Varietals of Choice

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a lot of articles and blog posts questioning whether organic food is really worth the generally higher cost of the products to the consumer, i.e. whether organic food offers significant health benefits for the person eating it that justify spending more.

The question itself represents part of what I consider our limited perspective when it comes to food production.

Farmers market in France - a single table with 15 tomato varieties from a single organic farmer. All photos: PKR

Farmers market in France – a single table with 15 tomato varieties (plus a couple of eggplant varieties) from a single organic farmer.
All photos: PKR

Food production in all its forms is one of humanity’s key points of influence on our environment. Everything about food production, from land and water use, to the plants and animals we domesticate and cultivate, to the plants, animals and insects we suppress as pests, has a major impact on our surroundings.

We discovered planned agriculture around 10000 years ago, and we’ve been using pesticides in one form or another for over 4500 years. Early pesticides came in the form of using smoke to try and drive away insects, blight and mildew, or sea water to kill weeds.

Mercury, arsenic and lead were introduced in the 15th century, while the dried flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium have been used in powdered form for two millennia.photo 2(6)

But pesticide use as we understand it today – the industrial-scale production and use of synthetic pesticides – is really a product of the post-1940s era when DDT and a host of other chemical compounds were developed and manufactured on a large scale.

Yields rose, prices went down, and the new pesticides seemed safer for humans than older ones like arsenic.

Until it turned out that some of the new products had a number of wide-ranging and unanticipated effects on the environment and wildlife. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring focused attention on this.

In response to increased evidence of the impact of these products on wildlife and humans,  more refined pesticides were developed, as well as plants which are genetically modified to resist pests.photo 4(4)

Most of these newer products are currently considered safe for human consumption and for the environment – but then, so was DDT back in the 1940s and 1950s.

Some pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, are suspected of negatively impacting important pollinators around the world, foremost among them honey bees.

And then there’s the issue of pesticides being combined, or misused, with as yet unknown effects.

Broadly speaking, the focus of industrial farming is to produce more food from any given amount of land. Pesticide use, monocrop farming and less produce diversity, GMO development – all target increased agricultural yields, as well as profitability for the companies selling these products.

Broadly speaking, the idea behind organic food production is to promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity while avoiding all use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and to do so in a manner that is sustainable and perhaps profitable.

The focus is on the impact of human food production on the surrounding environment, and on reducing any negative impact of synthetic or harmful products on land, plants and animal life – including humans.photo 5(1)

Buying organic isn’t simply a choice between healthy and unhealthy produce for human consumption.

Plenty of conventionally grown foods are perfectly healthy to humans.

Some have almost no pesticide residue. Some – at least in the United States – have residue from up to 29 different pesticides.

Those pesticides, sprayed or added to wherever the produce was grown, eventually end up in the water systems, soil, or on the wind and carried to other plants and animals.

I have no problem with buying conventionally-grown produce, and I have no issue with buying organic.

Where I take issue is when the choice is portrayed purely in terms of cost-effectiveness and health benefits for the consumer.

We have so many choices available these days, and the choices we make matter.photo 2(7)

Valentine Cartography

You can email individual trees now in Melbourne, and thousands of people are doing just that from around the world. Not that the trees can read the emails, since as far as I know they have not yet been equipped with technology that translates into Tree.

The Melbourne city council initially started a project to help identify trees so that they could receive better protection and care – 70,000 trees were assigned individual email accounts so that citizens could report incidents of fallen branches, or vandalism.

Ferchensee, Mittenwald, Germany. All photos: PKR

Wetterstein mountain, Mittenwald, Germany.
All photos: PKR

Undoubtedly, some of the email correspondence actually concerns trees in trouble.

But as it turned out, what people really wanted to write about was the trees themselves. Thousands of odes to particular trees began to pour in.

Maybe the trees can sense the good intentions, even if they can’t read the emails.

You might have noticed that none of the images here have to do with Melbourne’s trees.

