Lisa Harris (lrph) Mon 7 Jul 08 06:27
Our next guest is Jeff Gillman, author of "The Truth About Organic Gardening". Jeff was raised in Southeastern Pennsylvania and attended Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. After college he headed South to the University of Georgia where he earned a masters degree in entomology and a Ph.D. in horticulture. Jeff is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota where he teaches courses on nursery management, plant propagation, and pesticides and researches a wide variety of plant health issues. He is also the author of the books "The Truth about Garden Remedies" and "The Truth about Organic Gardening". Leading our conversation is WELL member Angie Coiro. In seventh grade, Angie was chosen to read the morning announcements at Coquillard Middle School in South Bend, Indiana. She has been unable to shut up ever since. After 15 years in public radio, she made the break to Air America, hosting Mother Jones Radio. She's received multiple awards for her work, most prestigiously the 2003 Public Radio News Directors award for the best public radio interview in the country that year. (Her guest: Salman Rushdie.) Most recently, Angie is the host of "The Angie Coiro Show" (formerly, "The Green Show with ANgie Coiro") on KKGN in San Francisco. She lives in the Bay Area with an everchanging cast of cats. Welcome Jeff and Angie!
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Tue 8 Jul 08 06:35
Thank you for having me! I'm looking forward to some interesting discussion on organic gardening, organic food, organic methods, and the organic movement in general.
Angie (coiro) Tue 8 Jul 08 11:13
Jeff, welcome to the Well! I was so tickled that your book was picked up for an interview here. Jeff and I have crossed paths once before; he was my guest on Green960 on May 18 of this year. You can find the podcast on this page, if you'd like to give it a listen. It should be a nice companion piece to this interview: <http://green960.com/cc-common/podcast/single_podcast.html?podcast=greenshow.xm l> or <http://tinyurl.com/4mw62u>
Angie (coiro) Tue 8 Jul 08 11:18
Jeff, there's a wealth of information out there on organic gardening - books, magazines, newspaper columns, and of course the internet. What gap in that sea did you set out to fill? And are you, first and foremost, an organic gardener?
Angie (coiro) Tue 8 Jul 08 15:50
And while I'm at it - what do you find to be the most reliable sources of organic gardening information? Over and above the book we're about to discuss, of course.
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Tue 8 Jul 08 16:18
Hi Angie, When I wrote this book I set out to give honest answers about how effective and safe various organic gardening techniques are. Right now there aren't many sources for information about which organic techniques work and how safe they are outside of the scientific literature. What I usually see is someone touting their product as organic and then we, the public, are supposed to assume that just because this product is organic it is necessarily safe and effective, which is a mistaken assumption. Now the BIG question, am I an organic gardener, well, first you need to define what you mean by an organic gardener -- there is no official definition. If you're asking whether I avoid synthetic chemicals the answer is no. I run a nursery at the University of Minnesota where I use both organic and synthetic techniques depending on which is most appropriate for the situation in terms of efficacy and safety. At home I follow the same rule, I use the safest most effective product that I can regardless of whether it comes from a plant or a test-tube. I'm happy to say that often "natural" products work great -- but I haven't found anything equal to Round-Up yet for getting rid of tough brush. And I've found few pesticides that I find scarier than Rotenone (from the root of a South American plant). But I should also mention that my preferred techniques for dealing with pests include leaving them be, squishing them with my fingers or pulling them out of the ground by hand (for weeds). But the idea around which organic gardening revolves is healthy soil. Renewing the soil with compost, old plant material and manure is central to any organic garden. In fact, our organic movement today comes from studies in the 1800s and 1900s which show that renewing the soil with these materials is the best way to keep plants healthy. I most assuredly do all that I can to keep healthy soil high in organic material in both my nursery and around my home. Most reliable sources for information about organic gardening...hmmm...I think that the best book out there about organic gardening, even though it doesn't have the word organic in it, is Lee Reich's book Weedless gardening. It's basically about how to keep your soil healthy. It's a great resource. For pest control I don't trust many texts. Simply put, they tend to be much too enthusiastic about organic techniques without properly acknowledging their drawbacks.
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Wed 9 Jul 08 11:36
> What I usually see is someone touting their product as > organic and then we, the public, are supposed to assume that just > because this product is organic it is necessarily safe and effective, > which is a mistaken assumption. I wondered about that. The problem is how can a consumer know what to buy?
