The Bonds of our Diet

Smith, Alisa and MacKinnon James B.  2007.  The 100 Mile Diet.  Vintage Canada, Toronto, Ontario.

Living on an animal farm is a pretty mixed bag; on one hand, it’s loud, busy, and cluttered with very little time for me to actually visit with my parents.  Conversely, I live in a much less urbanized environment where I can take my morning jogs through nearby grasslands.  I do get to see many more native species out here, and the scenery is a whole lot nicer than it is in town.  Another such advantage became pretty obvious to me once we were assigned the task of making a meal from as locally-sourced ingredients as you could manage.

When I signed up for the meal I ended up just taking a desert because the rest of the slots were taken.  I recalled that we had strawberries frozen from a Salmon Arm farm at home so I essentially arbitrarily chose strawberry shortcake.  Knowing the desert needs a sweetener, I knew I could just walk down to the apiary in Pritchard, Hill-Top Honey, to grab what I would need.  Eggs?  No problem, I live on a chicken farm after all, and that’s about as local as you can get it.  I did hear from several people, however, that sourcing things locally was proving to be challenging.

When I first started the project, I wasn’t terribly pleased with the time it was going to take up, accompanied with my classes and teaching.  However, once I explained it to my parents, they were all in to help me out.  It was refreshing; even though I initially viewed the project as nothing but a liability on my academics, the involvement my parents had with it made the endeavour fairly enjoyable (even if I should’ve been writing a lab report instead).

My brief experience was much different than that outlined in the 100-Mile Diet.  In this story, Alisa and James explain the different individuals they had met, and their experiences in attempting to source their diet from the immediately surrounding areas.  In their struggles, they outline some of the tension between each other, but more importantly, they both take the time to write about their experiences with each farmer or other food supplier.  Each experience is a fairly unique one; and James and Alisa constantly highlight how challenging but rewarding it has been.  In contrast to them, however, most of my ingredients were sourced directly from my community with very little thought.  “I know that farmer down the road, he probably has some left” was the thought process behind my entire preparation.  Of course, this wouldn’t fly if I had to source my entire diet locally, but I really felt I had it easy.

One unique aspect of this experience that I seem to have shared with James and Alisa was established relationships.  Between my academics and the commute from the city back to the farm; I’m not available at home much, but when I am I try to spend time with my parents.  Similarly, my father works full time and my mother has a healthy amount of animals to tend to.  In short, we live different lives and sometimes it’s quite challenging to get the time to sit down and just catch up.  When I mentioned this project to my parents, my mother in particular was very excited to help me out.  After all, she wasn’t helping me understand the electron movement in the Photosystem II or explaining to me why my lab project didn’t work; she was helping me with eating locally, relying on local farmers.  This was her environment, and it definitely wasn’t mine.

I’ve always understood why locally sourcing meals is important.  It’s a common occurrence for my family to attend the farmer’s markets over spring/summer, and I understand that supporting the surrounding communities as opposed to large corporations (who, quite frankly, don’t need our support).  It’s because I’ve been exposed to these ethics for so long that I didn’t view the project as beneficial.  After making the meal and reflecting on it, however, I can comfortably say I am delighted that I got some extra time to spend with my parents, and even get a better understanding why they are farmers.



Foresight makes the Profit

Pollan, Michael.  2006.  The Ominivore’s Dilemma.  Pg 186-173.  Penguin Group, United States of America.

I live on a farm, but I’m not a farm person by any stretch.  In fact, many people are shocked to hear that a scraggly academic like myself commutes back and forth from a farming community just outside town.  I guess when people think about what farming is and the people that do it they expect a stocky, slightly eccentric individual.  I may be eccentric, but I definitely don’t look the part otherwise.

Despite living on a farm, I often struggle to accept the ethics of farming.  I live on a small plot of land (5 acres) with horses, dogs, and chickens.  My family raises chickens and dogs, while also running a boarding kennel.  Needless to say, our little farm is pretty packed. Due to this, much of our land is disturbed.  As a plant science enthusiast, I struggle with never seeing succession occur; the constant disruption of our animals facilitates the rampant growth of invasive species, never allowing the communities to mature.  Horses stamp the ground down to uninhabitable anoxic levels, and the chickens release toxic nitrogen (urea, uric acid) into the soils faster than the nitrogen-procession soil microbes can keep up.  In many cases, this results in much of our farm being quite devoid of wild flora.

