What’s wrong with GMOs? Apparently, the same thing that’s wrong with vaccines.

stop gmoWhich is to say: misinformation on a grand scale. Millions of people making up their minds using fear and hearsay and almost no one looking at real, verifiable facts.

I myself have signed numerous petitions outside food co-ops demanding regulation, testing, labeling, and even the outlawing of GMOs. They sure sound scary, don’t they? And isn’t super-duper-evil mega corporation Monsanto involved?

Then one day I said something like that out loud and realized how uninformed and overreactive I sounded. Like a climate-change denier or a vaccine-boycotter. “Oh my gawd, it’s just so, like, weird sounding. You just know it can’t be good.”

Just know? Did I just say that? Am I seriously signing petitions and vocally railing against something I’ve never read a single scientific article on, based solely on blind faith in the lady I’ve never met who handed me a clipboard outside a place I blithely refer to as “the Hippy Connection?”

People who “just know” things in line at the supermarket tend to “just know” that the government is hiding aliens at Roswell or that Charles killed Princess Di or that you can’t swim right after you eat. These are the people who ask me if I’m buying jumbo tubs of plain yogurt for “ethnic reasons.” (My whole life people have assumed I’m Jewish. idgaf but I do wonder why.) These are the people who shout at the Philipino-American cashier who was born in the same hospital as they were because they assume she won’t understand English. They ask me if I am a vegetarian. (“You sure do buy a lotta vegetables. Aren’t you worried you won’t get enough protein?”)

So I got off my lazy ass and did some Googling. (Well, I stayed on my lazy ass. I just read some articles. But read them all the way through! No tl;dr this time. No, sir.)

But I will give you a tl;dr version, cuz I’m cool like that.

The following links explain what GMOs actually are, that they are considered by a wide consensus of scientists (the world over and not all employed by Monsanto, I assure you) that they are safe and that they really do get evaluated carefully before being “unleashed” on the public (no, we are not being used as guinea pigs in a global health experiment, listen to yourself, jeez), that most of the horror stories you have heard are either total falsehoods or based on retracted studies that were unsound and have been roundly disproven, and that GMOs actually do good things like reduce pesticide usage, increase crop yields, increase farmer’s profits, and help stave off preventable dietarily-induced diseases like pellagra and blindness. (But Monstanto still sucks. That part is true.)

A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops.” By Wilhelm Klümper & Matin Qaim. PLOS ONE.

Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods.” World Health Organization.

The Debate About GMO Safety Is Over, Thanks To A New Trillion-Meal Study.” By John Entine. Forbes.

Standing Up for GMOs.” By Bruce Alberts, et al. Science magazine.

Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted.” by Dan Charles. NPR’s blog The Salt.

Core Truths: 10 Common GMO Claims Debunked.” By Brooke Borel. Popular Science.

For those of you who said, “But but but cancer in rats!”: “Paper Tying Rat Cancer to Herbicide Is Retracted.” By Andrew Pollacknov. New York Times.

And this one is just a great (though sad) read about a Hawaiian politician trying to get the facts and do the right thing for the people of his island amid outcry, bluster, rhetoric, and plain old fear: “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.”

— Amanda


If it’s good enough for my hair, it’s good enough for my armpits

baking soda

My fancy glass container of baking soda with an extra-large powder puff. Yes, my bathroom counters are purple. No, I am not responsible for that.

I haven’t used commercial or homemade deodorant in years.  I don’t even know how many years.  Let me see if there’s a hint here in a previous post . . . Ah.  Two years, it would appear.  I do use something to deodorize, but it’s just a swipe of pure baking soda.  And this single-ingredient, ludicrously cheap stuff keeps me 100% smell free. (I buy it in bulk at WinCo for something like $0.50/Lb.  And yes, I do still sweat – this is a deodorant, not an antiperspirant.)

So for two years I have used nothing but baking soda under my arms without incident. I used it directly after shaving and I used it during my on-again, off-again no-shave periods (read: winter). And only now have I begun to experience a problem.  The problem is redness and the appearance of a rash.  I don’t feel itchy or uncomfortable but I have stopped using the stuff until the redness goes away.  Am I butthurt?  No!  Actually, I’m surprised this didn’t happen a long time ago.  It may not look it (or smell it) but baking soda is caustic stuff! The pH of baking soda is 8.3 and the pH of skin is 7. It doesn’t sound like a dramatic difference but remember that the pH scale, like the Richter scale, is logarithmic, meaning that a pH of 8 is ten times more alkaline than a pH of 7.[1] (Also of note: water generally has a pH of 7, also. Both human skin and fresh water are considered to be more or less pH neutral.) I made Matt a stick of DIY roll-on that many a person has raved about but the baking soda darkened his skin after a few weeks and he went back to Tom’s of Maine.

