The use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, all have much the same impact on the environment as the continual use of cultivation and fire but worse. The initial damage done to the soil and the local environment may be obvious as the loss of the tiny plants and animals; bacteria, fungi, worms and beetles, that live in and make topsoil. This will result in the soil becoming compacted and water resistant, and only the toughest weeds that have grown resistant to poisons will grow there.
And on top of that, the toxic artificial residues of these poisons can remain in the environment long after the local ecology has appeared to recover, and can affect the genetic viability of future generations. Residual poisons in the soil do result in mutations in farm animals and children generations after they were last used. The use of agent-orange and its ongoing effects on the people of Vietnam and its neighbors is a tragic indicator of the dangers of poisons in the environment.
Aggressive weeds sprayed with poisons will die, however their seeds will germinate and take advantage of the cleared land once occupied by a diversity of plants. Natural selection will favour weeds resistant to poison which will quickly become a problem on poison managed land.
Remarkably it turns out that all you have to do to eliminate poison resistant weeds is to stop spraying. In order for a plant or animal to become resistant it must acquire some new gene. When it does that it losses a gene that once gave it an advantage over the other competing plants or animals that were eliminated by the poison.
With the poison gone that poison resistant species loses its advantage and its competitors and predators will return.
Huge areas of land the world over are soaked with agricultural chemicals resulting in damage to soil fertility, biodiversity and the health of the local people.
Scientists claim to be developing plants and bacteria designed to degrade synthetic chemicals. But it seems that they will be genetically modified and that is not a good thing either. And such technology will probably be used as an excuse to keep spraying chemicals.
Phyto-remediation is not perfect but it is the best method of poison removal we have so far and it is a technology available to everyone. The principle is simply to grow plant bio-mass to absorb, reduce and disperse chemical residues.
Residual pollutants in the soil are taken up by plant roots and processed by different plants in different ways.
Some plants take the chemicals inside their cells and change them through oxidation. Other plants transpire very dilute amounts of the toxins in a gaseous form through their leaves, so the gases blow away in the air.
Some plants show a greater resistance to, and superior uptake of some chemicals. Follow the links listed to find plants recommended for phyto-remediation. It is interesting to note that some of them are some of the worst weeds to plague farmers and the reason why farmers were spraying in the first place.
While there are particular plants of importance for dealing with certain chemicals, and especially if they are present in high concentrations, growing huge volumes of organic matter of any kind will help to significantly speed up the process of soil remediation.
A number of species of fallow crops, quickly growing large amounts of foliage and deep, densely matted root systems will more readily deal with toxic residues.
Just to stop spraying is a good start but adding as much organic matter as possible and getting it as deep as possible in the ground will do the most to help.
This kind of cropping will attract leaf and root grazing insects and beetles and other creatures that will consume plant matter and turn it over in the soil. The aim is to destroy toxins by burning them off with the fire of living chemistry.
Obviously this process comes at a cost to the plants used in the process and any fauna that enters the system. There will be mutations and cancers occurring amongst those things living in a phyto-remediation ecology that has a high content of synthetic residues. So over time you may notice a few mutants in the garden. I once lived on an old disused tobacco farm, (tobacco farms are notoriously toxic). I saw a number of freaks like emaciated toads with no eyes and flies with no wings.
In terms of which plants you might grow, anything that grows fast and produces large amounts of foliage and densely matted roots. All the green manure and ground cover crops should be of benefit. Sun hemp and hemp are tall fast growing plants producing large amounts of foliage and fiber and deep, matted roots. Hemp is known to remove benzo[a]pyrene and chrysene.
Rainfall is also helpful as it can leach the soil. This is the one time when leaching would actually be useful but the down side of this is that the contaminants just end up somewhere else, generally in waterways, so the fish can end up accumulating toxins.
Potatoes are said to absorb metals in soil and water hyacinths are good for removing metals and some chemicals from water. Water hyacinths are an excellent feedstock for generating methane.
Synthetic poisons are highly persistent but I have heard reports that people who have tried organic methods of soil remediation have found toxin levels significantly reduced after a few years.
I think soil testing is important if poison levels are a concern to you. If possible get soil tested before purchasing land.
Organizations that provide organic certification can offer soil testing services.
28. Hybrid Crops
Hybrid plants have a bad reputation in some circles because of the way they have been exploited by the commercial seed companies that profit from them, however hybrids are not necessarily a bad thing. Hybrids do occur in nature, and they are in fact one of the mechanisms of evolution.
When done on a small scale and then followed through for several generations and stabilised, a new variety can help to fill a niche or replace a variety that has been lost to us. The problems with hybrids arise when patented and unstabilised F1 varieties are released on a large scale onto an unsuspecting world.
