Gut check

Javier A. Ceja-Navarro et al. suggest a novel means of controlling the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei), as summarized by The Economist. The authors provide evidence that one of the species of bacteria that reside in the beetle’s digestive system, Pseudomonas fulva, detoxifies the caffeine that the coffee plant produces as a natural herbivore deterrent. Knock out the bacterium, perhaps with a targeted bacteriophage, and you knock out the pest.

Pondering

An op ed piece by Mark Lynas has been sitting in my clippings folder for several weeks. He makes the case for genetic engineering (GE) of food crops, with particular emphasis on its positive effects on yields in the developing world. While I can’t say that I’m entirely convinced, the column is persuasive — particularly when you consider that Lynas was once an activist against GMOs.

No one claims that biotech is a silver bullet. The technology of genetic modification can’t make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.

At about the same time, Tania Lombrozo posted about the psychology of public acceptance of genetic engineering, or, as she put it rather bluntly in her lede,

Why do so many people oppose genetically modified organisms, or GMOs?

And, again, I’m not sure that her analysis applies to my skepticism, but the effect of the two writings leads me to consider why I am mildly opposed to expanding high tech agriculture. I think the core of my opposition lies in business models and practices, in the troubling consolidation that is taking place in the seed industry—not in subjective assessments of what constitutes a “natural” food. I look to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which offers this pro- and con- assessment:

We understand the potential benefits of the technology, and support continued advances in molecular biology, the underlying science. But we are critics of the business models and regulatory systems that have characterized early deployment of these technologies. GE has proved valuable in some areas (as in the contained use of engineered bacteria in pharmaceutical development), and some GE applications could turn out to play a useful role in food production.

Thus far, however, GE applications in agriculture have only made the problems of industrial monocropping worse. Rather than supporting a more sustainable agriculture and food system with broad societal benefits, the technology has been employed in ways that reinforce problematic industrial approaches to agriculture. Policy decisions about the use of GE have too often been driven by biotech industry public relations campaigns, rather than by what science tells us about the most cost-effective ways to produce abundant food and preserve the health of our farmland.

“Public relations campaigns:” does anyone remember when DDT was going to save the world, and Rachel Carson was called a crank?

The Union’s policy recommendations, among other things, call for food labeling laws, “so that consumers can make informed decisions about supporting GE applications in agriculture,” and I am definitely behind that idea.

I would like to think that I can be convinced by reason and evidence, so I could change my mind. But for now, I’m hanging out in the gray area.

Big strides

Robert Rice updates us on the progress of the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly (BF) coffee program, and connects it to research programs here and abroad. The program is retailing north of 700 thousand pounds of java annually.

The biggest challenge facing the BF coffee program is marketing. Currently, less than 10% of the coffee certified as BF actually makes it into the market as such. This shortfall is partly due to the fact that BF coffee is certified organic (as a pre-requisite) and thus often is sold into the organic coffee stream as organic only—not being purchased or marketed as BF. We presently are working with a consultant to help us design plans to increase demand. Creating more demand will result in more shade coffee farms being certified as Bird Friendly, and that is our main goal of this program: conserving viable, quality habitat for migratory and resident birds in the tropics.

Some links: 72

Many conservation-oriented links piling up on my virtual desk, unremarked—so this needs must be a roundup post.

  • Sharman Apt Russell describes her experiences collecting phenology data for Nature’s Notebook.
  • Caren Cooper summarizes the findings in her recent paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management: birders and hunters alike are more likely to engage in conservation-supporting actitivies. Cooper’s “conservation superstars” are birders who are also hunters: these people are even more likely to donate money for conservation and do other things to preserve our legacy.
  • Jason Goldman sings the praises of shade-grown coffee from an unexpected part of the world: Ethiopia, the land where Coffea was first domesticated.
  • And Goldman summarizes a paper by A.M.I. Roberts et al., working with 222 years of phenology data collected by Robert Marsham and his descendants from the family estate in Norfolk, UK. For certain tree species, “winter chilling” turns out to be a more important factor determining leaf out than the warmth of “spring forcing.”

Cogent connections

Our feeling is that triple certification [of coffee] has great potential. Consumers might have a short attention span, but they’re not stupid. If presented in short, cogent messages that explain the connections between the social and the environmental arguments, the average coffee drinker can undoubtedly understand the triple certification concept—and if you think about those groups that are “target audiences” for such messages (social action groups in churches or labour unions; vegetarian and organic devotees; birder associations, etc.) then the message may be even more palatable and likely to be heard.

—Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer, and Angus Wright, Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation, and Food Sovereignty, p. 156

Works in the Old World, too

In the past, when I’ve posted about shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee (for instance, here, here, and here), the research focus (by scientists like Ivette Perfecto and Russell Greenberg) has been on Central American farms and neotropical migrants. New research indicates that birds in Africa and Eurasia also benefit from shade cultivation in Ethiopia (the cradle of all domesticated coffee), as Brian Clark Howard reports. Ethiopian coffee farmers are under the same pressures to convert to intensive “sun coffee” production that their New World counterparts face.

