Category Archives: Sustainable development

Law: the Central Solution or Insignificant Facet?

For centuries, our ancestors have used plants for various purposes: for food, raw material, and for medicinal purposes. However, in our modern times we have deleted our plant resources due to our excessive over harvesting. Currently, more than 60 million plants are harvested without being replaced. This unsustainable harvesting by pharmaceutical companies and local communities are the cause of endangerment and even extinction for many medicinal plants. This then affects the local communities as they lose a source of income.  Unfortunately, the plot thickens—local peoples resort to biopiracy or the poaching or medicinal plants from both public and private lands. This simply provides as more fuel to the disastrous cycle of overharvesting herbs.

Many solutions have been suggested, such as cultivation and wild crafting, to solve this problem. Also, there are cultural influences, such as religion, that fuel local people to protect their lands. Though all of the above are necessary tools to stopping herb overexploitation, they all have deep flaws to contribute to the current problem. This is why it is important to look to the law when these options fail. Laws protect the plants and repel malevolent and selfish individuals from taking advantage of medicinal plants.

International Laws Protecting Medicinal Plants

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) drawn up in early 1973 is one of the very few laws protecting medicinal plants globally. CITES is a treaty that regulates the international trading of threatened or endangered species. It protects endangered species by establishing specific trading laws that safeguard and sustain that particular species. All imported and exported species must be authorized through a ‘licensing system’. Each country has authorities that oversee this process. This in turn, makes it much harder for poachers to transport and sell their stolen herbs.  However, there are many flaws. CITES does not specifically have a committee or group that enforces this law, making it almost useless as it is not practiced actively. To make things worse, conflicts of interest may arise when deciding if a certain species is endangered or not. This is seen with Peru, Brazil and Bolivia, as they refuse to list the Brazilian mahogany. These three countries now hold 90% of the last mahogany trees in the world. It is obvious that this proves advantageous for them in their timber industries, and will boost their economic output—but it will be at the expense of biodiversity.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Laws in the United States

The United States are very conscious of their harvesting, due to the frequent advocating by many organizations. The United Plant Savers is a non- profit group that help to raise awareness of endangered plants and herbs and distribute seeds to gardeners and companies. Currently, the US mostly cultivates its medicinal plants, decreasing the illegal trade. This is reflected clearly as the United States does not have as many endangered species compared to other countries, such as India and China. Yet, problems still do arise with biopiracy, mostly in National Parks. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, commercial poachers arrive annually and steal hundreds of different plants. Commercial poachers take a special liking to the American Ginseng, a severely endangered and popular herb, as many detained poachers with over 1,000 roots in their possession. However, with a lack of total rangers, it is hard to fully enforce laws, leading to many poachers getting away with such a large amount of poaching.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a law that protects ecosystems and endangered and threatened species. ESA is an excellent law that protects endangered species and their ecosystems well, but this act has a fault: it gives states to option to accept or veto the ‘plant’ part of the bill. Unfortunately, many states vetoed the ‘plant’ section of the bill, and currently have no law to protect the plants.  Even worse, each state has different endangered species lists, meaning that one species may be endangered in one state and not endangered another, leading to confusion and possible manipulation by greedy commercial poachers.

The Next Step

As shown above, the environmental laws internationally and in America have as many defects as the other solutions suggested above. Conflicts of interests i.e. Timber industry vs. conservation, could lead to a controversial debate over saving biodiversity or adding more jobs to the economy. It is also important to remember that the individuals who do enforce the law are not botanists, and therefore may not be able to confidently remember and identify each endangered plant. This also contributes to frequent poaching and the endangerment of herbs. Many lawmakers do not find this to be an issue of importance in other developing countries, such as India. Yet above all, with a lack of law enforcers for both the CITES and the ESA, the law itself only an official document, never to be implemented and practiced by the people, and therefore does not serve a purpose. “Mitigating these challenges [of the overexploitation of herbs] and consolidating the gains so far requires the formulation and implementation of comprehensive national policies for conservation of medicinal plants”, stated WHO Regional Director, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo. Without implementation, laws serve no purpose.

