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O.U.R. Ecovillage in transition

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After twenty-five years of dreaming the impossible and fifteen years of precedent-setting work to reimagine living and land use in BC, people are still surprised to hear that a living, breathing ecovillage exists a scant 45 minutes from downtown. And it all started right here in Victoria.

O.U.R. Ecovillage is the result of a landmark cooperative effort spanning the community, organizations, government, and business. This effort to take on zoning led to the creation of a place that is at once a farm, a school, a protected park, a campground/B&B, a space where independent businesses can thrive, and a neighbourhood of affordable homes. It’s a test site with far-reaching implications for Canadians, even those who don’t necessarily intend to live in an ecovillage themselves. This alternative model offers vast potential for communities, businesses and landowners alike.

The village is a place where people engage in creative experimentation every day. In this laboratory for sustainable living, permaculture, and natural building, there are many lessons and mistakes to be embraced. Intergenerational living and working in community is an art that has largely been lost in this day and age. The struggles of learning this again can be challenging and so enriching at the same time. Throughout all this, there runs a deep questioning of the idea of sustainability, and what it would mean to truly achieve such a thing.

Stepping into the village, one can feel the depth of intention that has nurtured its creation. I’ve never felt so close to where my food comes from than when I lived at the village. Children climb trees and pick berries. Whimsical dreams are etched into colourful earthen walls made from sand, clay and straw. I remember the feeling of these materials squishing softly beneath my toes as I mixed it to the perfect consistency during the construction of a new home. Once, I learned to build a microclimate heat wall from this “cob” mixture to encourage succulent sweet fruits from a peach tree. Telling stories around the campfire. Walking meditatively through the labyrinth. Showering in the greenhouse with rainwater warmed by the sun. Breaking down old values and patterns of thought through the truth and healing of council circles. Upcycling everything. That’s the village.

But those who have experienced O.U.R. Ecovillage understand that it is so much more than a place. It’s a feeling. It’s a vision and an idea. It’s an open invitation to be part of something that is unpredictable and challenges what we deem possible as a society. We need the village because it’s an example of the courage to do things differently. The village is often described as a square peg in a round hole. It’s precisely because it presents such a radical challenge to the capitalistic modes of relationship and conventional ways of defining value that we’re used to that the village has inspired so many, but also had so much difficulty over the years securing co-operative ownership.

As I write this, the co-founder of O.U.R. Ecovillage, Brandy Gallagher, is critically ill and recovering from recent high-risk surgery for cancer. Brandy and her family are in need of the community’s support now and into the future so that they can be together during her recovery without added stress. The village is in need of the broader support of the region to assist in its transition toward full co-operative ownership, a new Executive Director, and a sustainable social food and education enterprise. To support this transition, they have a critical need to raise $150,000 through mortgage and community RRSP investments, sustaining monthly donors, and special events and courses.

At the village, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from world-class teachers like Starhawk and Mark Lakeman, as well as a host of local experts in sustainable living and regenerative design. But the value of courses offered by this educational non-profit goes far beyond the cost. Creating access to co-learning is the overarching principle. Those with limited ability to pay are routinely invited to find another way to redefine value. There are many ways to contribute, through work trades and other kinds of service, that add value to the village. It’s a chance to discover or hone skills and talents often lying just below the surface of our abilities. Time and again, I have observed Brandy weaving a web of relationship, aiming to make connections that would be beneficial and fruitful beyond the life of the village. In this community, I have been shown a different way of being – one of relationship. It’s about paying it forward, and also giving back.

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O.U.R. stands for One United Resource – it’s a statement that we’re stronger when we work together. I’ve lived, worked, and volunteered at the village, and I’m hooked. Throughout all this, Brandy and the community have offered me an unfathomable amount of support for my continued learning at and beyond the village. I can truly say that the life I am currently living is the direct result of a path carved from my relationship with the village. Anyone who has shared a gratitude circle with me before a meal can attest to this.

There’s a way for everyone to be a villager, and you don’t have to live onsite. The opportunity to be part of a new movement for cooperative land ownership, sustainable community investing through RRSPs, and even a regional option for green burial are all exciting ways to join. But you can also become a monthly sustainer, take a course, join the CSA, spend a weekend at the B&B, take a tour, or simply start with a meal at the Zero Mile Eatery. You never know who you’ll sit with at your next meal – a CEO, a writer, a documentary filmmaker, an academic, a child, a long-haired young farmer, a high school student, an elder with a word of wisdom. Strike up a conversation. And don’t forget to wash your dishes.

Times of crisis are times of growth, renewal, and regeneration. They’re opportunities for the community to come together. This is an opportunity to take responsibility for O.U.R. community, to protect this special place and what it represents, and to launch it into the next stage of creation together. Join us in the transformation.

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Living the New Economy

An industrial landscape has dominated the part of Songhees territory known to most people as Vic West for at least a century. In its heart, there’s an unassuming and drafty brick building called the Roundhouse. Now surrounded by high-rise condos, it’s slated for redesign as a marketplace to serve the swelling crowd of urban dwellers. Over seven days in December, where railway workers tinkered with the train cars of a century ago, a new economy was being midwifed into existence. “Living the New Economy” was an exuberant convergence of visionaries and idea jammers who are working together to create and articulate this new economy.

Living the New Economy

The old economy is crumbling: globally, this has been obvious since at least 2008. The old models just aren’t working anymore, and many have started to realize they probably weren’t worth saving in the first place.

What does the new economy look like? This city’s dilapidated heavy industrial base is being transformed into a burgeoning knowledge economy of tech firms and services. In Victoria, at least, the trend isn’t toward globalized chains and big box stores: it’s small-scale entrepreneurs producing high quality goods for a niche market. It’s local renewable energy projects like the Art Turbine that are not only functional, but are truly pieces of art. It’s an explosion in DIY culture, with creative startups like the Makehouse and the MakerSpace, where makers of all sorts will share tools, resources, and knowledge. Or Remove and Reuse, an online hub where upcyclers and artisans can share salvaged building materials and reduce the need for consuming new. It’s people realizing that together, we can achieve so much more:Raven Wireless, a proposed nationwide co-operative telecom company, hopes to provide an alternative to the “Big Three.”

