The Plight of the Pollinators

It appears we may be on the verge of a new silent spring, a season marked, not by the absence of birdsong, but by the lack of insect buzzing.

A range of flying invertebrates—from the iconic monarch butterfly, to moths you’ve never heard of, to a number of once-common bumblebees—are suffering significant declines. Some biologists are warning that the losses could have serious consequences for the food web and for human agriculture, especially since native pollinators are far more important for food crop pollination than the domesticated European honeybee. Read more

Eat Organic: It’s Good for Other People’s Health

I had barely drank my first cup of coffee when I heard the news yesterday morning on NPR—organic food, it turns out, may not be that much healthier for you than industrial food.

The NPR story was based on a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine which concluded, based on a review of existing studies, that there is no “strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” The study, written by researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine, also found that eating organic foods “may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

The interwebs were soon full of headlines talking down the benefits of organic foods. “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce,” the NY Times announced, as reporter Kenneth Chang pointed out that pesticide residues on industrially grown fruits and vegetables are “almost always under the allowed safety limits.” CBS news, running the AP story on the Stanford study, informed readers: “Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests.” Read more

One Straw Revolution Continues: Sowing Seeds in the Desert

Perhaps the Fall came not in the shape of an apple, but in the form of a seed. The Fruit of Knowledge was actually a grain. When we started to cultivate the land for wheat, corn and rice, we severed our original connection to nature, and from that first act of taking ownership of the soil other ecological evils eventually sprouted. The serpent’s temptation arrived as a plow, a digging stick.

This reconfiguration of the end of Eden parable comes courtesy of Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Jackson has dedicated his life to solving what he calls “the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture.” As readers of this website know, tilling the soil year after year comes with serious risks—release of CO2 into the atmosphere, erosion, declining fertility and, eventually, poor crop yields. Jackson has sought to address the conundrum of agriculture (today’s harvests threaten tomorrow’s) by developing perennial grains. Other researchers, including those committed to industrial agriculture, have focused on low-till and no-till methods that require little soil disturbance while still relying on annual crops. Either way, the goal is the same: To feed ourselves without cutting into the epidermis of the earth.

I was well versed in these questions of soil conservation by the time I read Masanobu Fukuoka’s classic, The One Straw Revolution, and the book hit me with the force of revelation. Read more

Government Austerity Measures Threaten the Country’s Oldest Organic Farming Program

The U.C. Santa Cruz Farm & Garden Apprenticeship changed my life. In the winter of 2005, I was burning the candle at both ends and burning myself out. I was working too hard, moving too fast, and my doctor had warned me that I was at risk of chronic fatigue. Then, that spring, I found myself living on an organic farm perched above the waters of Monterey Bay.  Before I moved to the farm, my to-do list as an environmental campaigner had been packed with conference calls, protest organizing, and press conferences. After arriving at the farm, my biggest priorities became keeping the onions free of weeds, thinning the young fruits on the apple trees, and waking up early to cook for 35 other aspiring farmers.

The switch blew my mind. As I worked in the fields and the orchards I could suddenly see the myriad interconnections that knit together a farming ecosystem; ecology went from an abstraction to a visceral reality. Perhaps more important, living with a few dozen other industrial society dissidents gave me a new appreciation for the ideals of solidarity and the practice of community. The time I spent at the UCSC Farm & Garden deepened my hope that farming, done right, could help heal a battered environment and perhaps even remedy some of the world’s injustices.

So I was horrified when I learned last month that, due in part to state and federal budget cutbacks, the Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture (as it’s formally called) may be forced to double its tuition—a move that would put this invaluable program beyond the reach of many people and set back efforts to educate a new generation of organic farmers.

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