Posts Tagged ‘biodiversity’

GMOs Will Save the World!

You’ve heard that argument. You may have even used it. It’s very popular, particularly with the folks that think people are starving because we’re not producing enough food on this planet. (A lot of people think that. It just isn’t true.)

I just watched an interesting Ted Talk by a plant geneticist defending GMOs- though she did say that the term GMO is more or less meaningless in the science community. She is very passionate about what she does and is clearly a good-hearted person, at least as much as one can tell from a short talk. However, there were a few points that I’m not totally there on.

The first is not so much a point as a theme. You’ve heard this one before, too. Any plants that have been bred have been genetically modified. One of her comparisons was the nearly inedible predecessor to corn and the yellow monstrosity grown across the Great Plains. She was making it a gradient from breeding to inserting virus DNA into mangos to make them resistant to a disease. Technically, that’s true. There’s also a gradient from cloning cells or even human tissue up to cloning a full human. In both cases, at some point between the two extremes, we really should be stopping and asking ourselves if this is actually a good idea.

The second point was about improving a plant to deal with the more extreme weather events we will have as the climate changes. Her project was to create a rice that could withstand weeks of flooding instead of days. Wonderful idea, great for that part of the world that eats a lot of rice and will be flooding. A lot. However, instead of taking the variety of rice that did so naturally and offering it as an additional option, they just pulled the pertinent gene out and stuck it in the variety everyone was already growing anyway.

As fans of evolution and heritage breeds know, life on this planet survives because of genetic diversity. Different things confer superiority under different circumstances. Right now, we have German Shepherds and Chihuahuas. At this place in history the Chihuahua has an evolutionary advantage because it fits in a purse and is cute. At some point in the near or not so distant future, things will change. German Shepherds will regain the advantage when being pocket-sized means you’re dinner, not adorable. If we have discard all of the German Shepherds because they don’t fit the current circumstances, then when little means dinner, we could potentially lose the domestic dog.

What does this mean for the rice? By picking and choosing what we think is an advantage and adding it to the one genome that works now, we are crowding out all of the other varieties that may save our bacon if things go in an unexpected direction. There’s only so much space to grow rice, and if everyone’s growing exactly the same rice, things can go badly very quickly. Just ask the Irish.

The third point is golden rice. I am not an ogre, I would not wish blindness and death on those children for anything. However, putting Beta Carotene in rice is kind of like eating McDonalds but thinking you’re healthy because you take vitamins. Being a little bit further from the edge of death is not the same as being healthy. My thoughts on this could be a post in and of themselves — maybe I should do that — but for now, let me say that a child who is so malnourished they lose their vision will need more than one nutrient. What if, instead of investing whatever it took the scientists to create golden rice, we took that money and used it to help local farmers grow carrots, sweet potatoes, and kale? How many more nutrients would those children then have to grow strong bodies and minds? Who knows, it might even spark some community businesses that will give them jobs when they grow up.

The final point is her evasion of the question of unintended consequences. She is right that any time we do anything, there is the potential for unintended consequences. What the GMO folks don’t seem to grasp is the potential scale of those consequences. If I breed the German Shepherd to the Chihuahua I might have a really ugly litter of puppies or I might have the next designer breed. Maybe both. If, on the other hand, I choose to clone dinosaurs, I may lose half my staff and the whole island to those dang raptors. Or I make a mint giving tours. Manually manipulating DNA in plants falls somewhere between those two extremes. However, when you take a plant that is wind-pollinated and you plant it where the pollen can blow to any of the many surrounding farms, the potential scale increases. We don’t know enough about DNA to know every possible outcome of our cutting and pasting, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing us down. We’ll just medicate and modify any negative consequences that come along, right?

I am not against GMOs in any kind of wholesale sense. The things they can do, and the things it has taught us, are just too cool for that. However, I think it might behoove us to consider other options before getting out the scissors and glue. Can we breed for the trait we want and maybe gain other good ones while we’re at it? Are there existing varieties that already exhibit it that we could cultivate more of in addition to our favored variety? Are there other fruits or vegetables that could be grown there that would help to round out a healthy nutritional profile?

Perhaps the long and short of this post is that while GMOs can be very useful, they should be the last resort when saving the world, not the first.