The new economy tastes like dark and thick microbrews handcrafted locally. It smells like locally cured and smoked meats, crisp vegetables harvested within a hundred miles, and specialty baked goods prepared in Victoria’s proposed new food hub, a shared kitchen space for local food producers. I took part in a collaborative session to redesign the downtown core with hubs for enjoying these delights together, in community. The vision is to create a vital space where people “live out loud.” In the new economy, shopping isn’t a substitute for this kind of creativity. The new economy feels like community being built in a thousand different ways. The Fernwood Urban Village cohousing project and O.U.R. Ecovillage are reclaiming what it is to be in community, while creating options for community to invest in community. It’s individuals moving their money to credit unions, which in turn reinvest it locally: Vancity’s support of “social purpose real estate” is a great example. It’s people stepping up to lend to each other through the Victoria Community Micro-Lending Society. A new Community Investment Fund being launched in 2014 by the Community Social Planning Council (CSPC) will finally give people an option for local retirement savings investments.

This is the power of raising local forms of capital: putting our money where our homes are. CSPC’s Sarah Amyot says that redirecting even 2 percent of the investment money that flows out of this region every year would allow us to reinvest 7.5 million locally.

But why does this seem so revolutionary? In the past few decades, we’ve made it virtually impossible to invest locally. People who are interested in doing so (apparently a very high proportion of investors) are discouraged by their advisors, who say there’s no money in it. Not so, says Stephen Whipp, a specialist in socially responsible investment. By grabbing the reins of large capital and redirecting it into local projects, Whipp says we can generate good income and make good local projects happen at the same time.

Yes, the cost of living is high, and most of us don’t have much extra cash lying around for making big investments. But we need to understand the incredible privilege we have in this region – despite the struggles – and recognize that we have a responsibility to use this privilege to make changes in how we act in the world.

Critically, it’s acknowledging that many of the struggles we’re facing – and the privilege we have – are a result of living in a colonial system. Without a radical shift in the Indigenous-settler relationship, colonialism can simply be re-entrenched by such new forms of ownership and economy. So asking for and supporting Indigenous leadership amid these rapid changes is going to be essential. This recognition was embodied at a session called “Indigenomics,” where we learned from Indigenous women that have modeled leadership in redefining what economy is. As Carol-Ann Hilton of the Indigenous business group Transformation pointed out, a new economy questions the pathway by which we came here: who was left out? Who’s included in the new economy? And will it be a decolonized economy?

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Ana Maria Peredo, Director of UVic’s Centre for Cooperative and Community-Based Economy, pointed out that the new economy is the OLD economy – and the REAL economy. It needs to be reclaimed from its brief sojourn into global market capitalism. There are many kinds of economy – green, sharing, collaborative, gift, social – that can bring value to society.

Peredo shared a story of a visit she made to an Andean village in Peru. Arriving hungry, she went to try to purchase some food to eat. Although she could see plenty of people with food, nobody could sell to her: for them, money wasn’t worth using because nobody needed it to meet their daily needs. People would ask how it was that, in their poor country, everyone had a home – yet in our rich nation, so many are homeless.

In most of the Western world, the economy is framed by those in power as the overarching structure of existence. As Peredo pointed out, the “modernization theory” of development says there’s only one way to approach economic development – and that’s to submit to the global forces of the market. This ethnocentric model perpetuates a narrative about developing an “entrepreneurial spirit” among Indigenous people that assumes they have none.

Meghan Champion of Cowichan Tribes debunked such mainstream myths. In her culture, Indigenous people have always had a very strong entrepreneurial spirit. Trade and forms of currency have been a feature of life on this coast for thousands of years. The potlatch ceremony was, in her words, a form of investment through a system of debt obligation and relationship building. The way people earned prestige was not by accumulating wealth, but by giving it away. As Champion points out, it’s pretty hard to practice your culture if you don’t have an economy to sustain it. But one thing that makes this new economy distinct from the old one is that reputation is key: in the age of social networking, it’s a lot harder to hide when you rip someone off. It’s about building relationships.

It’s with this in mind that Champion created the Cowichan Tribes’ Tetla Dollar. Community currencies keep value circulating within the community, rather than flowing out. Lately, the’ve been springing up all over the region: SeedStock in Vancouver, Salt Spring Dollars, and the Comox Vally Community Way. The fully digital Vancouver Island Dollar is in the process of being launched.

“Living the New Economy” aimed to be a living example of an economy that encourages us to redefine value locally and build inclusive community. After each session, people could receive 100% of their money back with no questions asked; they could hold with the original ticket price, or they could add an extra donation if they felt the event had particular value. Or, they could exchange the full dollar amount for the same number of Vancouver Island Dollars.

As permaculture designer Ethan Roland told us, we need to reclaim the real meaning of the word “entrepreneurship,” which is simply “to take on a project.” In the Andean community-based economies, Peredo says, the community acts collectively as both entrepreneur and enterprise. In this regard, it’s about every single one of us considering ourselves entrepreneurs.

One part of this involves changing our unhealthy relationship with money. And I don’t just mean becoming less driven by it. I’m also talking about the revulsion to money that many “do-gooder” types have: the way that when the word “economics” is used, many of us plug our ears. I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with economics. I don’t really understand it, and I know it causes a lot of harm these days. I also know that some kind of economy is essential.

We’ve forgotten that money is simply a tool – a very useful one. At “Permanomics,” a session linking permaculture and economics, Roland showed how redefining “capital” can allow us to meet human needs while increasing the health of ecosystems. Roland identified eight forms of capital: living, material, social, experiential, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and – of course – financial. Understanding these many forms of capital can help us see how the system functions as a whole, and where the leverage points for creating society-level changes are. Roland says we need not abandon financial capital: we can use it to cultivate other forms of capital that it has been decimating of late. Financial capital can grow or decrease, as long as shared cultural capital and living capital (Earth’s life systems) are being regenerated.

