Monday, June 1, 2020

The Joy of Growing Food for Others - What we can learn from a four-year-old farmer

Olivia is a tiny girl, probably somewhere between four and five, that doesn’t really walk from place to place as much as she bounces. Her hair is white-blonde from the sun, she always smiles, and she sings while she talks.

We met her at a Gainesville, Florida farmers market. My wife Natalia sells the fruits and vegetables she produces there, and Olivia and her parents are regular customers. One day last fall Olivia would fall in love with the cucamelon. Also known as the mouse melon or Mexican sour gherkin, the cucamelon is a fresh-market fruit that has the color and size that would be perfect as a watermelon for Barbie and Ken.

Cucamelons have a pickle-like quality and a hint of citrus, and they are a favorite at the market. We eat them in salads and on cheese boards, plucked by the dozens from long prolific vines.
And Oliva just loves them. During the early spring Florida growing season in January and February she’d come back week after week, searching for the fruit even when they were out of season.
“Just a few more weeks,” was always our answer.
Her enthusiasm was so infectious that one morning before the market I rushed out in the greenhouse and pulled a plant from the ground, placing its big white root and scraggly leaves into a pot with fresh soil. That sunny Saturday I’d present it to her at the market.
Her father wanted to pay for it, but there was no way it was going to happen. When you see a child so enthusiastic about a horticultural product, you lean into it.
Weeks went by and COVID19 kept the family away from the market. Each week more and more people returned, and this last Saturday they returned. Olivia carrying a tiny plastic sandwich bag.
“Cucamelons!” she said, as she shook the zip-seal bag with a bunch of the little pickle-grapes.
But her favorite snack was not for her own consumption. She wasn’t there to show off her success, searching for a compliment.
Instead they were a gift. She wanted to give them to Natalia. The food she produced was a gift for someone else. These little berries were something that Olivia produced, at her home, in her soil. With her care and watchful eye, the tiny girl watched a plant grow and produce before her harvest.
And she would share her work with someone special.
The funny part is, she gave a bag of a dozen cucamelons to Natalia, and then wanted her parents to buy more, as our table was filled with them stacked neatly in tiny cups.
This is the important point. It was not about the cucamelons — it was about producing something from a plant, by your hands, and wanting to share it with others. Such gestures satisfy something, an intense nurturing mission, deep in our DNA.
It is the same force that makes the farmer in Manitoba get out to feed and milk the cows on a -20° morning. It is the drive that sends Natalia to the field all day, every day, dawn past dusk, in brutal heat and humidity, only to load the truck on her days off and head to market. It is the satisfaction of having fresh food to share with a community.
And in this microcosm Olivia embodies the drive that every agricultural producer feels. A hard job, fighting against nature while working in concert with it, toiling at a pace the world decides you need to take — in the mission to produce something for others to eat.
I was extremely proud of Olivia and extremely touched. In a time when selfies and narcissistic behaviors are so common, a four-year-old girl wanted to share her limited and coveted resource with someone else. It is a testament to her parents I’m sure, but a behavior that will serve her well the rest of her life.
And yesterday I gave her pot of strawberry plants…

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Film Review: The Need to Grow

The recurring ads on Facebook pulled at me to watch The Need to Grow, a documentary film about food and farming.  As someone connected with these areas professionally and personally, I thought it would be worth a watch.  Here is a review.

First the good things.  The film is nicely shot and well written.  The majority of the work builds on themes such as nutritious diets healthy soils, and efficient energy. Those are the central underlying values of the film, and ones that I wholly endorse. 

However, where the film falls apart is in its approaches to achieve those end points.  Two of the "experts" recruited for the film are none other than Jeffrey Smith and Vandana Shiva, two people with little training in science or farming (and no, Vandana Shiva is not a physicist as the film claims). 

The narrator is actress Rosario Dawson, who early in the film makes the proclamation, "Agriculture is the most destructive human activity on the planet."

It is clear where this is going. While agriculture can always do better, I'm not sure it rises to the level of "most destructive" human activities, especially when it quells famine, war, and malnutrition, which are real tragedies of the human existence.  

There also are statements about how "food has no nutrition".  

The film follows three interwoven stories.  All are tales of the well-meaning good guys being struck down by the stark fist of The Man, Big Ag, Big Energy, and Big Cookie.  It is the unappealing story of victims of the machine, yet all folks that took a stand on flimsy foundations. 

The first is that of Alicia Serratos and her mother.  Back in 2014 Alicia took on the mantle of collecting signatures to petition that the Girl Scouts of America make "GMO free cookies".  The film shows that she collects a lot of signatures, then she goes to New York City and GSA headquarters only to be snubbed by leadership and sent on her way. 

