5 things to consider before buying hybrid seeds

Hybrid plants are a crossing between two selected parent plants achieved via controlled pollination  (see how are plants propagated). The seeds produced by this process are called F1 or F1 Hybrids. These hybrids will exhibit very specific qualities. Hybrids have quickly come to dominate the seed market. However, in spite of their increased market presence of hybrids, there are several factors to be considered. They can be summarized as follows:

Loss of Genetic Diversity

The massive shift to the use of hybrids has resulted in a severe reduction in seed varieties. Between 1984 and 1987, 54 of the 230 American and Canadian mail-order seed companies went out of business. With their closure, 943 non-hybrid varieties, or approximately 19% of all varieties, were lost. This trend continues based on the evolving demands of the agriculture industry, i.e. extreme consolidation and the globalization of supply chains. However, genetic diversity must be maintained as it is essential to the survival and adaptability of any given species (see crop wild relatives), something that will be increasingly relevant as a result of changes in climate and pest adaptations.

Higher Prices

Hybrid seeds are typically more expensive due to the financial investment required by the seed companies in order to develop new strains. Investment in this respect relates to finding two suitable partner plants and hand-pollination. The higher cost is passed on to growers. Growers who are producing for the market must then pass on the costs to consumers.

Non-saveable Seeds

Seeds from hybrids cannot be saved as the offspring will be genetically unpredictable. As a result, growers are forced to purchase new seeds each year. This puts undue financial stress on small-scale growers, which further contributes to the consolidation of the agricultural system. Further consolidation means more extreme shifts to mechanization which requires the use of chemicals that typically harm the environment and erode the relationship between food producer and consumer.

Private Property Rights

Unlike open-pollinated seeds, hybrid seeds are patented. This means that the genetic rights to the plants belong to the company producing the seeds rather than being a public good. With seed companies becoming increasingly consolidated, the power and control continue to become concentrated. In 2007, three companies – Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta – controlled 47% of the world’s seed market with Monsanto alone controlling one-quarter of the market. Since that time, Monsanto has merged with Bayer, Dupont merged with Dow, and Syngenta merged with ChemChina. These mergers resulted in the development of an extremely powerful oligarchy that has a stronghold on the world’s seed market. This chokehold means diminished autonomy and a world subjected to subversive tactics designed to broaden the companies’ influence in the world’s economy.

Commercial Focus

The hybrid varieties produced are typically designed for commercial growers. Therefore, the primary focus of plant breeders is tolerance for machine harvesting and processing, with flavor and texture being of minimal importance. Likewise, hybrid varieties are designed to ripen uniformly which is not necessarily of benefit to home or smaller producers who seek to extend the growing season over as long of a period as possible.

Sources:

Ashworth, S. (2002). Seed to seed: Seed saving techniques for the vegetable gardener. Decorah, IA: Seed Savers Exchange.
https://extension.illinois.edu/hortihints/0102a.html
https://garden.org/courseweb/course2/week2/page18.htm
http://news.agropages.com/News/NewsDetail—21186.htm

the advantages and disadvantages associated with intercropping

Despite the fact that intercropping has ancient roots, it is only more recently that institutional attention has been paid to this growing method. The majority of formal research to date focuses on large-scale, rural production. Findings show that intercropping has both advantages and disadvantages, which are described in the table below.

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– – – 

  • yield advantage
  • space maximization
  • pest deterrent and weed suppression → decreased pesticide and herbicide use
  • the potential for natural nitrogen use (less runoff)
  • reduced erosion via increased ground cover increased biomass production
  • informal crop insurance (reduced risk of complete crop failure)
  • competition for space, nutrients and sunlight → potential decreases in output
  • integrated management efforts essential
  • higher sowing and harvesting costs (non-machine) → higher labor costs
  • extensive planning required


However, the majority of issues related to intercropping can be overcome with proactive management, albeit harvesting without a machine is a great burden to producers, making the integration of intercropping on a large-scale difficult. Nonetheless, new research in this area is being conducted, and innovative, modular equipment is being developed in order to better facilitate the use of intercropping techniques.

sources:

Lithourgidis, A.; Dordas, C.; Damalas, C. A.;  Vlachostergios, D.N. (2011, April) Annual intercrops: An alternative pathway for sustainable agriculture. Australian Journal of Crop Science, 5(4) Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/224934832_Annual_intercrops_An_alternative_pathway_for_sustainable_agriculture
Mousavi, S. R.; Eskandari, H. (2011, January). A General Overview on Intercropping and Its Advantages in Sustainable Agriculture. Applied Environmental Biological Sciences. 1(11). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/220000362_A_General_Overview_on_Intercropping_and_Its_Advantages_in_Sustainable_Agriculture
Sullivan, P. (1998, November). Intercropping Principles and Production Practices. Agronomy Systems Guide.  Retrieved from http://www.iatp.org/files/Intercropping_Principles_and_Production_Practi.htm
Wiley, R.W. and Rao, R.M. (1980, April) A Competitive Ratio for Quantifying Competition Between Intercrops. Experimental Agriculture, 16(02). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/231898671_A_Competitive_Ratio_for_Quantifying_Competition_Between_Intercrops

Zeman, F. (2012) Metropolitan sustainability: understanding and improving the urban environment. Oxford, Cambridge, Philadelphia, Delhi: Woodhead Publishing Limited

an introduction to intercropping

Intercropping is a growing method rooted in ecological diversity. In intercropped systems, two or more component crops are grown together for a given growing period. There are currently four types of intercropping systems:

