Spring green

Good botany links this past couple of weeks.

First, Anne-Marie at Pondering Pikaia explains the difference between two families of succulents in You Can’t Milk a Cactus.

Second, at Botany Photo of the Day, guest bloggers Connor Fitzpatrick, Hannes Dempewolf, and Paul Bordoni promote the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species with reports on four examples: emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccon), laurel (Laurus nobilis), maya nut (Brosimum alicastrum), and sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides). The GFU’s mission is to “Promote and facilitate the sustainable deployment of underutilized plant species to increase food security and alleviate poverty among the rural and urban poor.”

One incremental change

Bobolinks and other migratory songbirds are getting clobbered by pesticide use outside of the United States, beyond the protections offered (such as they are) by federal regulations, as Bridget Stutchbury notes in an op-ed piece for the Times.

Since the 1980s, pesticide use has increased fivefold in Latin America as countries have expanded their production of nontraditional crops to fuel the demand for fresh produce during winter in North America and Europe. Rice farmers in the region use monocrotophos, methamidophos and carbofuran, all agricultural chemicals that are rated Class I toxins by the World Health Organization, are highly toxic to birds, and are either restricted or banned in the United States.

Stutchbury cites research by Rosalind Renfrew of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

What’s a consumer to do? Look for shade-grown, organic coffee, and organic bananas. Conventionally-grown bananas are typically produced “with one of the highest pesticide levels of any tropical crop.”

I found organic bananas at my local Giant Food next to to the conventionally-cropped fruit, shrouded in plastic bags to discourage price tag switching.

More than a cappucino

Starbucks is making strides in areas beyond finding creative, entertaining ways to separate you from your cash in its stores. Continuing to deepen its involvement with the agricultural sources of its drinks, the company is in the middle of a three-year partnership with the Earthwatch Institute supporting research into aspects of sustainable coffee production. The current project sends volunteers to member fincas of Coope Tarrazú, a co-op in Costa Rica. Using GIS technology, field workers are establishing baseline maps of resources (soil condition, water quality, etc.).

The volunteer effort supports the research of Karen Holl of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Holl’s research interests in Costa Rica include strategies for re-establishing forests in land that has been cleared for pasture.

…we have established 16, 1-ha sites in southern Costa Rica. We are testing questions about “applied nucleation” by planting islands of native tree seedlings to facilitate recovery and studying the effect of the amount of surrounding forest cover on ecosystem recovery. We are collecting extensive data on seed dispersal, seed fate, vegetation establishment, and seedling dynamics.

Also involved in the Costa Rica projects is Catherine Lindell of Michigan State University, who has published studies of habitat use by various bird species in Costa Rica.

More wheat and birds

The Birding Community E-Bulletin points to a press release by Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) that reports evidence of nesting activity by Long-billed Curlews (Numenius americanus) in fields of winter wheat.

Winter wheat acres have been increasing with continued success in Prairie Canada. Reduced pesticide input costs, the ability to spread the workload and improved marketing opportunities are factors in the crop’s expansion. These factors have contributed toward winter wheat providing superior financial returns compared to spring wheat alternatives. Producers involved in a recent DUC winter wheat program made $27/ac more on winter wheat than they did on spring wheat. The crop is of specific interest to DUC since it is seeded in the fall and remains generally undisturbed through the following growing season when most birds are nesting. It also provides a more attractive nesting habitat for ducks than spring-seeded cropland.

The Bulletin comments:

When the nesting-season starts for many species, winter wheat has already had a head start growing, and is ready to provide nesting cover for grassland birds early in the season. By the time winter wheat harvest begins, in mid-July in the Dakotas, for example, young birds nesting in the wheat fields are either developed enough to avoid harvest combines, or else have already fledged from the fields. In contrast, alfalfa, which reaches harvest height in May, is typically cut within the first 10 days of June – a dismal predicament for nesting birds and young in areas like the Dakotas….

U.S. farmers annually plant about 40 million acres in winter wheat. Across Canada, more than 1.2 million acres of winter wheat is grown. Is this great for birds? No, it’s a monoculture. Nevertheless, it is a somewhat attractive crop , and one that usually reaches a suitable height at the right time of year to benefit breeding birds. It is a crop that won’t be harvested until most nesting birds safely fledged their young. Winter wheat will never be a substitute for idled grassland, like CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land, but if cropland goes into a rotation with winter wheat, there may actually be some benefits for certain ground-nesting birds. (It should also be noted that farmers usually don’t plant winter wheat in the same field in consecutive years.)

