non-toxic alternatives

This is a list of links to information resources related to sustainable agriculture, organic farming and gardening, and growing and buying good, safe food.

Image created by Matt FarrarThese resources are organized into the following general categories (though some are relevant to more than one category): Organizations, Magazines and Blogs, Educational Programs, Funding & Investing, Permaculture, Urban Farms, Agri-Tourism / Farm Tours, International/Non-U.S. Initiatives, Films and Books.

At the end, you will find a few suggestions of simple ways to get involved in the good food movement.

Organizations

Magazines and Blogs

Educational Programs

Funding and Investing

(including some crowdfunding sites)

Permaculture

[Partial list; please mention other groups in the Comments.]

Urban Farms

[This is just a small selection; there are many, many more. Please mention other urban farms you are familiar with in the Comments.]

Agri-Tourism / Farm Tours

International/Non-U.S. Initiatives

Films and Books

Many films about food and farming have come out recently. One of the most recent is Symphony of the Soil.

There are also many good books on these topics. One new one is called Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, by Daphne Miller, MD.

I also recommend reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, as well as books by Wendell Berry, Michael Ableman, Michael Pollan, Frances Moore Lappe, Anna Lappe, and Marion Nestle.

For other relevant books, check out the offerings from Chelsea Green Publishing, Mother Earth News, and New Society Publishers.

Taking Part

You don’t have to be a farmer to be involved in sustainable agriculture and the good food movement. Here are just a few of the steps that almost anyone can take, to create a healthier family, healthier community, and a healthier planet:

  • Buy organic, non-GMO, and locally grown foods whenever possible (from the grocery, a farmer’s market, local farms, a CSA, etc.) To find local farms, farmer’s markets, or food providers, go to LocalHarvest.org, and if you live in California or New York, check out Farmigo.com, which is basically an online Farmer’s Market or CSA for small or large groups.
  • If/when you buy meat (from stores or at restaurants), avoid getting factory-farmed meats. Look for and ask for meats from grass-fed and grass-finished animals, that are free of antibiotics and added hormones, and that also, ideally, have third-party certifications (such as Animal Welfare Approved) verifying that the animals were raised and slaughtered humanely. Boosting the demand for such products will help shift the industry away from factory farming. (We’ll be adding a blog post with more information on humanely raised meat in the future.)
  • Buy organic, non-GMO seeds and organically grown plants, and plant them in a kitchen garden, window boxes, porch pots, raised beds, a greenhouse, a community garden, or wherever you can.  Use organic/natural rather than toxic chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. It’s fun and satisfying to swap your surplus harvest with friends and neighbors.
  • Replace water-intensive, conventional grass lawns with a garden, or no-mow native grasses or groundcovers. Choose low-water (drought-tolerant), native or adapted (climate-appropriate) plants and flowers, including those that attract and feed pollinators such as bees and butterflies.

 

Related posts:

Sustainable Agriculture in the Spotlight: Fresh films, books, etc.  [August 2009]

Sustainable Ag: Marin and Sonoma County Resources

Recent Films with Green Themes: Food, farming, energy, etc.  [2011]

Quotations for Gardeners, Farmers, and Others  [MotherEarthNews.com blog]

Chocolates of Choice: Organic, Fair Trade, and Delicious

 

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July 24, 2013
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Most conventional paints and coatings contain and emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Some types of VOCs contribute to smog, and many VOCs are emitted or “offgassed” indoors and contribute to indoor air pollution. VOCs can cause respiratory problems and some are known carcinogens.

I have written a 4-page overview of VOCs and other toxicity issues related to paints and other types of coatings. For the free download, just click on this link:

How to Select Less-Toxic, Low-VOC Paints, Primers, Stains, and Coatings [PDF]

Fortunately, almost every major paint manufacturer (and retailer) now has a low-VOC or zero-VOC product line. Most of these products are also low-odor, as some VOCs are responsible for to that noxious “new paint smell.”

I maintain an online product listing of Low-VOC and Zero-VOC Wall Paints, which I recently updated. The listing includes natural paints (e.g., plant- or mineral-based), as well as more conventional synthetic (e.g., latex/acrylic) paints.

