Chicken Soup for the Vaccinator's Soul

Nature answers only when she is questioned.”
--Jacob Henle

We are fast approaching flu season in the U.S. and it is time for the general public to start making plans to get vaccinated.  It was time many months ago, however, for the Centers for Disease Control (among many others) to start planning just exactly what kind of vaccines should be made available for this year’s version of this ongoing fight against influenza.
Lots of variations on one basic theme:  Ick! Yuck! Phooey!

We won’t go into the abhorrent pseudoscience involved in the anti-vaccine movement in this post (though there is certainly rich material there for many an essay); rather, we thought this might be a good time to speak about influenza generally, and avian flu specifically, particularly as it relates to concerns anyone may have about the possibility of disease spreading through backyard chicken flocks.

Spoiler alert:  Well tended backyard chicken flocks are actually beneficial in fighting the spread of avian flu.  We’ll explain in a bit.

Influenza, or “flu”, is usually nowhere near so serious an illness as to justify the enormous amount of attention it gets each year.  Though it is somewhat more severe than the common cold… it is typically not fatal, and typically lasts for somewhere between a week to two weeks.

The problem, of course, is that word “usually” – when it does take a turn for the worse, it takes a nasty turn for the worse.  The most famous example is the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, which took the lives of 50+ million people worldwide.  To provide some context… “only” 16 million people died in World War I over the four years preceding the pandemic.

Why so much death from a disease that usually just sends you to bed for a couple of weeks?

The reason is that the influenza virus is one of the most mutable viruses ever discovered – most of the time, the dominant strain of influenza is one which may put those who already have weak health (the elderly, young children, those with compromised immune systems or who are already wracked by some other illness) in mortal peril (it is a rare year in which influenza deaths in the U.S. do not number in the thousands).  However, in most years, those who are reasonably healthy will suffer nothing more than an uncomfortable couple of weeks of fever, chills, headaches, sore throats, maybe nausea (depending on strain), general body aches, etc.  You know, “being sick”…

In some years, though, the mutated strain of virus is much more dangerous, and ends up generating potentially fatal complications like pneumonia, dangerously high fevers, impaired kidney functioning, etc. in previously healthy persons.

And that is why all the fuss.

The goal of immunization is, therefore, not particularly personal. 

We bill immunization as an attempt to “keep you healthy” but the reality is that immunization is more about collective than individual health.  A population in which a sufficiently large percentage of people have been immunized is much less likely to spread the virus, and is therefore much less likely to play host to the more virulent varieties of the virus.  There will still be individuals who get sick even if they get the vaccine.  There will simply be fewer of them, which is good for everyone.

So how do birds relate to all of this?

Glad you asked.  Birds, it turns out, are frequently the place where the whole story begins.  There are various strains of flu associated with different species, and those which have evolved specifically for human hosts are almost never particularly dangerous.  The varieties which run amok and kill large numbers of people are viruses which originally evolved in other kinds of animals.  On occasion, those viruses mutate in such a way that they can cross over and infect humans – this has happened with swine flu before, for example, but avian flu (flu associated with birds) is by far the most common of these “crossover” diseases.

There are numerous versions of Influenza A, the virus which is adapted to birds, the most famous of which in recent years is H5N1.  This variety has been spreading throughout Asia since 2003, reached Europe in 2005, and the Middle East in 2006.  One case was reported in Canada in January, 2014.

The virus originated in bird populations, and spread to humans.  Which birds?  Well… of the affected populations studied, 84% were domestic populations composed of chickens, ducks and turkeys, and the remainder were wild birds.  So the domestic populations were to blame, right?

Wrong.  At least, not exactly…

The virus almost definitely originated in wild birds, and was then transmitted to domestic flocks via interaction with the wild birds (waste matter dropping into a pen… wild birds scavenging food or water from the flock… there are a lot of ways for the birds to comingle).  Wild birds, however, do not live in confined quarters; as a result, they have a much lower rate of interaction with each other than do domestic birds.

A typical commercial poultry flock, however, will number thousands of birds in very, very tight quarters.  And will almost always have insufficiently cleaned ventilation, food and watering appliances.  A typical commercial poultry flock  is a pathogenic disaster waiting to happen.
Who in their right mind is dumb enough to think this is a good idea?

The response of government to the finding of an infected bird is informative in this regard – when an infected bird is found, the entire flock is killed.  They literally have no choice – there is no way to quarantine an infected bird; if one bird in a chicken farm has it, they all have it.  When you are raising birds in a 1’ by 1’ cage (or “free-ranging” them by allowing 1,000 birds to roam in a 20’ x 50’ barn) then they are not only breathing the same air, they are quite literally pooping on each other and living in muck and filth.  And those are the good farms, where regulations and procedures are being followed.

The sad, despicable truth, though, is that no one knows exactly how many poultry operations actually follow the rules.  The USDA does not have enough manpower to cover more than a small percentage of the regulatory territory to which they are assigned, and even when inspectors are available to review the health and sanitation of a given poultry operation… it is frightfully easy for operators to misdirect investigators away from problem areas.

Salmonella outbreaks are the most common result of disease-laden poultry farm ventilation systems… but one can easily envision H5N1 being spread in the same way.

Enter the backyard chicken flock…

There are a number of advantages to raising backyard chickens, and we have enumerated many of them on other occasions; aiding in the fight against avian flu, however, is one area in which taking birds out of cramped conditions is an underrated element.  Consider:
  • The principle dangers associated with poultry farming come from population density, which is not a problem for backyard flocks ranging only anywhere from 4-10 birds, in much larger spaces than are afforded by factory farms.
  • Occasional interactions between wild birds and diffuse backyard flocks will still happen… but any one interaction only affects 4-10 birds, not 10,000.
  • Human interaction with a flock of 4-10 birds is limited to one household, not the tens or hundreds of thousands (or even millions) who interact with a single poultry farm in factory farming setups.
  • While flu can spread via the lungs, it is much easier to transmit via fluids, like, say, blood, which is often smeared all over human workers on a poultry farm, and almost never contacted by backyard birders.

