles, so it’s best to keep seed in a covered container in a refrigerator. As long as the seed is very dry, it will last longest if you keep it in a freezer. All seed should be dried to a brittle state, ideally to less than 14 percent moisture (the level at which ice crystals won’t form on seeds if stored in the freezer). When you’re ready to use seeds that have been in freezer storage, allow the storage jar to come to room temperature before opening it to avoid condensation on the seed.

Different types of seed have different life spans. Many retain good germination for only a few years, while others stay viable for an impressively long time. Some classic one-year wonders are parsley, parsnip and onions. They may last a second year, but germination and vigor will be much lower. In general, pepper seeds maintain good germination rates for two years; legumes and carrots, three years; squash, beet, eggplant, tomato and brassicas, four years; cucumber, five years; and lettuce, six years. Exact storage conditions affect longevity greatly, however, and seeds from some of these crops can last 10 years or more.

You can do a simple germination test by loosely rolling a few dozen seeds in a moist, white paper towel, keeping it covered with plastic wrap and slightly moist to sprout the seed. Most seed will sprout in four to 28 days. If it takes longer or if less than 50 percent of the seeds sprout, you should probably toss the seeds.

If you end up with more seed than you can use, find a local seed swap. You can trade or share your seed, and you’ll come home with new, locally adapted seed varieties as well as a head likely spinning from all of the knowledge you’ve gleaned from fellow gardeners who share a love of growing great food.
 Organize a seed swap near you, and have MOTHER EARTH NEWS help you get the word out.

Saving Seeds to Sell

If you’re interested in selling seeds that you produce, contact a seed company’s purchaser to inquire about which crops the company needs grown. Specify your areas of expertise. Most seed companies contract for specific strains or varieties one to three years ahead of time.

If you pitch your favorite variety to a seed company, the representatives will want a seed sample so they can trial or observe it for a year or two. Then, if they’re interested, they will contract with you. Some seed companies have tight legal contracts and deadlines. Some use just verbal commitments, however, and you can provide a contract if you want more insurance in such cases.

Prices paid vary with each seed company, and certified organic seed commands higher prices. My experience selling organic seed has been the following: tomato seed at $360 per pound; peppers at $40 per ounce; flowers from $10 per gram for tiny seed to $50 per ounce; hardy, rare rice at $10 per ounce; peas and beans at $5 per pound.
A small seed company may only need a few ounces of seed. Larger companies rarely deal in small lots, requiring 1 to 20 pounds of small seed, such as that of tomatoes. Inquire upfront about amounts needed.

The Organic Seed Alliance provides education and advisory services for seed savers and is an excellent resource.

Seed Saving Made Simple

Always save from open-pollinated (OP) varieties, not hybrids. There are two main types of OP crops:
• Self-pollinating (easiest to save), including peas, beans, tomatoes and peppers
Cross-pollinating (require isolation), including brassicas, corn, carrots, beets, squash, cucumbers and melons

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Horseradish, Artichokes, Asparagus, Jerusalem Artichoke, and Rhubarb

Horseradish is a fast-growing perennial in USDA zones 3–9. Grows to 24 inches tall. Plant in late winter to early spring in deep, coarse, well-drained soil. Grows best in cool areas. Plant 1 ft. apart and expect a crop in about 1 year.

After the first frost in the autumn kills the leaves, the root is dug and divided. The main root is harvested and one or more large offshoots of the main root are replanted to produce next year’s crop. 

Horseradish left undisturbed in the garden spreads via underground shoots and can become invasive.  That is a good reason to plant in a contained area. I have had mine in a half wine barrel for years.

The improved Green Globe Artichoke variety yields over a long period of time, fall or spring, depending upon location. Can be pretty in landscaping with its fountain-like look of silver-green foliage. Flowers great for dried arrangements. Mature height is 3-4 ft. with 5-6 ft. diameter. Cold hardy to USDA Zone 5.

In warm areas, such as California where we are, treat as a perennial and leave for 6-7 years until they need to be divided. In colder regions, artichokes should be treated as annuals as the roots will die with prolonged freezing. Plant 4-6 ft. apart. 

Jerusalem artichokes are a perennial that produces edible tubers which are good fresh, in salads, boiled or in soups. The plants can be used in some landscape situations making a high hedge in one growing season. The flowers resemble small sunflowers or large daisies that ripen in late fall. Mature height is 8-10 ft with a 3-6 ft spread.