I was on a run a couple of days ago in Mittenwald in southern Germany that turned into a walk due to all the excellent scenery, but also due to the multitudes of butterflies around the path.photo 1

I had to zig and zag to avoid bumping into them as they bobbed back and forth between favorite flowers.photo 5

There were bouquets of them in some small fields, and the air was alive with the sound of bees.photo 5

But there was one particular plant that must have had a particularly appealing scent – scruffy, rangy, it had two wilting blossoms, yet was covered with butterflies and bees pushing at each other to feed there. photo 4

Unfortunately, the image I took came out blurred, and I didn’t want to disturb the insects so I didn’t stick around to retake it several times. There are eight butterflies, bees and other insects on these two blossoms.photo 2

I found the same plant on the return trip thirty minutes later, still dishing up whatever righteous nectar it had on tap. If there were a single pollinator-friendly plant to be cloned along this path, I guess this would be the one.

But this one must be pretty tasty, as well.photo 4

So as it turns out, Melbourne’s Urban Forest Visual is a cartography of affection.

An excerpt from Melbourne's Urban Forest Visual interactive map. Source: City of Melbourne

An excerpt from Melbourne’s Urban Forest Visual interactive map.
Source: City of Melbourne

I have a small map of love that runs along a small stretch of forest, right here near Ferchensee.

Ferchensee, Mittenwald.

Ferchensee, Mittenwald.

If the Mittenwald brooks, lake, trees, mountains, plants and wildlife had email addresses where I could send my affections, I would do it. Instead, I’m doing it here.

 

*Thanks so much Rob Cairns for sending me the article on Melbourne’s trees.

Dog Days

We’re in the middle of a significant heat wave here in eastern France – the French call it la canicule, a word which has at its root a reference to a celestial body other than the sun.

Between July 3 and August 11, the star Sirius rises almost in conjunction with the sun – and Sirius is the brightest star in the Canis Major, the Greater Dog constellation. Actually, the term goes all the way back to the Egyptians, who began their New Year with the return of Sirius.

For centuries it was thought that the star brought with it the heat of summer.

Hence, the ‘dog days’ of summer.

Sirius in Canis Major Source: Space.com

Sirius in Canis Major
Source: Space.com

I was out early this morning – as I am every morning these days – trying to save some of the garden plants from withering under the blazing sun.

We lost some beautiful trees in the deadly canicule of 2003. While I can’t save all the leafy friends, I have been trying to keep a couple of the more fragile ones from drying out, including a gnarled apple tree and a small Japanese maple.

Our garden is an old one – it’s been worked in one form or another for hundreds of years. When we arrived here twenty years ago, the small enclosed space was home to twelve flower beds and nine fruit trees scattered across a mosaic lawn. photo 1(4)

We re-planted the garden a few years ago to be much less water dependent and pollinator-friendly. We reduced the size of the lawn by around half, laid pebble paths through the shady areas, built raised beds,  put in lavender rows and planted grasses that fend well for themselves.

One of the trees that doesn’t seem to need much help is our mirabelle tree – sure, the harvest will be a fraction of what it was last year, but the tree is flourishing and content.photo 1(5)

We have large trays of water out for birds and insects.

The lawn – which I just reseeded this spring – is a loss. It crunches underfoot, but I don’t see the point in watering it. I’ll take the long view and replant in autumn for next year.

photo 3(3)

As I was watering a small fig tree I planted against a stone wall, a small bird emerged from beneath the hosta leaves that line one of the paths. It was looking at me, and looking at the spray of water, then back at me – so I inched the water a bit closer to the bird, and before I knew it, another bird had joined the first and they were chirping like mad as they enjoyed the short shower.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

If this is the shape of summers to come, I guess I’ll be reducing the lawn even further, and gardening for heat resistance.

In the meantime, with no end to the heat in sight, I’ll just do what humans have been doing in this situation for the entire length of history – try to take it easy, and pray for rain. If I can rely on the tradition of dog days and Sirius setting in early August, I shouldn’t have much longer to wait.

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France. Source: France Pittoresque

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France.
Source: France Pittoresque

Shady Ladies and Elderflower Cordial

A small herd of new cattle appeared along my running path a few weeks ago, several cows and a single bull. All of them have thick, dark red hair that tufts up in waves like a field of wheat in the wind. And within a short time, there were small calves.

They graze in a triangular field not far from where my running loop begins, and are separate from the black-and-white herds in the surrounding meadows.

Taking the shade - some new faces on the running loop. All photos: PK Read

Taking the shade – some new faces on the running loop.
All photos: PK Read

There are several red, massive breeds that look a bit like them on a site that describes dozens of cow breeds, but the breed that comes closest is in description is the Salers – a very old breed of southern France, with a history that stretches back 7000-10,000 years to prehistoric times.

