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Sowing experiments April 24th, 2022 by

For nearly a century, from 1839 to 1924, the US government distributed free seeds to any citizen who wanted them. As told in First the Seed, by Jack Kloppenburg, seeds of field crops, vegetables and even flowers were sourced from around the world (often by the US Navy). The seed was multiplied in the USA, and mailed through the post by members of Congress to their constituents. The program was wildly popular and by 1861, the first year of the American Civil War, almost two and a half million seed packages (each with five packets of seed) were being shipped each year to farmers and gardeners.

As Kloppenburg explains, given the botanical knowledge of the time, and the limited ability of formal agricultural research in the United States, the free seed for farmers “was the most efficient means of developing adapted and improved crop varieties.”

I recently saw a little window into this seed program. On 7 April 2022, The Times-Independent (a newspaper in Moab, Utah), published a replica of their page one from exactly 100 years earlier. One short story, “Seeds Go Quickly” showed just how much people loved free seed. The little story reads:


SEEDS GO QUICKLY

In last Thursday’s issue, The Times-Independent announced that a quantity of government seeds had been received by this office for distribution to the people of Moab, and inviting those who wanted some of the seeds to call for them. Within a few minutes after the paper was delivered to the post office, local people commenced to call for the seeds, and there was a continuous demand until the supply was entirely exhausted.


I hadn’t realized that newspapers also helped to distribute the seed. In 1922, Moab’s local newspaper did not bother telling its readers what the “government seed” was. They knew it well, even though today the program is forgotten. Kloppenburg says that the government seed was not only free, but of high quality, better than what private companies were then able to supply. This partly explains the rush of townspeople clamoring seed at The Times-Independent office, but farmers’ love of innovation was also a reason for the excitement. The farmers and gardeners who swung open the glass door of the newspaper office didn’t know what kind of seed was in the little packages. There was some mystery there: each package contained several packets of different seed. Each packet was just a handful of seed, enough to try out, but not enough to plant a field.

The free seed sparked thousands of farmer experiments over decades, which formed the basis of modern, North American agriculture.

The development of the adapted base of germplasm on which American agriculture was raised is the product of thousands of experiments by thousands of farmers committing millions of hours of labor in thousands of diverse ecological niches over a period of many decades.

Jack Kloppenburg, First the Seed, page 56

In the early 1800s seed companies were small, but they were growing. By 1883 these companies organized as the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) and immediately began to lobby against government seed. Free seed was so popular that it took ASTA forty years, until 1924, to finally convince Congress to kill the program, at the height of its popularity.

Since 1922, companies have largely wrested control of seed from farmers, who once produced and exchanged all of the seed of field crops. It’s worth remembering that small gifts of seed sparked farmer experiments that shaped American agriculture.

Further reading

Kloppenburg, Jack Ralph, Jr. 1990 First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000. Cambridge University Press.

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Soil for a living planet January 30th, 2022 by

In a refreshingly optimistic book, The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson explains how agriculture could stop emitting carbon, and instead remove it from the air and place it in the soil.

Soil life is complex. A teaspoon of soil may harbor between one and seven billion living things. Microorganisms like fungi and bacteria give mineral nutrients to plants in exchange for carbon-rich sugars. Predatory protozoa and nematodes (worms) then eat the fungi and bacteria, releasing the nutrients from their bodies back to the soil.

When people add chemical fertilizer to the soil, these living things die, essentially starved to death as the plants no longer need to interact with them. The plants become dependent on chemical fertilizer. Reading this in Ohlson’s book reminded me of farmers in Honduras and around the world, who have been telling me for over 30 years that soil quickly “becomes used to,” or “accustomed” to chemical fertilizers. Local knowledge is often ahead of the science.

