Rediscovering Eco-cultural Gardening

Gardening is a very old activity. The word “garden” has its roots in an Old English term meaning “fence” or “enclosure,” and the earliest enclosed outdoor space discovered was created about 12,000 years ago.

We are still learning about gardening.

More accurately, we are rediscovering ideas that earlier gardeners understood thousands of years ago.

One of the earliest ideas, evidently, was that a fence keeps some hungry animals from the vegetables and (later) from the flowers.

The most basic principle for successful gardening is compatibility with Nature. We are advised occasionally that humans developed instinctive behaviors, e.g., Fight or Flight, at an early stage of our history, and evolved to thrive with a diet that consisted of a combination of foods that grew naturally in our local environment.

By the same token, plants and animals evolved over long periods to thrive in specific regions, together with each other. As a result of this co-evolution, we have interdependence between plants and animals that grow naturally within a specific environment. We even have interdependence between those plants and animals and certain aspects of the environment itself.

Ancient civilizations that understood these relationships intuitively gardened—and lived—in harmony with Nature. “Eco-culture” is today’s buzzword for the connection between ecological and cultural practices.

Some aspects of the environment appear not to interact with the plants and animals: the weather, elevation, and sunlight operate under their own rules, but the soil microbiota has close relationships with the flora and fauna.

Gardening is easiest and most successful when we recognize and respect these natural relationships. Good practices include gardening organically and growing plants that are native to the local environment.

The more recent history of gardening, however, has included many attempts to rewrite Nature’s rulebook. For example, as people traveled the globe, they added plants from exotic environments to their gardens and developed adaptive practices, including irrigation systems, greenhouses, and indoor gardening.

Also, as gardeners desired plants that would grow faster or larger, taste better, or look better, they developed hybridizing methods, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Such departures from Nature’s ways are often successful in achieving certain objectives, but they often have negative consequences, as well.

The clearest downside of attempts to “fool Mother Nature” is that gardening requires more time, energy and expense. If you find gardening to be burdensome, try converting to plants that are native to your environment.

When large-scale, commercial gardening (“agriculture”) adopts new technologies, the disruptions of Nature’s processes also grow larger in scale. Widespread applications of synthetic agricultural chemicals are damaging the soil biota, are poisoning the soil, killing birds, bees and butterflies, contributing to climate change and threatening our health.

Historically, ecological traumas began with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated in the 1940’s (with at the start of World War II), particularly in uses of synthetic chemicals.

Today, a growing number of non-profit organizations are sounding alarms about these practices and advocating alignment with Nature’s ways. Consumers increasingly demand organic foods, and intuitively resist genetically engineering foods. These groups and individual gardeners are rediscovering eco-cultural gardening.

Our roots are showing!

More to come: links to consumer-oriented non-profit groups related to eco-cultural gardening.

Here’s a related article (with an inappropriate title), “The dirty little secrets of a Native American garden,” from the San Francisco Examiner.

Biochar: Ancient Soil Amendment

As we continue to learn about gardening, we are often reminded of nature’s essential role in the process, and, by extension, the wisdom demonstrated by historical gardeners as they worked in concert with nature.

We have countless examples of the benefits of “gardening with nature,” and ample evidence of the short-sightedness of technology-based agribusiness.

”Technology” as used here encompasses monocropping, animal feedlots and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as more constructive activities such as the use of drone aircraft to monitor crops.

One fascinating historical instance of natural gardening is biochar. The briefest definition of biochar is organic matter that has been heated to high temperatures with limited oxygen to produce charcoal. This process (pyrolysis) also produces gasses that can be burned to produce electricity.

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Biochar is very similar to charcoal, which is made principally from wood, and used in backyard barbecues and a variety of industrial processes. Biochar, by contrast, is made from all kinds of organic waste, particularly garden or agricultural waste, and is used as a soil amendment, adding carbon to the soil.

 

Note: The biochar photo is from a good article by Jeff Cox in Rodale’s Organic Life.