Regeneration, as opposed to the much-abused word “sustainability,” was an overriding theme throughout the week. Through new kinds of enterprise, we can not simply sustain, but regenerate our communities and the natural world. It’s a tangible shift in what the economy looks like – social finance, green buildings, cooperatives, and cohousing projects.

But what’s going to truly make the difference is a shift in the interior dimensions that what we can’t always see: the stories, the culture, and the values. It’s the community.

Kat gratefully acknowledges a prize from SFU’s Certificate Program for Community Economic Development, which allowed her to attend the week of events.

Speaking tour gets the facts straight on GMOs

There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet and in the mainstream media about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Some science associations and companies like Monsanto would have us believe that genetically modified (GM) foods are perfectly safe, and necessary to “feed the world.” A growing number of organizations and scientists are telling a different story: that GM foods pose significant risks to human health and the environment. Who am I, the average eater concerned about my health, supposed to believe?

In my attempt to set the record straight, I joined over 200 people at UVic Monday evening to listen to Dr. Thierry Vrain, who is beginning a cross-Canada speaking tour on GMOs. He’s the former Head of Biotechnology at Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station, and he used to be a supporter of GMOs. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one with worries and questions.  As the crowd continued to swell, the whole group had to move en masse to a bigger room.

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I could sense high emotions: it seemed that most people (and I’ll admit, myself included) had already made up their minds about GMOs, and were burning to let forth into charged rants about the corporate control of food. But our quirky facilitator, an Aussie pharmacist with a Movember-style stache, shook up our preconceived notions right away. He invited us to try out a different stance: as scientists, with a critical eye for validity and reasoned examination of claims about GMOs. Dr. Vrain’s goal was to counter four common myths about GMOs with facts.  I still have my science goggles on, so bear with me as I share these myths and facts with you along with more sources, so that you can investigate for yourself and come to your own conclusions about GMOs.

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MYTH: GMOs reduce the use of pesticides.

FACT: GMOs are causing farmers to spray crops more, not less. 

Dr. Vrain began by pointing out one of the most important facts about GMOs: over 90% of GM plants are engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s RoundUp pesticide. Herbicide spray rates are rising as a result of GMOs, not falling. Biotech giants Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, and Syngenta are, first and foremost, chemical companies. This isn’t about feeding the world: it’s about a really ingenious way to sell more pesticides. As Dr. Vrain pointed out, it’s a great long-term business strategy. Resistant weeds are creating a constant demand for new pesticide products – and major concerns for farmers. There are now at least 24 weeds resistant to RoundUp, affecting perhaps a million acres of Canadian farmland. Even research backed by the pesticide industry states that the number of resistant weeds is increasing “at an alarming rate.”

The industry is using this as justification for introducing other chemicals to the mix.  RoundUp is now being teamed up with 2,4-D: one of two chemicals in the infamous Agent Orange (produced by Monsanto) that shriveled entire landscapes during the Vietnam War, with disastrous human health effects. 2,4-D is a hormone disruptor that is detectable in the urine of children and has been linked with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This chemical is approved for use in Canada and we will begin to see residues of it on conventionally grown food in the future.

MYTH: GMOs increase crop yields.

FACT: Increases in yields are a result of traditional breeding and improved agricultural practices, not genetic engineering.

Have you ever noticed how proponents of GMOs always use the same line about “feeding the future”? The independent Union of Concerned Scientists set out to test this claim.  Their downloadable report “Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of GE Crops,” looked at two dozen peer-reviewed studies. They found that in 20 years of industry effort, herbicide-tolerant corn and soy haven’t resulted in crop yield increases. Only insect-resistant corn might be responsible for an increase of 0.2-0.3% per year. Impressive? No.  Especially when you consider that corn production in the U.S. is not about “feeding the world.” Most corn in the U.S. is grown as feed for factory farms, a highly inefficient way to feed people. The rest is used to produce environmentally disastrous biofuels and high-fructose corn syrup for processed junk food.

According to Dr. Vrain, the genetic engineering process is physiologically hard on the plant, causing it to be less productive and resulting in lower yields. This view is supported by a large-scale academic review and a USDA report cited in “GMOs: Myths and Truths,” another downloadable resource with a wealth of information on GMO myths not covered in this article. “At best,” the authors write, “GM crops have performed no better than their non-GM counterparts, with GM soybeans giving consistently lower yields.” (P. 72).

MYTH: GMOs don’t impact the environment.

FACT: GM crops have many negative effects on the environment.

One of the biggest threats GM crops pose to their environments is contamination. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) asserts that GM alfalfa threatens the future of organic food and farming in North America. Alfalfa is unique because many organic farmers grow it to feed livestock and build soil. It grows year-round and is pollinated by bees, so contamination of organic alfalfa will be certain. Japan and the EU won’t buy crops from Canada if there’s any risk of contamination by GMOs. According to Dr. Vrain, Canada risks losing hundreds of millions of dollars in exports if GM Alfalfa is allowed, and this will hurt conventional growers too. Canada has already lost its Japanese and European markets for canola due to GM contamination.

Insect resistant crops are engineered using Bt, a bacteria that produces a protein toxic to insects. Every cell of the GM plant is toxic to insects. These plants are literally registered as pesticides. Bt crops have adverse effects on a range of different organisms, including humans – not just the insects they’re supposed to target (GMOs: Myths and truths, p. 51-52.) Monsanto’s use of Bt genes is also causing the evolution of Bt-resistant “superbugs,” posing serious risks to food production. But what if you want to eat real food, not pesticides? Bt sprays are a biological pest control method widely used by certified organic farmers and backyard gardeners. With the rise of superbugs, organic farmers risk losing their ability to use Bt. Farmers across North America will have no choice but to buy the next Monsanto product just to be able to grow a crop.

