Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Sustainable Organic Pesticides

Neem tree picture from Wikipedia
Organic cotton relies on plant-derived insecticides such as Neem oil.  The veggies from my CSA box also rely on Neem oil.  Farmer Glenn Tanaka of Tanaka Farms told subscribers that Neem oil needs to be applied before insects get a toe hold because it's really a pest repellent rather than a pest killer.  That means he spends a lot of money and time buying and spraying Neem oil.

Neem oil is relatively safe and breaks down quickly according to fact sheets from both the Missouri Botanic Garden and Oregon State University. (STEAM is a family business.  ;-)  One of my uncles got his PhD in Botany at MBG/Washington U.)

According to Neem Oil and Crop Protection: From Now to the Future, Neem oil has over 100 different biologically-active compounds, but one ingredient, azadirachtin, is responsible for ~90% of the action. Synthetic azadirachtin, made in a lab, is just as effective asazadirachtin from Neem tree oil.  But, if farmers use synthetic azadirachtin, they lose the organic designation and the higher prices that their cotton would obtain at market.

Additionally, Neem trees are being harvested unsustainably in the wild to meet the exploding demand.  This is so alarming that scientists at Kew gardens are trying to help organic cotton farmers in Mali learn to use Neem oil more optimally and to switch to farmed Neem trees rather than make them extinct in the wild.

It also takes water and land to grow Neem trees to obtain their oil.  Perhaps farmers have more pressing uses for their land, water and time, e.g. growing food.    This is so wrong and deeply troubling to me.

Another thing that troubles me is the extra labor required to grow organic products.  As I've written before in Embedded water: cotton, growing cotton organically requires more labor.  How do you increase labor without cutting into profits?  By using slave labor.  Children were sold into slavery to meet the west's appetite for organic cotton at prices we are willing to pay.

Much of the child labor is to haul water.  What if farmers had access to GMO cotton seeds that require half the water at a price they could afford?  Would you pay extra for that?  I would.  How would we label and certify products that are grown sustainably and equitably, but not organically?

This is just about stuff happening in west Africa.  India and west Africa are the two major sources of organic cotton.  I knew about the problems with organic cotton in California and west Texas, but, the more I researched what was happening in other parts of the world, the more alarmed I became.  It has definitely made me rethink my assumptions and consumption habits.

This is a complex issue and cognitive shortcuts like organic=good isn't the best way to go about it.  I'm thinking about inequality and climate change every day, sometimes several times a day.  What about you?  Do you talk about it with your friends and family?  Is it considered impolite?

Monday, December 03, 2018

Which is more sustainable, GMO or organic cotton?

The answer is...GMO cotton!

I was so discouraged by the number of sewing bloggers in instagrammers who equated organic cotton with sustainable sewing.  I felt like screaming into the void and started collecting data.  I collected so much data and research articles to counter the popular narrative that it won't fit in one post.

This topic is complex and will be broken down into several posts, interspersed with stories about water, because cotton and water are intimately interlinked.  GMO (genetically modified) cotton now produces twice as much fibre as organic cotton for the same water input (and grows with lower quality water and soil.)  Given the severe water shortages around the world and the land poisoning and subsidence problems caused by irrigating cotton fields around the world, I think that using organic cotton when there are better alternatives is just irresponsible.

I'm reminded of this 2015 Pew study:

The views in 2017 were similarly discouraging with white people more likely to believe conspiracies theories over scientific expertise than people of color (POC.)  I have many reservations about Roundup-ready crops, but there is a whole universe of GMO crops that are better for the environment than legacy organic crops.

As Science Moms says,
GMOs are presented in the media as inserting genes of one species into another species. But that’s only one meaning. Genetic modification also means selective breeding, cross breeding, mutagenesis, genome editing, and other techniques.
Everything is made of chemicals. They show a long list of all the scary-sounding chemicals in an all-natural blueberry. Pears naturally make formaldehyde.

The “most brilliant marketing move of the last ten years” was to convince everyone that organic is pesticide free. Copper sulfate is really bad for the environment, and it’s allowed in organic farming.

Data doesn’t support claims that organic is pesticide free, better for environment, or healthier.

On a really sad note, did you read this story about the artist that worked with mussel shells for 15 years, slowly killing herself, without realizing that natural materials can be toxic?
She’d spend up to 12 hours a day molding the shells with a dentist’s drill. While she ventilated her studio, she didn’t make any special effort to avoid the shell byproducts, assuming they were benign.

But almost immediately after starting the work, Genser started feeling ill. After years living with various autoimmune disorders, she was used to her body betraying her. But she soon realized these symptoms were different. As her limbs alternately ached and became immobile, she suffered neurological ailments as well. At her worst moments, she could barely speak, lost her short-term memory and stopped recognizing close friends.

She saw a litany of specialists in neurological health and psychiatrists who prescribed antipsychotics and antidepressants, but nothing seemed to help.

“To be fair to my doctors, they did ask me, ‘Are you working with anything toxic?’ And I’d say, ‘No no, I’m working with all natural materials, and we’d all move on,’” she said. “I was so certain that these mussels, which the government said I could eat safely and buy in the market as food, could never be bad for me.”
She dry-sanded shells for 15 years without wearing any respiratory or skin protection!  You can safely eat some parts of toxic plants and animals.  For instance, I love peaches.  But I eat only the soft flesh and leave the hard pit (and the cyanide in them) alone.  Mussel muscles can be safe to eat (in moderation,) but the shells bioaccumulate metals in the water.  You definitely should handle them with care.

It breaks my heart to see sewing bloggers fall for disinformation campaigns like when Sue quoted a natural soap "expert".  I sent her a horrified email and she posted a follow-up.  I wrote:
Scientists now have to take classes to learn the rhetorical tricks used by people who would slander us. I recognize one device in her description of Titanium Dioxide. Link it with something that is not safe to put on your skin, like house paint. Yes, TiO2 is sometimes used in house paint, but it would be very expensive house paint. It’s the safer and brighter white alternative to lead. You can also accurately call TiO2 the active ingredient in chemical-free baby-safe sunscreen.

EDTA is a perfectly safe preservative. Your soap is safer with it than without it. In fact, we eat it all the time as a food preservative rather than eat rancid food.
Ironically, the EDTA that the "expert" listed as a skin irritant and bad chemical is the chelating agent used to treat patients suffering from heavy metal poisoning like Genser.