Tag: agriculture

Nasty cow pasties

Every Saturday my four-year-old son and I start our errands by going to a local dairy farm (Hidden Acres Farm) to get a gallon of milk. Since moving to the UP, I’ve been trying to localize our food supply, mainly by gardening in our backyard, joining Wintergreen Farm (Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA)), buying eggs from a friend and now our milk.

Aside from sustainability concerns (e.g., carbon footprints, food miles, local jobs, slow food/money/life, and the like), I garden with my son and bring him to these places so that he understands not only where food comes from but also how it comes to be food. He knows that beans and seeds must be planted, fed, and watered to get plants that produce fruits and vegetables, he knows that chickens love worms (above all else), and now he knows how cows eat grass, how they keep flies off of them (ears and tail), and today what a cowpie looks like.

I was stunned at first when he pointed one out and asked what it was. I then realized that he hasn’t been around pastured cows before (just those at the zoo) and therefore has never had the opportunity to see a cowpie. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, but I had nearby opportunities to be exposed to nature (in the Forest Preserves) and agriculture (such as Wagner Farm in Glenview) where I was able to figure out things like cowpies. We are only now understanding how critical this exposure to the natural world is for young children and their development. I suppose I have taken my early exposure for granted up until now.

On the way back to our car, one of the farm owners greeted us and I told her that my son had seen his first cowpie today. I’m sure on the inside she was rolling her eyes at such a bizarre and slightly pathetic revelation, but she smiled and said, “My son calls those ‘nasty cow pasties'”. Very fitting!

Teeth from every angle

Ann Gibbons penned an interesting News Focus article in this week’s Science, reviewing research presented at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center on two Mayan communities on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico; one that was relatively wealthy and could afford soda and processed foods with refined sugar and flour, and one that was poorer and subsisted on more traditional maize-based foods. Residents of the wealthier village not only suffered more cavities (as one might expect), but far more problems with overbites, teeth overcrowding, impacted wisdom teeth, and other dental issues that often require the services of an orthodontist. It turns out that having lots of food in the diet that is coarse or difficult to chew (read: unprocessed) is important (especially for children) to help the lower jaw grow larger (allowing all those teeth to come in straight and uncrowded), and for adults to scrape harmful bacteria and plaque off of the surface of the teeth.

This special meeting focused on the “Evolution of Human Teeth and Jaws”, and was very diverse in disciplines represented: paleoarchaeologists, anthropologists, dentists, and food scientists. This area is a bit outside of my expertise, but I enjoyed reading about the findings because these interesting questions, and fascinating answers, really do require a multidisciplinary team looking at the issue from many angles. Indeed, it is not only exciting to work in these kinds of teams, but just as exciting to read about the results of others.

Great PNAS article this week for Collapse fans

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say Collapse “fans”, but rather scholars…. I would assume most people are not rooting for societal collapse!

In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Zhang et al. look at specific ecological, economic, and social variables that changed with the global cooling event from 1560 to 1660 AD, a period of widespread societal upheaval particularly in Europe. Previous studies have found that civilizations in the past have been severely disrupted by climate change, but generally there have been insufficient records of most of the social and economic characteristics of these civilizations to study their collapse in detail, other than what we can gather from abandoned settlements and human remains. For more recent preindustrial societies, records indicate that it is most likely the rapid decline in agricultural production that is a proximate cause of the unravelling of a civilization, with climate change implicated in widespread crop failures. Studies like this fill in many details of a general hypothesis of how and why societies collapse, started by Joseph Tainter in the 1980’s and popularized by Jared Diamond’s book Collapse in 2005.

In this PNAS article, the authors look at European societies during both peaceful times and times of upheaval, to determine if the “dark” ages were correlated with climate change and to identify which ecological (e.g., agricultural production), social (e.g., population size, average height), and economic (e.g., grain prices, real wages) characteristics are most vulnerable to this change. They paid particular attention to whether the presumed cause preceded the effect, a detail that has been missing from previous studies due to a lack of adequate resolution in temporal data. They found that variables associated with agricultural production and per capita food supply followed immediately after the start of the global cooling period, with later increases in war, famine, and migration that were a likely consequence of food shortages and spiraling food prices.

Here was one of the findings that jumped out at me: “Grain price could be taken as an indicator and direct cause of conditions of harmony or crisis in preindustrial Europe.” This is a very strong argument for the importance of local and robust agricultural systems to sustainability, and we have already seen riots over food prices in the past few years.

The authors conclude with a bold statement: “Our findings have important implications for industrial and postindustrial societies. Any natural or social factor that causes large resource (supply) depletion, such as climate and environmental change, overpopulation, overconsumption, or nonequitable distribution of resources, may lead to a general crisis, according to the set of causal linkages in Fig. 2. The scale of the crisis depends on the temporal and spatial extent of resource depletion.

Hmmm…. has anyone looked at the Gini Index lately?