Posts Tagged ‘biodiversity’

The Wrong Research

At this point it’s widely acknowledged that biofuels made with corn and soybeans are not the solution to our addiction to oil.  Farmers clear huge tracts of land to grow monocrops destined for biofuel production where once natural ecosystems thrived, or where they had grown food for their families.  Multinational biotech corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta provide these farmers with genetically engineered crops (GMOs) that irreversibly destroy agricultural biodiversity.  The machinery and chemicals used to grow these crops have their own destructive effect upon the environment, and the production of the fuel itself produces carbon emissions.


bp.jpgLast year, UC Berkeley accepted an offer of $500 million in research funds from British Petroleum, “to develop new sources of energy, primarily biotechnology to produce biofuel crops.”  For ten years, this money will support the new Energy Biosciences Institute, a joint operation between UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and BP.  The major alternative fuel to be studied is corn-based ethanol. 


The Student Organic Garden where I will be working this Spring sits on a little plot by campus, adjacent to an entire block of land used for testing and experimentation by the Center for Analytical Biotechnology.  We gardeners are grateful to be at the top of the hill, so any runoff produced from the Center will flow away from our food.  But it feels like we’re the pea under the corporate princess’ pillows.  I won’t be at all surprised if our organic operation is threatened soon, by the powers of more “profitable” research.

We haven’t found the solution to our energy needs, and currently, clearly, extensive time and money are being devoted to the wrong research.  I write now not with an answer, but at least with the hope that other universities in this country will see UCB’s partnership with BP as a drastic mistake.  We must ask the brilliant minds of our country to turn their attention towards productive projects. 

This isn’t just an issue of a university acting like a corporation, or organic kids complaining about toxic materials.  It’s about the vast potential of academic research to result in creative solutions to climate change.  We mustn’t waste it!  We haven’t got the time.


Check out:

Professor Miguel Altieri: “UC’s Biotech Benefactors”

New York Times: Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat


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It took a crisis in Cuba for urban agriculture to take over.  The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 cut off nearly all agricultural imports to Cuba, including pesticides, fertilizers, farming equipment, and food.  Not only did organic farming increase, by necessity, but Cubans began cultivating a significant percentage of their food in urban areas.  The government encouraged them to do so.  And in 1998, the city farms in Havana alone produced an estimated 541,000 tons of food for local consumption.  These included 8,000 officially recognized production units cultivated by over 30,000 people.  The population of Havana is 2.2 million.  Today, some neighborhoods in the city produce 30 percent of their own subsistence needs.[1] 


A significant growth in urban agriculture in the US is worth considering for several reasons.  For one thing, such cultivation would be small-scale, and thus would encourage local consumption (the most local, from one’s own garden).  But urban food production would also contribute to community food security, would rescue biodiversity, provide local jobs, create a complete cycle of nutrients and waste, aesthetically improve urban spaces, and increase the freshness and variety of the ingredients in the urban diet.  Increasing a community’s food security would ultimately mean creating a strong, regionally based food system that wouldn’t rely upon imports, or foods that could be prevented from reaching people in times of war or crisis.  Plant biodiversity would thrive as people learned to grow the specific varieties of foods native to their land, varieties that are everywhere disappearing as cities expand and farms consolidate.  Such biodiversity would mean too a greater variety of foods and nutrients, which would contribute immensely to the health of those who ate them.  The complete recycling of nutrients and waste within single households would have an immense, positive environmental impact on food-producing communities.  And, urban spaces could be so much more beautiful!

The next question then is how we in the US might cause a bit of an agricultural revolution in our country akin to that which the end of trade with the Soviet Union caused in Cuba. 

pict5585.jpgWorking at Added Value’s Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn has been a personal (tiny) contribution of mine to the growth of urban agriculture in New York.  The hundreds of community gardens throughout the five boroughs are consistently inspirational.  Just Food trains community members to start up “City Farms” throughout the New York area.  And the people working them, and eating the produce they’ve grown themselves, understand the value and joy of providing even a small portion of their own daily sustenance. 

