Iowa and the Waitress cure for world hunger

What’s the cure for world hunger?  The Waitresses had a rock hit about the cure. The refrain was “Black coffee and cigarettes.”  This combination of inputs reduces hunger pangs.  On my trips to the former Soviet Union, I’ve learned that some Russian collective farm managers passed out cigarettes and a little vodka to keep their workers going when food was short.


When the Waitresses came out with those lyrics, I was working with a bunch of twenty-somethings at Save the Children. We were trying to solve world hunger with slightly different methods.  Back then, most people believed that you could solve world hunger by giving hungry people food.

The logic then went like this: since America does such a good job of growing food, we should export it to hungry countries.  If they can’t afford the food, we should  give it to them.  American farmers were more than willing to provide the food for these hungry people.   Agricultural input companies rose to the challenge and came up with innovative inputs.

Today some of us Meadowcreekers are in Iowa observing the results of that logic. This morning I was on a bridge looking at a swiftly flowing, murky, steel gray Iowa river, unable to see lower than a couple of inches.  Two days ago, we were swimming in Meadowcreek’s aquamarine Blue Hole where you can see the bottom eight feet or more below the surface.  No way we would swim in most Iowa streams.

Even more toxic than black coffee and cigarettes, the Iowa solution to world hunger became fertilizer and pesticides.  On conventional Iowa farms, adding nitrogen fertilizer is the easiest way to increase yields. Herbicides are the easiest way to kill weeds.  Monsanto and other chemical companies have even found ways to insert herbicide resistance into crop plants  Now herbicides can be applied to everything and the crop will still survive.

One result has been cheap food.  Another result was high levels of water pollution Some counties in Iowa are 98% corn and soybeans.  Iowa is outranked only by Illinois as a source of nitrates to Gulf of Mexico–helping to create the largest Dead Zone in the world.  Per acre of land area, Iowa is the highest source.  Nitrogen fertilizer is applied in the fall to the rolling Iowa hills and is eroded into Iowa streams and rivers. Many Iowa cities are unlucky enough to be downstream from a lot of farms.

High nitrate levels can be deadly to infants younger than 6 months.  In “blue baby syndrome” infants develop a peculiar blue-gray skin color and may become irritable or lethargic, depending on the severity of their condition. The condition can progress rapidly to cause coma and death if it is not recognized and treated.

The disease was first diagnosed by a doctor in Iowa City, Iowa in the mid-1980s, about the same time as the Waitresses hit.  The use of fertilizers in Iowa has become a public health issue.

The Des Moines Water Works is spending more than $1 million a year removing nitrate from their water source to get drinking water safe enough for human consumption.  The Water Works has decided to go to the source of the problem and last year filed suit against three Iowa counties which are the primary sources of the nitrates in the Des Moines drinking water.

Some farmer groups are fighting the effort.  They don’t want to change the methods which enable them to produce food so cheaply.  Other farmers recognize that nitrates are valuable and shouldn’t be wasted by letting them erode into the their streams.

USAID under the Obama administration has come up with a much more sustainable approach to feeding the hungry: buy food produced as locally as possible instead of importing food from the US and Europe.  This Feed the Future program promises to reduce the impact on America’s drinking water and on fuel needed to ship the food to hungry people.

An even more resilient system would insure that hungry families are able to produce enough food to meet their own needs.  That’s a much more daunting task.  Our 300 page book details myriad methods for accomplishing this.  You can get it free here.

White pine privilege

Pine forests seem like fragrant, soft places where anyone could relax and be comfortable.  Looks and smells are deceiving.  All pine forests are dedicated only to other pines.  When pine needles fall to the ground, they prevent other plants and trees from growing underneath.  Pine needles release various acids and Fog-Over-a-Pine-Forestorganic compounds that leach into the ground as the needles begin to decompose.  These chemicals don’t hurt the pine tree, its roots or its fungal symbionts.  They do deter nearly all non-pines from settling anywhere close.

You might say pines establish a pine privilege.  A hickory nut which rolls into a pine forest doesn’t have much of a chance.  The pine fragrance we like so much is the reason.  This fragrance is caused by a class of chemicals called terpenes found in the needles.  These particular pine terpenes retard germination and new growth.  Retardation of germination can be a good thing for a gardener. It helps to keep weed seeds from germinating.  For the hickory trying to survive in an alien environment, the terpenes are death.  Plant as many hickory nuts or oak acorns as you wish in a bed of fresh pine needles.  None of them will germinate.

Pine like pines.  They are like all species in nature, they have methods for perpetuating their own kind and discouraging anyone who is not a pine.

Unless you are an azalea, a rhododendron or a blueberry.  These acid loving plants thrive under pines.  Except when the pine forest gets tall enough and thick enough to shade them out.  Then it’s all pines all the time.  Diversity is as minimal as in a Southern country club at tee time.  Or a Colored Methodist Episcopal church on Sunday morning.  Or an inner city ghetto any time.

In plants this effect is called allelopathy.  Luckily for most other species, pine allelopathy is short lived.  The acids and terpenes  dissolve readily in water and dissipate into the air. By the time pine needles are brown and dry, most of the terpenes have evaporated. Once that wonderful pine fragrance has gone out of the needles, so have the terpenes, the source of that fragrance.

So you can use pine straw as a mulch without fear.  It may hinder germination a little, but that will be good for the gardener who doesn’t like to pull weeds.

Every species in nature tries to perpetuate itself.  The pines have perfected one method.  Sunflowers, black walnuts, wormwoods, sagebrushes, and trees of heaven have their own chemical methods.  The creosote bush is so good at controlling other plant species in the desert that it is called “gobernadora” (Spanish for “governess”) due to its ability to secure more water by inhibiting the growth of nearby plants.

In the 1970’s, an animal rights activist coined the term speciesism.  This term expands the idea of racism to whole species.  Man is accused of speciesism because he wants to preserve his own species.  We are learning that all species try to help their own kind.  No species survives for long if it doesn’t.

Most interesting is how some species seem to thrive even when the dominant species is doing its best to wipe them out.  They do so by providing something the dominant species needs. Mycorrhizal fungi flourish on the roots of pine trees.  They provide nutrients to the pines which are locked up in the soil until the fungi release them.  They are examples of complementary diversity and discussed in more detail in our book.

Like all species in nature, pine trees get their comeuppance if they grow too big for their britches.  When pine trees dominate a landscape too thoroughly, they provide the perfect environment for species like white pine blister rust, southern pine beetles, and mountain pine beetles.  These species love to destroy homogenous stands of pine.  A vast increase in diversity then follows.

Pine and other allelopathic species keep trying to create a world fit only for their species.  Nature always puts them in their place.

Man in his hubris should learn some lessons.  Though all species will try to perpetuate their own kind, the most resilient will embrace diversity–as long as it is complementary.