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A Shirf Towards Ecological Agriculture — February 20, 2018

A Shirf Towards Ecological Agriculture

The way we view the world is often a reflection of the paradigm of the day, that is the deepest set of beliefs and assumptions a culture has about any given topic at any moment in time. Needless to say, paradigms do shift over time to create the unique circumstance we see on a daily basis, and sometimes this happens rather quickly.

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The new shift in thinking seems to be towards sustainable urban food production. Photo taken at AgTechX @matt_horgan

Paradigm shifts: Thinking in cycles not lines

One paradigm of today seems to be the perception of our lives as a series of linear processes. We seem to idolize cause and effect relationships whenever possible in daily life and tend to view most of our experiences through this narrow lens without analyzing the entire picture.

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However, thinking of systems in terms of lines tends to be characteristically more predictable and simpler, while systems as cycles are naturally more complex.

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Nature’s Cycle by Virginia Lee 2001  

Shift towards interconnectedness

A personal shift in assumptions I experienced was while I was taking an ecological agriculture class during my time at SUNY Binghamton. My perception of self shifted from the individual, separate self to a more interconnected sense of identity.

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Ecological Agriculture: Nature as model

Ecological agriculture is a term used to describe a type of farming that raised food without any chemical or synthetic fertilizers, to create an agricultural system that mimicked ecological systems that sustain in nature.

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By: permacultureprinciples.com

The general trend in agriculture since 1950 has been towards large-scale industrial farms that use synthetic fertilizers and chemical fertilizers, but a recent surge in interest in local, organic produce by consumers is causing a paradigm shift in the way we consume and produce food.

Ecological agriculture can be seen in the increased interest in urban farming in recent years. By incorporating sustainable food systems into the built environment, we can improve food security in urban environments.

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Sky Vegetables February 2018 By @matt_horgan

We can also use underutilized spaces, like basements, to produce food on land to support the health and to educate our local communities
An example of a hydroponic food system, and what my neighbor calls a “permaponic system”, is seen below (Top: after 6 weeks/Bottom: the before picture).

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By @matt_horgan

The potential for ecological agriculture to foster a more harmonious coexistence between human beings and the earth, as well as the practical implications for food security and positive impact on local economies leads me to think that this will become ever more present in our city in the near future.

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By @matt_horgan While walking to class at CUNY Brooklyn College, I saw this incredible urban food garden someone created on their front lawn 🙂

I look forward exploring ecological agriculture more on this blog in the future 🙂

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Should we be concerned? — August 19, 2015

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Should we be concerned?

The simplest answer to this question, for me, is a clear and unequivocal yes (This is also my second post about GMOs, so I clearly believe we should be, at the very least, aware of the issues surrounding the topic). Recent reports from news media have questioned whether or not food products containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) should be labeled as such, so that consumers can choose if they will, or will not, buy the product. This has sparked a serious debate concerning the safety GMOs in our food system. Although some people argue against the labeling of GMOs for causing unnecessary fear surrounding the safety of these products, there is legitimate reason to approach GMO products with caution for political, social, and environmental reasons.

The most important reason to oppose the use of GMO crops is the environmental consequences from the form of agriculture that is necessary to grow these crops: monoculture systems. In short, monoculture farmers plant only one crop in a given area to maximize the yield of this crop. When a farmer choses (or is economically forced) to grow GMO crops (like corn, cotton, or soy), they adopt a monoculture style of growth to maximize the yield of the crop. One reason for planting all of the same variety of plant in the same area is that it makes it easier for the farmer to spray pesticides without killing the other crops (Since most GMO crops are designed to withstand the poisonous nature of pesticides, they will not perish in the presence of excessive pesticide use). Moreover, planting monocultures makes your farm less resilient because if the crop fails, there is no other crop variety to fall back on for food. If farmers cannot produce and sell enough of their one crop, then they cannot feed themselves. Still, it is more efficient to grow GMO crops in monocultures under the current economic system. Large seed companies are then able to sell farmers seeds and pesticides, often with the promise of increased yields.