As for California, I’m gradually acquainting myself with the various organizations at work to increase food production in the Bay Area.  Spiral Gardens runs a Community Farm in South Berkeley, producing food for volunteers as well as low-income seniors in a nearby housing complex.  City Slicker Farms helps low-income West Oakland residents build and maintain backyard vegetable gardens.  Beyond supporting and operating four productive gardens in North and West Oakland, People’s Grocery is collaborating with the Sustainable Agriculture Education Center (SAGE) to increase food cultivation in their recently opened 15-acre Agriculture Park in Sunol, which will grow fresh produce for West Oakland residents.  SAGE has developed an “Agricultural Parks Toolkit” as a “comprehensive guide for public and private landowners who want to establish agriculture as a valued urban-edge amenity.”  UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development has been working with SAGE to develop a policy framework for “New Ruralism,” a concept meant to strengthen the emerging synergy between the new urbanism/smart growth movement and the sustainable agriculture/regional food systems movement.  The Alemany Farm cultivates food on four and a half productive acres, right in the city of San Francisco. 

pict5591.jpgFor a personal take on these efforts…your author here is still a student.  So for the moment, three UC Berkeley courses are contributing to the urban ag vision.  Land Use Controls” is supplying an understanding of the complex laws and organization behind zoning, subdividing, property taxation, and the influences of infrastructure on land use.  Cartographic Representation” is providing skills with which to artistically, persuasively map out what could really happen on urban territory.  And “Urban Forestry” is lending a little more hands-on knowledge about what urban growth actually requires.  Meanwhile, I’ll be eating foods every day that are all grown quite nearby.  Altogether, that’s a personal start.

And this is personal stuff, urbanites.  It’s your property, your garden, your hands in the dirt.  You yourself might never grow enough to supply even an entire meal, but you can contribute to a change in the food system, one that would immensely benefit your community and it’s local health, economy, and security.  Call me crazy, but I believe those are the areas that currently concern our population the most.


Also, my friend Adam Brock recently wrote a (more detailed, less Annie-style-sentimental) four-part series entitled “Why Cityfarming?”  Check it out.


[1] Murphy, Catherine.  Development Report No.12: Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis.  1999. 

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A month ago, I wrote an essay entitled Recognizing Accents. I wrote on the importance of knowing and acknowledging all the different voices that contribute to the movement for nutritious food, land stewardship, and local community.I have had to acknowledge recently, while I listen to these voices, that I tend to work hardest on my own, that I resist compromising my ideals and priorities just to collaborate with an existing group or organization, though my contribution to an established system might be more powerful than the actions I take on my own. Admittedly, ego plays a role in how I work, and ignorance too, of those whom I might join. But predominantly there is a feeling of responsibility in me to function independently, so I might control the way I live and act as much as I can. An event this week gave me a perspective on how to achieve something needed in this life of mine, and I think by many of us who are socially and politically active: a balance of personal control, collaboration and solidarity, and appreciation for the variety of actors with whom we collaborate.This balance focuses on biodiversity: a recognized asset of nature, and, as I’m coming to recognize, a value that can indicate a certain way of life.mono.jpg For as long as I’ve been interested in agriculture, I’ve learned why biodiversity is on the top-ten list of the advantages of small-scale family farming, and why monocropping and seed loss are some of the most destructive aspects of industrial agriculture. But only after listening to Andrew Faust this past Wednesday, did I consider that there could be more to supporting biodiversity than staying small, rotating crops, and saving seeds.

Andrew Faust is the founder of the Center for Bioregional Living in Lyndell, Pennsylvania. Faust has recently moved to Brooklyn, and normally leads workshops on bioregional permaculture, or teaches courses on creating self-sufficient, “permanent” landscapes. This week, the Gallatin Consciousness invited him to lead a workshop at NYU on “Permaculture: Natural Design and Ecological Consciousness.” Faust mentioned in the final hour of his talk (unfortunately, the only part I was able to attend) how permaculture is decidedly “anthropocentric.” It focuses on developing a biological infrastructure, or landscape, that is admittedly centered around human needs. But our destructive capacity as humans, Faust said, indicates our generative capacity, and the power we have to affect the environment we inhabit. It is the loss of biodiversity that is perhaps our greatest problem, he said, and a life that encourages biodiversity is the key to caring for the earth and ourselves, and improving our quality of life. For all the ideas Faust shared, about oil use and chemical exposure, agrarian thought and biological philosophy, military infrastructure and the pros and cons of modern technology, these were the two concepts that stuck with me: that he used the word power to describe what we, as humans, have within Nature, and that the best way to focus our efforts for change is to encourage biodiversity.


