crop diversity

Gardening Baby New Year

Before you ask the doctor for that round of antibiotics to treat that cold you picked up over the holidays, blow your nose and read this book:

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Diversity is the answer to everything, it seems. World peace, weeds, robust ecosystems, soil fertility, pathogens. I think I’ve told you that I’m no fan of antibacterial soap. I would politely thank my mother-in-law for the bottle of whatever antibacterial, Bath-and-Body-Works, super-synthetic, overfragranced soap she would give me at Christmas, but then refill it with run-of-the-mill, this-barely-works-for-beans liquid soap as soon as the original contents ran out. Diversity is our friend. And that goes for the thousands (no joke) of bacteria varieties colonizing our homes and bodies.

(Parenthetical note about handwashing:

Hand washing prevents the spread of pathogens and saves many lives a year, but it doesn’t do so by sterilizing your hands. Instead, hand washing appears to remove microbes that have newly arrived, but not yet established on the hands. For example, when scientists experimentally put nonpathogenic E. coli on people’s hands, washing with soap and water removed much of the E. coli. It didn’t matter if the water was cold or hot. It didn’t matter for how long people washed (so long as it was at least twenty seconds). Also, ordinary bar soap was more effective than antimicrobial soap at getting rid of the E. coli. (p.250)

Yay, bar soap! I love bar soap!)

Twenty seconds of soap and water. [Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash  ]

Twenty seconds of soap and water. [Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash ]

According to Rob Dunn, doctors in the late ‘50s were struggling with certain Staphylococcus aureus type 80/81 infections of newborns in their hospitals. They did various experiments that wouldn’t meet current standards of medical ethics and came to the realization that, if newborn babies’ bodies were first colonized by beneficial bacteria, 80/81 couldn’t get enough of a toehold to infect anyone. Bacterial diversity provided protection against a particular pathogen. Invasive species have a hard time taking over a field full of lots of different plants, grazed by different herbivores. But an empty field? Or one planted with only one crop? Easy pickings.

When we pump that antibacterial soap and squirt that antibacterial cleanser, we might get rid of certain harmful bacteria, but we’re also wiping out the good guys. Then, on our newly clean surface (i.e., our empty field), when something like E. coli wanders over, it finds lots of room to spread out and set up shop. The result? We get sick.

Same thing goes for when we kill our gut bacteria willy-nilly. Hence everyone downing the latest, trendy probiotic foods to try to pump up diversity. And the evil bacteria we were targeting in the first place only mutate, share the trait, and come roaring back stronger.

What are the best ways to increase diversity in order to prevent the bad guys from taking over? Dunn offers some suggestions.

  • Eating fermented foods made by hand is a good place to start. In fermented foods, like sourdough bread, they find that the flavor is influenced by the microbes present in the flour, on the baker’s hands, and in the bakery itself. Part of why a particular cook’s foods taste a particular way might be because of the particular microbes she and her kitchen pass along!

  • Leave the windows open, to bring more environmental goodies into the house.

  • Wash dishes by hand to prevent “the fungus that lives in dishwashers” everywhere(!).

  • Get a pet.

  • Plant a diverse garden.

  • Buy local foods, covered in local soil and microbes.

So garden your home and body, this new year, with plenty of diverse microbes, and keep the bad guys at bay!

Always in Season, at a Price

Last week I was at a wedding. The reception buffet was delicious, including the labeled "Seasonal Fruit Platter." When the person in front of me in line spotted that sign, he nudged me and asked, "In season where?" No kidding! The platter held fresh strawberries, pineapple, watermelon, blueberries, cantaloupe, and grapes, fruits which are currently in season in California, the tropics, Mexico, California, Central America, and Chile, respectively.

Wikipedia comes through with the picture of "seasonal fruits"

Wikipedia comes through with the picture of "seasonal fruits"

Now, I enjoy all these fruits, and you'll find grapes, bananas, oranges, and kiwis in my house right now, none of which were grown in Washington (the apples and pears were, however), but enjoying "never out of season" fruit comes at a price, according to author Rob Dunn.

