Category Archives: Agriculture

Developing Gardens

School Gardens in the Developing World

School garden, South Africa (Hodge flickr/Creative Commons)

While the focus of my research has been on school gardens in cities in the United States, there has also been a movement in the last few decades to establish gardens in developing countries. These international school gardens offer many of the same benefits as urban gardens do – they provide fresh fruits and vegetables to students, they teach kids and their parents about sustainable farming, and they can enhance academic education. This blog will spotlight several organizations doing exceptional work building school and community gardens in the developing world.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Special Programme for Food Security published the “School Gardens Concept Note” in 2004, which outlines the benefits of school gardens. The FAO also created a manual for teachers, parents, and communities, Setting up and running a school garden, which provides simple yet comprehensive instructions as to how to start a garden. Most recently, in 2010, the FAO published A New Deal for School Gardens, suggesting what governments and other organizations can do to promote school gardens, including curriculum ideas for the incorporation of garden learning into schools. These resources are incredibly helpful for volunteers and community members looking to start school gardens in developing regions. In addition to informational resources, FAO also provides grants to organizations, especially through the TeleFood initiative, which provides money for small-scale farmers.

Slash and Burn Farming, Belize (Resa, flickr/Creative Commons)

Plenty International is a non-profit organization created to support economic self-sufficiency and environmental responsibility in Central America, the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa. In Belize, they have started GATE, Garden Based Agriculture for Toledo’s Environment. Toledo is the southern most region of Belize, and its economy relies heavily on agriculture. GATE “aims to create a replicable model of local sustainable livelihood and environmental benefit based on organic school gardens”. Most of the rural populations use slash and burn style agriculture (to produce crops such as corn, rice, and beans) which uses five more times the land space than traditional gardens. GATE creates model gardens that demonstrate the benefits of organic gardens and sustainable agriculture. The program also seeks to decrease malnutrition by providing access to local, nutrition foods, and by providing healthy lunches and snacks for students in the schools that they work at. Mrs. Joan Palma, principal of the San Felipe School said, “Since the start of the program we have seen great changes in the academic performances of children. We have also observed behavior changes in having a positive attitude about school. The level of absenteeism has decreased. This program really has had a positive impact on the lives of our children in this small community.”

Seeds for Africa operates in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Malawi. The organization provides seeds, plants, trees, and equipment to elementary schools and community groups to help them establish gardens. All of the seeds provided come from Africa, which keeps the plants native and provides business for local farmers. Students are integrated into the process of building and maintaining the gardens planted using these seeds, which helps them learn about environmental sustainability. Like Plenty International, the gardens provide schools with fresh fruits and vegetables for student lunches. Surplus food is given to the families or sold to raise money for the school.

Students planting trees in Kenay (www.seedsforafrica.org)

Students planting trees in Kenya (www.seedsforafrica.org)

Action Aid aims to end the cycle of poverty by making systematic changes to countries and communities in order to help end hunger and poverty. One such change is the creation of a school garden in Nsanje, Malawi. Due to climate change, floods and droughts are getting worse in Nsanje, causing crops to fail. Action Aid has set up gardens in four different elementary schools to provide nutritious meals for students. The gardens also have the benefit of protecting against flooding – over 400 fruit trees and 3,000 tree seedlings have been planted in the gardens. These trees will offer protection against future flooding by providing a barrier that will hopefully reduce damage to buildings. The garden project has also attracted better teachers to the schools and caused an increase in the number of girls attending school.

As the benefits of school gardens continue to be elucidated in urban schools, they also continue to become clear in the developing world. Gardens have the potential to impact many aspects of every day life, and it is my hope that these garden projects will continue to grow and thrive as they work to end the cycle of poverty.

The Apis Mellifera: the Cost of Maintaining the Powerful Pollinator

As Colony Collapse Disorder is decimating entire bee colonies, commercial pollinators are faced with rising costs and challenges in an effort to stay in business.

Honey bee pollinating an almond blossom--Courtesy of artolog/Flickr Creative Commons

“A decline in the numbers of Apis Mellifera [the honey bee], the world’s most widely distributed, semi-domesticated insect, doesn’t just mean a shortage of honey for toast and tea.  In fact, the economic value of honey, wax and other bee products is trivial in comparison to the honey bee’s services as a pollinator,” says entomologist May R. Berenbaum in the March 2, 2007 New York Times article “Losing their Buzz.” Oftentimes the debate around Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) focuses solely on the causes of the disappearance of the bees “and the reader,” according to a report by Randal Rucker, agricultural economist, “ is left to speculate on the relationship between CCD and the supply of pollination services.”  The impact of CCD on U.S. commercial pollinators is in fact far reaching:  CCD has a marked effect on the cost of pollination, and on the rising cost of producing honey bees and of renting them for pollination purposes.  An investigation of the economic implications and the economic costs of CCD is an important element of the debate.

