the green revolution

There is no doubt about it – there are a lot of people in the world: more than 7 billion. The sheer number of humans is probably even too much for our brains to process. Still, we’re all here and more people are coming joining the global population and every day.

Feeding so many people is a daunting task. So much so that food security is one of the most prominent issues facing the world today – despite the fact that output is greater than ever before. Successful increases in output are retarded by issues with food waste, problems with logistics and the unequal distribution of resources. However, the biggest issue preventing lasting change is the use of unsustainable production practices like monoculture, the irrigation of arid and/or semi-arid locations and high chemical inputs. For true food security to be achieved alternatives that are better adaptable to dynamic conditions are required.

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Norman Borlaug   Photo credit: nytimes.com

That is not to say that the evolution of the current system is not a biological and technological wonder.  It is a result of the Green Revolution which started the 1940s. It was during this time that Norman Borlaug, a plant breeder from the University of Minnesota, developed a high yielding wheat variety that revolutionized crop production throughout the world. The new varieties were not sensitive to hours of sunlight each day which allowed farmers to grow wheat anywhere, had more above ground mass which increased yields and produced shorter plants so that more of the plant’s energy could be focused on the usable grain production.

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A comparison of dwarf and full-size wheat varieties Photo credit: http://www.lsuagcenter.com

These genetic improvements coupled with the use of newly developed irrigation systems, altered farm management techniques, hybrids and chemical pesticides and fertilizers resulted in unprecedented increases in output. For example, following the introduction of high-yielding wheat, Mexico was able to go from importing half its wheat in 1944 to exporting a 1/2 million tons of wheat in 1964. The success was so great that shortly after high producing rice varieties (with IR8 being the most notable) were introduced in other places throughout the world. The increase is estimated to be so great that these changes are credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation. It is also credited with allowing the population to continue to balloon out of control.

IR8
Photo credit: yubanet.com

Depending on the person, this is a good thing or a bad thing. Many find that humans are the best thing in the world and that continued population growth can result in improved economic climates, expanded intellectual capital and ultimately an overall betterment of the world. Others see the human presence as a burden that the world cannot truly bear. With a continuing world hunger crisis and severe weather conditions across the globe, it is hard to argue for the former.

Still, continuing efforts are being made to improve the genetic potential of seeds. There are 16 centers throughout the world focusing on the continuing development of improved crops including maize, sorghum, and beans. Unfortunately, this has led to a rapid decrease in genetic diversity and it has resulted in plants that are only able to survive with human intervention and high inputs. This has and will continue to cause serious issues as a result of droughts, floods, pests and/or disease (ex. bananas). Furthermore, many of the inputs used are non-renewable (fossil fuel, water). There are also rapidly changing consumer demands as third world countries develop and demand lifestyle choices comparable to those enjoyed by westerners (ex. higher rates of meat consumption), environmental degradation concerns, a limited amount of arable land, and unchecked population growth threatens food security.

To address these issues, there is a call for a second Green Revolution that is based on sustainability. The new revolution is aimed at efforts to reduce dependence on synthetic inputs and reduce the use of non-renewable water sources. Success in this respect can be achieved with the use of nitrogen fixing cover crops, crop rotation, alternative cropping styles, reduced tillage and farm diversification. There is also a need for a Green Revolution in Africa in order to focus efforts on improving the output of common crops grown on the continent. This would also help to reduce the yield gap that plagues many African countries.

soil sealing: what it is and why it’s important

soil sealing2

Soil. A living, breathing fundamental component of the world.  Without it, we would not be able to grow food. There would be no trees and plants growing to provide us with the delicious oxygen so necessary to our existence. Our water would not be purified. We would more or less just be screwed. Yet, we continue to cover this valuable resource with impermeable materials like asphalt and concrete in an effort to build housing, roads, factories and parking lots.

Sure, we need those things too. There is no denying it. But, there are alternatives to impervious materials.They may cost a bit more, but how much exactly is clean water worth? To those without it, it is invaluable or at least much more valuable than a new parking lot. What is the value of a house that has not been destroyed by flooding? Certainly much less than one that is floating down a river towards the ocean in pieces because it was destroyed by flash flooding.

