Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Diversify, Diversify, Diversify

One of the great tragedies of the current environmental crisis is the present and potential loss of about 50% of everything, including everything we never knew existed and now never will. Most of the estimates of the impact of human behavior on the world suggest that over the next century, human beings will destroy about 50% of the life on earth. That is, more than 50% of all frog and fish species. Almost 50% of all plant species. Tens of millions of insect species. All those large mammals we purport to care about.

These may be the last years of the Polar Bear, the Great Apes, the Elephants, and those, of course, are the poster children for extinction. But we will probably miss as much or more, in our own way, the native British bumblebee, the spearfish, or the dozens of South American tree frogs. Some of these creatures we will not grieve because we will never have known they existed. Others we will miss, but we won't be able to identify what we miss - we'll miss the beauty of the wild animals gone extinct, but our children will remember them only as story creatures, the dinosaurs of their days. What name will we put on "the quality of loss that one generation feels for something that seems imaginary to another?" I'm sure some language has a word for this, but ours, as yet, does not. Or perhaps we'll miss them when we suddenly need them. We'll miss the wild plant that might have provided the only cure for a newly developing epidemic. We'll miss the landrace species of potatoes that would have prevented worldwide crop loss from a new disease. We'll miss the old breed of cows that would have allowed the current Jerseys and Holsteins to live through a new infectious disease. We'll long for the seeds of the past, the wild plant that would have meant enough vitamin A in our diets and sight for our grandchild. We'll miss the species that would have provided for another species that would have enabled the pollinators to survive and provide us with fruit. Novelists will coin words and create a poetics of the loss of things we never really knew we had, and thus, did not value.

The reality is that we don't fully grasp how much we depend on other species - for example, some species support as many as 200 other species by pollinating the right plants, providing food for others, etc... We don't grasp how vulnerable we are to a worldwide plague, or blight, as our crop varieties get narrower and narrower. We don't fully grasp how vulnerable *we* are to the loss of our ecosystem. Because, if we understood it, we'd have to stop - even if the price of stopping were high. How much easier to ride gaily towards extinction - whose extinction, we shall not know until we know.

It may be too late for some species - the black rhino, for example, has already probably fallen below the number required for long term survival. But before we keen our song of mourning, perhaps each of us should ask whether we've done everything we possibly can to ensure the survival of our own share of the world's diversity. Because, after all, all of us have a little bit of control over the world around us - maybe just a very small amount, perhaps enough to save one breed of plant, one meter of wild space, one single species. But, as they say in my own faith, he who has saved a single life, it is as if he has saved the whole world. Now that was spoken of human lives, but it may be that some portion of the whole world depends on your personal commitment to diversity.

First, there are seeds. Even if you only grow in windowboxes, or a tiny garden plot, you can save some varieties of seed. And if you take up a variety of seed that isn't one of the most common (you can get many of them by joining Seed Savers Exchange at www.seedsaver.org, or join a local seed saver's group) ones, you may well be preserving a food plant that would otherwise go extinct. The best estimates suggest that over the last 200 years, between 50 and 80% of the known domesticated varieties of common vegetables were lost, including their precious genetic material, and their adaptation to local coniditions. The potato, the pea, the squash you grow in your garden may be the last in the whole world, and the seeds you save the only ones that can keep it going, or perhaps you will adapt a new variety to the conditions you and others most need.

Because, of course, seed saving and plant breeding are the same process in some cases. The farmer who selects her best plants, best adapted to her soils and conditions, is creating genetic material slightly different from the material that you started with. Your "Hopi Blue Jade" corn, grown in your own soils, in your own climate for a few years will be appreciably, notably and genetically different than the Hopi Blue Jade someone across the country or the world has adapted to their place. It may have resistance to different diseases, a greater cold or heat tolerance, an ability to adapt to particular types of soil.

We breed seeds when we consciously select and choose our best, as well as when we set out to create something new. Each act of seed saving is an act of creation, of selection, the transformation of something that is continually, eternally becoming, a selection shaded by time and climate and soil and water, but also human intention, wisdom and commitment to the future.

