April 30, 2013
By Rebecca Benner, director of science, The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina
What does the science really say about organics?
There has been a fairly steady stream of debate about organic products (especially food), and whether they actually meet their marketed health and environmental claims. Dig deeper into the scientific research about organic foods and you’ll find the jury is still out; in other words, it’s not time to give up on organics yet.
Organic products are increasingly common. Most grocery stores carry at least a few kinds of organic foods, and there are a surprising number of organic clothing labels and other products appearing in the market all of which you can buy in places ranging from Target to Whole Foods.
Parallel with this growth comes the question of whether or not buying organic is “worth it.” A Stanford University study published in 2012 generated much of this debate when the research showed that organic foods have very few health benefits over conventional foods.
The flurry of responses to the article indicates the grey area around the value of organic foods — a statement which brings up the crux of the issue — what is the “value” or the “worth” of organic foods.
Health benefits are only one of the potential benefits of organic foods. The other is environmental.
April 23, 2013
Bees may seem like uninvited guests at your picnic – but before you shoo them away from the fruit salad, think twice, as they play a critical role in making your picnic possible.
Some of the most healthful, picnic favorites – including blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumber, avocados and almonds – would not make it to the table without the essential work by bees and other insects.
Most crops depend on pollinating insects to produce seeds or fruits. In fact, about three-quarters of global food crops require insect pollination to thrive; one-third of our calories and the majority of critical micronutrients, such as vitamins A, C and E, come from animal-pollinated food crops.
April 16, 2013
Maasai milking a cow, Tanzania. Credit: mar is sea Y/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.
The recent move by Tanzania’s government to seal off 30,000 Maasai people from access to 1,500 square kilometers adjacent to the Serengeti in the name of wildlife conservation has drawn intense protests from both the Maasai and non-governmental organizations working in the country. The government will prevent the Maasai from grazing their cattle on a choice grazing area in the Loliondo Highlands — which the Maasai consider ancestral lands — but will allow a “Dubai-based luxury hunting and safari company” access to the land, reports The Guardian. The argument is that Maasai grazing practices are harming wildlife.
Eddie Game, conservation planning specialist at The Nature Conservancy, has written a blog post for the Australian site The Conversation arguing that the Tanzanian government’s tack is an example of “fortress” conservation that is “unnecessarily blunt and crude.” While Maasai grazing practices have reduced long-lived grass species prevalence in Tanzania in favor of seasonal species with deleterious effects for wildlife, Game says northern Kenya provides a shining example of “how pastoral livelihoods and wildlife conservation can be compatible.” Money quote:”
Through the agreement of community-run conservancies, sections of communal pastoral lands in northern Kenya are set aside as grass banks. These areas are reserved for wildlife to graze but can be used by traditional pastoralists as emergency grazing lands for cattle in times of drought.
The grass banks are complimented by establishing rotational grazing practices that encourage pastoralists to graze their animals together and in a systematic fashion, allowing land to rest ungrazed for a period each year. Regular treatment of cattle for disease (a concern also in the Maasai lands) is provided as an incentive for collective grazing. A guaranteed price and safe transport of livestock to markets gives pastoralists the security to reduce their herd sizes. And the rapid spread of mobile connectivity and mobile banking technology is providing an alternative avenue for savings in remote rural areas.
Tourism is also thriving in these community-run conservancies, notes Game — with tourists clamoring to see both wildlife and pastoralists at work. “It is sad indictment of the Tanzanian government that the international public are being presented with an overly simplistic and unnecessary choice between wildlife and the traditional lifestyle of the Maasai,” Game concludes.
Read his full post here.
April 10, 2013
We talk a lot about the biodiversity crisis, the energy crisis, the water crisis, the climate crisis, the food crisis, deforestation and so on. But what about the soil crisis?
Today, around the world the mean rate of soil loss is roughly ten times the rate at which soil is replenished. In some countries such as China, the rate of soil loss can be as high as 50 times greater than replenishment.
It is hard to imagine a better indicator of our failure to achieve sustainability. What could be more fundamental than the soil that grows the plants from which 99% of humankind’s calorie intake is derived?
From a biodiversity and conservation perspective, this soil loss also impinges on many of our more traditional concerns. It represents nutrient and sediment flow into our rivers and estuaries, to the detriment of fisheries.
Conservation has many narratives of profligate humanity soiling their nest and creating some sort of eco-catastrophe. Often those narratives are overstated and excessive.
But in the case of soil, the doom-and-gloom has some merit. Some historians have examined the arc of human history as a series of civilizations bankrupting their soils.
And it is not just data and science. If you have gardened and felt the comfort and seduction of warm, fertile soil in your hands, you know how primal is the link between people and soil. When someone back in the recesses of time coined the term “Mother Earth,” I have to believe she or he was thinking of warm soil.