The Season of Water Has Begun

In many places, winter is the season of water. It’s monsoon season, or snow season. Out West, summer is our season of water. Why? Because that’s when we need it and we may not have it. California is at the top of the list at the moment when it comes to lack of water, but they aren’t the only ones that are concerned. All of the states that have lower rainfall than the East Coast are aware that California’s fate may well be ours in the not-too-distant-future.

Fire season has already started here in Colorado. I have a fire about 90 miles south of me that just decided it didn’t want to be contained anymore. While that one isn’t a direct threat to me, it is absolutely something to keep my eye on. My community garden just opened itself back up to us for spring watering, and I did not mulch my garlic bed well enough so the soil is dry as a bone. That’s perfectly normal for poorly covered or bare ground in Colorado. It’s also really bad for the garlic and all of the critters that needed moisture for over-wintering. Despite the silly Kentucky Blue Grass lawns around here, lack of water is simply a fact of life.

Jon Stewart, as usual, brings his wit and sarcasm to the issue of climate change. As he points out, our two most phallic states have totally opposite, yet equally serious, water issues. This is the challenge of climate change, after all. It’s not just that it will increase heat and melt the ice caps, it’s that everything will become more unpredictable. Wet places will get wetter and dry places will get dryer. The fact that we are doing everything in our power to suck water out of the air and water and send it through the sewers really isn’t helping to balance that back out.

One thing that he didn’t bring up was that apparently frackers in California aren’t being subject to any of the restrictions that the citizens are subject to. It is absurd to think that not drinking water in a restaurant will do a thing when the farmers aren’t being told to restrict their water use. I don’t want to make farming any harder than it is, but when the state is out of water, everyone is affected and has to pitch in. What is more absurd is to not restrict the people that take massive amounts of potable water, turn it into poison, and pump it past the groundwater reservoirs to pull out oil. They swear the arsenic and other fun chemicals can’t possibly leak into the groundwater, but I’m not sure how much I can trust that.

After 450 words of bad news, what do we do about it? I think the biggest thing we can do is to buy local, pasture-raised meat. I know, meat’s evil and all that, but what the simplistic headlines don’t bother to do is differentiate between meat sources. Urine and manure from CAFO feedlots are corralled in lagoons as toxic waste. As they should be. They should not be returned to the land. Then there’s all the water that’s used to grow the grains that keep the animals not-dead and very fat up until slaughter time. Meat raised like that is an affront to nature.

When you raise, say, a cow on pasture, you get the opposite result. Grazing animals produce no more methane than the grass would have when it rotted on the ground. More to the point, in a properly managed pasture, the urine and manure they produce soaks directly into the soil, returning both moisture and nutrients to the soil in amounts that the microorganisms can handle. Proper management also encourages the grass to grow to its best advantage, sending carbon-sequestering roots deep into the soil. Between the roots making spaces and the small amounts of moisture added to the surface, a good pasture will help the rain to soak into the ground and back into our groundwater reserves instead of running off the top and right to the ocean.

That’s right. Meat could save us. Alan Savory has dabbled in this a bit.

One really shouldn’t eat meat without vegetables, though. The next biggest step is to grow your own vegetables. If you don’t have a yard, or a patio with decent sunlight, then buy them from small, local, organic farmers that use all of the sensible water-saving techniques that are difficult to impossible to implement on huge, mono-crop farms. If you ask nicely, the farmer will probably be happy to let you come out to see how their land looks and their crops are grown. Just bear in mind that if the sun’s up, you are taking time out of their work day. The best farming, just like the best beef, should actually help refill the groundwater reserves. But good farming will still slow the use of unnecessary water, and shouldn’t be discouraged.

Don’t get me wrong, things like shorter showers and high-efficiency appliances are good. But if we want to do more than just slow the loss of potable water across the world, we need to be proactive about helping the water to go back where it belongs. In the ground, not in the sewers. Preferably without arsenic.

Dirty Minds

I may have overestimated how much we needed.

Wait- is this a family-friendly blog? What can I say, I’ve had dirt on the brain recently. It’s probably because I had too much fun playing with manure over the weekend.

Unless you are dealing with hydroponics, you have to think about your soil. Even the water lilies that float on the top of a pond have their roots in soil. Without good soil, it is difficult to impossible to grow good vegetables. At least not the vegetables we tend to think of as “standard.” I believe yucca would be pretty ok with just being plopped in the ground out here.

