Tag Archives: global warming

The toxic gamble: genetically engineered seeds

Farmer harvesting hay in British Columbia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordThe most public debate on the use of genetically modified seeds concerns their safety: whether they are safe for the environment and safe for human consumption. These are crucial questions, arguably the most important. But they are accompanied by a host of other very important issues: democracy, public versus corporate control, the rights of communities and individuals, the control of the food supply, the future of plant genetics, the future itself. Issues of culture, sovereignty, heritage, and spirit are involved. Who we are as inhabitants of our mother planet underlies all these issues.

Genetic manipulations can sound promising: rice with beta-carotene to prevent blindness in vitamin A starved children. Spinach that survives frost. Cotton and potatoes that resist their most pernicious beetle pests. Farming is hard and risky. Anything that makes it easier and more predictable is surely worth a look. Drought resistant wheat? Great idea! Especially in the face of global warming.

It was such a great idea that our ancestors started developing drought-tolerant wheat 10,000 years ago. Cereal grain cultivation originated in the middle east, where there was plenty of reason to foster plants that naturally weathered dry seasons. Grasses are wind pollinated, so the different species could mix easily, blending genes, creating desirable traits that were then chosen, grown, and treasured. Some of these ancient grains are in use around the world today, including in our own midwest, helping farmers cope with the effects of warmer, drier climate.

Teosinte, the ancestor of corn, is pictured with its modern progeny. Photos by Matt Levin and CSKK

Teosinte photo by Matt Lavin; corn photo by CSKK. Both via Flickr/Creative Commons

The choosing and mixing of beneficial traits in plants of all kinds brought us most of the food seeds that we had 100 years ago. Farmers who never heard the words genetics or evolution nevertheless were part of those processes. We know from genetic analysis that corn developed from an unassuming grass, teosinte, when we began planting it nine thousand years ago. Slowly and carefully, operating on knowledge acquired from intimacy with seeds and plants, locale and weather, farmers developed plants with the prominent cobs and seeds that became a staple food of what is now North and South America. The other two staples — beans and squash — were developed with the same patient wisdom.

The indigenous people of the Americas planted their three sisters together, starting with a few corn seeds set into a mound of soil. The corn stalks created a pole for the bean vines to climb. Beans are in the legume family, which pulls the crucial nutrient nitrogen from the air into the soil. The large squash leaves shaded the ground, discouraging weeds, conserving water and preventing the sun from baking the soil. Coastal tribes planted a fish in each mound for fertilizer. 

A bowl of jewel-like beans from seedambassadors.org

Photo from Seed Ambassadors

One hundred years ago, after thousands of years of such careful nurture and thoughtful husbandry, there were 307 varieties of commercially available corn seeds. As of the last count in 1983, there were twelve. Monsanto is everyone’s culprit, with good reason, but they didn’t begin it, and they’re not alone. Early in the twentieth-century corporations realized that there was money to be made in creating seeds that had to be bought anew each year, instead of the ancient practice of collecting them at harvest. This led to F1 hybrids, which dominated farm staples such as corn, sugar beets and vegetables. F1 hybrids are genetic crosses designed to use the desirable dominant traits of each parent. However, in the next generation recessive genes can activate, and so the crop is less predictable and likely weaker. 

So, farmers purchased new seeds every year, on the surface a reasonable tradeoff for a reliably hardy crop. But only reasonable if they had a choice, which diminished rapidly. The hybrid breeders didn’t want competition from traditional seeds, so they began to buy up seed companies, something that has accelerated in the last twenty years. The three major chemical corporations heavily involved in GMO seeds have bought 20,000 seed companies among them. In addition, Monsanto is notorious for going into traditional farming regions and buying stored seeds from farmers as they introduce their altered seeds. By refusing to sell the traditional seeds they now own, corporations force farmers to buy their genetically engineered products.

Wheat field in South Dakota by Betsey Crawford

Wheat field in South Dakota

When they want to convince the public of the safety of GMO foods, genetic modifiers say that their work is a continuation and sophistication of the process of hybridization that has been in place since farming began. But all previous combinations, including the F1 hybrids, combined genes of the same or closely related species, using the methods of pollination the plants had used for millions of years. The insertion of flounder and trout genes in tomatoes and spinach, along with viral catalysts and a bacterial signature to identify the corporate owner, is entirely new. Which is exactly what those same modifiers say when they apply for patents.

In 1980 the United State Supreme Court ruled that life forms could be patented. This gives Monsanto and other companies the right to alter a single gene in a seed, claim the patent, and sue anyone who uses that seed for intellectual property theft, even if the use of that seed is unsought and unwanted. There are many examples of farmers whose crops were wind pollinated by nearby GMO seeds and ended up being sued for damages. In addition, and literally caught in the crosswinds, organic farmers can lose tens of thousands of dollars of value when their crops are contaminated.

Given its 117 year history of producing deadly poisons — DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs — and creating endless toxic sites, there is apparently no amount of damage that Monsanto is unwilling to do. It has also, ever since helping make bombs in both world wars, had close ties to the U.S. government. In every administration from Reagan through Trump, Monsanto lawyers and executives have held positions in the FDA, the USDA, and the Supreme Court. Next to the corporations, the U.S. government is the biggest booster of GMO crops, even to the point, during famines, of forcing supplies of GMO grain on African countries that don’t want them.