They’re bred for climates at low mountain altitudes where the winters can get cold, and they are known for being excellent milk producers – which makes them good for cheese production.photo 1

This group was escaping the sunshine in the one sliver of shade available on the entire meadow, and they didn’t take very kindly to my approach. There was a fence between us, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

The one taking up all the shady space in the middle is, of course, the bull.

The one taking up all the shady space in the middle is, of course, the bull.

After the run was accomplished, I decided to make some elderflower cordial. The word ‘cordial’ is one that is falling out of fashion these days, at least in its meaning of ‘strongly felt’ or ‘warm and friendly’.

When it comes to its meaning as a sweet-flavored fruit drink, the word always carries with it a scent of Victorian gentility for me.

Elderflower trees are considered little more than giant weeds here in our corner of France, growing rampant in the hedgerows between the fields. The wild one in our garden is no different.

It bursts up through a yew bush recklessly as if it has every right to be there. Up until a couple of years ago, I would cut it back to the ground during the spring and winter chops.

The stray elderflower tree.

The stray elderflower tree.

Here’s a recipe for non-alcoholic elderflower cordial, should you feel inclined and have the opportunity.

Like many things, making elderflower cordial is dead easy, it just takes a bit of patience.

With all the development of new houses in our area and the rapid disappearance of meadows and hedgerows, I’ve come to look on our little elderflower with some sympathy. I’ve started to treat it with a bit more…cordiality.

The bees like it, it smells nice, the flowers are pretty – and I can make a cordial that will bring fragrance and flavor to hot summer days in the months to come.

Telling the Bees

Many cultures have customs relating to bees, animals that have long been highly valued, if little understood. After all, bees work hard all year, they pollinate many of our favorite foods and enable agriculture, they provide honey, and they don’t ask for much except to be left to toil in peace.

I found out today that bees are considered bearers of good fortune and should treated as members of the family. ‘Telling the bees’ means to inform them of any major family news.

Some say one should speak to bees gently, and not harshly, so as not to incur their anger, or worse, their departure.

Until this morning I didn’t have much notion of bee lore. Coming to bees late in life, as I have, what I know of the creatures and their habits is mostly either biological, or from the perspective of a honey enthusiast.

It could be said that while I don’t know bees all that well, I am a fan of their work.

A Hum of Bees, from a wonderful illustrated book of collective nouns.  Source: Woop Studios

A Hum of Bees, from a wonderful illustrated book of collective nouns.
Source: Woop Studios

I’ve written before that we have a long-standing bee colony in a high roof corner of this old house. The colony was there when we bought the house, I assume it’s been there for a very long time. There are two reasons we’ve never had it removed: The corner is high and inaccessible, and the colony doesn’t bother us.

A third reason is that by not disturbing the bees, we provide a home to an established wild colony – and bees are as threatened here in France as they are around the world. I like the hum of bees around the house and in the garden.

Our living room is located in what was once space for an attic and grain storage, and the bee colony is a few feet outside one large window of this room. We were sitting down yesterday evening, the warm glow of the sunset still flooding across the floor, when I noticed a large scattering of small bodies.

Upon closer examination, I found that they were bees. Many were alive, some weren’t. A few were wobbling around, several staggered along the windowsill. The hive outside was still buzzing with activity while the group inside the house stumbled, disoriented, too weak to flee.

I gathered them up and gently put them all – the quick and the still – outside on the window ledge, hoping they’d revive and rejoin the hive. By the time I’d put them all out, however, the sun had set and the air was cool. But I hoped some of them would make it through the night.

And see, this morning, the sun poured down on them, and a few dozen on the window ledge twitched, flexed, and took flight. The rest were too far gone.

There were also a couple dozen freshly arrived bees dozily walking around on the floor again. I put them out, they flew off.

The strange thing is, from what I could tell, none of the bees flew up to the colony. They buzzed off in wildly different directions, looping like drunk pilots. Are they succumbing to local pesticide use? Just tired from trying to find their way back home? Trying to strike out on their own and failing?

I even found a few of them clustered a floor below, under the chair at my office desk. They, too, took flight once I put them out.

Perhaps I should be telling the bees some news, but nothing comes to mind.

So what I’m wondering is what the bees might be telling me. And whether I’ll understand whatever it is they’re trying to say.

Anyone who knows bees – I’d welcome any thoughts on my disoriented visitors.

