Monday, July 21, 2014

Efficiency versus Resilience

Hmmm...has Mark Buchanan been reading my work?
This relentless pursuit of efficiency, though, has repercussions that humans are only beginning to understand. Researchers have found that typical honeybee colonies contain trace residues from more than 120 pesticides, which, in concert, can interfere with the bees’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases. Bees also lack the nutrients they would normally get from flowering plants, which have been eradicated from huge expanses of single-crop fields. This may help explain why honeybee colonies, which can be crucial to improving crop yields, have been dying all over the world.

Fewer bees might also mean fewer birds. A recent study in the journal Nature, looking at insect-eating birds in the Netherlands, reported that their populations in the 1990s fell faster in places with more pesticide pollution. It's likely an effect of the depletion of the insects, bees included, on which the birds normally feed. Pesticides may reach further through food webs than we thought.

Sometimes the conflict between efficiency and its unintended effects borders on the absurd, as in the case of a plant called Palmer Amaranth. Also known as Pig Weed, it's an invasive “superweed” that threatens U.S. agriculture, especially the farming of soybean, corn and cotton. Amaranth grows fast and has developed resistance to glyphosate-based herbicides, including Monsanto's famous product Roundup, the most important herbicide in global agriculture.

Palmer Amaranth is resistant to Roundup in large part because we've been subjecting it to Roundup. Now it is costing U.S. farmers millions of dollars every year. The deeper irony is that the weed is edible and was once widely cultivated by Native Americans across North America. It's extremely nutritious, containing more protein than common grains such as corn, wheat, and rice, and is several times richer in calcium, iron and vitamin E.

In other words, the U.S. agricultural industry is killing off a valuable food source in its efforts to produce more raw material for the fast foods and sodas behind the country's problems with obesity. The myopic focus on certain crops means that many farmers and businesses see no option but to use increasingly powerful and more toxic chemicals, even though this will only further increase weed resistance.
Ecological disasters often have their roots in ordinary human attempts to solve problems. Absolutely no one, I'm sure, wants to see marine life or bees or birds disappear, but -- and it's a topic I've touched on before -- we do have a limited ability to imagine or foresee how different facets of our world may depend on or influence one another. I doubt we’ll ever learn how to solve one problem without creating another. So we need a different approach, demoting efficiency as the only goal and instead pursuing greater flexibility...
The Downside of Efficiency (Bloomberg) For more on Palmer Amaranth, see This weed is taking over the planet. On the upside, it’s delicious (Grist)
Palmer amaranth: It’s a fast-growing, tractor-busting, herbicide-defying weed. When you read about it in the news these days it sounds like the epitome of evil. But when I first heard of it, I did a double take because amaranth is also a food grain used historically throughout the Americas, by the Hopi in the north all the way down to the Inca in the south. Back in 1977, an article in Science called amaranth “the crop of the future.” These days, you can find it on health-store shelves in breads and bars and cereals.

OK, so those are different species of amaranth. But not so different. People can eat both the leaves and the seeds of palmer amaranth, which is commonly known as pigweed. They are highly nutritious! They are gluten free! Surely with a little breeding and refinement we could beef up the size of those seeds, and harness that weedy vigor. It would be a sort of culinary ju-jitsu: Instead of fighting the weeds, overhaul our diets completely and nurture them. If you want superfood, start with a superweed.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.