When soil is plowed, it loses some of its carbon. The plow lets in air that binds with the carbon to become C02, which rises into the atmosphere. Plowed soil is broken, and more prone to erosion than natural, plant-covered earth. One of the many people Ohlson interviewed for her book, innovative North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, grows a biodiverse mix of cover crops, including grasses and legumes. But instead of harvesting these crops, Brown lets his cows graze on them. Then he drills corn (maize) or other cash crops into the soil, instead of plowing it. No chemical fertilizers are applied. This soil is productive, while saving labor and expense, and absorbing carbon instead of giving it off. This healthy soil holds more water than plowed soil, so the crops resist droughts. Brown developed this system working with Innovative scientists like Jay Furhrer and Kristine Nichols of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), an example of the power of collaborative research.

Brown is not the only farmer trying to conserve the soil, but when Ohlson was writing about a decade ago, only 4.3% of US farmland was enrolled in any kind of government land conservation program.

Encouraging more farmers to conserve the soil will require public universities to do more research on no-till farming i.e., forsaking the plow and encouraging cover crops and livestock grazing to boost soil fertility. Universities have to stop accepting grants from companies that produce the chemical fertilizer, the pesticides and the genetically modified crop seeds that tolerate them. Accepting corporate money diverts university research into chemical farming, even though taxpayers still pay the faculty members’ salaries and society pays the price for soils becoming unproductive in the long-term.

Fortunately, there is much that we can all do at home, in gardens, parks and even lawns. The biggest irrigated crop in the United States is not maize, but lawns, which take up three times as much space as corn. Lawns can be managed without chemicals: fertilized with compost, while clover and other legumes can be planted among the grass to improve the soil. Families can make compost at home and fertilize the garden with it. City parks can also sequester carbon. The Battery Park in Manhattan is fertilized entirely with compost and compost tea (a liquid compost).

I was encouraged by this book. Agriculture could be the solution to climate change, and even help to cool the planet, rather than being a major contributor to the problem.

Get involved

In 2015, just after Ohlson’s book was published, some 60 people from 21 countries met in Costa Rica and formed Regenerative Agriculture, an international movement united around a common goal: to reverse global warming and end world hunger by facilitating and accelerating the global transition to regenerative agriculture and land management. Click here to find a partner organization in your area.

Further reading

Ohlson, Kristin 2014 The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet. New York: Rodale. 242 pp.

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Ignoring signs from nature January 23rd, 2022 by

Nederlandse versie hieronder

Ignoring signs from nature

An eye-opening book by Mark Kurlansky helps readers to reflect on current societal choices by diving into the history of a topic that may at first seem uninspiring, the cod.

For more than a thousand years Europeans have fished in remote waters, thousands of kilometres from their homeland. Conflicts between nations over fishing have an equally long and dynamic history. Until the last century, rules and regulations in the industry only aimed at securing and protecting trade (and therefore political power), never on protecting the carrying capacity of our natural system.

The North Atlantic Cod, which is a fish that lives on the bottom of the ocean, was typically caught with fishing lines, and overfishing was never at stake, or at least not until last century.

Already by the 13th century, merchants from northern Germany organised trade across Europe through their Hanseatic League. Gradually, they expanded fishing regulations in the northern waters of the Atlantic, from the Baltic Sea all the way to Iceland. Even as relations between nations shifted over the centuries, the Basques in northern Spain and southwest France were little bothered by these rules. They caught whales and cod, mainly for the Mediterranean market, while avoiding fishing grounds where other nations were active.

As early as the year 1000, the Basques had greatly expanded the international cod trade. While they had the advantage of being able to dry sea salt by evaporation, something countries further north were not able to do, they were also remarkable ship builders. Some 500 years before Columbus, the Basques were already fishing the world’s richest cod grounds along the coast of Canada, in the waters now called the Grand Banks. While other countries were keen to claim the discovery of new lands, the Basques were pragmatic traders and preferred to keep their fishing ground secret for as long as possible.

But when there are riches to harvest, secrets get out sooner or later. The 16th century gold rush to the southern part of the Americas was soon followed by the cod rush to the northern part, at first by Portugal and Spain, later also by the English, French, Dutch and Scandinavians. Access to salt to preserve fish for the trip home became a necessity as sailors explored fishing grounds across the Atlantic. (The wars fought over salt and its role in the fish and other trade are described in Kurlansky’s other inspiring book, Salt.)

