Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Enviropig and Frankenfish

Every so often, my darling husband leaves articles purposefully in my “zone” of the counter, the area where my unfinished soduku puzzles, to-be-signed permission slips, unclipped coupons, cryptic lists, and miscellaneous papers I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do-with reside. He generally avoids telling me I should read a particular article; he knows how overwhelmed I am as it is by all the things I “should” do. He just leaves articles strategically placed where I will happen upon them and counts on headlines like Inside the Enviropig or Call this genetically engineered fish what it is: Frankenfish to lure me in. (I know, I know, these titles truly compel you too!). So it is I happened upon two stories in the past week that were gleaned from hubby’s Popular Science and Business Week reading suggestions.

The first story is about the Enviropig. A nearby community is fending off an inevitable factory hog farm, so this one caught my eye. Most people know it’s not just the hogs that stink when it comes to raising pigs (in my opinion cows smell MUCH worse), it’s the pig poop and what to do with it. The run off is full of phosphorus which washes in to our water supply and eventually the ocean, creating “dead zones”. Wilson’s Pig Farm is just upstream from our lovely Deer Creek and I’ve wondered time and again how it affects our creek. Lucky for us, Wilson’s is a pretty small operation, focusing on quality Pork BBQ and not mass production.

The Enviropig was developed over the past decade by biologists in Ontario. They’ve created pigs that produce 30-65% less phosphorus than your regular run of the mill pig. Is this good? I don’t know. Apparently, pigs (like all animals) need phosphorus, but can’t get it from the grain in pig feed, so farmers supplement the feed with pure phosphate, most of which goes right through the pig because pigs can’t absorb it all (this is the same mentality my kids have as they eat popcorn – shove the largest possible amount in your mouth at one time and some of it is bound to make its way to your belly, nevermind the waste). Enviropigs don’t need this supplement because they have been genetically engineered to secrete phytase, which allows the pigs to get their phosphate from grains alone. Eureka!

But one has to ask – why is it we have to modify the pig to eat the grain, instead of the other way around? What were pigs designed to eat? Maybe that’s where we should start. I’m no pig expert, but I’m guessing by the structure of the average pig that they are supposed to eat things on the ground like grass and roots (and maybe those things have naturally occurring phosphorus in them?). Just thinking.

This wonderful new discovery means that farmers can switch to Enviropigs (most certainly patented and priced to reflect that) and skip on the supplements, which will save them some cash and allow them to price their pork higher, claiming it as environmentally friendly pork. It’s only a matter of time before we no longer have those phosphorus spewing natural pigs.

This next story is a fish story and as you would expect there are lots discrepancies depending on who’s telling the tale. According to AquaBounty Technologies their genetically modified salmon can reach its full size up to twice as fast as a naturally occurring salmon. I don’t have to spell out for you what that means to companies that grow and sell salmon or to AquaBounty, which would sell the AquaAdvantage eggs. There is money to be made, so passions are high. AquaBounty has petitioned the FDA for 15 years to approve this fish and finally is seems possible they will get their wish.

The technical details on the frankenfish are this: The modified salmon contain a growth gene implanted from another variety of salmon that’s activated by DNA from an eel-like creature called the ocean pout. Which begs the question – is it really salmon? AquaBounty assures us it is and that it will be indistinguishable from the natural variety. Hmmm. They claim production of this fish (all female fish by the way, so they can’t cross-produce with regular salmon or, I would assume, reproduce viable eggs without the help of AquaBounty thereby obliging the fish farmer to buy more eggs each year), would allow for more US production of salmon. Currently most salmon in the US is imported. AquaBounty eggs are produced in Canada and the fish are grown in Panama, so I’m not sure that’s a fer-sure, but it sounds nice to the Made-in-the-USA crowd.

The other folks telling this fish tale are led by none other than Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim, plus two Alaska senators (surprise, surprise). They point out that the FDA has reviewed AquaBounty’s request as a veterinary drug rather than creating a new review process for gene-altered foods. Good point. As Solheim pointed out, “Today it’s a fish that we’re talking about. But very soon it will be genetically engineered pigs, chicken, and our beloved cows.” Apparently he hasn’t been clued in to the Enviropig just yet.

The Enviropig and the Frankenfish highlight what is fast becoming a huge new enterprise for science and farming. There are ethical questions that deserve to be asked. Is it right or safe or in our best interest to modify nature to satisfy our own greed? I suppose it goes back to each person’s philosophy on creation. If you believe this world was created with a design of some kind (not saying what kind), then is it right to mess with that design? Or are we specifically designed so that we are able to mess with that design? Hmm. I have another take on the matter. I think we were designed with these amazing minds and beautiful souls and we should be able to figure out how to coexist without destroying another species. And maybe if we weren’t so hell-bent on saving a buck or making a buck, we would discover that we can survive on much less and live more simply. Just because we can modify a pig or a fish, doesn’t mean we should.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Just Keep Keepin' On

Sometimes when I sit down to write I’m not really sure what I plan to say. I just get going and see what happens. Sometimes I parent the same way. Can’t really speak to the “strategy’s” effectiveness as the jury is still out on this parenthood project. But there is something to be said for just continuing to move along even when you aren’t quite sure of the way. I had two experiences this week that re-confirmed this for me. One was great fun, and the other was obligatory but necessary for my personal commitments to local politics.