Pollan discusses his experience with a cattle farmer, named Joel, and how he has recognized that the cornerstone of his profit does not rely on the cows necessarily, but his understanding and maintenance of grass.  His field grass is of course the crux of his operation,providing ample food for his animals.  However, the process is not so simple, as Joel has articulated, where the height and maturity of the grass profoundly impacts the palatability of it.  In particular, grass too short risks permanent damage from grazing, where the apical meristem of the grass could be in jeopardy.  If the grass is too long, it will begin to develop a maturing inflorescence, which lignifies the grass; making it less palatable for the cattle.  In order to properly maintain that “ideal” height where the apical meristem remains unscathed and where the inflorescence has not begun to develop, careful attention must be given to rotating the cattle around fields.  Joel was apparently nearing mastery of this technique, and it benefits the environment too by increasing the carbon fixation of the field before the grass undergoes senescence (after floral maturity).  It’s a technique that exemplifies the importance of foresight in a profession that involves such a close link to nature, but that link is oftentimes severed in favour of convenience.  Pollan talks about this experience with inquiry and detail, explaining the general photosynthetic output of the fields and how this impacts the proper farming techiques.  Pollan writes openly and descriptively, making a clear attempt to persuade those unaware of such details that these factors are indeed important.

I will admit; I have grown to be a little judgemental of farmers that I meet because many of them are fairly oblivious to the environmental impacts they inadvertently apply.  Making such assumptions is not something I want to do, but I suppose I have become fairly bitter when I meet farmers from my community that just want to spray everything in sight, ones that see no problem with not rotating crops and instead pile on the valuable and declining fertilizers, and ones that don’t understand why Sisymbrium loeselii is dominating their hay fields every year, but refuse to seek out the ecological reason.

I have been fortunate enough to meet farmers like Joel, ones that have the foresight and planning to realize that nature will do a lot of work for you.  I have met farmers who will use legumes to restore nitogen to the soil, and ones that rotate root crops to refill available phosphorus.  Farming doesn’t have to be as damaging as it has been, but we often forget how tied we are to nature.

A Marvel of Metabolism

Pollan, Michael.  2002.  The Botany of Desire.  pg. 113-179.  Random House Trade Paper Backs, United States of America.

Many people that do appreciate plants feel that way for their beauty, their produce yield, or just their presence as “green space.”  My enthusiasm for the botanical world often breeds questions as to where my passion comes from.  Frequently my response is that their metabolism is nothing short of magical.  In fact, the entire reason why I study the physiology and biochemistry of plants is because of how diverse and incredibly adaptive it is to their sedentary lifestyle.  From photosynthesis to pigment production, plants do it all, but they do it mostly in secret.

Pollan discusses this feat of the plant kingdom in his chapter discussing Cannabis sativa.  In particular, he addresses that this plant is able to alter our consciousness due to its active components, that is, molecules that have activity within living organisms that are fairly exclusive to certain plant groups.  I’ve never been an advocate of using a plant’s biochemistry recreationally to alter one’s sense of consciousness, but I cannot deny it is a major factor that has formed the basis of many cultures around the world.  Indigenous people used a variety of plants with bioactivity on our central nervous system to become “closer with the gods” or visit the “spirit world.”  While many people view this as an important cultural attribute that has participated in the formation of many civilizations, my own cynical, overly-practical mindset just perceives it as an incredible feat of plant biochemistry.  The compounds produced by these plants are so effective at causing mischief in mammalian biochemistry, affecting tissues that plants don’t even have!  It’s easy to glance over when everyone moons over what happens to us, but the plant is the one in control here; it’s the only one that knows the secret recipe.

