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NY Harbor, Jamaica Bay, and the Rockaways’ Fight Against Williams Natural Gas Pipeline — March 23, 2019

NY Harbor, Jamaica Bay, and the Rockaways’ Fight Against Williams Natural Gas Pipeline

A couple of weeks ago, I felt the need to stand up publicly and testify at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s (NYCDEP) public comment session on the proposed Northeast Supply Enhancement Project (NESE), also called Williams Pipeline for short, which would transport fracked natural gas via the construction of a 23 mile pipeline that “would run along the Staten Island coast and extend out to four miles off Rockaway” (Santino, 2019).

map.jpg *Note the existing pipeline was pushed through and built after Hurricane Sandy, when local residents were preoccupied with the rebuilding of their homes and communities (Source: NYC Surfrider Foundation).

The NYCDEC has to approve a crucial water quality permit before construction can begin. There is a federal law that requires an environmental impact statement (EIS), to look at the impacts to wildlife and human health before moving forward with projects like this. The first hearing was held on 02/26/2019, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, during rush hour, on a weekday, and in a hardly accessible area if you travel by public transportation from the areas that would primarily be impacted by the pipeline’s construction, such as the Rockaways. Not many from my area were able to attend.

FT.jpg Fort Tilden, NYC. @hydroponics.mh

After public pressure on the NYCDEC to have it in an area where potentially affected residents live, there was a second public comment session held just one mile from my home on the Rockaway Peninsula in the auditorium of Rockaway High School for Environmental Sustainability. I felt the irony of sitting in a school devoted to environmental sustainability, and at the same time protesting the approval of such an unconscionably unsustainable project.

I can trace my interest in environmental justice and sustainability back to my first interactions with the ocean and its wildlife as a young kid. My parents took us fishing on the beaches of the Breezy Point Tip, and I was always fascinated by the diversity of creatures I discovered near the sea. I feel blessed and grateful to have been raised so close to this amazing natural area, having found a place among the seagulls, horseshoe crabs, piping plovers, and other enchanting forms of wildlife early in my life. These places are a home to several endangered animals and plants, and are some of the last wild sanctuaries still found in NYC.

oc An oystercatcher in Rockaway Beach, NYC. @hydroponics.mh

Apart from my personal connection to the land and its people, I do, as a graduate from a master’s program in environmental management and sustainable development, understand the scientific review of the potential risks laid out in the draft environmental impact statement conducted by the NYCDEP. With this educational experience, and growing up in the local community, I felt uniquely obligated to testify at the public comment session on March, 6th, 2019. I will not go into the many risks associated with the project here, but will include some helpful resources at the end of this post if you are interested.

Riis Jacob Riis Park @hydroponics.mh

To be honest, there were challenging mental barriers that almost prevented me from testifying. I remember thinking many times, I could be at relaxing at home in my apartment and warm, not walking in the cold to the bus to attend this public comment session. When walking into that building after a long day of work and tired, I remember the thoughts of inadequacy and doubt flooding my thinking when I walked to into the auditorium. Am I really as qualified as I think I am to speak on this?

Yet, I continued to walk to that high school auditorium, to stand in front of a panel of NYCDEC representatives and over 100 of the residents of the Rockaways and other surrounding local communities. Did I mention how much I hate public speaking? I made it short and to the point, as it took over an hour and a half for them to call my name.

My comment addressed the concerns for human health and wildlife when the pipeline is constructed. There would be dredging of sands and sediments off the coast of the Rockaways and Staten Island that are holding and storing safely the industrial toxins of the last century. This action would release toxins like PBCs, heavy medals, and other industrial pollutants into the water column where organisms live and where people swim. The result would be poisoning of people and wildlife that interact with the waters off the Rockaways/Jamaica Bay.

nana “Exploring with my Nana at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, NYC, on 12/30/13.” @hydroponics.mh

I tell this story not to show off how great of a citizen and environmental advocate I am trying to be, but to point out that we need to persist over the many barriers (mentally and physically) that keep us from speaking out when we know we are qualified and worthy of doing so effectively.

geese.jpg Jacob Riis Park. @hydroponics.mh

Although the comment period has ended, you can still act to oppose the NESE project (see below:)

“Those interested in helping this cause can visit stopthewilliamspipeline.org, call Cuomo at 877- 235-6537 or text ‘RENEWABLES’ to 69866” (Santino, 2019).