The Jerusalem artichoke can be produced throughout the United States. However, the plant is better adapted to the northern two-thirds of the country than the southern third. Often used for pickling purposes. Fresh tuber tastes like a water chestnut and is used in salads. Tubers can also be cooked like potatoes. The edible portion is the tuber or swollen end of an underground stem, which in some respects resembles a potato. 

Here is a video from Peaceful Valley about growing and the fall care of horseradish, artichokes, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, and rhubarb.

As you can see, these vegetables are easy to grow and bring many rewards to the garden and a bountiful harvest with few amendments - just add compost and mulch well.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Killer in a Bottle?

College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Killer in a Bottle?

Household insecticides may play a role in declining bee populations

By Becky Beyers

Vera Krischik and her lab in the Department of Entomology are exploring a different avenue: how neonicotinoids, a group of insecticides commonly used in urban gardens and forests as well as in agricultural fields, might be making bees less resistant to the parasites and pathogens that researchers now believe are likely causes of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Infesting the system

About two-thirds of the world’s crops rely on bees and other pollinators; if the bees are gone, so are the fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods they help create.
Other insects are less beneficial, however, so farmers and gardeners turn to insecticides to protect their crops. The first neonicotinyl insecticide, imidacloprid, came on the market in the 1990s. Since then, three more—thiamethoxam, clothianidin and dinotefuran—have been registered for use. All have similar toxicity to bees and all are commonly used in Minnesota: in 2009, more than 8 tons of insecticides primarily using imidacloprid and nearly 10 tons of clothianidin were used on farms and nearly another ton of imidacloprid was used on the state’s landscapes. When it was first introduced, imidacloprid was considered a breakthrough because it wasn’t harmful to humans or mammals, and they’re now extremely popular. “Most people didn’t realize that this is a systemic insecticide,” Krischik says.

Imidacloprid is commonly sold to farmers as Admire, Provado and Gaucho and to businesses and home gardeners under names Merit, Marathon, Bayer Advanced Flower and Shrub, Bayer Tree and Shrub Protect, Bayer Complete Insect Killer for Turf, Krischik says. When neonicotinoids are applied to a field or garden, the chemicals are absorbed through the plants’ vascular system, which makes the entire plant toxic to insects. That works well for unwanted leaf-feeding pests, but the chemicals that kill unwanted insects also go into the nectar and pollen that pollinators need. The toxic effects to bees can last for several months to years in pollen and nectar from just one application. When the insecticide is applied to soil it can last for years, adding to the imidacloprid reservoir in the plant.

Honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees all respond to the insecticides, which are also commonly used for controlling emerald ash borer and Japanese beetles. Less-than-lethal exposures can cause honeybees to have problems flying and finding their way back to the hive, lose their sense of taste and have more difficulty learning new tasks, according to a group of scientists called the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, who summarized some of the existing research on bees and neonicotinoids this year.

Neonicotinoids are banned from use on corn and canola seed in both France and Germany, and after two studies last spring that made a strong connection between their use and declining bee health, support is growing in the United States for stronger regulation both in agricultural and home use. Early this year, beekeepers from Minnesota and California petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to immediately suspend sales of neonicotinoid insecticides, but in July the EPA denied the request and said it will review the insecticides’ effects, a process that could take until 2018. More recently, members of Congress have asked the agency to speed up the process. Krischik says more research is needed.

Digging in to home use

For years, beekeepers, scientists and chemical companies have argued about the amount of insecticide used as a seed treatment. The imidacloprid seed treatment Gaucho permits 0.675 mg AI (active ingredient) imidacloprid/seed for corn and 0.11 mg/seed for canola, Krischik says. But the greenhouse rate used on perennial landscape plants allows for 300 mg AI/ per 3 gallons—a 444 times higher rate on landscape plants than on field corn. Consequently, greenhouse and urban landscapes use higher concentrations of imidacloprid, and to make matters worse, gardeners often disregard the products’ instructions and reapply the insecticide or use it at peak flowering time, giving home use much greater potential to affect bees and other beneficial insects.
It gets even worse with trees, Krischik says. A surface soil application of imidacloprid in agriculture is limited to about 4mg/sq ft. But when used to stop emerald ash borers or Japanese beetles, the allowable application for a similar area is 1,675 times greater. These higher application rates in urban areas have huge implications for movement of imidacloprid into flowers and effects on bees and beneficial insects.