I’m going to derail myself here to make an important point: I do not use baking soda deodorizer because I am afraid of aluminum in commercial deodorant. Just as there is no connection between aluminum cookware and Alzheimer’s, there is also no link between aluminum in deodorant and breast cancer.[2] I use baking soda because A) I dislike the way every cream-based deodorant in the universe leaves a disgusting rime on the armpits of my shirts, and B) I’m cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeap.

So, what’s the solution?* The crystal? Well, I’ve heard pretty conflicting reports about their efficacy, I could not readily find data on the pH of Potassium alum (the chemical name for the crystal), and I didn’t want to have to spend money on one. (Dr. Cox voice: Chuh-heeep!)

So I figured that if my scalp and hair are happy with the one-two punch of baking soda followed by (and essentially cancelled out by) vinegar, then why wouldn’t my pits? Crunchy Betty to the rescue (again): Mix equal parts vinegar and water, dab on, and, when dry, follow with a dusting of baking soda, as usual.[3]

— Amanda

*Unintentional chemistry pun!

[1] Ophardt, Charles E. “pH Scale” Elmhurst College Virtual Chembook. (http://www.elmhurst.edu/~chm/vchembook/184ph.html) Copyright 2003, accessed 03/18/15. [07/27/15 NOTE: Chembook no longer available online]

[2] “Why Your DIY Baking Soda Deodorant is Causing a Skin Reaction” http://www.lisaliseblog.com/2012/10/why-your-diy-baking-soda-deodorant-is.html.  Accessed 03/18/15.

[3] “New News and pH Balancing Your Old Homemade Deodorant Problems” (http://www.crunchybetty.com/new-news-and-ph-balancing-your-old-homemade-deodorant-problems) Posted 06/22/13. Accessed 03/18/15.

I wear a cup

A warning to my dad and anyone else who’s not keen on reading about menstruation in general and mine in particular: you may want to skip this post. If you feel up to it, though, by all means read on! This is human biology: the topic and your interest in it are nothing to be ashamed of.

Continue reading

The most energy-efficient way to boil water

hot drinks 002

This time of year I seem to put the kettle on a half dozen times a day. After inhaling two or three cups of coffee in the morning I pass through the kitchen again and again: black tea with lunch, green tea with my snack, hot cider in the afternoon when the fireplace is flagging (ooh, that was good – I think I’ll have another), and cocoa after dinner as a sort of “dessert.”

Recently, I got to wondering: is firing up a burner on the electric range really the best way to heat that water? I use a good, tight kettle, I put it on a burner it fits, and I generally only heat as much water as I’m going to use. But maybe I should be using the microwave? Or maybe I should invest in one of those snazzy electric kettles the Brits swear by? Help me, Google!

Well, I consulted the great oracle and here’s the upshot: It’s no biggie. Really. The Christian Science Monitor, in an article on this very topic, quoted Michael Bluejay of the energy use website michaelbluejay.com: “You’d save more energy over the year by replacing one light bulb with a CFL [compact fluorescent light bulb] or turning off the air conditioner for an hour . . . at some point over the whole year.” (For the record, the microwave is a teeny bit more efficient at heating that cuppa than the stove, and quite a bit better for reheating small amounts of food.) At the end of their article, the Christian Science Monitor adds another bit of advice from the energy guru:

“However, Mr. Bluejay reiterates that most of us won’t put a dent in our overall energy use just by choosing one appliance over another. “Focusing on cooking methods is not the way to save electricity [at home],” he says. “You should look at heating, cooling, lighting, and laundry instead.”