In an address to the International Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, British scientific philosopher Thomas Henry Huxley used Darwin’s theory to convince the world that over-fishing was an unscientific and unreasonable fear. Nature would send signals as fish stocks dropped. The bountiful harvests in the northwest Atlantic gave a false impression that cod could never be extinguished, notwithstanding the observations of fishermen. This blind belief in the ability of nature to cope with human interference and the arrogant attitude to dismiss local knowledge would be reflected in Canadian government policy for the next hundred years.

While discoveries such as the telegraph allowed fishermen to learn about market prices and receive warnings about storms, fishing vessels and methods also started to change, enabling greater catches year after year.

In fact, by the 1890s, just ten years after Huxley gave his convincing speech to world leaders, fish stocks were already showing signs of depletion in the North Sea. People turned a blind eye. Instead of thinking about conservation, European fleets moved on to richer waters around Iceland. As traditional fishing with fish lines had been replaced by trawlers, nets that sweep the ocean floor entangled any fish it encountered with devastating effect on ocean biodiversity. Trawlers require more energy than the muscles of seafarers can provide, so the new ships were made possible by the introduction of the steam engine.

In Canada, the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks were at first still spared from these technological developments partly because Canadian fishermen stuck to their traditional fishing lines which required far less investment. And because the expense of using coal discouraged the European fleets from crossing the Atlantic. But it was just matters of years. Coal was soon replaced by diesel and industrial fishing boats began trawling for cod.

Capture of the Atlantic northwest cod stock in million tonnes

In the 1950s, the frozen fish stick dealt a final blow to the seemingly endless cod stocks. The breaded, tasteless fish sticks in cardboard boxes became an instant commercial success, making it “a pleasure for families to prepare, serve and eat” according to one of the adverts of that time. This change in consumption behaviour led to such a sharp increase in unsustainable fishing practices that the cod stock completely collapsed in the 1990s.

We are currently facing tremendous challenges such as climate change and loss of biodiversity, because of the way we produce and consume our food. How many more signs do we need from nature before we start to take proper decisions? Debate is all well and good, unless one side is simply wrong. Environmental arguments should not continue until human greed causes natural disaster.

Credit

Photo of cod: © Gilbert Van Ryckevorsel / WWF-Canada.

Time series for the collapse of the Atlantic northwest cod stock, capture in million tonnes. Based on FishStat database FAO. Copyright by Epipelagic under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.

Further reading 

Mark Kurlansky. 1999. Cod. A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. Vintage: ‎ Random House UK, 304 pp.

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Signalen van de natuur negeren

Mark Kurlansky heeft een boek geschreven dat de lezer helpt na te denken over de huidige maatschappelijke keuzes, door in de geschiedenis te duiken van een onderwerp dat op het eerste gezicht misschien weinig inspirerend lijkt: de kabeljauw.

Al meer dan duizend jaar vissen Europeanen in afgelegen wateren, duizenden kilometers van hun vaderland. Conflicten tussen naties over de visserij hebben een even lange en dynamische geschiedenis. Tot in de vorige eeuw waren de regels en voorschriften in de sector uitsluitend gericht op het veiligstellen en beschermen van de handel (en dus van de politieke macht), nooit op het beschermen van de draagkracht van ons natuurlijk systeem.

De Noord-Atlantische kabeljauw, een vis die op de bodem van de oceaan leeft, werd meestal gevangen met vislijnen, en overbevissing was nooit aan de orde, althans niet tot in de vorige eeuw.

Reeds in de 13e eeuw organiseerden kooplieden uit Noord-Duitsland via hun Hanzesteden de handel in heel Europa. Geleidelijk aan breidden zij de visserijvoorschriften in de noordelijke wateren van de Atlantische Oceaan uit, van de Oostzee helemaal tot IJsland. Zelfs toen de betrekkingen tussen de naties in de loop der eeuwen veranderden, hadden de Basken in Noord-Spanje en Zuidwest-Frankrijk weinig last van deze regels. Zij vingen walvissen en kabeljauw, hoofdzakelijk voor de mediterrane markt, en vermeden visgronden waar andere naties actief waren.