Addressing the controversy

So how much imidacloprid kills a bee? Bayer says 20 parts per billion will alter behavior and 170 ppb in food will kill a bee while it is drinking.

So how much imidacloprid ends up in nectar and pollen from a standard application dose in agriculture or landscapes? Is it enough to kill pollinators?

The seed treatment Gaucho results in around 6 ppb imidacloprid in canola pollen and 0.6 ppb in canola nectar, 3 ppb in corn pollen and 3 ppb in sunflower pollen and 1.9 ppb in sunflower nectar.

In landscapes, a standard 300mg dose to a 3 gallon pot results in 1,600 ppb in milkweed nectar, around 800 times more than from a sunflower seed treatment, according to Krischik. That concentration can cause high mortality in beneficial insects other than bees such as lady beetles or lacewings. Krischik’s lab is the first to study how the higher concentrations affect bees.

By partnering with a local golf course that had applied a surface drench of imidacloprid to linden trees, Krischik found that 1 month after application the linden leaves had around 100 ppb imidacloprid—which had the desired effect of killing Japanese beetles—but 12,865 ppb imidacloprid remained in the soil under the linden trees. Any flowering plant growing under the linden will pick up the imidacloprid and move it to pollen and nectar.

“Our data demonstrates that a homeowner application to rose bushes results in 812 ppb, which will kill any insect eating the pollen,” Krischik says. “We have seen in our trials that bees die on the flowers while feeding on a mint treated with the standard dose or a second application of imidacloprid, which is permitted. We showed that a rose bush will kill leaf-feeding Japanese beetles for 3 years after one standard consumer application of imidacloprid. However, you can apply it many times a summer.”

Because the neonicotinyl insecticides (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin and dinotefuran) have a similar lethal effect on bees and other beneficial insects, the problem is enormous, Krischik says. Her lab showed that 4 species of lady beetles, a parasitic wasp, a predatory green lacewing and bumblebees all die at the standard application rate of imidacloprid. In bumblebee colonies, queen mortality, colony weight and stored nectar all are affected in direct proportion to daily dosages. Imidacloprid also reduces bumblebee memory in her lab studies and stops bee foraging.

Unfortunately, she says, research about neonicotinoids’ effects and consumer education on how to use them safely aren’t getting the funding they need from federal agencies. Krischik was awarded a 2009 state grant to study the effects of imidacloprid on bees; a second grant in 2010 that would have allowed her to investigate the uptake of ash and linden trees of imidacloprid and potential nontarget effects on bees and beneficial insects was awarded, but revoked six months later by state legislators who didn’t see the value in understanding consequences of the high amount of imidacloprid used in urban landscapes. “Wow, it is frustrating,” Krischik says.

The Xerces Society report published earlier this year also made the case for continued long-term independent research, noting a long list of questions about bees and neonicotinoids that no one has yet studied in depth.

Bees are too important to be ignored, Krischik says. “If you don’t support managing them in the appropriate way, you’ll lose part of your diet, a lot of the anti-oxidants found in fruits… People rally for polar bears 3,000 miles away and that is great. We need people to rally for bees in their own back yard.”
October 2012

Thursday, January 17, 2013

European Agency Says Insecticides a Threat to Honey Bees

Updated January 16, 2013, 7:32 p.m. ET

European authorities said three insecticides long suspected of contributing to plunging populations of honey bees pose risks to the insects and called for such chemicals to be placed under tougher scrutiny.

The finding by scientists at the European Food Safety Authority adds fuel to a debate that has raged in recent years in North America and Europe over the cause of mass deaths in the bee colonies that farmers depend on to pollinate their crops. And it could raise pressure on U.S. regulators, who are now reviewing the environmental effects of the chemicals, to withdraw them from the lucrative U.S. market. 

France, Germany, Italy and other European nations previously banned or suspended the use of certain insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, that many farmers and scientists argue are the main causes of declining honey bee populations. The pesticide industry and other scientists say disease and environmental changes are responsible.