It is important that we pressure our lawmakers and force their attention on to this significant problem. With their support, we can increase our number of local law enforcers and have a notably better hold on enforcing the law and protecting endangered plants. Get involved by sending a letter to your local councilman. Awareness is necessary, but it is also important to take action. Please spread the word and help protect the endangered plants in your area.

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.

Big-Portion Sustainability

This year, McDonalds will expand its international chain with over 1,100 new locations. And this is great news for the environment. Surprising? Many ecologically aware eaters talk about small and local initiatives: independent farms, CSA produce boxes, and farmers’ markets. But large-scale environmental benefits can be achieved through changing our existing, large-scale food system.

Without a doubt, the dialogue started by the sustainable food movement has had an influence on how McDonald’s presents itself. At least some of the initiatives McDonalds has taken towards sustainability are there to appease societal demands that corporations have a conscience.  McDonald’s website offers emotional video clips about how the company supports the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, Food Animal Initiative, funding research on how to make commercial scale agriculture sustainable, and the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, looking for sustainable approaches to an industry that has contributed to deforestation in Malaysia.


In a world of greenwashing, corporations’ environmental initiatives come across as insincere, self-serving marketing tools. But when it comes to large-scale business sustainability, there is more than just marketing at play: sustainable choices to reduce consumption and waste are also easy ways to cut costs, creating a strong, profit-based commitment to wiser use of resources. And a company as large as McDonalds can institute changes that have wide-reaching influence.

As Joshua Brau, a Yale Business School student who has worked with McDonald’s explains, “Shareholders typically have a single concern: maximizing returns. And these companies see there is a substantial business case for reducing environmental impact,” going on to say that, at McDonald’s, “the sincere interest in doing good is in line with company objectives. Less energy consumed and higher efficiency translates to increased profits”.

In McDonalds restaurants, LED lights and efficient fryer fireups save energy, and sustainable building practices are being incorporated into new locations. When purchasing from suppliers, McDonalds uses a Supplier Environmental Scorecard to measure packaging waste, maximize recycled materials, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Using this index, companies that produce food for McDonalds, such as East Belt Bakery, were able to improve their input to output ratios– making food more efficiently and saving money in the process. Pleased with the results, East Belt introduced this index to the North American Bakery Council and helped 50-60 similarly large bakeries use less energy and resources in production. In 2007, the Australian Food Company, a supplier to McDonalds, cut their water use 30% through practices such as rainwater collection and new cleaning systems as suggested by the Environmental Scorecard. And in Canada, suppliers using the scorecard cut water use 56%, energy consumption 67% and waste production 67% between 2005 and 2006.

Good environmental choices are often good business choices, and companies as large as McDonald’s have huge environmental impact when they make money-saving changes. As McDonald’s VP of Corporate Social Responsibility Bob Langert explains in an interview on Daily Finance, “We as a company spend $1.7 billion on energy around the world. Energy efficiency can cut that cost. The other big issue is waste. That includes packaging that turns into waste and other waste in general. We spend $1.3 billion on processing waste. So reducing our packaging and figuring out ways to divert waste will be necessary and help our bottom line. It’s the right thing to do, but its also business related”.

These figures beg  the question of how genuine environmental intentions must be: is sustainability at McDonald’s of a lesser value because it self-serving? Does sustainability have to be a grassroots initiative?

The reality is that environmentalism has been ignored for too long, in part because the private sector views it as a financial burden. By equating wise use with profit maximization, an environmental consideration of how we eat can reach a wider eating public. Environmental eaters should promote and patronize farmers’ markets and co-ops, but also applaud the corporate sustainability measures, even if incidental, that are creating a large-scale norm of efficiency and ecological consciousness.

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.

Religion as a Cultural Influence on the Use of Medicinal Plants

As seen in many of my blog posts, there are many different options that may be utilized to preserve and sustain the native flora and fauna of our biosphere. Sustainability is still a primary resolution to the problem of over harvesting herbs, as our exploitation of the herbs directly affects their population total- our restraint in harvesting can preserve their population numbers, while over exploiting will lead to decreasing numbers. Therefore, wild crafting, the practice of harvesting medicinal herbs in an ecologically-friendly way, is a necessary tool to maintain biological diversity of medicinal plants, and should be coupled with other options. Another alternative is the cultivation of medicinal plants. This is a safe option, especially for large pharmaceutical companies who use a large amount of specific herbs in the production of its products. The ecological and economic rewards for both of these potential solutions makes them advantageous, serving as a catalyst, making the above idealist solutions become implemented actions the modern society and indigenous communities. However, there are also cultural agents that motivate people to sustain and conserve—religion.