Not all varieties can be crossed to create a desirable new variety, often the results are poor in quality, so it takes a lot of work to find two compatible varieties that will result in a new high quality variety. When two varieties are crossed together with a desirable result, the resulting hybrid will display what is called hybrid vigor. This means that the offspring, known as an F1 or first filial, will display stronger growth and yield patterns than either of the parent varieties. Because this is the first generation and all the offspring share equal amounts of DNA from both parents, they will be uniform in growth and yield. This is an important selling point for commercially produced seed. The problem arises in the second generation, known as the F2 stage. Now the genes of the plants start to get mixed up and they will show little uniformity in growth patterns and yield. This means that gardeners and farmers cannot save their own seeds for next year’s crop and have to keep returning to the seed company for next season’s seeds.
However, should the gardener feel inclined, it is possible to take a hybrid F1 variety and stabilize it, thereby creating a new seedling variety. This is done by applying discriminating selection, that is, choose the best offspring that arise in each generation and continue to propagate each successive generation from the best plants only. Remove and use for mulch all inferior plants and make sure they do not reproduce.
It is usual to start with only a few good plants in the first generation and work with up to 50 plants per generation after that in order to find one or more plants that will display desirable qualities. The new hybrid strain should be quite stable after four generations and could be considered a new variety by the seventh generation.
Of course this is all an enormous amount of work and this is what the seed companies profit from as it means that gardeners and farmers are very unlikely to go through this process and will be more inclined to go back to the seed company to purchase their next seasons seeds.
However, there is little need for hybrids because there are already hundreds, even thousands of different varieties to choose from. For example the wheat plant alone had some seventy thousand different strains just a century ago. This degree of diversity exists because these crops were looked after by so many different people, in so many valleys for so long. Every people had their own variety and sadly many of them are now lost to the age of industrial farming practices. But there is still a lot out there in need of looking after. This vast bank of agricultural heritage represents the history of human endeavor, our role in nature and our future. All these varieties have different needs and will give different returns; that is what bio-diversity means, there is something out there for everyone, everywhere, it’s all a matter of getting connected and finding out what you need to suite your circumstances and then looking after what you have chosen. When there is that much diversity in the world it takes everyone working together to protect it and you can help by having a garden and keeping the treasures of our ancestors alive.
Discriminating selection should also be applied to stable varieties to ensure they maintain their desirable qualities and gradually improve with successive generations. This might be thought of as natural genetic engineering.
One example of organic and stable hybrid varieties, are the three rice strains called happy hills rice that were developed by Mr. Masanobu Fukuoka. He grew and stabilised them over some three decades. They are stable and hardy varieties and suitable for growing in a number of different environments and have some of the highest yields of any strains of rice.
Sadly in researching this chapter I have learnt that Mr. Fukuoka retired from farming in his later years and lost his three strains of happy hills rice. He did however distribute them to various interested people around the world and if anyone out there has any idea where they might be found, please let me know via my web site. Larry Korn, who co-wrote the English translation of ‘The One Straw Revolution’, is also looking for them too.
29. Genetically Modified Organisms
Heralded as our salvation by those who profit from them, genetically modified plants and animals are easily one of the greatest threats facing us today.
Plants and animals that have been genetically modified have already shown themselves to be vulnerable to environmental influences like pests and diseases and fluctuations in the weather. They have also proven to be toxic to animals that are fed on them. Experimental rats preferred to starve rather than to eat GM tomatoes and had to be force fed. Lab animals and farm animals around the world including rats, rabbits, chickens, sheep, pigs, cattle, water buffalo and horses fed on genetically modified corn, canola, potato, soya, tomatoes and other crops, in lab tests and in the field, have become sterile and many died prematurely. They show damage to stomach, liver, reproduction and immune systems and also show signs of DNA breakdown. Reproductive dysfunction has also been shown to pass on down the food chain and humans will end up with the same conditions as the plants and animals that they consume, and these problems can be passed on to their children as well. It may turn out that the declining fertility rates in the western world, so far attributed to endocrine disrupting synthetic pollutants and poor modern diets may also be attributed to the rise in the use of GM foods.
Crops like GM soya beans and BT 176 maize (maize with added bacillus thuringiensis genes, this is when BT is bad) have been modified to produce toxins that are meant to poison caterpillars and other pests. These toxins are one reason for the sterility and deaths of the animals that ate them. Bacteria and viruses naturally swap genes with other living things. When these foods are eaten, their GM DNA can be absorbed by the digestive bacteria in the gut. These bacteria have been found to lock into the intestinal walls of rats fed on GMO's (genetically modified organisms). The animals own intestinal flora then start producing these toxins and so their own gut begins to poison them. These poisons, thought to be bio-degradable have been shown to survive in the gut of cattle fed with them and they even continue to survive once excreted and then bind with clay in the soil where they then continue to affect the environment.
