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Friday, August 1, 2014

Some thoughts on GMOs

Here's a little paper that I wrote for a Biochemistry class last summer.  It's by no means comprehensive, but might offer some (organic) food for thought.  Enjoy :)

GMO Opinion Paper 
June 24, 2013

Since the prehistoric development of agriculture, the relationship with the earth has tenuous. Humans have been perpetually trying to coax more from land by fostering fertility and warding off pests through a variety of methods, the most recent of which is the genetic modification of organisms. When compared to the chemical heavy “conventional” farming techniques that have been in use since the “Green Revolution” of the early 20th century, GM has increased yield in some cases and a decreased the use of toxic pesticides. However, I contend that the potential increased yield seen from GM crops is not worth implementing, since organic farming-the synthesis of many different low impact practices-has been shown to be incredibly energy efficient, can provide enough food to feed the world’s current and future populations, and presents a multi- faceted response to a multi-faceted issue.

Although my research did not turn up any studies which directly compared organic farming to GMO farming, I did find studies comparing organic to conventional, and those showed that an organic approach to farming was farm more efficient when considering water, power, chemical input, expenditure of fuel, etc. (Gundogmus). There are studies showing that farming with GM seeds uses less energy in the forms of human labor and chemical pesticides, however the amount of money developing and marketing the technology was not taken into effect. It would be very interesting to see a comparative analysis of GM and organic farming that examines the time and energy expended in the entire context.

Champions of GMOs assert that they are necessary to combat the issues of world hunger-particularly in the third world, and malnutrition- particularly deficiencies in iron and vitamin A. However, some scholars, like Peter Rosset, argue that there already exists enough food to sufficiently nourish every person in the world. The real problem is lack of infrastructure, inequities in distribution, and disparities in education, income, and social status. Implementation of GM crops in impoverished nations will only serve to engender their complete dependence upon the corporations supplying the seeds, or on the countries supplying the GM crops through food aid (Sherlock). Furthermore, a recent meta-analysis of 293 different studies concluded that if all of the farm land currently in use was converted to organic, that not only would the yield would be more than enough to support the world’s population for the foreseeable future, but that it would also increase sustainability through mitigating the need for chemical fertilizers (Badgeley).

The aforementioned meta-analysis also touches on the important point that GM crops only answer one problem at a time with one solution: drought tolerant genes for dry climates, vitamin enhanced genes for malnourished populations, herbicide resistant genes for reduction of herbicide use. But the picture of agriculture is so much bigger than that. What is needed is an approach, which encompasses pest control, fertilization, low-impact use of the earth, practices which are both socially and ecologically sustainable, and a flexible mindset. An organic farmer sees their crop in a larger context of time and space, and has the inclination to delve into a rich repository of historical wisdom and new scientific practices in order to create a custom response to whatever nature throws his way by using a variety of different seeds, cover crops, biological pesticides, companion plants, compost, and/or manure. This flexibility is helpful in hedging one’s genetic bet
against different strains of virulence. In a polyculture field, if one plant variety is afflicted by a virus, for example, the others still have a chance at survival. A field of monoculture-as seen with GM and conventional crops-is left completely vulnerable to whatever afflictions develop resistance to their defensive measures. A farmer using GM crops generally just has one type of seed to plant and a handful of fertilizers and pesticides to use.

It’s unequivocal that something must be done to change the predominant ways in which foods are grown, however I can’t help but see GMOs as simply another extension of the same paradigm, which attempts to reduce agriculture to a simple equation of input and output. GMOs are certainly not the only way, and probably not the best way, to conserve energy, feed the world’s masses, and address the need to create an agrarian infrastructure which is environmentally and sociologically sustainable.

Badgeley, C. et al. (2007). Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable agriculture and food systems. 22. 86-108

Gundogmus, E. (2006). Energy use on organic farming: A comparative analysis on organic versus conventional apricot production on small holdings in Turkey. Energy Conversion and Management. 47. 3351–3359.