 

 

 

A Few Beginnings and a Couple of Ends

The weather turned cold this week, grey skies and a chill wind after two weeks of balmy temperatures. Two steps forward, one step back. No excuse not to get some garden work done, though.

Last week was all bumblebees and sunshine, this week I found this fellow, a little black cricket, taking shelter from the cold in our garden shed.photo 1-4

 

And I found this hideaway when I uncovered all the herb garden pots. When we moved here almost eighteen years ago, the garden – more wild back then, but also far less organic – was rampant with large land snails, the brown kind. I used to find specimens larger than my palm. Rather than destroy them, the greedy mouths that ate my fledgling plants, I’d take them to the farm next door.photo 2-4

If I showed up with a yellow snail like the one above, it was quickly destroyed by my elderly neighbor Maurice. The big brown ones, though – those he used to eye hungrily (if the season was right) and pop them into his snail house for feeding on garden scraps – until feast time came and the snails themselves were on the menu. We’re in rural France, after all.

Both neighbor and snails are now long gone, and if I miss one more than the other, the lack of snails is still a sign of how developed the village has become since we arrived. Dozens of new apartments and houses, the fields, hedgerows and orchards gobbled up by streets and fresh suburbs.

The mirabelle tree has hundreds of buds, but just a couple of them are showing any coy petal.photo 4-4

I planted a magnolia tree a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t had much in the way of blossoms until this year – this season, the tree is heavy with velvety green pods ready to bloom.

Just down the road a mile or so, the magnolia trees are in full bloom already, but we are a little bit higher in altitude, and it makes all the difference.photo 3-3

I was weeding around the roses, a large yew hedge at my back, when a large chorus built up around me, a rowdiness of different birdsong. Loud and distracting. Breeding season, I thought, not wanting to get up and look.

It continued, louder, riotous. I stood up, looked around. The bird feeders were empty. It’s gotten cold enough that the insects for which they’d abandoned the feeders are gone. Fine, I told the birds. Pipe down.

I filled the feeders and the song changed.

Finally, this witch hazel has it all – the dry winter remains of blooms ready to drop, a single blossom still holding its shape, and a green leaf budding out.

Everything about spring on a single twig.Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.23.49 PM

Carpenter Flight

I opened my office window the other day to find a row of tiny earthen mounds, little bubbles separated by straight walls. I thought it was an odd collection of dirt that had blown in through the small ventilation hole in the wooden frame. Or maybe a small ant colony, since we get a variety of ants on the out of our old stone house. They like the vines, and we don’t mind the ecosystem of insect, bird and reptile life those vines support – including the ants. As long as they don’t come inside.

A dazed carpenter bee, covered in pollen, in the nest it was building in my office windowsill.

A dazed carpenter bee, covered in pollen, in the nest it was building in my office windowsill.

I started to scrape out the mounds with a pen, only to uncover a dozy bee blanketed in rich yellow pollen. The mounds were a nest for the small carpenter bee, a solitary, wild pollinator known for boring holes in soft woods. Of course, this was a small variety of carpenter bee, and she had fit right into the ready-made ventilation holes at the base of our window frames. The bee shook itself and then flew off. When it didn’t return after a few days, I cleaned out the nest.

The bee flew off after a moment, abandoning the nest. Each cell had its own ball of pollen, which would have fed one individual bee.

The bee flew off after a moment, abandoning the nest. Each cell had its own ball of pollen, which would have fed one individual bee.

Carpenter bees are important wild pollinators, and many farmers encourage their presence even if, like me, they don’t necessarily welcome their nests in the structure of homes.

Another common carpenter bee in our area looks like a giant black bumblebee – harmless, heavy, loud and a bit dopey. I saw this one while out running, happily mining sweet pea blossoms for nectar.

I found this big carpenter bee on some sweet peas outside. It was very photo shy, flying off whenever I aimed my camera, returning when I looked away.

This big carpenter bee was very photo shy, flying off whenever I aimed my phone camera, returning when I looked away.

Then we found two lifeless bees in our garden. No visible damage, just not alive any more. Bodies intact, it’s like they just stopped flying and died.

The United States has announced the creation of a USD 8 million-funded ‘honey bee task force‘ to examine why the U.S. honey bee population has been in severe decline since 2006. We could quibble as to why a pollinator that is necessary for the reproduction of many U.S. food crops and adds an estimated USD 15 billion to the economy (according to the U.S. White House blog) hasn’t deserved a task force of its own for years already. Or I could muse upon the minuscule investment being made in the honey bee in comparison to its overall economic value, not to mention its environmental impact.