Angie (coiro) Wed 9 Jul 08 11:53
And while Jeff ponders that ... Re "what's an organic gardener": I wonder if most people aren't in fact closer to your practices than we might assume. Sure, every movement has purists - and they're probably the most evangelistic, the most inclined to publish and share their points of view. I'd lay money the most of us though will stick to Earth-kind practices as much as possible, then - regretfully, perhaps - reach for the Malathion or the Round-Up when all else fails. Hey, let's talk about Round-Up. You wanna talk about pissing off the purists! - I got an earful from a listener after our show together. Your stance on that, and the reactions to it, are emblematic of the nerves you touch with parts of your book. So tell us about your opinion of Round-up, how it's reflected in your book, and the reactions you've gotten to that. Also: which other reviews of products or procedures have provoked similar outcry? What are some of the best conversations you've been privy to involving your book and its more controversial elements.
Paulina Borsook (loris) Wed 9 Jul 08 12:14
i know many folks are surprised by what is allowed under 'usda organic'...and i know many farmers selling at farmers' markets dont use the term 'organic', but dont use pesticides or herbicides. so, it's tricky...
a plague of cilantro (cjp) Wed 9 Jul 08 12:44
I have SO been looking forward to this discussion. Thanks for joining us, Jeff! I will be paying rapt attention on the sidelines until the spirit moves me to pipe up...
Alan Turner (arturner) Wed 9 Jul 08 17:01
Hi, Jeff! First, I want to say that you've written a nice book, packed with information and anaysis. I might have followed the same career as you (was going for a dual major in horticulture and chemistry, with the idea of working for Monsanto or DuPont some day, but the shiny glittery career of design sidetracked me - long story). Most of the time as I was reading your book, I was saying to myself: yes, yes, I remember that, and so on. Some of the pesticides and methods hadn't been invented when I was in college, so it was a good update for me. One thing that I was expecting to see any page now was the LD-50 of various pesticides, as compared to each other and common household chemicals. Instead, you mention the EIQ. Is that the new thing? LD-50 was pretty crude, but the best measure available at the time.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 9 Jul 08 17:11
To our off-WELL readers, if you would like to join the conversation, please send your comments to <email@example.com>.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 9 Jul 08 17:17
Hi Jeff. Really liked the book. I learned a lot. In discussing your book with my husband and a friend, it seems as though you are analgous to the vegetarian vs vegan in organic vs uber-organic. There is a tremendous amount of very useful information based on real science and real world results. How did you go about finding the data?
Angie (coiro) Wed 9 Jul 08 17:19
Jeff, Alan hosted the <garden.> conference on the Well forever, and quite beautifully. Now that he's retired, <cjp> and I are doing our best to hold up the standard. You might want to visit us over there! Some great questions piling in. I suspect my job here is gonna be pretty darned easy ...
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Wed 9 Jul 08 19:04
Wow, so many questions and comments! -- I'll try to take them in order. First, how can the consumer know what to buy -- if you mean fruit and veggies, its actually simple. If you're trying to avoid pesticides (both organic and synthetic) then you should do a google search for fruits and veggies that are likely to have the highest and lowest amounts of synthetic pesticides. Onions are often on the list and a few others. Fruits and veggies that have the highest amounts of synthetic pesticide applied to them will usually also have the highest amounts of organic pesticides applied, so these are the ones to avoid. If you're just afraid of synthetics then you can eat all of the organic apples and peaches you want (two fruits that usually have lots of pesticides applied) -- they'll have lower amounts of synthetic pesticides, but they'll probably be loaded with organics. Second, Round-Up. Hey if anyone gives you an earful send them to me, I've spend the last ten years looking for proof that it's necessarily bad -- proof that just doesn't seem to exist as far as I can tell despite lots of people trying. Most extremists look to a few studies that have shown that Round-Up MAY have detrimental effects and use these to PROVE that they do. I spend a little bit of space discussing this in the book. It really doesn't make much sense. I don't think that Round-Up is the be all end all of pesticides. It isn't perfect, and it can be detrimental to the environment if it's misused in some easily conceivable ways BUT it's pretty darn safe for a pesticide and light years better than many organic pesticides in terms of both environmental impact and human health. Sure, pulling weeds by hand is better, but if you're careful there just isn't much evidence that Round-Up is that bad for the environment. One caveat to the above paragraph, the active ingredient in Round-Up, glyphosate, can be mixed with other stuff that is much more damaging to the environment than the glyphosate itself -- and this can also be called Round-Up. So it gets pretty tricky -- if you're buying a pesticide from the garden center shelf you should always check the active ingredients in that pesticide. That's where my book comes in -- it enables you to do that and have some clue what the active ingredients in a pesticide are and what they do. Farmers markets are great -- they'll usually be very honest with you about what they applied -- I like the farmers who apply a little pesticide only when they have to -- and whose fruit is just a little spotty -- they're the ones I trust. The guys who tell me they never spray anything and then show me spotless apples....I grew up on an apple orchard, it's tough to get spotless apples without poison... LD-50 is still used -- I chose to go with EIQ ratings -- which are not commonly available -- because I felt they did a good job of describing the total danger of the poison. Though LD-50 values are still the standard they have a lot of weaknesses, not the least of which is that they're performed on animals like rats, mice and rabbits making the exactness of the value for humans highly questionable. Shoot, if a chemical is extremely poisonous I figured that I could just say "hey this stuff is hot as Hades" which I do a couple of times in the book (such as with nicotine). To find data for the book I mostly looked through scientific literature, both old and new. There's plenty of it out there, but most people don't have the means to use it. I see my role as taking this literature and making it accessible. Plenty of other people at Universities do exactly what I did (they're called extension specialists), but I managed to luck out by convincing a publisher to print what I wrote in a book and market it. Most academics don't do a good job of marketing themselves or the information that they want to present -- I'm pretty bad at it myself -- publishers tend to be good at it -- after all, it's how they make money. I think that covers what I've seen so far, but I'm hoping that ya'll have more for tomorrow! Cheers, Jeff
Paulina Borsook (loris) Wed 9 Jul 08 21:57
wrt farmers' markets --- i was really struck by the distinction you make at a farmer's market i just went to in southern calif. most of the stuff was NOT labeled organic, but a lot was 'grown without spray'. the produce wasnt perfect-looking --- but not an issue. BUT there was a stand there selling 'usda organic' where the fruit had the stickers on it you see in grocery stores. i talked with the seller and he said that 90 percent of what they grow they sell to whole foods --- and what doesnt make it cosmetically they sell at the farmers' markets. still, their stuff was more uniform and featureless than the rest of the produce i was for sale there. and of course didnt taste any better.
Alan Turner (arturner) Thu 10 Jul 08 17:11
For thouse who don't know the term, LD-50 is the dose at which 50% of the test animals die with a single exposure. So another reason that it's not very helpful (besides that it's measured on rats and not humans) is that the LD-50 of ethyl alcohol tells you not to drink a quart of tequila at once, but it doesn't tell you anything about fetal alcohol syndrome or cirrhosis of the liver after repeated exposure at much lower levels. The EIQ ratings are very intersting and quite useful. New to me!
Lisa Harris (lrph) Thu 10 Jul 08 17:34
thanks for the clarification.
Angie (coiro) Fri 11 Jul 08 00:09
Jeff, let's talk about compost tea. I paged ahead to that early on, as I'd heard about it a lot but had never tried it. I was surprised to see it examined as a disease fighter - with sugar in it, no less. I'd always heard of it as a nutrient - soak your compost, use the water on your plants. Which leads me to think that for every bit of garden wisdom (or myth), there are multiple versions. How did you decide what to look into? What didn't make the cut? And what conclusions surprised you personally?
Jeff Gillman (jeffgillman) Fri 11 Jul 08 07:10
I hear more from people who believe in compost tea and think I'm crazy for saying it doesn't work than from any other group. I placed compost tea in the disease fighting section because that's where I felt there was the most (mis)information, but I could have easily placed it in the section where I discussed fertilizers. For those of you who don't know, compost tea is basically a tea where compost is steeped in water (not hot water), usually with a little sugar added. This causes bacteria and perhaps fungi to grow which are theoretically good for the garden. The problem is that it has never been proven to be good for the garden (despite testing) and it could grow diseases like salmonella and E. coli -- which would obviously be pretty bad. Deciding what made the cut and what didn't was pretty difficult. At this point I wish that I'd included compost tea in two sections rather than just one, I wish that I'd spent some time on till vs. no-till gardening, and I also wish I'd spent more time on the organic food section. The cut off was a matter of time -- I like to meet deadlines -- as well as a matter of minutiae -- what practices are and aren't likely to be considered by the typical organic gardener. I have a question for people viewing this site. Something that I've been wanting to ask a large group of people not necessarily invested in gardening for a long time: Do you think organic fruits and vegetables from the store are safer and/or healthier than non-organically produced ones? Why?