The Apis mellifera, the world’s “premier managed pollinator species,” is a principal pollinating actor across the continents.  The honey bee transfers the pollen grain to receptive female floral parts so they can be fertilized.  As the bees flit from flower to flower they collect nectar.  In this process, as Rucker points out,  grains of pollen become attached to their bodies and, in the transferral to the flower, fertilize the plant which enables its reproduction.   As Berenbaum points out in this article,  “3/4 of the 250,000 […] species of flowering plants on the planet rely on mobile partners – pollinators – to carry out this vital process.”  These mobile partners, “’the birds and the bees’ remain an essential fact of life; as long as plants depend on pollinators, so will people.”

PBS reports on the bees’ role in pollinating our crops:

A strong colony of honey bees, as Rucker et al. point out in this article, consists of one queen, 15,000-30,000 worker bees that are sterile females and a few thousand males or drones whose sole responsibility is to fertilize the queen.  Although colonies have historically always suffered losses, in 2006 David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania bee-keeper noticed an unprecedented  decline in his colonies.  The unusual characteristics of the empty hives, with no dead bodies around, has been leading scientists ever since to speculate on the cause of what became known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

CCD has had strong repercussions on the commercial pollinating business.  Although bee colony decline, according to Berenbaum in this article, has not affected corn and other grain crops that are fertilized by the wind, it has seriously affected animal-pollinated foods:  most fruits, nuts, and vegetables – the diet from which we derive all vitamins.    As a result of CCD, beekeeping, an age old tradition dating back to the ancient Egyptians 5000 years ago, is seeing the costs of bee production rise.  Producers are confronted with the increased costs of renting bees to pollinate their crops, according to Hoy Carman, Professor of Agricultural & Resource Economics at U. C. Davis.

Bees being trucked--Courtesy of Emmett Unlimetted/Flickr Creative Commons

Colony losses and the need for colony replacement are understood as an intrinsic part of bee keeping and replacement methods are generally expensive.  After 2006, winter losses increased from 14 to 36%, and beekeepers have been working to address this sharp increase.  The method of choice used to replace about 80% of the colonies lost is a costly one.  It is the “making increase” method or splitting of the hive: 50% of the hive is moved to a healthy and new hive that will be fertilized by a queen acquired from a commercial queen breeder.  This expensive process relies on the buying of one queen bee per split.  In addition to the cost of the queen, Rucker points out that the beekeeper incurs a 20 minute labor cost per colony to transfer “the four or five frames of brood, bees, and honey stores from the parent colony to stock the nuc colony.”  Boulder Colorado beekeeper, Tom Theobald, sympathizes with the challenges commercial beekeepers are faced with:  “I sympathize with commercial beekeepers.  I can survive the exit of bee keeping from my life.  For these commercial beekeepers this is their life.  They don’t deserve this.”

As the number of bee colonies decline, not only are our crops at stake but so is the business of commercial beekeeping.

The Origins of Composting

Composting is far more than a branch of the new green movement – it’s a system as ancient as life itself.

So much of what we do now we consider to be new, revolutionary even – granted, Mozart couldn’t listen to rival composers on an iPod and Newton was born centuries before the first computer came to life, but what about the green movement that’s taken hold of everything from shampoo to politics?  The majority of the contested elements involved in the movement – energy, habitat destruction, materialization – have only existed on a large scale since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century.  Much of what the green movement is advocating is not new at all, but rather a return to a not-so-distant past.  Composting, in fact, has been around for longer than humans have been on Earth, the practice of decomposing organics that is now gaining ground having first started on an Earth billions of years away from needing its own movement.

Moss, a bryophyte. Bryophytes are thought to be some of the first plants to colonize land. Photo courtesy of Raphaëlle Scalvenzi/Fotopedia Creative Commons

Imagine this: Earth’s crust has finally solidified and its volcanoes are spewing water vapor, which falls as rain after condensing in the atmosphere and creates the oceans.  Approximately 3,500 million years ago, the first organisms came to life in those oceans, the cycle of life and death that today allows what we know as composting to function beginning.  The first land plants appeared 445 million years ago, while humans have only been around for 200,000 years.  Throughout time, organisms have died, been decomposed, and supplemented the growth of new life, their nutrients being continually recycled.

Humans got involved in the process late but composted long before the present day.  In fact, the first account of composting dates back to the Akkadian Dynasty, which took place in a fertile area of modern-day Iraq between 2320 BC and 2120 BC.  The Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans were all versed in composting, and Cleopatra is said to have declared worms sacred after seeing them engaged in the practice.  Marcus Cato, a Roman Statesman, was responsible for the first written composting instructions and may have been the first to practice vermicomposting, which uses worms to break down organic materials.  Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet mentioned composting, advising his mother “Confess yourself to heaven, Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come, And do not spread the compost on the weeds To make them ranker” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4).