Watch this short clip to learn more about the proposed pipeline:
The Fight Against The Williams Pipeline:

Local News Article:
The Push To Stop The Williams Pipeline:
https://www.rockawave.com/articles/the-push-to-stop-the-williams-pipeline-2/

Here is a link to an amazing (and my favorite) documentary about how NY Harbor and Jamaica Bay is experiencing positive ecological renewal as a result of the past 20 years of cleaning up the bay and environmental awareness generated through local advocacy, as well as explores the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on a local NYC community, Broad Channel (This natural and inhabited area would all be affected by the proposed pipeline):

Saving Jamaica Bay:
https://www.amazon.com/Saving-Jamaica-Bay-Susan-Sarandon/dp/B073X9MRL8

“Life is a garden, not a road. We enter and exit through the same gate. Wandering, where we go matters less than what we notice.” — Kurt Vonnegut

IG accounts:
@Hydroponics.NYC
@Matthew_Gerard_

Empowering Youth to Grow Food: Teens for Food Justice — April 15, 2018

Empowering Youth to Grow Food: Teens for Food Justice

I’m humbled to be volunteering as a mentor to teens at Clinton DeWitt High School in the Bronx with a non-profit organization called Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ). The mission of TFFJ is to create a realistic solution to food insecurity, or lack of access to healthy and nutritious food, by empowering youth to build and maintain sustainable food systems in their community.

IMG_0680 Lettuce growing at Dewitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NYC. @matt_horgan

TFFJ leads a team to train students in Title I schools in the unique craft of urban farming through the “building and maintaining of indoor farms that yield more than 22, 000 lbs. of fresh produce annually at each location” in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx (http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/).

IMG_0681 Cucumbers and a variety of leafy greens and herbs growing hydroponically by students at Dewitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NYC. @matt_horgan

Additionally, these youth-run urban farms are feeding students nutritious and fresh meals in their cafeteria, as well as increasing the food security of the area by distributing fresh produce people in the surrounding local community. There is also a focus on teaching students about advocating for policy on the local, state, and federal levels of government to ensure that funding and other resources are given to increase people’s access to healthy food options.

IMG_0685 @matt_horgan

Moreover, the mentorship program I am participating in has been really rewarding. I help facilitate a wide range of activities aimed at teaching the students about creating and sustaining hydroponic systems, advocating for food justice in the policy setting, cooking healthy and nutritious meals.

IMG_0683 Students participate in a cooking challenge to create a veggie burger, chocolate avocado pudding, and pasta salad. (Secret ingredient: parsley grown in the schools hydroponic farm) @matt_horgan

Finally, the students put on a Leadership Conference at Agritecture Consulting where students presented data they collected from surveys they designed and conducted in the community around their school to see what fresh, healthy food was available to stores and restaurants.

See more about becoming a mentor here: http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/be-a-mentor-2/

If you would like to support Teens for Food Justice, see the links below!

http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/donate

Instagram: @TeensforFoodJustice

Written by:

Matthew Horgan
MHorgan279@gmail.com
@matt_horgan @sustaineveryone
@hydroponics_nyc
SustainEveryone.com

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.

IMG_2960
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.

dog.jpg

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

natures cycle2
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.

muir

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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 3.26.55 PM.png
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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 2.32.14 PM.png
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).

before:after.jpg
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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 2.44.51 PM.png
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 🙂

A Collaborative Space for Urban Farming — February 4, 2018

A Collaborative Space for Urban Farming

The key to success is collaboration: an idea so simple that it is often dismissed by introverts, like myself. It is easier to stay in my comfort zone than to venture out into new environments.

Recently, I couldn’t help but wonder, who else is asking similar questions as me in NYC?

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 10.46.02 AM

Specifically, which organizations, if any, were already established in the realm of urban farming here. I searched the internet ambitiously looking for any NYC-based organizations related to this topic. To put it simply, urban farming is the growing of food within cities, usually incorporated into the built environment. (See below image of my neighbor’s hydroponic system in a basement in Queens, NYC).

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 10.48.00 AM

Eventually, I came across a class titled ‘Building an Urban Farm Business Plan’ that is run by AgTechX. The founders of AgTechX, Ricky Stephens and Henry Gordon-Smith, are about connecting individuals looking for opportunities “at the intersection of urban agriculture, technology, and sustainability” (https://agtech-x.com/). The Co-lab they run in Brooklyn provides a space for those of us interested in getting involved in urban farming in NYC and holds classes in hydroponics and aquaponics. Members work to build a more sustainable food system right here in the dense urban jungle of NYC.