  1. Strip: crops are grown simultaneously in independent rows within the same field
  2. Row: crops are grown together simultaneously and a minimum of one crop is planted in a row
  3. Mixed: there is no specific order to the crops
  4. Relay: the growing system is dependent on the lifecycle stage of the intercropped plants. Typically, the second crop in the intercropping schedule is planted after the first crop reaches the reproductive stage and before it reaches peak maturity
types-of-intercropping
Types of Intercropping, Source: own, Adapted from Mousavi and Eskandari (2011)

Regardless of the intercropping pattern selected, the plants grown together should be complementary in nature in that they have different “rooting abilities, canopy structure, height and nutrient requirements” which produce a yield advantage. This occurs when resources that could not be utilized by a single crop are utilized by an additional crop growing in the same space.  One of the best-known examples of intercropping is the three sisters method developed by Native Americans in the United States, where Maize, pole beans and winter squash are grown together. The Maize provides a form for the beans to climb and shades the squash. The beans stabilize and fix nitrogen for the Maize plants. The squash provides ground cover, effectively maintaining moisture levels and suppressing weeds.

In order to develop an advantageous intercropped system, five fundamental principles must be adhered to:  

  1. A detailed plan must be developed, including an understanding of the characteristics of the component crops
  2. Crops must be timely sown
  3. Adequate fertilizer must be applied at the appropriate time
  4. A weed and pest strategy must be in place
  5. Harvesting must be efficient

If the wrong types of plants are grown together or the spacing is incorrect, the output will decrease.  To determine whether an intercropped system is effective, the land equivalent ratio [LER] is typically used, where:  (INTERCROP 1 / PURE YIELD 1) / (INTERCROP 2 / PURE YIELD 2). Results > 1.0 indicate an advantageous pairing. Results < 1.0 indicate a disadvantageous pairing.

sources:

Lithourgidis, A.; Dordas, C.; Damalas, C. A.;  Vlachostergios, D.N. (2011, April) Annual intercrops: An alternative pathway for sustainable agriculture. Australian Journal of Crop Science, 5(4) Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/224934832_Annual_intercrops_An_alternative_pathway_for_sustainable_agriculture
Mousavi, S. R.; Eskandari, H. (2011, January). A General Overview on Intercropping and Its Advantages in Sustainable Agriculture. Applied Environmental Biological Sciences. 1(11). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/220000362_A_General_Overview_on_Intercropping_and_Its_Advantages_in_Sustainable_Agriculture
Sullivan, P. (1998, November). Intercropping Principles and Production Practices. Agronomy Systems Guide.  Retrieved from http://www.iatp.org/files/Intercropping_Principles_and_Production_Practi.htm
Wiley, R.W. and Rao, R.M. (1980, April) A Competitive Ratio for Quantifying Competition Between Intercrops. Experimental Agriculture, 16(02). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/231898671_A_Competitive_Ratio_for_Quantifying_Competition_Between_Intercrops

Zeman, F. (2012) Metropolitan sustainability: understanding and improving the urban environment. Oxford, Cambridge, Philadelphia, Delhi: Woodhead Publishing Limited

10 common plant disease symptoms

Loss of Turgor Pressure (decrease in water pressure within plant cell walls)
Causes: abiotic factors, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects
Examples: Ralstonia solanacearum, Verticillium dahliae, Bursaphelenchus xylophilus

2776528_orig
Photo credit: biology4isc.weebly.com

 

Enations (scaly leaflike structures that lack a vascular system)
Causes: viruses
Examples: Cherry raspberry leaf virus, Pea enation mosaic virus

tn2001006f10
Photo credit:  fftc.agnet.org

 

Stunting (dwarfing or loss of vigor)
Causes: viruses, phytoplasma, fungi, nematodes
Examples: Rhizoctonia, Strawberry lethal yellows

16852_original
Photo credit: ucanr.edu/

 

Witches’ Broom (dense clustering of abnormally small twigs)
Causes: phytoplasma, fungi, insects, mites
Examples: Ash yellows phytoplasma, Sphaerotheca sp.

20140412_stp002_0
Photo credit: economist.com

 

Galls (abnormal growths)
Causes: fungi, nematodes, mites
Examples: Gymnosporangium sabinae, Meloidogyne spp.

galls20on20lime_0
Photo credit: isponature.com

 

Fruit and Seed Deformation (malformed fruit or seeds)
Causes: abiotic factors, viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects
Examples: Catfacing tomatoes, Little cherry disease, Spiroplasma citri, Thrips palmi

catfacing_in_tomato
Photo credit: eorganic.info

 

Tumors (aggregates of cells that have multiplied excessively)
Causes: viruses, bacteria
Examples: Agrobacterium tumefaciens, Cryphonectria parasitica

tomato
Photo credit: cals.ncsu.edu

 

Gummosis (oozing of sap from wounds/cankers on fruit trees)
Causes: abiotic factors, bacteria, fungi, insects, injury to the cutting sites
Examples: Pseudomonas syringa, Colletotrichum gloeosporioides

cytospora-perennial-canker_oozing
Photo credit: utahpests.usu.edu

 

Rot (decay)
Causes: bacteria, fungi
Examples: Arruina carotovora, Ralstonia solanacearum, Phomopsis obscurans, Botrytis cinerea

07blossomendrot_lg
Photo credit: clemson.edu

 

Necrosis (death of cells or tissues)
Causes: abiotic factors, viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects
Examples: Xanthomonas axonopodis, Fusarium oxysporum, Milbe Tetranychus cinnabarinus

fig2
Photo credit: srs.fs.usda.gov

For more information about plant diseases read:

A Brief Introduction to Plant Diseases

 

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.