Plants are used in many religions- from Hinduism to Islam. The frequencies in which these plants are used are diverse, as they can be occasionally used only for parts of rituals to being frequently used in daily prayer. Many find these plants to be holy and integral to the service of their gods. This pushes individuals to conserve those specific plants through cultivation and wild crafting, while some even go as far as to keep certain lands completely untouched by humans in praise of their deities. However, religion may also impact pant populations in a negative way, by overexploiting herbs for rituals and other religious purposes.

Religion as a Culprit

Commiphora wightii, Guggul Tree

Commiphora wightii, Guggul Tree

The Commiphora, also known as the Guggul tree/plant is important for modern medicine, alternative medicine and Islam. It is a slow-growing tree found in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Its resin, liquid in the outer cells of the tree that is only released when tree is damaged, is a key ingredient in the Ayurvedic medicine, a sector of alternative medicine in India, as it is a treatment for bone fractures, arthritis, inflammation and obesity. It is used in modern medicine for its ability to decrease heart problems. It is also popularly used for its resin, which is a gum-like substance when it hardens. In Hinduism, it is burnt as incense, also known as dhoop, on holy occasions. It is believed to drive away evil spirits and keep and evil away from home and their family members.

C.wightii’s religious importance has led to overexploitation, and is now considered endangered by the IUCN Red List and the Species Survival Commission (SSN). Despite its importance, it is still endangered due to its slow growth rate, poor seeding, and low germination. But not all medicinal plant follows the similar path of demise of the Guggul tree. Some take an opposite path- where religion leads to its survival.

Religion as a Protector

Ocimum tenuiflorum, Indian Basil

Ocimum tenuiflorum

The Ocimum tenuiflorum, also known as Tulsi plant or Indian Basil, is a very important plant for both medicinal and religious uses. Its leaves are used to promote longevity, as it relieves stress. It is used for minor aches, such as colds, inflammations, and headaches as well as serious illnesses, like malaria, and heart disease. The Tulsi plant is a very important part of Hinduism, as one prays before a Tulsi plant twice a day – in the morning and in the evening. Many Hindus believe that the Tulsi is so holy that it should not be commonly harvested. Many cultivate the Tulsi plant in their backyards or in a room, commonly surrounded by pictures of many different gods. According to Pankaj Goya, author of various agricultural articles in India, “Each house must always have a Tulsi plant…due to its great medicinal value our ancestors revered it as a most sacred plant and in this way tried conserving it.”  Here, religion protects and converses a medicinal plant, as the Vaishnavite tradition of the Hindu religion requires the worship of the gods. It is not only sustained in its wild habitat, but also rarely harvested at their homes.

Keeping the Land Sacred

The Sacred Groves is one of the most extreme examples of religious conservation. Sacred Groves are natural vegetation that is dedicated to deities or ‘three spirits’, in return for the gods’ humble support and guidance. People believe that touching the land will offend the deities and bring calamity and natural disasters. Therefore, various tribes, such as the Garo and Khasi tribes of northeastern India, prohibit anyone from entering into the sacred groves. This has led to the biodiversity and preservation of the plants and animals that reside there.

However the Sacred Groves are now in danger. Many local communities have changed as the younger generations do not follow the same belief system as their elders and ancestors. Goyal also states, “The family structure is also changing from joint to nuclear…thus creating a gap between generations.” This gap may have also lead to the change in traditions, as ones elders were not there to share it. Currently, there is a movement, emphasizing ‘temple worship’ over ‘nature worship’, taking away from the importance of the sacred groves.

As shown, religion has served as the connector between ideas and implementation, and also insignificance and importance pertaining to the sustainability of medicinal plants. However, it has been shown that this cultural connector, though a powerful tool, has failed in the past and mat be currently failing now. It is also shown with the ecological and economical influences in changing techniques used to harvest plants. So the question is what’s the next step? Who do we look to enforce, impose, and remind us of the importance of these plants and its connection to life and general? These are two questions that will be discussed in my next post.