Biochar apparently has been produced and used for thousands of years by early gardeners in Brazil’s Amazon River Basin to improve their rather poor soils. In 1870, an American geologist and explorer discovered and reported areas of dark and highly fertile soil. Researchers puzzled over the origin of this unusual soil, called “terra preta” but recognized that it has strong benefits for agriculture.

During the past twenty years or so, scientists have attributed several valuable properties to biochar, beyond improving crop yields. The additional benefits include increasing water-holding capacity of soil, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, reducing natural emissions of greenhouse gasses (nitrous oxide and methane) from agricultural soils, increasing soil microbial life, resulting in carbon sequestration, avoiding the natural decomposition of agricultural and forestry waste and thereby decreasing carbon dioxide emissions.

These benefits are stimulating great enthusiasm for uses of biochar in both gardening and agriculture. For example, scientist James Lovelock, author of The Gaia Theory, has written, “There is an outside chance that one procedure could really turn back the clock on Global warming and that is burying carbon. All you have to do is get every farmer everywhere to make a profit by turning all his agricultural waste into char and burying it.”

This success story has only an outside chance because it assumes universal participation by the world’s farmers, but does reflect the genuine value of biochar.

Still, individual gardeners could help to reverse global warming by using biochar. This material is available commercially, but it’s costly. A quick survey of sources on the Internet shows a typical price around $30 per cubic foot, enough to amend a garden bed of twenty-four square feet.

A gardener could produce biochar with little or no expense. Here are brief directions from Barbara Pleasant, Mother Earth News (2009): “Pile up woody debris in a shallow pit in a garden bed; burn the brush until the smoke thins; damp down the fire with a one-inch soil covering; let the brush smolder until it is charred; put the fire out.”

For more on this topic, visit the International Biochar Initiative.

Biochar could increase dramatically the fertility of your soil, and help you to rival the successes of ancient gardeners of the Amazon Basin.

More

A reader’s query and my reply.

Q: I read your article in Friday’s Sentinel about biochar. I am wondering if I can put used, regular, charcoal from the grill in the garden. There is always some left over. Can I break it up and put it in my garden?

It seems like I read somewhere years ago I could, but I can’t remember.

A: By “used charcoal” do you mean ashes?

I have attached a short article that is about Colorado’s soil, but California soil also tends to be alkaline, so the article has relevance in our area as well.

Charcoal is Not a Good Soil Amendment in Colorado

The bottom line is that charcoal ash, which is alkaline, would have some value when added to very acidic soil, i.e., low pH, but doesn’t add any fertility to the soil.

On the other hand, unburned, or partially burned charcoal briquettes (made from wood) could be useful as a soil amendment, although they have less nutrient value than biochar, which is made from a range of vegetative materials.

Charcoal briquettes usually contain cornstarch as a binder, and might include coal, lime and other ingredients, none of which would be harmful in the garden. Soften them in water to break them down, then dry the result to mix into fertilizers or directly into the soil.

I hope this is helpful

Another reader’s comment: 

Dylan Gillis

Fine article, though it sort of glosses over the fact that biochar itself is 99% carbon that stays in the soil for hundreds if not thousands of years. While compost only costs $3 or more per cubic foot (depending on quality, volume you buy and packaging/marketing variables) it needs to be replaced every year, forever, to result in similar levels of carbon sequestration and fertility. Of course the best is to add biochar, once to satisfactory levels, and then amend with compost for the nutrients and energy feeding the soil life, every year. In this approach you would use less compost to get the same or better results and your carbon sequestration would be more or less permanent!

Pollinator Friendly Gardening

The current period of warm weather surely doesn’t signal the end of El Niño rains, but it does bring to mind the coming of spring. And with that cyclical change comes the inspiration to plan for garden development.

Our gardens can support many different objectives. One timely objective to consider is to support healthy lives for nature’s pollinators, primarily bees and butterflies.

We have frequently touched upon the vital role that bees and butterflies fill in the propagation of plants. The development of fruits and vegetables, which are essentially seed cases, often depends on bees, and butterflies are important pollinators of wild and cultivated flowers.