Sherlock, R., Morrey, J. (2002). Ethical issues in biotechnology. 175-178. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How sketchbooks saved my life

A typical and unanticipated challenge encountered in parenthood is what the h to do with all of the, I mean artistic gems your child creates.  My little doodle bug loves to draw and will happily work away on the back of a receipt with whatever implement she can find.  And i may even want to keep the amazing picture that appears on that scrap of paper! Sometimes, my artist goes thru 30 pieces of paper drawing the same half-ass, 5 second drawing.  Sound familiar??  And what are we to do with all of these papers???

Finally, I bought Lila a sketch book, with the rule that everything in the sketchbook stays in the sketch book. No ripping papers out. Ever.

Three years later, Lila is on her 3rd sketchbook and I'm still loving the idea. Some thoughts:

*i have a neat and easily accessible "storage" place of her artwork. Much better than a box, folder, or file (or random piles of papers that you just keep meaning to get to).

*i try to date as many of the pictures as possible (and now I'm using this to teach HER to write dates herself) and then the books serve as a sort of portfolio showing her progression.  

*i like to ask Lila to tell me about the picture she drew, and write down her story verbatim on the adjacent page. I'm pretty sure I could publish the crazy tales she comes up with as avante garde stream of consciousness neo-Kerouac literature and no one would know it was actually just the product of a little girl's imagination. Seriously, it's like Beatles lyrics-after they went to India and started doing drugs. (For the record; my daughter has never been to India or done drugs) 

*She's able to go back and revise or rework a particular piece. Instead of teaching our kids to hurry from one project to the next, I like this idea that some things are never done, and thoughtful improvements are always welcome.

*a sketchbook is a REAL authentic art supply. I prefer to give my kids real things whenever possible, especially when it comes to art. You would be amazed how much better even something like toddler finger painting looks when it's done with real acrylics (which are easily washed off) versus cheap kids paint. Plus the kiddos know they're getting ripped off with kid products and always want the grown up stuff :)

*i don't know if this is far fetched or legitimate, but I really feel like all this free drawing fosters so much more creativity than a coloring book. My girls have very rarely colored on coloring sheets (because I'm too cheap and lazy to buy them, and because they aren't in school), and I see some real stylistic uniqueness in the things Lila (6 years) draws.

*I've enjoyed the sketchbook idea so much that I've made it a regular gift to give at kids' birthday parties. I stock up on several books at a time along with some boxes of markers or colored pencils and keep them on hand for such a purpose!  The nice thing about art supply gifts, is that even if the recipient already has it, they'll run out eventually and need a replacement.

*now that I have two children with sketchbooks, I "labeled" them with pictures of each girl since 2 year old Maureen can't read yet :)

Now if only I could figure out what to do with all of the OTHER art projects!! What do you do??



Wednesday, April 4, 2012

All the pregnant ladies, all the pregnant ladies (sing to the tune of "all the single ladies" please)

I've had a dozen friends announce pregnancies in the last month or two, so i have gestation on the mind! When i was pregnant with my first daughter, i spent countless hours devouring book after book and googling question after question.  The second time around, i was able to relax a little more and apply the knowledge i'd gleaned previously.  Here are some of the tips and tricks i learned to deal with the various curveballs pregnancy throws our way.  You'll notice that there are some recurrent themes.  I can't emphasize enough how generally beneficial yoga, regular chiropractic care, and good nutrition are!

Morning Sickness:  First of all, can we agree that this should be called "all day sickness?"  I had near-constant nausea from weeks 7 to 12 with both pregnancies, and although none of the following completely eliminated it, they did help mitigate it a bit.  My heart goes out to those women who have nausea the whole pregnancy!
*anything peppermint- gum, essential oil, tea, etc.
*anything ginger- ginger snaps, essential oil, tea, etc.
*sea sickness bands- you can buy these at any drugstore.  they work by applying pressure to the acupuncture point associated with nausea relief.
*snacking-try to nibble throughout the day, as nausea is frequently worse on an empty stomach.
*listening to your body- don't worry about calories or nutrition as much now. just eat ANYTHING that doesn't sound awful.
*acupuncture-i tried it and it didn't help. but others swear by it!