Finally, I imagine myself working somewhere at the intersection of sustainable food and education in the near future, and the team at AgTechX is a great place for me to meet people who could, at the very least, point me in the right direction.

See below a picture of hydroponic systems over at AgTecX’s Co-lab in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

IMG_2577 copy

After my trip over to Brooklyn this week, I’m inspired to see a group of dedicated and passionate young people interested in urban farming. In the coming weeks, I am going to explore the classes given by the team at AgTechX with the intention to learn more about the logistics of hydroponic and aquaponics systems in NYC. This will also be an ideal way to connect with like-minded individuals in this emerging field.

To learn more about the collaboration among the urban farming community in NYC visit:
Website: https://agtech-x.com/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/agtech-x
Instagram: @agtechx
MeetUp: https://www.meetup.com/AgTech-X-NYC-Meetups/

Follow my Instagram accounts for more urban farming/nature photos:
@matt_horgan @SustainEveryone @Hydroponics_NYC

Relaunch: New Blog Name @SustainEveryone — February 1, 2018

Relaunch: New Blog Name @SustainEveryone

Hello there! I’m an aspiring environmental writer, who was born and raised in Rockaway Beach, NYC and I’m passionate about finding a healthy way to live sustainably within the natural world. My studies in the environmental field brought me to Upstate New York, Texas, France, Vermont, and Costa Rica. During this time, I grew to see the potential for urban farms to increase people’s access to healthy and nutritious food within cities. More recently, I became fascinated by hydroponic systems and their ability to produce food quickly using no soil, little water, and marginal nutrient inputs. Urban agriculture is an ideal solution for the issue of food security in cities, which is why I see it as more crucial today.

Finally, I recently decided to change the name of my former blog (Sustainable Future through Food) to @SustainEveryone with the intention to explore existing urban farming throughout NYC and to inspire people to become actively engaged in organic urban food production. I hope you will follow along with me on my journey as I discover the beauty of small-scale organic urban farming in New York City.

Follow me on Instagram 🙂 @SustainEveryone @Hydroponics_NYC @matt_horgan

Can traveling the globe ever be considered sustainable?  — November 23, 2015

Can traveling the globe ever be considered sustainable? 

Sometimes I grapple with finding a justification for traveling such long distances in relatively small periods of time for my education. As a graduate student in a program with international components and as an environmentalist, I cannot overlook the tremendous amount of energy it takes to travel to new places. Whether it be going on week long class trips or moving to a new city to study, the transportation environmental costs are tremendous. Despite the expenses associated with traveling, I tend to think it is worthwhile if your travels have a beneficial impact on your local community when you return to the place you call ‘home.’ Still, I ask myself, “Can any form of global travel be considered sustainable?”
For the first time in our species’s history, carbon dioxide has surpassed 350ppm. This greenhouse gas, along with methane and a few others, are contributing to a rapid increase in average global surface temperatures. The major implications associated with climate change are unpredictable weather patterns, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, more climate refugees, and species extinction on a scale humans have never before experienced in history. The wide ranging impacts of climate change are difficult to comprehend for many, and this is one of the causes of delayed action by politicians around the world. Knowing all of this and still traveling seems to be irresponsible for anyone trying to impact the environment in a positive way.

Yet, I am currently on a bus for the next 6 hours with my fellow classmates from St. Edward’s University, traveling from Angers, France to the north of France to study marine biodiversity. My peers are also astonishingly environmentally aware people who make great strides to have positive impacts on the natural world. Additionally, the people in making decisions for this Master’s degree program in Environmental Management and Sustainability, I assume, are environmentally conscious individuals. So what benefit could be behind this trip to the north of France (and to Angers, France more broadly)?

The educational benefit could not be overlooked in this situation. We will be learning valuable information about ecosystems, sustainable development, environmental pollution monitoring, and more topics that will be applicable to our future goals to help the planet in the career paths we choose to take. Education is our most powerful tool against most of the challenges we face on a daily basis. No meaningful change can arise without knowledge of the right action to take. The objective to become an educated human being, however, is not sufficient to justify such extensive travel.

