Posts Tagged ‘Ecology’

Jan30

Sea Buckthorn: A Shrub That’s Good for People and the Environment

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Sea buckthorn, also known as Siberian pineapple, sea berry, sandthorn, or swallowthorn, is a deciduous shrub that grows natively across northern Eurasia. As its name suggests, sea buckthorn’s branches are dense, stiff, and thorny, but its berries can provide nutrition for both people and wildlife.

Sea buckthorn berries offer benefits to both human and environmental health. (Photo credit: www.seabuckthornberries.info)

Sea buckthorn is valued in parts of Europe and Asia for its nutritional and medicinal properties. Its bright orange berries are high in carotenoids, flavonoids, and vitamins A, C, E, and K; in fact, the concentration of vitamin C in sea buckthorn is higher than in strawberries, kiwis, oranges, tomatoes, and carrots. The berries have a fruity yet sour flavor and are often used in juices, jams, sauces, and liqueurs. The silver-gray leaves yield a tea rich in antioxidants, and the plants are even high in essential fatty acids.

While sea buckthorn is currently used medicinally in Russia and China, it has only recently attracted the attention of researchers across the world. Sea buckthorn oil, which can be extracted from seeds, is said to be anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and adaptogenic (helping the body develop resistance to stressors). It is used as a treatment for mucositis, ulcers, radiation damage, burns, and scalds, as well as to relieve pain and promote tissue regeneration. While clinical studies are still needed to fully understand its medicinal benefits, a study by Hamdard University in India shows that sea buckthorn may help protect against diabetes.

Beyond its human health benefits, sea buckthorn also boosts the health of the environment in which it grows. Because its extensive root system can bind together even sandy soils, sea buckthorn prevents water and wind erosion on slopes and in open areas. It is fairly drought and frost resistant, tolerates soil salinity and low temperatures, and can withstand a range of soil pH levels. Sea buckthorn also adds nitrogen to the soil through nitrogen fixation, so it can grow in marginal soils and help restore them.

Sea buckthorn provides food and shelter for a variety of animals. In the Loess Plateau of northern China, 51 species of birds are entirely dependent on the shrub for food.

Despite the relative ease of cultivation, sea buckthorn is difficult to harvest, and machines to efficiently collect the fresh berries are still being developed. Harvesting berries by hand is time consuming (some estimate 600 person-hours per acre, compared to the 120 person-hours per acre required for tomatoes). Until harvesting machines become readily available, large-scale cultivation of sea buckthorn may not be viable.

Given the many potential benefits offered by sea buckthorn, groups such as the European Commission’s EAN-Seabuck network have prioritized the development of economical and sustainable production methods for this plant. In the meantime, sea buckthorn retains its ability to improve environmental and human health on a smaller scale.

Have you ever tried sea buckthorn berries or a product made with them? Let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

Jan15

U.S. Ag Education Groups Make Soil Health a Priority

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By Carol Dreibelbis

In the United States, some agricultural organizations are beginning to recognize the value of training new leaders in sustainable farming practices. In the state of Nebraska, Nebraska Agricultural Education and the Nebraska Future Farmers of America Association (FFA) are in their second year of providing teachers and students with the skills they need to conserve and restore the local landscape, thanks to a three-year, $200,000 grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

Nebraska educators gain skills to take back to their classrooms as part of the Soils Project’s “Excellence in Ag Science Day” 20workshop. (Photo credit: National Cooperative Soil Survey)

With the awareness that the world may need to feed an additional 3 billion mouths by 2050, Nebraska Agricultural Education aims to “prepare students for successful careers and a lifetime of informed choices in the global agriculture, food, and natural resource systems.” The organization provides in-class and experiential instruction to more than 13,000 students in 148 schools each year.

With 93 percent of its land devoted to agriculture, Nebraska is one of the United States’ most productive agricultural areas. In 2012, it ranked first nationally in terms of commercial red meat production, the area of irrigated land harvested, and Great Northern beans production. In 2011, it ranked second in ethanol production capacity, with 24 operating plants having production capacity of 2.2 billion gallons (83,279,059,600 liters). In 2010, total cash receipts from farm marketings were over $17 billion, representing 5.5 percent of the U.S. total. In 2008, it was ranked eighth nationally in certified organic cropland acres (52,551 ha) and eighth in certified organic pasture acres (21,518 ha).

