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Entries in agriculture (3)


Burt Talks to the Bees; a three-part video.

Photo credit: cygnus921/Creative CommonsA significant amount of the plant food we eat would not be available were it not for the pollinating activities of bees. Furthermore, because they are instrumental to biodiversity, bees are what scientists call indicator species; they function as a buzzing alarm system for the health of our planet’s ecosystem.

Sadly, that alarm has been sounding for several years. Since 2006, honeybee colonies have been declining at a rate of about 30% each year. Some of that decline has been attributed to a mysterious evacuation of the hive by its workers, which eventually spells collapse for the hive, hence the name Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD.

Researchers around the world have been focused on trying to solve the mystery, but most agree there is no singular threat to explain that evacuation. Rather, bees and honeybees in particular are facing a number of challenges—pollution, exposure to chemicals, disease, parasites, poor nutrition, even changes in climate. Nevertheless, the identification of CCD has elevated public attention to the valuable role that the bee plays in supporting our agricultural system.

Most scientists agree that bees need nesting habitats and a variety of healthy flower food to thrive. Unfortunately, these are in short supply. Human activity has used up most of the land that once supported bee activity; we have planted field crops from edge to edge, lawns from yard to yard and sterile ornamental perennials and shrubs where fecund plants used to grow. In most agricultural settings today, bees find only one kind of food for days and weeks on end and that is insufficient to sustain our planet.

Photo credit: burtsbees.comBurt Shavitz, co-founder of Burt’s Bees products used to be a beekeeper. His bees made the wax in the first Beeswax Lip Balm his company produced. Because he and his firm value bee activity, they collaborate with experts (Pollinator Partnership a.k.a. P2 in U.S.) and artists to encourage us to restore our environment to a bee-friendly state. We can do this by planting wild, native flowers, by adding non-sterile varieties of perennials and shrubs to our gardens, and by simply restoring into our culture an appreciation of and a respect for bees.

As P2’s Executive Director, Laurie Davies Adams, explains, “Each of us lives in a habitat, and we have the opportunity, in fact, the responsibility, to nurture and promote healthy habitat. By sharing a bit of lawn, a schoolyard, a farm border, an office landscape or a roadside with blooming pollinator-friendly plants, we create a connection that supports healthy ecosystems and a sustainable future.  All of our actions join to build something invaluable to the very plants and pollinators that feed us.”

There are many ways to draw public attention to this issue. Unfortunately, the human brain is bombarded, on a daily basis, with a large amount of competing data, that capturing anyone's attention would require innovative action.

To meet that challenge, Burt's Bees produced three short films, all titled BURT TALKS TO THE BEES. This entertaining and educational three-part series was created by Isabella Rossellini, actor, director and Burt impersonator. In these short films, the public is introduced to the bees - the queen, the workers, and the drones - in order to become familiar and sympathetic to their plight. Rossellini’s uncanny ability to combine scientific accuracy with storytelling creates a lighthearted approach to environmentalism that piques viewers’ curiosity enough to care about bees. Click to watch the videos series at

It is hoped that, by viewing and sharing these films, enough people will come to realize the important role that bees play in our food growing cycle; and that each of us will invite bees into our outdoor spaces by growing bee-friendly plants. Together, we can create mulitple bee sanctuaries; our goal being to ensure a more sustainable future for our planet.


Plants, Civilization, and Human Nature, a book review for

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History, Bill Laws, Firefly Books

I have just read a gripping saga. Ostensibly, it’s about plants, but actually, it’s about us.

This collection of anecdotes details how plants influenced human behavior, and affected the course of history. By chronicling the commercial activity surrounding the discovery and marketing of the food we eat, the beverages we drink, and the plants we process, the author describes how those activities impacted wars, political boundaries, habits, social behavior, and addictions.

I thought that I would be reading an encyclopedia of the history of important plants, but in fact, I was delving into an immensely fascinating epic about western civilization. No sooner had I completed an exciting chapter about one plant, when I could hardly wait to begin reading about the next.

The influence that plants had, and continues to have, on our lives becomes apparent when we think about the amount of fossil fuel we consume, the large number of botanical gardens we have built, and the considerable investments we make in our gardens. Yet, that is only a small part of the bigger story. In this publication, the author identifies fifty plants that have altered the history of life on earth. Here are just a few tid-bits:-

  • The discovery of the pineapple in the New World inspired the invention of the green house in Europe.
  • Hemp was used to manufacture the paper used to write the American Declaration of Independence.
  • Agave is used in the manufacture of bullets.
  • Coconut is integral to making sterile I.V. drips.
  • The opium poppy transformed the history of China. .
  • Trade in black pepper created a need for banking.
  • Peoples’ craving for sugar influenced the growth of the slave trade.
  • The French revolution may be traced to the significance of bread and a poor wheat harvest.
  • 8,800 pounds of mulberry leaves are needed to feed silkworms to supply enough yarn to make one blouse.
  • Coffee is indirectly responsible for the Boston Tea Party and Harry Potter.
  • Cotton uses only 3% of the world’s farmland but 25% of the world’s pesticides.
  • A painting of sunflowers changed the art world
  • Fire-resistant uniforms are manufactured using Eucalyptus.