Corn field in western Kansas by Betsey CrawfordI can’t know for sure how the farmer of the field above treats his land. But the state of the soil — dry, sandy, colorless — suggests that he first drenched the ground with biocides to kill the microbial life. Then another biocide to arm the seeds and seedlings against insects whose predators may well have been killed in the first round. Since there are no weeds sprouting between the corn stalks, he likely applied another biocide, probably glyphosate, to kill them. This is the chemical in Monsanto’s Round Up. Handily, Monsanto’s Round Up Ready seeds are bred to grow into plants that aren’t killed by glyphosate. After seeding the farmer can keep spraying Round Up all season. To feed the plants growing in this sterile soil, repeated applications of petroleum-based fertilizer can be added to the list.

If this were a potato field, he would have followed the same path, adding fungicides, but instead used the eyes of potatoes with the inserted genes of Bacillus thuringensis, or BT. Eating the leaves would then be lethal to the notorious potato beetle. These thrive in monocultures of the potato bred, for example, to provide perfect french fries at McDonald’s. This leaves us with sterile soil, sick pollinators, poisons in the air and water, eating a potato that is, under the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules, technically an insecticide.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78. Photo by Immo Wegmann via Unsplash.

Earlier this year Monsanto merged with German chemical giant, Bayer, another company with a grim history. They join two other recent mergers: Dow and Dupont, Syngenta and Chem-China. These are chemical companies foremost, and what they want to sell are chemicals and seeds modified to grow into plants that can sustain repeated barrages of their chemicals. Journalist Mark Shapiro, in his book Seeds of Resistance, quotes a Monsanto executive who describes the ’stacking’ of as many as six different genes into a seed to create resistance to six different pesticides. “We work,” she said blandly, “to uncouple the farm from the environment around it.”

As Shapiro says, this is “a pretty succinct description of the industrial agriculture paradigm…that treats the seed as a foreign entity to be inserted into a chemically reconstituted environment.” It’s also insanity: trying to create life by killing everything around it. A thriving earth means one lively ecological niche after another. A seed and its environment are among the most crucially linked life forms on the planet; they are an ecosystem, intimate bonds that hundreds of millions of years of evolution, of both seed and soil, have created. Every breathing being on the planet has evolved because this relationship evolved first: a soil alive with microbial and fungal life, a brilliant seed, and the plant they produce. 

Soil should be full of life: dark, crumbly, full of decaying plant matter and fungi.

Soil should be full of life: dark and crumbly because it has lots of decaying plant matter, showing signs that fungi are thriving.  Photo by Sam Jotham Sutharson via Unsplash.

Evolution is going to have its way. There are already superweeds that survive Round Up. BT, an important tool used sparingly in organic farming, quickly met its first BT resistant caterpillar in genetically engineered cotton. The companies will invent more chemicals. The organic farmers will be devastated. Thus it isn’t only about safety. There are layers and layers of complications. Pollution, health, farmers’ sovereignty over their own land. The ability to access and trust good science, and the education to understand it. A community’s right to say no to corporate demands. State and federal laws protecting corporations at the expense of those communities.

People assume there have been studies on the safety of GMOs for humans. But there haven’t been. Negative research exists but has been suppressed and ridiculed. The chemical companies say it’s not their business to determine the safety of their products, it’s the Food and Drug Administration’s job. The FDA is peppered with biotech industry insiders. One Monsanto executive went from writing the paper to gain approval for bovine growth hormone to being the FDA appointee who approved it. 

Will there be a safe role for transgenic organisms in medicine and food? We don’t know. It’s being ‘studied’ in real time. We, along with our children and grandchildren, are the long-term epidemiological experiment that may give us the answer. We may not know for generations. The same is true of the environment. There have been recent articles by one-time GMO skeptics who say they are now converts since we’ve been using them since 1994 and they “seem safe.” But twenty-four years doesn’t even register in the scale of human and plant evolution. If every word in this essay represents 500,000 of the one billion years since the first photosynthesizing eukaryotes showed up, homo sapiens’ 200,000-year history would be the last two letters. 

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27.

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27. Photo by Lance Grandahl via Unsplash.

Monsanto’s slogan is ‘Feeding the World.’ Well-meaning people and organizations believe genetically engineered seeds are the answer to the seemingly intractable problem of hunger, especially as the population explodes to a projected 10 billion people. But recent studies show that the combination of genetically engineered seeds and their companion chemicals actually produce lower yields than traditional methods. In the meantime, debt-burdened farmers the world over are trapped into a cycle of needing chemicals to produce high yields to pay for the chemicals. The companies and their stockholders are the only identifiable beneficiaries. 

People aren’t hungry because there aren’t enough vast agricultural monocultures being showered with poison. They’re hungry because our methods of growing and distributing food leave them out. The farm workers in California’s Central Valley work among the most abundant vegetable and fruit fields in the world. But they can’t afford the products they raise because they’re not paid enough, a worldwide problem.