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.

Sustainability or Livelihood? Tensions in the Uttarakhand Community

India is widely known for its large amount of medicinal plants. Approximately 7,500 species can be found there. Ayurveda, India’s oldest medical system, reported 2,000 native medicinal plant species, Sidha reported 1121, and Unani reported 751 species. All three of these medical systems rely almost entirely on medicinal plants to cure its patients.

Many pharmaceutical companies also rely heavily of India’s array of herbs. More than 95% of 400 plant species harvested from wild populations in are used in preparing medicine. Generally, one-fourth of each medicine is plant based. Some examples of plant based drugs are contraceptives, steroids and muscle relaxants for anesthesia and abdominal surgery, defenders against malaria, heart failure and cancer.

Yet, taking away 95% of the wild plant species leaves the community with barely any resources to support itself sustainably and if the pharmaceutical companies do not over exploit the native herb, it fosters tension between villagers in paying one who sells the herb it needs. Both problems are seen the Uttarakhand, a northern state in India, where the over harvesting of Taxus baccata, and Hemidesmus indicus led to economic turmoil and the need of timur by pharmaceutical companies fueled tension between the Bhotiya and the Garhwals.

Uttarakhand, India

Uttarakhand, India

The presence of pharmaceutical companies has negative consequences on the communities who reside in the area that it harvests in, leaving them in ecological, and sometimes social, ruin.  Commercial harvesting and activity is the primary factor in over exploitation of their native herbs.

Commercial activity of medicinal plants influences competition between Uttarakhand’s two ethnic groups: the Bhotiya and the Garhwal in the usage of timur, a shrub used to cure toothaches, common colds, cough, and fevers, as a flavoring agent or spice. The Bhotiyas used timur fruit, while the Garhwals collected and traded timur sticks to pilgrims visiting the shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. As they harvest different parts of timur, they were not in competition with each other, and were environmentally sustainable as it did not pressure on the wild. Yet when pharmaceutical companies started to purchase timur fruit from that region, tension emerged among the villagers, who competed fiercely to sell the timur fruit to the companies. If not controlled adequately, this could eventually lead to endangerment of the timur fruit in Uttarakhand.

Many families rely entirely on their environment for food and medicine. Villagers also use medicinal plants as a source of food. The Bhotiya tribal community uses timur fruit as a seasoning or spice. There are traditional dishes made from the fruit of timur such a ‘hag’ a soup made from the dried fruit, and ‘dunkcha’, a type of sauce or topping. They used timur in alcohol, as walking sticks, and for religious purposes. They also used timur to cure children’s toothaches by pressing it over its tooth. Timur was a big part of the people’s lives, as their source of revenue as well as food relied on it.

Timur, Xanthoxylum piperitum

Timur, Xanthoxylum piperitum

With many of the materials becoming commercially popular, more and more of the medicinal plant is harvested, eventually leading to endangerment.  This leaves communities with fewer options. Taxus baccata, or the Himalayan yew, is a tree used to treat breast and ovarian cancer, commonly used in the Himalyans.  Hemidesmus indicus is used in treatment of skin diseases, wounds, psoriasis, syphilis, in inflammations, heptopathy, neuropathy, cough, asthma and fever. It is used to cure 39 different types of diseases.

Both plants species from Uttarakhand, where the Bhotiya tribal community resides, are currently endangered. Both were commonly sold by the villagers. According to local collectors and traders of medicinal plants from North Kashmir Himalaya, the demand and supply is not in equilibrium for some medicinal plants, leaving villagers with the choice of being sustainable, or instead, providing for their families. “Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating”, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stated. And this will only become worse if we do not educate villagers like Bhotiya and the Garhwal on the negative affects their actions have on the environment and sustainable yet economically friendly ways to thrive.