MYTH: GM foods are safe to eat.

FACT: GM foods are more toxic or allergenic than their non-GM counterparts.

My note-taking couldn’t keep pace as Dr. Vrain cited a dizzying number of studies showing harmful effects of GM foods on human health.  If there are so many studies, I wondered, how is it even possible that the industry can continue to make this claim of safety?  The various ways this information is masked by Monsanto and other biotech companies is explained in detail in “GMOs: Myths and Truths,” (p. 72) which cites an even more dizzying number of studies about health impacts on humans and animals.  Here’s a taster: stomach sores and ulcers; allergic-type responses; disturbances of the immune and digestive systems; disturbed function of testes, uterus, ovaries, and pancreas; consistent toxic effects on the liver and kidneys; intestinal damage leading to pre-cancerous-type conditions; enzyme function disturbances in kidney and heart; slower bodily growth; and changes to blood biochemistry and gut bacteria. Whoah.

What is it about GMOs that causes this harm?  One reason being examined is the issue of “rogue proteins.”  Only 5% of the genome actually codes for genes; the other 95% are non-coding genes.  They used to be called “junk DNA” in the genetics world.  But in the past decade, scientists have discovered that this 95% is not junk at all: it’s where genes collaborate to create around 100,000 proteins for all sorts of needs.  When it comes to GM plants, you don’t only get the “pest-fighting” protein, you get new and unexpected proteins altogether. According to Dr. Vrain, expert toxicologists at the FDA predicted these “rogue” proteins produced by GMOs could cause toxicity, allergies, or nutritional deficiencies.  This prediction has been backed with evidence from the Institute of Public Health (Belgium), the Journal of Proteome Research, and the journal Biotechnology.

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By now, you’ve probably seen the revolting photos of the now-famous Seralini study, which showed massive tumours in rats fed GE maize. Seralini was criticized by some scientists for his methods, and France has invested in a follow-up research study.  However, the issue prompted the European Food Safety Authority to review and change its guidelines for research, and the updated version validates Seralini’s methods. The tumours in his study showed up after two years. Most studies by the industry only involve a three-month time period, because longer term trials correlated with the human life cycle (required for pesticides and pharmaceuticals) aren’t required for GE foods by regulators anywhere else in the world.

That’s a big problem, because it’s upon such dubious 3-month studies that Canada’s health regulations rely. In Dr. Vrain’s words, biotech companies operate under two different paradigms based on what suits their profit margins. When they’re pursuing a patent for a GMO, they argue that it’s a unique and unprecedented new product. When they’re jumping through the regulatory hoops, their policy is the following: it looks like corn, it grows like corn, it tastes like corn, so it must be no different from…corn. This principle is called “substantial equivalence.”  There’s been no FDA testing to come to the conclusion that GM and non-GM corn are substantially equivalent.  Substantial equivalence is also the reason why GMOs have been allowed in Canada, with absolutely no federal testing.

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RoundUp: the toxic bedfellow of GMOs 

It’s important to remember that 90% of GM crops are designed to be used with glyphosate, the main chemical in RoundUp. Even if it’s not genetically modified, says Dr. Vrain, all conventional grain in Canada and the US is sprayed with RoundUp 3-4 days before harvest to make the harvesting process easier. Glyphosate is widely considered to be a relatively safe pesticide. There are, Dr. Vrain pointed out, other chemicals in RoundUp that are considered more toxic than glyphosate. But is glyphosate itself really that safe? “GMOs: Myths and Truths” (p. 68) cites several studies showing otherwise: humans are widely exposed to glyphosate in air, rain, and waterways, and it poses serious health risks at the low doses approved for use, including DNA damage, cancer, neurological disorders, premature birth, birth defects, and miscarriage. Glyphosate harms beneficial gut bacteria and inhibits an enzyme called cytochrome P-450, causing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, infertility, Alzheimer’s, depression, autism, obesity, and gastrointestinal disorders like IBS and leaky gut syndrome. There’s increasing consensus that gut bacteria powerfully influences brain chemistry and function, and can exacerbate anxiety and depression through conditions like leaky gut syndrome.

According to Dr. Vrain, 90% of the cells and 99% of the DNA in your body are not yours: they’re bacteria. We are symbiotic organisms that depend on bacteria for our existence.  When you read about studies like the ones I’ve just mentioned, it begins to make sense why so many people have digestive problems these days. Dr. Vrain showed that human incidences of conditions like celiac disease and autism have risen sharply in a curve that directly matches the rising rate of pesticide use since the mid-1990s. He was quick to point out that this shows correlation, not cause and effect, and that the glyphosate studies were done on rodents and poultry, not humans. Research ethics simply wouldn’t allow a study to be run on humans if it could potentially lead to such harm. But the reality is that by eating conventionally produced food, we’re all participating in a science experiment on a massive scale.

Antibiotic resistance and GMOs

Scientists and physicians are sounding the alarm about the global rise of antibiotic resistance, which threatens humans’ ability to use them for medical treatment. GMOs will only contribute to this increase. In genetic engineering, a gene gun shoots millions of microscopic gold pellets painted with DNA into the plant’s cells (microscopic violence?).  This is a terribly inefficient process – far from the elegant and highly specialized process biotech companies claim. To find the spots where the DNA has been transferred, an antibiotic resistant “marker gene” is also painted onto the pellet.  When different bacteria rub up against each other, they can transfer genes. Because of this gene transfer, says Dr. Vrain, bacteria from GM crops have the potential to alter the soil and human gut bacteria in unexpected ways, by creating “superbugs.” Antibiotic resistant marker genes enter the soil and waterways, and may well contribute to the global rise in antibiotic resistance. 

