Thursday, September 3, 2015

Debunking the Misuse of Terminology Part 2

[Just a heads up to all you LITFM readers out there; this article was supposed to be posted on the 31st of August, which means yes it's three days late. LITFM is now on a twice-per-month schedule.]

Welcome back to another episode of Lost In The Farmer’s Market. This is our second post of August, and the second half of a discussion started earlier this month.  In the last post I talked about terms used in and around agriculture, which are often misunderstood. The concept of extinction, artificial selection and genetic viability are often misunderstood because we often put an impermeable barrier between what we think is natural and what actually is. We forget that there are varied measures of success when it comes to a given species and sometimes success means lasting long enough to find another organism to form symbiosis with. If you’re not feeling like reading the last article look up the single celled organism known as a Euglena, which can conduct photosynthesis, and the photosynthesizing sea slug Elysia chlorotica*.As always we start with the main topic at hand and shift to more local garden related topics after the fact so for this post we are taking a look at commonly misleading terms in ‘new age’ practices that simply don’t hold up to any logical scrutiny. Each of the following new age terms is rated simply by how inaccurate and or intentionally misleading it is with a reason as to why it is misleading. As with any thing posted here on LITFM we encourage you to do fair and unbiased research by looking at a variety of sources and not basing your opinion on one source especially if it is the internet. Your health has no matching value in dollars and you should weigh all options before making a final decision. With that said LITFM brings to you the top New Age fallacies.

5. Ancient Wisdom

The term ancient wisdom itself is generally harmless when referring to old sayings or maxims such as ‘Nothing to excess’, which logically is true and helps set the stage for debunking all terms in this list when misused. We know that humanity rose to its current status relatively rapidly given how long ago we went from hunter-gathering groups to civilized nations. The problem in this case is that the term Ancient Wisdom is used as a selling phrase to get gullible consumers to buy items or services that otherwise when subjected to any scrutiny would otherwise be questionable at best. A good case in point of a ancient wisdom can be found in what’s called Chinese Traditional Medicine today. We know that CTM was invented less than a century ago with the rise of Chairman Mao’s Communist party in China. This makes any belief in CTM the result of clever political maneuvering and or misinformation.
Likewise, it’s known that there are no actual regulations with any teeth on the manufacture legal of herbal supplements and or vitamins. So essentially there’s nothing preventing a vitamin company from filling your calcium pill with a form of calcium that your body can use. Ironically there is now an advertisement campaign condemning the poaching of endangered animals for CTM**, and not a single word about how a corporation like Vitamin Shoppe can get away with selling dishonest product. We know that not all ancient wisdom was created the same, ancient wisdom gave us the first medical procedure known (the removal of the burning serpent) and yet also gave us trepanning (letting the demons out through a hole in the skull) and the medieval habit of bloodletting the injured or sick. In short humans have a terrible track record of looking back at terrible ideas with some kind of disillusioned nostalgia and thinking ‘hmmm in the good old days  that worked!’ never minding it didn’t but the government of course hid the truth and so on. The funniest part of the ancient medicine racket is this; in the future I guarantee that someone will revive Radium Water probably spiked with raspberry ketone or something and claim that it’s a government conspiracy and this mix cures cancer. All while school children look at the original radium water craze and wonder how we could have been so stupid and their teacher says “Well they didn’t know any better”. This is the problem with ‘Ancient Wisdom’ just like with the 8-track and beta max, just because it’s old does not mean it was wise, so carry a salt shaker in your back pocket because you may need a grain of salt at any given moment these days.
4. Conspiracy

I personally find it amusing to rile up conspiracy theorists. I know that’s cruel but they are perhaps the funniest people in the universe. For those who don’t know Merriam-Webster defines a conspiracy as the following;

            Conspiracy (Noun)
1.      A secret plan made by two or people to do something that is harmful or illegal.
2.      The act of secretly planning to do something that is harmful or illegal.

This is a conspiracy in the literal sense implying something important is going on. Historical examples of conspiracies include John W. Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln, The Watergate, and the Thyssen-Krupp scandal which involved funneling money to the Nazis and had a member of the Bush family involved. The aforementioned are examples of real conspiracies that did actual harm and once discovered ruined lives, worsened wars and crushed political careers. However there are some who take it a bit far and we can look at the anti-vaccine crowd for a great example of a bunch of people who have gone far beyond rationality. If you’re in the anti-vaccine crowd then you won’t like what I’m about to say next; you are very stupid (Shots Fired). I can understand if you don’t want to get the flu vaccine, honestly I don’t bother either, but that’s because my immune system is ok and I’ve survived worse things such as West Nile fever and so on. But, when you knowingly refuse critical vaccines for your children such as whooping cough, rubella, chicken pox and things that are actually a danger and pose the risk of mutating in your unprotected kid you are being selfish and criminally negligent. Vaccines are not a conspiracy, there is no mind control it’s a concept called Herd immunity. Herd immunity is explained wonderfully by the Web-comic artist Maki at the link below.