The main perpetrators of this crime against nature are suburban sprawl, a rapidly growing population, and increases in transportation demands. The rapid migration to urban areas is exacerbating this issue.

surface sealing

Some soils are naturally prone to sealing – like those in Southwest USA. However, this is often the result of  poor soil quality (issues with aggregation). There are also issues with soil sealing as a result of poor agricultural practices, such as driving large farm equipment over wet soils and leaving large tracts of land bare of vegetation which would typically improve the structure of the soil and mitigate issues created by rainfall.

Regardless of the source of sealing (although it is usually the fault of humans), the consequences of soil sealing are many including, but certainly not limited to:

  • Increased flood risks
  • Reduced groundwater recharge
  • Increased water pollution (caused by runoff)
  • Loss of biodiversity as a result of habitat fragmentation
  • Disrupted gas, water and energy fluxes

To deal with the issue of soil sealing, many steps can be taken.

The best option is to stop engaging in practices that lead to soil sealing. This means using land more efficiently and intelligently, as well as using existing infrastructure. However, we as humans sometimes have a difficult time changing our habits. This may require that alternatives to impervious concrete and asphalt be more widely used (as alternatives already exist.  see: http://www.perviouspavement.org).

In regards to agricultural causes, crop rotations should be employed, heavy machinery should not be used on wetlands, and cover crops should be planted to encourage aggregate formation and water absorption.

Should we as a species work to address the issue of soil sealing (or even take preventative measures), a myriad of negative consequences could be mitigated. Then maybe one less family will lose everything because of a flood, one less crop will be destroyed taking us one step closer to food security, and mother nature can continue to do her thing – something we can all appreciate (even if we don’t know it).

sources:

http://www.agprofessional.com/news/soil-sealing-crusting-water-erosion-and-poor-soil-health
http://www.concretenetwork.com/pervious/
http://ec.europa.eu/environment/soil/pdf/guidelines/pub/soil_en.pdf

 

question: what is meant by “strong sustainability”?

The concept of sustainability is one that is still developing.  New information provides new insights and the tools to work towards a future more capable of enduring the tests of time. Until recently, humans believed that all resources could be indefinitely exploited without damage to the system as a whole.  This lead to exploitation and many of the negative environmental externalities (e.g. loss of biodiversity, climate change, etc.) facing the world today.  This idea led to the concept of simply finding technological replacements for the resources and services that nature provides or weak sustainability, which is the idea that manufactured capital can take the place of natural capital. This means that as long as natural capital is manufactured into something with the equivalent capital value, it can be used without constraint. This view on sustainability does not take into consideration that some services cannot be replaced (ex. what do we do when there is no more ozone layer?).

However, such a feat has proven quite difficult and led to a further evolution of the idea of sustainability, a concept known as strong sustainability, which asserts that existing natural capital cannot be duplicated or replaced. As such, it should be protected, maintained and enhanced in order to continue receiving the benefits of natural capital. Strong sustainability supports the following principles:

  1. The scale of human activities should be constrained by the actual carrying capacity of the planet. This means addressing issues of sufficiency and efficiency with the implementation of limits to the physical scale.
  2. Technological development should focus on improving the efficiency of resource use as opposed to increasing the “throughput” (the flow of goods/services from natural to human systems).
  3. Renewable natural capital should be sustainably managed by harvesting at rates not higher than regeneration rates and keeping waste production to levels that do not exceed the renewable assimilative capacity of the environment.
  4. Non-renewable natural resources should not be exploited faster than the rate of creation for renewable substitutes. (better suited to weak sustainability)

strong and weak sustainability

Medical Model vs. Population Health Model

Medical Model

Population Health Model

Geared toward clinically oriented system

Studies the effects any given health ailment

Changes the way society and the individual interact

Individuals engage in guided self-managed care

Places the fault with the individual

Assumes that there is something wrong with people who consume too much sodium and does not account for societal influences

Emphasizes public education

Individuals are provided with the information needed to make informed decisions regarding their healthcare

Maintains social hierarchy

Medical professionals are assumed to always know what is right and best

Studies a range of influencing factors

The reason(s) why a given health ailment exists are examined

Standardized

Care is based on measurable and objective inputs. For example, how much sodium an individual is consuming and what the cure will be for hypertension which discourages “out of the box” thinking.