The risk assessment, published Wednesday, said three neonicotinoids—clothianidin and imidacloprid, which are made primarily by Bayer AG, BAYN.XE +0.34% and thiamethoxam, which is made by Syngenta AG SYNN.VX +2.57% —pose risks to bees through contaminated dust and pesticide residues on nectar and pollen.

The agency sees a "high acute risk" to bees in how the three insecticides are applied to cereals, cotton, rapeseed, corn and sunflowers.

Its analysis "proposed a much more comprehensive risk assessment for bees and also introduced a higher level of scrutiny for interpretation of field studies," the agency said. But the agency said data aren't available to conclude that the insecticides are contributing to the collapse of bee colonies.

The European Commission, the European Union's executive arm, will request further information from the companies producing the chemicals, a commission spokesman said. The EU is prepared to take "necessary measures" if further studies show a definitive threat to bee populations from the chemicals, the spokesman said.

A top executive at Syngenta criticized the study. "It is obvious to us that EFSA has found itself under political pressure to produce a hurried and inadequate risk assessment, which even they acknowledge contains a high level of uncertainty," said John Atkin, Syngenta's chief operating officer, in a statement. "This report is unworthy of EFSA and of its scientists.

EFSA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bayer said it stands by previous data it has submitted to regulatory agencies showing the chemicals don't harm bees if used as approved in Europe. "We do not believe that the new EFSA reports alter the quality and validity of these risk assessments and the underlying studies," the German chemical giant said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticides, says it is unaware of any data showing that neonicotinoids have contributed to the collapse of bee colonies. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are examining the issue, but the department says it has found no evidence linking use of the pesticides to mass bee deaths.

The EPA has refused emergency requests from environmental groups to remove a number of neonicotinoids from the market. But the agency, responding to public pressure, has accelerated a periodic safety review of the chemicals to see if additional restrictions are needed on their use.

Environmental groups say the EPA is moving too slowly. They are considering suing to force the agency to take action.

"The EPA has a huge compliance problem," said Jay Feldman, executive director of the anti-pesticides group Beyond Pesticides.

The EPA didn't respond immediately to a request for comment.

Neonicotinoids have been replacing other pesticides in the U.S. that are considered more dangerous and have been gradually removed from the U.S. market.

An industry-backed study published on Monday says that a ban or suspension on the use of neonicotinoids could cost the EU more than €17 billion ($22.68 billion) in lower crop yields over a five-year period. Were the pesticides no longer available, the 27-nation bloc would also see a significant drop in food production at a time of increasing global demand, the study said.
—Alessandro Torello contributed to this article.

Write to Matthew Dalton at
A version of this article appeared January 16, 2013, on page B7 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Europe Warns of Risk to Bees.

Poisons Used to Kill Rodents Have Safer Alternatives

A second generation of ultra-potent rodenticides creates a first-class crisis for people, pets, and wildlife.
By Ted Williams
Published: January-February 2013

Clinical assistant professor Maureen Murray of the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in central Massachusetts was doing a good job of keeping her emotions under wraps as she clicked through photos of her recent necropsies. But I was watching her eyes as well as her computer screen, and they revealed anguish. Like her colleagues here and at similar clinics around the country, Murray is a wildlife advocate as well as a scientist.

Each image was, in her word and my perception, “sadder” than the last. There was the great horned owl with a hematoma running the length of its left wing; the red-tailed hawk’s body cavity glistening with unclotted blood; sundry raptors with pools of blood under dissected skin; the redtail with a hematoma that had ballooned its left eye to 10 times normal size; and, “saddest of all,” the redtail with an egg. The well-developed blood vessels in her oviducts had ruptured, and she had slowly bled to death from the inside.

All these birds were victims of “second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides” used by exterminators, farmers, and homeowners. They’re found in such brand names as d-Con, Hot Shot, Generation, Talon, and Havoc, and they sell briskly because of our consuming hatred of rats and mice. The most pestiferous species are alien to the New World and therefore displace native wildlife; they contaminate our food and spread disease. We also hate them for their beady eyes, their naked tails, and their vile depictions in literature, from Aesop to E.B. White. So the general attitude among the public is “if a little poison’s good, a lot’s better.” But even a little second-generation rodenticide kills nontarget wildlife.