Reeds in het jaar 1000 hadden de Basken de internationale kabeljauwhandel sterk uitgebreid. Terwijl zij het voordeel hadden dat zij zeezout konden drogen door verdamping, iets waartoe landen verder naar het noorden niet in staat waren, waren zij ook opmerkelijke scheepsbouwers. Ongeveer 500 jaar vóór Columbus visten de Basken reeds op ‘s werelds rijkste kabeljauwgronden langs de kust van Canada, in de wateren die nu de Grand Banks worden genoemd. Terwijl andere landen graag de ontdekking van nieuwe landen opeisten, waren de Basken pragmatische handelaars en hielden zij hun visgronden liever zo lang mogelijk geheim.

Maar als er rijkdommen te oogsten zijn, komen geheimen vroeg of laat aan het licht. De 16e-eeuwse goudkoorts naar het zuidelijke deel van Amerika werd al snel gevolgd door de kabeljauwkoorts naar het noordelijke deel, eerst door Portugal en Spanje, later ook door de Engelsen, Fransen, Nederlanders en Scandinaviërs. Zout om de vis te bewaren voor de thuisreis werd een noodzaak toen de zeelieden de visgronden aan de overzijde van de Atlantische Oceaan verkenden. (De oorlogen die om zout werden uitgevochten en de rol die zout speelde in de handel in vis en andere producten worden beschreven in Kurlansky’s andere inspirerende boek, Salt).

In een toespraak tot de Internationale Visserij Tentoonstelling in Londen in 1883, gebruikte de Britse wetenschappelijke filosoof Thomas Henry Huxley de theorie van Darwin om de wereld ervan te overtuigen dat overbevissing een onwetenschappelijke en onredelijke angst was. De natuur zou signalen afgeven als de visbestanden afnamen. De overvloedige oogsten in het noordwestelijk deel van de Atlantische Oceaan wekten de valse indruk dat de kabeljauw nooit zou kunnen uitsterven, niettegenstaande de waarnemingen van de vissers. Dit blinde geloof in het vermogen van de natuur om met menselijke verstoringen om te gaan en de arrogante houding om plaatselijke kennis terzijde te schuiven, zouden de volgende honderd jaar hun weerslag vinden in het Canadese regeringsbeleid.

In feite vertoonden de visbestanden in de Noordzee in de jaren 1890, slechts tien jaar nadat Huxley zijn overtuigende toespraak voor de wereldleiders had gehouden, reeds tekenen van uitputting. Iedereen kneep een oogje dicht. In plaats van na te denken over natuurbehoud, verplaatsten de Europese vloten zich naar rijkere wateren rond IJsland. De traditionele visvangst met vislijnen was inmiddels vervangen door boten met sleepnetten die de oceaanbodem schoonvegen en alle vis verstrikken die ze tegenkomen, met verwoestende gevolgen voor de biodiversiteit in de oceanen.

In Canada bleven de visgronden van de Grand Banks aanvankelijk nog gespaard van deze technologische ontwikkelingen, deels omdat de Canadese vissers vasthielden aan hun traditionele vislijnen die veel minder investeringen vergden. En omdat de kosten van het gebruik van steenkool de Europese vloten ervan weerhielden de Atlantische Oceaan over te steken. Maar het was slechts een kwestie van jaren. Steenkool werd al snel vervangen door diesel en industriële vissersboten begonnen met de sleepnetvisserij op kabeljauw.

Vangst van noordwest Atlantische kabeljauw in millioen ton

In de jaren 1950 deelde de bevroren visstick een laatste klap uit aan de schijnbaar eindeloze kabeljauwbestanden. De gepaneerde, smaakloze vissticks in kartonnen dozen werden een onmiddellijk commercieel succes, waardoor het “voor gezinnen een plezier werd om te bereiden, op te dienen en te eten” volgens een van de advertenties uit die tijd. Deze verandering in het consumptiegedrag leidde tot zo’n sterke toename van niet-duurzame visserijpraktijken dat het kabeljauwbestand in de jaren negentig volledig instortte.