The logic behind a more diffuse production system for poultry related products is fairly simple – for the same reason that contagion is more common in dense population centers, the spread of food-borne pathogens is much higher when the production of those foods is also performed in dense populations.  When the Black Plague hit London, even the superstitious folk of the pre-Enlightenment era knew to head for the hills, because there was danger in population density.

The advantages posed by backyard birding, however, will not be fully felt unless a sufficient number of folk take up the “hobby” and make it a lifestyle choice.  In order to decrease the population density of
Much less chance of contagion, and no equipment to clean.
commercial poultry farming, sufficient numbers of backyard chicken flocks will need to be raised to take a serious bite out of the bottom line for the monsters of the industry (pejorative sense of the word intended) like Tyson, et al. 

Barring having one’s own backyard flock, we would at least encourage consumers of eggs or poultry meat to consider purchasing from farmer’s markets or other venues where small producers with free range flocks not raised in pestilential, overpopulated factory farms make their money.  Otherwise, we will all be vulnerable to the inevitable spread of some form of influenza from factory farmed bird-to-human, and then from human-to-human.  Once it’s human borne, it is out of the hands of the backyard birder or responsible consumer.

Which brings us back to immunization…

We began by noting that those in charge of manufacturing each year’s vaccine have to plan months in advance of distribution, owing to the mutability of the virus (there’s your evolution-in-action laboratory-verifiable example, if you care to argue with a creationist at any point, though we prefer arguing with brick walls, as they don’t spout nearly as much nonsense).  Because there is so much variability, a flu vaccine is really usually a vaccination against up to four different virus types.  Which, obviously, takes a lot of planning, based on data gathered from the previous year’s strains, examples of viruses found in poultry populations, examples found in other countries with which the U.S. population has a lot of interaction, and good solid guesses based on historical trends regarding which strains are “due” for a comeback.

As a result of all this variability, measuring the effectiveness of flu vaccines is anything but straightforward.  In most years (for example 16 of the 19 years before a 2007 study), the strains which actually bloomed during flu season were exactly the strains predicted by vaccine manufacturers.  And even in the years when they guess wrong, there is still some cross-over protection, given that not every mutation of the virus is radically different from the previous version.

There have been many meta-analyses of the data (basically, reviews of multiple studies) which suggest that overall, for healthy adults, vaccinations result in roughly a 75% decrease in the likelihood of getting the bug.  Without doubt everyone involved (particularly those who got the shot but ended up getting sick anyway) would prefer a rate closer to perfection… but remember, the ultimate objective is not necessarily to keep any one person healthy, it’s to keep a pandemic from happening.  If a few people still get sick, but we never see anything like 50 million people dying from something like the Spanish flu again, it will have been an exercise well worth it.


Your assignments for this Fall:  Get your flu shot, raise backyard chickens (or shop at farmer’s markets), try to stay warm and dry, wash your hands regularly, and…

Happy farming!


Rewriting the Wealth of Nations, One Happy Person at a Time

Quod satis est cui contigit, nihil amplius optet.
(“Let him who has enough ask for nothing more.”)

What do we really need?

Given that there are roughly 6 billion people on Earth, there are probably 18 billion different answers to this question.  But it is, we believe, a question that is not asked nearly often enough.  It is certainly not asked often enough in what so many radical activists in the developing world refer to as “the decadent West”.

 A little perspective might help to show the uncomfortable justice in this charge which so many of us find alien and a little off-putting:

There are approximately 300 million people living in the United States.  That means that roughly 1 in 20 folk in the entire world are Americans.  All but the poorest Americans are in the wealthiest 10% of people in the world.  The vast majority of Americans, in fact, are in the top 1%  of the world’s wealthy.  The poverty line in the United States for a family of four in 2012 was $23,492.  The median income across 131 countries in 2012 was $9733.  That means that poor Americans in 2012 earned almost 2 ½ times as much as the middle-of-the-road earner worldwide.

Almost half the world – over three billion people – survive on less than $2.50 a day.  The World Bank sets the global poverty line at less than $2.00 a day.  Median income in the U.S. in 2012 was $51,017, meaning that the typical family of four in the U.S. makes about $140 a day… 70 times as much as the global poverty standard.

What do all these statistics really mean, though?

The typical American philosophical response (leaving aside the cretins who simply don’t care about the fates of others) is to wonder what we can do to help raise others out of their poverty.  This is a natural response – how do we help them get what we have?  There are several different approaches within the framework of this basic understanding of “the problem”… ranging from wealth redistribution schemes on the socialist end of the spectrum to sending economic missionaries to teach classes on free enterprise on the libertarian/free market economics end of the spectrum.

We believe they have both misunderstood the problem.

Measuring wealth in terms of monetary income is natural; the meaningful unit of economic exchanges has always been money – in fact, reading, writing and arithmetic, the sine qua non of civilization, were largely invented in order to deal with the problem of measuring wealth in just such terms. 

However… measuring wealth in terms of money ignores the more fundamental reality that genuine wealth can only truly be understood in terms of contentment.  And while the two different ways of looking at economic prosperity (or lack thereof) often mirror one another… there is a point of diminishing returns on wealth, a point beyond which more money brings only unhappiness, discontent, and a spiritual cancer – frequently to others, but almost always to oneself.

There are obvious benefits to “having enough”:  adequate food, clothing and shelter formed the holy trinity of wealth for early humans on the plains of the Serengeti, whose chief concerns lay in getting enough to eat, staying out of the sun and rain, and keeping clear of saber-toothed tigers.  Many of the same concerns still abound today, added to a few others with a more modern feel – adequate drinking water, access to education for one’s children, good health care, sufficient law and order to protect whatever possessions one does have from the marauding of one’s fellow humans.

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” laid out a hierarchy of needs which has been the roadmap for much of the discussion on contentment that has taken place ever since.  According to Maslow, human ambition climbs as each level of need is attained – once basic physical needs are met, one can focus on security; once security is obtained, one can seek emotional fulfillment, and so on.  His levels are as follows:

Level One
Air, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion
Level Two
Security of body, of employment, of resources, of the family, of health, of property
Level Three
Friendship, family, sexual intimacy
Level Four
Self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others
Level Five
Morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts

In context of a discussion of wealth, one thing becomes readily apparent almost immediately when attempting to apply the hierarchy to individual human economies – practically everyone everywhere will have a different way of meeting virtually everything on this list of needs.  At the very base of the hierarchy… it costs more money to get clean air, food, water, etc. in some places than others. 