Both first- and second-generation rodenticides prevent blood from clotting by inhibiting vitamin K, though the second-generation products build to higher concentrations in rodents and are therefore more lethal to anything that eats them. The second generation was developed by Imperial Chemical Industries of London at the request of the World Health Organization, because rats appeared to be developing tolerance to warfarin, a first-generation rodenticide.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contaminants specialist Michael Fry makes this point about the widespread use of second-generation rodenticides by people oblivious to the dangers: “One good reason for using first-generation poisons is that if you do have a problem, like developing tolerance, you want a backup. If you go in with your strongest thing first, there’s no backup.”

For a rodent to get a lethal dose from a first-generation rodenticide it has to eat it more than once, but that’s not a problem. Leave first-generation baits out for a week and they’re just as efficient as the second generation. What makes second-generation rodenticides so non-selective is that they kill slowly, so rodents keep eating them long after they’ve ingested a lethal dose. By the time they expire, or are about to, they contain many times the lethal dose and are therefore deadly to predators, scavengers, and pets.

Because they are weapons of mass destruction, second-generation rodenticides are the preferred tool wildlife managers use to restore native ecosystems to rat-infested islands. But the EPA has declared them too dangerous for public use and ordered them off the general market. They’re still widely available, however, because stores have huge stocks and because a recent court decision has allowed three of the largest manufacturers to defy the order.

Many of Murray’s patients don’t have enough red-blood cells to deliver oxygen to their tissues, so they are logy. Their heads droop, the linings of their mouths are pale; some bleed from their eyes, nose, lungs, or other organs. In 2011 she found rodenticides in 86 percent of the raptor livers she examined, and all but one contained brodifacoum, especially deadly to birds. She rehabilitates some patients by injecting them with vitamin K, but the birds still retain rodenticides and are likely to accumulate more after they are released.

There’s no safe place or safe delivery system for second-generation rodenticides. After a rodent partakes, it stumbles around for three to four days, displaying itself as an especially tempting meal not just for raptors but for mammalian predators, including red foxes, gray foxes, endangered San Joaquin kit foxes, swift foxes, coyotes, wolves, raccoons, black bears, skunks, badgers, mountain lions, bobcats, fishers, dogs, and house cats—all of which suffer lethal and sublethal secondary poisoning from eating rodents. Deer, nontarget rodents, waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds, songbirds, and children suffer lethal and sublethal poisoning from eating bait directly.

A four-year survey (1999 to 2003) by the Environmental Protection Agency found that at least 25,549 children under age six ingested enough rodenticide to suffer poisoning symptoms. Currently about 15,000 calls per year come in to the Centers for Disease Control from parents whose children have eaten rodenticides. Even if you place bait where children can’t get it, rodents are apt to distribute it around your house and property.

In California, the only state other than New York that has looked carefully, rodenticides showed up in 79 percent of fishers (one fisher even transferred poisons to her kit via her milk), 78 percent of mountain lions, 84 percent of San Joaquin kit foxes, and, in San Diego County, 92 percent of raptors.
In New York rodenticides were found in 49 percent of 12 species of necropsied raptors. For great horned owls the figure was 81 percent.

Similar contamination is seen around the world. In Great Britain necropsies revealed the poisons in 92 percent of red kites, 91 percent of barn owls, and 80 percent of kestrels. In Denmark rodenticides were found in 73 percent of all necropsied raptors. In just a six-week period ended on January 23, 2012, second-generation rodenticides killed about a dozen spotted eagle owls in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Rodenticides are also blighting raptors in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and Canada.

Canada doesn’t have near the rodent problems we do, but raptors there carry as much rodenticide as anywhere—a fact that puzzles Pierre Mineau, a leading ecotoxicologist who retired from Environment Canada’s National Wildlife Research Centre in 2012. “There are high levels of exposure in every species we’ve looked at,” he says. “Not just in the rodent eaters but in the accipiters [which eat mostly birds]. I wouldn’t have expected that. It’s still a mystery how this stuff is moving through terrestrial food chains. Insects may be picking it up and passing it to the songbirds that eat them. That might account for the accipiter [poisoning] connection.”