But you know, conspiracy is now being invoked for sales reasons much like the term ‘ancient wisdom’ because sales organizations know you might buy more of the product or service at rates (price per unit/ fee per unit of service) then you might otherwise because a sense of urgency is implied. This is flatly dishonest and the most visibly gullible crowd to fall for this are the gun show types. It’s gotten so bad that one annual gunshow in the Fayetteville region not only plays a version of dixie in their radio advertisement but always has the announcer say the tagline “Come on down and get your guns and ammo before they take them away!”. Well wait who is going to take them away? The fact is all gun control laws have a grandfathering clause because the government knows it’s damned impossible to go about confiscating as many guns as are in the USA without a true police state and a heavily entrenched secret police. The entire purpose of the advertisement is to increase sales by imparting a sense of dire urgency to an already gullible audience.

As a final thought there is a the chance some of you out there didn’t read a word of #4 and well Maki again sums all of you up very well with this web comic: Good luck with your tinfoil hats and mud-twig outfits.

3. Natural

            The term natural has been abused by salesmen and corporations so much that it probably could plead rape in court and win on testimony alone. It is a legally abused term that is readily skewed every which way by salesmen of varied degrees of ethical integrity. For the record Merriam-Webster defines the word natural as the following.

            Natural (Adjective)
1.      Existing in nature and not made or caused by people.
2.      Not having any extra substances or chemicals added.
3.      Coming from nature.
4.      Not containing anything artificial.
5.      Usual or expected.

That is a very clear and complete definition, which means something like a homegrown head of lettuce, or one grown on a farm with organic practices would qualify and yet ‘conventionally’ grown foods that have pesticide or herbicide residues on the plants and additional packaging such as wax coatings and so on would not because the chemicals in this case did not actually exist in nature nor did the wax. This also rules out GMO completely because no GMO could ever have happened in nature naturally. But technically, poison oak/sumac/ivy, Stinging nettles, Oleander, honey from Rhododendrons & Azaleas, Daphne, Lenten Rose, Larkspur, Lily of the Valley and a surprising number of common house plants are all natural and will kill you or put you in such a state as to wish you died. Additionally any apex predator that can attack you is also natural and thus lions, tigers, bears (Oh Myy!) and so on are natural but clearly rather bad for you. The problem with the term natural is when corporations, lawyers and salesmen get ahold of it because it becomes something entirely different. This is more about selling product in corporation’s case (ie big tobacco) they often hide what they really know about their product.  It was noted early on that cocaine was addictive and yet it was also added to Coca-Cola and retained until the laws changed. At one point parents took opium drops and gave them to their children until the laws changed because it was no longer plausibly deniable that special ingredient in their product was the problem. If you are still unconvinced that all that is natural is not good for you remember Uranium is natural and radioactive; likewise, there is a tree called the Stinging Tree (Dendrocnide moroides); it’s sting is so agonizing that in severe cases sufferers of contact with this tree attempt to commit suicide to escape the agonizing pain mere contact with this plant can cause. As always do your research from several sources ranging from the entire spectrum of debate and try to come to a fair conclusion.

2. Toxins/Chemicals

            Often in new age culture and a bit on the urban farming scene, the term toxin is said with the same negative connotation as the word chemicals.  The truth is there is no need for such hate, everything organic is comprised of chemical compounds; even the chemical makeup of DNA.  As noted in #5 the Roman maxim of ‘Nothing to Excess’ applies to the hate of ‘Toxins’ because anything in a given system that is in excess becomes a toxin. For instance we cannot breathe too pure of an atmospheric mix if one of the gaseous aspects is too great. Too much oxygen or nitrogen is equally problematic, likewise we need water, a neutral pH liquid chemical/solvent but if we drink too much our blood dilutes and we may die. More literally, it’s good to have a beer, which is a chemical cocktail that includes living organisms (yeast) residues of sugar, organic residues (hops) and whatever else the brewer used, but too much of it and its chemical solvent (alcohol) can have negative effects. Even bread which is made by combining organic components, some of which are simple chemicals (sugar, milk, baking powder) with organic compounds (flour, eggs, flavoring) and a live organism (yeast which produces alcohol and C02), needs chemical reactions to make an edible product in which residual chemicals remain.