Heartburn:  With baby #1 i single-handedly kept the manufacturers of TUMS in the black.  I had crazy wicked searing heartburn around the clock.  I tried drinking extra water, eating smaller meals, avoiding spicy food, sleeping on an incline and nothing helped.  A fellow pregnant friend told me that she had really bad heartburn too, but that it went away if she drank some water.  I wanted to punch her in the face.  Back to the TUMS, i would chew a few of those, feel better for a few minutes, only to have the heartburn return.  With baby #2 i stumbled upon the suggestion to use Apple Cider Vinegar for heartburn.  That didn't make sense to me; vinegar is acidic, so why would that help?  Well according to natural health folks (and NOT according WebMD, Mayo Clinic, etc.), taking something basic like TUMS is supposed to neutralize the acid in your stomach, which is does, but it then makes your stomach produce more acid.  That's why it works temporarily.  The Apple Cider Vinegar has enzymes (which are kind of like magic) that's somehow (read, magically) regulate your stomach acid production.  Okay, i could not find a completely logical or scientific explanation of how it cures heartburn, but i swear on the life of my firstborn and even second born child that it worked for me!!  I ended up only needing it once or twice a day to manage heartburn.  It was amazing!  All you need: 2 tbs. apple cider vinegar + 4 oz. of water + honey or maple syrup or stevia.  Also, due to the information about basic things (rather than acidic) causing more heartburn, i began noticing that dairy products were a consistent trigger.  Kind of counter-intuitive, but true.

Insomnia: I'm hesitant to recommend anything that comes in a bottle for this complaint, since EVERYTHING carries the warning to consult your doctor if pregnant or nursing-even prenatal vitamins have this warning, which i think is very ironic.  But i will just tell you that i took very small doses of melatonin sometimes, or tinctures containing valerian root or lobelia, or Hyland's Homeopathic Calm's Forte tablets, or chamomile tea.  I held off on such things until after the first trimester, and did research before justifying taking them for myself.  But there is some dissent regarding sleep aids in pregnancy, so i advise you to do some reading on your own and make your own decision.  You'd do that anyway right? ;)  Some more innocuous tips are guided imagery, visualization, a warm bath, and essential lavender oil.

Sciatica:  Among the various anatomical discoveries pregnancy brought me, was an intimate awareness of where my sciatic nerve is.  This longest nerve in the entire body is a common source of pain in pregnant women, that usually rears its ugly head midway through the pregnancy.  There are several yoga poses that kick sciatica's ass, such as pigeon and sucirandhrasana.  Regular chiropractic visits will help, along with practicing good posture, sitting on a cushion that elevates hips above knee level, and sitting on a birthing ball instead of a chair as much as possible.  Keeping the hips above the knees when sitting helps avoid compression of the sciatic nerve, which is partly responsible for the pain.

Restless Leg Syndrome:  I never knew what this was like before being pregnant!  Now i have so much sympathy for those who suffer from it on a regular basis. The first time around i tried taking calcium supplement since i'd heard those help.  It didn't.  I have a friend who said just eating a banana helped her because of the potassium.  However, for me the BEST remedy was taking a magnesium supplement.  It worked like a charm!  In fact, i felt better in general having more magnesium in my diet.  Nuts and seeds are a great source too.

Carpal Tunnel:  This is an affliction i did not have the first time around, and didn't even know could be a pregnancy problem.  During the last month of my second pregnancy, i started having pain and pins & needles feeling in my hand and wrist.  Carpal tunnel during pregnancy is due to fluid retention, and unfortunately, most  of the natural diuretics out there are contraindicated when one is in this "delicate condition."  Here's a list of some foods and supplements that can help.  Of course, relieving the fluid retention means that you will be peeing even more...  Figure out which thing is bothering you more :)  I personally found the best relief from increasing my fish oil intake (EFAs are something that is soooo important during pregnancy anyway!) and wearing a wrist brace.