We know so little, despite our brilliance. We’ve been here such a short time. The seeds we’re risking for the profits of a few people are our elders by hundreds of millions of years. We’re a young and rambunctious species, dazzled by our capabilities. But we have no idea what we don’t know. Too many have lost a once deep understanding that we are embedded in a vast fabric of being. Lost the knowledge, to borrow from Thomas Berry, that the earth is not made of objects, but interconnected subjects full of life, power, and wisdom. To the Mayans, corn was a goddess. Among those who remember such reverence, there’s a growing movement to save seeds. That’s what I will celebrate in the third part of this seed series.

A farm field on Prince Edward Island, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Prince Edward Island, Canada

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The season of creation

Celebrating the Season of Creation: western red columbine and seedhead (Aquilegia formosa) Valdez, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

For the past two years, I’ve celebrated September 1, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, with a collection of quotes from Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudate Si. It was he who launched the day in 2016, joining a tradition started by the Orthodox Church in 1989. This has grown into the Season of Creation, which extends from September 1, the first day of the Orthodox year, to October 4, the birthday of Francis of Assisi, whose devotion to the wonders of the earth inspired not only Pope Francis’ choice of name, but also the title of his encyclical. Laudate si — Praise be!    are the opening words of each of the verses in Francis’ beautiful Canticle to the Sun.

This particular Season of Creation is jumping. Whether affiliated or not, there are events happening all over the world. Especially here in California, where, in response to the current scene in Washington, Governor Jerry Brown called for a Global Climate Action Summit, to be held in San Francisco from September 12 through 14. The part that Brown himself is involved in includes people from governments, NGOs, and businesses all over the world. By and large, those sessions are closed to the public. All other groups were invited to create events and participate in whatever way they wished.

That’s all Californians needed to hear. On  Tuesday, the day before the summit even starts, there are 77 separate listed events, mostly near San Francisco, not counting ongoing exhibits and the Green Film Festival. On top of listed events, groups are gathering to protest, march, perform ceremony, dance, and make music. Young people and indigenous people want to make the point that those governments and corporations behind the closed doors have, so far, been the creators, not the solvers, of global warming.

Supporting rallies are happening all over the world on September 8, as you can see from this map from The Action Network. New York is having Climate Week NYC from September 24 to 30. There is a conference in Rome in October. My friends at the Pachamama Alliance have created the Stand Up in September campaign, and are hosting special events in the US, South America, Australia, Europe and Japan. Even in your own home, where you can receive an action to take to reverse global warming every day for the month of September by signing up here.

I’ll be part of a Pachamama team teaching a Drawdown workshop starting in September, and will certainly go to some of the events around the summit. For today, I’d like to follow my now three-year-old tradition, and celebrate the beauty we are trying to save and the wisdom we can turn to. This year I’ve interwoven Pope Francis’ words with those from our other prayerful traditions.

Celebrating the Season of Creation: pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) in the Pawnee National Grasslands by Betsey Crawford

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) in the Pawnee National Grasslands

We shall awaken from our dullness and rise vigorously toward justice. If we fall in love with creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.   
(Hildegard of Bingen)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) with pollinating bee, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) with pollinating bee, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

It is not enough…to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer…convey their message to us. We have no such right.
(Pope Francis, Laudate Si)

Because of all the complexities of its tectonic activity and its distance to Sun and Moon and other planets in the solar system, each region of Earth needs to be understood in its own evolutionary terms. Each region’s landforms, waters, climates and evolving communities of life are unique and highly vulnerable to the human societies which reside there, often without this prior understanding to temper the raw force of their technologies.
(Sister Miriam MacGillis in Kosmos) 

Celebrating the Season of Creation: black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stymie) with snow lichen (Flavocentria invalid) in Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stymie) with snow lichen (Flavocentria invalid) in Denali National Park, Alaska

It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place.
(Pope Francis, Laudate Si)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: common buckeye (Junonia coenia) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Common buckeye (Junonia coenia) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them. 
(The first of
 the Four Vows of the
Mahajana Bodhisattva)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child–our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
(Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness) 

 Celebrating the Season of Creation: tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) on the Stanley Glacier trail in Kootenay, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) on the Stanley Glacier trail in Kootenay, British Columbia

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change. 
(Buddha)

Our ancestors have left us a world rich in its natural resources and capable of fulfilling our needs…We are the generation with the awareness of a great danger. We are the ones with the responsibility and the ability to take steps of concrete action before it is too late. 
(Dalai Lama)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: frost aster (Aster pilosus) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Frost aster (Aster pilosus) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.
(Pope Francis, Laudate Si)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Ahimsa means more than not hurting others, it means not intending to cause harm, physical, mental or spiritual, to any part of nature, for, in the words of Mahavira: ‘You are that which you wish to harm.’
(Jain statement on ecology)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: a hawk in flight in the Pawnee National Grasslands by Betsey Crawford

The Pawnee National Grasslands

There is no animal on the earth, nor any bird that wings its flight, but is a community like you. 
(Qur’an 6: 38)
 