Prevention-based

Reduces the need for treatments by encouraging proactive health-oriented decision-making, as well as emphasizes long-term planning as a key to lasting success and cost reduction

“Mechanically” oriented

Humans are machines that can be fixed if a component is defective

Personalized

Social factors influencing health, such as poverty and education, are incorporated into healthcare

A sickness care system

Symptoms continue to be treated, but underlying causes are never addressed

Encourages community participation

Individuals are empowered to make positive health choices

Uses public policy to make changes

Encourages regulations for food labeling, distribution and content limits, especially for young children

sources:

http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/ph-sp/approach-approche/index-eng.php

http://www.longwoods.com/content/16763

http://www.marco-learningsystems.com/pages/david-zigmond/medical-model.htm

https://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/6739/images/history-model.pdf

community gardens discussed and analyzed

“The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land.”

– Abraham Lincoln

Agriculture is defined as the science, art, and business of cultivating soil, producing crops and raising cattle. It is more commonly referred to as farming. Without it, society as we know it would not exist. It has enabled people to put down roots which provided the means for the world’s population to expand. Unfortunately, it has also been transformed by industrialization into a widely abused system that is dependent on government subsidies and environmentally unsound practices in order to produce food products with less nutritional value and poorer taste. Furthermore, the existing agriculture system is controlled by an increasingly small number of international firms.

However, grassroots efforts and individuals are choosing to look at food in a different way, a way that seems to be able to co-exist with ecosystems. A viable option that has been employed in the past, but since forgotten, is the community garden.

A community garden is any vacant land that is used for growing food and is accessible to community members. Not only do these gardens provide healthy food to demographics that many not otherwise have access, but it improves the overall quality of life in the community by reducing crime, encouraging exercise, and encourages people to have pride in their neighborhood. However, the benefits of community gardens are not limited to the community. Instead, the effects impact the whole ecosystem.

Many community gardens have strict rules about the methods members can employ, and choose to model organic farming methods. Those rules include limiting or banning synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Some community gardens also ban certain species of plants that have been proven to attract pests or have no predators to limit spreading.

Community gardens limit non-organic pesticides and fertilizers, because of the effects that they can have on human, animal, and environmental health which allows for the natural qualities of soil and the ecosystem to shine.

amendingsoil

Soil is an essential part of the growing environment and without healthy soil, one would not be able to produce healthy plants. Ideal soil for plants is composed of 25% air, 45% minerals, 25% water and 5% organic material. This mix allows for plant roots to efficiently breathe and absorb nutrients and water. However, different plants prefer different mixes of minerals and will tolerate varying degrees of acidity and moisture.

To create ideal soil that is rich in nutrients, well-aerated, and free from disease, many community gardens employ composting methods. Compost is the process of breaking down organic material. The result is a very dark, rich addition to any garden.

Compost is created by putting Nitrogen rich items (greens-vegetable scraps, lawn cuttings, and coffee grounds) and Carbon-rich items (browns-shredded cardboard, sawdust, and leaves) together into a well-ventilated space and mixing with water. The ideal ratio of Carbon to Nitrogen is 25-30:1. This mixture can heat up to 150 degrees from the work of macro and micro-organisms. The increased heat speeds up the breakdown process, and when coupled with Red Wiggler Worms, can reduce the decomposition time to only a few weeks.

Finished compost helps to reduce water use because it is will hold 6X’s more water than traditional soil. It also provides nutrients that would not otherwise be available to plants. This reduces and/or eliminates the need for any non-organic fertilizers, reducing cost and environmental impact while gardeners enjoy similar, if not better results.

Another benefit of compost is that it creates stronger plants, and can help to eliminate the need for pesticides. Pesticides include anything designed to destroy fungus, weed, insect or disease. These synthetic killers are non-discriminatory in their effects, and could just as easily kill family pets as insects. This harm could come from direct consumption, water-run off or from residual traces of chemicals in the soil.

compost 101

To further reduce the needs for pesticides, community gardens encourage and use “beneficial” pests. These are insects that are carnivorous and indigenous to the area. The most popular versions of these bugs are Praying Mantises, spiders, Ladybugs and Lacewings. It must also be noted that one should not introduce too many of one species or too many in general in order to maintain a balance.

When gardens choose not to introduce beneficial pests into the garden, they often choose to use other methods to protect their plants. Covering plants in light-weight netting can deter all insects but does not allow for pollination.