I could mention the recent reports showing that neonicotinoid pesticides in use around the world have been conclusively linked with honey bee declines, which might explain why these pesticides are currently banned in the European Union.

These pesticides are now considered to carry the same level of environmental and health danger as the notorious dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT. Those who argue in favor of neonicotinoid use point to the increase in the use of older pesticides in their place.

Or I could shake my head at articles, almost invariably found in business publications that cite industry-funded studies, that refute connections between neonicotinoids and bee decline in favor of an array of other causes, most of them not linked to large corporations nor to the global multi-billion dollar industry that neonics support. The producing companies are never mentioned by name (for the record, they’re Monsanto, Bayer and CropScience).

Carpenter bees: The violet-blue of their wings is dazzling.

Carpenter bees: The violet-blue of their wings is dazzling.

What I can say is this: Few studies examine the effects of these pesticides on the decline in wild pollinators like the bumblebee, or the carpenter bee. The much-touted, lately-arrived U.S. task force will not be studying these issues either (not that the funding would be sufficient for that, in any case). Nor do I see a task force anywhere on the more judicious and limited use of pesticides in favor of best practice techniques.

So this year, I’ll be putting out a few havens for carpenter bees and planting a few more flowers that they like. And this year, as every year, I won’t be spraying any pesticides in my garden.

Toxic Addictions

A study published this week adds further evidence that there is a direct correlation between the decline of honeybee populations and the ongoing use of certain pesticides, namely, neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids share some chemical similarity with nicotine. Like nicotine, they are both toxic and addictive.

They also have a similar trajectory in the media.

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

Fifty years ago, United States Surgeon General Luther L. Terry M.D. released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. Years of research and thousands of articles definitively related smoking to cancer and bronchitis in humans.

It’s well documented that major tobacco companies knew about the lethal effects of their products on human health for decades, and yet continued to promote their products as beneficial. The science that underpinned health studies was questioned, consumer freedom of choice was touted, dire economic impacts were predicted should smoking be banned. And the effects of an outright ban would indeed have been dire – for the tobacco companies.

So cigarettes remained on the market – but a sea change in their perception had taken place. And while tobacco profits went down (at least in some areas of the world) for a very few tobacco-producing companies, the lowered cost of health care for tobacco-related illness has to be considered an overall economic gain for the vast majority of humans, smokers and non-smokers alike.

And so to the makers of neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been around since the 1980s, but only really gained widespread use in the 1990s.

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

The European Union banned the use of some of these insecticides for a period of two years to see whether a ban would have any positive effect on declining honeybee populations in Europe. The United States has hesitated, citing a lack of evidence between bee declines and insecticides.

Insecticide manufacturers, having long claimed that insecticides couldn’t possibly be the sole cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, have also been warning of economic and crop collapse should the insecticides – which have only been in use for thirty years of the 10,000+ years of human agriculture – be discontinued.

I found one estimate that the estimated sales turnover for these products has increased ten-fold since their introduction, and they comprise one-quarter of crop control chemicals sold. The more profitable they are, the more resistance there will be to a ban.

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

90% of the U.S. corn crop is currently neonicotinoid-treated, and as a crop protection mechanism, these products have been triumphant. Still, I have yet to see mention of major corn crop failures in the countries where neonicotinoids are banned.

The value of a healthy bee pollination infrastructure is far more difficult to estimate, because we only talk about economic value as it relates to crops and human interaction, not in the larger context of maintaining healthy ecosystems that include – but are not limited to – crop land.
For me, the similarities between neonicotinoids and nicotine are striking.

People started to quit smoking in the years and decades following the 1964 report on tobacco.When will the body of evidence lead to a sea change in public opinion when it comes to our toxic addiction to these insecticides?

 

Bumblebee Stumble

A bumblebee climbs out of a roadside nest. Photo: PK Read

A bumblebee climbs out of a roadside nest.
Photo: PK Read

I was running a couple of days ago when I heard the thunderous buzzing of a bumblebee. A big fellow bobbed past my head and took a sudden dive, disappearing into the roadside greenery. I waited for a moment, and the bumblebee (or one of its relations) came clambering back out of a hole.