“Importance of Ethiopian shade coffee farms for forest bird conservation” is now in press. Co-author Cagan H. Şekercioğlu

suggests that the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center or the Rainforest Alliance, which certify bird-friendly coffee from other countries, should consider extending their programs to Ethiopia. Certification allows farmers to recoup a price premium, which can help deter the impulse to convert farms to full sun or otherwise develop their land.

Some links: 71

Catching up on a lot of bookmarks, so this will be a bit of a link dump.

  • Reduced-meat or meatless diets (Mediterranean, pescetarian, vegetarian) are both better for your health and more sustainable for the environment, as David Tilman and Michael Clark find in a recent paper, and as Elke Stehfest summarizes.
  • I am loving Nature‘s new sharing tools. Susannah Locke explains the journal’s move toward more open access.
  • Emily Dreyfuss signed up to give Wikipedia six bucks a month.

    …Wikipedia is the best approximation of a complete account of knowledge we’ve ever seen.

    It’s also the most robust. The most easily accessed. And the safest. It exists on servers around the world so, unlike the library at Alexandria, it can’t be burned down.

    You should chip in, too. kottke.org

  • The Biodiversity Heritage Library has opened an online exhibit dedicated to women in science who began working before 1922. Some of my recent subjects are there, including Florence Merriam Bailey and Mabel Osgood Wright.

The E does stand for Entertainment

Allan Savory gives a rubbish science TED talk and gets 2M page views. George Manbiot looks at the peer-reviewed literature and finds no evidence to back up Savory’s claims.

When faced with the claims of a Savory, Leta and I like to quote Brick Pollitt, in the last line of the play as Williams originally wrote it: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”

Lili Taylor

Some links: 70

A roundup of conservation and natural history links:

  • A team at Towson University has launched a microsite and apps (for Android and iOS) for tracking the spread of the highly invasive Wavy-leaf Basketgrass (Oplismenus hirtellus ssp. undulatifolius).
  • Janet Fang summarizes a paper by Railsback and Johnson: simulations of coffee plantation activity indicate that 5% land coverage in trees maximizes coffee yields. The overstory of trees reduces the amount of space for coffee shrubs, but it invites birds, who forage on destructive borer beetles.
  • Nancy L. Brill describes the survey that a team of entomologists made of invertebrate life in 50 ordinary Raleigh, N.C. homes. The typical house was host to 100 different species of arthropod.

    Several families were found in more than 90 percent of homes: gall midges (Cecidomyiidae), ants (Formicidae) and carpet beetles (Dermestidae), along with cobweb spiders (Theridiidae), dark-winged fungus gnats (Sciaridae), cellar spiders (Pholcidae), scuttle flies (Phoridae) and book lice (Liposcelididae). Most houses also had dust mites (Pyroglyphidae).

    Pics and interpretation at Arthropods of Our Homes.

  • Tovar Cerulli argues that hunters and non-hunters have more in common than they might think.

    When clashes occur, it is all too easy to fall back on reductive notions about liberal, elite environmentalists and conservative, redneck hunters—the “greens” versus “the hook-and-bullet crowd.” With partisans on both sides invoking stereotypes and the media portraying hunters and environmentalists as opponents, it is tempting to imagine stark lines between the two.

    But such divisions are too simplistic.

  • An American Bird Conservancy post makes the connection between coffee farming… and hummingbirds!
  • The Birding Wire picked up my profile (for Friends of the Migratory Bird [Duck] Stamp) of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
  • A leader in Nature highlights a paper by Joshua J. Tewksbury et al., which calls for a revival in the practice of natural history. (I have the Tewksbury paper bookmarked but haven’t read it yet.)

    As natural history has been de-emphasized, molecular biology, genetics, experimental biology and ecological modelling have flourished. But here is the problem: many of those fields ultimately rely on data and specimens from natural history….

    No biology student should get a diploma without at least a single course in identifying organisms and learning basic techniques for observing and recording data about them.

Leta

Change in an unexpected quarter

The discovery, by Abby van Den Berg and Tim Perkins of the University of Vermont, that maple sap can be pulled from a sapling’s roots under vacuum, rather dripping by gravity into a bucket attached to a mature tree, could revolutionize the maple syrup industry. Is that a good thing? Laura Sorkin isn’t so sure. And yet,

There has always been a romantic notion of the tradition of gathering sap in buckets with horse drawn sleighs and boiling it down over a wood-fired pan. That image has already been replaced by tubing instead of buckets, four-wheelers instead of horses and sugar houses that resemble modern factories.

Keep looking

Scott Weidensaul gives us a nudge to remember to look for bird-friendly certified shade-grown coffee. I will confess that I tend to grab anything that’s labelled organic at the market; my excuse is that coffee with the Smithsonian’s label (or with related labels like the Rainforest Alliance’s) is (surprisingly) more difficult to find where I shop than it used to be. Need to look harder.