I’ll start with the fun one. This past Saturday I ran a Half-Marathon with a woman I’ve known since grade school. Long ago we spent hours upon hours setting our Barbies up on dates and arguing about who had to go out with the G.I. Joe with orange fuzzy hair.. Once school was closed for a week because of snow and we had sleepovers every night – whispering in to the wee hours and sneaking the jello mix to eat straight. And once school was closed for months due to a teachers strike and her mom became our teacher! Our lives have traveled quite different roads, but our connection has held strong. So we met up in Virginia wine country for a half-marathon trail race. Her first race and my first half (she cheered me through my first marathon in her home town five years ago!).

This plan was hatched last spring when the race seemed like the perfect excuse to leave our spouses and children and spend a weekend together, touring vineyards, eating wonderful food, and oh yeah, running a race. The reality hit us in the face last Saturday. We had a plan to run the race with intervals since Lisbeth hadn’t run before and I sometimes have grumpy knees. I proposed 4 minutes run and 1 minute walk. After a few months of training in ridiculous heat this summer, Lisbeth modified it to 3 minutes run and 2 minutes walk. No problem. I could do that.

Race day dawned cool and beautiful. This being a race for women only, it was a great atmosphere. Lots of moral support, port-a-pottys, and laughter. There were women running with stuffed animals (I never did get the complete story on that) and children cheering us at the start and handing out Gatorade at the aid stations. A group of men sang an off-key version of Happy Trails at the start and we were off!

Things went pretty well for about 5 miles. Then the hills began in earnest. Neither one of us had investigated the race enough to know that part of it was on the Appalachian Trail and when they said there were hills – they were serious. Lisbeth’s enthusiasm began to wane, and soon her legs did too. We walked along, me following cautiously, afraid to push her, and Lisbeth lost in her ipod world. In the beginning she had kept one ear bud out so we could converse, but by this point she had nothing to say to me and my Pennsylvania hill trained legs. She comes from Virginia Beach and the only hills she encounters are the man made dunes at the beach. Not a level playing field by far. About mile 7, she shooed me away. Told me she had no intention of running another step and doubted she would even finish. I stuck with her for a little while, but when it became apparent that my presence was more annoyance than support for her, I bounded away up the trail, sprinting to make up for my walked miles.

As I attempted to make up for lost time, I passed all kinds of women. Some were running incredibly slowly, barely lifting their feet. Some were power walking- arms swinging like giant pendulums. Still others were chatting and alternately walking and running as the terrain dictated. Without fail, every one of them cheered me on as I passed. So different from the co-ed road races I have run. But then again, here I was at the back of the pack forging my way to the middle, so this wasn’t really a cut-throat competitive setting.

But I digress. This isn’t really about me gallantly leaping over logs on my way to finishing in the bottom half of the runners. No, this is about my dear friend. My friend who was in pain. Frustrated after having trained in the ungodly Virginia Beach heat and humidity all summer, she questioned whether she had it in her to finish. Even deciding to run this race had been a huge risk for her and now she had to wonder if the people who told her she couldn’t do it were right. I confess that as I ran through the forest, I worried for my friend and I, too, doubted if she’d finish. But finish she did – maybe a bit grumpy (understatement of the year), very sore, exhausted, but jubilant. In the end, her race was a much bigger triumph than mine. I had a great time racing through the woods to my inevitable finish, but what Lisbeth did was so much bigger. She just kept keeping on. She didn’t give up, even when her anger, exhaustion, pain, and self-doubt plagued her. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about. You put one foot in front of the other. You do the best you can and you keep keepin’ on. And you don’t let the nay-sayers stop you.

Which brings me to my other story….about the people who don’t keep keepin’ on. This is the story of my experience volunteering at a political booth at the York Fair on a beautiful afternoon. I’m not saying which political party I was volunteering for, not only because I try to keep politics out of the blog, but because it really doesn’t matter. I’m certain the other booth two spaces down was hearing some of the same stuff.

The following person is fictional, completely fabricated by me as an amalgamation of some of the fascinating souls who stopped by the booth to enlighten me and my fellow volunteers. His presence was somewhat overwhelming. He towered over us as we sat behind our literature and buttons, fuming and sweating through his t-shirt that was straining to keep control of his mid-section. He looked to be about 50ish. He leaned in to our table and one of my cohorts, asked, “How can I help you?” His reply wasn’t appropriate for a family friendly blog, so I’ll translate. “Yeah, you can help me. Holy moly. How can you be out here pushing this person who doesn’t care about any of us? Holy moly! He only wants to put money in his own pocket. Holy moly! We should throw all the bums out!” (I remind you that I am paraphrasing and condensing a much more colorful exchange with this purely fictionalized character).

Our bravest volunteer, a powerful tiny woman who is at least 20 years my senior, stood up and looked him in the eye. She asked, “Are you registered to vote sir?” His reply? “Nah, I don’t vote,” followed by more colorful remarks as to why this gentleman doesn’t choose to exercise his constitutional right.

