Size does matter: Choose Nano-Free products

  by John Billings   120 , Added:9/21/2009 4:35:00 AM

Nano Health

Nano growth -


Nanotechnology based products make their way onto store shelves without disclosure of risks or regulations.

Although the concept of nanotechnology as we know it was first introduced  by Richard Feynman in 1959, it has only been recently that great numbers of nanoproducts have shown up on store shelves. Current estimates suggest over 800 nanotechnology products and component products are available to consumers.  Although some products like tennis rackets are distinct and easy to identify, other component products or ingredients like packaging and food additives are much harder to recognize as nanotechnology.

The term ‘nano’ refers to things that are very small, usually less than 100 nm (nano meters) in size. To put that in perspective, a human hair is about 80,000 nm wide and red blood cell is about 7,000 nm, DNA about 3 nm. What’s important about things this small is that they no longer follow the predictable laws of physics but instead often act more unpredictably according to the laws of quantum mechanics.  Substances that act one way in a naturally occurring state may act entirely differently when broken down into nano-sized particles.  Aspects such as toxicity, solubility and reactivity can be less predictable.

Test tube studies have shown that some nanomaterials are toxic to human tissues, cells and DNA. Other studies have shown that some nanomaterials can kill beneficial soil bacteria and aquatic invertebrates, stunt plant root growth and cause brain damage in fish. Although not all nanomaterials will prove toxic to humans or the environment, there is a clear need for caution.

In a 2004 report, the United Kingdom's Royal Society recognized the serious risks of nano-toxicity and recommended that "ingredients in the form of nanoparticles should undergo a full safety assessment by the relevant scientific advisory body before they are permitted for use in consumer products". To my knowledge, there are currently no regulations in regards to nanotechnology in Canada or anywhere in the world .  Even Canadian Certified Organic products may legally contain nanoparticles. Despite having big budget nano-research programs, many big-name major food companies refuse to say publicly whether or not their food products contain nanotechnology.

 One of the more startling uses of nanotechnology occurs when it’s combined with genetic modification to conduct what is known as ‘synthetic biology’.  The goal of the synthetic biologist is to take control of the fundamental building blocks of life or the molecules that make up DNA.  By taking control of the molecules of DNA at this level,   synthetic biologists are able to create customized and clearly patentable strands of DNA from the ground up as opposed to just fusing the DNA of difference organisms like genetic engineering does.

With some moral reservations, I appreciate these discoveries and see them as valuable tools in expanding our understanding of the world around us. However, I am less enthusiastic about putting these technologies into our food and consumer products without labeling and disclosure and before rigorous environmental and human safety testing is completed and published. The Australian Government is in the process of setting up a commission to study how they may address concerns. A few companies are addressing consumer concerns by voluntarily labeling their products as ‘Nano-Free’.


Some common products that may contain nanotechnology are toothpaste, canola oil, sunscreen, skin creams, hair care products, insect repellants, bandages, antimicrobial soaps, disinfectant wipes, fabrics, air fresheners, water filters, waxes,  beer, vitamins and a variety of food additives, containers and packaging.






 Here is a list of some voluntarily disclosed products containing nanotechnology:

For a more detail information on the subject  follow these links;

WWOOF? Have fun, but no dogging it.

  by John Billings   69 , Added:6/8/2009 8:21:00 PM

Dogy -

WWOOFers in Austrailia -

Compost Girl -

WWOOFers in Nepal -

WWOOFers in Canada -

WWOOFers in in New Zealand -

WWOOFers in IceLand -

WWOOFers in Hawaii -

Do you or perhaps your family have some free time but not a lot of money and want to get out of town? Want a taste of what it would be like to pack it all up and move to the county?  Need some fresh air and exercise? Interested in a low cost way to see the world? Want to meet some new friends? Maybe WWOOFing is right for you.

