Growing and eating healthful produce

Organic crops need healthy soil.
Photo keep the Soil in Organic

I’ve written before about my queasiness about hydroponics  recently and also earlier this year here and here. Big hydroponic “organic” industries have lobbied and got included as certifiably Organic, when most of us realize that growing food without soil is the opposite of Organic, with or without a capital O.

The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (fondly known as SSAWG) has posted in their E-newsletter Seeds of Sustainability, about the Great Nutrient Collapse. This article written by for Politico. You can read it all here.

Irakli Loladze by Geoff Johnson for POLITICO

Irakli Loladze (a mathematician by training)  was in a biology lab in 1998, studying for his PhD at Arizona State University.

Biologists had discovered they could grow algae faster by shining more light onto them— which should have helped the zooplankton which lives on algae, by increasing their food supply. But although the algae grew faster, the zooplankton did not. They had plenty to eat—but more food did not lead to more growth.This was a paradox.

The increased light was causing the algae to grow faster, but they contained fewer nutrients. By growing faster, the algae had turned into junk food! The zooplankton had large quantities of food, but it was less nutritious, and they were starving. Irakli Loladze used his math training to help measure what was happening. He and the biologists devised a model of the relationship between a food source and a eater of that  food. They published their first paper in 2000.It didn’t make a huge splash because not so many people care deeply about zooplankton or algae.

Irakli Loladze was intrigued by a much bigger question that the experiment raised in his mind. “What struck me is that its application is wider,” Loladze explained in an interview. Could the same problem affect grass and cows? What about rice and people? “It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition,” he said.

The real-life issue isn’t that plants are getting more light than they used to. It’s that  they’re  getting more carbon dioxide than they used to. Carbon dioxide is as vital as light for plants  to grow. If extra light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae, then it is reasonable to assume that increasing carbon dioxide could do the same. What could this mean for the  people eating those plants?

It is well-documented that CO2 levels have been rising, but little research had been done on how that affected the quality of the plant foods we eat. For 17 years, Loladze searched the scientific literature for studies and data. The information all seemed to acknowledge that the junk-food effect he had learned about with the zooplankton and algae was also occurring in farms and forests world-wide. Loladze reported: “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising. We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.” To demonstrate, he tossed sugar over vegetables to represent how the sugar content of the plant crops we eat is rising due to rising carbon dioxide levels.

It has been accepted for years that many of our foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that the minerals, vitamin and protein content has dropped over the past 50-70 years. We thought we knew why – we’ve been breeding varieties for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and they have become less nutrient-dense. But this may not be the whole story.

In 2002 Loladze published a research paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, arguing that rising CO2 and human nutrition were inextricably linked through a global shift in the quality of plants as food.Very little research had been published, and Loladze’s paper was first to link the impact of CO2 on plants to human nutrition and health. He has continued working on this issue, which is starting to gain wider interest and attention.

USDA researchers recently took varieties of rice, wheat and soy they had stored from the 1950s and 1960s and planted them in various sites around the U.S. where they were grown decades ago, in order to better understand how today’s higher levels of CO2 affect them.

In 2014, a team of scientists published a large, data-rich study Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition, in the journal Nature that looked at several important crops grown at several research sites in Australia, Japan and the United States.  They found that rising CO2 led to a drop in protein, iron and zinc.

On that same day in 2014, Loladze published his own paper, (Hidden shift of the ionome of plants exposed to elevated CO2 depletes minerals at the base of human nutrition), which was the result of more than 15 years of work, and was the largest study in the world on the impact on plant nutrients of rising CO2.  Across 130 varieties of plants and more than 15,000 samples collected over the past 30 years, the overall concentration of minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron has dropped by an average of 8% . The ratio of carbohydrates to minerals is going up. The crop plants are becoming junk food.


Fauxganic hydroponic tomatoes. Photo from Keep the Soil in Organic

Reading this article lead me to make a connection with hydroponics. It made me wonder again about the nutrient quality of hydroponically grown food. Have any studies have been done on the issue of nutrient density (or lack of) in hydroponically-grown vegetables?