Celebrating the Season of Creation: human and gull footprints on the beach in Kenai, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Footprints on the beach in Kenai, Alaska

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.
(Pope Francis, Laudate Si)

There is nothing superfluous in the universe. Even flies, gnats, and mosquitoes are part of creation and, as such, serve a divinely-appointed purpose. 
(Midrash: Bereshis Rabba 10:7) 

If these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.
Pope Francis, (Laudate Si)

Onshore wind farms are the number two Drawdown solution. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Windmills near Barlow, California

If you believe that it is possible to damage, believe that it is possible to repair.
(Rabbi Nachman of Breslov)

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) British Columbia, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) British Columbia, Canada

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Living light: the crucial miracle of photosynthesis

Maple leaves and ferns in the forest on Peterson Bay, Homer, AlaskaTo love plants is to be in awe of photosynthesis. Even when you know how it works, it’s still a miracle. And a crucial, we-wouldn’t-be-here-without-it miracle. Its ramifications are so vast that once it showed up, it dictated all of the evolution that followed.

It’s also complicated. There is, for example, a catalyzing enzyme involved called ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase, with a personality as confounding as its name. Mercifully, we don’t need to go fully into those weeds. For most of us, it’s magic enough to know that somehow sunlight turns into sugar. But it’s so fascinating that I’d like to invite you to take a walk with me through this lovely, cool forest, and on out into the history of life on earth.

Photosynthesis happening in a forest in the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

We’re walking in a sea of green because pigment molecules called chloroplasts in the tree leaves and fern fronds absorb all color wavelengths except the green ones. Those are reflected off the plants, and the highly sensitive cones in our eyes pick up the wavelengths and relay the information to our brains. So we see soothing, cooling green, a color widely associated with the serenity surrounding us in this quiet woodland.

Yet, every leaf and frond around us is pulsing with activity. Photons from sunlight hit the chloroplasts and their energy gets moved from one pigment molecule to another until it reaches special molecules in interior cells. There the energy excites electrons, which makes them pop into orbitals farther from their nuclei. Full of verve, these animated electrons start a cascade through surrounding, helper molecules, creating energy that pulls hydrogen ions into the center of the cell. 

Intense green leaves of red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and false hellebore (Verastrum viride) mean more photosynthesis. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and a huge leaf of false hellebore (Verastrum viride). Most of the photos accompanying this post are from the north, where leaves are large and intensely green to capture all the light they can during short summers.

Missing electrons need to be replaced, and this first part of the process replaces them by splitting water molecules and grabbing electrons from the hydrogen atoms, whose remaining ions join the gang in the center of the cell. The oxygen disperses through the stomata, holes in the leaves that open and close as needed. This is the oxygen we breathe. The carbon dioxide we have been exhaling then floats into the stomata to be used in the next part of the cycle.

As the hydrogen ions in the cell’s center get more concentrated, they immediately want back out, pushing their way through an enzyme that creates ATP, the same energy storage molecule that our mitochondria create for us, by a similar electron process.

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of leaves for photosynthesis even in one small area.. Photo by Betsey Crawford

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of photosynthesizing leaves even in one small area.

Having run through their energy, these electrons enter a new cycle where they are re-energized by more photons to create NADPH. Thus the electromagnetic light energy from the fusion reaction in a star 93 million miles away becomes chemical energy in microscopic cells brushing our shins as we walk, along the way providing the oxygen we need for life. 

The chemical energy — NADHP and ATP — is then used by another process to take a gas — carbon dioxide — from the air and convert it to a solid state in the form of carbohydrates, which are strings of carbon molecules of varying complexity. (This is where the catalyst with the endless name comes in.) Thus carbon dioxide turns into food, as well as being ‘fixed’: removed from the atmosphere and stored in plants. This is why preserving and replanting forests are crucial to reversing global warming.

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

There are variations in the whole process, even in the woods. The leaves at the top of the trees, in the full glare of the sun, are likely to be smaller and thicker than the understory leaves. That way they protect themselves from the full force of the sun’s energy. The lower leaves tend to be larger, thinner and more horizontal, and the ferns grow many wide fronds, allowing them to catch all the photons they can from the sunlight filtering through the treetops. Because it tends to be cool and moist in the woods, photosynthesis carries on with little hitch.

Once we walk out of the woods into a meadow of grasses, there are challenges that require further variation. In the cool, damp spring, grasses are in heaven, soaking up water and sunlight, feeding their blades and roots, developing seeds. Once summer brings its hot, dry weather, many grasses go dormant until fall or even the next spring. The ones that don’t, like the sturdy crabgrass in your lawn, have adopted photosynthetic habits that allow them to keep going in heat and aridity.

Engelmann's prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

The pads of cacti are modified stems which do the photosynthesizing. The spines are modified leaves, holding air around the flesh to protect it from the sun. This is an Engelmann’s prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona.

If we walk further on, into the desert, the problems of heat and dryness become acute. Desert plants, like cacti and agave, want to keep their stomata closed during the day to preserve water. Instead, they open them as the evening cools, and have evolved a way to take in and store carbon dioxide in the form of malate at night. This they turn into ATP and NADPH during the day, with their stomata closed. It’s a far less efficient way to provide energy for the plant than the photosynthesizing in our woods, which is why desert and other succulent plants grow so slowly.