While the California data is quite recent, monitoring has essentially ceased there and in New York, and it never really began anywhere else. “If you look back at the incidence reports, there are big peaks, and then the funding gets cut off by California and New York,” remarks Nancy Golden, a contaminants specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But at least in California and New York, nontarget rodenticide poisoning is a public issue. New York City is much enamored of a 22-year-old red-tailed hawk named Pale Male (“How the Nest Was Won”). In February 2012 Pale Male’s mate, Lima, was found dead shortly before she would have laid eggs. The inside of her mouth was pale, as were her heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys, and brain. The necropsy turned up fatal doses of three rodenticides, including brodifacoum, in her liver. Pale Male then took another mate, his sixth—Zena. In 2012 the pair fledged three chicks, one of which is thought to have been killed by rodenticides and two of which were gravely sickened by rodenticides but treated with vitamin K and released. The city, of course, has lost many less famous birds.

New York City Audubon entreats the public never to use the two second-generation rodenticides most toxic to birds (brodifacoum and difethialone) and not to use others except as a last resort and never during nesting season, when adults can feed poisoned rodents to their young and each other. But some bird lovers are scolding the organization for not demanding a complete ban. Director Glenn Phillips offers this defense: “Our city has a huge rat problem. We can’t ban all use of rodenticides; it’s never going to happen. If we were to advocate that, we couldn’t get the support of a single city agency. If you want to tilt at windmills, you can try. If you want to actually make things better for birds, you have to do what you can to reduce rodenticides, even if you can’t eliminate them.”

I have to side with Phillips because his organization has no choice. It’s making the best of a bad situation. But that doesn’t mean second-generation rodenticides have a legitimate place in or around New York City dwellings or in or around dwellings anywhere—not even when set out by farmers or licensed exterminators. Both tend to be just as clueless about collateral poisonings as the general public.

Consider the experience of Jeannine Altmeyer, a retired opera singer from the small south-coast town of Ojai, California. She had a major rat infestation because her 2.5-acre property is surrounded by orange and avocado farms. So in 2009 she hired a licensed exterminator. “These guys came every month for three years,” she told me. “There were far fewer rats for the first two years, but last winter we had a horrible infestation. Every night I’d see at least five rats crawling on the chicken coop. The company put out these tamper-proof boxes. Then on August 3, 2012, my beautiful, five-year old golden retriever, Franz, was acting strange. His gums were snow white; back then I didn’t know what that meant. He weighed 90 pounds. We had to carry him downstairs on a sheet, and he died on the way to the vet’s. Franz was a wonderful dog. I had a necropsy done; they found brodifacoum.”

Altmeyer paused, then continued, her voice cracking. “The pest-control people told me the bait wasn’t dangerous, that there was no secondary poisoning. I used to throw the dead rats over the wall; I would never do that now. The local vets see lots of poisoned dogs because the farmers indiscriminately put the stuff out in their orchards. One woman didn’t have the money to pay for treatment for her poisoned dog so she was going to sell her washer and drier. The vet had to tell her, ‘Keep your machines; I can’t save your dog.’”

But second-generation rodenticides do have a legitimate use—ecosystem restoration on rat-infested islands. These projects are tremendously expensive, and you get only one shot, so you need weapons of mass destruction. There’s no “almost”; you kill every rat save non-pregnant ones of the same sex or you fail.As if in a ghoulish recast of The Nutcracker Suite, Norway rats had ruled aptly named Rat Island in the Aleutians since they’d disembarked from a wrecked Japanese ship in 1780. They’d eradicated songbirds, seabirds, native plants, and even the island’s original name—Hawadax. Biologists described the island as “eerily quiet.” Then in 2008 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners (The Nature Conservancy and Island Conservation) deployed two helicopters to saturation-bomb 6,424 acres with 46 metric tons of brodifacoum bait. Cost: $2.5 million.

There can be no better example of the deadliness of second-generation rodenticides than collateral damage on Rat Island. Found dead along with the rats were 46 bald eagles, at least 320 glaucous-winged gulls, one peregrine falcon, and 53 other birds representing 24 species. Despite the heart-breaking nontarget mortality, the project succeeded from a species perspective. Today the island (renamed Hawadax) is rat free, and native species rarely, if ever, seen are surging back—among them burrow-nesting seabirds, giant song sparrows (found only in the Aleutians), black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, rock sandpipers, common eiders, red-faced cormorants, and gray-crowned rosy finches.