The argument of increased crop yield is used all the time in favor of the use of GMOs, but it is simply not true that GMOs yield more food. For example, in India, GMO cotton was sold to small farmers with the promise that their yields would be higher than organic, traditional farming methods (Small farmers account for about 80 percent of food production in India). Today, about 95 percent of the cotton grown in India is a Monsanto GMO product.  It is true that cotton yields increased with the introduction of GMO crops in India because people started to just grow cotton instead of maintaining their traditional polyculture system of planting cotton alongside other nutritious food crops. Overall food output has not increased because of the monoculture systems implemented by GMO cotton crops in India. The result was an influx in cotton production and a decrease in the production of nutritious crops that feed people. Now, this would be a good thing if farmers were selling their cotton and receiving enough money to purchase what they need to eat, but this is not the case. Agriculture output decreased and yield of the specific cotton crop increased. People do not eat cotton and increased supply means a decrease in the price of cotton. This caused enormous economic pressure on India’s small farmers because they were now indebted to buying seed and pesticides from these companies, like Monsanto.

One crucial social aspect of this issue to understand is that farmers in the past had no need to buy seed from anyone. Nature provided seed to the farmers (specifically women in India assumed the role of traditional seed saving techniques). Seeds are the source of life, but large companies have now patented life and made it illegal for farmers to save their seeds for the next growing season. This created a cycle of planting and buying expensive GMO seeds for many small farmers in India. When their crops did not produce enough to sustain the farmers, there was a stark increase in suicides among farmers in India since 1997 and 1998. Granted, there were suicides among farmers before this date (as there are unfortunately in every society), but there was a clear increase in the number of suicides among farmers when this economic pressure of debt became greater with the use of GMOs and the accompanying pesticides. (Vandana Shiva is an inspirational advocate against the use of GMOs, specifically in India but also around the world, and she writes/speaks extensively on the topic). Putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea, especially when you are an economically vulnerable small farmer.

Similarly, in the United States, farmers receive subsidies from the government to grow corn (which is dominantly GMO corn), and most of this crop is turned into ethanol for fuel. Less food is being produced on these large monoculture farms because food is now a commodity to be sold efficiently in the global market. If the government is going to pay you to grow fuel instead of food, you will grow GMO corn for fuel because of the economic gain. There is still a huge social and environmental cost. As Vandana Shiva (environmental activist and physicist) puts it, if we were growing food for nourishment, then we would maximize nutrition by planting biodiverse polyculture agricultural systems. Instead, we are growing food to maximize profits, which supports a monoculture model of agricultural production.

Furthermore, there are political and legal consequences to the debate around GMO use in agriculture. As I mentioned earlier, the contracts small farmers enter into with large seed companies, like Monsanto, legally restrict farmers from saving their seeds. They are forbidden from planting these seeds again, and they cannot share seeds with anyone. In the United States, there are many cases of farmers who were sued by Monsanto for illegally growing their patented seeds, and often these farmers do not even know that they are growing GMO crops because of the nature of pollination. If your neighbor decides to grow GMO corn, your crop of organic corn is at risk of being contaminated by patented GMO pollen from the neighboring crop because corn is pollinated by the wind. You then are vulnerable to being sued by Monsanto for stealing their patented seed. The concept of having ownership over life is a new one, and it has allowed Monsanto, and other companies, to put small, organic farmers out of business. Once the small, organic farmer can no longer afford their land after litigation, the neighboring GMO farm is eager and ready to take over the farmland to plant more GMO crops.

Moreover, the enormous backlash against labeling GMO products in the United States is serious political problem. With the upcoming presidential reelection campaigns in full swing in the United States, we can see the corrupting influence money has on the political process. (Recent polls have Donald Trump leading the race for the Republican nomination, even after his racist and insensitive comments about Mexicans. Do I need to explain the power of money in politics any further?)  If we allow seed production and dispersal to be controlled by large corporations, politicians will undoubtedly be influenced by these companies when implementing food policy. There is no way your average citizen in the United States can compete with Monsanto lobbyists. The result is that these companies will have the access to politicians that they need to create the laws necessary to perpetuate the cycle of control over seed dispersal and secrecy surrounding products that contain GMOs. Currently, citizens of the United States do not even have the right to know if they are consuming GMO products because GMOs are not labeled on packaging. There is even a push by some politicians to make it illegal to label GMO products for what they are: GMOs. If there is nothing wrong with GMOs, why not label them?