Crazy psycho-bitch emotions:  Pregnancy is a beautiful and amazing thing; but having an overload of hormones coursing through your body and gaining a million pounds and going without sleep and experiencing aches/pains/physiological phenomena that you are not used to is NOT.  Some basic tips for anyone dealing with emotional stability (pregnant or not) are to get enough sleep, exercise, eat well, stay hydrated, take essential fatty acids, get enough sunlight & fresh air, listen to happy music, and nurture the soul (through prayer, meditation, running, or whatever!).  I also drank a super cool pregnancy tea from my local herb store that helped me feel VERY balanced throughout my second pregnancy (it also contains incredibly nutritious components).  Seriously, the tea and the aforementioned tips saw me through moving twice, remodeling a house, my eldest starting preschool, me going through yoga training, and grieving two family deaths with an uncanny level of calm.  May you go through less, and feel even better!

Anemia:  Not only are you eating for two, you're making blood for two!  I tend to be slightly anemic, but i am quite proud of the fact that i was able to maintain a vegetarian diet (okay, okay, i do have a pregnancy clause which allowed me to have like 5 burgers), and still have fantastic iron levels.  Make yourself familiar with the list of iron-rich food sources.  Also, note that dairy consumption can actually inhibit iron absorption!  Read more about that here if you don't believe me. So that may make you wonder how to get calcium, in which case i refer you to another list :)  I also took occasional dose of Floradix.  The cool thing about Floradix or blackstrap molasses as iron supplements, is that they taste more metallic the lower your iron is!  I would just take a tiny taste of Floradix and tell by the taste whether i should take a dose or not.  On a day that i'd had a spinach salad at lunch and kale chips with dinner, i was usually in the clear :)

Feeling like a giant elephant: Yoga, yoga, yoga!  Yoga will help you maintain or increase flexibility and agility.  You will become more in tune with your growing body, and that awareness will translate into more gracefulness...or less clumsiness :)  Spending time in water is very helpful too.  Take relaxing baths, go swimming, etc.  You will enjoy the weightless feeling, and the water will ease your muscles and joints.  For an extra special treat, put some epsom salts in the bath!  It's a natural muscle relaxant!

Shortness of breath:  Again, yoga!  Yoga is as much about breathing as it is about movement.  In fact, "yoga" means union and generally refers to the linking of breath and movement.  You may not be able to do anything about the fact that your baby is invading your lung space more and more every day, but with some practice you can maximize that space.  If you can't make it to a yoga class, just spend a few minutes with your eyes closed visualizing your breath.  When you're actually focused on it, your breath will automatically improve.  It sounds trivial, but what could be more important that breathing??

Fatigue:  Growing a human is a very exhausting task.  But whatever you do, don't say "oh, i'm pregnant, i should just sit on my ass all day long."  Stay active.  Or get active.  I'm not saying you should train for a marathon.  And you should definitely listen to your body and rest and reflect when needed.  But gentle exercise like walking, swimming, and yoga are great ways to gain strength and energy (something you might enjoy during the marathon of giving birth and the subsequent recovery period!).  For a little kick in the pants, that doesn't involve caffeine, try the same apple cider vinegar concoction recommended for heartburn.  I'd venture to say that the apple cider vinegar (known as ACV to its fans) is a bit of a panacea!

I know this list is anything but exhaustive.  This is just  a catalog of my personal experiences.  What other pregnancy problems have YOU had?  And what other tips do YOU have to share?

Happy Gestating!!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Montessori? Isn't that where monks live??

Six years ago, i was a junior in college majoring in education, when i began wondering what Montessori education was all about.  My education professors actually had no idea, "I think it's just a kind of school where the kids run around and do whatever they want," was one response to my inquiry.  So i began to do a little googling.  Intrigued by what i read, i dove into Maria Montessori's seminal work, "The Absorbent Mind."  (I literally read the book cover to cover while backpacking around Costa Rica for a week) I quickly realized that i did not want to continue down the path of becoming a teacher in a traditional school, so i switched my major to Spanish (previously my minor), got a job as an assistant in a Montessori school, and have never looked back!  With four years of experience in Montessori education, and as many years of experience in Montessori parenting, i'm frequently asked what it is all about.  Well, here, dear reader, are some of the highlights.