Justus von Liebig, whose research led to widespread chemical fertilization. Photo courtesy of telehistoriska/Flickr Creative Commons

In 1840, chemical fertilization began to take off when the German scientist Justus von Liebig determined that plants draw nourishment from chemicals in solution.  It wasn’t until Sir Albert Howard – known as the father of modern compost making – published An Agricultural Testament a century later that organic farming found new appreciation. Howard believed that “the wheel of life is made up of two processes, growth and decay, and one is the counterpart of the other.”  He developed what is known as the Indore method of composting after spending 1905 to 1934 working in India with local farmers.  His method combines three parts organic matter with one part manure in layers, which are regularly moistened and turned until ready to be applied to gardens and fields.  J.I. Rodale imported Howard’s method to the United States, where he distributed it in his magazine Organic Gardening. Since then, vermicomposting – originally commercialized in order to provide sports fishermen with bait worms – has also become a commonly used method for breaking down organic waste for use in growing.

Composting as a human process is becoming more and more common in the present day as we fight to find ways to protect the planet and support our own habits and needs.  However, before we charge ahead into the future, embracing organics recycling as just another fresh wave in the tide of green overtaking the globe, we would do well to look back on its history and remember that we are not instating a fancy, man-made program to save the Earth – we are restoring one that functioned perfectly without our help.

Fertilizer: Organic or Inorganic?

Which type of fertilizer wins out when it comes to meeting our food demands and protecting the planet?

Those who tend to plants – whether they be solitary gardeners maintaining backyard plots or farmers in command of agricultural mega-crops – have a choice when it comes to the type of fertilizer they feed them.  Fertilizer is any additive that provides essential nutrients like nitrogen and potassium to growing plants and can be organic – derived from plants or animals – or inorganic – derived from minerals or synthesized by humans.  Each has both advantages and disadvantages and is ultimately integral to maintaining the grand-scale generation of plants necessary to sustain the demands of our booming society.

Elephants have been kindly fertilizing plants for centuries. Photo courtesy of wackystuff/Flickr Creative Commons

Fertilization by organics is a natural process that occurs whether or not humans are involved, but it cannot support the enormity of our current food system.  In fact, it’s thought that the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is responsible for feeding nearly half of Earth’s population.  Organic fertilizer is not as effective as inorganic fertilizer in that it generally has lower nutrient content, solubility, and nutrient release rates.  Furthermore, it is more difficult to tailor organic fertilizer to meet specific nutrient needs, as it is derived from such diverse sources and its nutrient amounts cannot be known without testing.  Despite these drawbacks, organic fertilization is invaluable.  In fact, Enzo Favoino and Dominic Hogg, authors of “Waste Management & Research: The potential role of composting in reducing greenhouse gases,” say that applying organic matter to soil may heighten its ability to sequester carbon dioxide, and “increasing organic matter in soils may cause other greenhouse gas-saving effects, such as improved workability of soils, better water retention, less production and use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides, and reduced release of nitrous oxide.”

Nitrogen fertilizer being spread on corn fields in Hardin County, Iowa. Photo courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr Creative Commons

Although world hunger would swell without the assistance of inorganic fertilizers, they are not perfect either.  They deliver more nutrients better, but they require non-renewable resources like phosphorous and potassium, which are mined.  Nitrogen – as it makes up the majority of our atmosphere – is essentially infinite, but in order to be used by plants it must first be “fixed,” or converted into ammonia.  This process, when performed by humans, requires fossil fuels, the burning of which is responsible for global climate change.  According to Aleksander Abram and D. Lynn Forster’s “Primer on Ammonia, Nitrogen Fertilizers, and Natural Gas Markets,” in 2004 “317 billion cubic feet [of natural gas were] used to manufacture ammonia” in the U.S.  In addition, inorganic fertilizers do not consist entirely of nutrients but also include compounds like salt, which can build up in soil and change its chemistry, making it less suitable for planting.  Inorganic fertilizers are also more susceptible to leaching and wash away more easily, exacerbating problems like eutrophication, the depletion of oxygen in bodies of water due to overactive plant growth, which can lead to mass die-offs of aquatic fauna.  Around half of all U.S. lakes are currently eutrophic, and many coastal waters are now considered “dead zones.”

While neither type of fertilizer is flawless, both have their merits, inorganic more efficient and reliable and organic healthier for the soil and the planet.  At this point in the global food situation, the composting of organic mass to yield fertilizer can only act to supplement the use of inorganic fertilizers, but as long as humanity continues to eat and leave food scraps behind, composting will remain a viable option for sustaining both worldwide food production and the Earth.

Colony Collapse Disorder: A New Perspective on the Phenomenon

Bees have been disappearing for centuries.  To some, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) as a discrete phenomenon does not exist.  In an effort to study the cause of this decline, a researcher questions whether the methods of inquiry are scientific.

Bee hives abandoned by worker bees-- Courtesy of mdjdfan/ Flickr Clreative Commons

In a BBC World Service Report from March 2009, “‘No Proof’ of bee killer theory,”  science reporter Matt McGrath stresses that honey bees are “of crucial importance to the local economy.”  It is undeniable that the honey bee is fundamental to the continued agricultural productivity and economic health of America and the world.  In 2006 David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania bee-keeper, sounded the alarm: he had found his bee boxes empty of bees, no dead bees in the neighborhood, no bodies to be found.   The mysterious disappearance of the bees was to be called “Colony Collapse Disorder.”  But is this decline of the bees really such a new phenomenon?