Although many people believe the future of GMOs provides us with great hope for innovation and higher efficiency in food production, we must consider the environmental, social, and political implications of GMOs. The high cost of non-renewable seeds for small farmers, the increased pesticide use on GMO crops, and the huge political influence companies have on politics are a few great reasons to be concerned about the production and consumption of GMOs. Moreover, traditional selective breeding methods can be extremely effective at adapting a certain plant species to a specific region, and this has tremendous potential for helping farmers deal with the changing climate. Small farmers still feed most of the world. Rather than looking to large corporations to solve the problem of food insecurity, we should place higher value on the traditional knowledge of ecological-minded small farmers around the world.

To see Vandana Shiva answer some hard questions surrounding GMOs in a BBC interview watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbIQF72IDuw

The Story of the Honey-bee and GMO Crops — May 17, 2015

The Story of the Honey-bee and GMO Crops

Over the past few years, the state of our planet’s bee population has become of increasing concern to many people around the world. The causes, however, have been in place considerably longer than most people realize. Today, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are receiving a lot of the blame for the collapse of the honey bee populations in North America. After watching an inspiring TED talk by Marla Spivak titled Why bees are disappearing , Spivak notes the problem for the bees goes beyond GMOs. Though there is hard evidence supporting the role of GMO crops in the decline, the bee populations around the world have been subjected to a variety of stressors since World War II contributing to their decline: monoculture production of food, pesticides, flowerless landscapes, and bee disease.

Honeybees have been praised by human civilizations for their honey as a natural sweetener for thousands of years, but we depend on them today more than ever before. We have increased the area of land devoted to crops requiring bee pollination by 300 percent in the last 50 years (Aizen et al. 2008). In Marla Spivak’s talk on the decline of bee populations, she notes that bees account for pollinating one-third of the world’s food crops. You could see why this might be a problem for a world expecting to be home to 9.6 billion hungry people by 2050, as projected by the United Nations in a report I referred to in an earlier post.

Following World War II, with the advent of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers, the practice of monocultures become increasingly more common in the agricultural setting, as opposed to polycultures. Traditionally, crop rotations, composting, cover crop planting, and other sustainable farming techniques were used on smaller farms to maintain and improve soil quality. All of this meant that polycultures were the norm, with many varieties of crops being planted in the same space.  These environments were ideal for bee populations because the bees depend on pollen and nectar from flowering plants to make up their diet.  When monoculture came to dominate the landscape, the ecology of these areas could no longer support such a large population of bees. (I recommend watching the documentary film Food Inc. if you are interested in the various circumstances that led to the domination of large monocultures throughout the United States and how large seed and pesticide companies are now trying to establish monoculture production of food in other regions of the globe, though they are meeting considerable opposition).

At the same time, we introduced a variety of pesticides to enable the monoculture crops to exist and threw away the older, more sustainable techniques used in agriculture. One of the many costs of genetically engineering crops is the game of cat and mouse that is created when pests become resistant to a pesticide. It becomes an evolutionary arms race between the pesticide companies and the pests, ultimately resulting in an increased use of pesticides in quantity and quality. The pests are able to adapt to the pesticides, leading to more and newer classes of pesticides being used on our cops. Also, the monocultures are an agricultural pest’s heaven. The abundance of food to eat, seemingly without any limit, attracts all different types of organisms trying to exploit the food source. This, in turn, has resulted in the use of various pesticides to combat the array of pests, such as insects, fungi, and bacteria. Traditionally, the diversity on small polyculture farms, along with the sustainable agricultural practices of the farmers, kept pests in control with a variety of creative, innovative, and sustainable techniques. Planting of flowers was done to attract beneficial insects, like honey bees, and ward off unwanted organisms. Using compost, instead of synthetic fertilizers, kept the soil full of life. They simply did not spray their crops with such harmful chemicals. The traditional small polyculture farms acted more like an ecosystem, rather than like an input/output software program on your laptop