Whether its means ‘willing to work on organic farm’,  ‘world wide opportunities on organic farms’ or ‘working weekends on organic farm’ the idea is fundamentally the same. Organic farming is labour intensive and often seasonal.  Since starting in UK the 1970’s, one way organic farmers around the world  have found to supplement their labor force is to host likeminded individuals on their farms to be a temporary part of their team.   In return for volunteered efforts, organic farmers give you place to stay, feed you and give you a chance to learn about farming.  As an added bonus, hosts are often in beautiful locations with opportunities for recreation and socializing with other WWOOFers.  They may have fun things to do on their property, local hiking trails or water access or provide excursions on the weekends to see the local sites and attractions. Some hosts may provide elaborate meals where others more basic fare. The only requirement to be a WWOOFer is that you are at least 16 years old or accompanied by a guardian. Most hosts accept WWOOFers late spring to early fall although there are a few that accept all year long.

WWOOFers are expected to work.  Farming is hard work and your host farm will not take kindly to you if you show up expecting to be on vacation.  Global WWOOF standards mandate  a maximum 4-6 hours of work a day  5 ½ days a week, the balance left for relaxing and recreation.  Hosts have often worked with many WWOOFers before and will have expectations of what you should be able to accomplish in that amount of time. You should be flexible in working on a team or possibly alone , being around animals, doing repetitive tasks and  taking on the assigned tasks without the need for a lot of instruction or explanations. At the same time you want to ensure that you are doing the task right. You don’t want to spend the day at a task to find out that you or someone else has to go back and redo it. Hosts often have many other responsibilities and will only have a little time to get you going on a task and then leave you to it for the day. Paying close attention to your host’s instructions while they are with you is the best way to ensure you have a rewarding experience.  The work is typically outdoors.  Wwoffers should check with their host as to what attire they should bring (coats, boots, work clothes, hat, gloves).

Accommodations range widely from living in the main house with family, separate cabin, dorms, hostels and tenting grounds. One can expect at least access to bathing and kitchen facilities. You may find yourself cohabitating space with other WWOOFers. You should be on your best behavior and be empathetic to the feelings of others.  Don’t expect to take long or frequest showers or stay up all night talking or partying. There are often rules WWOOFers may need to follow; lights out times, off limit areas, bathing restrictions and helping with meals. In many cases various lifestyles are preferred with some hosts catering specifically to gays, vegetarians, Christians, women, singles, couples or families with children. Many are strictly non-smoking. Pickup from local transit points can often be arranged with hosts and they may have bikes and possibly a small boat or canoe to explore the local area.  For the most part, hosts are just people with families, pets and a piece of land out in the country they are working to make a living.

WWOOFers or hosts who don’t follow the rules can be blacklisted from their associated service. It is important to use recognized WWOOFer referral services as opposed to finding hosts in places like internet chat rooms. Most WWOOF services have ways for hosts and WWOOFers to comment on each other providing a way to check references.  A woofer can leave at any time, or be asked to leave at any time if things go awry. It may be a good idea for you to have a ‘plan B’ for your accommodations for the rare case in which things don’t work out.  Leaving early or last-minute cancelations without good reasons may also lead to a wwoffer being blacklisted.  It can be very disruptive for a farmer’s operations  to have you walk-out on them or not show up when there were other willing WWOOFers they may have turned down to accept  your stay. They often go to great effort and expense to prepare accommodations, provide food and transportation for WWOOFers. Some hosts may ask you to sign a written statement to ensure you understand you obligations and promises.  Some require stays of 2 weeks or more where others have so many requests they may only let you stay a few days.

Canadian WWOOFing seems to garner particular interest from Japanese and European travelers seeking low cost ways to explore the world. Many hosts make special note of the various languages they speak. One might get a chance to meet people from anywhere in the world. Foreign WWOOFers in Canada do not require Visas as it is considered volunteering but they will have to provide their own health insurance.  Roughly %50 of WWOOFers are from other countries.

WWOOFing has become so successful it has branched beyond farming. Some host operations include restaurants, retreats, spas, guide camps and marinas. The work varies on the time of year and what any host has on the go. Here is a short list of the type of work you might experience; weeding, cultivating, picking, tending animals, bee keeping, haying, making preserves or soaps, firewood, fencing, carpentry, painting, cooking, tending to paying guests.