Our pollinators are threatened by civilization, notably habitat loss and agricultural chemicals. In May of 2015, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, in response to a directive by President Obama, established the Pollinator Health Task Force. That multi-agency group has begun reporting on studies and releasing recommendations to help bees and butterflies. We can expect a continuing flow of constructive new directions.

In June of 2015, with endorsement by First Lady Michelle Obama, environmentalists created the National Pollinator Garden Network and launched the Million Pollinator Challenge, with the goal to create one million new pollinator gardens by the end of 2016. Clearly, individual gardeners are invited to join in nationwide efforts to support pollinators.

In this context, we have a new book by Master Gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes: Pollinator Friendly Gardening, (Voyageur Press, 2015).

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This is a valuable resource for developing a garden that supports healthy lives for bees and butterflies. Fleming, a dedicated advocate of pollinators, provides a readable and complete introduction to the subject and maintains a calm and informative style. (We respect fervent commitment to a cause, but the strident alarms and urgent calls to action we sometimes see can be trying.)

Fleming offers three principals for pollinator-friendly gardening: provide blooming plants all year, allow nesting and overwintering sites, and avoid uses of pesticides.

She also focuses on native plants, which have co-evolved with many insects and developed reciprocal dependencies. These relationships are site-specific so that the plants and insects that are native to California are not the same as the plants and insects of the east coast of the U.S. Many garden books, including this one, address national readerships, so each reader should adapt plant lists to his or her own garden environment.

Also, note that honeybees were imported to the U.S. long ago from Europe and other regions, and do not relate to U.S. native plants in the same way as the thousands of species of U.S. native bees. Imported bees particularly appreciate plants from their native lands that have been introduced in the U.S.

Here are sources for more information on pollinator-friendly gardening:

The Pollinator Partnership

National Pollinator Garden Network

Xerces Society

Monarch Watch

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

A pollinator-friendly garden has direct benefits for the bees and butterflies, and also serves the gardener with the pleasure of beautiful surroundings and the satisfaction of ecologically sound practices. Also, an enjoyable and educational counterpart to bird-watching is the emerging activity of bee-watching. There is much to learn from the bees!

Waiting for Organic Pot

A young friend recently took a look at my garden and suggested that I could grow a few marijuana plants for personal use.

I looked into it, out of curiosity.

Long before I searched for sources of seeds or seedlings, or cultivation advice, I learned that, unless I had a genuine medical need for the herb, growing marijuana (Cannabis sativa) in my garden would be illegal. The related regulations at the local, state and federal levels are full of contradictions and different perspectives, and are in flux.

I’ll wait.

Many hundreds of illegal marijuana “grows” exist already in the Monterey Bay area, and thousands in California, including many in California’s “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties. The numbers are growing, and it is not difficult to find pot, if one were to be inclined to try it.

Last week, at the 36th annual Eco-Farm Conference, in Pacific Grove, Dr. Andy Gordus of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, described and illustrated the impacts of illegal and therefore unregulated marijuana grows in California. The growers are illegally clearing forest lands, damming streams, digging wells that drain streams that wildlife depend on, polluting waterways and killing wildlife with pesticides, leaving mountains of trash, and otherwise being really bad neighbors.

Marijuana plants, like other plants, are subject to a variety of pests and diseases, and growers use a variety of synthetic agricultural chemicals, including some highly toxic materials that are being smuggled in from Mexico. Such chemicals may be sprayed on growing plants, or applied systemically. Also, because rats and other animals chew through plastic irrigation lines, rat poisons are often used.

Marijuana products may be used by inhaling, ingesting, and absorbing through the skin. These diverse forms of use mean that users should ensure that their marijuana does not contain toxic substances. Consumers of marijuana products ideally could rely on the organic label, but at this time there is no such label for these products. Consumers can only rely on trusted sources.

California does not approve any aspect of marijuana cultivation, including pesticides, because it continues to be illegal at the federal level. The federal government also does not recommend pesticides for illegal crops.