A hermit on a hillside farm in Bhutan may have plenty of clean air to breathe, plenty of food and water… a single mother in Nairobi may have to wear a kerchief over her nose if smog descends, and she may need to boil her water to kill microbes, and unless she grows her own food in bags of soil hung from the balcony of her apartment building, or in an abandoned alleyway, she will have to buy what her family needs from a local market. 

And the market from which someone in Beijing buys produce may have a different nutritional value than the equivalent market in Darfur, or Sao Palo, or Quebec, or Los Angeles, or Quito.

We cannot even begin climbing the pyramid of needs, in other words, without encountering differences in economic status throughout the world’s populations.

That having been said… taking a deeper look at the hierarchy… no matter what the cost of each item may be, it is possible locally to meet that cost.  The question then becomes, once you’ve met your needs, now what?

It is helpful in answering that question to step back from whatever striving we may be doing in terms of seeking wealth to ask… what would we do with it if we had it?  A quick look around at the kinds of things the typical American family does with what they have (and often, with credit… or put another way, with money they don’t have…) shows that a lot of things we buy with our comparative wealth don’t appear on the hierarchy of needs anywhere.

Television?  Vacations?  Movies?  Electronic gadgets?  Fancy clothes?  Where exactly do all these things fit?

It turns out luxury is an attempt to satisfy unmet needs, too.  We seek the comfort of luxuries because they satisfy our desires for things we cannot directly purchase, and may otherwise feel powerless to acquire – how often, for example, do we spend money to participate in group events as a part of our attempts to find friendship?  At first, the mind rebels against this charge (and make no mistake, it is an accusation), but a simple thought experiment demonstrates the truth of this idea.

Imagine a parent playing happily with their child in the park.  Their child is laughing uproariously over some silly joke they have just told, and is enjoying the kind of frolic one associates with a happy-go-lucky kind of day being enjoyed by a happy-go-lucky family.  Would either the parent or the child want to trade that experience for a new pair of designer jeans?  Would they want to trade that experience for two hours at a movie theater watching a shoot-em-up?  Remember, you’re trading that experience.  Would you give up the good feelings associated with an interpersonal relationship (enjoyed for the staggering economic sum of zero dollars) for any amount of purchased goods or services?

Life is not always so simple as that, of course, but unless we stop to consider a cut-and-dried example, we may not fully appreciate the distinction between emotional satisfaction and the means by which emotional satisfaction is achieved.  And if we don’t see that distinction, we invariably seek the wrong things.

There have been innumerable movements with countless gurus preaching more or less the same thing we are discussing here; whether you call it “Simple Living”, or “Back to Basics” or “Satyagraha” or “The Franciscan Order” the benefits are palpable and real.  Satisfaction comes from gratefulness, and gratefulness is the beginning of not just the humility central to the spiritual teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and countless other gurus and rabbis, but also the beginning of emotional and physical health and well-being.

We have often noted that there is some selection bias involved in any nutritional study – those who eat truly healthy diets tend to live longer and have fewer health problems.  However… those who eat truly healthy diets tend to live more simply and intentionally, as well.  They frequently have more money than they need, not because they make so much money, but because they make so much more money than they have any desire to spend.

Much the same dynamic plays out on every other step of Maslow’s pyramid – once a person satisfies a need, if they are paying attention and being sensible, they find they need less than their fears foretold.  And the more grateful they are for what they have, the more physical, spiritual and emotional capital they have to spend in moving on to the next step.  Ultimately, physical, spiritual and emotional capital are more valuable – in attaining what we need – than financial capital ever could be. 

When American ears, therefore, process the idea of $2 a day being typical for over half the world’s population, we are more staggered than we ought to be.  We can’t imagine either how we ourselves could live that way, or how we could ever assuage our guilt for the suffering of those who do live that way because the overwhelming numbers seem impossible to surmount.

We don’t need to make them financially wealthy in our terms, though.  Yes, there are plenty of people in the world who need more money than they currently have.  And yes, access to food, clean water, health care, and education are huge issues which need to be resolved.

But the real poverty crisis is the poverty of spirit which is felt every bit as much (and often more) in the “wealthy” decadent West as it is in the underdeveloped nations of the world.  The bumper sticker slogan has got it wrong – all too often we say “Live simply, that others may simply live.”  It would be more meaningful to say “Live simply, for cryin’ out loud – if you’re not happy now, you’re not going to be happy after your next million dollars, either.”

A little land, a chair to sit on, some chickens to scratch around... we're good.

Happy farming!


...And Now, For Those Who Don't Like Dirt...

“People are very open-minded about new things - as long as they're exactly like the old ones.”
--Charles Kettering

We like hearing people tell us after they have read the blog, or after having visited the house, that they’ve decided that they, too, want to raise chickens in their backyard, or put in a bee hive, or add some more raised beds and grow a few more vegetables… but the truth is, we are not so stubborn and pigheaded as to think that our way is the only way.  There are myriad options when striving for a higher degree of economic, social, and nutritional autonomy, some of which we reject for philosophical or moral reasons, some for practical reasons, and some because we simply haven’t heard of them yet.

Fairly typical hydroponic greenhouse setup -- lots of plants in small spaces
One system of which we have heard, but which we never plan to adopt, is hydroponics.  We get this question all the time, and since we’ve never addressed it before, we figured, heck, the hottest week of August is as good a time as any to discuss a system of growing things based entirely on water.

A preface before diving in, just so you know where we’re coming from – we rejected the hydroponic approach early on, mostly for the amount of effort involved in setup and maintenance.  If you decide it’s your cup of tea, hey, knock yourself out.

