Archive for February, 2009

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em

Friday, February 27th, 2009

As chickweed, pepper cress, dandelion, and other weeds begin to push up from the soil, the Farmer’s Daughter hails these harbingers of spring, and the arrival of the wild greens foraging season.

Plants As Political Hot Potatoes

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

No, we’re not talking about marijuana, poppies, or hallucinogenic cacti. The world is waking up to the potential of plants—for biofuels, industrial feedstocks for plastics and other materials, “biofactories” for the production of chemicals and drugs, and carbon sinks to combat global warming, to mention just a few emerging technologies. In fact, there’s growing talk of plants replacing oil as the cornerstone of the global economy.

At first glance, this would seem to be a good thing, since plants are a renewable resource, not to mention the only creatures on the planet that have figured out how to convert sunlight into the food we all need to survive. But because the land and water required to grow plants are limited, a group of U.K.-based scientists write in the premier issue of the journal Food Security, there will inevitably be conflicts over competing priorities. The current debate over food vs. fuel is just the beginning.

The researchers call for Interdisciplinary research and collaboration among governments to ensure that we’ll be able to balance our social, environmental, and economic needs. 

Michelle Obama, Locavore-in-Chief?

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

On Friday, I bemoaned the fact that Michelle Obama missed an opportunity to promote healthy fresh foods when she appeared at the USDA, which had just announced a plan to create community gardens at its facilities worldwide, bearing a magnolia seedling instead of a tiny apple tree or other edible plant. But on Sunday, according to Marian Burros of the New York Times, the First Lady put in a plug for local and sustainable food and for healthy eating during a tour of the White House kitchen:

When food is grown locally, she said, “oftentimes it tastes really good, and when you’re dealing with kids, you want to get them to try that carrot.”

“If it tastes like a real carrot, and it’s really sweet, they’re going to think that it’s a piece of candy,” she continued. “So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they are fresh and local and delicious.”

Now she should get that organic garden growing on the White House grounds…

Don’t Flush Ancient Forests Down the Toilet

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Speaking of paper, Greenpeace has produced a handy downloadable, wallet-size guide to tissue and toilet paper products. It ranks each brand according to three criteria: Is it made of 100 percent recycled content? Is 50 percent of this recycled content post-consumer? And has it been bleached without chlorine compounds? 

Beyond Recycled Paper

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

For years, buying paper with a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content has been the be all and end all for publishers and other intensive paper users looking to go green. But research done by U.S. News & World Report for its April issue, the “Energy and Environment Guide,”  points the way to a more effective standard. All of the issue’s body stock will be on carbon-neutral paper with fiber that has been certified as being sourced from sustainably managed forests, and U.S. News will pay a small premium to offset the relatively minor greenhouse gas emissions produced during manufacturing. You can find the details here.

Missing Bees — How You Can Help

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

About a decade ago, bee biologists began to observe that several wild bumble bee species were declining dramatically. Three of them were important crop pollinators: the western bumble bee, once one of the three most common bumble bees in the western U.S. and Canada, the rusty patched bumble bee, which was widespread in 26 eastern and midwestern U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, and the yellowbanded bumble bee, which was frequently found throughout the east and upper Midwest of the U.S. as well as most of southern Canada. A fourth, Franklin’s bumble bee, historically had a small range in southern Oregon and northern California and may now be extinct.

What caused the decline? Commercial rearing of bumble bees for crop pollination may be the culprit. Bumble bee expert Robbin Thorp believes that members of these closely related species probably caught a disease from a European bee in the same rearing facility. The North American bumble bees would have had no resistance to the pathogen, which then spread to wild populations.

The Xerces Society is asking citizen monitors as well as scientists to be on the lookout for these species and report back with any findings. You can find photos, identification tips, information on the life history and habits of the bees, and contact information in the Bumble Bees in Decline section of their website. 

Alice Waters to the Rescue

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Recommended reading: the op-ed piece in today’s New York Times by Alice Waters and colleague Katrina Heron. They describe how the USDA’s $9 billion-a-year school lunch program has become a way to distribute unhealthy high-fat commodity food—some of the same ingredients found in fast food—to our schools, and how the resulting meals routinely fail to meet basic nutritional standards. They recommend scrapping the program and starting from scratch, pointing out that advocacy groups like Better School Food have managed to work with local farmers to provide kids with healthy, fresh food.

Last night on the news, I watched Michelle Obama, continuing to make the rounds to various federal agencies, arrive at the USDA bearing a gift—a magnolia seedling propagated from a tree planted on the White House grounds by Andrew Jackson. She said she wanted it to grow in one of the new community gardens that will be created at every USDA facility worldwide. It was a nice gesture, but a missed opportunity. Imagine if MIchelle had brought a tomato or apple seedling instead and used the occasion to promote healthy, organically grown fruits and vegetables for the nation’s children—she is, after all, a former hospital administrator. Another good thing she could do is create a model organic garden at the White House to advance the movement for healthy food and healthy kids. 

Citizen Scientist Documents Plants on the Move

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Three cheers for citizen scientists! Twenty years of data compiled by an avid hiker and naturalist and analyzed by researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson show that plants in the state’s Santa Catalina Mountains are flowering at higher elevations as summer temperatures rise. 

Dave Bertelsen told Science Daily he’s been hiking the Finger Rock trail one to two times a week since 1983 and recording what plants are in flower. His 5-mile hike starts in desert scrub and climbs 4,158 feet, ending in pine forest. He’s completed 1,206 round-trip hikes and recorded data on nearly 600 plant species. The researchers found that during the 20-year study period, summer temperatures in the region increased about 1.8 degree Fahrenheit.

Bertelson hooked up with the scientists at a 2005 meeting about monitoring plant species held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in which one of them, UA climatologist Michael Crimmins, discussed his need for data to study the effect of climate change on ecosystems over time. According to Theresa Crimmins, research specialist for the UA’s Arid Lands Information Center and lead author of the resulting paper, the role of citizen scientists is becoming ever more important—biological changes caused by climate change are coming fast, she says, and ”more eyes on the ground” are needed to monitor them.

The People’s Garden

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack celebrated Lincoln’s birthday by establishing the inaugural USDA People’s Garden at the agency’s headquarters. In the words of the USDA, “The Secretary declared the stretch of pavement permanently closed and returned back to green.” 

At the ceremony, the Secretary announced the goal of creating a community garden at each USDA facility worldwide. These will include ”a wide variety of garden activities,” including embassy window boxes, tree planting, and field office plots. They will be designed to promote “going green concepts,” including landscaping and building design to retain water and reduce runoff; roof gardens for energy efficiency; native plantings; and sound conservation practices.

So, here’s what we know about the inaugural “People’s Garden” so far: It will add 612 square feet of planted space to an existing garden traditionally planted with ornamentals. It will also eliminate 1,250 square feet of unnecessary paved surface at the USDA headquarters and return the landscape to grass. Grass? You’d think the agency that represents farmers could do better than that.

Some interesting facts: Abraham Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and referred to it as “The People’s Department” in his last annual message to Congress. In 1860, farmers comprised 58 percent of the American labor force, compared to less than 1 percent today. The USDA’s 2009 budget is about $95 billion and includes a mishmash of mandatory and discretionary programs. You can find out how the agency is spending the money here.

More Plant Exploration, 21st-Century Style

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Susan Pell, who has been leading a field research team in the little-know Louisiade Archipelago in Papua New Guinea, has been sharing her observations in a web-based diary.

Update: Dave Allen at BBG pointed out that I should send you to the blog home page instead of just one of Susan’s diary entries.