While the jury’s still out on whether marker genes will have a significant impact on antibiotic resistance, there’s no doubt that the industrial food system – in which GMOs play a central role – is having an impact. Glyphosate is classified as an antibiotic. Bacteria like salmonella and the bacteria that causes botulism have already become resistant to it. And don’t forget that the vast majority of GM crops are grown to feed livestock.  The industrial meat production industry uses 80% of all antibiotics produced in the US (75% in Canada). Why are we allowing one of the most important treatments in conventional medicine to be piddled away on factory farms?

What’s happening in Canada?

GM canola, corn, soy, and sugar beet are grown in Canada, and several other crops and foods are being proposed for approval.  Canadian farmers are currently losing the battle against GM Alfalfa, despite significant organized opposition.  The Canadian Wheat Board successfully opposed the introduction of GM wheat in Canada, but now that fundamental changes have been made to the Wheat Board by the Harper government, Monsanto could push GM wheat in Canada again, risking similar losses for farmers.

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Canada is the only place where GM sweet corn has been allowed, giving us the dubious honour of the world’s guinea pig for the past two years.  When you buy corn at harvest time, Dr. Vrain recommends asking if it’s genetically modified.

Developments on GM salmon are being closely followed by CBAN.  The US-based company AquaBounty is close to approval of GM salmon for sale in the US, and may have already asked Health Canada for approval in Canada.

To find the most up to date news and download resources on GMOs in Canada, go to http://www.cban.ca/

The BC battle and the “Arctic Apple”

In a Q&A session after Dr. Vrain’s talk, panelists included Nicholas Simons, BC NDP Agriculture Critic and MLA for Powell River.  Powell River was the first BC jurisdiction to go GMO-free nine (nine!!) years ago.  Since then, over sixty communities have followed suit.  In September, the Union of BC Municipalities passed a motion asking the BC government to prohibit the importing, exporting, and growing of plants and seeds containing genetically engineered DNA, and raising GM animals within BC.  When informed of the situation, Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm said he would pass on the information to the federal minister responsible.  Despite Mr. Pimm’s copout, this is an important victory for BC. 

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Simons surprised us with a new issue emerging in BC: the fight over the “Arctic Apple.” Okanagan Specialty Fruits, a BC company, has applied for government approval of this GM apple, designed not to become brown for 15 days or more after being cut. Simons made his point by asking if anyone in the crowd cuts their apples 15 days before eating them. This apple is a sign that we’re going to increasingly see GMOs grown not to “feed the world,” but to feed a questionable desire for cosmetically attractive foods. There’s significant opposition to the apple among growers, but no public comment will be allowed before the government makes its decision.

No public comment??

All of these issues bring up a big question: why is the public being ignored?

Co-panelist Carolyn Herriot, writer of “The Zero Mile Cookbook,” believes it’s because there’s a media blackout in Canada and the U.S. We need to ask why very few of the studies I’ve cited have actually been taken up by the press. Certainly, the multimillion dollar advertising campaigns launched by biotech and food industry giants to kill GM food labeling bills in California and Washington is evidence of their influence.

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But despite these losses on labeling in the U.S., another of the Q&A panelists is staunchly hopeful. Gurdeep Stephens, of Nature’s Path Organic Foods, reminded us that two or three years ago there was very little public awareness about GMOs. Now, she says, it’s growing exponentially.

So what can we do to keep this awareness growing?  I propose we listen to the mustachioed Aussie, and take a scientific stance. Yes, I know, scientists in this country aren’t getting much respect these days. But no matter how much a person is opposed to Monsanto on a visceral, emotional level, using science to make our arguments is key. We need to reframe the debate entirely – away from whether it would be nice if our apples didn’t brown, and toward whether this whole system of industrial food production makes any sense at all, scientifically or socially. To do this, we need to be able to debunk the myths propagated by the industry, while constantly asking questions like “who funded this study?” We need to stop letting the biotech industry choose which science gets heard, and assert our right to make informed choices about what’s in our food.

Even if you don’t care about having a choice as to what’s in your food, we must allow future generations the choice about what’s in theirs.

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How to avoid GMOs: the quick and dirty

  • Buy local food from farmers you can trust, and ask them about their farm practices.  Better yet, grow your own!
  • Buy certified organic or “Non-GMO Project Verified” foods when you have to buy them from far away.  Certified organic food in Canada cannot contain GMOs, contrary to what some (including myself) have heard.  Labels like “Natural” are meaningless.  If the label is unclear, the food probably contains GMOs: 90% of corn, 93% of soy, 100% of sugar beet crops in North America and 43% of cotton crops in the world are genetically modified.
  • At the grocery store, avoid canola and cottonseed oil, and certain squashes and papaya imported from the U.S.
  • Avoid processed foods with ingredients like “High fructose corn syrup,” glucose or fructose – corn products can hide under many different names.
  • Buy 100% cane sugar (not beet sugar).
  • Buy certified organic dairy, meat and eggs: animals bioaccumulate and concentrate toxins present in their food, and this gets passed to humans.

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What you can do to take action:

Closing the loop at O.U.R. Ecovillage

Closing the Loop at O.U.R. Ecovillage

Our fresh group of learners stared wide-eyed as the ecovillage gardeners heaped layer upon layer in the compost pile. Nutrient-dense stalks of comfrey and nettle, soggy spoiled hay, kitchen scraps, and six brimming buckets of liquid cow manure each waited their turn to join a steaming process of organic fertilizer production. Renegade chickweed and miner’s lettuce stretched out in all directions from cracks in the split wooden bins. The buzzing and chirping of pollinators signaled health in the community.

“Our community is about building a different kind of culture,” our tour guide, Patrick, explained. A bushy ponytail poked out from under his rainbow-streaked knit hat, bobbing with the smirking little girl who clung to his shoulders. “At O.U.R. Ecovillage, we’re intentional about the relationships we want to create, and being in community helps us learn how to live sustainably.”