WWOOFing opportunities can be as varied as the hosts that offer them and the place where they are located. They key to a great WWOOFing experience is to find a host that is right for you. Once you think you have found one, contact  them to sure everyone’s expectations are understood. Have fun, but no dogging it.

Here are some links to explore WWOOFing further;

  WWOOF - World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

International WWOOF Network

WWOOF Canada


WWOOF - Australia



Ontario Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Now In Effect

  by John Billings   75 , Added:4/22/2009 1:20:00 AM

As of today over 250 pesticides will be removed from Ontario stores.

Queen's Park, Toronto - There should be a little less drifting off Ontario lawns and gardens this  spring as provincial legislation to ban pesticides for cosmetic usegoes into effect. As part of the province's ‘toxics reduction strategy’,  that recently included Bisphenol A, many more endocrine disruptors and carcinogens are now banned to the general public. Critics are left to ponder what may be in store as the  legislation  exempts businesses, for example those using the pesticides to produce food, manage golf courses or forests. Perhaps in time the ban will be applied to everyone.

Pesticides, as a legal term, refers to any product containing the listed insecticides, herbicides or fungicides.  A products and ingredients link on a MOE website, lists the 70 chemicals found in over 300 products to be banned for cosmetic use. The list includes many common weed and feeds, weed killers and bug sprays. More...

Go Bananas, Organically

  by John Billings   134 , Added:4/2/2009 6:48:00 PM

  Will organic bananas save the whole industry?

Carmen Miranda (

Wild Banana - Wikimedia.orgWild bananas are typically green, football shaped and un-edible due to their seeds. Edible bananas, the yellow sweet, seedless kind we find at the grocers are actually mutations. Single freak plants discovered in the wild, in some cases thousands of years ago, alive today only through the ongoing cutting techniques of cultivators. Seedless and sterile mutants, their DNA frozen in time. 

Until the 1950's the Gros Michel variety was the most common type of banana found in Canadian supermarkets. Then a soil disease called Panama Wilt appeared, spread worldwide, and almost completely wiped out Gros Michael stocks. At that point growers switched to the smaller, less sweet , fungus-resistant Cavendish variety common today. But now the Cavendish variety is at risk to a new strain of Panama Disease called Race 4 and its again spreading globally. 

Conventional exporters are now requiring plantation wide sprayings, some up to 40 times a year and bananas be floated in tanks of sodium hydrochlorite solution before shipping. Many plantations, at the protest of their workers and surrounding communities are resorting to aerial spraying to try to gain some ground on the disease. The most common class of fungicides used, EBDCs (ethylenebisdithiocarbamate), ethylenebisdithiocarbamate (EBDC) - Wikimedia.orgcause skin and respiratory problems in workers and are suspected in causing nerve damage, leukemia and birth defects. Conventional wisdom assumes consumer's risks from EBDCs are low due to the 7 day half-life of the fungicide, so in the 3-4 week time-frame product takes to ship to market, the pesticide will have dissipated to low levels. 

Fair Trade Certified bananas are appearing on the market in response to health concerns and the often deplorable conditions workers and their families face. Fair Trade certifications provide consumers another level of confidence in addition to organic, verifying workers and their communities are treated fairly. Dole Organic, Canada's largest Organic Banana supplier is rumored to be making efforts to have all their Organic Plantations Fair Trade Certified in the near future. Until then they will be marketing their Organic Fair Trade products under specialty and private labels.

Farmers must push their crops harder to pay the extra costs. Bananas are heavy feeders, they can readily consume chemical fertilizers, increasing plant density but leaving soil lifeless, depleted of organic matter and associated nutrients. Without actively decaying mater, tropical soil loses its auto-immune capabilities, becoming susceptible to Fusarium Wilts like Panama Disease. A cascade of pests can then ensue including nematodes, weevils, thrips, molds, scabs and mildews leaving a plantation utterly dependant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to survive. And like with Gros Michel before, again the problem is spreading globally.