New genes are added to plants by the use of a gene gun and are literally fired into the plants leaves. This damages both the genes of the plants and the genes being added with unpredictable results. For example, added pesticide genes change in character and are no longer species specific and poison beneficial insects and other animals further along the food chain as well as the targeted pest insects.
And you don't even have to eat these genes to be affected by them. Whole villages of people in the Philippines became sick, when the new crops of BT Maize that surrounded them, began to produce pollen.
Also as a result of this process, new proteins, never before seen in nature, have been found to occur spontaneously in genetically modified species as a by-product of the GM process. Proclaimed harmless by the company that produced it, a GM variety of maize with a new randomly produced artificial protein (Cry3Bb1), first caused reduced milk yield in dairy cattle and then the sterility and deaths of the cattle and pigs it was fed to.
In the past only certain crops could be sprayed with herbicides as some crops would be killed off by the poisons along with the weeds. Round-up ready soya beans and other crops genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides can have poisons poured on them and still grow, meaning that they will be far from organic when they arrive at the dinner table. And now that the new crops are resistant to the weed killers, poisons are being used on more crops and more land than ever before, and some farmers are using their poisons carelessly. So with more weeds over greater areas being subject to more chemical herbicides, the forces of natural selection have stepped up a gear. The majority of non-resistant weeds have disappeared leaving behind only super resistant weeds, which without competition from the weeds now exterminated by herbicides, have experienced a population explosion, presenting farmers with enormous weed problems and forcing them to apply ever more herbicides. The result is higher costs for the farmer, a toxin laden environment, and a serious health issue for consumers.
Not only that but the poison resistant genes in the new GM crops have already been found to transfer, via pollen and viruses, into the weeds that the farmer is spraying for. Now the weeds have become totally resistant to herbicides and farmers find themselves pouring massive quantities of poisons on their crops with little or no effect on these new weeds.
Like herbicide resistant genes, if anti-biotic and vaccine genes, already introduced into some crops, were to transfer into bacteria and viruses, we could see a whole new world of super resistant diseases, not to mention the natural selection effect on these diseases of being permanently exposed to these bio-drugs in our diet.
Pollen contamination of non-GM crops by nearby GM crops has also been shown to be a serious problem. Non-GM farmers are given no assistance and are even told to move their crops, at their own expense.
The danger to organic growers, whose crops have been contaminated by pollen from GM crops, is that they lose their market as GM produce cannot be sold as organic. This has severely affected the Hawaiian papaya industry. Thailand has also had similar problems with GM papaya.
Pollen contamination of non-GM crops like grain and pulse crops by GM crops also means that the food seed that they yield will then be as toxic as the GM crops are.
Non-GM farmers found to have GM crop contamination caused by escaping pollen can and have been sued by the companies that have patents on those genes.
Worse still, some companies have gone as far as inserting genes into plant varieties, and then patenting the entire plant DNA, and then suing farmers for owning plants that contain natural genes that also appear in the patented plants to which the companies have added modified genes. If the courts were mad enough to support these legal actions, it would result in the lawfully required extinction of non-GM plant species.
In future, some companies intend to introduce 'terminator genes', which means that the collected seed from a crop will be non-viable and cannot be used to grow the next season’s crop. The intention is to prevent farmers from saving seeds or distributing seeds to other farmers in order to protect the company’s intellectual property rights. This means that farmers always have to return to the company for seed for next year’s crops.
It is claimed that the terminator gene will prevent the contamination of surrounding crops and wild plants, however the terminator process is a complicated one, and it is possible that these terminator genes CAN spread via pollen, which would result in MOSTLY unviable seed production in related species of surrounding non-GM crops and wild plants. However under certain circumstances the resulting seeds can be viable, with the terminator genes remaining dormant inside them in the form of recessive genes, to emerge in future generations in the form of lethal genetic diseases, potentially killing off large percentages of future crops and wild plants. Viral transfer of DNA could also result in the contamination and genetic degradation of unrelated species. There is also the possibility that these genes could transfer into the animals and humans consuming them, meaning that they too could suffer similar genetic degradation and the diseases that would result from this.
F1 hybrid seeds were already terminator type varieties of plants that were introduced long ago to prevent farmers from saving seeds as the next generation would produce variable results and a poor yield. Now farmers in India and elsewhere have reason to believe that terminator genes have already been introduced by stealth as many crops are producing little viable seed. In India, pea pods with decreased numbers of peas inside the pods and in Ecuador, potatoes with no eyes to grow the next season’s crop. Was this the introduction of terminator genes by stealth or did successive generations of GM crops reveal the genetic weakness of genetically modified organisms?
In India many farmers have committed suicide because they cannot repay money borrowed to pay for very expensive GM seed which reliably fails to produce a worthwhile harvest. One reason GM crops fail is because GM crops are fertiliser dependant and chemical fed plants require more water to take up the water soluble chemical nutrients, and there just is no extra water for these crops in most of India's agricultural areas.