As I mentioned last week, Dunn notes that most of the food eaten worldwide and certainly in America, comes from fewer and fewer plants. Not only does the number of plants we eat shrink with the passing of time, but the variety of the chosen plants has dwindled as well. Most famously we eat the Cavendish banana almost exclusively, but other plants don't fare a heckuva lot better. California mass-produces a few strawberry varieties that they ship all around. Unless you hit the farmers market, you're likely to be offered just two to three kinds of potato at the grocery store, and so on.

So what, you ask? So, this: in winnowing the foods we eat and then growing what are effectively clones of the same few plants all over the world, we make our food supply uniquely vulnerable. Think Irish Potato Famine vulnerable. Plant a whole country with the "lumper" potato, and when potato blight finally hitches a ride to Europe, there goes the food supply. 

Dunn traces a familiar pattern through history: a few seeds get chosen for planting in a whole new environment, they outrun their natural predators and diseases for a time, then the predators and diseases catch up and threaten to wipe out the whole crop. We respond with pesticides, more furious breeding, or moving everything to a "clean slate" to buy more time. If and when we return to the plant's original habitat to look for different varieties to grow or to cross with our familiar ones, the plants and their original habitats increasingly have ceased to exist! Beloved crops like cacao (eek!) and coffee face these threats, by the way, so we all should find this an alarming trend. There are still some botanists and other scientists trying to gather and preserve not only the wonderful variety of plants that have covered the earth, but also some of the places that yielded them, and you can imagine their rate of success (not super promising).

Our love's in jeopardy, Baby. (Cacao fruit)

Our love's in jeopardy, Baby. (Cacao fruit)

What can we do? Unless we're adventurous botanists who want to collect specimens from marginal wildernesses (because we want plants that grow where it's hotter and drier, to prepare for our climate future), Dunn makes the following suggestion:

You can buy diverse varieties of local crops...By increasing the proportion of food that is purchased from locally grown and diverse varieties of crops, we increase the incentives farmers have to plant those varieties. We increase the incentives farmers have to find unusual varieties. And, importantly, we increase the willingness of farmers to experiment, whether with unusual crop varieties or even with the breeding of novel crop varieties...In parts of North America and Europe...local food movements have already increased the diversity of crop varieties available in seed catalogues and stores.

And where best does all this happen? At the farmers market, of course, where we can have an immediate impact with the dollars we spend. Can't wait for Opening Day! We have one more week to go, which is just enough time for you to grab a copy of Never Out of Season and get yourself inspired!

Top 10 Reasons to Support Your Bellevue Farmers Market in 2017

Two weeks to Bellevue Farmers Market's Opening Day, people! And, if your anticipation hasn't been building, I'm here to give it a boost.

"We have great grocery stores in Bellevue," you say. "Why would I bother to make an extra trip to a farmers market?"

I've got ten reasons for you (not counting those Market flowers pictured above):