In this bizarre environment, California has provided informational guidelines that include a short list of organic pesticides and natural rodenticides that “may be used in and around marijuana cultivation sites consistent with the label.” Visit www.waterboards.ca.gov and search for “Legal Pest Management Practices for Marijuana Growers in California.”

For more information, visit the websites of the Santa Cruz County’s Cannabis Cultivation Choices Committee, or Organic Cannabis Growers Society.

For now, I’ll wait.

During four days last week, the Eco-Farm Conference provided updates about a wide range of organic gardening and farming practices, and related state and federal policies. The short story is that organic, sustainable and regenerative gardening is healthy and expanding steadily. I’ll have more to report in future columns.

Labels are Important

Our gardens are mostly dormant during the winter, but government regulators never rest! This column offers a brief update on three current debates over garden-related regulations.

Labeling Foods as Genetically Engineered

Almost all consumers, when responding to surveys, have said they want labels on foods that are based on genetically engineered plants or animals. I wrote about this issue in late spring of 2015: go to ongardening.com to read “GMO Controversy.”

Consumers in several states, including California, have tried to require labels on such foods, but industry groups have argued against the related ballot measures. Vermont succeeded in adopting this labeling requirement, to be effective in July of 2016. Since then, opponents lost their legal challenge of the requirement, and failed to persuade Congress to ban such requirements (the House approved, the Senate didn’t).

Most recently, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responding to pressure4s from both side of the debate, issued “Guidance to Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants.” In brief, the nonbinding recommendations of this Guidance allow voluntary labeling that is truthful and not misleading (as required by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 1938).

The FDA is currently accepting comments on its similar draft guidance for labeling genetically engineered Atlantic salmon.

An increasing number of food producers are voluntarily labeling such foods, but the ultimate resolution, a uniform federal requirement, would benefit all parties.

Labeling Foods as “Natural”

FDA, responding to another set of pressures, has requested comments regarding “Use of the Term ‘Natural’ in the Labeling of Human Food Products.” The issue becomes more complex than it would seem at first. Long-standing federal policy interprets “natural” food to mean that it contains nothing artificial or synthetic that would not normally be expected to be in the food.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America want to label as “natural” foods derived from genetically engineered plants or animals.

The Consumers Union wants to prohibit the use of “natural” on any food labels, indicating that the large majority of consumers believe “natural” means no use of artificial materials, chemicals, ingredients, colors, toxic pesticides or genetically engineered plants or animals.

Labeling Garden Chemicals as Toxic

The World Health Organization has found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used pesticide RoundUp, is a probable carcinogen to humans. In response, consumer groups have asked California’s Environmental Protection Agency to label RoundUp as a carcinogen. The agency received comments on this action until late October of 2015, and is now considering those comments.

Most recently, the agency is currently receiving comments on proposed changes to clarify existing requirements for “clear and reasonable” warnings of a variety of exposure situations.

Another chemical that is under fire is imidacloprid, one of the neonicotinoid insecticides (called “neonics”) that has been linked to risks to honey bees hives. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved agricultural uses of this chemical, but in response to President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, and recent scientific studies by the State of California, has released a “preliminary pollinator risk assessment” that imidacloprid use potentially poses risks to bee hives. This assessment focuses on agricultural crops and does not consider this chemical’s risks to bees when used on ornamental flowering plants!

Chemical companies that produce this chemical insist that bees are not at risk when this company is used correctly.

The EPA is inviting feedback during 60-day comment period. It is continuing assessment of the risks of this chemical and three other neonics, with more findings to be released in December of 2016.

Historic Issues in the Garden

The growing community of organic gardeners—which hopefully includes you—represents the “good guys” in several current struggles between public and private interests in gardening and commercial agriculture. Gardeners and farmers are quite different in many respects, but both are engaged in growing plants.

Mother Nature also grows plants, and has been doing so successfully since the dawn of time.

For about 10,000 years, gardeners and farmers have cooperated with Mother Nature to grow and harvest plants to eat, treat illnesses, dye fabrics, and enjoy their beauty and fragrance. They gradually developed ways to increase yields, reduce the work of growing and improve the qualities of their plants. For the most part, these changes have been compatible with natural processes.