The author reports that in addition to influencing the course of history, some plants have also contributed to self-destructive behavior.. Many have placed their health at risk from weight gained by overeating sugar; some have ruined their lives by consuming plant - based narcotics, or have marinated their livers by drinking alcohol excessively. Others have shortened their life span by inhaling plant-sourced nicotine into their lungs. On balance though, we also experience safe pleasures from plants by drinking tea and moderates amount of wine, by inhaling the fragrance of flowers, and by stroking a silk garment.

Reading this book has been a better experience than watching a documentary. It runs at a fast-paced clip from one plant to another, constantly revealing fascinating details about civilization, economics, and above all, human nature.  



About Nature and Michael Pollan's Grandfather

A long time ago, during weekends at the beach, I had the luxury of reading the entire Sunday edition of the New York Times. The Adirondack Park location, where I vacationed, was run by the State of New York which supplied three qualified life guards to survey the swimmers. Since the beach was relatively small, I knew that my children would be carefully watched and that I could take my eyes off them to read and relax.

The fascinating thing about committing oneself to a hefty Sunday paper is that one usually ends up learning about topics that are, otherwise, irrelevant. From time to time, I would discover articles that held no interest for me, yet I found my eyes riveted to their pages simply because they were so well written. When finished, I would return to the opening paragraph to check out the name of the author. Time after time, the name Michael Pollan appeared. Eventually, I learned that anything this journalist wrote deserved to be read - he was that good.

When I first began to read TNYT, it was a balanced, almost scholarly newspaper that dealt with subjects in an even handed manner; it displayed intellectual integrity. With changing times, its high standards slipped to a point where I no longer enjoyed it. In addition, the focus of its magazine articles, which once had a smattering of international appeal, had become too local. Eventually, there was nothing in that paper to motivate me to buy it. Thus began my hiatus from reading articles by my now favorite journalist.

One weekend in June, in the early 90’s, I received as a Father’s Day gift, a copy of Mr Pollan’s first published book, Second Nature. My children believed that I would enjoy it because it was about gardening. Little did they know how excited I was to re connect with a writer whom I admired.  By now, Mr. Pollan had moved on from the New York Times and was about to begin a career that would not only bring him to national prominence but would also reward him with many professional accolades.

The gift that I had received was a collection of essays on gardening, many of which had originally appeared as magazine articles. Even though the flow of the book was a bit disjointed, and the author’s knowledge about gardening, at that time, was less than authoritative, I was drawn into the text by Mr. Pollan’s writing, his humor and the manner in which he personalized his philosophical yet infectious relationship with nature. In many circles, this book became a must read.

The author begins with the role played by his grandfather in inspiring the young grandson to take an interest in gardening. Eventually it moves on to describe how, as an adult, Mr. Pollan reconnected with nature after he moved his family to the Housatonic Valley in Connecticut.

The grandfather had been a successful New York businessman, who enjoyed gardening and gentleman farming on weekends. Now the stereotype of “successful New York businessman “is diametrically opposed to the stereotype of “weekend gardener” because each conjures up cultural images that are contradictory. Juxtaposed against each other, they created reader fascination. Mr Pollan had unintentionally stumbled upon an effective literary device which contributed to making the narrative, of quality time spent with a grandfather, all the more interesting.

During the years that followed, I noticed how the author adopted as his themes, various layers of nature - related topics. Subsequent books, all best sellers include,  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010); In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008); The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001).Today, Mr. Pollan is Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism, and lectures widely on food, nutrition, agriculture, health and the environment. That is quite a feat for someone whose background is English literature and not medicine or science.

Nevertheless, I am going to always admire Mr. Pollan, not for the essence of his first book or the popularity of the later ones, but for the manner in which he described his relationship with his grandfather. In Second Nature, the discerning reader will notice, stealthily woven into the essay, an invisible thread inferring how much this author loved and admired his grandfather. He never states that out rightly. Yet, it is imbued in every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph that he wrote. I found the inferred affection, of grandson for grandfather, to be so touching that this aspect alone made reading the book a memorable experience.