  1. FOSTER CROP DIVERSITY. I'm currently reading this fascinating book, which I'll post about next week when I finish, about the perils of our monocultural worldwide food supply. "In 2016...80% of the calories consumed by humans came from just twelve species and 90% from fifteen species" (Never Out of Season, p3). Why is that a problem? Think Irish Potato Famine. Our worldwide food supply is vulnerable to disease and pathogens, since we generally mass-grow just one variety of things. Not at the farmers market! Our farmers cultivate multiple varieties of familiar and less familiar fruits and vegetables, and, as a result, they take greater advantage of the entire growing season and reduce the harvest vulnerability. More genetic diversity = more robust food supply.
  2. BRANCH OUT, FOOD-WISE. Speaking of fostering diversity, we tend to get in ruts, food-wise. At the restaurant we always order the same thing. We eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day, and rotate among seven dishes for dinners. Hey, the time will come when our taste buds wither, and we have to dump more and more salt on food to make it taste like anything, even if we still have the teeth to chew it up--let's make the most of our food-is-glorious window! At the Market, not only can we buy foods outside our eating ruts, but we can ask the farmers and other people we see buying that food how they like to prepare it. When's the last time you whipped up some pea vines? Kabocha squash? Fiddlehead ferns?
  3. DISCOVER THAT FOOD ACTUALLY HAS FLAVOR. Recently my daughter brought home a dozen red roses she'd gotten along with an invitation to prom. "Too bad they don't smell like anything," she said. That was when I explained to her that plenty of roses actually do smell like something, but ones that have been bred for mass-production were chosen for color and hardiness, not fragrance. The same thing happens to our food. In order to make fruits and vegetables survive the journey from field to table, often crossing thousands of miles, farmers bred for looks and durability, not flavor. You can't say you don't like a certain fruit or vegetable if you haven't actually tasted one. A real one. Not its storebought counterpart.
  4. SWAP YOUR DIET, SWAP YOUR CANCER RISK. Did you know South Africans on a traditional diet rarely have colon polyps? Why do Americans accept them as normal and just cross their fingers, hoping none of them get out of control? This Forbes article talks about our fiber-less American diet and its repercussions. Seriously. Eat more fruits and vegetables. And not processed ones. Fresh ones (or frozen). Fiber, fiber, fiber.
  5. MAKE YOUR KIDS LESS "CORNY." According to Never Out of Season and The Omnivore's Dilemma, we eat a lot of corn in North America. Not the on-the-cob kind, dripping with butter, but rather corn products. "In North America, more than half the carbon in the average child's body comes from corn--corn syrup, cornflakes, cornbread" (Never Out of Season, p.4). Lots and lots of corn syrup. Not to mention, our meat is often corn-fed. Skip the processed foods and feed your kids something fresh and whole, including grass-fed meat.
  6. CONJUGATE THAT LINOLEIC ACID. Speaking of pastured, did you know that even buying organic dairy doesn't guarantee the cows were sufficiently pastured? Check out this recent Washington Post article on some big organic dairy suppliers skimping on the requirements. The result? A nutritional profile to their milk more in line with conventional than pastured. I was bummed to see how mediocre-ly even Organic Valley scored. So ask our dairy farmers at the Market how much pasture their cows see!
  7. FIGHT AGING AND DISEASE--EAT FARM-FRESH EGGS. After getting a bad cholesterol rap for decades, eggs are back on the menu, and now eating an egg a day might have beneficial effects. But don't just eat any eggs--you want eggs from chickens who strut around on grass, supplementing their chicken feed with bugs and worms. You want eggs with thick whites and orange-y yolks. You want Market eggs.
  8. FIGURE OUT THAT "HOMEMADE" IS BETTER THAN PROCESSED. Once a month I participate in a church potluck, and it makes me frantic that the teenagers will reach for the uniform, processed desserts, rather than the irregular, homemade ones. Eek! It all goes back to not knowing what real food can taste like. The Market offers great ingredients for making your own goodies, as well as offerings lovingly prepared by artisan bakers and candy-makers and ice-creamers. If you're going to spend your calorie allowance, by all means make it count.
  9. PUT MONEY BACK IN YOUR OWN POCKET. Buying from our local farmers keeps the money circulating in our local economy and in our state. And our healthy economy is one of the reasons we live in such a great place!
  10. LIVE LONGER IN OUR GREAT PLACE. I bet physical therapists have a name for the posture and neck problems of people who spend 80% of the day staring at computer screens and their phones. Not only do we suffer aches and pains, but we actually shorten our lives because it's the face-to-face interactions that impact longevity, healthfulness, and general well-being. Befriend the farmers you meet at the Market. Make dates to meet your friends or significant others there for dinner and live music. Replace one texting exchange with a live-and-in-person encounter. You'll be happy you did, and you'll live longer to be happy about it.

 

Says who? Says Susan Pinker. Who, I'm positive, would love the Bellevue Farmers Market.

Says who? Says Susan Pinker. Who, I'm positive, would love the Bellevue Farmers Market.