Glenn Kern, the Organic Policy Coordinator for Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, said: “Off the top of my head, I don’t know of studies that have looked for and found the kinds of nutritional differences discussed in the article about CO2. I agree–this is an important question.” He reported that the National Organic Standards Board Crops Subcommittee’s current proposal on hydroponics includes some discussion of published academic studies evaluating observed biological differences between crops grown in soil and crops grown hydroponically. You can find the Crops Subcommittee’s proposal here. Under “Resources,” click on “Meeting Materials.” The Crops Subcommittee’s proposal starts on page 63 and the discussion of plant physiological differences begins on page 71.
I’m with the Keep the Soil in Organic movement. Well-cared-for soil is at the heart of organic farming. It is extremely arrogant of people to imagine that any synthesized solution supplied to plants held in inert media or plastic pipes can provide all the benefits of soil. There is much we do not know about the soil, and the interactions of the soil food web. I doubt we even know everything about micro-nutrients, never mind enzymes that promote growth, inhibit diseases, promote recovery from diseases, strengthen resistance to physical stresses and all the rest of it.
Artificially grown crops are the opposite of organic. Organic farming encourages us to feed the soil, not the plant, to look at the long-term well-being of the planet, the wider effects of farming practices on all around, and the health of the people growing and eating the food.
NOFA Vermont has made a short film with Eliot Coleman and Dave Chapman talking about why soil matters.

Why is soil important to all of us? As global citizens, this is a very important question. This film was made to reach out and inform the NOSB. Please check it out.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Op3J5GFmfzo&feature=youtu.be

The Keep The Soil in Organic website is keepthesoilinorganic.org.
Their Facebook Page is Keep The Soil In Organic
Their Twitter account is @keepsoilinorganic

Local foodie blog, Organic Broadcaster, Climate Hub winter forecast

Radish Quick Pickles Photo by Bridget Aleshire
Radish Quick Pickles
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

For foodies who want recipes and a food blog centered in our part of the country, using seasonal produce, see sustainexistence sustainable sustenance for our existence. This blog is written by one of my fellow Twin Oakers, so you can be sure that you’ll find dishes you can make if you are growing in our bio-region. The latest post is a Pretty Salads gallery and includes Apple Rhubarb Flower Salad; Cucumber, Apple, & Pear salad; the famous Massaged Kale; Mixed Greens & Purples with Feta; Wild-Harvested Salads and more. Other posts include recipes for the under-appreciated rutabagas and turnips, what to do with eggplant, and a series on delicious soups. I can especially vouch for the soups!

This blog makes a nice companion to my blog, as you’ll never find recipes on mine! (Joys of community living #305: I never have to cook!). While I was looking for the link to Sustainexistence, I found another interesting blog with a post from Louisa, A Ride Across America | An Unlikely Hotbed of Food Activism in Small-Town Virginia. Over the course of eight weeks, Ben Towill, the co-owner of the Fat Radish, and the photographer Patrick Dougherty are biking 4,500 miles across the U.S. to talk to strangers about food. Each week, they’ll file a post about their discoveries. While in our area, they visited the Louisa County Community Cupboard, which is worth knowing about if you grow food nearby and have extra. You can take it there and help those less well-off.


Pulling plastic over the hoophouse frame. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Pulling plastic over the hoophouse frame.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

My latest post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog is

How to Put New Plastic on a Hoophouse (High Tunnel): A Step-by-Step Guide.  This is based on our recent experience of replacing just the outer layer, as well as our previous replacements of both layers on the same day.


broadcaster-picture-e1443112899347For more winter reading see the Organic Broadcaster November/December issue. There are articles on silvopasture, the benefits of organic, how to do cost assessments of various crops and markets, collective marketing, organic no-till, a review of Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture, the MOSES Conference, and the controversial practice of aquaponics. Well, it’s not the practice of aquaponics that’s controversial, but rather whether a system without soil can ever be truly organic.

Take Back Organic by Dave Chapman, is a report from the National Organic Coalition (NOC) meeting. Many hydroponic operations are gaining organic certification, even though most organic farmers disagree with the USDA decision to allow hydroponics.”Keep the Soil in Organic” has become a rallying cry. Others include “Take Back Organic,” “Soil Matters,” “Keep Organic Real For Me,” “Dirt Matters,” and “Soil Grown.”.

“On the first day of the meeting, a group of Vermont farmers gathered outside at lunchtime for a protest against the weakened organic standards. It started with a procession of marchers and tractors (and one beautiful delivery truck!). . . . As the standards get watered down to become “Certified Sort Of Organic,” we see something  precious that we have worked at for a long time being diluted.”