Furthermore, we must have an intention on taking what we learn from our traveling and applying it to a local community in need of support economically, socially, and/or environmentally. For me specifically, it is not enough for me to learn about ways to build more sustainably and live a lifestyle that benefits the planet. What I learn on my journey ought to be shared with others and put into practice if it has the potential for a great impact on society, the environment, and/or the local economy. This may start on a global scale when traveling to acquire knowledge and new perspectives on the world’s problems, but it should always end on a local scale where these new ways of thinking can be implemented to benefit society and the environment.

On the other hand, the way we travel today is unsustainable even if you have good motives, like environmental education. We require mammoth amounts of fossil fuels to transport ourselves to far away destinations across the globe. The production, maintenance, and use of vehicles and transportation related infrastructure is dependent on a fossil fuel economy. Until it becomes more convenient to travel in a way that does not threaten global health, we will continue to choose to travel via unsustainable means until we can no longer afford the environmental and economic consequences of such actions. There is promise for the future in the realm of renewable energies and sustainable development for travel to become more environmentally friendly, but we must move definitively faster than our current pace if we want to avoid a climate crisis by raising the average global surface temperature above 4 degrees Celsius.

So, can any form of global travel be considered sustainable? Despite being torn between the answer to this question, I would still answer yes. When you travel to another country and experience another culture, you gain a new perspective on everything you thought to be truth. It challenges your most inner convictions. If you have the opportunity to gain perspective on a social, economic, or environmental issue while traveling, this experience can help you in the future when you are trying to solve the complex problems facing the world today in your career. Individually, travel benefits are immediate, but for collective society the benefits might take longer to come to fruition. The act of traveling can induce a kind of expanded consciences, therefore the traveler has an obligation to share his or her experience with the local community to which they belong. The inspiration for beneficial changes may not always start at home, but ultimately and ideally the idea of beneficial change that was gained through international travel should inspire you to go out into your community and have a profoundly positive impact.

Future Plans for a Conservation and Environmental Education Project in Costa Rica — November 17, 2015

Future Plans for a Conservation and Environmental Education Project in Costa Rica

Often it is hard to focus on the present moment, and it is in our nature to think in terms of the past and the future. After studying tropical ecology for my Bachelor’s degree in Costa Rica for the months of July 2012 and July 2013, I have since been drawn to return to the country.  Likewise, as I mentioned in a previous post, the Professional Science Master’s program in Environmental Management and Sustainability that I am currently pursuing requires for its last semester that each student complete a research internship project, related to sustainability, anywhere in the world. The requirements are broad, but this allows us to actually explore something we wish to pursue as a career. Despite having the opportunity to explore somewhere new to complete my last semester of , my classmate, Tessa, and I are choosing to return to the same small village where I learned and grew a tremendous amount during my undergraduate experience with SUNY Binghamton University in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica.

As I am finishing up my semester in Angers, France, I cannot help but think of the upcoming research opportunity that I am so fortunate to have available to me. In July 2012, I enrolled in a tropical ecology class through my university, SUNY Binghamton University, which was taught a class in tropical ecology in Tres Piedras de Baru, Costa Rica every July and Spring. The property in the village was referred to as the Tropical Forestry Initiative (TFI) at the time, which was owned by a small group of professors and environmentalists. The property was used by professors to teach students, conduct research projects, and carry out reforestation efforts in the region. Unfortunately, SUNY Binghamton no longer brings students to the area anymore, but the TFI property is now in the hands of a local resident who would like to continue using the property for conservation and educational projects. Although Tessa and I will be expected to design, complete, and present our own independent research projects for our degree, we intend to help the new owner of the property with outreach initiatives that could bring student groups back to the area to partake in similar sustainable development projects and in research opportunities to the activities that used to be done with TFI.

The plans for outreach are still in their preliminary stage, as we work with the owner of the property to develop a program. My hope is to provide a site that offers students the ability to conduct their own independent research projects on site, as well as have the opportunities to volunteer on sustainable development projects and provide support for outreach efforts relating to conservation of the property and surrounding ecosystems. Ideally, we could aim to attract graduate students who could perform their research studies on a topic related to the tropical forest on the property. These students would also be willing to learn about and participate in sustainable development projects on and off site relating to reforestation, sustainable food systems, and community outreach.

Although my plans are incomplete and lacking much detail, I have high hopes for what can be accomplished in Tres Piedras, CR. Tropical ecosystems are threatened around the globe, and we need people to start environmental conservation and educational initiatives like this one to mitigate the damage we are doing to our planet. Often there is so much that is presented to us in our lives that we do not make the most of for many reasons. Yet, there might still be great potential for having a profoundly positive impact in taking advantage of what life offers you.