During the cries to remove "GMOs" from the cookies the GSA was very clear that they were going to follow the science and not the demands of a child. That was the correct position to take. 

Similarly, at the time I wrote a number of blogs on her campaign.  I was especially concerned that young women were being taught that (their parents') beliefs and bad science was superior to STEM-based conclusions.  My point was that young women like Alicia needed to carefully contrast their passions against the evidence science gives us. 

I got an angry letter from her mother for that. 

The second part is about Michael Smith, a software engineer and inventor that used a Montana Department of Environmental Quality grant to build a system to turn wood waste into energy, and then recapture the carbon dioxide with algae. All could then be could be used to generate electricity from methane.  His company was Algae Aqua Culture Technology (AACT), and it was essentially a demonstration site to show that wood waste could be converted to useful products for energy and farming. 

The crisis moment came when the steel and glass structure full of water burnt to the ground.  There was a curious lack of explanation for why or how a glass and metal structure would melt so completely, but plenty of those interviewed implied it was retribution for AACT creating a solution to end the stranglehold of Big Energy. 

Strange, while you can find documentation of the fire at AACT, there is no mention of how the fire was caused, even to this day.  There was no mention of arson or any investigation to the cause. 

A photo of the water, metal and concrete that burned to the ground in the documentary The Need to Grow.

The final story was about Alegria Farms, a 1.4 acre plot that implemented hydroponic and other production methods to grow local produce.  The story goes that the area was surrounded by development and was shut down by the county to turn it into something gross like a subdivision or something.  

What they didn't tell you was that this was a demonstration farm funded by local interests to show how urban farming could be taken to another level-- super cool.  I love this kind of thing and fully endorse making more of it.  Research in these areas and demonstration farms are needed to kindle the interest in food production with city folk. 

But the story line made this look like one man's life's work being crushed by Big Government, when it was really just a government finding (what they deem) better use for the property. It is Orange County, CA after all, and demonstration farms are probably pretty low on the priority list for land allocation.

In conclusion, the movie has a very positive underlying message-- how do we innovate and channel our passions into feeding more people more healthy food.  That's great. 

The problem is that instead of showing the innovations and how they create durable changes in community food supply, the heroes turn into victims of the villains, their missions thwarted because of of Big Evil _____.  That kind of conspiratorial thinking is not only boring, it is the kind of thing that only erodes the trust in science and in modern farming.  That's a dangerous place to go, and only increases disdain against conventional farming.

We know that conventional farming can do better and it has.  No-till and conservation tilling practices are common, there is a new emphasis on  crop rotations, and new genetics (including genetic engineering). These strategies are making large-acre strategies more sustainable. Variable rate fertilizer applications have cut application and runoff (and costs) based on aerial image data. Fungicides and antimicrobials have been cut due to integration with weather prediction data.  New chemistries, sensors, robots, and other technologies can help farmers do more with less.  

The way to satisfy the need to grow is not to trash what is here.  It is to use that as a starting point and continue to innovate. That's what we do in medicine. We don't go back to leeches and blood letting because we didn't have a vaccine ready for a global epidemic. Well, some people do, and that may include Dawson and the folks in the film.  The rest of us rely on the the best technology science can bring to address the questions as they arise. That may come from research in organic production, conventional methods, or even indoor plant factories. 

This is the positive message of agricultural innovation.  We need documentaries that make the call to all hands on deck, feed more people better food, and show the amazing new innovations in genetics and technology that can help us achieve our sustainability milestones. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Science From Home 3-30 to 4-3

Hi Everybody, 

I'll keep doing the daily science story at 11AM EDT at  

This week:






Tuesday, March 24, 2020

No Ventilator for You!

Today the New England Journal of Medicine predicted that we will fall woefully short of ventilators to treat COVID19 patients. Using the data from Italy and the rate of growth in the States, it is estimated that there will be need for 1.4 to 31 people per available ventilator.  Tough decisions will have to be made. 

That's why I'm starting the hash tag #NoVentilatorForYou.  And here is the first charlatan that should be denied access. They also should be arrested and jailed for life.   

On Instagram the account @mypronatural is selling concoctions with the clear implicit goal of treating SARS-COV2.  This is pure profiteering off of a crisis, lining pockets with false health claims that will endanger lives and burden the health care system. 

I motion that when we have to make decisions about who has access to the limited ventilators, the folks behind this campaign move to the back of the line
Do I hear a second?

At least report them on Instagram.  I did.  It did nothing. 

Let's look at some of the things on their website (all photos, click to make bigly): 

3x a day... herbal extract with birch bark, vitamin C, zinc, elderberry extract.  Make sure you update your will. 