Eliot Coleman, one of the mentors of organic farming, addressed the meeting and read the following parts of the 1980 USDA report called “Report  and Recommendations on Organic Farming”. That report listed some of the “basic tenets” of organic agriculture:
“Feed the Soil, Not the Plant — Healthy plants, animals, and humans result from balanced, biologically active soil.”  “Soil is the Source of Life — Soil quality and balance (that is, soil with proper levels of organic matter, bacterial and biological activity, trace elements, and other nutrients) are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Human and animal health are directly related to the health of the soil.”

There is now a USDA Task Force on Hydroponics and Aquaponics in Organic. Unfairly, two thirds of the task force members were selected for their support of including hydroponics and aquaponics in organic certification.

Barbara Damrosch wrote about the farmers demonstration in the Washington Post
www.keepthesoilinorganic.org is a blog on the topic of keeping aquaculture and hydroponics separate from organic certification.


And lastly, for today, here’s a link to the Southeast Regional Climate Hub (SERCH).  SERCH connects the public, academic, and private sector organizations, researchers, and outreach specialists and provides technical support, tools and strategies for responding to climate change. Their goal is to help producers cope with challenges associated with drought, heat stress, excessive moisture, longer growing seasons, and changes in pest pressures.

The current El Niño is on track to be one of the largest on record (since 1950, and. has the potential to surpass the 1997/1998 event, which has been the strongest El Niño so far. Most climate models are in agreement that this episode will peak during the winter and subside to neutral conditions in the spring or summer of 2016. Above average precipitation is expected across the Southeast (see the map below).

off01_prcp

off01_tempTemperature is harder to predict. Sometimes an El Niño can cause above average temperature, sometimes below normal. Currently, December looks like being above average for both temperature and precipitation. In winter, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) plays a strong role in our temperatures. The past two winters have demonstrated this. The AO switches phases fairly unpredictably over weeks or sometimes just days. If it weakens, we can expect nasty cold temperatures again, as Arctic air zooms south to greet us.

El Niño can also cause storms to track along the southern states, if the right temperatures are in place. The SERCH Winter Season Outlook concludes: “However, I do not expect this winter to receive above normal snowfall. For most of the winter, I believe it will be above normal for temperature and precipitation.”

Book Report: Cindy Conner’s Grow a Sustainable Diet

79656b7348504867374d52494a3839696d6d77-400x400-0-0Book Report

Cindy Conner: Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth. New Society Publishers 2014.

 

“This book will help you learn how to calculate how much food you need and how much space you need to grow it, ” proclaims Cindy Conner. It  is written for the backyarder or homesteader who takes food self-sufficiency and ecology seriously. To grow food crops without depleting the soil or bringing in outside inputs, for instance, you will need to dedicate 60% of your land to growing compost crops or cover crops. This challenge is not for the faint-hearted. But here you have the leader-in-a-book, you are not going it alone.

Cindy explains what she means by a sustainable diet and includes a fascinating exercise “What if the Trucks Stopped Coming?” – where would you go to get all your food within 100 miles from home? Within 50? 25? What foods would you be eating and what would disappear from your life? Would the existing farmers be able to supply everyone’s needs locally, or would you need to provide more for yourself and your household? What would your priorities need to be? Your first thought might be that you’d need to make secret stashes of food, and get guns to keep away your hungry neighbors. Cindy says she doesn’t believe guns will keep hungry people away and the better answer is to act from compassion, and work with your neighbors to meet whatever the future brings. None of us can survive without community, so let’s make sure our community is strong enough to meet the challenges.

In the Garden Maps chapter, Cindy explains how to divide the available garden space up into smaller plots or sets of beds, increasing your ease of access without losing a high percentage of potential growing space to paths. Beds curved along the contours will reduce rainwater runoff and erosion. On the other hand, straight lines are easier to hoe quickly. Design your garden to suit the ways you use the space – how you get to the chicken pen, or the compost pile. Permaculture design principles have influenced Cindy’s choices.