Dr. Emile Frison, head of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBP), warns the world's supply of edible bananas could disappear if drastic action is not taken to stop the worldwide Panama Disease pandemic. He has created a global consortium of scientists to sequence the Banana genome. So far, banana producers are unconvinced that Genetic Engineering is required to save the industry, fearing consumer backlash they have yet to release any new organisms. Co-incidentally, the US government, as part of its 'war of drugs', has been involved in the controversial program of actively spreading Panama Disease through Columbia and other Andean counties in attempt to eradicate the coca plant.

Organic growers are showing soils teeming with life prevent outbreaks of Panama disease. When plant spacing is more moderate, old banana plants are chopped up an re-incorporated, soil health improves, Panama Disease is avoided and banana flavor improves. With proper tillage and sun exposure combined, Pangola grass can control nematodes. So long as consumers are willing to pay the extra price, Organic Plantations should continue to thrive and millions of tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides will not be released in our environment, genetically modified organism contained in the lab. Perhaps one day, as consumer awareness rises and the resulting values manifested, conventional banana farming techniques will be discarded in favor sustainable, organic, fair trade methods.

Consumers can ensure their bananas are organic by checking the PLU# number on the brand sticker of the bananas. Bananas sold in Canada should be labeled with one of these PLU Codes;

04011 - Conventional
84011 - Genetically Modified
94011 - Organic 

Organic Bananas are harvested green, three quarters full or ripe, shipped quickly to the coast where they are cooled to 17°C , packed in boats and shipped to market. Upon arrival the organic bananas, like conventional ones, are placed in ripening chambers and exposed to ethylene gas.ethylene - Ethylene is a gas many types of fruit naturally produce as part of their ripening process. As fruits ripen they naturally release ethylene as part of a self-reinforcing process that then in turn induces further ripening. This is likely something plants do to ensure they ripen evenly. So by controlling exposure to ethylene grocers keep bananas green and firm for shipping and are able to have them quickly ripen once they reach market. Ethylene is  approved for Organic Certification in Canada. 

Banana Tree -
Tips for Bananas.


Why Obama needs farmers to tackle Climate Change

  by Craig Frayne   41 , Added:3/17/2009 5:42:00 PM

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

  The challenge that president Obama faces entering office has been compared with that of Roosevelt during the great depression. With all of the high hopes surrounding Obama’s environment and energy policies, there is one issue that Roosevelt seemed to understand that Barak Obama must learn in order to have coherent policies on global warming and the environment: the depletion and degradation of North America’s topsoil.  

The Obama administration and Canada’s government need to make topsoil a cornerstone of the emerging policies to address global warming, food security, and rural economies.           

In his recent congressional address, Barak Obama was adamant that America must not leave its massive budget deficits to future generations. There is no mention, however, of this looming deficit in natural capital that could threaten the ability of future generations to even feed themselves, let alone enjoy prosperity.

Every year in North America we lose topsoil at an average rate that ranges anywhere from 10 to hundreds of times the rate at which new soil is formed. Within a century, the regions in North America blessed with some of the world’s best agricultural land have lost up to 8 inches of topsoil (average topsoil depth is 12-16 inches). In addition to future concerns, there are immediate consequences. Studies have found that losing an inch of topsoil reduces corn and wheat yields by an average of 6 percent (Eco Economy, Lester Brown).


Conserving and rebuilding soil must become central in efforts to combat climate change. When the carbon in soil is exposed to oxygen through tilling it forms the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Strategies central to Organic farming such as no-till, improved grazing, nutrient management, and cover cropping can prevent the release of carbon and sequester the existing carbon from the atmosphere. A 2004 Ohio State University study published in Science found that carbon sequestration in soils has the potential to offset fossil fuel emissions by 0.4 to 1.2 gigatons of carbon per year, or 5-15% of global fossil fuel emissions. While there is still debate about sequestration rates, the study’s author Ratten Lal states that American soils have the potential to soak up 100 million tons of carbon per year, about the equivalent to half of all the nation’s auto emissions.