Community – one of those nebulous concepts open to infinite interpretations that my gut nevertheless roars for. The concept of being “in community” was a new one for me, and yet I would find it offered by many residents when prodded about what brought them to the village. I began to suspect this was why we were really there, although the premise of our stay was a permaculture design course. I was thrilled when Marc, my partner, signed on too. Two weeks of early summer camping at an ecovillage while learning about sustainability sounded way too tempting to pass up. As I would come to realize in the weeks and months to follow, it was a good thing we chose to encounter permaculture together. It shifted both of us onto new paths, leaving behind our identities as green environmentally-minded folks, and uncovering an entirely new layer of ecological consciousness.

cabbage        

Permaculture is another slippery concept whose founders even proclaim not to know exactly what it is. Out of many definitions I have heard, one of the few that has really stuck with me is “learning how to take care of your own shit.” This can take on multiple meanings. It can mean learning how to build your own house using materials from the landscape in which you live. It can mean setting up systems to take care of your own energy and water needs, or growing your own food and medicine. It can mean learning how to “take care” of your natural and human community by taking care of yourself and taking responsibility for your actions. And it can mean taking care of your own shit. Literally.

I quickly learned this lesson in action at the Credit Union, the ecovillage’s composting toilet. With unlimited deposits per day, and only one withdrawal per year, the entire community profits from the value generated by the Credit Union. Our individual investments are returned in the form of a safe, rich fertilizer that helps to create the food we eat. It’s called closing the loop, and it’s a perpetual cycle that humans have been a part of since time immemorial. Coincidentally, it’s how all other animals participate in the ecosystem too. Somewhere along the line, we forgot about this fact. We started building sewage systems that conveniently flush our unmentionables away, so that we don’t have to worry about dealing with the shit we create.

“One of the main problems with how our dominant culture operates is the false notion that there is an ‘away,’” remarked Brandy, a radiant earth mother in long flowing purple and co-founder of the ecovillage. “We don’t want our half-eaten dinner so we throw it ‘away’ into a black bag whose contents are hidden. The garbage truck removes it from our sight. But the reality is that it doesn’t go away, it always ends up somewhere, in somebody’s backyard. And in the process, we turn a valuable resource into pollution.” She described how the conventional sewage system uses one valuable resource, energy, to turn two valuable resources, water and excrement, into a biohazard that pollutes our waterways and oceans. The added effect of removing organic nutrients from the cycle is that we need to find other inputs to replace them in our food-growing areas. Without compost, these inputs become fossil fuel-based fertilizers, which – you guessed it – create more pollution and energy use. Seems crazy, doesn’t it?

I pondered this as we gathered with the ecovillage residents for our first meal together. People of all shapes and sizes converged from different directions on the outdoor kitchen. Marc and I followed suit as the group “circled up”: before each meal, the community holds hands in a circle. One by one, all the people announce their names, and share one thing they are grateful for. Reflecting the spin cycle my brain was still on, I offered, ”My name is Kat, and I’m grateful for finally being able to close the loop.”

bossy        

After a shared cheer of “Ho!” with raised hands, we lined up for one of the delectable dinners that O.U.R. Ecovillage prides itself on. “Mostly organic, mostly vegetarian, and mostly from O.U.R. garden,” as the community describes them, the meals reflect the non-dogmatic, common sense approach at the heart of permaculture practice. Tonight, we were havinga special treat: heritage chicken raised and slaughtered onsite, slowly simmered with onions and garlic from the garden. Roasted carrots and purple potatoes still on hand from last autumn’s harvest, sprinkled with freshly picked rosemary and thyme. Homemade kimchi for digestive health. And for dessert, blackberry crumble. Even though I was swimming in locavore bliss, I was still envious watching the resident cow-share members enjoy their crumble with freshly whipped cream supplied by Bossy, the ecovillage’s stately dairy cow.

My plate glowed. The dominant colour was green – the biggest assortment of greens I had ever seen in my food. Bright greens, light greens, yellow-greens, and blue-greens, set off by a smattering of edible flowers in hues of red, orange, purple and pink. Picked only an hour earlier from the garden, the leaves gifted me with an equally big range of textures and flavours – nutty, bold, peppery, crunchy, crisp and sweet. The chickweed and miner’s lettuce I had noticed earlier in the garden – maligned weeds in most landscapes – played a tasty role. In permaculture, unexpected plants are not thrown away as useless matter, but recognized for a role they can play in ecosystems that we often don’t understand. In a system designed with intention, it is possible to have no waste.

Admiring my dinner, I was truly grateful not to be wasting these nutrients. When I was done with them, I vowed, I would put them back in the cycle, so that future eaters could enjoy them too.

Special thanks to O.U.R. ecovillage. Photos supplied from their website athttp://ourecovillage.org/about/photos/

PowerShift: Unleashing a New Generation

Meet Ta’kaiya Blaney. At 12 years old, she’s the face of the newly unleashed chapter in the movement for climate justice. This past weekend, over 1000 youth and elders converged on the unceded Coast Salish territories commonly known as Victoria to participate in the biggest climate summit in BC history. Though many who attended the opening night of PowerShift may have been drawn in by the chance to listen to David Suzuki, it was Ta’kaiya who won everyone’s hearts.

ta'kaiya

From the Sliammon First Nation, Ta’kaiya captivated the crowd with her remarkable voice, singing an Indigenous welcome with her aunt Rose Henry, a local Indigenous activist. With steady strength, Ta’kaiya spoke of her own motivation to protect the lands of her ancestors from toxic pollution. She ended the night by belting out her own original songs like “Earth Revolution,” backed by Vancouver-based band the Boom Booms in an example of what can be possible when Indigenous and settler energies are joined in creative solidarity.

This is why PowerShift was a milestone in the fight for a clean, safe future for our communities. The history of rocky relationships between environmental groups and First Nations was summed up by Janet Rogers during the Idle No More rally at the close of the weekend: “Don’t poach us for your issues and then forget about us when we need help.”

