Michigan Tech has launched itself into the urban ag movement with an aquaponics set-up in the ninth floor greenhouse in the Dow. Established by Robert Handler (in the Sustainable Futures Institute) and Nancy Auer (Biological Sciences), the farm is producing basil, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and more than three dozen tilapia (in the large blue bins with the mesh on top). The water from the fish bins (filled with fish poop) circulates to the planted containers, where the plants use the fish fertilizer to grow. The water trickles through the soil, leaving through the bottom as clean water that is then circulated back into the fish tanks. Given the great success of its inaugural year, I can envision a steady flow of fresh, local veggies and fish appearing in the campus dining halls in the near future.
A great new TED talk about using food as a common language to improve local conditions in a small English town:
Although summers are quite busy, usually I try to find the time to read several books that have been occupying the corner of my desk during the academic year. I have finally read a book on my “meaning to get to” list for years: “Prehistoric Native Americans and Ecological Change,” (Cambridge University Press), by the professors who taught me landscape ecology, Paul and Hazel Delcourt.
Originally published in 2004, the book combines archaeology and paleoecology to describe how landscapes in North America were changed by human societies long before Europeans arrived. Ecologists especially have always believed that pre-European societies had little lasting impact on ecosystems in North America. This belief underpins many conservation biology targets for habitat and species restoration. However, the Delcourts describe thriving human societies in Ontario, southern Illinois and Eastern Tennessee that used fire and forest harvesting to support their agriculture-based societies, dramatically increasing nut-bearing trees and pioneer species (such as ragweed) at the expense of species adapted to mature forests. These changes, made at increasingly large scales, may have also increased herbivore species such as white-tailed deer that thrive in early-successional and edge woodland habitats.
The book is framed by Panarchy theory, and explains how these changes, when they reached a critical proportion of the surrounding landscape, created greater disturbances (such as floods) that likely led to the area being abandoned by these societies, long before Europeans arrived on the scene. These events are a reminder that humans, like all species, alter their environments. Sometimes these alterations are beneficial in the short term, but often they are detrimental in the long term. Even with small-scale disturbances (such as slash-and-burn agriculture), if the period allowed for ecosystem regeneration is too short, soil fertility can decline and ultimately the practice becomes unsustainable.
Of course, the lessons we gain from the distant past (14,000 to 500 years before present) are limited in their applicability. North America is now home to over 400 million people, almost two orders of magnitude larger than it has ever supported before. It may be that the agricultural and settlement practices of even the most sustainable of these early societies would be completely unsustainable today. But what we can learn is that our impacts will certainly be available for study for a long, long time.
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!
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.
Green Film Series Issues & Dialogue:
Date/Time: 7:00-8:30 pm, Thursday, May 17
Location: 135 Fisher Hall, MTU
Cost: FREE; $3 suggested donation. Coffee, dessert, and facilitated discussion with Sarah Salo
May 17 Food – Food is a local and a global issue. The film explores whether it is possible to design a food system that ensures health, accessibility and affordability for everyone? (49 min.)
Discussion facilitator: Sara Salo, School Food Tour. Meet Sara Salo, Founder & Executive Director of the School Food Bicycle Tour. Join us as we welcome Sara back to Houghton (she’s a Houghton HS graduate) after her epic 6,000-mile solo ride with the goal of empowering students, schools and communities to advocate for equitable access to wholesome food. She earned a M.S. in Public Health from Oregon State University. Sara is fascinated with examining and strategizing how the roles of place, community and individual come together to create and maintain sustainable food systems. School Food Tour http://schoolfoodtour.org/about/
The Green Film program is partially funded with a grant from:
♦ League of Women Voters of the Copper Country ♦ Friends of the Land of Keweenaw ♦ U.P. Environmental Coalition
Green Film Series is cosponsored by:
Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative http://lakesuperiorstewardship.org/
Keweenaw Land Trust http://www.keweenawlandtrust.org/
Michigan Tech Center for Water & Society http://www.mtcws.mtu.edu/
Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship http://www.kuuf.net/
2012 Green Film Series schedule posted at: http://wupcenter.mtu.edu/news/2012/2012GreenFilmSeries.html