Tough Puffs

Dandelions are one of those plants that people love to hate. They’re tenacious, perennial, copious; their tap roots run deep and even cut blossoms will still turn to seed heads if they aren’t culled early enough. Their leaves spread flat and wide, smothering anything beneath.

If we didn’t hate them, we’d love them for their reliability and bright sunny beauty. But the fact is, even though they were first introduced in the United States as a salad variety in the 1600s, the general consensus is that dandelions are weeds.

That’s why any weedkiller worth the name is made to wipe out dandelions. Oh, they just come back again – that’s just what dandelions do. As I ran by a freshly tilled field, I noticed bright globes of white scattered like rice at a wedding. Dandelion puffs, all in full seed, probably cut when the tractor was skimming the margins of the field.

Dandelion heads, farming, agriculture,plowed field

Severed dandelion puffs seeding a freshly tilled field.
Photo: PKR

Regardless of which crop is going to be grown on the field this season, it will include a healthy portion of dandelions. Unless, of course, the farmer sprays the ubiquitous glyphosate weedkiller – under trade pressure from the US and swayed by the vote of the Germany in support of Monsanto’s RoundUp in late 2017, the import and use of glyphosate has been extended for another five years in the European Union. This in spite of numerous studies showing the danger of the herbicide to the environment and to human health.

Dandelion heads, farming, agriculture,plowed field

Dandelions on the edge of a freshly plowed field.
Photo: PKR

At least the other chemical bugaboos of industrial farming, neonicotinoids, were banned by the EU for the foreseeable future. Good news for bees and other pollinators! It would be great to see the US follow suit.

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 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 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 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 2(7)

Old Water Ways

Satellite images of California. Source: NOAA

Satellite images of California.
Source: NOAA/Washington Post

These satellite images show winter snow levels in California in early 2013, when the state was already experiencing drought conditions, and in 2014, when the state is officially in the worst drought on record. Much of the annual fresh water in the state is the result of snow melt.

California is no stranger to the challenges of access to fresh water. The state was practically built on water conflict – too little in the south, enough in the north (or at least, until recently). Anyone who grew up there, as I did, knows about water scarcity – or at least they should, since it is one of California’s defining characteristics.

Now, with several counties and communities on the brink of running completely dry, drastic action is being called for. Desalination technology, an expensive proposition, is looking like the more affordable alternative to parched earth.

But none of this is new. People have known for decades which way the river flows. In the midst of this, there are California farmers using water imported from the Colorado River to grow hay for export to China, a place that has far outpaced its own water resources.

Based on data from the MODIS instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites, this map contrasts plant health from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2014, against average conditions for the same period over the past decade. Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Discovery

Based on data from the MODIS instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites, this map contrasts plant health from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2014, against average conditions for the same period over the past decade.
Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Discover Magazine

Even with some of the most progressive environmental laws in the United States, water was always going to be the fly in the ointment for further expansion in the state. Climate change hasn’t helped matters.

Back in 1977, California went through a long drought, its worst before the current dry spell. I remember it well. The normally lush green hills of winter were the color of straw. By spring, the fire season had begun, months early. I used to drive by a local Marin County water resource, the Nicasio Reservoir. Usually it was full of glittering blue water, but by 1978 it was all cracked soil.

There was an old road that once ran through what is now the bottom of the reservoir. It was lost with the building in 1961 of the Seeger dam, a past path submerged beneath the sweet vision of plentiful water that dams and wet years always bring. The drought of 1977-79 – and the current drought – have exposed it again, a defunct road with neither a beginning nor an end.

Nicasio Reservoir, California. December 2013. Photo: Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal

Nicasio Reservoir, California. December 2013.
Photo: Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal



Ancient Laboratory

Moray agricultural site Image:

Moray agricultural site

I’m adding this destination to the places I’d like to visit around the world: The Incan ruins of what are considered to be an experimental laboratory for agriculture at the Moray site in the Cusco region of Peru. The terraced depressions and complex irrigation systems are thought to have been used to simulate different environmental conditions on a variety of plants. One article I read on the site notes that the early Incans worked with a much wider variety of productive plants than are used in modern Peru, but I imagine this is more due to monoculture techniques and commercial considerations rather than a straightforward decline in available varieties.

The formations are approximately 150 m (490 ft.) at their deepest, the size of a 50-story building, and the temperature difference between the lowest and highest steps can be up to 15ºC (59ºF).

It’s been suggested that the site was used to simulate a range of environments across the ancient Incan empire.


Rediscover Machu Picchu article

Happiness Plunge post


Bee Protection



Today, the European Commission will present a discussion paper to Member State experts at a meeting of the standing committee on pesticides. The aim is to exchange views on the range of policy options available, in light of the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) report findings published on 16 January, which assessed the effect of three pesticides on bee health. “Protecting the health of our bee population is of great importance not only for our European agricultural sector but also for our eco-system and environment as a whole.” The EFSA findings identified risks to using three neonicotinoids, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin, which are mainly used to treat seeds prior to sowing, on oilseed rape, maize and cereals.

There have been numerous reasons posited for the bee die-offs covered in the news over the past years – exposure to a cocktail of pesticides has been found to be one potential major culprit. This is probably not welcome news to those who rely on the pesticides, either in farming or in the chemical industry. It is also one of those spaces where decisions have to be made about what has more lasting importance – pollinators, or the way we have gotten used to farming over just the past few decades.

According to a report by the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: It is estimated that about one third of all plants or plant products eaten by humans are directly or indirectly dependent on bee pollination. More than half of the world’s diet of fat and oil comes from oilseeds such as cotton, rape, sunflower, coconut, groundnut and oil palm. Even though some of these have special pollinators belonging to other types of insects, these plants all depend on, or benefit from bee pollination to some extent. In addition, many food crops and forage for cattle are grown from seeds of insect-pollinated plants. The great value of bees as pollinators has been known for many years,
but unfortunately, this knowledge is not widely appreciated and understood.

The value of bee pollination in Western Europe is estimated to be 30-50 times the value of honey and wax harvests in this region. In Africa, bee pollination is sometimes estimated to be 100 times the value of the honey harvest, depending on the type of crop.

In a country like Denmark, about 3,000 tonnes of honey is harvested every year. It has a value of  60 million DKK or about €7.6 million. However, the value of oilseeds, fruits and berries created by the pollination work of bees is estimated to be between 1,600 and 3,000 million DKK, equivalent to €200 and €400 million.
The effectiveness of honeybees is due to their great number, their social life and their ability to pollinate a broad variety of different flowers. A colony can consist of 20-80 000 bees, and they will normally be visiting flowers over a distance of two kilometres when they are collecting pollen and nectar. If nothing is to find in the neighbourhood, they can fly even seven kilometres. A normal Apis mellifera honeybee colony will make up to four million flights a year, where about 100 flowers are visited in each flight.

There’s a petition to lend weight to those calling for pesticides to be more carefully controlled when it comes to honeybee exposure.

UPDATE: Neonicotinoids were banned in the EU for a period of two years, beginning December 1, 2013.