The event was far from perfect, of course. But PowerShift was built on the recognition that this movement must be Indigenous-led and anti-racist at its core. Not only is it simply the right thing to do based on the historical dispossession of First Nations, but there’s a recognition that their rights and title are increasingly the only legal force standing in the way of more dirty energy projects in BC.

So we listened to youth voices from the front lines in the north. Voices like 19-year old Satsi Naziel, who has been successfully blockading pipeline development on her ancestral territories by building a community with traditional pit houses and permaculture gardens at the Unist’ot’en camp. Or Caleb Behn, a young Dene hunter who went to law school to fight dangerous fracking operations in the northeast, now ironically silenced from telling much of what he knows about the industry as a result of his career choice. Or Melina Laboucan Massimo, a Lubicon Cree who witnessed the destruction of her lands when 4.5 million litres of oil spilled into its wetlands and river systems, exacerbating the epidemic of rare and unusual cancers and other health problems faced by her community as a result of tar sands development. Melina lost multiple women in her life this year, including her little sister, to the violence against First Nations women that is a sad reflection of structural injustice and the violence reaped on the land.

As we bustled from one workshop to another on the UVic campus, I couldn’t help but think about these stories. I was uplifted to see so many youth younger than myself at PowerShift – not just the “usual suspects,” but many privileged high school students and undergrads wanting to get involved, a large number of whom were obviously being confronted with the idea of decolonization for the first time. This was one of PowerShift’s real successes.

Another of PowerShift’s real successes was the diversity of content. I gravitated toward the skill-building workshops, which included topics like non-violent direct action, community oil spill response, investigative journalism, working effectively in organizations, and practicing self-care. All pretty positive-sounding. But I found that even in these kinds of sessions, which were meant to be empowering, a lot of energy was spent on problem identification, leaving little time to get down to business figuring out solutions.

I met with my friends to debrief and compare notes. It seemed that this experience was a common thread. All the stories of destruction were wearing people down. It was a microcosm of the constant tension many of us feel in the work that we do: how can we strike a balance between being fighting against the urgent problems and working to build the solutions we so desperately need?

There is no final answer to this question, only a lifetime dedicated to that careful dance. But ultimately I did find some answers at PowerShift that stoked my motivational fire. For one thing, it was clear that people want more permaculture, so I’m going to keep throwing my energy into building that community. For another, this weekend empowered me with the knowledge that I, too, could step into more of a leadership role, and I know others felt the same.

Most importantly, though, the space was created for people from all backgrounds and corners of this province to meet, build relationships, and strengthen our community. It counters the feeling of isolation this system breeds – the sense of being alone in a huge struggle that powerful interests rely upon for their success. This was only the first of six regional PowerShift events to be held across the country. When you want to build a movement, you have to think in much longer timescales than our instant-message generation is used to. And you need to take the time to define the problem together. Seeing Indigenous youth and elders who have endured this destruction of their heritage for centuries, now reaching out to take our hands and share their songs with us, was a historic moment. Our willingness to be present and bear witness to their struggles was, as Indigenous hip hop performer JP The First Lady told us, “real reconciliation.”

legislature rally

The weekend ended the way it had begun: led by Indigenous women singing a women’s warrior song to the beat of their drums. But this time, they shared it with us. As a visitor on these threatened lands and as a woman angered by the authorities’ neglect of the countless missing and murdered Indigenous women from coast to coast, I was honoured to be invited to sing their song. On the steps of the legislature, on the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, we linked arms to say “No” to pipelines, supertankers, tar sands, and fracking, and “Yes” to a new generation of relationship.

Because it’s not a Right or Left issue; it’s not just a “Native issue”. As Maude Barlow and so many others insisted this weekend, it concerns every single one of us. Because we all drink water, and we all breathe air.

Top photograph courtesy of Priscilla Skylar Lee
Bottom photograph courtesy of Zack Embree @ zackembree.com

The festival scene: a review of Burning Man

Preparing to Burn

“What the hell are we going to do about this!?” In disbelief, I kicked a super size McDonald’s cup back toward the junk pile beneath the overflowing trash bin. How ironic. The one time in my life when my eco-despair – about litter, of all things! – was so overwhelming that I had to pull over on the highway.

Driving home from an electronic music festival, my partner and I had stopped on the crest of a hill to sit with our sorrow about the sea of trash on the forest floor discovered with the rising sun in its wake. It was just one of three festivals over the summer that had smashed my assumption that the gatherings in this environmentally-minded corner of the world were getting greener. If we couldn’t even figure out how to celebrate together without leaving behind an embarrassing mess, how were we supposed to tackle the really daunting environmental problems?

“Are we turning into frivolous festival junkies?” I agonized, worried that my activist self had finally been substantively surpassed by my inner pleasure-seeker. Worried because we would soon be on our way to Burning Man, the holy grail of grandiosity and hedonism – a journey with a giant ecological footprint. Marc, too, was distraught at the consumption and waste we had found ourselves complicit in that summer. Though we had long desired to experience Burning Man, now that the time had finally come, so had the guilt.

“We should set an intention,” he proposed. That way, we would have a way to channel our feelings into positive action. As we resumed our journey home, we agreed that we would participate in Burning Man in a way that was not wasteful and consumerist, but helpful. Our unspoken hope was that this would give Burning Man a meaning that redeemed the venture – and ourselves – in our critical eyes.

I quickly learned that our intention was easier said than done. I soon began stocking up on all sorts of gear: utility belts, dust masks, canvas tent, giant tarps, blinky LED lights, dust-proof rubbermaids, prepackaged dinners, more liquor than I had ever bought in a single purchase, and thirty gallons of my arch-nemesis: bottled water. I lost track of the number of thrift store trips for furry coats, hot pink cowboy boots, purple tutus, outrageous hats from bygone eras, and anything leopard print.

A few days before we set out for the Black Rock Desert, I met a young American couple in a workshop on sustainable living skills. They were ecstatic to hear I would soon be making my first foray to the burn. I interrupted a tirade on their favourite memories on the playa to ask their opinion of the environmental footprint of the event.