There have been advances in this cause. The workshop “Endangered Medicinal Plant Species in Himachal Pradesh” was held at G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment &Development, Mohal-Kullu, H.P., India in March of 2002, where NGOs, managers, funders, farmers, scientists, and policy makers came together to address these issues and to reach a “common agreement and to execute in collaboration with identified partners”. The Convention of Biological Diversity has also made some steps forward with the “Adapted Global Strategy for Plant Conservation” in April 2002, which provides a “policy environment” that addresses conservation challenges.

Bringing Gardens into the 21st Century

Greenhouses that Create an Exciting Mixture of Technology and Nature

When I imagine a garden, I think of a small plot of land strewn with tools and covered with soil. I think of getting my hands dirty in a place that is a refuge from my normal life filled with computers and technology. One organization, however, does not see gardens this way. Instead, they see the opportunity to integrate new technological methods into age old gardening techniques.

New York Sun Works promotes urban sustainability through science education. Their initial project was The Science Barge, an urban sustainable farm that grows farm using only alternative energies. Its goal is to educate the public about issues of sustainability and inspire people to think about more efficient ways to use energy, especially in the city. Since 2007, over 3000 New York City students have visited the barge. The video below shows the work that the science barge does.

The Science Barge in Yonkers, NY, AIDG Flickr/Creative Commons

The Science Barge is currently owned by Groundwork Hudson Valley and is located in Yonkers, NY, while New York Sun Works has moved on to something new: The Greenhouse Project. The Greenhouse Project is an initiative to teach students about health and nutrition through the construction of hydroponic greenhouse labs. The greenhouses constructed by New York Sun Works house the newest technologies in sustainable urban agriculture, including rainwater harvesting systems, solar panels, compost stations, vertical vine crop systems, aquaponics systems, and more.

The first greenhouse was built at the Manhattan School for Children. MSC is a public school on the Upper West Side started by several parents in the neighborhood.  In keeping with the tradition of parent involvement, the Greenhouse Project at MSC was started by a small group of parents who were inspired by the Science Barge. The 1,420 square foot greenhouse grows about 8,000 pounds of produce a year, including cucumbers, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash. The vegetables are grown through a hydroponic system, which does not require soil and uses less water than traditional growing methods. Instead of pesticides, the greenhouse uses insects such as ladybugs to protect plants from pests. The greenhouse functions as both a classroom and a garden. When I first walked into the garden, I immediately saw two large rain-water collection barrels, hundreds of plants, and a large tank full of water in the center of the room. When I looked more closely, however, I also noticed a Smart board, desks and chairs, and student made posters and artwork throughout the greenhouse.

Rain-water harvesting tank at the Manhattan School for Children

Shakira Castronovo, the elementary school science teacher at MSC became the garden and nutrition teacher as soon as the greenhouse was built. While she was not as involved as the parents in building the facility, she says it was always assumed that she would take over the curriculum instruction surrounding the greenhouse once it was built. And that she did – she currently is responsible for the care of the greenhouse, as well as teaching science to students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Castronovo uses the NYC science curriculum standards and attempts to teach each standard through work in the greenhouse. For example, one of the kindergarten standards is making observations about properties. The students are learning this skill by observing the different types of herbs growing in the garden. The fifth grade, on the other hand, uses the aquaponics tank, which contains fish, insects, and plants, to learn about ecosystems.

Castronovo has noticed that the greenhouse creates excitement about science. Last week, a young student said to her, “I can’t wait for Thursday!” When Ms. Castronovo asked her why Thursday was a special day, she responded, “I have greenhouse on Thursday!”.  Castronovo adds that the greenhouse has a different attraction than an ordinary school garden. “The students are drawn to the mixture of nature and technology,” she said. “They are fascinated by the 21st century technologies, but at the same time, they like being in nature and examining plants and animals.”

Unlike many other school gardens that aim to grow food for the cafeteria, the Ms. Castronovo prefers that students eat the vegetables they harvest in the school garden, rather than sending them to the cafeteria. In the cafeteria, she says, it is harder to see the connection between the plants that they grew and the food they are eating. In the greenhouse, however, harvesting and eating vegetables is all a part of the cycle that the students are learning about. If a student wants to eat a piece of kale, for example, they harvest the kale plant. They must then go over to the “nursery”, where younger plants are growing, and pick a new plant to replace the kale that they just harvested. The student then picks a seedling and moves it to the nursery, to replace the plant that they just removed. Through this process, students are intricately connected to the process of growing and eating food.