A lot of myths and misconceptions abound about hydroponics, mostly because so few people have ever gotten a hands-on “look-see” at a system based on hydroponic principles.  For starters, most people think of aquatic growing techniques as a modern invention; the truth is, the first book on growing plants without putting them in a soil bed was written by Francis Bacon in 1627.  Up through the 19th century, “solution culture” was a fairly popular research project – there was still a medium of some kind (often crushed pebbles or charcoal), but no soil, just a mineral water solution.

Among the early discoveries by curious “solution culturalists” were the fact that plants grew better in “impure” water than they did in distilled water – early proof that there were numerous nutrients plants acquire from their root system other than merely water – and that there were specific nutrients involved.  The techniques developed in this early time frame are, in fact, still used today for much of the plant material that finds its way into teaching botanical laboratories.

In the early part of the 20th century, a University of California at Berkeley professor named William Gericke coined the term “hydroponics” (after he found that his originally preferred term, “aquaculture”, was already in use to describe the growing of aquatic animals).  Gericke was the first to propose that hydroponics could be used for widescale agricultural applications, rather than merely as a research tool.  He stunned the observers of his day by growing an indeterminate tomato vine to the astonishing height of 25’ in his backyard using a mineral solution and no soil. 
Disney's tomato tree - any tomato plant can reach these dimensions
under controlled circumstances; tomatoes are naturally
perennial, provided they are not exposed to extreme temperatures.
Disneyworld has since topped this feat by hydroponically growing a famed “tomato tree” of massive dimensions.  More on the fabulous hydroponics at Epcot in a moment, we promise.

Aside from the newness myth (which we believe is a consequence of hydroponics’ essential alien-ness as it relates to most people’s experiences with growing plants), there are several misconceptions about the basic working design (and consequent advantages and disadvantages) related to the structure of a hydroponic growing system.

It’s not as simple as just sticking plants in a container of water.

There are two main categories of hydroponic systems, and a lot of variation within these two categories.  “Solution culture” is the most commonly envisioned setup – this is a system in which there is no growing medium other than the water/mineral solution.  “Medium culture” is still technically hydroponic, but the roots of the plant are supported by some type of medium – sand, gravel, rockwool, etc.

Within solution culture, there are three variations:
  • Static solution culture (like a rooted pothos ivy in a vase on someone’s office desk, for example) where the plant is placed in a non-moving water/mineral solution.  Not at all common for large operations.
  • Continuous-flow solution culture (where numerous plants have their roots maintained in a slow-moving but continuously moving) water/mineral solution.  Think here of a greenhouse with a series of big pipes full of running water, with plants stuck in holes cut at regular intervals on top of the pipes.
  • Aeroponics where plants are grown on a supported platform with their roots dangling below, getting continuously misted by a mineral solution “fog”.  This is the newest of the solution culture methods, and according to many researchers holds great promise for increasing productive capacity of greenhouse growing worldwide.

 Within medium culture, there are two variations:
  • Sub-irrigation where water flows through the medium from below.
  • Top irrigation where traditional watering techniques from soil-based agriculture are used, and water seeps into the medium from above.

For each of these growing methods, the advantages and disadvantages are more or less the same, though the degrees of each may vary.  Advantages include:
  • No need for soil or for soil treatments
  • Water stays in the system and can be reused (lower water requirement, not higher, as is often believed by the uninitiated)
  • Much easier to monitor nutrient loading (no need to do soil testing – nutrients are measured and added to the water, so you know exactly what the plants are getting)
  • pH and other factors are easy to monitor
  • No runoff pollution
  • Can be integrated with an aquaculture system – nutrients from the plants can feed fish; waste material from fish in turn fertilize the plants
    Full hydroponic/aquaculture cycle.
  • Year round production, since you are growing in a controlled greenhouse environment
  • Pest and disease control are much more manageable (simply remove infected plants from the environment, and they cannot affect the other plants)
  • Harvesting is easy – just grow your plants at levels where you don’t have to bend over very much

 Disadvantages include:
  • Need a relatively large greenhouse
  • Startup costs can be prohibitive – pumping equipment, specialized containers, etc.
  • Need to be a specialist rather than a generalist – ie, you have to know exactly what nutrients are needed, exactly what pH levels should be, etc., for each of the different plants you are growing
  • Needs much more monitoring than a traditional soil-based garden schema
  • Lack of soil as a buffer means any short-term failures in the hydroponic system can be fatal to your entire crop in a very short time frame
  • Verticillium wilt and other waterlogged plant diseases are much more common
  • Different kinds of containments systems are required for different kinds of plants; switching from one kind of crop to another between seasons or years is much more complicated

 On the whole, we are thrilled that research is being done on how to increase the productive yield in the agribusiness sector while and at the same time decreasing the consumption of water and eliminating runoff pollution.  If the green fields of the corn belt were to be replaced in all those Google Earth pictures by a landscape dotted with glass-roofed hydroponic houses, nothing would make us happier.

However… it’s not for us.

Living With the Land - Epcot's boat ride through a hydroponic greenhouse.
In January of this year, we packed up the family and spent a week at Disneyworld in Orlando.   Naturally over the past eight months there has been disagreement about “the best part”, but for one member of Myrtle’s family, at least, the highlight of the experience was the “Living With the Land” exhibit at Epcot.  Disney has integrated a vast hydroponic and aquaculture laboratory with their theme park and dining facilities, and has basically hit a home run in the “future of agriculture sweepstakes”.  We still believe that small scale, market farm approaches are the best possible use of the world’s farming spaces, but… it is hard to argue with the successes of the hydroponic researchers who can grow the delectable dainties upon which we dined while we were there.

For most small scale growers, though, and particularly for families living on limited spaces and budgets, the time and capital commitments involved in “doing hydroponics right” are just too much.  We suspect if you did a cost-benefits analysis, market farmers with a few acres or more would probably come out way ahead of the curve in terms both of cost control and of production quality and quantity by switching to a greenhouse/hydroponic approach.  For folk with a day job, however, we are guessing maybe not so much.

We are looking forward to a return trip to Orlando some time soon, though.  The food was amazing.  If, you know, you’re into that sort of thing.  As Kettering noted, people are a little leery of things that are different.  Well, the growing method may be different, but hydroponic veggies are every bit as scrumptious as their soil-grown forebears.