A few paint manufacturers, such as AFM Safecoat and YOLO Colorhouse formulate their entire line of paints and primers to be low- or zero-VOC and low-toxic. While most low-VOC paints are interior paints, some brands (including those two) also offer low-VOC exterior paints.

My listing indicates which paint lines have been Green Seal certified or SCS Indoor Advantage Gold certified. GreenGuard also certifies paints; it has a basic Indoor Air Quality Certified program, as well as a more stringent Children and Schools Certified program. All of these certification programs are primarily focused on testing products’ VOC emissions.

Unfortunately, synthetic paints often contain other toxic compounds, beyond VOCs, such as phthalates (which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals), propylene glycol and glycol ethers (PGEs), certain heavy metals, and toxic biocides or fungicides. (Green Seal’s certification standard prohibits the use of some of those compounds.) See this Pharos article for additional information on paint toxicity.

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September 26, 2011
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“Bed bugs” are small nocturnal insects that feed on blood. (Cimex lectularius is the most common species of bed bug.) Some people who are bitten by them get itchy welts on their skin. However, the bugs have not been found to transit any diseases to humans.

Bed bugs are typically found on mattresses, box springs and bed frames, bedding, clothing, and in any dark cracks, seams, or crevices in beds, furniture, walls, or floors. They can travel through water pipes, wall voids, and ducts, and can spread from room to room.

Adult bed bugs are about 1/4-inch long and 1/8-inch wide; younger ones are smaller (often about 3/16 of an inch long or the size of a pinhead). They have flat, grayish-brown or reddish-brown bodies with six legs, and after feeding, they become round and red. They give off a sweet, musty odor. Their eggs are white and very small, and their excrement appears as tiny brown or black spots, which can look like small blood stains if smeared.

Here are some rules for prevention, as well as tips for getting rid of bed bugs if they do appear.

Keeping Bed Bugs Out

  • Consider getting a protective plastic cover for your mattress(es) and box spring(s) to keep bugs out/off of the bed. Tape up any tears or holes that appear in the mattress, box spring, or plastic covering.
  • Eliminate excess clutter (particularly near your beds and clothing), to reduce the number of places where the bugs can hide.
  • If you have been staying elsewhere or traveling, check your luggage and belongings for bed bugs before bringing them inside. Unpack your clothes directly into the laundry and wash everything with hot water.
  • If you are considering buying any used/second-hand items, check them carefully for bed bugs before buying them, and wash them before bringing them into your home.

Getting Rid of Bed Bugs

While some pests can pose health concerns for building occupants, so can many pesticides. Pesticides and insecticides are poisons, and as such they are often poisonous to humans (and pets) as well as to pests. Studies have linked some pesticides to cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders, and immune system disorders, as well as allergies. Therefore, pesticides should only be used as a last resort.

If the steps below are not sufficient to eliminate a bed bug problem and an insecticide must be used, ask an experienced professional to recommend the least-toxic insecticide that will be effective, and have it applied by a professional who will take safety precautions. The bed bugs’ eggs are not affected by insecticides, so the treatment will probably need to be applied several times to kill the hatchlings. Note: Bed bugs have become resistant to some pesticides, and using harsher pesticides could just end up making the bugs stronger, as they could build up resistance to those.

If you want to research insecticide options on your own, check out the EPA’s Bed Bug Product Search Tool.  As a general rule, avoid products that are labeled “Danger—Poison,” as those tend to be the most toxic to humans. Never use pesticides indoors that are intended for outdoor use. And don’t use (or allow others to apply) any product that does not specifically list bed bugs on the product label. Some sticky traps are designed for bed bugs. (Note: Baits for ants and cockroaches will not work on bed bugs.)