Multi-age classrooms
All Montessori classrooms are comprised of three year ranges.  There is a 3-6 year old class (primary), 6-9 year old class (lower elementary-equivalent of 1st thru 3rd grade), and 9-12 class (upper elementary-equivalent of 4th thru 6th grade).  (Some schools will have additional programs for infants, toddlers, and middle schoolers.)  The older children gain the experience of teaching the younger ones, the younger ones look up to the older ones, and the teacher only loses 1/3 of the class to matriculation each year allowing for a stronger classroom community.  Multi-age classrooms are more reflective of the rest of society too.  Don't we work and socialize with people of all ages?

Individualized instruction
In a traditional classroom, there are 30 odd students who have an age in common, but are of varied abilities in each subject.  Regardless, a teacher must teach the same lesson to the same students at the same time.  Inevitably it will be over the heads of some, boring to others, and right on target for a few.  In a Montessori class, the teacher only gives lessons to 1-5 students at a time based on their individual levels. Maybe the day will begin with a lesson on fractions for a group of one 1st grader, three 2nd graders, and one 3rd grader, followed by a lesson on nouns for two 2nd graders and three 3rd graders.  Meanwhile, the rest of the class is working independently on things they have already had lessons for.  I know some traditional classrooms are moving a little bit in this direction, and i think that is great!

Student-led Learning
Montessori philosophy teaches that humans have a natural love of learning.  We don't have to give walking lessons to babies; they are passionately driven to learn and when biological ability meets cognitive capability meets practice, they walk!  In the same vein, students learn most effectively when they are actually interested in something and it is the "right" time for them to learn it.  It is the Montessori teachers' job to observe students so that they can determine when that time is.  Students will spend their day attending lessons they are ready for and doing follow up work on lessons they have had.  The order in which they complete work and the amount of time spent on it is up to the student.  This is not to say that a student might spend an entire school year doing nothing but studying the periodic table (though, would that really be so bad?), but they might be fascinated by the periodic table for a few months and the teacher will be tasked with finding ways of teasing out related activities.  Maybe they will research chemists (history, language, and writing) and perform experiments (math and science).

Concrete learning
All Montessori lessons are given with an accompanying "material" which demonstrates the target concept in a visual and tactile manner.  When a child is introduced to arithmetic (usually around age 4 or 5), they will first learn with the Golden Beads work. Here is a great example of that lesson.  The works continue through gradual levels of abstraction until all that is needed is pencil and paper.  However, the student will have the benefit of knowing why things are done a certain way.  I always did well in math when i was in school, but i learned abstractly like most students in traditional schools do, learning that you carry the one, because you carry the one.  When i went through Montessori teacher training, and learned how to do things like long division and binomial cubing with concrete materials (all of which is done in grades 1-3 in Montessori by the way) i had some major breakthroughs in understanding!

Isolation of variables
Each Montessori material focuses on only one concept at a time.  For example, the pink tower (seen here) is made up of blocks that are all the same color and same shape.  They vary in their dimensions only.  This so different from typical educational toys, flashcards, worksheets, you see elsewhere.  For example, my girls have a shape sorting toy with a red circle, blue star, yellow triangle, and green oval.  If i were to pick up one of the shapes and say, "this is green," how are they supposed to know if i'm talking about its color or its shape?  This seems like a pretty simple and obvious idea for education, but i bet you'll start noticing now how frequently it is disregarded.