Eventually, people adopted various technologies to improve gardening and especially farming. Beginning 4,500 years ago, various inorganic materials and organic substances derived from natural sources were used as pesticides. Major agricultural technologies include the mechanical reaper (1831) by Cyrus McCormick, and the tractor (1868), both of which brought new efficiencies.

In the 1940s, agribusiness began using synthetic chemical pesticides and great quantities of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. In both cases, there was little or no knowledge of the impacts of these chemicals on human health or the environment.

Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962) raised awareness of the conflict between public and private interests related to agrichemicals.

In the 1970’s, research began to development Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies, which rely upon natural processes and do not use synthetic chemicals. IPM became widely used beginning in the late 1970s.

During more recent decades, continuing research and development produced more selective products, including glyphosate, which soon became most widely used herbicide, worldwide.

The ancient methods of organic gardening continued throughout this history, but the seeming cost-effectiveness of uses of agrichemicals dominated commercial agriculture.

Today, we are discovering the consequences of attempts to fool Mother Nature. Insects are developing resistance to synthetic insecticides, weeds are developing resistance to synthetic herbicides, and we are discovering that at least some of these materials threaten our health.

The State of California already has listed 800 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm, and early this month issued a notice of intent to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen.This classification is based on the findings of the World Health Organization. See: CSG Prop 65 Heirloom EXPO FLYER Glyphosate 9-7-15.

In addition, speakers at recent conferences have called for uses of regenerative agriculture, which is a form of organic farming designed to build soil health or regenerate unhealthy soils. This practice could counteract “conventional” agriculture’s destructive practices, which include uses of synthetic chemicals. Many of those chemicals weaken or kill the soil microbiota, and thereby disrupt the natural carbon cycle and contribute substantially to global warming.

By any measure, we are now in a historic period of change, to reject shortsighted agricultural technology and return to more natural processes. Our health and the health of the environment depend on the success of this transition.

 

Carbon Farming

Climate change has been described as the consequence of the Industrial Revolution, which introduced extensive burning of fossil fuels. This practice disrupts the natural balance of carbon in the soil, the atmosphere and the ocean. Plans to slow or reduce the process of climate often emphasize reducing uses of fossil fuels.

Recently, and all too briefly, we explored the relationship between gardening and climate change. We have learned that common agricultural practices generate about one-third of the surplus CO2 in the atmosphere, making commercial farming a substantial part of the climate change problem.

Prior to the development of modern agriculture, we had organic farming, which is generally compatible with natural processes. The practices we now call “conventional” farming include driving a tractor, tilling the soil, over-grazing, and using fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Similarly, farm animals once were raised in pastures, where they grazed on grasses and other plants. Today, cows, pigs and chickens are raised in tight quarters, provided grains and other feed that they work hard to digest, and must be dosed with antibiotics to maintain basic health.

These contemporary, presumably efficient methods are depleting the carbon stores in the soil, and reducing the soil’s natural ability to support plant growth and store moisture.

Soil scientists and environmentalists have been discovering land management strategies that can reduce the rate of loss of soil carbon, and even improve the rate at which agriculture can convert atmospheric CO2 into plant material and soil organic matter. When thoughtfully applied, carbon methods can add significantly to the rate of soil carbon sequestration, and actually reverse the climate change process.

Dozens of specific practices are included in carbon farming; all look like historical organic farming and common sense. The principal methods are composting, grazing by hoofed animals (ungulates), maintaining high percentages of organic matter in the soil (to feed the microbiota), supporting biodiversity, rotating crops and discontinuing uses of synthetic chemicals. The most effective practices orchestrate multiple methods in plans designed for specific circumstances.

Carbon farming, also called regenerative agriculture, should be part of the global response to the threat of climate change, but reduced burning of fossil fuels will still be important.