But before using any pesticides/insecticides, first try these non-chemical strategies:

  • If you think you’ve found bed bugs, first make sure that’s what they are. Have a professional identify them, or using a flashlight and ideally a magnifying glass, compare the bugs to photos of bed bugs to make a positive identification. (There are many websites with close-up photos of the bugs. Just do an online search for “bed bug” images.)
  • Infested materials can be rid of bed bugs by being heated to at least 113 degree for an hour (or by being frozen at less than 0 degrees for at least 4 days). Many bed bug extermination services now use cryogenic freezing methods (e.g. the Cryonite system) to kill the bugs.
  • Wash your bedding and clothing with hot, soapy water, and dry them on the hottest dryer setting.
  • Vacuum cracks, crevices, and other hiding places in walls, floors, and furniture where adult bed bugs or eggs are found. Dispose of the vacuum contents right away in a sealed trash bag, in an outdoor garbage bin.
  • Use hot, soapy water to wipe all surfaces and crevices where the bugs might be living.
  • Seal up any cracks where the bugs are living. Seal/tape up any tears in mattresses or other areas where the bugs could hide.
  • Eliminate excess clutter (particularly near your beds and clothing), to reduce the number of places where the bugs can hide.
  • Try sprinkling food-grade diatomaceous earth in areas where the bed bugs have been seen, to prevent them from hiding in those places again. (Food-grade diatomaceous earth can be found at many feed stores, garden centers, or hardware stores.)
  • If a mattress or box spring is infested with bed bugs, it will probably need to be disposed of (unless the entire thing can be put into a large freezer), as the bugs can live inside the mattress where they can’t be reached. Mattresses should never be treated with insecticides, unless a specialist verifies that the treatment is non-toxic to humans. Infested mattresses should never be donated, but can be recycled. When disposing of a mattress or other infested objects, deface them so that others will not be tempted to take them home.
  • Tightly wrap in plastic any infested possessions (including mattresses) before carrying them out of a room for disposal, to avoid spreading the infestation to other rooms.

Consult with a licensed, experienced pest control professional for further advice and treatment options.

For more information, go to these webpages:

EPA’s Bed Bug Information

Beyond Pesticides: Bed Bug Info (factsheet, articles, etc.)

New Natural Bed Bug Busters (Mother Earth News article) – Includes a non-toxic product recommendation

Nontoxic Bed Bug Control is Possible (San Francisco Chronicle article) – Includes a non-toxic product recommendation

Center for Disease Control’s Bed Bug FAQs

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April 27, 2011
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Fleas and ticks (and mosquitos) can bring severe itching, allergic reactions, discomfort, and even serious diseases (such as lyme disease) to your pets, so it’s important to protect your pets from them. However, studies have found that some common flea and tick control treatments—products that are readily available at stores and have been recommended by many vets—aren’t just harmful to fleas and ticks; they can actually poison pets, and some are also dangerous to humans and other animals.

Some conventional flea and tick treatments (including many of the topical, spot-on treatments that are applied directly onto pets’ skin, as well as flea collars, powders, and sprays, and even some ingestible products) contain highly toxic pesticides, some of which have been shown to cause a range of serious reactions in pets, from skin problems, vomiting, and excessive drooling to neurological problems (e.g., seizures or uncontrollable shaking), heart attacks, and death. So, tragically, some pesticides end up serving as pet-icides

The Center for Public Integrity did a study in 2008, and found that at least 1,600 pet deaths related to spot-on treatments were reported to the EPA over the previous five years. According to the NRDC, cats may be more susceptible to adverse reactions than dogs, since they are more likely to lick the treatments off of their fur and they often lack enzymes for metabolizing or detoxifying the pesticides. Many of these pesticides are toxic to humans, as well, and children are especially vulnerable to exposure.

Avoid products that contain pyrethroid, pyrethrin, or permethrin pesticides, organophosphate insecticides (such as tetrachlorvinphos/TCVP; chlorpyrifos, dichlorvos, phosmet, naled, diazinon, and malathion), carbamates (e.g., propoxur, fenoxycarb, and carbaryl), or Amitraz. [This list was updated on May 26, 2010.] Many common flea/tick control products contain at least one of these ingredients. (Towards the end of this post, you will find a link to a listing of some specific products to avoid.) Please note: Never use products on cats that are meant for use on dogs (and vice versa), and never give your pet more than the recommended dose.