In addition to helping maintain the appropriate levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our fragile atmosphere, plants nourish themselves and the entire living world. We breathing creatures are carbon-based life: carbon forms the backbone of every molecule in our bodies. We’re entirely dependent on plants’ ability to take the carbon dioxide from our own respiration and not only replace it with the oxygen we need but also to offer those carbon molecules to us in edible forms. That’s what allows us to make our own ATP to fuel this lovely walk among the chloroplasts. Photosynthesis is the most important biochemical process on the planet.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can perform photosynthesis all year, but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can photosynthesize all year but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether.

Given its importance, it’s no surprise that it showed up relatively early in the earth’s life. Early forms of photosynthesis are thought to have begun about 3.5 billion years ago, its various systems developing over time. Chloroplasts didn’t evolve until 2.5 billion years ago. When photosynthesis began, there was little free oxygen on earth. Early practitioners were microscopic, anaerobic bacteria, most likely using hydrogen sulfide, better known as swamp gas, to do their work. 

About 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen released by photosynthesis began to build up in the atmosphere, leading to what is known as the Great Oxygenation Event. The existing bacterial species weren’t adapted to it and began either to die out or find their way to anaerobic environments. With the evolution of mitochondria, which essentially use oxygen the way chloroplasts use carbon dioxide, species were able not only to adapt but to harness a much stronger energy source. Fueled by this huge boost to metabolism, life on earth blossomed into ever more diverse and complex life forms and ecosystems.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Besides our dependence on plants, there are a lot of wonderful connections among us. We all inherited our carbon from the very beginning of the universe, when the first particles coalesced into mighty mother stars who, with their enormous heat and compression, made the elements that form every subsequent thing. When we give a baby a fresh string bean to munch on, we’re watching 13 billion-year-old carbon join forces in ever new forms.

We share up to 25% of our DNA with plants, remnants of our ancient, shared bacterial ancestors. Mammalian hemoglobin and plant chlorophyll have the same chemical composition, though where hemoglobin is built around iron, chlorophyll uses magnesium. When we eat chlorophyll, it helps hemoglobin with its work of cleansing and strengthening our blood and increasing oxygen uptake. Chloroplasts and the mitochondria we share with plants have a similar history. Each formed when separate species of bacteria found it so worthwhile to join forces that they’re still at it, one cell inside the other, all while wrapped in their own membranes and keeping their separate DNA. Perhaps the most successful mergers of all time. Both make ATP — adenosine triphosphate — the fundamental fuel of the breathing planet.

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day.

Evolution has no need to keep inventing the wheel. If the DNA we inherited from those ancestral bacteria still work, great! If the methods of producing energy work for plants, why not animals? The same plans get reused, with some evolutionary tinkering. Because our building blocks came from those ancient mother stars, people like to say that we are stardust. Via photosynthesis, we are sunlight. Between the systems we inherited from and share with plants and the fact that they ultimately become part of every cell in our bodies, you could also say we’re recycled plants. An idea that, while not quite so lofty, thrills me no end.

It’s all a marvel. I breathe out carbon dioxide and it’s returned to me nicely packaged in carrots, apples, beans, sweet potatoes, squash. Amazing! The history is stunning, all the way back to the carbon formed at the beginning of the universe. We owe thanks to photosynthesis, and its introduction of atmospheric oxygen, for all the blooming, breathing life everywhere on the globe. We owe it every minute of our lives, every thought we have, every bite we eat, every breath we take, every flower and creature we treasure. I love the science that explores and tracks and theorizes about how this fascinating process operates. But ultimately, we are left with wonder. The whole parade is one miracle after another.

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Pursuing mystery: how we found out lichen has a third partner and is saving the earth

Mixed lichen and moss on a stick Mount Tamalpais, California by Betsey-CrawfordFor 150 years lichen has been known to be a combination of two life forms. The outside is a fungal matrix, rather like the crust of a baguette,  which gives structure and protection to the softer, more filamentous inside, formed by one of the algae family, or occasionally a cyanobacteria. These latter two provide nutrients for themselves and the protective fungus via photosynthesis. The word symbiosis (Greek for ‘living with’) was coined in 1868 specifically to describe lichen’s interrelationships. When I wrote my first post about lichen two years ago, this is where our knowledge stood. A few months later, that changed. A hidden partner had been found, and the story of that discovery is wonderful. 

As is appropriate to its subject, the entire project was a symbiosis. Montana lichenologist Toby Spribille was inspired by an essay by British Columbia lichenologist Trevor Goward. Trailing like long strands of hair from the branches of Pacific Northwest trees are two lichens formed by exactly the same fungus and alga. But they are different colors. Tortured horsehair lichen (Bryoria tortuosa) is greenish yellow, a result of the production of toxic vulpinic acid. Edible horsehair lichen (Bryoria fremontii), also called wila, is dark brown, does not produce a toxin, and was an important food for indigenous northwest peoples. They were thought to be different until genetic testing came along, so we need to include the genome pioneers in the team.