These promising methods for the management of agricultural lands can have substantial impacts when applied on a large scale, but they also have value when applied in residential gardens. In this column, we have advocated organic methods as beneficial to our flora and fauna. We find now that these methods also have long-term benefits to the health of the soil and the natural balance of carbon in our environment.

For more about this important topic, read Kristin Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us (2014), (which a reader recommended to me), and search the web for “carbon farming” and “regenerative agriculture.”

If you are growing plants and raising animals on hundreds of acres, try carbon farming. If not, by all means, garden organically!

Gardening to Reverse Climate Change

The threat of climate change has become a concern among scientists, environmentalists and gardeners (who might wear all three of these hats, of course). In the search for solution to this problem, these three interested parties have common ground, as we explore in this column.

As background, our climate is changing as a result of a disruption of the Carbon Cycle.

On Plant Earth, a fixed amount of carbon cycles through different forms: liquid, solid, or gas.

Carbon enters the atmosphere from several sources, including respiration of animals and plants, decay of animals and plants, eruptions of volcanoes, and releases of dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) from the oceans.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, and use photosynthesis to release oxygen back into the atmosphere and convert carbon into sugars that support the plant’s above-ground growth. At the same time, up to 40% of the CO2 goes to the plant’s roots, to feed soil microbes. The microbes assist the plant to acquire nutrients through its roots, and lock (“sequester”) carbon into the soil for very long periods.

The Carbon Cycle supports Earth’s climate and enables the growth of plants and literally all other living things.

Carbon Cycle

Credit: NASA/Globe Project

In the diagram above, notations in blue indicate pools of carbon and notations in red indicate fluxes of carbon, both quantities are measured in petagrams.

This complex natural process balances the amount of carbon in liquid, solid and gas forms. Vast amounts of carbon are stored in the soil and fossil fuels, and much smaller amounts are stored in the atmosphere, the oceans, and plants.

During the Industrial Revolution (1760 to c. 1830), humans began burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, draining wetlands, converting grasslands to large-scale crops, paving paradise, and applying synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These activities have been disrupting the Carbon Cycle and altering this important balance.

The consequences include degraded soil with reduced ability to capture carbon, an excess of carbon in the atmosphere, the acidification of the oceans, and other effects, none of which are beneficial to living things (including us).

The broad term, climate change, encompasses all these negative effects.

Restoring the natural Carbon Cycle could reverse climate change.

Restoration requires feeding the soil with organic matter and planting cover crops to protect the soil from temperature extremes and erosion. In short, the solution is based upon regenerative, organic agriculture.

This strategy must be employed on a global scale, but we all should understand the Carbon Cycle and support this process of soil restoration in our own gardens and in our individual contributions to relevant public policy. Substantial private interests are invested in fossil fuels, “conventional” monoculture agriculture that depends upon synthetic chemicals, and other industrial methods that are changing our climate. They can be expected to resist this strategy of working with nature, so eventual success requires our vision and long-term commitment.

Each gardener could participate first in his or her own garden. That would be a fine way to celebrate our independence from, in this context, commercial interests.

Continue reading

Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

We are in the midst of National Pollinator Week (June 15–21)! An unprecedented group of twenty-four conservation and gardening organizations has formed the National Pollinator Garden Network and, with First Lady Michelle Obama, launched the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

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The Network challenges the nation’s gardeners to create one million additional pollinator gardens by the end of 2016.

This campaign encourages home gardeners to help reverse the decline of honeybees and native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. This extraordinary initiative underlines the importance of pollinators to our food supply and invites home gardeners to take effective personal action even as the nation’s Pollinator Task Force mobilizes more than fifteen federal agencies to improve pollinator health.