Angie (coiro) Fri 11 Jul 08 07:34
I just attempted several answers at that and dumped them. Obviously needing a.) more pondering and b.) more coffee, I'll give it some time. While others post their answers, Jeff, here's another for you: earlier you talked a bit about your own gardening techniques. Can you tell us about your garden? What's in it? Is it a family project or your own private "workshop"? How has it changed over the years, and how have you evolved as a gardener?
Mr. Death is coming after you, too (divinea) Fri 11 Jul 08 09:36
Just checking in to say how much I'm enjoying the book. I think I sold my doctor a copy this morning, as I had it with me and we got into quite a conversation about our mutual heirloom tomato addictions. He was thrilled to see a book about organic gardening with some actual science in it! Anyway: I'm going to hold my question till the appropriate time, and answer Jeff's latest one. I think that organically grown fruits and vegetables are healthier *for me* because I have known pesticide allergies. I suspect, knowing the little that I do about substances applied to commercially grown produce, that they are also a healthier choice for my child, who is also beset by allergies. I'm aware, though, that even organic fertilizers, disease preventatives and pesticides have risks attached- for example, I got a faceful of pyrethrins accidentally, years ago, and I date my asthma to that event. I've read so much conflicting information that some days I feel like, well, there's nothing to lose by eating "organic" produce, and possibly a good bit to gain. I have read quite a bit about organic or healthier choices in meat and dairy, and am converted on those choices, for both me and my daughter.
Mr. Death is coming after you, too (divinea) Fri 11 Jul 08 09:38
ps. I am a religious user of manure tea, as I was taught by my grandfather-of-the-amazing-gardens, but I get my manure from a source where I know exactly what's going into the horses, and therefore have a good idea what's coming out.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 11 Jul 08 14:43
"Tea" is not just a way of applying the fertilizer, but something like fermention for plant nutrients? IF so that's pretty wild. In terms of buying organic, as a data-point, I do it for strawberries since I know they often get heavy-duty treatment. I buy other organic foods (if they look good to me and the price is ok) to protect chemical workers, farmworkers and soil from long term exposure to toxic petrochemicals of various kinds, not so much for health and safety personally. Same with not eating poultry or cattle for that matter. For me it's a land, waste and resources choice since studying those issues years ago. I think quite a few people make some choices of organics on a vague "for the better good" sense that is a version of this overall resource footprint philosophy.
Alan Turner (arturner) Fri 11 Jul 08 17:39
The question of whether to buy organic produce or not reminds me of the story reported in my local paper in the 1980s where a woman got out of her car at the supermarket, put out her cigarette, and stormed in to demand Alar-free apples. As a gardener, I'm a bit skittish of most chemical pesticides, mainly because I did some trials of various things when I was in AG school in the late 70s and wound up with a case of chloracne that lasted well into the 80s. So, no phenoxyl's for me, thank you very much. No Chemlawn truck here, either. Just this year I tried corn glutein meal for the lawn (the little bit that I haven't eliminated already, but in this neighborhood you have to have some lawn), but of course I won't know the result until the year after next. I'll use Roundup on poison ivy, but if it's just some common weeds on my brick patio, well, that's a fine place for me to dump the hot boiling water from canning project, since I have to dump it someplace anyway. I've never seen parboiled plantain weed recover. At the grocery store, I'm not terribly worried about pesticide residues for myself, but like <gail>, I think it's worthwhile to support growers that don't require their employees to use petrochemical derivitaves, often without proper instruction or protective gear. I find that the tomatoes from the Amish growers we have in my area are tastier than anything from the supermarket, but I bet it has more to do with their being local and not preharvested and the shorter delivery time than anything about them not buying stuff from Dow or Monsanto.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Fri 11 Jul 08 17:48
I go to a local produce market run by local growers (they do ship in things we don't grow locally or seasonally). I don't know what kinds of chemicals or not they do or don't use. I don't care. I wash everything well, and I take my chances. The members of my family are blessed with iron stomachs and no food allergies, so we run with whatever is there. I do not buy produce at the supermarket, and although the produce at Whole Foods is absolutely beautiful, I prefer the local, ugly and cheap.
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