While scientists are researching the potential causes of this sudden and drastic collapse of bee colonies, and pointing to discrete culprits such as pesticides, fungicides, stress, monoculture food, and mites, it remains unclear whether what Dave Hackenberg and other bee keepers, noted beginning in 2006 was an unprecedented event.  The question then is: is this decline a new disorder, what has been called “Colony Collapse Disorder,”  or is it just a phenomenon that has been happening for hundreds of years but that, given this 2006 publicity, has come to be seen as a new phenomenon?

In my previous blog posts, I have focused on the possible causes of CCD – pesticides, and in particular neonicotinoids, fungicides, and viruses – without questioning the basic hypothesis underlying the debate–that Colony Collapse Disorder exists as a discrete phenomenon.    Scientists, according to Renee Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy for the congressional research service, do not argue about whether the bee colonies are declining.  The colonies are.  There is consensus, furthermore, that this decline is not brought on by a single factor but rather by a multiplicity of factors acting synergistically.

The question remains: why has the decline of bees that has always been integral to bee life been named in 2006 CCD?

Donald Steinkraus, entomologist at the University of Arkansas, states in a November 8, 2011 interview, that the death of bees is part of a natural process:  “Colonies die off.  They always have.  Every bee keeper knows that.  There have been major declines in bee keeping before, even before major chemicals came into use.  It has been historically shown.  It is not a new phenomenon.”  So why is it being treated as a new phenomenon?

Steinkraus points first to the flaw in identifying CCD as a discrete disorder.  Beyond that he also underscores the flawed approach of identifying a potential cause for CCD based on the analyses of dead bees.   Upon analyses of dead bees, Steinkraus points out that scientists have found  certain viruses present among all the dead bees.   It is tempting to conclude, as he says,  that the viruses found among all the dead bees are the viruses responsible for killing them:  “They all died of this virus because they all had this virus present.  However, the presence of microorganisms is not proof of disease.  People are analyzing the bees genetically to see what microbes are present and they are finding zillions of microbes.  Finding zillions of species of microbes present in the bees even if they are known pathogens is no proof of disease.   If someone looks in your mouth, for instance,  […] they find that your mouth houses something like 200 different species of bacteria at all times. […] but these bacteria are not causing disease.  The presence of these microorganisms is not proof of disease.”

Steinkraus underscores the absurdity of such reasoning:

These speculations or opinions, in Steinkraus’ view, about the potential causes of CCD are getting a lot of media attention.  Instead of presenting opinion or speculation as scientific evidence, he claims one should perform scientific experiments on the dead bees in order to find a cause for a decline that has existed among bee colonies for centuries.  People, as Steinkraus points out, are finding ”all these microorganisms and [saying] ‘this is the cause.’ But instead of doing experiments to prove the cause, everybody is just writing these papers left and right and getting all kinds of press.”

Steinkraus points to flaws in reasoning and in scientific method: 1) the assumption that the decline in bee colonies is a new phenomenon  and 2) that the studies of this decline are not conducted in a scientifically sound manner but rather driven by opinion and speculation.  According to Steinkraus CCD, per se, may not be a discrete phenomenon and the methods used to identify the causes of the decline in bee colonies may be questionable.

Pointing Out the Nonpoint Source: The Impact of Runoff on Coral Reefs

Non-Pointsource Pollution flowing into Florida Waters. Photo Courtesy of NOAA/Flickr.

An estimated 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based sources. Dirt, oil, nutrients, and chemicals enter the oceans as runoff; polluted liquid that flows from land to sea.  The sources of runoff are numerous, and its impacts on coral reefs, especially those in costal areas, are profound.

In elementary school, one of my teachers presented the class with a model of our costal city.  She handed a few students bottles of different colored water, and asked them to ‘water their lawns,’ ‘wash their cars,’ and ‘make it rain’ on the city.  They proceeded to drench the model.  Then she told us to watch where the water went.  It rolled down into a small pool of clear water at the bottom of the model.  We watched the pool turn to a brownish-grey hue.

Nonpoint Source Pollution. Photo Courtesy of EPA/ water.epa.gov

The point of the model was to show us how pollutants, in the form of runoff, flow from land to sea.  We couldn’t really see the ocean turn greyish-brown in real-life, so the model let us visualize where a lot of the pollution was coming from, and what it was doing to the sea water. As kids who grew up on the shore, the lesson hit home.  Most of us weren’t strangers to summer time beach closures due to high levels of pollution.

Watershed Model. Photo Courtesy of AISBWETWMS/Picasa.

Runoff poses a significant threat to coral reefs.  Pollutants such as oil, fertilizers, inorganic materials, sewage, sediments, and heavy metals are washed into oceans daily. As a nonpoint source pollutant, runoff is hard to control, precisely because it enters the water in many places and because the pollutants originate from so many different sources.  Both urban and rural environments contribute to the runoff problem.