In a recent column, we urged keeping your garden free of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, and using less-toxic alternatives. The Pollinator Partnership (www.pollinator.org), a member of the new Network, offers specific advice:

  1. Plant for Pollinators (the website includes a link to a cellphone app that lists 1,000 pollinator friendly plants native to the United States)
  2. Reduce or eliminate the impact of pesticides.
  3. Register as a SHARE site (see more about this below)
  4. Reach out to others – inform and inspire
  5. Buy local and organic produce, including honey
  6. Conserve all of our resources; use less and reduce your impact.
  7. Support the work of groups promoting science based, practical efforts for pollinators

The Network concurs with these recommendations, as expected, and adds these complementary ideas:

  1. Provide a water source
  2. Situate your garden and/or plants in a sunny area with wind breaks
  3. Create large “pollinator targets” of native or non-invasive plants
  4. Establish continuous blooms throughout the growing season

Once you establish your pollinator habitat garden, visit share.pollinator.org/ to register your garden on the Pollinator Partnership’s SHARE site. Adding your garden to the site’s map of the United States gives you personal bragging rights as a friend to pollinators and supports the effort to encourage others to participate in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

The website for the Challenge (http://millionpollinatorgardens.org/) provides links to each of its members, and most (or all) of these groups identify pollinator-friendly plants.

Still, because gardening is specific to location, Monterey Bay area gardeners should focus on plants to native to the local region. To find such plants, visit these websites:

California Native Plant Society 

Las Pilates Nursery

Xerces Society

Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. The bees and other pollinators will thank you, and your garden will be richer for the effort.

GMO Controversy

I’ve been reading lately about genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as GMOs. The preferred term is genetic engineering (GE).

There are strong feelings about whether GE technology is good or not so good for people, for the environment, or for the future of food.

These days, given the resources of the Internet, we can read a seemingly inexhaustible series of opinions about GE foods, and be tempted to escape the controversy by simply adopting one or the other extreme position.

The controversy has narrowed down to the issue of labeling GE foods. Those in favor say shoppers should know what they are buying, while others insist that there’s no reason to label GE foods, and are willing to put a lot of money into persuading voters of that perspective.

In my search for truth, I just read Steven M. Drucker’s 511–page book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth (2015). Drucker, a Berkeley-educated public interest attorney, has written and spoken extensively on genetic engineering and related topics. His book’s subtitle presents his central message: “How the venture to genetically engineer our food has subverted science, corrupted government and systematically deceived the public.”

Drucker builds his thesis with detailed and specific references to respectable sources, including highly qualified scientists and government officials. As a lawyer, he surely selects supportive sources, and presents a convincing case. Here are some of his main points.

Many scientists and government officials have advocated the promise of genetic engineering to enable commercial agriculture to meet global needs for the volume and nutritional quality of food. Still, there is literally no evidence that GE foods are more productive or more nutritious than conventional foods, despite contrary claims. In reality, GE technology has been used primarily to produce crops that can tolerate the herbicide Roundup, which kills all plant life other than the GE crops.

The advocates’ early enthusiasm for this technology led to a waiver of legally required tests to demonstrate the safety of new food products. This waiver was based on the argument that GE foods are no different from conventional foods, and are “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). But hundreds of scientists regard GE technology as dramatically different from historical methods of plant hybridization and selection, and express concerns about the safety of GE foods. While people do not immediately become ill from eating GE foods, several studies have shown that they could have long-term negative impacts on human health.

Finally, genetic engineering, which has been called a precise method to modify organisms, is really a form of crude “hacking.” Scientists have a very limited understanding of the complex interactions of genes, and, in their ignorance, they are fooling around with Mother Nature.

Drucker advocates the elimination of GE food products as “inherently high-rick” and unable to “conform to the requirements of food safety laws, the standards of science, or the protocols of information technology.” He contends that this could be accomplished by simply enforcing the food safety law of 1958. His preferred alternative is fuller development of environmentally friendly, sustainable and natural methods based on time-honored practices of organic agriculture.

As a growing numbers of food retailers and restaurants adopt “GMO-free” food products, and their customers choose organic foods (which are GMO-free, by definition), the technology could fade away. We’ll see.

A related book, “GMO Myths and Truths,” is available as a free download from the website, EarthOpenSource. This is second edition, dated 2014. The authors of this 330+ page book are John Fagan, Ph.D., Michael Antoniou, Ph.D., and Claire Robinson, M.Phil. The book is subtitled “An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops and foods.”