Happy farming!


Hairspray, GMOs and the Road to Perdition -- a Philosophical Gardening Primer

“Ecology is a dirty seven-letter word to many people. They are like heavy sleepers refusing to be aroused. ‘Leave me alone! It's not time to get up yet!’”
--Frank Herbert

The most egregious failures of humanity to deal with our unhealthy relationship to the world around us take place under our very noses.  We remember encountering stories in 1970s about the effect of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer, and overnight the use of aerosol spray cans (most notably for hair spray) became taboo items… yet to get that ever desirable feathered hair look every guy and gal in the 70s and 80s (no longer able to slather aerosol-fueled-hairspray in a guilt-free manner) instead used liberal amounts of pump-spray hair products, and never thought once (let alone twice) about the idea that just because the aerosol problem was solved did not mean there were no other petrochemical evils invoked by our vanity.

And, of course, no one wears their hair that way any more anyway, so what did we really gain by this behavior?  Not much, other than a few more baby steps toward ecological perdition.  We avoided adding pollutants to the stratosphere by cutting back on one kind of chemical, but we kept right on truckin’ with adding petrochemicals to our water supply, not to mention all the environmental harm caused in the manufacturing process for both hairspray and the plastic containers it came in.

We are not going to spend much time beating this particular dead horse, however.  Overuse of manufactured goods and services (particularly the petrochemical variety) has become obvious to all but the most obtuse observers – we know we use too much, we know we need to kick the oil habit, yes, yes, Myrtle, we hear you, you’ve been standing in that particular bully pulpit, squawking into the same old bullhorn, for long enough.

Instead, we would like to suggest today that there are other stories to which we do not pay much attention, but which have every bit as much environmental significance as our abuse of the natural world in the form of pollution and neglect.  And we’re not talking about an ad hoc, line-item review of human behavior; we are talking about a review of how we think about what we do.  Essentially, by ignoring the nature of Nature, by not realizing that it is an interconnected system, or, rather, a series of interconnected systems, we have allowed unimaginable degrees of vulnerability to develop all around us.  Our basic philosophy of how we fit into the world, and how we relate to it, is, to be blunt, messed up.

We were reminded of this idea recently by seeing a story oft repeated in the Facebook feeds of many of our friends in the skeptic community – a story on the science behind the health effects of GMO (genetically modified organism) crops.  The science, these stories report (and many of our skeptic friends believe as a consequence) suggests that there are no deleterious health effects to consuming GMO crops.

This is, on its face, a ludicrous idea, but not for the reason most folk who discuss GMOs (either as advocates or as antagonists) would think.

Eating a GMO crop is not particularly unhealthy, in general.  As a generic concept, a GMO crop is not especially different from a crop whose genetic makeup has been altered via the cultivation process.  When it comes right down to it, all corn (maize to our non-U.S. readers) is “genetically modified” – there is no “natural” maize.  Proto-Mayan farmers in the dawn of time tended and teased a grassy grain in Central America until it became corn.  It would not exist without human intervention.  And outside of an extreme allergic reaction, we cannot imagine any reason why eating it would be any more dangerous than eating any other cereal crop.  It would be possible through genetic manipulation in a lab, one would suppose, to create a poisonous variety of corn… but then, a patient farmer with time on his hands for this dubious enterprise could undoubtedly do the same thing through selective breeding.

So, eating an ear of corn with a modified genetic makeup is not, in and of itself, unhealthy.  However, the act of eating is not an isolated event.  It happens as part of a system.  And it is here that GMO crops are not only unhealthy, they are downright perverse and deadly.

The point behind the vast majority of genetic modifications to crops is seldom to increase the nutritional value of the plant or animal being modified.  No, most GMOs are so-modified because the engineers involved are attempting to increase productive yield – in the case of GMO corn or vegetables, by decreasing the amount of crop loss from insects and drought, or by changing the natural timeline for fruit set (making tomatoes which require less sunlight, or changing the temperature requirements for either fruit set or for ripening, for example).

We have already mentioned one of the problems with this approach in a previous posting about the effects of neonicotinoid poisons which some GMOs have allowed plants to create on their own – essentially, some GMO crops kill any insects who encounter them, including not only the grasshoppers, aphids, etc. who have been the bane of farmers since farming began in roughly 10-15,000 B.C.E., but also beneficial insects like bees, without whom all of agriculture (and, by extension, all civilization) would pretty much come to a halt.

Even without singling out one particular GMO, though, the entire approach can be called to task for a fundamental philosophical failing.  Increasing production sounds like a good idea, but… it is actually a catastrophe waiting to happen.  Growth for the sake of growth is the ethic of the cancer cell, and that is more or less what agriculture has become – an ecological cancer. 

Large scale agribusiness has created huge swaths of land which are monocropped, and we have seen time and again that uncontrollable large scale destruction is the inevitable result.  One would think that the devastation wrought by the Dust Bowl years would have given us pause to think about the entire approach we were taking to the question of how to feed ourselves… but the lesson we learned from that specific
catastrophe was that specific conditions could be controlled.  Farmers did not stop planting acre after acre of the same kind of crop (which was the real problem); instead, they changed tillage methods, which only solved a symptom.

And GMOs are much the same:  the problem is that large scale agriculture creates systemic failures, as it replaces natural ecosystems with unnatural ecosystems of limited biodiversity and tremendous vulnerability to the slightest entropic change.  Instead of treating this disease (ecological cancer), GMOs treat symptoms.  Just like chemical fertilizers do.  Just like overpumping slow-charging aquifers… just like building dams on low-flow river systems… just like applying indiscriminate pesticides… just like hundreds and thousands of other engineered adaptations to ecological failures, GMOs are not bad because they are in and of themselves bad, they are bad because they are part of a cancerous philosophy.

Like teenagers trying to imitate the hair styles of Farrah Fawcett or a young John Travolta (because, let’s get real, even John Travolta doesn’t want to be like old John Travolta), corporate farmers pay attention to form and not to substance.  The overapplication of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and excessively pumped
water are all problems of which agribusiness is well aware… and to their credit, much like fashion-conscious teenagers of yesteryear, they are doing what they can to throw out those things which have been proven to be bad.  Unfortunately, just like teenagers who switched from one bad cosmetic to another, agribusiness is merely shifting from one kind of bad behavior to another.