It’s disturbing that so many of us might have been unwittingly sickening our animals (and possibly shortening their lives) by using these products, often at the recommendation of our veterinarians, who trusted the manufacturers’ assurances of the products’ safety. It’s yet another example of how you can’t trust that a product is safe just because it’s been allowed into the marketplace. According to the Humane Society, the EPA did not start reviewing pet products for safety until 1996, and there is still a backlog of products that need to be tested. However, the overarching problem is that some ingredients that the EPA had deemed “safe” clearly were not. In 2009, the EPA announced that it would be developing stricter testing and evaluation requirements and could place new restrictions on flea and tick products.

Fortunately, there’s no need to wait for those changes to take effect. Safe and natural alternative products and methods for controlling fleas and ticks already exist. Here is some guidance from the NRDC on ways to prevent flea problems. And when treatments are necessary, some pet supply stores and many online sites (see links below) now carry flea and tick products that are made up of plant-based ingredients, such as peppermint oil, citrus oil, clove oil, or Neem, which is a natural insecticide that comes from a tree. See the NRDC’s Flea and Tick Product Directory to look up the ingredients and risks of specific products. Some flea and tick solutions can even be made at home. Fleas and ticks are repelled by rosemary, thyme, eucalyptus, and lavender. So to ward off the bugs, you can tuck sprigs of one or more of those plants under your pet’s bed cover (or under your rugs), or boil some of those herbs in water and pour the cooled water onto your pet, rubbing it into their coat. (Note: Some herbal or “natural” ingredients can cause allergic reactions or toxicity in animals. Be sure to test any treatment in a small dose first; and always apply treatments sparingly and only as needed. Also, never use pet products that contain pennyroyal oil, which is toxic to animals. Furthermore, while some sources say that adding a little bit of garlic to a pet’s diet will repel fleas, other reputable sources say that garlic can be toxic to dogs and even more so to cats, even in small amounts; so I steer clear of using garlic, just to be safe.) If your pet has a flea infestation that does not respond to any of the plant-based solutions listed above, look for the lowest-risk commercial products listed in the NRDC’s directory, which include Spinosad-based products, such as Comfortis.

NRDC’s research has identified many common products that should be avoided, due to their high toxicity risks. According to the NRDC, such high-risk products currently include K9 Advantix II, and a number of products made by Hartz, Sentry, Sergeant, Vet-Kem, Adams, Bio Spot, Happy Jack, Verbac, Zodiac, and other companies.

To take action on this issue, print out some of the info from the links below, bring it to your pet store and to your veterinarian, and ask them to stop selling flea control products that contain the most dangerous pesticides (and to start selling the lowest-risk products), to protect the health of pets and their people.

Resources for More Information:

The following are a few online stores that specialize in natural and non-toxic pet supplies. (Note: This list does not constitute an endorsement of any of these companies):

Related Post: Selecting Safe and Healthy Pet Foods

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April 7, 2010
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Building on what Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation did to expose the health problems associated with eating fast food, a veritable cornucopia of new documentary films have recently come out, bringing attention to a broader array of issues related to factory farms and feedlots and to the benefits of sustainable farming and ranching. These films include:

FoodInc-movie_poster

Update (8/13/09): A dozen other important food-focused films have just been highlighted by Serious Eats.

And on Showtime TV, Season 1 of This American Life had a great segment on factory-farmed genetically modified pigs. (The show can be rented through NetFlix, etc. I highly recommend watching both seasons.)

A fresh crop of books have recently been published on these topics, as well, including:

For additional information on sustainable agriculture and good, real food, check out resources such as: Organic Consumers Association, The Land Institute, Roots of Change, Slow Food USA or Slow Food International, Fields of Plenty, Animal Welfare Approved, and Certified Humane.

Please support small, organic farms and your local farmers markets; consider joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm or growing some organic produce in your yard or a community garden; and if you eat meat or dairy products, choose products (e.g., Niman Ranch) that come from humanely raised, non-hormone-boosted animals. To sign the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture (from Roots for Change), click here.

On a related note: Today (August 5) is Wendell Berry’s 75th birthday! Wendell Berry is a prolific writer and poet, a life-long Kentucky farmer, and an advocate of sustainable agriculture.