Cannabis is definitely not the only plant with unique biochemistry.  As I discussed in my last post, peppers produce a compound called capsaicin which has strong activity in mammalian metabolism, and it also works to inhibit the growth of fungi looking to degrade the plant.  Many other plants produce powerful toxins that poison the soil, such as Sisymbrium loeselii (Loesel Mustard) which is allelotoxic, which is a fancy way of saying it prevents the germination of surrounding plants allowing it to colonize disturbed areas quickly and more effectively than other plants.  The activity of these compounds, obviously having a distinct impact on our physiology, are also obviously used in medicine.  Plants that have psychoactive activity are also used for medicines, even if people often use them for recreation.  One such example is Papver somniferum, the Opium poppy, containing a special class of chemicals called opiates.  Though historically it was used at length for recreational/spiritual psychoactive effects, we owe opium poppy for sparing so many human lives of insurmountable pain due to morphine.

I can’t say I approve of the recreational use of psychoactive drugs, but I do tolerate it as is necessary in our society.  What I do find remarkable, however, is the hugely distinct effect on our physiology that plants have evolved to possess.  Be it by accident or by co-evolution for defence mechanisms, plants concoct a myriad of incredibly diverse potions, and only their metabolism knows the secret.


A Race of Chance

Hanson, Thor.  2015.  The Triumph of Seeds.  pg. 128-143.  Basic Books, New York, United States of America.

In many early evolution courses, the development of traits over time is often described as a linear progression.  For instance, I was taught a few years ago that the development of insect wings was initially due to an extension of the body (flaps, if you will) on their backs.  This increased surface area of the insect, allowing them to heat up faster in the sun.  Beneficial, to be sure, but it is believed that the “flaps” eventually thinned out (again, to maximize surface area) and became functional wings.  We believe this process generally followed this route, but in many cases the species evolves traits that are most beneficial, and we tend to organize this process linearly.

Linear evolution is not even an acceptable model for seed plants.

Seeds are a remarkable structure, and given their incredible ability to increase reproductive fitness, there is also substantial selective pressure that acts on them as a consequence.  Plants have remarkable biochemistry, able to produce and release a tremendous variety of compounds, only being outdone in sheer diversity by bacteria.  Their biochemistry yields useful compounds such as zingerone (gravol) and salicylic acid (aspirin), and these compounds are often involved in a process or defense mechanism which increases the plant’s fitness.  Due to the potency of these compounds, they influence the plant’s relationships with other organisms quite noticeably.  While a prospective herbivore might not enjoy eating a plant laced with toxic or otherwise distasteful compounds, birds or rodents which would spread their seeds by consuming their fruit will also be deterred.  This leads to a distinct trade-off: does the plant increase toxic compound content to confer protection, or does it reduce the concentration to facilitate better dispersal?  The answer is never a clear one, and it’s why linear models of evolutionary change, while easy to understand, often oversimplify a much more complex problem.

Hanson discusses his experience with a chile pepper specialist in chapter 10 of “The Triumph of Seeds.”  In particular, Hanson describes the incredible “race” that these peppers have undergone with a fungus.  There is apparently a fungus that will rot pepper seeds, but the capsaicin content in the peppers helps to protect them from fungal attack.  However, it makes the fruit less palatable for prospective herbivores in many cases, and the selective pressure of dispersal vs. protection has a discerning impact on the capsaicin content in the seeds.  For instance, if there is a period where the fungus thrives, then the successful plants will have higher capsaicin content to facilitate their survival.  It’s an interesting interaction, and definitely not the only one like it in plants.  Due to the diverse symbiotic relationships in the plant kindgom, co-evolution is incredibly common.  Hanson also discusses that there is a bird species that seems largely invulnerable to capsaicin’s intense heat, and as such it is the ideal disperser of the seeds, allowing it to maximize protection of its seeds while not having to trade dispersal range.

Hanson’s writing on this subject is nicely laid out and organized, he articulated the process by first mentioning how valuable spices have been to us historically, and then discusses his interaction with the specialist on the capsaicin content in peppers.  While my science background would appreciate some additional depth in the chemistry/metabolism of capsaicin, I appreciate his ease of transitions and simple language.  Hanson does a great job illustrating how the active components of plants have influenced us through the ages (in the form of spice), but are also integral to their survival as well.  In fact, the network of evolutionary relationships regarding plants and their active constituents only gets more confusing when considering human influence.

It’s a strong selective force; but it has no distinct direction.