             Basically the point of this part is to point out that in your life you are surrounded by potential toxins and chemicals everywhere you go and most of them are incredibly harmless or inert. It is never wise to lump something like them in with things that are actually dangerous like fertilizer runoff, DDT, Malathion, Dioxin, Gyphosphate (roundup/Agent Orange), chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) and, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) because this is both unfair and inaccurate. Consider carefully that if the person you are talking to chemicals or toxins cannot define what chemicals or toxins he or she is talking about in detail and provide meaningful amounts of exposure in the form of parts per million, you are probably getting sold some bad information and need to whip out that salt shaker.

1. Energy

             Energy has been the most misused scientific term in the last century and in the current though the term quantum is rapidly closing in on the title. Merriam – Webster’s dictionary defines energy as the following.

Energy (Noun)
1. The ability to be active
2. the physical or mental strength that allows you to do things
3. Natural enthusiasm and effort
4. Usable power that comes from heat, electricity, etc.

If you notice there is no mention of all of what most of the new-age holistic gurus are claiming in the definition. Energy isn’t some random ambient wave that your pretty little tinfoil hat, acupuncture, or dowsing rod can magically tap into. Energy is actually scientifically defined as the ability to do work. Objects can have energy by virtue of their motion or kinetic energy, by the virtue of their mass (Einstein’s special relativity) or its given position or potential energy. This object could be you, the cells you are made of, bacteria, animals the planet you are on or just a boulder at the top of a hill that’s ready to become a literal rolling stone. When people seek alternative treatment that uses energy such as say ‘Orgone’, ‘Reiki’ both of which on any real examination even without science do not hold up to any scrutiny much like the old practice of bloodletting, trepanning or determining who is a witch via torture and drowning/burning at the stake. Consider this; if say reiki, orgone, or chakras actually worked reliably enough to be validated, why aren’t they putting modern medicine out of business? The simple answer is that they have not because they do not work reliably enough to do so and in the rare instances where they do work a little thing called the ‘Placebo Effect’ is what is really working.

            The Placebo Effect is when a patient has a beneficial effect in their health which is produced due to a placebo drug or treatment that cannot be attributed to the effects of the placebo itself, and thus must be due only to the patients belief in that treatment. There was a study in Australia**** and numerous resulting paper articles ***** that handle the subject. The fact is that no one worth their salt who is professionally ethical takes this stuff seriously. So when you hear about someone aligning energies or what have you, if you want to believe that’s fine but carefully consider the source, do as much detailed research as you can. Should you have a serious condition that could be life threatening, it comes down to  you on what treatment you take but always consider if the caregiver has your best interests at heart or if they are simply trying to make you into an income source. There are scam artists and frauds in every profession, especially those with no oversight, and as P.T. Barnum once put it, ‘there is a sucker born every minute.’ And if you don’t believe, ask all the people who fell for Ponzi schemes, Enron and religious cults other such clearly fraudulent situations.

As a final note to the abuse of the term energy, if you recall I mentioned that Quantum was also being abused. The term quantum scientifically tends to mean ‘small’ so quantum mechanics are the small mechanics of the galaxy the higgs-bosun particles and so forth that help explain what we’ve not detected or interactions we don’t quite understand. Much like energy, the term quantum is abused by certain holistic personalities in context of it being able to help you directly when in fact there is no way it would matter to you on any real scale.  As with my comments on energy and how realistically holistic healing in all its forms is a giant placebo effect and energy has nothing to do with, quantum anything will do virtually nothing for you no matter what you do unless you make your bad habits very quantum.

 But enough of the heavy stuff, here are some images from the test gardens.

Pesto Purpetuo Basil in bloom!
 So what's the big deal here? well Pesto basil is not supposed to be able to bloom at all, and yet mine did, and were it any other basil I'd have let it but to maintain the genetic purity of this cultivated variety, I had to snip off the  flowers before some scandalous per-marital basil sex occurred int he test gardens.
Portulaca grandiflora 'Red Grunner' - Salad Purselane
 The above is a picture of what fully developed purselane leaves look like, the pepper leaves aroudn them make for great visual contrast.

Portulaca grandiflora ' Peppermint' - Fancy Moss Rose
Visitors at the City Market booth asked about this variety and this is what the blooms look like.

Pea blossoms on feild peas.
 I included this because even field peas have pretty blooms as they produce food and enrich the soil no less.