The Nebraska FFA Association supports Nebraska Agricultural Education’s leadership and career development roles, with the understanding that “today’s agriculture education students will be…responsible for ensuring a safe and stable food and fiber supply for the growing world.” The FFA reaches more than 6,500 high school students in Nebraska.

During the 2011–12 grant year, 100 schools in Nebraska received free soil testing kits and professional development training for teachers through the Nebraska Agricultural Education Soils Project. More than 100 FFA educators attended a two-day workshop in June 2011 on soil science, where they received soil guides and participated in field- and lab-based exercises to learn how to use the kits.

The soil quality kits, which include buckets, vests, gram scales, measuring wheels, soil probes, spades, measuring tapes, and other equipment, enable the educators to teach their own students how to assess important soil properties, including moisture, electrical conductivity, temperature, phosphate, nitrate and nitrite, pH, aggregate stability, organic matter, respiration, bulk density, and infiltration. Proper soil management can prevent land degradation (i.e. erosion), which can impact agronomic productivity, the environment, food security, and even quality of life. According to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, “Global efforts to halt and reverse land degradation are integral to creating the future we want…Sustainable land use is a prerequisite for lifting billions from poverty, enabling food and nutrition security, and safeguarding water supplies. It is a cornerstone of sustainable development.”

The soil science workshop received overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants. “There is so much great information and materials to help me teach soil science. Thank you so much for allowing me to be part of it,” said Amber Endres, an agricultural educator in Hartington, in northeast Nebraska. Beyond the trainings, follow-up sessions provide resources and education to additional teachers.

Ed George, the Soils Project coordinator, views the initiative as a way to boost students’ confidence and engagement both in and out of school. He notes that the Soils Project enables students to recognize the impact that humans have on the environment, to engage with local environmental concerns, and to grow into “future leaders, with the skills to sustain Nebraska’s land productivity and soil health.

What is your region doing to develop future leaders in agriculture and conservation? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project.

Nov21

A Tale of Two Farms: Industrial vs. Sustainable Meat Production in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Most food in the United States comes from industrialized, intensive farms. Meat and dairy are no exception: nationwide, 40 percent of all U.S. food animals are raised in the largest 2 percent of livestock facilities. And these large-scale facilities, commonly referred to as factory farms, continue to grow. Between 1997 and 2007, the U.S. factory farming industry added 4,600 hogs, 650 dairy cows, 139,200 broiler chickens, and 1,100 beef cattle each day. On a global scale, industrial animal production now accounts for 72 percent of all poultry production, 43 percent of egg production, and 55 percent of pork production.

Pastured broiler chickens feed on grass and grain at Virginia-based Polyface Farm. (Photo credit: Polyface, Inc.)

Although factory farms provide large quantities of relatively inexpensive meat, the associated environmental, social, and human health costs are high. Factory farms rely on massive inputs of water, fossil fuel energy, grain-based feed, and other limited resources. Feed production alone accounts for an estimated 75 percent of the energy use associated with factory farming; growing animal feed also requires the input of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and it occupies arable land that could be used directly to grow food. An estimated 23 percent of all water used in agriculture goes to livestock production.

Industrialized meat production also creates huge amounts of waste, contaminating nearby air and water and threatening the health of humans and wildlife. Some large factory farms produce more waste than large U.S. cities. The livestock industry is also responsible for approximately 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than the entire global transportation sector. By contributing to climate change, factory farms affect people both locally and around the world.

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Oct17

Organizations Push for Global Ban on Genetically Modified Trees

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Five organizations released a letter in early October 2012 to the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity demanding a global ban on genetically modified (GM) trees. World Rainforest Movement, Global Justice Ecology Project, the Campaign to Stop Genetically Engineered Trees, Global Forest Coalition, and Biofuelwatch oppose the potentially damaging impact of GM trees on the environment and Indigenous communities.