The topic of soil erosion is not new and sequestration is starting to be understood. President Obama even included carbon sequestration in his “Plan for Rural America”. The issue is not that topsoil loss and carbon sequestration is being ignored, but that it is not being given enough attention in world focused on climate change. Perhaps this is because topsoil does not have the symbolic appeal of something like wind turbines and is not as direct to people’s lives as energy. Transforming to a renewable energy economy, however, will be a long-term endeavor and fossil fuels will likely be a primary energy source for decades to come. Soil carbon sequestration could be an effective way to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide for the next decades until fossil fuels can be replaced.


There is the need for the coherent integration of climate change and agriculture policies. Obama’s continued support for biofuels drives a stake into the heart of any policies to address soil health, the environment and energy. Even if all U.S. corn were converted to biofuel it would provide less than 20% of the nation’s liquid fuel use. Biofuels will intensify the current production of row crops (which cause relatively high erosion rates). Any rhetoric about how biofuels cut greenhouse gas emissions does not take into account carbon emissions resulting from land use changes inherent in growing crops for fuel. A recent study in Science found that using corn based biofuel doubles greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, while switchgrass based fuels increased emissions by 50%.  While there is a role for using waste products for small-scale biofuel production, soil and climate change is yet another reason why large-scale biofuel production (as supported by Obama) is a bad idea. If the intent of these policies is to support rural economies there are surely much better ways to do it.

 Soil erosion

While farmers and policy makers have taken steps to address soil erosion, there is a tremendous need to put a greater value on soil conservation. The inclusion of soil in carbon trading has begun, but the current value of credits does not seem to be enough to address the importance of this topic. One possibility is to boost market demand for food grown with farming practices (such as Organic) that build and conserve soil. Another would be to make soil conservation (and other environmental services) a precondition for receiving agricultural subsidies.


With so much emphasis on the need to build a ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘green jobs’, agriculture could be recognized as a vibrant, ideas driven industry where consumer education and job training show the connection between food production, global warming, health, the environment.      



Global Disease Alert Map

  by John Billings   15 , Added:2/3/2009 7:08:00 PM

  Keep an eye out for encroaching diseases.

Ever wonder how the Avian Flue Pandemic is developing.  How rare is Listeriosis. Any food borne or hospital related illnesses around I should be aware of? Dengue Fever, Hanta Virus, Ebola, Rabies. Check statuses of almost 100 health threats across Canada and worldwide.

Proponents of organic farming and naturopathic health services have predicted accelerated introductions of Genetically Modified Organisms would raise the risks of epidemics and eventually pandemics. This could be a very interesting site to watch over the next few years.

HealthMap.Org lists a wide variety of colour coded health related warnings and reports from around the world in five languages.


Peak Phosphorus and Organic Agriculture

  by Craig Frayne   21 , Added:2/3/2009 5:46:00 AM

  Phosphorous shortages could soon make Organics the norm.
photo credit: Raven, Peter, Linda Berg. Environment third edition. Harcourt:2001

Phosphorus @ 3Dchem.comThe prevailing message at 2009 Organic Agriculture conference was that Organics (and other approaches to food and the environment) should not be seen as ‘alternative’. In fact, in the context of historical and future food production, modern ‘mainstream’ agriculture can be seen as a temporary diversion from the ancient imperative of nutrient cycling. The current use of Phosphorus fertilizers clearly displays this point. 

In the classic Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and  Japan, F.H. King explains how the practice of returning animal and human waste to the  soil has allowed Asian agriculture to remain productive for thousands of years. This is in contrast to most other civilizations, which seem to have risen and fallen (together with the productivity of their soils) over much shorter time spans. This is a simplification of course, but one cannot help but compare the past with our current reality: a civilization which spans the globe and, through the use finite mineral reserves, has abandoned the simple principle of nutrient cycling.   