The real problem is vanity.  We are, as a species, mired in the same self-absorption we so easily see on every teenager’s bathroom counter.  We think of increased production as “the end result”, without realizing that there is no “end” result.  There is no “end” – we are part of a series of cycles, part of an endless flow of systems, everything we do, everything we are, everything we take, everything we discard, comes from someplace and goes someplace.  And, on a closed planet with a strong gravitational pull, all those someplaces are connected with each other.

Instead of thinking about problems in production as “problems” or even as “in production”, we should think about what is happening in the context of how natural systems are attempting to balance themselves.  A useful way to visualize this is with a reexamination of the concept of entropy.  The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics essentially posits that systems move from any state lacking thermodynamic equilibrium to a state in which there is equilibrium. This is often mischaracterized as moving from “less chaos to more chaos” or “less randomness to more randomness” – which is often true, but it really misses the point.  The point is, any system moves from a state in which small changes in one variable cause big changes in all the other variables to a state in which  even small changes to any variable are not likely.

Put still another way, things tend to change a lot until they naturally progress towards a state in which they don’t change much.  Every time humans try to control nature, we have to relearn this lesson – as children, we try damming rivulets of rainwater runoff coming out of a puddle, only to discover that our little dams made of mud are vulnerable to erosion, and eventually wash away.  As grownups we discover that the gutters we put on our roofs to direct rainwater runoff get clogged by leaves and other debris, and if we do not constantly intervene, the natural state of the universe slowly but inexorably adds “roof damage” to the list of reasons our houses – which we foolishly think of as “permanent” structures – will be reduced by the sands of time to rubble.

I am Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

 This way of thinking sounds pessimistic to some; those people are probably no fun at parties, is our guess.  There is nothing dour about recognizing how things work.  In fact, it’s quite the reverse.  To give an agricultural example… when there is an infestation of insects on your tomatoes, the cynical approach of the last century has been to think of some way to poison the bugs without poisoning ourselves – sometimes unsuccessfully, but… as we have suggested all along, maybe even the “successes” should be viewed as “failures” because, let’s be honest, they are.

So… just let the bugs eat my tomatoes?  Myrtle, you’re nuts!

Au contraire.  The problem isn’t the bugs.  The problem is that the system is out of balance.  Putting it back in balance means taking the tomatoes out of isolation, where they are vulnerable to the implicit dynamic inequilibrium of monocropping.  In plain English, plant some flowers, you fool.  Nasturtiums, sunflowers, marigolds, a few herbs like basil, catnip, mint… create a more vibrant, biodiverse ecosystem in your garden and… Presto!  Your heirloom tomatoes are every bit as healthy as your neighbors’ GMO tomatoes are, and they are prettier, to boot.  And you will be much more prepared to deal with the next scenario of inequilibrium, whatever it may happen to be, because you have treated the cause not the symptom.

Trust us, it’s much more fun to be smug than depressed.  Ozymandias was a schmuck.  So is John Travolta, when it comes down to it.

Happy farming!


Be Sensible, Not Common

“Common sense is that which tells us the world is flat.”
-Stuart Chase

Any time a politician tells you something is “just common sense” it’s time to lock up your daughters and hide the chickens, because the drivel that is about to follow will invariably place your personal safety at risk in a multiplicity of ways, from your economic welfare to your very physical wellbeing.
What part of this is "Common Sense" and what part requires someone
 to have made an observation not readily seen from the road?

The world is a complex place, home to myriad interlocking processes about which our five senses (six, if you foolishly include the “common” one) provide almost no direct information.  We seek simplicity, “straight talking” and “unmuddled answers” but the truth is that any simple answers are based on fable, and “straight talking” hardly ever has any evidentiary basis.  As for “unmuddled answers” the reality is this – honest answers to most questions seldom accomplish anything more concrete and settled than yet more questions.

E.M. Forster once quipped “beware of muddle” and, while he is one of our favorite authors, the fact remains that his advice is worthless outside the context of personal relationships, and even then relates only to the question of personal commitment.  In terms of certainty of knowledge?  Embrace muddle – it is the only refuge of truth.  Yes, we should rather betray our country than our friends… but we cannot say that we know with certainty anything for which there is not a verifiable testing framework, a way to validate the hypothesis.  When those hypotheses have been tested, however, for God’s sake, don’t ignore the results.

We are wading into these philosophical waters for a particular reason, naturally, and that is to attempt to bridge the gap between “common sensers” (climate change denialists, lawn care specialists, monocropping agriculturalists, etc.) and cold hard truth.

Merely presenting evidence frequently makes no impact upon the opinion of those who cling to the notion that truth should be “plain and simple”; the claims, for example, that global warming is a hoax (!) fly square in the face of overwhelming mounds of not only theoretical reasoning, but actual verifiable empirical measurements of air and (more significantly) ocean temperatures which are virtually incontrovertible evidence of the idea that global temperatures are not only rising, but rising at a rate never before seen at any point in the paleometeorological record.  Essentially, if you are politically conservative, you are statistically highly likely to ignore this evidence, regardless of your education level, and truth be damned.

Another excellent example of proponents of “common sense” ignoring the myriad complex processes around them involves anoxic waters, the so-called “Dead Zones” in our lakes, streams and oceans where a lack of oxygen causes nothing at all to live.  First reported by shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1950s, the phenomenon has grown dramatically over the years, such that in places like Lake Erie, there are only tiny slivers of water in which any fish at all live.

The phenomenon of an algal bloom, of course, can occur naturally due to dramatic changes in wind and ocean currents, floods or droughts upstream at the origin of freshwater streams which discharge into saltwater bodies, and a host of other variables.  However, these natural sources of eutrophication (the rapid increase in the nutrients on which algae thrive, which in turn depletes the water of oxygen) do not account for the massive increases in dead zones throughout the world, nor do they explain why the Gulf of Mexico has seen the occasional hypoxic area transform from a some-time and highly localized event to a permanent description of a vast area ranging from the Texas coast just south of the Brazos River discharge eastward to Mississippi and Alabama.