One of the most important things we can do, then, is preserve old varieties and also breed new ones, whether by formal plant breeding or by wise selection of plants to save seed from. The best books on these subjects are Suzanne Ashworth's _Seed to Seed_ and Carol Deppe's wonderful book _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_. Even if you've never imagined yourself as a plant breeder, Deppe's book is well worth a read for a deeper understanding of plant genetics and selection.

The more we grow out old and uncommon, forgotten and lost varieties, the greater the degree of genetic variation we preserve. There are seed banks, of course, to preserve them, but the best way to keep seeds alive is to grow them, eat their products and plant them again.

We also should grow as great a variety of crops and as many kinds of each crop as we can. Some of us in very small gardens will not be able to grow a large variety of anything, but those of us with space should hedge our bets, growing more than one kind of each thing whenever possible. There will be some accidental genetic crossing, but that isn't necessarily bad - while we want to preserve old varieties, reasonable care can allow us to grow multiples. And the simple fact is that if we ever have to rely on the products of our garden for our food, we are safest with a wide variety of plants and animals in our lives.

So, for example, it is easy to grow many varieties of beans and peas without worrying about crossing. Tomatoes can be spaced apart a small amount. Even that difficult cross-pollinator corn can be grown by time sequencing in many climates - two or three sequential crops can be grown and the seed saved.

The reason for this is twofold - to keep as many varieties as possible alive, but also to keep your garden going, and your belly full, even if you have an attack of pests or diseases, flood or drought. You may not live in a tepary bean climate, but that unusually dry year, it might be the only one that produces well. My Purple Peruvian potatoes never fail me, no matter what the weather, even if I prefer Green Mountain as a staple.

Besides growing multiple varieties within a species, growing a range of crops makes a huge difference. I'm fond of the phrase "belt and braces" - that is, as much duplication of purpose as humanly possible. Redundancy is your protection. So besides your potatoes and wheat, add some Amaranth, Corn and Buckwheat. Besides your apples, try Medlars or Mulberries. Add groundnuts and jerusalem artichokes to go with your peanuts and sweet potatoes.

And don't just get fixated on food - a good garden needs wild places, to increase diversity as well. Even a tiny yard can have a patch of multi-purpose attractive insectiary plants - dill and cilantro gone to seed, along with bee balm, echinacea and hyssop and some tall grass or wildflowers to provide a place for ground nesting birds and wild pollinators to live. Or perhaps you can leave that dead tree standing to provide nests, or some brush piled up near your compost to make a home for birds.

Instead of having your local park mowed every other day at great expense and with great exhaust, perhaps consider campaigning to let the grass grow longer, to plant a meadow or simply leave some areas wild. Perhaps you can get your city to let you turn a vacant lot into a wildlife garden or bird sanctuary, a seed saver's garden or orchard. Perhaps you can convince them not to build that access road that takes out so much wildlife, to preserve those wetlands, to keep what diversity is left going. But don't forget the overarching issue - we've lost so many environmental battles by focusing on the animal we want to preserve, not the larger issue of human impacts. Wearing your Wildlife Federation t-shirt while driving to the mall and home to your McMansion is missing the point.

What about animals? Oddly, I sometimes hear the argument that domesticated animals don't "count" in the diversity game. And if we had to choose between domesticated animals and wildlife, we probably should choose the wildlife. But most of the endangered and landrace species of domestic animal are the answer to the terrible environmental impact of today's industrial livestock breeds. The Icelandic sheep, bred to winter on four bales of hay and the fat on her back, and still bear a healthy lamb in Iceland's difficult winters is a far better answer to our desire for good protein than either infinite fields of GMO soybeans or feedlot cows. Pasture is generally the most diverse ecosystem on a farm, with more wildlife than cultivated fields that get run over by heavy equipment. Animals that can primarily or solely grass, and are adapted to climates where it is difficult to raise crops or till soil are the logical things to raise on prairie lands that turn to desert when they are tilled or on hilly, rocky, cold wet ground like the northeast. We can produce much needed food, fiber and manure on soils, while still leaving them open to use by as much wildlife as possible.

The reality is that the preservation of genetic diversity is one of the most important and urgent projects we have. We need as many species, wild and tame, of as many plants and animals as possible. The more we cultivate them, preserve them, save their seed, spread them around, even guerilla plant them into uncovered soil, the better the chance that we and our children will have a world to grow up in.