The Value in One’s Sense of Place on Earth — July 5, 2015

The Value in One’s Sense of Place on Earth

More than ever before in my life, I see the tremendous value in having a sense of place or a connection to where I live my life. I view this feeling of community and interconnectedness as essential for a person’s wellbeing, yet it seems people today have given up on this idea to an extent. We travel to exotic places for vacations to escape the daily life we created for ourselves, move away for a school or job position, and dream of picking up everything and moving to a new location for any reason. Not everyone has lost their sense of place, but the majority of us now living in cities know very little about the places where they live and have very little attachment to their current places. This has detrimental consequences for the sustainability of any culture or community.

When I moved to Austin, Texas last August for graduate school, I barely gave it a second thought. I was able to move to a state far from home for my first year to study at St. Edward’s University and discover what I wanted from life. It was an obvious choice to go for me. After completing my first year, the program requires a semester abroad in Angers, France, so I will be moving to Angers at the end of the month. Before my studies began here in Austin, I was again away from where I grew up to earn my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies in Binghamton, New York. Although it was only a three and a half hour drive from home, it was far enough to feel as though I was in a new place. I was truly in a new place. All of the moving around has taken its toll on me though. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some experiences that I would not trade for the world, and I do not regret my decisions. There is, however, something missing, and I believe it has to do with the sense of community (which starts with our connection to place).

Now, why is our sense of place and connection to the land so important? There are many environmental reasons to value the answers to this question, but I like to boil it down to one thing: sustainability. Not just the sustainability of the environment, but also of society as a whole. The natural environment is what we all depend upon on some level, but we also depend on our location to make sense of the social interactions we have among one another. More specifically, our knowledge of where we live, to a large extent, dictates how we think, act, and respond to life’s various and complex situations.

Since the majority of humans live in cities today, we have lost almost all connections to the natural environment. What we accept as “nature” in the city is disappointing and embarrassing. We value development over conservation. Essentially, we value more and not better (as Bill McKibben writes in Deep Economy). The natural world is in trouble, and very few of us are ready to accept that as fact. We eat foods that travel thousands of miles before it reaches our refrigerators and know nothing of the flora and fauna of the places we call home. We do not know how to grow our own food, nor do we know much about the food we buy from the supermarket. We have outsourced many of these things to a few specialists, and this will one day be a major problem. Change is the law of life. If we rely on others for something as basic as food (and water), then we are at the mercy of those in that position of power for our most basic human needs. Ignorance is not bliss.

Beyond the sustainability of the food system and the natural world, we are at risk of losing all connection to one another. The anonymity and individualism that is provided to us by cities can be beneficial in many ways, but taken to an extreme (as we have done today) we can easily destroy our sense of community. This may seem to some as not such a huge deal, but it is for stability of our communities. Humans need to feel like they belong, but we allow ourselves to become so disconnected from one another, as we connect to our WiFi. Technology has made it way easier to facilitate this shift. Many people today do not even know their neighbors and this disconnection from humanity causes unnecessary violent crimes to take place every day. To give you an idea of how big our social problems are, consider this statistic: one in five woman are victims of sexual assault on college campuses today. Violence is pervasive in our culture today; This is how we treat the members of our community. We stay out of other peoples’ business, and sometimes we even ignore the turmoil of those in our own family. This does not come as a shock to me because we live in a world where it is so easy to escape from the reality of our circumstances.

It is not just crime that rises when we lose our sense of community, but also our health more broadly. Obesity is at an all-time high in the United States because we have lost our connection to our place and time. This is a preventable disease of modern society, yet we continue to allow soda companies to fund our sporting activities. The advertising is all over the place for these products, and the main ingredient (sugar) is the leading cause for obesity. If we truly were committed to ending the obesity epidemic, we would rid our communities of these drinks and of the fast food establishments on every other street corner. Similarly, our “War on Drugs” has taken a huge toll on the mentally ill all around the world, which criminalizes and locks up those who would instead benefit greatly from medical treatment. Viewing things like obesity and addiction as personal choices or struggles is only half of the picture. What we choose to value and how we act towards these things defines who we are as a people. I for one do not want to be defined by absentee legislators who have the power to decide what is best for your community. Every place is different, and each place requires a unique stewardship that should be defined by local residents.