Practical life skills
Did you know that 3 year olds can safely and skillfully peel and cut carrots?  They can!  The so-called practical life works are a hallmark of Montessori education, though they are seen more in the 3-6 classroom than later on.  Children of this age have lessons on and spend time doing things like silver polishing, carrot peeling, blowing noses, folding clothes, buttoning/zipping/tying clothes, setting the table, dusting, sweeping, and sewing.  Anyone who has spent time with a small child knows how eager they are to participate in everyday activities, hence the plethora of garish plastic toys which emulate such.  Montessori curriculum takes that desire of the child to engage in useful work seriously, and eliminates the obstacles by pairing tools and furniture which are of the appropriate scale (think little brooms, chairs, stools, etc.) with lessons which are given at the appropriate time.  It is amazing what little ones are capable of when those two stars align!

Mastery of skills
In traditional education, the students all learn the same thing at the same time.  Later they are all tested on the same thing at the same time.  A grade is given.  Then everyone moves on to the next thing.  If you understood the target concept early on, then you would pass the time in boredom until the next level.  If you still did not understand the target concept at testing time, you would be even more behind at the next level.  This sad tale is not told in Montessori education, where each child progresses at their own pace and does not move on from a work until they have mastered it, or conversely, moves on to the next work as soon as they have.  The point is for the student to obtain understanding, not for teachers to have a number they can enter in the gradebook on the arbitrarily determined testing day.

Holistic education
The education that takes place in subjects like math, language, and biology is phenomenal.  But that's not all children learn in Montessori schools.  Children also receive conflict resolution lessons and learn to live in a community.  There is great emphasis given to the care of nature.  Most Montessori schools have a garden, and every classroom has at least a few plants that the little ones can water.  Students are responsible for classroom pets, and some schools even have goats or chickens!  Finally, Maria Montessori dreamed of her new approach to learning to be means of developing world peace.  If children are allowed to follow the natural course and drive to learn, unhindered by the mechanistic approach of traditional learning, imagine the sort of adult they will become.  All of this has been part of the philosophy for 100 years-long before being green and celebrating diversity came in vogue :)

There, in a nutshell, are my (hopefully coherent) points about what the Montessori philosophy is all about. For some lovely quotes by Maria herself (yes, we are on a first name basis), go here.

I'd love to hear what prior conceptions of Montessori other have had.  Or, if you're already familiar with Montessori, what has your impression or experience been like?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Something to Chew on

Teething babies can turn your world upside down (please tell me that it turns your world upside down too and i'm not some crazy wimp!).  For my babies, the only total relief seems to be found in a bottle of ibuprofen  However i prefer to only administer that at bedtime and power thru the rest of the day with other remedies.  I've tried lots of different teethers, but don't really feel comfortable with any of the materials out there since they might contain BPA, lead, or goodness knows what else that will slowly kill us but hasn't been discovered yet.  Plus, once your baby has A tooth, any of the fluid-filled teethers are out of the question.

Here is a solution!  Homemade teething rings.

You will need:
*Chamomile tea
*Wash cloths cut into strips (about 2"x6")
*A mug
*Space in your freezer

Brew a cup of chamomile tea.  I like to make it nice and strong.  Then smoosh as many strips of cloth into the cup as you can.  Let them soak for a few minutes.  Or get distracted by doing housework, schoolwork, playing around on the internet, chasing children, or whatever, and let it sit until you remember it later in the day.  That's just an example, not a personal experience :)

Pull one strip of cloth out at a time, wring it out a teensy bit, and twist it into a circlular shape.  Place rings in a flat spot in your freezer.  They might drip a bit, so take that into your placement consideration.  

Now, when your sweet little angel is crying at you and gnawing on everything in sight or grasp, whip one of these little rings out of the freezer!  I can't guarantee that it will make your baby look as unbelievably cute as mine does though :)

* The cold temperature is soothing
* The nubby cloth texture is soothing
* The chamomile is soothing

*Notes: Sometimes the rings dry out if they're in the freezer, so i just rinse them off for one tiny second.  Light bulb! i should try keeping them in a sealed container to retain the moisture once frozen!  I'll get back to you on that :)  Also, i cut the wash cloths using shears to minimize unraveling.  If you are of a more crafty persuasion you could serge or hem them to further prevent unraveling.