Agricultural runoff poses a serious threat to coral reefs.  Over-irrigation and rainstorms cause nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers to flow into the sea. Ordinary levels of nitrogen and phosphorous are essential for life on reefs, but increased levels of nutrients result in algal blooms.  Algae thrive off of these nutrients, and grow at alarming rates on reefs when the water becomes over-saturated with nutrients.  Eventually the algae take over, and the coral cannot compete for resources, so they die.

As the EPA points out, “When nutrient levels increase, the delicate balance that exists between corals and algae is destroyed and the algae can overgrow the corals. When this situation is prolonged, the corals are smothered and die beneath the algal carpet. This, in turn, affects the fish and other aquatic organisms using the area, leading to a decrease in animal and plant diversity and affecting use of the water for fishing and swimming.”

Algal Bloom. Photo Courtesy of chesbayprogram/Flickr.

Katharina E. Fabricius of The Australian Institute of Marine Science has noted the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorous-rich terrestrial run-off on reefs in her paper,“Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis”.  She writes that “considerable effort has gone into experiments studying the direct effects of elevated dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN, as nitrate or ammonium) and phosphate (DIP) on coral calcification, tissue growth and zooxanthellae.”  She goes on to conclude that “chronically increased levels of dissolved inorganic nutrients may alter reef metabolism and reef calcification sufficiently to cause noticeable changes in coral communities.”

Australia’s  Great Barrier Reef is at risk due to agricultural runoff.  According to a report by students at the University of Michigan, “80% of the land adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef is farmland that supports agricultural production, intensive cropping of sugar cane, and major beef cattle grazing (GBR, 2007). These types of agriculture and cattle production pose large threats to the Great Barrier Reef close by.”  Nutrients from these farm areas reach the reef, and cause damage.

Excess nutrients also reach the sea when human or animal waste is discharged as untreated wastewater into the sea or when sewer systems overflow before treatment.  According to UNEP “around 60% of the wastewater discharged into the Caspian Sea is untreated, in Latin America and the Caribbean the figure is close to 80%, and in large parts of Africa and the Indo-Pacific the proportion is as high as 80-90%.” As the EPA describes, aside from adding excess nutrients to the water, this untreated sewage can bring bacteria and other pathogens to reefs that can cause coral disease and death.

Sewage outfall. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr.

Other toxic materials also impact coral reefs. Heavy metals, chemicals, and oils runoff into the ocean from urban areas and poison corals.  The upset the chemical balance of water that is necessary for coral to live. Most of the oil in the world’s oceans does not come from large-scale oil spills, but rather from smaller sources such as runoff.  The World Wildlife Fund states that only around 12% of the oil that enters the sea each year comes from oil spills. The US National Resources Council estimates that 36% of oil that enters the sea comes “as waste and runoff from cities and industry.”

Cyanobaterial Bloom on a Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr

The question that begs to be asked is what can be done to prevent damage to coral reefs by runoff?  For one, the US government has enacted the “The Coastal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program.” The program was passed by Congress in order to achieve “coordination between state coastal zone managers and water quality experts to reduce polluted runoff in the coastal zone.”

The program, which focuses on runoff-pollution prevention and is jointly administered by NOAA and the EPA, “establishes a set of management measures for states to use in controlling polluted runoff. The measures are designed to control runoff from six main sources: forestry, agriculture, urban areas, marinas, hydromodification (shoreline and stream channel modification), and wetlands and vegetated shorelines, or riparian areas. These measures are backed by enforceable state policies and actions—state authorities that will ensure implementation of the program.”  Thus the goal of the program is to give governments the tools and the power to regulate and prevent runoff.  Though these laws are significant achievements, the challenge to lessen runoff is still steep, and threats to coral reefs as a result of runoff are ever-present.

Feeding Constituents Hungry For Change

On Tuesday November 1st, Congresswomen Chellie Pingree, with Senator Sherrod Brown, submitted the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (LFFJA) S. 1773 and H.R. 3286, as part of the 2012 update to the Farm Bill, a major piece of legislation that dictates America’s agricultural policies and programs, and is renewed every 5 years. Pingree and Brown’s bill integrates support for local food producers and consumers into the upcoming adjustments the Farm Bill will see in 2012.

Pingree supports local farmers and consumers, photo courtesy of pingree.house.gov

As Pingree says, “This bill breaks down barriers the federal government has put up for local food producers and really just makes it easier for people to do what they’ve already been doing. It creates jobs on local farms and bolsters economic growth in rural communities.”
And the benefits of local food systems goes beyond economic growth. In a study of farm costs and food miles, researchers led by J.N. Pretty found that if Britain’s globalized food system switched to local food sources (within 20 km of home), the environmental costs would fall from £2.3 billion annually to £230 million annually, a reduction of more than half. The Center for a New American Dream calculates that food travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles, in fossil-fuel burning transportation, to reach consumers, and that local farms not only eliminate the pollution associated with transportation, but also, regardless of whether they are certified organic, use less chemicals and protect biodiversity with wider agricultural gene pools, supporting long-term food security.

The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act works toward these environmental benefits by supporting rural, entrepreneurial, community-based, and independent farmers with financial programs, research initiatives, and business incentives and support.

