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Just finished a quirky book, Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel by Rachel Khong. She’s a new writer (newly published, I guess I should say) and this story is about Ruth, a 30+ something, trying to readjust to life without her fiance, who’s dumped her. She goes back home to help with the care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s. Written in a diary style, it jumps all over about her life, her mother, the funny, poignant things her father says on good days, and the nutty stuff he does on not-so-good days, her ex-, and her very quirky friends, too. Then a woman flits through who had had an affair with her father –  you get to observe all the angst from the mom about that. Mostly it’s about her father, as he’s relatively “together” early in the book, but then he disintegrates. Reading that part isn’t fun, although the author is able to lean some humor into it. I’m not sure I recommend the book exactly – I read it through – and felt sad. It doesn’t tie up loose ends – if you want that kind of book – you may not want to read this one.

Also finished Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. You know Julian Fellowes, the producer and writer of Downton Abbey? He lends his mind to a story about a family or two from the similar time period as Downton, who live in London. There’s some amount of intrigue, romance, observations from within the halls of wealthy Londoners and moderately well off tradesmen and their families. There’s affairs, shady business dealings, an illegitimate child, the comings and goings of the “downstairs” staff too, etc. The characters were well done – I had no trouble keeping all of the people identified. The story is somewhat predictable, but it was interesting clear up to the end.

The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one first!

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Essays, on December 31st, 2009.

It’s not often – in fact, very rare – that I use this forum/blog for talking about something . . . perhaps . . . controversial. But having just watched this movie, I’m wanting to join my voice with those of many, many others who abhor what’s happening with the quality of the food we buy. There are perhaps lots of different segments of the food biz that could use some overhaul, but in this case, I’m just devoting these words to the subject of this movie.

This isn’t just about Monsanto Corp., the public behemoth of an agribusiness. It’s also about very normal, hard-working farmers from around the globe who got themselves into the crosshairs of that big-bad-business with loads of bucks. Monsanto has tried, and is still trying to destroy them. Their farms. Their livelihoods. And in the process they [Monsanto, IMHO] decided to go down a road that is, in my opinion, on the “wrong side of the tracks.” They became the bully. But it’s a lot more powerful than that, actually. There are other companies who have also patented seed too, but Monsanto may have been the first. And the bully with the biggest fist.  And the movie is about more than just this one farmer. But the specific case is interesting enough to focus on . . .

Now I’m the first one to proclaim I’m all for business. For capitalism. For competition. Having invested money over the course of the last 30 years in a variety of public companies (stocks) I’m happy as heck when said companies make money. But I want no part of companies that use their strongarm tactics to control. To dictate. To destroy. Or ones who lie, cheat, steal, or otherwise misconstrue the facts. Or hide the real reasons.

So, here’s what happened. Back a long time ago Monsanto began doing research with canola seed. Undoubtedly Monsanto invested millions of dollars into this endeavor. They decided to push the envelope – they created a genetically modified version that would resist treatment with “Round-Up,” that ubiquitous herbicide that kills anything that grows. And makes the ground it’s been treated with unusable for a very long time – except for canola seed. So when Monsanto developed this Round-Up resistant canola seed, it meant that farmers could spray Round-Up all over their fields and it would not kill the canola plants, but it would kill everything else. Farmers thought this was the most wonderful thing since tractors. But, before Monsanto put this product out for sale, they decided, in their infinite big-business mentality, to get a patent on the genetically-modified canola seed. They were refused at the Patent Office because as we all know, it’s declared in our U.S. Constitution that you can’t patent food. Food is for everybody. But Monsanto didn’t take “no” for an answer. They took it to court. The court ruled in Monsanto’s favor. That yes, indeed, GM (genetically modified) or GE (genetically-engineered) canola seeds were, in fact, patentable. Which of and by itself allows the patent holder (Monsanto) to sue anybody who uses the patented product (the GM canola seed) without paying for it. On the surface that doesn’t sound so bad. . . Keep reading.

Cut to a few years later. The GM canola seed is being bought up in millions of tons. Farmers love it. Well, most farmers love it and pay the price to buy it. You see, you can’t hold over seed from this Monsanto-engineered canola. Not permitted. Buyers have to sign a contract to that effect. So, farmers do have to buy new seed each year. That seemed not to bother most of the farmers.