Still gotta know? I don’t blame you. Even though, as the Christian Science Monitor article says, even the most hardcore tea drinker will hardly even save a dollar a year by fiddling with boiling methods, you may still be curious or need to know the environmental impact. Stanford Magazine rated the methods thus, from most to least efficient:

  1. An electric kettle or induction cooktop powered by renewable energy (solar panels on the roof)
  2. An electric stove powered by renewable energy (solar panels on the roof)
  3. A gas stove
  4. An electric kettle with grid electricity
  5. An electric stove with grid electricity
  6. A microwave

Keep in mind that the wattage rating of your microwave, the age of your stove, and the efficiency of your electric kettle all play into this. (And if you’re approaching it from a purely environmental angle, the source of your electricity does, too. Is it hydroelectric? Coal burning? LP? Wind? Solar?)

Another ranking, done by Pablo Päster of TreeHugger, gives an entirely different order to the list because Mr. Päster tested his own (and we can assume, given where he works, very efficient) appliances.(Electric kettle followed by microwave followed by stove. Interestingly, he also had a much higher estimate of possible yearly money savings, as high as $5.00.)

In the end, this is the only way you can really know: personal testing. If you still have the manuals for your appliances they should list the wattage. Wattage x time to boil 8 oz of water = energy usage. If you don’t have a clue what the wattage is (or you want to be really really sure) your local library or public utility district probably has Kill A Watt® meters that you can rent. Plug your appliance into the Kill A Watt®, plug the Kill A Watt® into the outlet, and go to town. (On a side note I have always wanted to rent of these but I am afraid that I would go bonkers and test every single electrical item in the whole house and take a whole notebook worth of notes and spiral out of control. I can get pretty obsessive about science.)

In conclusion I would like to reiterate my original point: it’s not that big a deal. As interesting as this is, if you want to save money or lessen your environmental impact, focus elsewhere. Think bigger.

— Amanda

Caution: overuse of italics ahead


There are two reasons that I haven’t been writing here more often. 1) Due to unusual circumstances that I am not yet ready to discuss here in detail, we may have to completely change the way we garden. Research on this topic – as well as constructive activities to distract myself from the stress of the problem – have taken up most of my time lately. 2) I have a bee in my bonnet.

The bee is this: I’m ticked off about absolutism. About the growing trend of homesteaders and greenies sniping at one another for not being sufficiently committed to the cause – calling one another hypocrites for lapses in perfect adherence to the dogma of the three Rs, eating regimens, attachment parenting, and other “lifestyles.”

(Cue the Fight Club music; here comes my Tyler Durden speech.)

I say: There I no right or wrong way to live your life.

More specifically, there is no right or wrong way to “live green” or be be more self-sufficient.

Joel Salatin and Michael Pollan are not gods. The words they speak must not necessarily be accepted wholly and unquestioned as gospel. They have some great ideas, brilliant ones – but they are not infallible – they are not always right. And I – and you – are allowed to disagree with them.

You are not going to hell for throwing away that recyclable container when no one was looking last week. You are not going to hell for buying a loaf of bread when you didn’t feel like baking from scratch. Even if it contains high fructose corn syrup. Even if it’s Wonder® Bread. You are not going to hell for feeding your child something from a vending machine or the mini-mart or giving them formula because breast pumps were invented by the devil. I have every right to serve my home-grown, humanely-butchered, locally-smoked ham alongside store-bought national-brand canned peaches. I am not giving up prescription medication just because the packaging is not recyclable.

The world will continue to spin on its axis. The storm troopers of the politically correct are not coming for you. And anyone who gives you crap about any of the above can kiss your ass.

I say: Life is about balance, not perfection.

I strive to live a a better life: a more handmade, more environmentally responsible, more self-reliant lifestyle. And for the most part, I do. But sometimes I have to compromise or accept failure because a) the “correct” option is too expensive, b) a better option does not exist, c) I cannot do without something, d) I need a break from living like a farmer’s housewife in the Great Depression, d) I don’t give a damn about some facet of the “lifestyle” I’ve been told I have to freak out about.

The life that writers in my field have romanticized is idyllic, to be sure: organic cotton sheets and towels hand-washed in home-milled soap snapping on the repurposed clothesline in a soft breeze while a TV-less, homeschooling family spends 24 hours a day together in their straw-bale home growing and preserving heirloom vegetables to feed their vegan lifestyle by the light of hand-dipped soy candles and solar power. Later, they will bicycle into town to trade organic rainbow chard for free trade, shade-grown coffee. For most of us such a life is highly improbable, if not impossible.

I like my chickens and I like vegetable gardening. I like canning and cooking. I like hanging my laundry on the line. I like fixing things and repurposing things. I like shopping at the natural foods co-op.