The important thing to understand is that pesticides range in their class and type because they are used on different organisms to combat specific problems associated with planting anything, but especially in a monoculture landscape. Herbicides, designed to kill ‘weeds’ are detrimental to the bee populations because flowering ‘weeds’ are what they depend on, as I mentioned, for their diet. Even more concerning are the class of neuro-active insecticides called neonicotinoids, which some independent research links to honey-bee colony collapse disorder (CCD). It is important to note that the studies that have findings liking neonicotinoids to CCD are independent, third-party research studies and not industry-funded studies. These studies are different to studies performed by companies, who maintain that they can police themselves by hiring their own scientists to conduct the necessary research into the safety of their products. (I will leave you to decide your stance on industry-funded research. I enjoyed the documentary film Fed Up, which goes into detail on the topic of research on food/diet and industry over the past 50-60 years).

Additionally, the loss of agricultural land and the rapid rates of urbanization is making the landscape flowerless. Although our monocultures are not ideal habitats for bees, they currently are supporting bee populations. The lack of access to non-toxic flowering plants is of major concern to honey bees, since the class of pesticides, mentioned above, called neonicotinoids are found in every part of the plant’s tissue. Other classes of pesticides, still toxic, just coated the outer portion of the seeds, which had a much milder effect on bee populations. The pollen gathered from a corn plant genetically modified for neonicotinoids, for example, is linked to CCD in many studies, which prompted the European Union and seven other countries to restrict their use in 2013 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-22335520). Neonicotinoids are fundamentally different from other pesticides in that it is ubiquitous in the entire plant.

Lastly, the disappearance of bees can be attributed to an increase in infection of disease in bees. I will not go into much detail on the types of diseases, pests, parasites, and predators of bees, but I will note that if there is too much stress on any organism, acute or chronic, they will have lowered immunity to fight off infections, less energy to put into defense and maintenance, and be in overall lesser health . This could explain why bees are dying from diseases, pests, parasites, and predators at a higher rate because they are being exposed to so many different stressors, as I have outlined in this post.

In the concluding remarks of the TED talk that prompted me to write on this topic, Marla Spivak says there are two things we can do to help the bees: plant more flowers and stop poisoning these flowers. For me, this means we need more small farms with diversified plantings of crops, flowers, and cover crops, as well as more urban agriculture. Since more than half of us live in an urban setting, it is essential that we advocate our politicians and public officials make room in the budget for green spaces. We need to plant more gardens to help the bees recover from what has been about a 50 percent decline since 1950 (USDA). In 1945 there were an estimated 4.5 million beehives in the United States, and in 2007 the estimation was about 2 million bee hives (USDA-NASS).

A more recent survey conducted by the United States federal government found even larger losses this past year. “Since April 2014, beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of their colonies, the second-highest rate in nine years, according to an annual survey conducted by a bee partnership that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/42-of-honeybee-hives-killed-off-in-u-s-last-year-1.3072845). What is even stranger about this story is that the bees are noted to be dying at higher rates than expected during the summer time. The growing season is a time when bees are expected to have a healthy survivorship rate because of favorable weather and food abundance. The dramatic decrease in bee populations during the summer cannot be explained without looking for outside causes for their downfall, and I think a good place to start looking is at our food system.

If we want to continue to eat the foods we enjoy at the supermarkets today, we will have to change the way food is produced and consumed by making policies that protect bees from toxic chemicals and that result in the development of more green space. Local, small, diverse farming is what we need to reduce pesticide and synthetic fertilizer usage and increase bee populations. Taking action will not only be beneficial for bee health, but will also contribute to the ecological health of the planet, and consequently, improved human well-being.

For the full TED Talk by Marla Spivak titled Why Bees are disappearing visit: http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing/transcript?language=en#t-380999