Thinking globally, eating locally

Via kottke.org: the question of whether eating locally is better for the environment isn’t quite settled, argues Sarah Murray, writing for the Financial Times (a publication, admittedly, with its own slant on things), in support of her recent book. She points to recent studies that indicate that shipped food performs as well as local food in terms of environmental impact.

Keep in mind that Murray is writing for a British publication, and food shipped into the U.K. needs must travel over water (often by efficient container ship) while food that travels within the U.S. and North America more likely came by truck. And her quoting a study by New Zealand’s Lincoln University that New Zealand lamb is more efficiently produced than its British equivalent, even after accounting for shipping, is disingenuous.

Nevertheless, Murray makes the good point that transportation may not be the most important environmental factor in the production of a lamb and boiled potato dinner. And

the environmental trade-offs can be perplexing. While water conservationists point out that pressurised sprayers and drip irrigation systems distribute water to crops more efficiently than traditional gravity-based methods, they require mechanical pumping and therefore consume more energy.

Along with the carbon dioxide emissions generated by agriculture come other, more potent, greenhouse gases. Animal manure, soil management and heavy use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers in crop production all contribute to an increase in nitrous oxide emissions, which are up to 300 times more effective at heating the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

On the other hand, whether a locally-produced piece of fruit, picked and carried a short distance to a farmers market, just plain tastes better than one engineered for long-distance travel, harvested green, wrapped in plastic, and shipped thousands of miles is a question that Murray doesn’t pick up in this article.

Caveat emptor

So now we have a uniform, federal certification program (the NOP) for organic food. Should be easy to trust that geen and white label, to know that what’s on the breakfast table was raised without chemical nasties, eh? Not so fast. The program appears to be woefully underfunded, as Andrew Martin reports:

The National Organic Program, which regulates the industry, has just nine staff members and an annual budget of $1.5 million….

Other parts of the Department of Agriculture spend roughly $28 million or so a year on organic research, data collection and farmer assistance….

With just nine employees, one of whom performs clerical duties, the National Organic Program would be lucky to effectively oversee the organic industry in Vermont, let alone the rest of the world.

Shade-grown wheat?

A recent article in Scientific American caught my eye. It’s by Jerry Glover et al. of The Land Institute, a Kansas-based organization that is working to establish agriculture on the Great Plains that has both the stability of the prairie and the yields of annual crops. Food from perennial grains, in other words.

Perennial crops with their deeper roots, so the argument goes, do a better job of sequestering carbon, and have favorable impacts on other wildlife. Land planted in annuals, by contrast, is more dependent on chemical inputs to maintain its productivity. To me, the affinity with agroforestry issues in the tropics is clear.

Bottle it up

Luís Gil explains why cork is a better choice for stoppering wine bottles than its synthetic alternatives. Some of his arguments are not persuasive, and amount to “we’ve always done it this way,” but consider:

6) Cork is a renewable resource and cork oak forests are one of the most sustainable natural systems, providing the habitat of several endangered species and supporting one of the highest levels of biodiversity among European forests. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak [Quercus suber], and is harvested only once every nine or ten years, without detriment to the tree.

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10) Cork production is based in poor rural areas where it provides much needed jobs. About 150,000 people around the world work with cork, and it is an important part of Southern Europe and North African economies.

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13) Cork sequesters carbon from the atmosphere; a cork stopper sequesters about twice is weight of CO2; all the cork stoppers produced in one year represent the CO2 pollution of about 49,000 automobiles each year.


A recent rule change by USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is likely to reduce the number of small farms overseas that seek organic certification (and hence, at least attempt to follow organic practices), as Samuel Fromartz reports. An inspection system that relies on self-policing, applicable only to imports, has been the norm.

The new USDA certification ruling arose out of a case involving an unnamed Mexican grower group that failed to detect a farmer using a prohibited insecticide and prevent empty fertilizer bags being used for crop storage—both of which violate USDA organic regulations. NOP blamed the problem on inadequate internal controls of the self-policing system and decided to ban the practice everywhere.

Unfortunately, the only beneficiaries of the new enforcement are likely to be large plantations, who can afford the more costly inspection and certification process. If smallholdings are taken out of organic production, prices to consumers here in the States will rise.

A new coffee connection

Via Birderblog.com, a new site dedicated to Coffee & Conservation. Recent posts include a precis of research by Armbrecht, Perfecto, and Silverman on ant communities in coffee plantations (with the interesting speculation that the caffeine in coffee-based mulch depresses ant populations), and the obligatory (alas) story of kopi luwak.