Fresh Vegetables and Staple Crops are Turning into Junk Food

Even when it’s plants, bigger is not necessarily better. (Wikimedia photo)

A small but growing number of beleaguered researchers is challenging the mightiest financial powers on earth to proclaim an increasingly obvious fact: worldwide pollution is robbing all growing crops of their nutritional value. It has been well known for a while — and argued vehemently by climate change deniers — that elevated levels of carbon dioxide pollution in the air stimulate the growth of plants. (“See?” the deniers said gleefully, “pollution is good for you!”) But what is now becoming apparent is that at the same time the carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth, it reduces plant nutrition.  More, it turns out, is not necessarily better. Who knew?

The man who is now the leading proponent of this idea, Irakli Loladze, is now at Bryan College of Health Sciences in Lincoln, Nebraska. He first stumbled on the concept in 1998 when he was a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University. He encountered some biology researchers who were finding that when they stimulated the growth of algae in a closed system, the zooplankton, the little critters that fed on the algae, did not flourish, but actually declined. Loladze desperately wanted to find out why, to see if the problem had wider implications, but there were two big problems. Continue reading

Hack My Tractor. Please.

Touch a new tractor with that old wrench and you’re going to court, Elwood. Yes, even if it’s bought and paid for. Yes, even if you’re in the middle of harvest.

If you’re an industrial farmer, making a living from monoculture — and that’s most farmers today — your life consists of months of boredom punctuated by weeks of unrelieved terror. The terror comes once in the spring, when you’re trying to get your crop seeded between rains before the window closes on the growing season; and once in the fall when you’re trying to get your crop harvested before the first blizzard. (I am leaving out the brief summertime terrors induced by approaching thunderstorms, they are not part of this story.)

Imagine you’re in the harvest terror, you’re just getting started doing whatever your crop requires, and your tractor starts coughing like a lifetime smoker and falls on its face in midfield, as inert and unresponsive as a power drinker on Sunday morning. Your entire year’s income, maybe the future of your mortgage,  is lying there in those fields and, as they say on Game of Thrones, winter is coming. Continue reading

Clickbait, Fake News and Low-Calorie Science

A tiny drone tries to gather pollen from a lily, to show that it is just as good at it as a bee. [Photo by E.Miyako]

The hucksters of high tech are abroad in the land, proving they are the equal of Donald Trump in their ability to tell brazen lies and feel no shame. These days, that’s called leadership. Their latest whopper is that we don’t need to worry about the fact that we are killing off the bees that pollinate our food crops, we can do the job mechanically. Here’s a typical headline inspired by the latest revelations in the field: “Should pollinating drones take over for honey bees?”

Consider the technique used in the headline –it’s the craft of clickbait, not journalism. The journalistic headlines would be “Scientists have used a small drone to pollinate a flower.” Yawn. If you said, “Scientists prepare to replace bees with drones,” the lie would be so big and so obvious that scientists would have to protest and your credibility, if any, would suffer. But who could blame you for simply asking the question? (Headlines asking questions, by the way, are an indicator of fake news.) Continue reading

The War on Hemp

hemp meme

The Internet went nuts over this meme the other day. Obviously we gotta grow more hemp. Do it, and you’ll go to jail.

It is one of the first crops cultivated by humans, and was a staple crop for the American colonies. It requires less water than  most crops, and no pesticides at all, to grow, and while growing it detoxifies soil and sequesters CO2. Its seeds are a superfood, yielding highly nutritious flour, bread, cereal, “milk”, oil and protein additives — as well as fuel, paint, ink and cosmetics. Its fast-growing stalk yields one of the strongest and most useful fibers known, used in superior paper, canvas, ropes, insulation, cardboard, clothing, shoes and plastic — plastic that is, by the way, biodegradable. This one plant can provide many of the products an industrial society needs, sustainably, while drastically reducing pollution, energy consumption, deforestation, fossil fuel use and providing income for millions of farmers (in places like West Virginia, where glum people sit around in fertile hollows mourning the death of coal).

So, of course, planting, harvesting, or even studying hemp is mostly illegal in the United States and has been for decades. Continue reading

Peak Food is Here. Peak People Next.

If we could get photosynthesis to run by moonlight, we would have a chance of supporting the “projected” increase in world population, which as we all know will continue to increase forever, no matter what. Wait, what? (Photo by Sammydavisdog/Flickr)

If we could get photosynthesis to run by moonlight, we would have a chance of supporting the “projected” increase in world population, which as we all know will continue to increase forever, no matter what. Wait, what? (Photo by Sammydavisdog/Flickr)

One of the many insanities of industrialism is the belief — so ingrained in the system that it is never even stated — that yields and profits can and should grow forever, increasing toward infinity on a finite planet. One reason the belief is never stated is that the statement is ridiculous on its face. So industrialists worship a kind of avatar they call “growth.” Somehow, the idea that growth is always good, that it can and should go on forever, does not induce hysterical laughter, but reverence. This testifies to the effectiveness of repetition as a substitute for reason.