Bumbleebees build nests rather than bee hives; they are unlike honeybees in other ways, as well. The nests usually contain fewer than 200 individuals rather than the thousands of bees that populate a hive, and among bumblebees, only the queen survives the winter in her next, living off the contents of tiny honey pots.

What bumblebees share with honeybees, however, is that they are under threat from habitat loss, climate change, intensification of agriculture, pesticides, and illness.

It looks like some of the viruses that have been affecting honeybees may be making the jump to bumblebees, as well.

Illustration of Queen/worker Short-haired bumblebee Image: Geoff Allen / Short-haired Bumblebee Project

Illustration of Queen/worker Short-haired bumblebee
Image: Geoff Allen / Short-haired Bumblebee Project

There are over 250 known species of the Bombus genus, family Apidae, mostly native to the northern hemisphere.

An estimated quarter of Europe’s bumblebees are now at risk of extinction – the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed 16 of Europe’s 68 bumblebee species as at risk. Three of Europe’s five most important insect pollinators are bumblebees species.

Bumblebees can nest in a variety of places, from porches to house wall cavities, but bumblebees rarely sting unless threatened, and won’t damage structures.

For the moment, our area still seems to have a thriving number of bumblebees. At any rate, enough of them that they bumble into me on walks and runs.

Bumblebee lifecycle Source: Bumblebee.org

Bumblebee lifecycle
Source: Bumblebee.org

Future Investment

Seeds 2 (pure fractal flame) Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Seeds 2 (pure fractal flame)
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

This year marks the first time that all Monsanto Roundup Ready genetically-modified seeds will be off-patent. This means that any company can start making ‘generic’ versions of the GM soybeans, corn and so on – unless, of course, their use and the use of the companion Roundup-based herbicide has been banned*.

The path ahead is complex. Up until now, the source of these particular GM seeds was Monsanto, together with companies to which Monsanto had licensed the use of the these products. As of 2010, this accounted for a staggering 98% of soybean seed and 79% corn seed sales  in the world.

A double-edged sword: On the one hand, Monsanto vigorously guarded the use of its product, taking even farmers who had never planted Roundup Ready seeds to court because open pollination had left them with traces of GM crops in their fields. But it also meant that farmers who might like to ‘go GM’ didn’t due to contractual or pricing concerns. Well, those concerns may fade now, and GM use may spread.

It’s always interesting to take a look at this issue from a different perspective, and sometimes I do that by reading the investment news on seed and chemical companies.

Last year, an article on MSN Money took a look at the Big Three seed companies: Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont. In choosing which seed company was the best investment, author Jim J. Jubak factored in the loss of patent control, as well as how much of each company’s revenue was actually seed-based (high margin), how much was based on chemical crop protection (‘volatile’), and how much was in other sectors.

Seeds (pure fractal flame) Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Seeds (pure fractal flame)
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

In brief, Jubak recommended DuPont. Why? Because the company had none of Monsanto’s patent problems, was shedding its non-seed businesses and buying up seed companies, and was the most focused of the three on the core: Creating and selling seeds.

Why should investors want seed companies in their portfolio? As Jubak said, “By 2050 the world will have a population of 9 billion (very scary) and the world’s farmers will need to double grain production in the face of losses of farmland to urbanization, desertification, drought and pollution.

“That means getting more calories from the world’s food plants by improving yields, by increasing resistance to disease and pests, and by expanding farm production to land that is now marginal because of climate or rainfall (while at the same time resisting attacks on global food production from changes in climate and an increasing incidence of drought.”

For what it’s worth, Jubak was mostly right: Since the article was written in July 2013, Dupont‘s stock has gone up by 16.6 %, Monsant0‘s by 12.59%, and Syngenta‘s has gone down by 6.08%. If Monsanto was going to suffer from the loss of its patents, it hasn’t come through in its stock price.

Now, what’s the point of looking at seeds from an investor’s perspective?

Genetic Code Revisited  Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Genetic Code Revisited
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Because that’s what seeds are. You can see them as an investment in the baldest sense of financial gain, without the baggage of other concerns except as a motivating investment factor.

You can also see them as an investment in the future in terms of feeding the planet, maintaining and promoting biodiversity (both plant and animal), enriching lives and soil, and as a continuation of what we as humans have been doing for millennia.

The two views don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but for the moment, it seems that they are.

 

*Current bans on use of glyphosate products are in force in Denmark, El Salvador and Sri Lanka.