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Archive | December, 2015

Queen Bees Impacted by Neonics

Queen k11072-1Throughout the Northern Hemisphere beekeepers have struggled to maintain adequate numbers of honeybee colonies for crop pollination and honey production due to dramatic increases in colony deaths each year. Recent surveys of beekeepers suggest that poor queen health is an important reason for these losses, but why queen health is being affected is not understood.

A research team from Bern, Switzerland and Wolfville, Canada, has found that honeybee queens, which are crucial to colony functioning, are severely affected by two neonicotinoid insecticides, thiamethoxam and clothianidin. In 2013, governments in Europe moved to partially restrict the use of these neonicotinoids while further risk assessments could be performed. The province of Ontario, Canada, followed suit in 2015. This is the first study to investigate the effects of neonicotinoids on honeybee queens. Its findings suggest that these insecticides may be contributing to bee colony mortality by affecting queen health, and it further strengthens calls for more thorough environmental risk assessments of these pesticides to protect bees and other beneficial organisms.

The observation that honeybee queens are highly vulnerable to these common neonicotinoid pesticides is worrisome, but not surprising, says senior author Laurent Gauthier. The study shows profound effects on queen physiology, anatomy and overall reproductive success. The queen, as the sole egg-layer and the primary source of colony cohesion, is the most important individual in the colony; without her the colony will eventually fail to function.

This article appears in the December 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Meet an Eco-Farmer: Restoration Farm

Restoration Farm Eco-FarmersWhy did you begin farming?

We teach a class called “The Dream Giver,” and while meeting with a couple who had a dream of establishing an organic farm, we caught the dream. Our dream was different in that we wanted to grow crops that no other farms in the area were growing. Our choice was heirloom tomatoes, herbs and vegetables.

Have you always been an ecofarmer, or did you make a change?

Yes. We have chosen to grow our products completely chemical-free, and that includes any organic chemicals that we could use.

What was the biggest hurdle you have overcome?

We are in our 60s so the biggest hurdle is maintaining the energy to do chemical-free farming. The first big hurdle was not listening to the people who said we couldn’t do this at our age, or because we had never farmed before.

What do you enjoy most about farming?

We enjoy taking land that was in need of being restored and working to make it productive. We enjoy watching what we have sown break through that restored soil and become a healthy plant that is good for people to eat. It is really satisfying to have customers tell us how great our microgreens, vegetables and tomatoes taste.

Continue Reading →

More Sustainable Strawberry Production

Plasticulture

Strawberry field

A team of researchers from North Carolina State University set out to provide strawberry growers with information that could help them transition to more sustainable soil and pest management production practices. Their study, published in HortTechnology, compares conventional, compost and organic strawberry production systems in the southeastern United States, and revealed good news for growers. All three systems resulted in positive net returns, and two showed “considerable reductions” in negative environmental and human health impacts.

According to the authors, the nonfumigated compost system and organic system resulted in reductions in negative environmental and human health impacts measured by a set of indicators. “For example, the total number of lethal doses (LD50) applied per acre from all chemicals used in each system and measuring acute human risk associated with each system declined from 118,000 doses per acre in the conventional system to 6,649 doses/acre in the compost system and to 0 doses per acre in the organic system,” the authors explained. “Chronic human health risk, groundwater pollution risk, and fertilizer use declined as well in the compost and organic systems as compared with the conventional system.”

This article appears in the December 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Interview: Author, Activist Sally Fallon Morell Talks Deep Nutrition, Changing Attitudes

Sally Fallon MorellSally Fallon Morell apparently taps secret energy sources not available to most of us. A human dynamo of sorts, she advances the cause of traditional foods as a chef, cookbook author, polemicist, activist and nutrition researcher.

She was inspired in the early 1970s by the work of Weston A. Price (1870-1948), who travelled the world studying the diets and health profiles of native peoples, concluding that a diet rich in animal fats and containing the protective factors found in foodstuffs such as cod liver oil, liver and eggs make for robust children who grow up to benefit from a high immunity to illness. Continue Reading →

Crop Diversity: The Key to Sustainability

monocropA study is showing that crop diversity is the key to sustainability, although that’s old news to eco-farmers.

U.S. farmers on the whole, however, are growing fewer types of crops than they were 34 years ago, which could have implications for how farms fare as changes to the climate evolve, according to a large-scale study by Kansas State University, North Dakota State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Less crop diversity may also be impacting the general ecosystem.

“At the national level, crop diversity declined over the period we analyzed,” said Jonathan Aguilar, K-State water resources engineer and lead researcher on the study.

The scientists used data from the USDA’s U.S. Census of Agriculture, which is published every five years from information provided by U.S. farmers. The team studied crop diversity data from 1978 through 2012 across the country’s contiguous states.

Croplands comprise about 408 million acres, or 22 percent of the total land base, in the lower 48 states, so changes in crop species diversity could have a substantial impact, not only on agro-ecosystem function, but also the function of surrounding natural and urban areas. Because croplands are typically replanted annually, theoretically crop species diversity can change fairly rapidly. There is the potential for swift positive change, unlike in natural ecosystems.

“At the very simplistic level, crop diversity is a measure of how many crops in an area could possibly work together to resist, address and adjust to potential widespread crop failures, including natural problems such as pests and diseases, weed pressures, droughts and flood events,” said Aguilar. “This could also be viewed as a way to spread potential risks to a producer. Just like in the natural landscape, areas with high diversity tend to be more resilient to external pressures than are areas with low diversity. In other words, diversity provides stability in an area to assure food sustainability.”

The study is the first to quantify crop species diversity in the United States using an extensive database over a relatively long period of analysis, Aguilar said. The results of the effort, partially funded by the K-State Open Access Fund, were published in PLOS One.

In addition to the national trend, the researchers studied regional trends by examining county-level data from areas called Farm Resource Regions developed by the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Although the study showed that crop diversity declined nationally, it wasn’t uniform in all regions or in all states.

“There seem to be more dynamics going on in some regions or states,” Aguilar said, noting that not all of the factors affecting those regional trends are clear.

For instance, the Heartland Resource Region, which is home to 22 percent of U.S. farms and represents the highest value, 23 percent, of U.S. production, had the lowest crop diversity. This region comprises Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and parts of Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kentucky.

In contrast to all of the other regions, the Mississippi Portal Region, which includes parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas, had significantly higher crop diversity in 2012 than in 1978.

While overall, the national trend was toward less crop diversity, the region called the Fruitful Rim (parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina) and the Northern Crescent (states along the northeast border from part of Minnesota east through Wisconsin, Michigan through to Maine and south to New Jersey and Pennsylvania) had the most crop diversity.

The data used was specific enough that the researchers were able to quantify crop diversity and trends even down to the county level.

“A significant trend of more counties shifting to lower rather than higher crop diversity was detected,” the team wrote in the study results. “The clustering and shifting demonstrates a trend toward crop diversity loss and attendant homogenization of agricultural production systems, which could have far-reaching consequences for provision of ecosystem services associated with agricultural systems as well as food system sustainability.”

“Biodiversity is important to the ecosystem function,” the researchers wrote. “Biodiversity in agricultural systems is linked to critical ecological processes such as nutrient and water cycling, pest and disease regulation and degradation of toxic compounds such as pesticides. Diverse agro-ecosystems are more resilient to variable weather resulting from climate change and often hold the greatest potential for such benefits as natural pest control.”

This article appears in the December 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.