But some farmers didn’t buy Monsanto’s seed – they used their own seed – harvested from their own plants. The way it’s been done since man figured out how to save seed and plant it the next season. One such couple, the Schmeisers, of Saskatchewan, Canada, used their own seed, which they’d carefully bred and fine-tuned over their 40 years running their farm. They were extremely proud of their canola seed breeding, actually. Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase here. The couple was sued by Monsanto for growing some of Monsanto’s GM seed in their fields. (According to Schmeiser’s website: Canola fields were contaminated with Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Canola. Monsanto’s position was that it didn’t matter whether Schmeiser knew or not that his canola field was contaminated with the Roundup Ready gene, or whether or not he took advantage of the technology [he didn’t]; that he must pay Monsanto their Technology Fee of $15./acre.) Schmeiser didn’t buy any of Monsanto’s seed, yet there were some plants found on his property. They guess that the wind, and perhaps the truck that delivered Monsanto seed to the neighboring farm, blew some seed into the Schmeiser’s property.

But Monsanto lied about their testing techniques. And did everything in their power to destroy this couple and their farm. But the Schmeisers decided to fight it. Unfortunately, in the courts, then, Schmeiser lost. Schmeiser has no idea, really, how the Monsanto seed got onto his property. He didn’t/doesn’t WANT it on his property. But Monsanto decided to make a point about Schmeiser’s plants (perhaps because he was very vocal in his dislike of Monsanto’s tactics). Monsanto wanted nothing better than to shut Schmeiser down. Well, the case went to appeal and the court determined that Monsanto’s patent is valid, but Schmeiser was not forced to pay Monsanto anything as he did not profit from the presence of Roundup Ready canola in his fields. After that, Schmeiser sued Monsanto (wanting Monsanto to clean up his fields, remove the Round-Up ready seed/plants). The court upheld the part about Monsanto’s patent on the canola seed, but told Schmeiser he was not responsible for paying any of the fees or fines to Monsanto. (From Schmeiser’s website: Monsanto has agreed to pay all the clean-up costs of the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser’s fields. Also part of the agreement was that there was no gag-order on the settlement and that Monsanto could be sued again if further contamination occurred. Schmeiser believes this precedent setting agreement ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready canola or any other unwanted GMO plants.)

Just to be fair, I did look around the internet for any differing opinions regarding this case and the film/documentary. I found almost none. It appears that no one can refute the facts of the case. Bottom line: it’s scary. What a behemoth company like Monsanto will do to control the selling of its seed in the world. The problem is that right now we’re only talking about canola seed and corn. It has far-reaching tentacles into the future. The EU decided that they would not permit Monsanto to sell GM seed within the EU. (Good for them, I say.) Undoubtedly Monsanto is working diligently on developing other GM seed types. The movie also dealt with a group of farmers in Central America who are growing Monsanto GM corn. Monsanto sells the seed at a very reduced price there – an inducement to get them to start the GM seed machine. Because once it’s started, it’s very hard to turn back the clock or shut the door – the movie questioned whether Monsanto would also strongarm nearby poor farmers, forcing them to pay fees when GM corn happens to pop up on their lands. Who knows. And you also need to know that other companies are working on GM seed too, it’s not just Monsanto. They just chose the lawsuit scenario and became the spokescompany for the bullying techniques that could be utilized.

The other really frightening thing is that here in the U.S. the government has not whispered a word to food distributors about labeling. I’d like to avoid eating GM corn. Or GM canola. But I can’t, because nobody makes the producers/farmers/packagers label products as GM. And it’s not likely to happen anytime soon, either. The documentary also detailed the extremely high number of high U.S. government officials who used to work for Monsanto. We’re not talking USDA underlings, here, but very top officials in many areas of the government sector (including John Ashcroft, among others). I don’t know whether buying organic will assure me of eating non-GM foods. I’ll need to look into that.

The documentary is available in a variety of places. Online you can watch it for free. I got mine through my Netflix membership. The movie production company’s site also contains good info. Schmeiser’s website contains a ton of data, including a “what if” essay about the possible implications of the use of any GM seed. It’s worth reading. But whatever you do, do see the movie/documentary.

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A year ago: My cousin Gary’s Turkey Chili

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