The bill will make Farm Service Agency credit  more accessible to local and regional farmers and ranchers, allocate $30 million annually to Value-Added Producer Grants, improve the Risk Management Agency’s insurance coverage for specialty crops and mixed operations, facilitate Organic Certification, make room for commodity program participants to grow fruits and vegetables, provide Rural Business Opportunity Grants, Rural Business Enterprise Grants, & Community Facility Grants & Loans to local and regional food systems, put $30 million a year towards farmers’ market promotion, give $90 million annually to the Specialty Block Grant program, and create a special budget for local and regional crop and market development.

Pingree and Brown offered the bill to a wave of food-policy advocacy support. It appears to be strategically released to coincide with the Center For Science in the Public Interest’s Food Day, a nation-wide event advocating food, hunger, and sustainability on a grass-roots level with goals of creating food policy. Pingree’s legislative director, Claire Benjamin, explains, “Congresswoman Pingree worked on developing the ideas in the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act through the course of the last 10 months with input from a broad coalition made up of 18 farm, nutrition and food security organizations. The timing worked out well to use Food Day as a platform for announcing the bill”. Benjamin also expressed support and encouragement of the first annual Food Day, calling it, “a great success and huge organizing opportunity for people who care about these issues”.

Pingree meeting Food Day participants, photo courtesy of Huffington Post

The quick and concrete government response to the Food Day campaign is exciting to both farmers and consumers, and is being awarded huge support and endorsement from groups such as the National Farmers Union, Community Food Security Coalition,American Farmland Trust, and the National Farm to School Network.

Speaking to Western Farm Press, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Helen Dombalis said, “We applaud Senator Brown and Congresswoman Pingree for introducing this legislation, which is important to farmers and consumers alike”.

However, the actual impact of this bill can be called into question when considering that none of the initiatives are allocated more than $100 million dollars. This seems like generous funding, until we consider that the last Farm Bill, passed in 2008, was a hefty $288 billion dollars.

What’s more, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is planning to reduce the 2012 budget by as much as $23 billion, and indicated that sustainable, community-based initiatives will be cut, saying in an interview, “We’ll have fewer dollars for rural development but we’re looking to partner with non-profit foundations to pick up the slack”. Vilsack expressed a disregard for government responsibility for small and sustainable farmers, even though it that same interview he lauded the merits of organic and small farming, saying, “Four percent of the nation’s farmers are organic but it’s a fast-growing segment. The farms are usually small but provide a great strategy for rebuilding rural America”.

Pingree’s office hopes that the modest monetary requests and soundness of investment will translate to a well-received bill. Benjamin says, “the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act makes up a fraction of the costs of the overall farm bill, and we feel like the spending in the bill makes strategic investments in a growing sector of the economy,” and goes on to point out that several of the proposed initiatives don’t even have price tags attached, saying, “Many of the provisions in the bill are common sense, no cost policy changes that would significantly bolster this growing sector of the economy, and help consumers access healthier, local food”.

Regardless of budget size, the government accountability to constituents’ interest in sustainable food and farming is a promising spark of political action, and with more discussion, awareness, and advocacy, is likely to build momentum. If Food Day championed such legislation in its very first year, Americans interested in food and farm can be optimistic about their potential for further change.

Is it a Virus? Navigating the theories behind Colony Collapse Disorder

To some, it is not pesticides or fungicides, but rather viruses, and in particular the Israeli Acute Paralytic Virus, that play an important role in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). How is one to plot a course around all these differing opinions?

In this age where an abundance of information is at our fingertips, it is easy to give in to a natural desire to jump to conclusions when it comes to suggesting the causes of  Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  CCD  is a complex synergistic phenomenon where a number of factors have been identified as contributing to the decline of the bee colonies.  On this point everyone in the scientific community agrees, says Renee Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy for the Congressional Research Service.   As part of my research to date, I have focused on pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids, that, lacing the pollen, end up being stored in the hive, and on fungicides that wreak their havoc in the heart of the hive,  destroying the bee’s intestinal flora.   Among the other factors identified as playing a role in CCD are viruses.

Viruses behave in a similar manner whether they infect bees or humans.  According to Beeologics, an international firm that focuses on protecting bees from viruses, viruses will infect the host in a variety of manners: through varroa mite bites, through the alimentary track during feeding, or through trauma on the body.  They will spread throughout the colony either horizontally — from bee to bee, from fecal matter or infested food –, or vertically — from the queen to her eggs.  Just as in humans, viruses will strike a colony more effectively when it is weakened by stressors such as overcrowding, lack of forage diversity, pesticide-laden pollen, or the reduced genetic pool of the queen bees.  Furthermore, bad flying conditions that relegate the bees to their hive and lead them to defecate in the hive also have an effect on the spread of disease.