In the wake of ‘Peak Oil’, the term ‘Peak Phosphorus’ is starting to get attention in the media. The fact is we can live without oil, but this is not the case with Phosphorus. Plants, animals, humans, and microbes cannot exist without it. Reserves of phosphate rock (from which fertilizer is made) have been estimated at anywhere between 30-300 years. Regardless of the exact numbers, our behaviors with respect to this nutrient will have to change within generations. With reserves existing in only a handful of regions, we are already seeing political consequences of future shortages. China and Brazil have shown protectionist tendencies with respect to mines that supply the fertilizer industry.

  In light of ‘Peak Phosphorus’, Organic agriculture, or any form of food  production based on rebuilding soil and cycling nutrients, is no longer an alternative but  an imperative. This does not entail simply reverting to ancient techniques, but implementing a combination of modern technology and ancient principles. For example, urine diverting toilets, industrial scale composting, and chemical/biological phosphate recovery techniques could be combined with traditional farming practices such as mulching, green manure, and crop rotation. To the consumer, such ‘Organic’ methods should be seen as being based on robust science, whereas conventional modern agriculture lies on shaky foundations. This would require an inversion of today’s popular opinion that Organic is a nice alternative but is not suitable to feed the world.  

In his keynote address at the 2009 Organics Conference, Wayne Roberts argued  that Organics is at a ‘Tipping Point’ where it has become mainstream (with 2% market  share) and growth is starting to level off. The situation with Phosphorous should be sufficient for public policy to push Organic over the edge and truly make it the status quo. 

Green Behind the Ears: An adventure in Organic

  by Michelle Schuster   5 , Added:1/28/2009 1:59:00 AM

  Guelph Organic Conference: Not your Average Garden Variety Trade Show.

  People - Great Hall

I had no idea what I was in for when attending the Guelph Organic Conference. As a total novice gardener (my green thumb still wrapped in the biodegradable plastic it came in). – I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean the 70’s kitsch architectural décor stormed back memories of the force fed science fairs I attended as a kid but this apprehensive flash-black was quickly quashed when I was swept away booth after booth by interesting and intriguing presentations. It was obvious that this was more than just a trade show… it was a philosophical movement with a totally new way of thinking about life...but the must have first stop would have to be THE FOOD!  


It had EVERYTHING from home stewed soups to exotic nuts (+1 if you include me!). AND THE SWAG! Creamy sample yogurt delights from Stonyfield Farms, a virtual snackage-grab-bag from Nature’s Path, crispy wheat free-gluten-free-practically-for-free cassava crackers from Craquelins. I even snagged a sample bottle of Schafer Liquid Fish fertilizer that nary carried a whiff of eau de walleye and fit snuggly into my purse. It was a smorgasbord of fun stuff that brought back the better memories of the old CNE back when tasters meant a mouthful that kept you coming back for more.

  People - Side Hall

And yet beyond the trade hocking of fabulous wares was a vast network of community minded organizations and sellers that were there to help you every step of the way. From organic seed sellers like The Cottage Gardener out preserve our delicate heirloom past to associations that enlisted internship opportunities or negotiated land for burgeoning farmers like Everdale-Organic Farm. It even went beyond Product Distributors interested in selling, if someone didn’t have something they’d point to the booth down the way or recall from the cobwebs of their mind someone somewhere who could somehow help. I mean Wow!


Everywhere you turned at the Conference support could be found, sometimes reaching beyond the norms of a typical gardening show. From sprouting your own greens initiative through Organic Botanic to growing your own compost with the fastidious worms of Cathy’s Crawlers; do it yourselfers had plenty of non-hands on help. Even environmental construction found a home with ecological building ideas from the Ontario Straw Bale Building Coalition or you could find new empowerment with alternative energy though Windfall Ecology Centre. Heck there was even a way to consciously and environmentally deal with pests. PESTS! With Greenleaf Pest Control. Who knew you didn’t have to kill yourself trying to eradicate others!?!

 Yes, what I thought was going to be a ½ hour blow through turned out to be a 3 hour adventure that I will definitely be going back to with bigger bags, better shoes and something I had never really considered owning before…A hope for the future.


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