Next you can chose your crops. If all your nutrients are to come from your garden, you will need to pay attention to growing enough calories. otherwise you’ll lack the energy to get to the end of the season! Cindy reports that potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, salsify, leeks and garlic are on the list of calories/area. Personally I can’t imagine getting a lot of calories from garlic. Besides the overwhelming flavor there is the issue of the work involved – garlic is labor intensive at certain times of year. Leeks similarly don’t seem a good source of calories per pound, even if they are good per square foot. And winter squash are easy to grow and surely full of calories. They do take space to grow, but I wouldn’t rule them out for that reason alone.

If you grow a lot of the calorie crops already mentioned, you will also be growing a lot of protein. Legumes produce more protein, at the cost of needing more space than the high calorie crops above. Beans, peanuts, peas can be interplanted with other crops to get that protein in the most space-saving way possible. Grains provide amino acids that are complementary to those in legumes, and the straw of grain crops is valuable for mulch or compost-making. Calcium is vital for bone health and there is plenty to be found in leafy cooking greens. A little oil or butter on the greens will help assimilate vitamin D, which is as important as calcium.

Oils and sweeteners are the two space-hogging challenges when it comes to food self-reliance. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds and peanuts, whether eaten whole or pressed, supply oil, as can some tree nuts. The home-grown vegan diet would be short on oils. Those who drink milk and eat eggs get some fats that way, easier by far. Some fruits store for out of season use. Honey, maple syrup and sorghum syrup can be home-produced, although you’ll be shocked the first time you see how much land and how much work goes into the vegan options. (Honey is made by small furry animals, it isn’t vegan.)

The question of  How Much to Grow is important, if time, effort and land are not to be wasted. Locally-adapted varieties and your personal culinary preferences, as well as potential yields per area will influence your planning. After your first year, your record-keeping will be your guide to making improvements.

To keep your garden productive year after year, you will need to feed the soil. You can do this by bringing in organic materials as mulch or to contribute to your compost. If you worry about the reliability of the supply from outside, or whether it is contaminated with herbicides or car exhaust, or whether its production is truly sustainable, you’ll want to be as self-relaint in that department as in the rest of your enterprise. You could grow mulch crops (straw or hay) as part of a bigger farm, in rotation with grazing animals. Or you could grow all your compost and mulch crops within the boundaries of your garden.

Compost is a priceless soil amendment, adding not just organic matter and the basic nutrients but also a fine collection of microbes. There are almost as many ways of making compost as there are compost-makers. Cindy prefers the cool, slow method (using a relatively high proportion of carbon materials to nitrogen materials), in order to “farm” the particular mix of microbes that result that way. The annual pile is part of her garden rotation, built on top of one of the beds, starting in the fall. The next fall, after that compost is spread on the garden, winter rye is sown.Next spring this is cut and left as mulch. The rye has scavanged any compost left from the pile and returns the nutrients to the soil as it decomposes around the corn seed (sown into the mulch).

Earlier, I said you need to plant 60% of your garden in compost crops or mulch, to have a sustainable system. Two thirds of that space would be in carbon crops and one third in nitrogen crops. Happily, some of the compost materials will be grown as a by-product of a food crop (corn stalks are a good example). The book leads you through the process of identifying suitable crops, and best of all, provides a worksheet to help you determine Bed Crop Months. For each bed, from your plan you determine how many months that bed has food crops and how many months compost crops (remember that one crop can be both!) Winter cover crops really help achieve the goal! After considering each bed, you tally up and see if you need to find more niches for compost crops.

All the work in Cindy’s garden is done by hand, including cutting down cover crops, and this is carefully explained. The space is used very intensively, often planting several crops in the same bed to get best use of the space, and so that one can take over from another later.

Scheduling so your crops mature when you want them is the next big task, followed by planning a good crop rotation,and fitting everything into the space you’ve got. “Lay out your intentions, stay flexible and keep learning.” More worksheets are provided to help you.

Sections on looking after your seeds, on including animals, on food storage and preservation and on sheds, fences and other support systems follow. About animals: “You can plan a diet of only plants, but you would be hard pressed to fill all your nutritional needs without taking supplements, which are not part of a sustainable diet.” Hear, hear!

Cindy’s book will set you on the path to providing healthy food for your household without depleting the Earth in the process. Her conversational style will give you confidence as she breaks complex ideas into manageable steps. Beginners are talked through the process step by step. Cindy’s years of teaching college shine through. One reframing exercise I liked was this “if you have thought of weeding as drudgery, something you have to endure [b]egin to think of weeding as a harvest of materials for the compost pile.”