Vast sums of research dollars, hundreds and thousands of experiments, and a wide ranging array of analysts have been applied to the problem over the last fifty years, and the causes of the problem are now more than obvious.  There are numerous factors contributing to the creation of  dead zones throughout the world, but far and away the most noxious is fertilizer runoff.  The Mississippi River is the drainage zone for a little over 40% of the continental United States; much of that area is the so-called “corn belt” – and corn production is dependent almost entirely upon the presence of nitrogen in high concentrations in soil, a state which cannot exist in monocropped agriculture without constant yearly application of high quantities of industrial fertilizer, the very sort which is most likely to wash away disproportionately.

Corn production in the central U.S. has been increasing dramatically since the 1950s; nearly all the forested regions in the Missouri Valley, for example, have been stripped of trees and converted to corn fields, and thanks to the ill-conceived “Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007” still more will be converted to corn production for the purposes of ethanol production.  Even before this stupidity was foist upon us, 1.7 million tons of potassium and nitrogen were being delivered to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River every year.  The size of the Gulf dead zone has essentially doubled since the late 1980s; it is not likely to shrink any time soon, absent permanent and devastating drought conditions throughout the Midwest.
This is not a thermal picture; it is a picture of areas where no fish
or shellfish or coral reefs, etc. can live -- red means dead.

Meanwhile, there is ample empirical evidence suggesting how dead zones may be reversed.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of centrally planned economies in the former communist states of Eastern Europe caused fertilizer use in the nations bordering the Black Sea to drop to virtually zero.  The Black Sea dead zone had, prior to the 1990s, been the biggest in the world.  It shrank to practically nothing between 1991 and 2001.  Fishing – which had completely disappeared from the Black Sea in the latter half of the 20th century (you can’t catch fish who don’t exist) is once again becoming a way of life in the region.  Likewise, the North Sea dead zone has decreased by about a third since nitrogen and other industrial emissions along the Rhine River have been cut.

Similar progress is not likely in the United States any time soon, however, for the simple reason that any attempt to salvage our ecology is met with incredulity and vitriol about how environmentalists are “out to destroy the economy”.  It is hard to see how it is “common sense” to argue that the economy of a dead region is much of an economy, but so it goes.  The Scots aphorism is perhaps apropos here:  “’tis an ill bird wha’ fouls its ain nest.”

In any event, the fishing economy of the Gulf of Mexico is on the order of at least $10 billion dollars.  Absent appropriate management of environmental policy (meaning banning fertilizer) all $10 billion of those dollars (and by all means, feel free to adjust for inflation) will simply disappear in coming decades.  Not trying to be hyperbolic here – just extrapolating from the data.  Science passes no judgments, it merely provides the tools for analysis, and very few of those studying the data have come to any other conclusion than this:  we ignore natural processes at our own peril.

The scope and scale of our impact on the world around us has always exceeded our ability to visualize and conceptualize, and that reality is becoming increasingly apparent any time we step back and attempt to understand any particular phenomenon.  There is a simple reason people used to believe that the world was flat – when you look from horizon to horizon, it seems flat.  Indeed, without the evidence provided by mathematical analysis of a series of observations and experiments, one would have to be a buffoon to believe anything other than that the world was a vast disk, immense perhaps, but certainly not round.

The truth was, is, and ever shall be much greater than what we can take in first hand.

Because of that “simple” reality, we have an obligation to toss common sense on the dung heap of no-longer-respectable notions, and take a long hard look at the impact we are having on the world around us.  What we eat, how and where we live, what we wear, it all matters. 

We at Myrtle’s place have railed against lawns for a while now, because they are bad for us all (killing bees, destroying soil tilth, causing nitrogen runoff, generally looking icky) but that’s really just a jumping-off point.  We are well aware that the vast majority of Americans think lawns are not only “okay” but that they are essential.  The same holds true for all sorts of other things that most folk take for granted, and giving up those harmful things will not at all seem like “common sense” to most people.  But it’s the only kind of sense that matters, if we want to continue living lives worth living.

And on that happy note…

Happy farming!


Dirty, Filthy Gardening

"Dirt" -- also known as "Soil"
Dirt has an unfortunate pejorative association.  “Nostalgia for the mud” invariably means someone is dirty, filthy, smutty, low, base, and generally unwelcome at the kinds of parties one would not be embarrassed for one’s grandmother to know one is attending.  A baby who has soiled herself is an unwelcome dining companion; dirty dishes require immediate amelioration, and a dirty joke in the workplace will land you in hot water.

We would like to rehabilitate the concept of dirt, because, when it comes right down to it, a quality life depends on quality dirt.
Anyone who has ever attempted to grow any plant of any description has acquired at least a minimal appreciation for the idea that soil makes a difference.  Not all plants grow in the same kind of soil, and not all soil of the same kind is as nurturing of the same kind of plants, owing to a wide array of variables affecting “soil health”.

In general, soil health describes not the status of the soil, but rather its ability to convey the following benefits on organisms dependent upon the soil for nutrition and safety.  It can be measured by measuring the effect of soil conditions on:
  • Sustaining plant and animal productivity and diversity
  • Maintaining or enhancing water and air quality (themselves qualities measured in terms of their impact on their respective biological dependents)
  • Supporting human health and habitation

 Naturally, what is meant by “healthy soil” will depend upon what kinds of plant and animal life are dependent upon it – a healthy soil for the Amazon basin would be completely different from a healthy soil for the Alaskan tundra, or for a backyard garden in Tuscaloosa.  For that matter, a backyard garden in Tuscaloosa will have different requirements from a backyard garden in Tucson, or in Timbuktu.  You don’t grow the same kinds of plants in those three places, so you don’t need the same soil.

Therein lies one of the principal problems associated with the solutions to soil health presented by modern humans, in our ham-handed attempts to control nature... but we’ll get to that in a moment; we have some more expository ruminations to share before we get into the “Do’s” and “Don’ts”  of soil treatment.