As you are designing your land use, as you are working within your neighborhoods and community, remember the watchwords - diversify, diversify, diversify. It is as if you have saved the whole world.



eliza said...

Good post - re seedsaving and biodiversity. VERY important. The image is coming to mind right now of the film "Solent Green" - dont know if you ever saw it? Horrible depressing film re an earth in the not-too-distant future where wildlife has basically been destroyed and they have to eat artificially-created food (in their case - it turned out to be dead people - ugh!) and the only time they saw real wildlife was on videos of way life used to be. Horrible - and it keeps coming to mind these days. It is so vital to preserve our natural heritage.


Anonymous said...

I think of Solent Green quite often these days, too....

Els said...

(I have read and heard they are going to shoot a remake of Soylent Green.)

About a week ago, me and my husband attended Reef Fest Curaçao (we live on Curaçao). It was a small educational festival to raise awareness of reefs and corals among local teachers, who often can't even swim. Curaçao is surrounded by the most beautiful diversity of corals, plants and fish, but its glorious beauty is slowly fading because of pollution. (the teachers didn't know that either...)
A US professor (don't remember his name) showed the teacher the meaning of 'environment' through a very simple game and it was this game that came to mind when I read your post about diversity. I'll try to explain the game and maybe you can use it...

About twenty people make a circle. Everyone gets to be a certain species (in our case, it was all reef and underwater life, from plankton and anemones to sharks to crabs, etc.). Somebody also played the sun.
Now the professor stood in the middle of the circle with a very long piece of string. He gave the sun one end and asked her: "Who do you 'feed'? Who grows on you?" She answered: "algae" and the professor connected her string to the man who played algae. From him, the string went on and on via all sorts of species, including bacteria. Most species received the string a couple of times, for example the plankton and the bacteria, but also the smaller fish and the coral. (You were also allowed to go 'back' in the food chain: what do you grow on?)

In the end, a giant web was formed (it was a very long piece of string). Then the professor asked us all to pull the strings tight and to level the web, so that every string touched another. He was standing in the middle of the web and then pulled one string up. "Watch how the web shakes," he said and he let go. Indeed: the entire food chain, the entire environment, was disturbed by his one touch. Immediately everyone, even the dissatisfied woman who played a very rare species and had received the string only once, understood the meaning of this game.
"Now watch what happend if I cut the string in just one place," the professor explained. "Let go of if you feel your string going loose." Within seconds, the entire web was down on the ground. The professor didn't have to explain much more...

Jim said...

"Whoever saves a life saves the whole world?"
After all, who says humans are the only ones who count?
Preach it!

Rebekka said...

Hi Sharon, I've been wondering for a while - and particularly after reading the post you linked back to the other day on what your friend with the average-sized block should do - what we can do if we're in an apartment? We actually have a small courtyard garden, but I'm sure there are others in apartments too who would appreciate some suggestions?

Kiashu said...

rebekka, some apartments have balconies or for the ground floor ones, small strips just outside the window. Some have walkways. These spaces can have a few containers which will brighten up the place if nothing else.

And everyone has windows, something on the inside windowsill can be nice. Bathrooms with good skylights or windows can have ferns. Obviously you're not gong to feed yourself out of those things, but a few plants can be cheering.

Future Apartment Farmers of America said...

Re: apartment gardening

I have a very large south-facing window at around 43deg N lat. I have just started what I'm calling "vertically farming my living room."

I selected plants that allegedly grow well in pots and installed some metal shelves directly in front of the window. So far, I have some lettuce sprouting, but I'm hoping that the beets will do well. Bush beans, peas, tomatoes, bush cucumbers and peppers are the experimental pots (I expect at best half will survive and I'll keep notes on what does).

I've got a florescent "grow light" tube in reserve as well as the incandescent fixture from two old fish tanks in case I have to give supplemental light in the winter (I'm hoping to avoid this, but if I can come up with some clever system by which I can turn those on on a timer and NOT use the overhead lighting in the living room, I'll feel like that's an acceptable energy trade-off).

Wish me luck!

Melson said...

This quote from Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel The Road nicely sums up the feeling of what you're talking about in your first two paragraphs:

"He could not construct for the child's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he."

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