Honeybee with deformed wings-- Courtesy of Klaas de Gelder/ Flickr Creative Commons

Among the many viruses that affect honey bees, the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) has been given particular attention across scientific disciplines.  Given how bees and humans transmit viruses in similar ways, there has been, according to  Science News article, ” Virus Implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder in Bees,” a  “profound synergy within the [research] group bringing together entomology, microbiology, and bio-informatics.”  Closely related to the Acute Bee Paralysis Virus, IAPV, transmitted by varroa mites, is, as Beeologics points out on its website, “the most consistent  indicator of Colony Collapse Disorder.”  First identified in Israel in 2004, IAPV, as science reporter Roxanne Khamsi points out in a News scientist article, causes “bees to develop shivering wings and eventually become paralyzed, leading to death just outside the hive.”   The U.S. strain of IAPV is distinct from the Israeli one and seems to be rapidly changing and spreading throughout the U.S.

Beeologics is very involved in researching this virus.   In a phone interview on November 8, 2011, Eyal Ben-Chanoch, CEO of Beeologics, discussed the experiment his researchers had conducted  on hives to ascertain the role of IAPV in CCD:  “we were able to show in controlled trial that when we inoculate healthy hives with the virus, we get similar symptoms to CCD.  It’s not necessarily a one to one [cause and effect] because other things can do it too, but we showed that when you inoculate the virus into a healthy bee hive after very short period you get CCD-like symptoms.”

Even though the results of this scientific experiment point to the very important  role of IAPV in the decline of honey bee colonies, Ben-Chanoch stressed that this is only one small step in understanding the nuances of the issue.   In discussing the spread of the virus among bees, he underscored the complexities involved in studying infectious diseases: “[The spread of infectious diseases] is not well understood in any infectious disease.  Again, it is science in progress, but if somebody will tell you that they know, they just make statements that are irresponsible.”

Jeff Pettis, Research leader for the United States Department of Agriculture speaks about IAPV and underscores the fact that the findings concerning the correlation between IAPV and CCD are not conclusive:

In my October 27 post, I highlighted the conviction of some people in the industry that pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids, played, without a doubt, a crucial role in CCD.  Today, my research led me to viruses and in particular to IAPV which, in the view of researchers at Beeologics, for instance, play a salient role in CCD.

How are we to navigate amidst so many firm convictions?

Professor Donald Steinkraus, entomologist at the University of Arkansas, stresses the need to distinguish between speculation and science when reporting on potential causes of CCD. He hearkens back, in a phone interview with me on November 8, 2011, to the basic experimentation principles of Louis Pasteur, and in particular to the importance of testing hypotheses on randomized samples.  As a scientist he does not like to speculate:

As we continue to explore the factors possibly contributing to CCD, Donald Steinkraus reminds us that science is not a discipline of rapid solutions driven solely by passion but rather a field driven by hypotheses, data, and patient analysis.

Powerful Poisons Interact to Attack the Industrious Honey Bee

In and of themselves pesticides may not be the sole culprits of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Could understanding the synergisms between these chemicals help solve the mystery of CCD?

Beeswax Candles--Courtesy of Roberrific/Flickr Creative Commons

The snowstorm is looming. Tom Theobald, Boulder Colorado bee keeper, will retire to his honey house to watch the early winter flakes dance in the cold air.  There, he will be “doing a run of hand-dipped beeswax candles.”  After all, when the power goes out he always reverts to the work of small and industrious insects, the honey bees, whose burning wax will shed light in his cabin.  Theobald can enjoy the process of making beeswax candles and can survive the exit of the bees from his life were his colonies to continue to wane because of CCD. Commercial bee keepers, as he says, cannot–as they are the most affected economically by the decline of the bees.   While one may be able to pinpoint the role of one specific pesticide in CCD,  the mystery of CCD is intensified as the interactions between the many chemical ingredients used in 21st century American agriculture become apparent.

Theobald takes my call on November 1, 2011, just before the storm.   This time we don’t focus merely on the systemic pesticide chlothianidin, but rather discuss the complexity of synergisms, the interactions of various pesticides on the health of the hive and the bee.  Theobald confides that fungicides “only entered his consciousness just recently,”  as part of a larger investigation into neonicotinoids, nicotine-derived pesticides.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, fungi are crucial to the health of the hive.  They break down the pollen inside the hive.  As Theobald points out, fungicides disrupt the bee’s intestinal flora.  Bee bread is only a partly digested product that needs intestinal flora to be metabolized.  Fungicides, instead, “decrease the microbial diversity of the bee’s food source” according to David Doll, Farm Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension.  However, since fungicides, like pesticides, are required for a profitable crop, they become an integral element of the pollination process and therefore pose health risks to honey bees.

According to David Doll, fungicides are generally applied around or at bloom when they will adhere to the pollen. Their application during bloom should, therefore, be regulated.    Unlike Europe that errs on the side of caution, banning pesticides until they are proven not to be harmful, in the US there is, as reporter for the GMO journal Deniza Gertzberg points out, “no accurate and complete picture of what pesticides are used, where and in what amounts, or the accurate measures of just what the maximum exposure is in agricultural or urban settings on blooming plants.”