Here they make the claim that "Chaga BLOCKS Coronavirus" and makes an argument from authority citing "Harvard Professor" 

This post claims that gargling with Himalayan Pink Salt "eliminates the virus".  They also have a note to buy their "powerful Corona Herbal Extract"

Only made 100, 70 already sold.  Coronavirus Herbal Extract.  "Protects against virus" and "antiviral" they claim.

And here is a post stating that the (toxic) elderberry "prevents the (corona) virus from replicating in the body"

And of course they believe that it all happened because of 5G cell phone service. 

I'm being dead serious.  Tough decisions may have to be made.  If we get to that point, I believe those profiting off of this crisis by putting others in harm's way need to be denied treatment first.  Hand them a bottle of elderberry extract and tell them to hit the bricks. 

It seems callus, and I'm sorry for that.  I'm up at 4 AM plotting on how to educate kids home from school, and get groceries to the elderly in my small town.  Service should be our focus. There are many stories where the crisis has brought out the best in us. 

It disgusts me that crisis also spawns wretched exploitation. This tiny minority should be basted in shame, recognized, penalized, and never allowed to access medical care ahead of someone they deceived. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Home School Video Field Trips!

With the closure of schools due to COVID19, it is an opportunity to try new experiments in education. This week I'll be featuring Facebook Live streaming video that students can join from any location.  I'll present topics in science and agriculture for 30 minutes, then stop to answer questions about the topic and about life as a scientist.  We'll also present a diversity of guests that will show their work. 

I'll gear the lessons for grades 3-6, but all ages are welcome.  I'll be glad to answer questions afterward until there are no more! 

11 AM EST at my professional Facebook page

This week:

3/23    Plants and Light

3/24    Plant Grafting:  How and Why

3/25    From Egg to Goose (we'll look at live goose eggs as they develop)

3/26    No More Oranges?   The race for a cure for the citrus disease

3/27   Crop Domestication - Where did Fruits and Veggies Come From? 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Bogus Hand Sanitizers

As anticipated, bogus and dangerous crackpot cures have been bubbling up during the recent COVID-19 outbreak.   We know that hand hygiene is important at this time, and that soap and water are superior to all other methods of virus suppression on your hands. Period. 

Of course, there are those that shun the offerings of Big Soap and delve into the alchemy cabinet to devise a magical virus shield. Sadly, the folks that shun science and technology in a medical parlance certainly appreciate the technology of the computer, and are glad to share their shaman's crappy guidance with the world. 

As a guy that hangs at farmers markets and has some crunchy online friends, I am seeing too much quackery.  The majority state that homemade hand sanitizers can be made from various ingredients found in any respectable commune's infirmary. 

At least you'll have supple, sweet smelling hands in the casket.

If you don't want to construct your own, or if local witches went to Whole Foods and bought all the witch hazel, you can buy pre-made sanitizers.  The internet abounds with multi-level marketing companies using the COVID19  situation to peddle their nostrums. There is no reliable evidence of efficacy against the virus.  Yet the claims abound. 

Nothing like taking advantage of a health crisis to promote bad science.  The Essential Oil Blend to "keep you virus free"

I've lived my entire life without essential oils, meaning that they are actually optional oils.  Sadly there are many out there profiting heavily by scaring people on one hand, and selling them an alleged remedy with the other.  Here's a beauty...

SOLD OUT!  at forty-five bucks for a two pack.  Foaming Hand Wash is a fancy name for "soap"

The bottom line is that it takes soap and water to wash your hands, and ethanol or isopropanol can do a good job at disinfecting if applied at over 60%.  That means the claims of DIY solutions with vodka (at 40%) are DOA, which is bad news for the non-GMO vodka folks over at Smirnoff. 

Right now it is time for the science minded to dial up their game and communicate the evidence-based information to the public. Part of this responsibility means calling out dangerous trends and fake cures and false prophylaxis.  As in any crisis, virus carpetbaggers will seek to separate the fearful from their cash, and it is up to us to provide a durable information shield. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Talking Biotech #230 - A Deep Dive on COVID19

As of 3/11/2020 COVID-19 is emerging as a significant health threat worldwide.  This pandemic is on the rise, and public health suffers from politicized spin, misinformation, and a lack of good information.  This episode is targeted to the Talking Biotech listener that can connect with family and friends, sharing the facts of this outbreak.   Today's guest is Dr. ChubbyEmu, the YouTube physician that has been at ground zero in discussing the coronavirus outbreak.  We dig a layer deeper into the disease, its physical manifestations, and the current state of the disease as it spreads into the USA.