New York Sun Works aims to build 100 similar rooftop greenhouses at schools in New York. While Ms. Castronovo believes that the construction of the actual facilities is a reasonable goal, she adds that it is unrealistic to find a teacher like her – a teacher who oversees the functioning of the greenhouse as well as creates and teaches a greenhouse curriculum to students. Ms. Castronovo is constantly overwhelmed by the amount of work that she has to do, ranging from preparing a lesson, to grading homework, to fixing leaky pipes in the greenhouse. Still, she truly believes in the educational power of the greenhouse. She remembers a student who, before she started learning in the greenhouse, wasn’t particularly passionate about anything. Now, she wants to be a scientist. “I hope that my students remember some of the content I teach,” Castronovo says, “but even if they don’t, if I can help encourage that love of science in kids, then I have done my job.”

MSC Greenhouse (http://nysunworks.org/thegreenhouseproject)

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.

Taking a Leaf Out of Europe’s Compost Heap

What can the United States learn from Europe’s treatment of organic waste?

When it comes to sustainability, Europe is generally far more advanced than the United States is.  The situation in the arena of composting is no different; the countries across the Atlantic are clearly winning, with many more extensive composting programs in place, programs that America could use as models to raise itself to a new level in the global fight for sustainability.

The largest compost heap in Europe, Brentford, England. Photo courtesy of ajschu/Flickr Creative Commons

According to the European Compost Network, “source separation of organic residues from households and gardens is a success story of most European countries, thereby helping to meet recycling and climate change targets and market requirements.”  E. Favoino’s report “Composting across Europe” separates European regions into four categories of participation when it comes to composting, with Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands having “strategies and policies [that] are already fully implemented nationwide.”  Next come Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Catalonia (a nationality of Spain), and Norway, where policies are “fully outlined” but the programs themselves are still being developed.  In Finland, France, the United Kingdom, and Wallonia (a region of Belgium), programs are just getting started but may already have written policies.  The remainder has not yet shown any inclination to begin a source separated organic waste disposal program.  While composting has not yet reached its full potential in Europe, when one considers that the same practice is largely a personal one in the United States with only around 90 municipalities currently implementing programs, it becomes clear that Europe’s organics are being treated much more sustainably.

A biogas purification plant in Lund, Sweden. Photo courtesy of P1r/Flickr Creative Commons

In addition to your average composting, Europe is also a forerunner when it comes to anaerobic digestion, the breakdown of organic materials in an oxygen-free setting that allows for the production of carbon dioxide and methane, the main component of natural gas.  These byproducts of the decomposition process are known as biogas, a form of renewable energy that can be used to replace global climate change-causing fossil fuels.  Anaerobic digestion is also a means of capturing greenhouse gases that if produced in a non-controlled anaerobic environment like a landfill would be released to the atmosphere, where they would contribute to global warming.  A plant in Amiens, France claims to be the first in the world to subject organic waste to anaerobic digestion.  It deals with the waste stream of two cities and has been selling the biogas to Gaz de France since 1987.  Many other European areas have since begun similar programs, such as Salzburg, Austria, Zurich, Switzerland, and Elsinore, Denmark.  According to Albert Morales of Renewable Energy World, “higher energy prices and government incentives have spurred widespread adoption of this technology [in Europe].”  Biogas in the United States, on the other hand, “has never had the sort of political support or constituent base to mobilize action in Washington.”  American biogas receives only $1 of subsidy per unit of energy (mmbtu) generated, compared with $2 for solar and wind and $8.55 for biodiesel from agri-fuels.

Global sustainability is not a competition; ultimately there is one Earth that both “winners” and “losers” will have to share.  At present Europe is far ahead of the United States, but it is not in the lead because it’s an Olympian – it’s in front because we’re standing in our own way.  Achieving a more sustainable country – partially through an increase in composting and anaerobic digestion – will not be easy and may very well require a restructuring of our government’s priorities, but Europe is proof that all the pieces exist and are perfectly capable of fitting together to form a fully functioning, ecologically sound system.