Door de manier waarop wij ons voedsel produceren en consumeren, staan wij momenteel voor enorme uitdagingen, zoals de klimaatverandering en het verlies van biodiversiteit. Hoeveel signalen van de natuur hebben we nog nodig voordat we de juiste beslissingen gaan nemen? Debatteren is allemaal goed en wel, tenzij één partij het gewoon bij het verkeerde eind heeft. De milieudiscussie moet niet worden voortgezet tot de hebzucht van de mens een natuurramp veroorzaakt.

Silent Spring, better living through biology June 13th, 2021 by

Hey farmer, farmer

Put away that DDT now

Give me spots on my apples

But leave me the birds and the bees

Please!

“Big Yellow Taxi,” by Joni Mitchell

It’s possible that Joni Mitchell’s 1970 lyrics owe a debt to Rachel Carson’s (1962) book Silent Spring. Why not? The book was a major influence on the environmental movement, inspiring Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the US ban on DDT, besides. Less often mentioned, the book also touched off integrated pest management (IPM).

For all that, Carson makes few mentions of farmers in her book. Many of the cases she meticulously described are of the US and Canadian governments arrogantly dropping insecticide from airplanes, blanketing forest, field, stream, pasture, and even suburban communities.

DDT and other noxious organophosphate insecticides were applied in each case to kill some specific pest: The Japanese beetle, the spruce budworm, and the fire ant, for example.

In every case, the results were disastrous. Dead livestock, and cancer in humans, but the birds were decimated. The bald eagle, national bird of the USA, was nearly exterminated by DDT. The bald eagle has since made a comeback, but many other bird species are on the decline.

The chemical companies that sold these pesticides to the government had the audacity (or the stupidity) to claim that insects would not be able to evolve resistance to the toxins. The pests would be eradicated!

But they weren’t. The bugs won the war. In every single case, the target pest species was more numerous a few years after the spraying started.

To explain this, Carson coined the analogy of the pesticide treadmill. Before a pesticide is used, an insect’s population is controlled by its natural enemies, such as spiders, wasps, ants, and birds. Insecticide kills the pest, and its natural enemies, too. The pest evolves resistance to the pesticide, much quicker than do its natural enemies (which often reproduce more slowly and absorb more of the poison). Once freed from its natural enemies, the pest population explodes. Now it has to be managed by pesticides.

In 1962, Carson mused that Darwin would have been pleased to see how well his theories were proven, as insect pests had quickly evolved resistance to pesticides. If Carson were here today, she might not be so happy to see how the chemical companies have also evolved. They have engineered maize and soy varieties that can withstand herbicides, so fields can be sprayed with glyphosate that kills all the plants, except for the ones with designer genes. The corporations that sell the seed conveniently sell the herbicide as well. Companies like Monsanto once claimed that the weeds would not be able to evolve resistance to the genetically modified crops.

But they did. At least 38 species of weeds are now resistant to glyphosate.

As Carson said nearly 60 years ago (and it’s still true), farms and forests are biological systems. Their pest problems have to be solved with biology, not with chemistry. In Rachel Carson’s day, only 2% of economic entomologists were working on biological pest control. Most of the other 98% were studying chemicals. Funding for chemicals breeds contempt for biological alternatives.

Biological pest control uses natural enemies to control pests. Carson cites the famous case of the cottony cushion scale, a citrus pest in California. The pest was controlled in 1872, long before DDT was available, by importing a lady bird beetle from Australia that ate the scale insects. The scale insects then became rare in California orchards until the 1940s, when insecticides killed the lady bird beetles and the pests exploded.

A recent book by Biovision and IPES Food suggests that many big donors still fund conventional research in pesticides. Perhaps it’s time to invest in scientists who can pick up Rachel Carson’s challenge, and solve biological problems with biology.