With all of this in mind, I am ready to move somewhere and stay there. After I finish Master’s degree in Environmental Management and Sustainability, I am committed to living in a place. I want to build a sense of community and be a steward of the land I live upon. I want to live in a place where I do not feel the need to run away on an expensive vacation to feel peace and serenity. I want to live in a community where we look after one another, as opposed to a place where neighbors compare themselves to one another and fight with each other. We could all afford to turn off our electronic devices and go out into the local community where we live to see what and who needs our help. Everyone has something unique to offer, but we have to find the courage to recognize and believe in our strengths to make a difference in this world.

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

Why Community Gardening? — May 11, 2015

Why Community Gardening?

Today, as I look back on my first year in the MSEM program at St. Edward’s University, there is one question my research partner and I kept receiving the most: “Why are you researching community gardens?” For us, the answer seemed obvious from an environmental perspective, but we soon realized this shared understanding we had for food’s role in environmental degradation was the product of taking many classes in our undergraduate education that related specifically to these types of issues. Given that our current degree program required us to design, conduct, and present our own research project, my partner and I sought out to reveal how much these community gardens are capable of producing on the amount of land they have.

Moreover, the issue of food insecurity, which exists when low income households does not have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life year round, is not a topic you will frequently hear being discussed on the daily local or even the national news programs on television in the United States. The severity of this problem, however, cannot be underestimated by those in power today. At the conference on Trade and Development in December of 2013, the United Nations produced a report calling for a 70 percent increase of food production by 2050, as counted by calories, if we are to sufficiently feed the projected human population of about 9 billion people. The advisors to this report urged that we achieve food security by changing the way we produce and consume our food (Trade and Environmental Review, 2013).

With this information about the state our current food system, the project my research partner and I came up with aimed at quantifying the potential yield of community gardens throughout the city of Austin, Texas. Community gardens were a starting point we thought we could use to get a glimpse into what urban agriculture was producing in Austin. The potential yield of a garden is simply the theoretical amount of food the garden is able to produce in a given period of time. We used actual yield data from one of these gardens to make our estimations for the potential yield of the 18 public certified community gardens we studied in Austin.

Furthermore, to accomplish the task of estimating the potential yield for our research project, we had to visit each site to collect the dimensions of each individual plot at the 18 study sites. Having this information, and the total area of the gardens, we were able to calculate a percent utilization measure for each garden. This value allowed us to see how much (in a percentage) of the total land they were actually using to produce food and was used to compare with the actual yield data we obtained from one of our study sites. This actual yield data, though only for one crop type, spanned over four years. We took the percent utilized by each garden to get a more precise measure of their potential agricultural yield. We also used ArcGIS software to create maps overlaying food insecurity with existing sites of urban agriculture in our final research paper. Then we added a layer of “prime farmland” to the map, as well as points that were identified by the city as “eligible” for urban agriculture, which gave us the ability to make recommendations as to where the ideal sites for future development of community gardens are located. Based off of our maps, we identified two primary areas of focus for the city of Austin, Texas. (Feel free to contact me if you are interested more in our methods!)

Ultimately, we presented our findings at St. Edward’s University’s 3rd annual Graduate Research Symposium for the MSEM program, and they were well received by our professor and a few people from the city of Austin who we worked closely with throughout the project. There were some truly amazing people we met along the way, including city officials interested in our data for funding and support, gardeners willing to answer any question we could think of, and volunteers working with the soil. We worked closely with three people from Austin: one individual works at a non-profit organization called the Sustainable Food Center, the second individual works for the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, and the third works for the City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability. As we were thankful for their ample assistance throughout the course of our project, they were all very grateful to get some field data about the 18 public community gardens we visited and for the maps identifying ideal site locations for future development of community gardens.

Although I am extremely happy with the way our project turned out, I am admittedly not done exploring and discussing the possibilities food will bring us in the future in terms of sustainable development of the environment and of society at large. We have the opportunity to increase local food production, which could have various side effects for the good of humanity. One aspect of community gardening easily overlooked is the amount they contribute to social capital of a community. There were certain gardens we visited where there was clearly designated space for community gatherings and celebrations. These places seemed to be more than just places of food production. Some of the gardens had educational programs, spaces for social gatherings, opportunities for community service, and more. If we had more time, Tessa and I would have loved to study the social impact, as well as the environmental impact of these gardens on a community.