Similar to the Real Food movement I strive to support, an ecosystem focused on preserving biodiversity has no independent actors. There’s no one who lives “on the outside,” and from there “has an impact” on the environment. Living responsibly in a biologically diverse landscape means acting within it, and being acted upon. It means being a link in a cycle of life, a circle of distinct living organisms without hierarchy or rule. Imagining that we, individually or as a species, are somehow superior, or have the right to take control over this system, separates us from the circle, and disrupts the cycle. We are not superior. What we are is powerful. We have the ability to tear the circle apart, to destroy the biological system, to ignore the way we contribute to a network that we need, and in which we are needed. We are capable too of adopting the responsibility that comes with our power, of controlling not the system, but ourselves. We can play our part, knowing we are a powerful presence on this earth. We can have our ego if we must, and act with proud control over ourselves, knowing we are powerfully dependent. We depend upon others, and others depend upon us.Encouraging biodiversity in agriculture is best for the fertility of our land, the health of our diets, and the security of our farmers. The more crops we grow, the less our land is stripped of particular nutrients. The more variety in the food we eat, the more nutrients we ingest. And the more crops a farmer produces, the less he risks in the failure of a single crop.Whether referring to soil or society, biodiversity indicates a balance in life that we would do well to embrace. Not only do monocropping and genetic modification threaten natural biodiversity, but the modern societal pressures to be independent, and even to make change and have an impact, can be detrimental to our human need to work with each other, and recognize the contributions we each make to each others’ lives. As humans, we can literally protect and support the natural diversity of our landscapes, and socially, we an act in concert as powerful individuals, living with eyes open and hands held, acknowledging our differences, and our mutual dependence on each other. As Faust described to the crowd of NYU students and village residents this week, “We are constantly being indoctrinated” with values and ideas about how we should live. “We need to learn to turn off to the barrage of information,” he said, “and tune in, to what we really need, and what needs us.”

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Biblical parables have their mustards, Johnny Appleseed spread his trail over the country, and Jack planted magical ones to find a beanstalk the next morning. New organizations are always planting the “seeds” of change, assuming they can raise the “seed” money to do so. And at every turn I see a new product resembling bird food tossed into the latest granola or health-nut salad, guaranteeing some sort of reunion with my roots.Kingsolver BookAllow me to give thanks to Barbara Kingsolver and others for departing from metaphor for a moment, and elaborating on the real thing. The SEED.In her latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver explains how “vegetables acquire histories when they are saved as seeds for many generations, carefully maintained and passed by hand from one gardener to another.” Such vegetables, known as heirlooms, are “open-pollinated,” or save and reproduce specimens that show the best characteristics of their generation. The seeds of old plant varieties and land races also evolve naturally, adapting to their local environment, and develop a history, in the same region as their oldest wild ancestors. Such plants are valuable not only for their stories, but for their global diversity, and their ability to perpetually adapt to and resist the pests and predators of their region. These plants can continue to grow and survive for generations.In contrast to native races and heirlooms, hybrids are a forced cross between different varieties of the same plant, and while still products of the plants’ natural reproductive organs, they are only predictable (and therefore desirable) for one season.Just one step farther from nature, Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are the result of “direct manipulation of genes in the laboratory.” Genetic modification allows the crossing of completely different species, and usually involves injecting the seed with a “terminator gene,” to ensure that the GM crop will kill itself off after one season. This way, farmers must annually purchase seeds from one of the six major, GM companies that now control 98% of global seed sales, not to mention their concurrent need for those same companies’ chemical pesticides.GMO Tomato (smaller)When purchasing the produce of heirloom, hybrid, or GM seeds, we are allowing into our home either the natural offspring of evolution, a product of forced incest, or essentially the baby of a sort of bestiality. Of course, a parental profile is not usually written on the package. As GM products have label-lessly taken over the market, the diversity of our consumption has drastically decreased, and promoted the extinction of thousands of seed varieties. While GM seeds can always be recreated in the lab, heirloom and native species, once lost, are lost forever. Humans now consume food from about eight plant species, when once we ate from near 80,000. And already, according to Kingsolver, “U.S. consumers get to taste less than one percent of the vegetable varieties that were grown here a century ago.”HeirloomsFortunately, the best plan for saving the disappearing plant varieties that used to make up our diet is to eat them! And clearly, not just so we can use our grandmothers’ recipes. Plants that have naturally evolved and learned to adapt to a native location do not require the chemical herbicides and pesticides needed by hybrids and GMO crops; heirloom and native produce contains more nutrients than the two crops, corn and soy, that form the basis of most hybrids and GMOs; and cultivating a diverse number of species substantially protects us from the risk of crop failure. As Kingsolver put it, “History has regularly proven it unwise for a population to depend on just a few varieties for the majority of its sustenance. The Irish once depended on a single potato….We now depend on a few corn and soybean strains for the majority of calories eaten by U.S. citizens. Our addiction to just two crops has made us the fattest people who’ve ever lived, dining just a few pathogens away from famine.”More Info About Seeds:Vandana Shiva , Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food SupplyJack Harlan, Crops and ManInstitute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Farmers’ Guide to GMOsAg BioTech Infonet, Genetic Engineering Applications: Impacts & ImplicationsMore Seeds!The Seed Savers’ ExchangeOrganic Consumers’ Seed SourcesThe Organic Seeds AllianceNative Seeds/SEARCH: Native American CropsNorth American Fruit ExplorersSlow Food USA, Ark of Taste

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