One of the principal characteristics of soil which is most often ignored by those thinking about how to get more out of it is the concept that soil is its own little ecosphere.  An entire community of little critters move in and about particulate soil, feasting on a host of small plants, microbes, rhizomes, fungii, etc. that we never see nor think about.  The fact that we never think about this huge network of organisms, however, does not mean they are not important.  Quite the contrary.

We all know that one of the essential nutrients garden plants require is nitrogen – chemical-happy gardeners apply various fertilizers with a range of nitrogen contents in a frenzied attempt to monitor nitrogen levels in the soil... and even organic gardeners make valiant attempts to properly manage nitrogen levels through the use of correctly proportioned composted materials, and rotation of crops with nitrogen affixing qualities (mostly legumes).  We clearly approve much more strongly of the organic approach, of course, but even there, we would hope for a deeper understanding of natural soil chemistry than is usually present.

Basically, we’d prefer that people stop and ask themselves... how would these plants I am attempting to grow survive in the wild?  Humans didn’t always exist in order to intervene for these plants... so how did they get here?  What makes it possible for them to grow in the wild, but not possible for them to grow in my
backyard without me doing something?

These questions get to the heart of the matter.  The reason intervention is necessary in order to add nutrients to the soil (and nitrogen is just one of many)  is because intervention took away the natural means of those ingredients being present in the soil.

There are several mechanisms at work which have brought us to this state; the following is just a small sampling of the plethora of problematic human interruptions of healthy soil:
  • Suburban development has replaced natural layers with construction slag, and overlayed shallow grass sod on poor topsoils
  • Tillage (whether by rototiller or by shovel) has broken up long rhizomal connections between fungal and other microorganisms, eliminating the natural means for soil to compost itself
  • That same tillage has interrupted the food chain for creatures like earthworms who survive by consuming organic matter in this connected microscopic forest, so instead of a healthy hummus the soil turns into compacted clay
  • Watering of lawns laced with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides has killed of many of the microbial organisms who naturally aerate the soil
  • Watering from treated municipal sources adds salty deposits and chemical compounds not naturally found in topsoil (chlorine, fluoride, etc.)  Over time these compounds poison the microbial life necessary for healthy soil biochemistry

"Leaves" also known as "Fertilizer"
There is a reason fertilizer companies make so much money.  It is because the use of fertilizers (especially on lawns, which we have already indicated we really, really, really do not like) creates a perpetual cycle of malnutrition.  The more chemical fertilizer you add to the soil, the less healthy the microorganisms in the soil will become, and so the less fertile the soil will naturally be, meaning that in order to continue growing grass on that soil, more fertilizer will have to be added.

It’s time for that madness to stop.  Our addiction to lawns and to fertilizer are the fastest way we can think of to turn our suburban homescapes into vast, unhealthy desert badlands.
The same is true in large-scale agriculture, of course.  The Dust Bowl was essentially the result of depleted topsoils caused by overproduction, where the natural layers of microbial life no longer had enough nutrition to form a matted, connected whole.  There is a misconception that plants hold the soil together, preventing topsoil from blowing away.  It’s not the visible organisms that keep the soil in place, it is the organisms you don’t see, much like the seams in a shirt, which keep the good dirt where it is supposed to be.

There is a better way.  Even some of the most egregious monocropped agribusinesses go part of the way towards the light – decreased tillage has become much more common in large scale farming, and you will frequently see fields where crops are left in situ after harvest, where the stalks are basically composted in place.

More can and should be done to improve commercial farming practices, of course, but for now we would like to focus on what the small-scale producer (such as a backyard gardener or market farmer) can do to rehabilitate our worn out soils.

For starters... the answer to those questions we were asking earlier, about how various plants might have survived in the wild prior to the invention of gardeners, holds the key to enlightenment:  soils in nature contain the nutrients necessary for plants in their respective ecological niches to grow for two very simple reasons:
  1.             The soil has naturally “cooked” according to local recipes, including fallen leaves, local water sources (whether rain, alluvial flooding, whatever), and the local variety of microflora and microfauna.
  2.       The plants growing in the given soil are native to that soil.

It really comes down to something very simple... all the testing your local agriculture extension agent suggests is superfluous – you don’t need to do it.  To verify that your soil is healthy, simply make sure that leaves, twigs, etc. that rot in nature in your area are rotting in your garden, too.  And when it comes time to plant something in your rotted soil... plant things that naturally grow in your area, or an area very much like your area.

"Raised Bed" also known as "Dow Chemical and Monsanto
Can Suck Chicken Poop Through a Straw"
Rather than rototilling vast plots, pouring large quantities of herbicide on the inevitable weedy invaders, and applying whatever fertilizer (chemical, organic, doesn’t matter – any fertilizer), a healthier approach is to heavily mulch whatever area you are wanting to cultivate, using natural local materials (we use oak leaves, of which the Brazos Valley provides a vast quantity), and wait for the inevitable rot to take its course.  If you keep a compost bin, that’s fine – we use mucked out chicken coop soil comprised of broken down leaves and chicken poop – but composting in place is just as good.
If you’re worried about weedy invaders, we recommend using raised plots, putting down cardboard or paper first to blot out the sun, and then covering with “stuff that rots”.  The rotting is very important, as is the “not tilling too much”.  There’s a vibrant network of filaments and roots that you just can’t see, comprised of little critters who are doing the hard work for you of making sure there are properly balanced amounts of nitrogen, calcium, etc. ad nauseum, so that your beans, squash, cucumbers, whatever, are perfectly happy in the soil bed you have helped fashion.
But what about soil depletion in future years, when whatever crops you’ve grown have depleted these beds of “rotted stuff”?  We’re glad you asked.  Once you’ve successfully grown things in a bed of natural soil... harvest your crop, and leave the plants in place to rot in their turn.  Add more leaves.  Treat your garden plot like a little corner of a natural forest.  That’s where squash, cucumbers, beans, etc. grew before there were people involved, right?  This ain’t rocket surgery, people.  A healthy person can thrive without a respirator or a dialysis machine.  Healthy soil is soil that can grow things without medical assistance.

Now then, anybody know any dirty jokes?

Happy farming!