What makes good soil? At the moment, I still only know the basics, but basically: the sand or clay base, organic material, and things to break down the organic material for use. Preferably, you are looking for a pretty good balance between clay and sand. Clay packs tight, so it can hold water, but it can also inhibit drainage and pack into a hard surface. Sand doesn’t really pack at all, so it helps drainage, the water slipping easily between the large granules. However, that can also mean that the water doesn’t stick around long enough for your plants to use it. I have heard some thoughts on both sides of adding clay or sand to balance the soil you have. I will need to look further into that before I address it here.


Whether you have clay or sand soil or a pretty mix of both, organic material can improve it. It loosens clay, allowing it to drain better and keeping it from baking as hard. It helps sand hold water better and helps it pack a little better to support plants. Compost is the epitome of your organic material. It helps the texture of the soil and offers a bioavailable source of nutrients. Manure is right up there, too. Different ones need slightly different treatments. Hot manures like horse, which is what we are using on Showcase 1, and chicken need to be composted so you don’t burn your plants when you apply it. Cool manures like alpaca or goat can actually be applied directly. Other options, like peat, offer soil improvements, but not so much of the nutritional improvements.

The one that often gets overlooked is what breaks down the organic material so that your plants can use it. We probably miss them mostly because we don’t see them. I was reading a book about Rocky Mountain gardening at one point. It was one of the first specifically for this part of the country. It is old, but it still has a lot of valid information. It also has some that made me chuckle. Like that you should purchase a “lady-sized” shovel to encourage the wife to get out in the fresh air. Also, it told you how to kill earthworms because the casings they leave behind are so unsightly. I believe it was the same day I read that information that I saw bagged worm casings for sale in a garden store.

Worms are one of the more visible decomposers. They not only eat fine materials and excrete some of the best fertilizer you can find, they also aerate the soil in their underground journeys. However, being big enough to see means that they can navigate in and out of your garden more easily than some of the others. This means that if you don’t create an environment they like, including lots of delicious organic material in worm-bite-size pieces, then they don’t have a reason to stick around. Assuming they have enough around to eat, bacteria are a little easier to keep corralled. Manure can offer a good inoculation to a new or barren garden. So can a scoop of soil from your neighbor that just seems to be able to grow anything.

When you are setting up your soil for gardening, however, you need to bear in mind what you are growing. If you are growing plants that originated in Europe or the East Coast, meaning most “vegetable garden” vegetables, you need to build the kind of soil they have. If you are growing plants that are native to this area, less preparation is necessary. I have a friend in Maryland who’s property is incredibly lush. I have never seen land with so many earth worms. In fact, her struggle tends to be that too many things grow. Except for lavender. Neither of us had any idea why this one plant just refused to grow. It turns out that lavender, being from the Mediterranean, prefers soil that is stony, sparse, and well-drained. Who knew that moving out here would actually be preferred by some plants?

Prettiest dirt I'd seen since I moved out here.

Do you notice the soil around you? Or is it just dirt? Some days it is more apparent than others that I come from a family that gardens. My parents take pictures of flowers. I took a picture of dirt. I had been driving up through northern Colorado and Wyoming for hours at this point, seeing little more than sandy, arid, poor soil and the occasional surprisingly blue body of water. All of a sudden I came across the prettiest soil I’d seen since I moved out here. It was in the middle of Shoshone National Forest just pushed to the side during the road construction. I’ve gotten the impression that Wyoming is considered to be a pretty barren state by most. The question is, how did an arid, barren state produce such rich soil? The answer is that it is in a National Forest. That means that instead of being subjected to various forms of human interference, nature is more or less allowed to do what it has been doing for, well, a very long time. That means that generations of trees have fallen to be eaten by even more generations of earthworms. The available nutrients are then used by the younger trees that will then eventually die to feed the younger worms.

The pertinent question, of course, is how to get soil that is that good-looking in your garden. Unless you are building some sort of a bed that you will fill with an ideal mix of soil, a part of the answer is still time. First-year garden beds are seldom as rich and biodiverse as more mature beds. However, we don’t have to move at the same speed as a forest. We can kick-start the process by adding ingredients to our gardens that will encourage worms and other decomposers to move in and stick around. Once they are established, all you need to do is keep them fed and safe. Luckily, that doesn’t include setting out a fresh bowl of food each day like you do with your pets. As long as you are adding fairly regular doses of organic material in the form of compost or manure and you are using little to no pesticides, organic or otherwise, a healthy population should be pretty well able to care for itself. As far as the worms and bacteria are concerned, the benefits to your garden are really just the result of a happy home.