Edible horsehair lichen, or wila (Bryoria fremontii) Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Jason Hollinger via Creative Commons

Edible horsehair lichen, or wila (Bryoria fremontii) Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Jason Hollinger via Creative Commons

Growing up in Montana, Spribille had always been fascinated by the forests of hanging lichen. But he may well never have been in a position to explore them. Despite his yearning to study science, he was home-schooled in a family that didn’t believe in it, so he couldn’t do so until he left home. Then he was faced with the hurdles of finding a university he could afford that would accept him without a formal high school degree. He heard that European schools are more open to people like him. Since his family spoke the language, he went to Germany, where the University of Gottingen took him in.

After getting his Ph.D. at the University of Graz in Austria, Spribille showed up at the McCutcheon Lab at the University of Montana, which specializes in symbiosis. ‘I study lichens,’ he said, and was warmly welcomed by John McCutcheon, who urged him to study genomics, as well. Genetic analysis was crucial to his discovery since scientists have spent many years probing lichens under powerful microscopes without seeing the hidden partner. Inspired by Goward’s query, he began poking around in the Bryoria genome to see what caused the two seemingly identical lichens to be different.

A lichen called tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) Tongas National Forest, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) Tongas National Forest, Alaska

Even with genetics on his side, and the McCutcheon team to brainstorm with, Spribille couldn’t find anything new until he decided to expand his search. The fungi long associated with lichen are from the Ascomycota family, and he looked for their genes first. Then he decided to look more broadly at the whole fungal kingdom and discovered genes from the Basidiomycota family, home of the types of mushrooms we’re used to eating. Excited but doubtful, the team wondered if they’d stumbled on a passing impurity or an infection. It wasn’t until he took the basidiomycetes data out of his calculations that he saw that the production of vulpinic acid went, too. That, he says, was the eureka moment.

Actually seeing the fungus cells involved high tech genetic tagging with fluorescent colors to visually separate the alga and the two fungi. It also involved — my favorite detail — a very low tech trip to the grocery store to buy laundry detergent. The basidiomycetes were under a crust of polysaccharides on the surface of the lichen, and Spribille used the soap to dissolve the coating. That enabled him to tag the newly found yeast cells with their own color and to see that they surround the lichen, embedded in the outer cortex. The yellow Bryoria tortuosa had lots more of the yeast than the edible brown fremontii, which is what enables the former to produce vulpinic acid. 

Old man's beard lichen (Dolichnousnea longissima) Tongass National Forest, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Old man’s beard lichen (Dolichnousnea longissima) Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Soon after he hit his eureka moment, scientists all over the world got involved, and it was quickly found, now that they knew what to look for, that varieties of the newly discovered Cyphobasidium yeasts showed up in 52 other genera on six continents. As with the Bryoria, their presence helps explain differences in appearance in genetically similar lichen. The team expands, the search continues, and the lichen world is forever changed. 

I’ve planned for a while to update my lichen post. What got me thinking about it now is my fascination with the origins of Project Drawdown, which I wrote about in my last post. It started with Paul Hawken asking a question no one else was asking. In his case, it was ‘what are we already doing that can actually reverse global warming?’ It seems like such an obvious thing to ask, and yet brilliant scientists and policymakers weren’t doing so. Like Isaac Newton wondering why the apples in his orchard fell downward and not sideways, many seemingly simple questions, asked by people who then proceed to pursue the mystery, revolutionize our knowledge and perceptions. 

Snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) with alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), mountain harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa) and other alpine plants make up the tundra of the Yukon. Photo by Betsey Crawford

White snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) with alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), mountain harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa) and other alpine plants make up the tundra of the Yukon. Note the light and dark lichen on the rock.

Surprises in the lichen world are rare enough that the story made headlines. The more attention, the better, since lichens are crucial to the health of our planet. We know this because another team pursued a question no one had asked. Climate researchers have long studied the amount of carbon held in oceans and forests. But it wasn’t until 2012 that scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany wondered about the carbon impact of cryptograms, which are photosynthesizers that don’t flower, like mosses, algae, and lichen. 

Together these tiny life forms cover 30% of the earth’s plant-bearing soil surfaces. Lichen alone covers 8% of the planet, which closes in on 16 million square miles. The team found that cryptograms sequester about 14 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. That’s 12.7 gigatons, which is the measurement used in Drawdown. The number one solution there is estimated to make a difference of 89.74 gigatons between now and 2050. Using simple multiplication (though I suspect it’s more complicated than that) lichen and its cohorts could sequester over 400 gigatons by then.

Dramatic lichen on toxic serpentine rock doing the incredibly slow work of creating dirt. Mount Burdell, Novato, California. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Dramatic lichen on toxic serpentine rock doing the incredibly slow work of creating dirt. Mount Burdell, Novato, California

The carbon cycle is the most widely studied and reported aspect of global warming. Also crucial is the nitrogen cycle, which, now wildly out of balance, is producing another dangerous greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. There, too, the cryptograms shine, by taking close to 50 million tons of nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil each year, where it’s a crucial nutrient. This is part of another important role they play: breaking down rock and creating and stabilizing soil in barren landscapes. 