I do get it. The frustration with government. Believe me, I’ve been there. But too many of us have given up. It’s too much work, it’s seems pointless, and really, why should I bother when so many others don’t? Because it’s not only our constitutional right, it’s our duty and privilege as American citizens to participate in the election of our government. If we don’t keep keepin’ on, then those people this man claimed are running our government really will be running the government.

Life can be hard, boring, frustrating, monotonous at times. But it can also be amazing, phenomenal, inspiring, and plain hilarious. We have to just keep participating. We can’t stand aside. And if we choose to stand aside, we must keep our complaints to ourselves. We prepare as best we can and give it a shot. That’s all anyone can ask. That’s all we can ask of ourselves. I’ve been thinking a lot about living simply. I’m reading lots of books and meditating and journaling on the concept, and I’m starting to believe it comes down to just keeping on. Not racing ahead, not judging the past, just putting one foot in front of the other on a daily basis and paying attention to each moment. There is so much to learn.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Little Dirt Never Hurt Anybody

As much as I miss my hubby when he travels for business, there is one aspect of his absence that I kind of enjoy. There’s no need to clean. Not that he is fussy; he isn’t. He never says a word about the condition of the house – bless him. But when he is here I feel a need to show some evidence that I’ve been doing my job. Until this writing gig starts to actually produce an income, my main job is still the kids and the house and all the nonsense outside. I’ve said all along, the only reason I want to get published and make money is so I can hire a cleaning person. That hasn’t changed.

This has been a busy summer for Nick, so the house has been enjoying a little rest too. Even so, I do the minimum – the toilets, the kitchen floor and counters, and sometimes I even vacuum.

I only feel self-conscious about this lack of cleanliness when I visit someone else’s sparkling house. I admire them, but I don’t feel the need to emulate them. I think a little dirt never hurt anyone. In fact, I think a little dirt is good for everyone. We all need some good germs. I’m serious about this. Bacteria challenge our immune system. If our immune system is never challenged, how will it grow strong enough to truly protect us?

A few months ago I was in the pediatrician’s office for my son’s well-check up. A cute young mom came in with her cute young offspring. The baby looked to be maybe a year. As she was checking in, the little girl reached for the antibacterial hand wash on the counter. The mom squirted some in her hand and told the receptionist how much her darling loved antibacterial wash. In fact, to keep her quiet and happy, I watched this mom squirt antibacterial hand wash in to her daughter’s outstretched hands five times just while she was signing in and making her co-pay. Then in the 10 minutes while I waited for my son (he’s too old for mom to accompany him in to see the doc), she proceeded to follow her toddler over to the counter to fill her hands probably ten more times.

I wanted to yank the soap off the counter and fling it out the window only after explaining to this woman that she’s not only fueling a future OCD issue, she’s ensuring that she and her daughter will spend many more mornings in the doctor’s office.

Germs are good sometimes. Why are we so hung up on avoiding them? Dr. Mary Ruebush, an immunologist and author of Why Dirt is Good says, “It keeps your immune cells, which are there to protect you, multiplying and reproducing.” If we don’t expose our immune system to bacteria, how will it be ready when you really need it to protect you?

What’s more, all this handwashing and anti-bacterial this and that and overuse of antibiotics is setting us all for a real epidemic. The anti-bacterial agents used in those wonderful handwashes contain some of the same ingredients that are in some of our antibiotics. The heavy use of these antibacterial washes is training bacteria to resist them, instead of training our systems to resist the bacteria. See the problem here?

I know this post belongs in the throws of flu season, but it’s on my mind now. This time of year, my kids are covered in mud, sand, dirt, bug bites, poison ivy, and sunburn. When other kids come to play, most parents know to pack extra clothes because more than likely, the ones they are wearing will get filthy, wet, or torn. It goes with the territory. And before these dirt-packed children come in the door, I instruct them to go clean up with the hose. There is no anti-bacterial soap involved. Water works just fine in this circumstance.

At bedtime, if the kids are too filthy to get in bed, they might hop in the shower or bath, but you won’t find any antibacterial soap in our house. In fact, you won’t find any soap in our tub at all. My kids have seriously dry, sensitive skin and soap irritates them. Hot water and a wash cloth will take care of all but the worst. If there’s a possibility of poison ivy, they wash off with dish soap just in the areas that were exposed.

Before meals and snacks, they do wash their hands with soap (I hope!). My two favorites are an organic tea tree oil soap I get at Trader Joes and a goat-milk soap made with added coffee grounds which act as an exfoliator to help scrub the dirt off. The goat-milk soap comes from a local vendor who make their soaps by hand (Wash Your Mouth Out Soap).

No anti-bacterial soap for us. I’m not worried about a little bacteria. You shouldn’t be either. If you want to worry about bacteria, worry about the bacteria you’re eating when you stop for a fast food burger, cook up an egg raised on a factory farm, or munch on non-organic produce from half-way around the world. Now that’s some seriously dangerous bacteria.