GM trees pose inevitable and irreversible threats to forest ecosystems and the people who inhabit them. (Photo credit: Washington State Department of Natural Resources)

“The forestry industry is involved in developing GM trees for use in its industrial plantations, in order to achieve trees that can grow faster, have reduced lignin content for production of paper or agrofuels, are insect or herbicide resistant, or can grow in colder temperatures,” stated Isis Alvarez of Global Forest Coalition. “This research is aimed at increasing their own profits while exacerbating the already known and very serious impacts of large scale tree plantations on local communities and biodiversity.”

According to a 2012 report by Global Justice Ecology Project, GM trees pose “significant risks” to carbon-absorbing forest ecosystems and the global climate. Trees with less lignin would be more prone to pest attacks and would rot more quickly, altering soil structure and releasing greenhouse gases more quickly. Other dangers range from increased “flammability, to invasiveness, to the potential to contaminate native forests with engineered traits.” According to the Sierra Club, “the possibility that the new genes spliced into GE trees will interfere with natural forests isn’t a hypothetical risk but a certainty.” The substitution of natural forests by GM monocultures for industrial use would also threaten biodiversity, in the same way that oil palm plantations do today. Many of these consequences would impact Indigenous communities, reducing the ecosystem services that they rely on for their livelihoods and survival.

Despite these risks, several GM tree projects are moving forward. The GM tree research and development company ArborGen has a request pending with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to sell half a billion cold-tolerant eucalyptus seedlings each year for bioenergy plantations in the southern United States. Since eucalyptus trees are a documented invasive species in both Florida and California, this has raised red flags for many. Both the Georgia Department of Wildlife and the US Forest Service have submitted comments to the USDA expressing concerns about the impact of plantations on native ecosystems. Meanwhile, several universities, timber corporations, and seedling manufacturers in the Pacific Northwest are also collaborating to develop GM poplar trees for bioenergy production. About 30 species of poplar trees already grow from subtropical to subalpine regions across the United States, Canada, and Europe, meaning there is a serious risk of genetic contamination.

The Sierra Club warns that the “commercial development of out-of-doors applications in the absence of environmental safeguards is a prescription for disaster,” and it is clear that GM tree plantations pose inevitable and irreversible threats to forest ecosystems and the people who inhabit them. Today, 245 organizations and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations from 49 countries support a global ban on GM trees, according to Global Justice Ecology Project.

Do you think the development of GM trees should continue? Are there ways to regulate and limit the negative impacts of GM trees on the environment? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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Sep10

Coping with Climate Change and Food Insecurity in East Africa

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By Carol Dreibelbis

A landmark study published recently by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security surveyed over 700 farming households in East Africa about how they are coping with climate change. Researchers set out to answer the seemingly simple question, “Are households that are more innovative more likely to be food secure than less-innovative farming households?”

Agroforestry was one of the most common innovations found in the survey of East African farmers (Photo Credit: A Tribute to Trees)

According to the report, more than half of all households surveyed made innovative agricultural changes over the past decade. These farmers have been adopting a wide variety of strategies and technologies to protect against heat, water scarcity, eroding landscapes, depletion of soil nutrients, and other factors that can decrease yields and increase food insecurity. For instance, 55 percent of households planted one faster-maturing crop variety, while 56 percent planted one drought-tolerant variety; at the same time, 50 percent of households took up agroforestry, or incorporated tree crops into a farming system; 50 percent introduced intercropping, or planting multiple crops in a small space; and 25 percent used crop rotation techniques.

But even as these farmers were willing to embrace certain farming strategies and technologies, the report shows that there is a limit to the innovation taking place. Many yield-boosting strategies have yet to take hold in these villages. Only 25 percent of farmers used manure or compost to improve soil fertility; only 16 percent of households used terracing, ridge-building, or other soil management techniques to conserve water; and only one-third of households in Ethiopia and one-fifth in Tanzania are taking steps to manage pasturelands to better support livestock. All in all, most households made minor, non-transformational changes to their farming practices.

Patti Kristjanson, one of the study co-leaders, explains that “for generations, farmers and livestock keepers in East Africa have survived high levels of weather variability by testing and adopting new farming practices. As this variability increases, rainfall patterns shift, and average temperatures rise due to climate change, they may need to change faster and more extensively.” So what is keeping these farmers from making more dramatic changes?