Given all it provides for the stability of the earth’s fragile atmosphere, it’s ironic, and tragic, that global warming is itself the biggest threat to lichen’s existence. Though most of us rarely think about these life forms, we depend on them. But that shouldn’t surprise us. The slow wisdom of evolution put lichen in place 400 million years ago. DNA analysis shows us that the newly discovered yeasts joined forces with the original partners 100 million years ago. The cyanobacteria that sometimes takes the place of algae in the mix has been here for 2.5 billion years. They were the first photosynthesizers on the planet, creating the oxygen-rich world everything has depended on since.

The fairy cups of the lichen species Cladonia, Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

The fairy cups of the lichen species Cladonia, Denali National Park, Alaska

The first human fossils are a mere 2.8 million years old. Our possibility lay in the same possibility of all the beings we share the planet with: cycles of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, water, soil building, plate tectonics and temperature regulation. These forces create and maintain the thin crust and surrounding atmosphere that provide our delicate envelope of life. Lichen’s carbon and nitrogen regulating abilities aren’t evolutionary accidents. They are traits carefully evolved to provide a living, breathing world for themselves and each subsequently evolving being. 

In a culture where embracing interconnections within our own species is a huge challenge, it may be hard to fathom how deeply our existence is interwoven with a being that is itself created by an interweaving of beings. All of earth’s forms, including ourselves, are both presence and possibility on our paths through existence. The whole planet is a symbiont, a network of intimately and intricately related parts, each evolving detail generating deepening possibilities for the whole.

Lichen and other cryptograms are dominant in the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. All the white on the ground in this picture from the Tombstone Mountains in Yukon is a leafy lichen. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Lichen and other cryptograms are dominant in the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. Here snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) lives up to its name in Tombstone Territorial Park in Yukon.

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Project Drawdown: reversing global warming

For Project Drawdown: a refrigerator full of food illustrates how many solutions an everyday appliance involves. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThis photo of my refrigerator, filled with its usual groceries, though much more attractively arranged than usual, represents some of the best and most exciting news I’ve ever heard. It goes back to a question environmentalist Paul Hawken posed: what can we do to reverse global warming? The standard research is devoted to ways to slow it down. But, Paul reasoned, if you’re on the wrong road, what’s the point of just slowing down? When he found that no one could answer his question, he began assembling a team to spearhead the research themselves. Project Drawdown expanded into a worldwide coalition of scientists and other experts who started gathering data and designing the system to analyze it. They came up with eighty things we can do today, and twenty that are still in the design stage. There were jaw-dropping surprises.

At bottom, there are only two things you can do with the excess airborne carbon and the other related chemicals causing global warming: prevent their emissions or sequester them. Sequestering means pulling carbon from the air into the ground. To prevent emissions, we need to rethink many of the ways we conduct the business of agriculture, land use, waste management, transportation, energy production, and building. Project Drawdown addresses all of this.

The solutions are ranked from one to one hundred, in order of the amount of atmospheric carbon each reduces or prevents. Costs and savings are measured against estimates for business as usual for the next thirty years. They aren’t ranked in the order of importance, because they are all crucial steps that need to be taken. And they upend a lot of presuppositions. After all, who knew? No one was asking.

Educating girls and providing access to birth control would be the number one Project Drawdown solution if combined. They are numbers 5 and 6. Photo by Les Anderson via Unsplash.

Educating girls and providing access to birth control would be the number one solution if combined. They are numbers 5 and 6. Photo by Les Anderson via Unsplash.

I would suspect most of us would think transportation — cars, trucks, airplanes, shipping — would rank among the top ten. Not at all. They start in the thirties. To everyone’s amazement, refrigerant management was number one. “We were so disappointed,” Paul says. “So unsexy!” Which could also be said of reducing food waste, coming in at number three. Another huge surprise was that educating girls and providing widespread access to family planning are numbers five and six, and would be number one if combined. There are sixteen solutions that pertain to food. Together, especially if you add in transport, they would dwarf the rest in the amount of carbon reduced.

Which brings us back to my refrigerator. A plant-rich diet is #4. Managed grazing (milk, eggs) is #19. Indigenous land use and tropical forests (shade grown coffee, fair trade chocolate, heritage grains like quinoa) are #39 and #5.  Growing food among trees shows up in four solutions. New approaches to rice farming cover two. In fact, this refrigerator connects so many solutions, I made a map: 

What we do with our refrigerators involves 36 Project Drawdown solutions. Graphic by Betsey CrawfordThirty-six solutions, almost half of the eighty available today, are involved simply by our possession of a common household item and what we put in it. What we eat, how we grow our food, how we transport it, whether or not we waste it. How we power our refrigerator, how we get rid of it when it no longer works. The plastic we use when we buy our groceries. Whether we recycle and compost. Whether our population will outpace our ability to care for it. Our relationship with our refrigerator is so important that the top ten solutions, marked by the small hot pink ovals, are all there.