Further reading

Carson, Rachel 1962 (1987 edition). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Heap, Ian, and Stephen O. Duke 2018 “Overview of glyphosate‐resistant weeds worldwide.” Pest Management Science 4(5): 1040-1049.

On chemical companies denying that weeds would develop resistance to their herbicides see chapter 5 in:

Philpott, Tom 2020 Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How we can Prevent It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 246 pp. (See also a review of this book in Our threatened farmers).

Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & IPES-Food. 2020. Money Flows: What Is Holding Back Investment in Agroecological Research for Africa? Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems

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Our threatened farmers May 9th, 2021 by

Supermarkets in the USA bulge with everything from strawberries to steak, but this generous supply is threatened by a destructive agro-industry. In the recent book Perilous Bounty, Tom Philpott outlines looming disasters in California and the Midwest.

The Central Valley of California produces an astounding 80% of the world’s almonds and half of the pistachios, besides a lot of the fresh fruits and vegetables eaten in the USA. This phenomenal production is irrigated with water that is mined, and can never be replaced. The Central Valley used to be a vast wetland. From 1930 to 1970 a network of dams and canals were built to capture snowmelt from the Sierra Madre mountains, for irrigation.

But the rainfall out west is erratic and some years there is not enough snow to irrigate all the nut trees, so well water makes up the difference. So much water has been pumped that the ground level has fallen by 29 feet (8.8 meters). As the subsoil shrinks, it loses capacity; it can now hold less water than before.

The Midwest used to be a home for diversified family farms, rotating crops of corn, wheat, oats and rye, and even growing fruits and vegetables. Cattle ate fodder produced on the farm itself. Since the 1960s, this integrated system has been replaced by a simpler one, of just maize (corn) and soybeans, while the livestock have been sent to factory farms. Crops and animals are now grown on separate farms. The hog mega-barns are so far from the grain farms that the pig manure cannot be used as fertilizer. Instead, the manure finds its way to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey, destroying a thriving fish and shrimp industry. The soil is now eroding at an estimated rate of 5.4 tons per acre per year (13.5 tons per ha). The rich black soil is vanishing fast.

A handful of corporations buy meat (Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield Foods—owned by the Chinese WH Group) and just four companies make most of the chemical fertilizer in the USA, so farmers are forced to take the prices offered by these few buyers and sellers. This price squeeze forces many family farmers out of business. Between 1940 and 2018, the number of farms in Iowa declined from 213,000 to 86,000, a loss of 60%.

Much of this chemical-intensive farming system operates at a loss, but is made profitable by Federal Crop Insurance, operated by private companies, but subsidized by the US government.

Agriculture does make money for big companies. Monsanto, a corporation that made agrochemicals, saw its value rise from $5 billion in 2000 to $66 Billion in 2018, when Bayer bought the company. During these years, Monsanto consolidated its hold on the seed and pesticide industry. Almost all of the maize, soybean and cotton in the USA is now grown from varieties that have been genetically modified to withstand herbicides, especially glyphosate, sold under the brand name Roundup. At first, farmers loved it. They could plant the genetically modified “Roundup Ready” seed and then spray the emerging plants with herbicides, killing all the weeds and leaving the maize or soybeans fresh and green.

The problem is that weeds invariably evolve resistance to the herbicides. So, seed companies engineer new crop varieties that can withstand more herbicides. Then the weeds become resistant to those herbicides. And farmers have to spend more on seeds and chemicals.

There is a way out. In California, agroecologist Stephen Gliessman grows grapes without irrigation. In the Midwest, farmer-innovators like David Brandt and Tom Frantzen work with researchers to create integrated livestock-cereal farms where cover crops rebuild the soil with organic matter.

I was heartened to read about these inventive farmers. But there are other things we can all do, to live better and eat better. We can:

Plant a garden.

Buy locally, from family farmers.

Eat organic food.

Vote for lawmakers who support anti-trust legislation.

Push for more research on organic farming and agroecology.

Further reading

Philpott, Tom 2020 Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 246 pp.

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