Jan Knodel, Extension Entomologist for North Dakota State University presents guidelines for reducing pesticide poisoning to bees:

As bees work the hardest during bloom, they will thus inevitably bring back the fungicide-laced pollen to the hive where they will store it to be eaten later or where it is eaten immediately, its nutritional value having been altered by the fungicides.

Theobald focuses on the fungicide boscalid in particular.  Introduced in the USA in 2003, boscalid, the active ingredient in the fungicide emerald, is a respiration inhibitor within the fungal cell.  It is highly successful in fighting fungal diseases in fruits, vegetables and grapes that are used for wine.

In the non-committal language of the EPA boscalid is “practically nontoxic to terrestrial animals and is moderately toxic to aquatic animals on an acute exposure basis.”  However, according to the PAN pesticides database,  “population-level effects on honeybees may occur even if a pesticide has low acute toxicity. […] certain pesticides interfere with honeybee reproduction, ability to navigate, or temperature regulation, any of which can have an effect on long-term survival of honey bee colonies.”

A recent study by James Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences highlights the magnitude of the problem of pesticides like boscalid making their way into the bee’s hives and lacing their food with poison: “on average six different pesticides, and in some cases, as many as 39 pesticides were found in hives across the United States.”   This  study focuses not on one specific pesticide but rather on the presence of multiple pesticides, in fact “98 pesticides and metabolites detected in […] bee pollen alone,” suggesting  the need for research on the synergisms between pesticides that might underlie the demise of the bees.

Theobald echoes the need for research on the potentially lethal synergisms of various pesticides on bees, as he refers to a 2010 report by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension stating the need for such studies, as “some fungicides may affect a bee’s ability to tolerate other pesticides.”

It is not only about chlothianidin.  It is not merely about boscalid.  According to Gertzberg, over 1,200 active ingredients are distributed among 18,000 products nationwide and are now integral to the honey bees’ landscape.  The complexity of the demise of the bees lies in the synergisms between these chemicals.

Omnivore’s Solution

Vegetarianism seems oppositional to American life; as a culture, we stand fiercely loyal to fast food, barbecues, and steak knives. It is such a part of our national gastronomic tradition that even its proven harm to health cannot deter our meat-eating ways. We have long ignored that saturated fat from animal-protein is connected with cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
But in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations produced a document that would change the world’s understanding of how our food affects our environment. Livestock’s Long Shadow announced “livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport”, creating emissions from feed production, cultivation of feed crops, organic matter losses, feed transport, animal production, and product transportation”.

Even still, most Americans continue their meat-based diet because, simply put, they like meat. Regardless of objective arguments for removing meat, or just beef, from the diet, only 3.2 percent of the American population adheres to a vegetarian diet, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive Service Bureau for Vegetarian Times in 2008.

But in addition to this small population of strict vegetarians, the Harris study found another 10 percent of American adults follow a “vegetarian-inclined” diet, and another 5.2% are “definitely interested” in adopting a vegetarian-based diet.
For many, meat is becoming a lesser, rather than absent, part of the diet. Al Gore, arguably the nation’s most vocal and visible environmental advocate has said, when asked why he doesn’t adopt a vegetarian diet for the environment, “I’m not a vegetarian, but I have cut back sharply on the meat that I eat”. Even an environmentalist can find it hard to give up meat, but more eaters are seeing that just taking steps in the right direction is an important part of addressing the environmental harm of beef.

As Barnard biology professor and food specialist Hilary Callahan states, “A key and incontrovertible ecological principle is that eating lower on the food chain saves energy and makes more food available for more people. This applies for terrestrial systems (avoid beef, pork, chicken, others) and for marine systems (avoid eating predatory fish)”.

Considering that transporting, processing, producing, retailing, storing, and preparing 1 kilogram of beef, cheese, and pork creates as much as 30 kilograms of CO2 while fruits and vegetables are associated with 2.5 kilograms of emissions per kg of edible end-product, even moderate dietary reassessments could dramatically change the food system’s impact on global warming. Regardless of “vegetarian” or “meat eater” labels, a part-way shift from carnivorous to herbaceous meals could have appreciable impacts.

A variety of organizations, from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the Humane society to Stanford University are advocating a new, but practical diet. They invite a wider range of eaters by reporting the environmental and health advantages of reducing meat consumption, while understanding that quitting cold “turkey” can be too much to ask.

This trend, dubbed “flexitarianism” has produced a bevy of cookbooks, including The Flexitarian Diet, The Healthy Hedonist, and Everyday Flexitarian, as well as recognition on The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post.

As Vegetarian Resource Group Consumer Research Manager John Cunningham observes, “There have always been “meat reducers”, people who try to limit meat in their diets even if they are not strict vegetarians, but the emergence of the word “flexitarian” in the last 5 years has created a demographic for vegetarian restaurants and products that marketers are excited about, and has made it socially more convenient to be a vegetarian”

Mainstream eaters are being challenged to eat more vegetables, try cooking just one vegetarian meal a week, or buy sustainably-raised, grass-fed beef. The focus of flexitarianism is to introduce a form of vegetarianism that is easy and approachable.