Chicorum intybus - Radicchio
 That's right folks this is some of fall 2015's crop of radicchio which means that it's that time of the year for cold-season veggies. Starting with Labor Day Weekend on in addition to sparklitis inducing aloes expect to see Dinosaur Kale, Radicchio, Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce and other cold season favorites.

**** Australian Studies

***** Placebo effect articles about Australian study

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Debunking the Misuse of Terminology Part 1

Welcome back to another episode of lost in the farmer’s market. This will be the first episode of August and of course as you gardeners out there already know the month of august tends to bring some difficulty in maintenance and productivity. Normally the usually ample rain diminishes; the humidity level rises and we have some form of drought. Additionally all the biting insects we loathe are up and running and that makes maintaining our gardens and crops less than pleasurable. For those of you with rain catchment systems, this is the time of year in which you might have to force-fill the system with municipal water using the overflow valve but in reverse.

With that in mind I always recommend increasing the effort to irrigate, and the strength and frequency that you fertilize. Obviously certain fertilizers cannot be increased in frequency so it’s wiser to use more than one type to put back the nutrients that you have depleted in the last three months to keep your crops going. If you’re daring, in the third week of August you can start some of your less heat-sensitive cold season crops so that they get a head start when the temperatures drop off in mid-to late September. The rest can be started at the beginning of September. But the aforementioned isn’t the main topic of this post, instead today we will be discussing adaptation and artificial selection. It’s no secret that we live in a age of blind sensationalism. You often hear people condemning certain terms or misusing terms without having a keen understanding of what they mean and this leads to a financial windfall for those who make a living exploiting those who don’t dare do the research from fair and unbiased sources. This is a two-part discussion, and in this part I’m going to open the discussion with some direct agricultural examples and in part two I’m going to take aim at portions of the Holistic/supplement/panacea industry who are flat falsifying information.

In the business of agriculture I often hear people talk about what is and is not natural, often these conversations are spurred by personal agendas, beliefs or sometimes bad information. More often than not it comes from a serious misunderstanding of terminology, someone hears that say hybrids are the same as GMO, and either fails to verify that accepting it as a fact because a certain person said so. Or the same person poorly researches it and does not even consider the sources he or she uses to research might be biased or poorly researched themselves. Occasionally this cumulates in the form of what I like to call “Misguided Conservation” which is when an individual upon hearing something like the fact that there are no native stands of Aloe vera in the wild begins to get a bit sad and starts talking about how terrible the human race is. The problem is this is a knee-jerk reaction to a fact that while true does not tell the whole story. Using the same example, yes the true medicinal Aloe, is extinct in its native habitat, but because of human activity aloe has a worldwide distribution in climates and places it normally would have no chance of getting to or surviving in. It is safe to say that there are more Aloe vera plants in cultivation now then there ever were in nature. This is actually an example of mutually beneficial symbiosis, we cultivate and protect the Aloe and it provides us with health benefits from its gel and beauty from its blooms.

We both win in the above case and everyone’s happy. But sometimes mutual benefit isn’t so obvious when you start talking artificial selection for traits and asexual reproduction. In terms of agriculture you have the common fig which at some point in the past gained the ability to produce fruit without a pollinator which didn’t benefit the fig, but when humans noticed we started taking cuttings and spreading the fig’s range. It’s clear there are far more fig bushes in more places than at any time in prior history and all because we are helping the plants along to success and expansion while they feed us. But take the case of a flatly non-advantageous artificial section for a house plant. Below you will see an image of a ‘Marble Queen’ devils ivy plant.

Epipremnum aureum – Pothos, “Marble Queen”

If you know nothing about the houseplant commonly called devil’s Ivy, know that traditionally you will see it sold in its normal green-only foliage form. As a pure green plant it is vigorous and its vines can easily grow to be several feet long in a growing season. It is rare to see a bloom on a devil’s ivy plant but we grow it for its easy care, and air purifying ability. Marble queen is the least common variety seen in stores for sale because it is the exact opposite of the normal green form in that it is slow growing, seemingly not very vigorous and yet its foliage is almost pure white and quite striking. There is no doubt that marble queen likely purifies air too but it’s chief limitation is that the white foliage means a lack of chlorophyll, which means in nature it might have died out if someone hadn’t come along and taken a cutting. Here we have a species that only exists in cultivation and if put in the wild has a limited chance to survive assuming that it does not revert to some version of the pure green form. In this case it is not exactly mutual symbiosis because the plant needs up to exist in its current form than we need it. This is called benign symbiosis, where we are doing the work and receiving less benefit from the plant in question. Technically it’s not taking advantage of us and we aren’t of it but we are doing more to keep it alive. Below is an example of a middle ground plant, the variegated form of heart leaf philodendron in this case is mostly some shade of green with splotches of yellow. This mutation is at best a moderate to mild limitation to the plant, which is attractive to the eye, and yet it’s vigorous enough, and still cleans the air.