Introduced GM crops have other implications as well. When the UN entered East Timor, one of the UN aid projects was the introduction of a new GM rice variety. The claim was that this would increase crop yields. In the first place East Timor already had its own rice varieties that did not have any problems with harvest or yield, being comparable with other varieties around the world.
When the introduced GM variety was harvested and taken in for storage it was mixed in with the rest of the local harvest. The new GM variety matures two weeks later and 30 cm taller than the local variety. When this grain was replanted the following season, the new crop was a mix of the two varieties. The crop had to be harvested when one grain was ripe and the other either immature or over ripe. Either way, half the crop was lost. This crop failure made East Timor dependant on imported rice.
If new crops are going to be introduced to help people, there must first be studies done of the existing traditional agricultural crops and customs to determine if there is a real need for them and how best to introduce them. There also needs to be a sound education campaign and management plan to go with those new crops. There also needs to be a guarantee by those introducing new crops and techniques that they will absorb the cost of crop failure. And traditional heritage crops must be protected from extinction.
With large sectors of the agricultural community taking on both hybrid and GM varieties, old, safe and proven varieties of farm crops disappear and are lost to future generations.
Genetic modification interferes with the course of evolution which is nature’s own ongoing experiment in genetic engineering. Nature has its own checks and balances and has ways of dealing with the mutations that do occur naturally.
GM both poisons us and makes us dependant on unnatural and ecologically vulnerable species that could all disappear in a moment when nature produces an ecological solution to this unnatural monster.
GM is totally unnecessary and a serious mistake. We already have all the plant and animal varieties we need and all we have to do to make the most of them is to practice organic, sustainable and natural methods of gardening, farming and land care.
Avoid and resist 'Genetic Modification' in all its forms.
"The fact is, it is virtually impossible to even conceive of a testing procedure to assess the health effects of genetically engineered foods when introduced into the food chain, nor is there any valid nutritional or public interest reason for their introduction." Richard Lacey: Professor of Food Safety, Leeds University.
Top soil has been created by the effect of plant and animal life working in unison, eating, growing, excreting, dying and decaying and turning over the Earth. Top soil is made up of the mineral elements of the base soil and rock having been broken down by the chemical and physical actions of plants and animals and then combined with a complex carbon chemistry that plants have made from carbon dioxide and other gases extracted from the air. This decaying plant and animal matter in the top soil, known as humus, represents a huge mass of carbon storage. The loss of the Earths topsoil's therefore has an enormous impact on climate change. Eroded topsoil's that end up in rivers and the sea, decompose much more rapidly than they otherwise would, releasing their carbon to the atmosphere. Degraded environments take a long time to recover, meaning that there is then less potential for carbon storage, doubling the impact of topsoil loss on the climate change.
To have any meaningful impact on the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, we must reverse the trend of the destruction of the Earths topsoil's and restore healthy environments to where they have been lost. Anyone who is in a position to grow a garden has at their disposal the means to help reverse the effects of the increasing amounts of carbon gases in our atmosphere. So if you care, and if you can, please grow a garden, and do it by sustainable methods. All you need to know is already written down for you in a few good books like the ones mentioned here.
While some still debate about the effects of pollution in the atmosphere, climate change seems to be upon us already and erratic weather appears to be the result. And whatever its causes, CO2 emissions should not be focused on to the exclusion of all else. Climate change has many causes (all of them, the result of poor land management and utilization of our resources), and pollution has many negative effects on our environment and us. Pollution in many forms is still being dumped on the land and poured into the skies, the rivers and the seas. Ground water and wetlands are being drained, clean water is becoming scarce, forests are still being cut down, plant and animal diversity is being lost, the Earth's rich soils are eroding into the oceans, farm lands are disappearing and the only things growing are the deserts and the human race.
All too quickly the efforts of the last four billion years of life on Earth are being undone by the misdirected actions of the Earth’s ignorant inhabitants. The current era of climate change has resulted from our own poor land management practices. And it is in the problem that we find the solution, for if, with all our misdirected effort, we can make such a measurable negative impact on our environment, then surely a concerted effort to manage our land and resources responsibly should have a collectively positive effect on our environment and climate. And it is with sustainable and natural land management practices that we have the power to positively influence our world.
So if we are to see any positive change in the way that we interact with the Earth, it will be necessary that all people become aware of the natural cycles of life, and that we incorporate that practical knowledge of nature and the garden into our every day habits.
Until that day comes, it will only be a few individuals who are aware of natures cycles and how to take part in them harmoniously, who will be responsible for helping to guide the rest of us in the right direction and creating what we all could share today, paradise on Earth.
Fortunately there are already many people who have such knowledge and live by their principles. May I encourage you also to go into the garden and Guard Eden. Happy gardening.