All these interconnections in something so simple and common represent one of the things that I love about Project Drawdown. The solutions aren’t complex and esoteric. They are all within our reach and some, like solar and wind power, are well underway. In fact, all of them are happening to some extent somewhere in the world. That was one of the guiding principles behind the research: what’s happening now? What do we already know? Scaling up is a doable challenge. Convincing ourselves, our representatives and the companies we deal with to move in these directions is a more complex challenge.

Onshore wind farms are the number two Project Drawdown solution. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Onshore wind turbines like these in southern California are the #2 solution, offshore is #22.

The Pachamama Alliance and Project Drawdown are teaming up to create a network of communities to spread the word. In March, I finished a five-session course given by the Alliance. Like the Drawdown website and book, the course was beautifully done and full of enthusiasm. I was delighted to find that things that make my eyes glaze over, like refrigerant management and green cement, fire other people up. Being a plant person, I immediately gravitated to agricultural and land use issues. But they all connect in so many ways that every solution will eventually meet at one intersection or another.

The passionate excitement around the project is a huge blessing. According to Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist and economist, thirty years of scary, hard-to-fathom scientific evidence for climate disruption have actually driven people to lose the interest and faith many had in the 1980s and 90s. People feel helpless and resistant when faced with apocalyptic framing. It’s important to know that installing solar panels, supporting organic farmers, especially local ones, buying LED lights, composting and recycling are all important things every one of us can do. Promoting causes like educating girls, saving forests, and preserving indigenous land really makes a difference.

Women grow 70% of the food worldwide, mostly on small farms. But women smallholders don't have the same access to resources and rights. With that access, their yield would rise by up to 30%, limiting the drive for deforestation for more land. Photo by Annie Sprat.

Women grow 70% of the food worldwide, mostly on small farms. But women smallholders (solution #62) don’t have the same access to resources and rights as men do. With that access, their yield would rise by up to 30%, limiting the drive for deforestation for more land. Photo by Annie Sprat via Unsplash.

These solutions are also important social justice issues and therein lie more connections. As we rethink the way we operate in the present, for the sake of the future, we will redress very profound injuries done to the earth and many of its people: the abrogation of rights, lands, and cultures; the dumping of toxic waste, especially in poor areas; the contamination of air, water and soil; the decimation of forests and wetlands; the sky-rocketing extinction of species. 

A wonderful bonus of all these interconnections is that we can all find something that matters to us, and in helping further one cause, help further many more. We literally have a ready-made to-do list. In our class of sixteen, each of us chose a solution to pursue, and none overlapped. One man is taking a green cement proposal to his local school district, which has a building plan in the works. A chef is working with a landscape designer on a concept called agrihoods. One woman is pursuing tropical forests and regenerative agriculture. Another is planning to raise money for girls’ education. One of my plans is to pursue the various threads involving trees. I’m also planning to keep in touch with John about agrihoods, explore local farms with Justine, and donate money to the organization Ruth sets up. This is the profound blessing of gathering in community, which is central to the mission of the Pachamama Alliance.

Managed grazing is Project Drawdown solution #19. Here portable chicken coops are moved to an area recently grazed by cows. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

Managed grazing is #19. Here portable chicken coops (solar powered!) are moved to an area recently grazed by cows whose pats attract bugs for the chickens to eat. The chickens are mostly uninterested in grass, so it has a chance to regrow after the cow’s recent grazing. Both fertilize the soil.

I’ve been a fan of Paul Hawken since I bought the perfect shovel from the Smith and Hawken catalog thirty years ago. He was a pioneering green entrepreneur, and I admired what he was trying to do with his business. His research into the millions of organizations worldwide working to save the planet has consoled and inspired me for a decade. He’s well known in the environmental and green business world, but he heads no large, clout-bearing organization. The first Drawdown office was the Zoom internet conference app. 

A tiny team with a tiny amount of money sent out word to academics the world over to see if anyone was interested in the project. They were inundated with responses and chose seventy highly trained Project Drawdown fellows from twenty-two countries who will continue to explore and refine their projections. As the information started to come in, they expanded the community with a 128-member Advisory Board to review it, so the science behind the recommendations would be impeccable. 

Preserving and restoring forests are major Project Drawdown land use solutions. Here is preserved forest at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Preserving and restoring forests are major land use solutions. This regenerating forest is in the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska

I usually do my best not to keep using the same word over and over, but I find, despite dozens of suggestions in the thesaurus, that there is no adequate substitute for community, an excellent metaphor for life in general. One man with a question no one else is asking becomes a small community. They reach out and add seventy more. Soon over two hundred people are involved. Other whole communities — organizations like the Pachamama Alliance, businesses, universities, governing bodies — come on board and their members reach out to create communities. That’s exactly what I’m doing now, hoping you will bring the news to your communities. Together we can transform an existential crisis into an opportunity to reimagine how we want to preserve and share the beauties and bounties of the earth.

Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey is full of Project Drawdown solutions, including the array of solar panels in the lower right. Photo by Betsey Crawford


Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey is full of Drawdown solutions, starting with the array of solar panels in the lower right. Others include organic farming, forest preservation, recycling, water saving, plant-rich diet and composting.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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