When an organism never stops growing, reason calls it “cancer.” When an organism stops growing upon reaching maturity, reason says it has reached its peak. In nature, this is good and normal, as is the following eventual decline and death. In industrialism, peak is a dirty word, to be denied, preferably never even discussed, along with such alien concepts as decline and  death.

Yet even the richest and most powerful humans cannot defy nature for long. She is implacable, and her ruling is that every system, every organism, every enterprise, matures — which is to say it reaches its peak — and then begins to die. This is true for everything from starfish to stars. So it’s time to be surprised all over again at a new study that shows that global industrial food production has, um, matured. As in, peaked. Continue reading

California Drying: “We May Have to Migrate”

Okay, so this hasn't happened in California -- yet (it happened in Galilee in 1948). But this is what it will look like on the Oregon border if the historic drought continues (Wikipedia photo)

Okay, so this hasn’t happened in California — yet (it happened in Galilee in 1948). But this is what it will look like on the Oregon border if the historic drought continues (Wikipedia photo)

The only category of drought higher than the one now assigned to nearly 60 percent of California (the USDA’s Drought Monitor calls it “exceptional”)  is “Biblical.” Three years in, there is no relief in sight — the much-anticipated El Nino pattern of sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, which usually increases rainfall in California, has not materialized. It would take a full year of normal rain and snowfall to restore surface waters to normal levels. A UC Davis study just out finds the amount of surface water available to California agriculture has been reduced by 6.6 million acre-feet (yes, that’s enough water to submerge 6.6 million acres to a depth of one foot). Groundwater has been pumped to replace five million acre-feet, but the shortfall remains a jaw-dropping 1.6 million acre-feet. Continue reading

From Insecticide to Genocide

Dead_bee_winter

A world soaked in insecticides is not a place where bees can live. We’re really going to miss them. (Wikimedia photo)

Call it the Return of Silent Spring. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book of that name aroused the world to the dangers of soaking the world with insecticides (at the time, primarily DDT). Her dark vision of a spring in which no birds sang nor insects buzzed gave impetus to the environmental movement. What better evidence that that movement has been rolled up like a cheap rug than the news that after half a century we are back where we started?

According to a major new study, the world is so saturated with insecticides (especially these days, the pervasive neonicotinoids) that bees and earthworms are vanishing. As they go, they will take our food supply with them. Continue reading

Big Ag Fights Small Ag: We Lose

Farms like these in Vietnam are the ones that feed the world, provide work and security for families, and preserve the land. We're stamping them out. (Wikipedia Photo)

Farms like these in Vietnam are the ones that feed the world, provide work and security for families, and preserve the land. We’re stamping them out. (Wikipedia Photo)

Just as it has become crystal clear (as confirmed by a new United Nations report) that the world made a terrible mistake when it entrusted its future to industrial agriculture; and that the only hope for a sustainable global food supply rests on small, diverse, family farms; now Big Money is weighing in on the side of Big Agriculture and is in the process of snuffing out the last best hope for food.

There are two parts to this problem. The ravages of industrial agriculture — the ruined land, poisoned water, sick animals and rampaging, mutant weeds and diseases — are becoming well known. We were told not to mind these things because it was the only way to keep up with a growing, hungry population. Turns out it wasn’t even one of the ways. Continue reading

Don’t Like Global Warming? How About Global Rioting?

You thought the unrest in Ukraine was all about Russia? Or the West? Try food. (Photo by Yaruslov Kharandiuk/Flickr)

You thought the unrest in Ukraine was all about Russia? Or the West? Try food. (Photo by Yaruslov Kharandiuk/Flickr)

The boiling point of a country is 210; not degrees on a thermometer, but points on a scale of food prices devised by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Reach that mark, and your population, on the brink of starving, will be in the streets kicking ass and taking heads. Pundits natter on about masses yearning to be free, loving democracy, spurning Islam, suddenly intolerant of dictators they were fine with for decades. In reality, the flame that lit the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War and the Crisis in Ukraine was a food price index of 210; and the same torch is spreading the flames around the world. The outbreak, according to Dr. Nafeez Ahmed (a security expert and writer for the Guardian of London), is a tsunami of civil unrest  “on a scale that has never been seen before in human history. This month alone [February] has seen riots kick-off in Venezuela, Bosnia, Ukraine, Iceland, and Thailand.” Continue reading

Peak Medicine. It’s Here, Too

If global warming doesn’t get us, global sickening might; microbes like these are shrugging off modern medicine’s tools to control them. (Photo by Carlos de Paz/Flickr)

If global warming doesn’t get us, global sickening might; microbes like these are shrugging off modern medicine’s tools to control them. (Photo by Carlos de Paz/Flickr)

According to the World Health Organization, the planet is about to enter a post-antibiotic age in which minor infections kill us because the tools of modern medicine, which have been effective for a century and more, no longer work. The organization’s first global survey of drug-resistant disease found that in addition to antibiotic resistance by infectious bacteria — now well established everywhere in the world — resistance by viruses such as HIV, parasites including malaria and fungi is also spreading fast. All in all, says WHO, it is “a major threat to public health” whose “implications will be devastating.”

The report focused on antibiotic resistance among seven bacteria responsible for some of the most common serious infections. Its major findings: Continue reading