Collateral damage on Rat Island taught the partners valuable lessons. In 2011 they took on the black rats thought to have been introduced by the U.S. Navy in World War II to Palmyra Atoll, a national wildlife refuge between Hawaii and American Samoa. Again they applied brodifacoum by helicopter. And because of an enormous population of land crabs known to eat rat bait like candy and with impunity the partners had to use far more poison than would otherwise be necessary. But they applied it when birds weren’t migrating through the area, and they captured resident birds, mostly bristle-thighed curlews, maintaining them in an aviary for two months. At a cost of $2.7 million and a few nontarget mortalities (but very few) the island is now rat free, and what had been a biological desert is exploding into a vibrant native ecosystem. Seedling pisonia trees, all but eliminated by rats, now carpet the ground. Other plants thought to have been extirpated are back. Dragonflies and crickets have reappeared. Fiddler crabs patrol the beaches in numbers biologists had never imagined possible. Now instead of a few hundred sooty tern fledglings there are thousands; similar nesting success of other seabirds is imminent.

“It’s really hard to argue against the overwhelming benefits of rodenticiding rats off seabird islands,” comments Canada’s Pierre Mineau, who has experience with these projects. “But I really question, as does your EPA, whether every homeowner needs a sledge hammer when a flyswatter will do. The companies don’t see it that way; once they have a product, they need to sell a certain volume to make it profitable. If they have to sell it only on a strictly needed basis for island rat eradication, it’s probably not worth it.”

The questioning Mineau refers to percolated within the EPA for years. Finally, in 2008, the agency declared that second-generation rodenticides brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difethialone, and difenacoum posed an “unreasonable risk” to children, pets, and wildlife, and gave manufacturers three years to cease selling directly to residential consumers—a standard procedure. But it left a gaping loophole by exempting large-quantity sales (presumably to farmers) and tamper-proof bait boxes used by exterminators. Predators, scavengers, and pets are no less poisoned if they eat rodents that consume bait from sealed boxes or bait set out by farmers.

Of the 29 rodenticide manufacturers receiving the EPA’s directive for new safety requirements, 26 complied. Among these was Bell Laboratories, honored by the Wisconsin Environmental Working Group, its home-state neighbor, for designing the specialized bait formulation for Rat Island. (Bell also designed formulations for Palmyra Island and similar successful projects on the Gal├ípagos Islands, South Georgia Island, Channel Islands National Park off California, and Canna Island off Scotland.)

But in a nearly unprecedented move, three companies have refused. They are Spectrum Group, which, ironically, makes pet-care products along with the rat and mouse poison Hot Shot (whose active ingredient is brodifacoum, especially deadly to pets); Liphatech, which produces rodenticides Generation, Maki, and Rozol—the strictly regulated but still-registered prairie-dog poison that has killed raptors and predatory mammals, probably including endangered black-footed ferrets (see “Doggone”); and Reckitt Benckiser, the $37 billion-a-year multinational company that markets popular household products like Woolite, Lysol, French’s Mustard, and brodifacoum-laced d-Con.

In January 2011 Reckitt Benckiser, the most intransigent of the three, prevailed in its legal complaint that the EPA lacked the authority to enforce its order unless it had already canceled registration of a pesticide. That doesn’t mean the company won’t have to stop general consumer sales of its second-generation rodenticides if EPA pulls that registration, as it claims it will do. But formal cancellation proceedings can take years, and that’s what Reckitt Benckiser wants. Meanwhile, species that don’t have that kind of time will keep dying.

Currently Reckitt Benckiser is accusing the EPA of discriminating against minorities and low-income families. “They’re trying to turn this into an environmental-justice issue,” says Cynthia Palmer, who runs the American Bird Conservancy’s pesticides program. “That’s ridiculous. All the studies show that it’s actually these low-income kids who are getting poisoned. The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene went to EPA’s scientific advisory panel back in November 2011 and said, ‘No way, we don’t need these poisons. We support your 2008 order.’ ”

The EPA has been no less aggressive in exposing Reckitt Benckiser’s fiction. It notes that “data indicate that children in low-income families are disproportionately exposed [to rodenticides].”