The study found that food insecurity is a key obstacle to innovation. As might be expected, households that struggle to feed themselves are not in a strong position to innovate. Unfortunately, the study was unable to determine the direction of causality in this relationship—in other words, it is unclear whether food insecurity results in decreased innovation, or whether limited innovation results in food insecurity.

Given that small-scale farmers in the developing world are particularly vulnerable to the weather and ecological changes associated with climate change, such as decreased rainfall or wider temperature variation, future research to better understand the relationship between innovation and food security will be crucial.

What agricultural innovations are effective for coping with the effects of climate change in your experience? What are the biggest barriers to their implementation? Please let us know in the comments.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

Aug09

Innovation of the Week: Living Trees as Fence Posts

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By: Molly Redfield

Drive around Costa Rica’s windy mountainous roads and you will see numerous trees, from those bearing colorful fruits to others sporting thick spines, planted about 1 to 3 meters apart. Connected by long lines of barbed wire, these rudimentary-looking arrangements, known as living fences, have both economic and environmental benefits over their dead wood counterparts.

Living fences have economic and environmental benefits (Photo Credit: Arborsmith Studios)

Farmers across Central America plant living fences because these green barriers are a more economically feasible and readily accessible method for containing livestock and protecting crops. For one, the main materials of living fences are the branches of tree species that root from sticks and grow into larger trees. Shared among neighbors or sold at local markets, these sticks are much cheaper and more common than manufactured posts. Without the need for paint or preservatives, which can add toxins into the environment, maintenance costs also remain low. Additionally, animals graze on living fences, saving farmers costs in livestock feed.

By providing some shade and serving as windbreaks, living fences can significantly decrease the amount of energy farm animals need to regulate their body temperatures. As livestock allot this extra energy to growth and, in dairy cows, producing milk, farmers experience higher yields, whether in meat or milk, for planting living fences.

These tree posts also offer farmers the additional benefits of firewood, timber, fruits, tanning astringents, and dyes. In Costa Rica, the federal government even provides payment for ecosystem services (PES) to farmers with living fences. A study on a region where a 2002 to 2007 World Bank project funded and monitored the building of living fences throughout Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Colombia, reports that small landholding producers rank the conversion of conventional fences into their living alternatives as a high priority.

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Jun06

Briefing serves up food for thought on global hunger

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By Philip Newell

At a Global Hunger and Food Security briefing held by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and the Interfaith Working Group on Global Hunger and Food Security, several experts offered a bounty of ideas to fortify food security around the world.  In attendance were representatives from United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and American Jewish World Service (AJWS), as well as keynote speaker and U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter.

Planting different kinds of crops in a field (multi-cropping) is a main tenant of Agroecology (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollack)

De Schutter was on hand to discuss his most recent report, Agroecology and the Right to Food in which he lays out a series of recommendations for national and international development policy.  “We are not facing a food crisis” explained De Schutter, “We are facing three crises,” poverty, environment, and nutrition. But according to De Schutter, agro-ecology can help address all these problems.

Agroecology can help alleviate  the poverty crisis by encouraging small farmers to grow a variety of complimentary crops to be sold locally, instead of growing grains exclusively for sale in the global market.  This transition to more diversified agricultural systems can also help alleviate the ecological crisis by helping to  reduce dependence on artificial fertilizers and other inputs.  And when farmers grow a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, their families eat better. According to De Schutter, governments and donor groups should increase investment in public goods. Instead of doling out seeds and fertilizer through subsidies, donors should be focused on helping to  establish markets and infrastructure, such as roads, that allow farmers to sell their produce. Regional and local markets need to be established, thereby “linking rural local producers with urban consumers” said De Schutter.

De Schutter also explained how investing in knowledge systems will help connect farmers with researchers, as well as helping connect farmers to one another. And, said De Schutter, aid and development programs need to include  the “gender dimension” to make sure women farmers are getting the resources they need.  In many developing nations, women lack the access to most means of production, notably land ownership and financing.

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