“Oh, it’s horribly unsustainable!” she bellowed. It would be their fourth burn. This, I would find, was a common story. If Burning Man was so wasteful, what exactly was it that kept conscious folks returning year after year?

Black Rock City

The moment we entered Black Rock City, I began to understand. “Welcome home!” the greeter shouted, pressing fat pocket-sized books into our hands. We opened them up. Tiny blue writing revealed the hundreds of events to choose from on any given day. Yep, hundreds. Camps with names like Rancho Sparkle Pony and Dr. Scrote’s Circumcision Wagon and Calamari Hut offered their talents and gifts, expecting nothing in return. I couldn’t help but wonder how much energy went into the naked bacon cook-offs and the cupcake decorating parties. But for every offering of a pickle cocktail or a root beer float, there were five offerings of a healing herbal infusion or an electrolyte-replenishing bowl of miso soup. We could have come completely unprepared and relied on the playa to provide.   All we really needed was our bikes: in the rich bike culture of Burning Man, transportation looked like cruisers dripping in neon fun fur, and carriage-style tricycles pedaled by men in silken vests and top hats. The bike-friendly layout centred on village hubs with dedicated gathering places to encourage interaction. Whenever a flat tire or a dust-riddled chain slowed us down, around the corner there was always a community cruiser to borrow, or a bike repair camp where grizzled veteran burners patiently revived them. If all cities were designed like this,I thought, we’d be miles ahead in sustainable transportation.

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The more we saw, the more we marveled at the civic responsibility that greased the wheels of this temporary city – a healthy, optimally functioning organism. The closest I have come to describing Black Rock City is that it is like being inside a Salvador Dali painting with sixty thousand other people. I couldn’t believe how many people traveled such great distances just to give free buzzcuts, tango lessons, deluxe foot massages, and Jewish motherly advice to strangers. Workshops for lovers to improve their relationships, healing circles for victims of abuse, and support groups for burners with addictions and mental illnesses hinted that a genuinely caring community existed on the playa. Speaker series, conferences, film festivals, and even educators’ consortiums provided spaces to share ideas on activism, ecology, community, spirituality, and philosophy. Burning Man even had its own newspaper and community radio station. VegCamp hosted enviro films and the Ask-A-Vegan booth, while Recycle Camp collected the empties. Workshops on constructing solar ovens, growing medicinal mushrooms, and building alternative energy and water systems abounded. All week, my garbage goggles were on. But I could hardly find any MOOP – Matter Out of Place – litter and wayward objects were snatched up too quickly.

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What genuinely troubled me, though, was an unbelievable amount of energy and resources used up for fleeting entertainment purposes. Hundreds of mutant vehicles and art cars packed with partiers wandered the playa day and night, blaring psy-trance and Frank Sinatra. A metal octopus several stories high shot gigantic balls of fire endlessly into a glowing sky criss-crossed with laser beams. Amateur conductors composed orchestras of fire using motion detectors. Hundreds of thousands of LED lights and throwaway glowsticks blinked across the playa. Dozens of brightly lit outdoor stages rattled with heavy bass. Beginning midway through the burn, colossal wooden art projects that had involved months of preparation went up in flames. It was Burning Man, after all.

We stumbled one night onto “Super Street Fire,” an installation modeled on a video game. Marc and I overheard the host boast to the crowd, “We’re going to burn five hundred pounds of propane tonight, ladies and gentlemen!” Sickened by the thought, we cycled back to camp for a reprieve from the madness.   We were just in time for an annual playa art walk with our campmates from Victoria. We bundled up in our fuzziest garb and struck out in a plodding mass of strange shapes in the cold desert darkness.

burningman

Time slipped away as we wandered amongst the endless art projects scattered through deep playa. We scaled giant preying mantises, lost ourselves in sparkling spiral mazes, and jammed on skeleton percussion sets. One by one, as tour mates were drawn away by the wonders of the night, our group shrunk and we began to get to know our fellow regional burners. Our tour guide was Lovely, a crude talking ringleader in a cherry Bo-Peep dress with blond pigtail braids and a shepherd’s crook bedazzled in glowing blue. This annual art walk was her gift to the community. Swimming in puffy pink bunny suits, Gano and Jen had braved the harsh desert several days early to set up the camp. Every day, they organized our camp’s festivities and offered up smooth, funky beats for everyone’s enjoyment. And of course there was Oz, a lanky black-caped creature and a longtime friend who had invited us to the camp, helping us navigate the complex planning process integral to the Burning Man trek.

Hours later, we found ourselves at the trash fence. At the far reaches of deep playa, the orange snow fence was intended to snag any stray MOOP that had blown away in dust storms. There was zero trash to be seen. At that moment, one tiny plastic wrapper blew up in the wind.

“Grab it!!” Oz and the others yelped simultaneously. I grinned, plucking it out of the air.

Our troupe collapsed together in a dusty cuddle puddle. Looking back across the three-mile expanse of Black Rock City, it was quiet for the first time in days.

“Congratulations,” barked Lovely, “You’ve made it to the beginning of the art walk.”

Shaking in laughter with the rest of the pack, I felt then as though I really had come home. Surrounded by old friends and new who all had something to share with me, I wanted to contribute back to the community that had welcomed me unconditionally. There was no doubt that Burning Man, despite its best intentions, was full of consumption and waste. But in reality, the impact of a day at Burning Man was really no different than a normal city day in the Default World. And there was a lot that the world could learn from the culture of Burning Man, built on community and a gift economy – something unheard of in our capitalist system. I wondered what would happen if, like Burning Man, festivals in my world truly worked to build a Leave No Trace culture. What kind of change could be possible if we actually brought home the core principles of Burning Man – radical self-reliance, self-expression and creativity, participation and collaboration – to our own lives? I thought back to the intention that Marc and I had set before embarking on our journey. At that moment, I finally knew how I could give back.

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