Secondary poisoning is even more of a public issue in California than in New York. On July 4, 2007, Berkeley resident Dan Rubino found two dead birds in his swimming pool and called his neighbor, wildlife advocate Lisa Owens Viani. She identified them as juvenile Cooper’s hawks. Because they had sought water she suspected rodenticide poisoning—a suspicion confirmed by the University of California-Davis, which found brodifacoum in their livers.

Owens Viani then cofounded Raptors are the Solution (RATS), a national alliance of citizens, nonprofit groups, and local governments that educates consumers and municipalities about safe methods of rodent control and the dangers of second-generation poisons. “My neighbor was going to throw those birds [the two Cooper’s hawks] in the garbage can,” she says. “A lot of people don’t even know what they are. I think we’re just seeing a tiny percent of what’s happening.” (Owens Viani went on to serve as development director for Golden Gate Audubon, stepping down in November to devote her time to RATS.)

Because federal regulations supersede local action, municipalities can’t ban pesticide sales. But in California, thanks largely to RATS and the Hungry Owl Project out of San Anselmo, all of Marin County and seven cities—Albany, Richmond, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville, Belmont, and San Francisco—have passed resolutions discouraging the sale of second-generation rodenticides and urging stores to remove the products from their shelves. RATS is trying to get the California Department of Pesticide Regulation to cancel or refuse to renew registration of products containing them.

The San Francisco Department of the Environment has launched a citywide educational campaign for consumers called “Don’t Take the Bait” and has sent letters to 130 retailers asking them to voluntarily discontinue selling dangerous rodenticides. One hundred stores, including Walgreens, with 60 outlets, and Sloat Garden Centers, with 14, have made the pledge. Lowe’s and Home Depot ignored the request.

The 10-year-old Hungry Owl Project, founded and directed by former wildlife rehabber Alex Godbe, distributes safe, effective rodenticide in the form of barn owls. Once the group has prevailed on a vineyard owner to cease poisoning the gophers that gnaw grapevine roots, it erects, monitors, and maintains barn-owl nesting boxes. Currently Godbe’s outfit is working with 25 vineyards. Where gophers are causing the most damage, she recommends four to six owl boxes per 50 acres, and gets 80 percent to 90 percent occupancy.

“We work particularly with barn owls because they’re one of the few raptors that are almost nonterritorial,” says Godbe. “So if there’s enough food, you can have almost as many owls as owl boxes. And we advocate for other predators—coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, badgers, skunks, bobcats, raccoons, opossums. WildCare, a rehab facility in San Rafael and our partner organization, tests birds and mammals. I was shocked to learn that 79.1 percent of the animals it tested were positive for rodenticides. We’re killing off the natural rodent control.”

Of course, natural rodent control is not always available in heavily developed areas. Nor does it help much if rodents are multiplying inside your house. But that doesn’t mean you need weapons of mass destruction. Safe alternatives include single- and multiple-entrance snap traps, electrocuting traps, glue traps (provided you use them only indoors and frequently dispatch stuck rodents), and even first-generation baits with these active ingredients: chlorophacinone, diphacinone, diphacinone sodium salt, war-farin, and warfarin sodium salt.

Then there’s the “better mouse trap.” You take a metal rod, run it through holes drilled in the center of both lids of an emptied tin soup can so the can becomes a spinning drum. Fasten both ends of the rod to the top of a plastic bucket via drilled holes. Coat the can with peanut butter, and fill the bucket with water and a shot of liquid soap (to break the surface tension and thus facilitate quicker, more humane drowning). Mice and rats jump onto the can, and it spins them into the water. The first time I deployed the device in my New Hampshire fishing camp, it killed 37 mice between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

Not only are these alternatives safer for people, pets and wildlife, they are, in the long run, more effective because they don’t take out the mammals and birds that keep rodents in check. With second-generation poisons you’ll get a spectacular initial kill. But a year or two later rodents will come storming back, as Jeannine Altmeyer can attest. You’ll then be fighting a war without allies.

Learn more Support RATS and the Hungry Owl Project. Log on to their websites to find out what you can do to limit secondary rodenticide poisoning in your area.
Take Action Don’t buy baits containing second-generation rodenticides. And if you see them on store shelves, urge managers to remove them. If they resist, give them a photocopy of this article.
Be heard Tell the EPA to cancel general-use registration of second-generation rodenticides. Email: And cite Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0718.
This story originally ran in the January-February 2013 issue as "Building a Better Mousetrap."