Please see our NEWER POST: Sustainable Agriculture, Farming, Gardening, and Food-Related Resources [July 2013]

 

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August 5, 2009
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yellowjackets-groundnestI’m not someone who delights in killing pests, and I don’t often advocate for their demise. In fact, I usually do my best to avoid killing them (e.g., if an indoor spider gets too close for comfort, I usually capture it in a jar and release it outside). However, I recently had to make an exception to my pacifist policy, when I noticed that yellow jackets had built a nest right next to the front door of our house. It was an underground nest in a flower bed. There were so many yellow jackets coming and going from the nest throughout the day that we were scared to keep our front door open for very long, and I worried that our dog would inadvertently step on the entry to the nest and get swarmed and attacked. Furthermore, I learned that yellow jackets sometimes raid honeybee hives to steal their honey, and they kill honeybees in the process. This is a sufficiently good reason to get rid of the jackets, in my opinion. One of our neighbors has a honeybee hive, so it felt like killing these yellow jackets was a just and neighborly thing to do.

(Honeybees are suffering from a Colony Collapse Disorder. For info about it, click here. Note: If you have a problem with a swarm, nest, or hive, check out online photos of bees, yellow jackets, hornets, etc. to make sure you know which of these you’re dealing with. Honeybees and other pollinators are extremely important, and they almost never sting; please don’t kill them.)

I didn’t want to use toxic insecticides, which could kill the flowers in our garden and poison our dog and the honeybees, along with the soil and groundwater around our house. So, thinking we were being clever, my husband and I tried putting the garden hose down the nest entry hole and flushing out the nest with water. This scheme did not work. We tried it a few evenings in a row, and the tenacious buggers would shoot out of the nest alive (seemingly unfazed by the water) and quickly rebuild a new entry hole. One evening, they went into attack mode and my husband got stung. They won these battles, but we were determined to outsmart them and win the war — without resorting to the use of Raid, professional chemical insecticides, gasoline, or any of the other toxic and hazardous substances that are commonly suggested.

drbronnersSo I started researching other non-insecticide solutions. Through my reading, I learned that mint oil can kill almost any insect, and that yellow jackets also don’t like soapy or boiling water… We happened to have a quart-size container of Dr. Bronner’s “magic” organic peppermint castile liquid soap in the house. The bottle was only half full, so we filled the rest of it up with water to make it a 50% diluted quart. Then we waited ‘til it was almost dark outside (this is the only time you should ever deal with yellow jackets, as they’re all inside the nest and inactive at night). We poured the quart down the nest’s entry hole (it’s best to do this with an extension device, like a hose or a gas can or watering can, to keep your body further from the nest opening — and you should also wear protective clothing). We immediately followed that up by pouring in a kettle full of boiling hot water, which washed the mint oil further down into the nest. We didn’t see a single yellow jacket emerge from the nest that night, and we haven’t seen any around here since. It worked!

RECIPE
1/2 quart (2 cups) Dr. Bronner’s organic peppermint castile soap, diluted/mixed with
1/2 quart (2 cups) water [poured into the nest via a hose or watering can with a long nozzle, at dusk or at night]
Followed by 1 tea-kettle full (approx. 1 quart or 4 cups) of boiling water

[NOTE: While this solution worked for this ground nest, it probably is NOT appropriate—and could be a dangerous method to try—for other scenarios, e.g., nests in the walls of your house, where you cannot find the exact entry spot. For those types of situations, try using Rescue traps or making a homemade soda-bottle trap instead.]

Dr. Bronner’s entertaining, pontificating text-filled label (I recommend reading all of the fine print if you haven’t before) states that the soap is good for 18 different uses: from washing pets and babies to washing dentures and cars. Yellow jacket / insect eradication isn’t one of the listed uses, but it seems that it should be. Soon I’m going to experiment with using the stuff to repel mosquitos, get rid of ants, and keep fleas and other bugs off of the dog.

[July 2011 Update: For helpful advice on a bunch of yellow jacket (and other insect control) solutions that have worked for other people, take a look at the Comments on the newer version of this post, which is on MotherEarthNews.com.]

P.S. Check out the Dr. Bronner company’s good work on social and environmental issues (e.g., fair trade, truly organic ingredients, employee salaries and benefits, charitable donations, etc.). And if you’re curious about the eccentric Dr. Bronner’s life, rent the fascinating documentary Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox.

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July 6, 2009
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