But: I like junk food now and then. I like going to the hardware store and buying stuff to get nagging or emergency projects done right now instead of always waiting a week, a month, a year, for someone on Craigslist to be giving away what I need. I like getting 2 weeks worth of food in one place for less than the price of a tank of biodiesel, especially when times are tight.

Stand up for yourself. If you are at the grocery store and you have to choose between perfectly good food in a plastic container for $1.00 or gourmet food in a recyclable glass jar for $5.00 and you’re on a budget, you can get the plastic one and throw away the container. It is fine to be a follower. It is admirable to want to make the world a better place through the way you live. It is foolish to do so by bankrupting yourself or making your family uncomfortable. If going off grid is doable for you then I applaud you. If not, but you do what you can with what you have where you are, I give you a standing ovation.

— Amanda

We have recycling!


My new, huge recycling bin: already 2/3 full.

I finally managed to talk Matt into getting curbside recycling pick up. Yes, recycling is free at the dump, and yes, the dump is only two miles away, but the dump doesn’t have plastic recycling and the curbside service does.* The fee for this service is tiny (equivalent to about two espressos a month). Not having big, bulky, air-filled, non-crushable plastic containers taking up room in our garbage cans should, I hope, mean we go to the dump less. At worst, we break even but I sleep better at night knowing that my plastics are being recycled. Also, I don’t have 4-5 grocery bags of recyclables taking up room in our very limited household storage areas.

I cannot stress how elated I was when our backordered cart arrived today. I ran down the driveway and waved and yelled “Thank you!” at the delivery guy (who was either shy or freaked out). Then, I proceeded to toss in all the stuff I’ve been hoarding for this moment. The bin is almost full already! This is seriously the most exciting thing that’s happened around here since we got cable internet.**

— Amanda

*Huh? Lemme ‘splain: curbside service is provided by Waste Management, who are not affiliated with the dump (or, as it is more accurately called, the County Solid Waste Transfer Station). When Waste Management picks up our neighborhood’s trash and recycling they do not take it to the county facility, like Matt and I do – did, well, still do for trash – they take it to a third party MRF or Municipal Recycling Facility. The MRF Waste Management uses accepts plastics. The MRF the County uses does not.

** Just last year.

Book Review: The Zero-Waste Lifestyle by Amy Korst

Despite having been immersed in waste-reduction for some time now I was pleasantly surprised to learn so much from this book. There were some great practical solutions: ideas for composting in apartments, information about take-back programs for hard to recycle items like #5 plastic, and plenty of disposable alternative ideas (similar to what I picked up from No Impact Man and Plastic Free). I am now much too excited about collecting waste items like toothpaste tubes and feta tubs for TerraCycle.

But what I liked best about the book was its tone: upbeat and excited. Korst constantly reinforces the key ideas that you can do this, every little bit really does help, and it’s OK to make compromises. That was really reassuring. I am already ahead of the curve when it comes to the three Rs, but I feel tremendous pressure to do more – and at the same time tremendous social anxiety about doing things like bringing reusable containers to restaurants (although, oddly, I have no qualms about pressing my reusable bags on checkers and my “sippy cup” on baristas).

Another point I appreciated: constant reiteration of the all-too-little-known fact that almost nothing decomposes in a landfill. Your compostables will not compost. Your degradable bag will not degrade. Decades-old newspapers can still be read when unearthed.*

My only disappointment was that Korst and her team (a handful of other garbage-free bloggers from around the country) didn’t have the silver bullet to the meat problem. It can’t go in the compost bin, we haven’t got room to bury it, we don’t want to risk feeding itto the pigs (and we don’t have pigs year-round and they can’t eat bones anyway) . . . so it goes in the garbage. Korst and her husband do have a solution that works for them, but it doesn’t work for us: they are vegetarians. Really, though, this wasn’t much of a let-down because there is no silver bullet.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking to reduce (or eliminate) their waste. It’s not the only one out there (the field is growing and I have a lot of reading to do!) but it is accurate, informative, and supportive. Anyone can make a change for the better with this book in hand.

— Amanda

* Korst referred a few times to one of my favorite researchers of all time: “Captain Planet” William Rathje, who, in the seventies, with his Anthropology class, dug up a landfill in the manner of an archaeological excavation of a midden. They (and everyone who read their papers and the ensuing book) were pretty surprised at what they found.