Another option is companion planting, such as putting onions or garlic with almost any plant, or celery with plants in the cabbage family. By planting certain plants together, the smells naturally detract invasive species. Marigolds, nasturtiums, and rosemary are also very pungent smelling and deter many pests.

As in any scenario, some problems arise with community gardens, including issues with existing soil, cultural sensitivities, unfavorable weather and the question of sustainability.

Since community gardens use whatever space is available, and the modern version originated in urban areas where the environmental impact of humans is greater than in rural areas. One of the biggest problems community gardens find is the presence of lead in the soil. Lead is devastating to life and is not easy to remove from soil.

Cultural sensitivities are also difficult to deal with, as they are generally historically rooted. In cities such as Chicago and Detroit, some groups are associating community gardening with slavery. This is difficult to deal with because community gardens are dependent on community involvement.

Weather can also impact the effectiveness of community gardens, especially in cooler climates. To deal with weather problems, community gardens use cold frames and wind tunnels. These structures help to regulate temperature and keep out harsh winds and snows. Sometimes, community gardens will couple these methods with cold hardy plants to lengthen the growing season.

The biggest concern that surrounds community gardens is their capacity to feed a large number of people since the population is not getting smaller and everyone needs to eat. There is a large amount of unused space in cities throughout America, but it is unclear if people are willing to utilize it for food production and put forth the effort needed to transform dilapidated neighborhoods.

While the concept of community gardens is not a new idea, society is in a unique situation that could revitalize their presence in towns and city throughout the country. This revival could help improve ecosystems everywhere, redistribute wealth and resources, encourage and the American agricultural system as a whole, or at least I think so!

For more information, check out this website about the steps needed to start a community garden:

http://www.epa.gov/brownfields/urbanag/steps.htm

sources:

Environmental Working Group. (n.d.) Farming: Farm Subsidies. Retrieved from https://farm.ewg.org/

Pidwirny, Michael. (2013). Soil. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/article/Soil

Runk, David. (2010). Lead, other chemicals taint some urban gardens. Times Union

Smith, Edward C. The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible. North Adams: Storey, 2010.

eutrophication, choking the life out of a body of water near you?

Eutrophication is a process caused by excess phosphates and nitrogen which creates algae blooms. Fast-growing algae die each year and sink to the bottom of the floor of a given body of water. Here it turns into an incredibly rich mud where bacterial decayers thrive. Due to their unnatural quantities and massive appetites, the oxygen in the water is too rapidly consumed which effectively kills the other living organisms in the water and creates an inhospitable environment for potential inhabitants. This process results in the premature death of a body of water [a process that normally takes 150 years can occur within approximately a year].  Locations that have become eutrophic are denoted as “dead zones”.

CulturalEutrophication

The majority of damage from eutrophication in the United States is caused runoff from lawn fertilizer, although commercial fertilizers contribute significantly to the problem.  In the United States, it is estimated that 70 million tons of pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides are applied annually to lawns in the United States. This is 10 times the amount used by farmers. Other sources include runoff from cities, sewage and even N and P used inland that is transported by the wind to varying water sources.

To add insult to injury, according to the website beyondpesticides.org:

“Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 11 are linked with birth defects, 19 with reproductive effects, 24 with liver or kidney damage, 14 with neurotoxicity and 18 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system.  Of those same 30 lawn pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, 23 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 11 are toxic to bees and 16 are toxic to birds.”

 

There are several potential solutions to the issue of eutrophication.

The easiest would be to stop applying chemical fertilizers to lawns. However, a well-groomed lawn is often considered a status symbol and point of pride for many. This suggests that the use of fertilizers will continue, possibly even increase.

In turn, a myriad of varying solutions is required.  These options include increasing the presence of riparian buffer zones, restoring wetlands, reducing the density of livestock, treating sewer water and water from urban run-off, reducing the amount of N and P produced by vehicles and power plants and improving the efficiency of fertilizer application with targeted applications.

NOAA2007KFFigure2

Without action, coastal waters will become unsuitable for aquaculture production, tourist destinations will lose their appeal when people cannot swim, fish or boat, biodiversity will be further reduced and aquatic and coastal ecosystems will become dramatically altered which reduces their effectiveness as water purifiers and storm barriers.


sources:

http://www.mrhatten.com/Environmental%20Action/LawnCare.pdf

http://www.beyondpesticides.org/lawn/factsheets/

http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/152690/