Philodendron hederaceum PPI12956 – Philodendron “Brazil”
The interesting part is that variegation in these shades isn’t a limiting factor to this house plant. It can still photosynthesize quite well and most of its vigor and speed of growth is retained. This plant ‘Brazil’ in this case has a 50-50 chance of surviving in an acceptable wild climate because it’s not radically out of place in form or shape. Its variegation is not a great hindrance like with Marble Queen, and it stands a chance to ‘revert’ to a green form. In the landscape we often see reversion in variegated shrubs such as euonymus where a previously variegated shrub suddenly has a more vigorous green-leafed branch or shoot appear in the middle or side of the shrub. In a cultivated setting the problem is that if we do not remove the shoot early, it will outgrow the rest of the plant, choke out the variegated parts and the shrub will become all-green in short order. Below we have a plain green Heart Leaf Philodendron, it along with the Swiss Cheese Plant are the two most vigorous vine forming house plants in my collection.

Philodendron hederaceum – Heart Leaf Philodendron
This again is because they are in a natural form with no impediments to worry about except if or if not I remember to water them. Interestingly Philodendrons have a unusual mechanism for protecting themselves from overwatering, as they can exude excess water from their leaf tips. I do not know if this is a surviving trait from the wild or something that was dormant and emerged to counter household cultivation and low humidity. However it is darn cool to see during the winter and the water droplets are potable amazingly, perhaps in the future someone will cultivate a philodendron water filtration plant, who knows? But I will close this post with two pictures from the field.

The toad is trying to bury itself in the soil in the pot which is just plain hilarious....epic amphibian FAIL!
I’ve said before that during the summer I encounter a large number of toads due to a nearby water feature in the neighborhood. This one got on the patio somehow and has been camping out in potted plants.

Cycas revoluta – King Sago Palm
This is a mature sago palm at my mother’s house. The strange brown structure is a male cone which indicates it is a male plant and mature. This means the palm is between 15 and 20 years old and unfortunately there is no way to tell which gender a sago palm is until they’re nearly two decades old or you have received a gender-verified cutting like they do with Ginko Biloba trees. Cycads are a largely extinct species of pseudo coniferous plants that had their heyday during the Jurassic period. Much like the ginko they are living fossils and due to cultivation at least the sago palm has a range that almost matches it’s prior one. If you’ve heard of Tulip mania, there once was a Cycad mania where specimens could fetch prices of several million, this lead to poaching of wild specimens and ecological decline of the species in the wild. Some of the rare specimens in their native habitats in parts of South Africa are protected by fences and armed guards. Which leads to a modern moral to this post; ‘Should there be another Plant Mania; we can be sure that the plants won’t be thrilled about it.’

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Ain't no time for the summertime blues!

Welcome back to another episode of Lost In The Farmer’s Market. For this week’s episode we are spotlighting a specific garden annual that is native to the United States. If you believe the agricultural chemical companies this annual plant is one of the scourges of the perfectly trimmed lawn. Then again I like to suggest that the perfectly trimmed lawn is the scourge of the landscape as it is thoroughly impossible to maintain because it is unnatural. The very idea of having a neatly mowed lawn around your property comes from the deception of wealth.  Anyone who was rich enough did not need to grow a garden to supplement their food supply and thus could afford to demonstrate their wealth by having a lawn. In practice lawns serve no real purpose other than erosion control, and realistically the amount of fertilizers and chemicals needed to maintain a lawn is prohibitive. Of course, the golf industry isn’t helping at all, as they often get legal allowances that let them skirt drought restrictions and chemical runoff laws. 

All that leads us back to the topic, what is a gardener to do about drought, and what specific crop is commonly found as an annual in your lawn. The answer is a group of plants commonly called the Purselane group, their scientific name is Portulaca and they are a native succulent annual that prefers the hot season and tolerates a wide variety of poor soils. You may have seen Purselane before at the garden center because fancy-flowering versions look like the picture below.

Portulaca sp. – Flat leaf Purselane [Variety unknown]
Purselanes are known for their large ‘cactus’ flowers, but this variety has been bred to be exceptionally flamboyant. The specimen pictured was cultivated from a stem cutting. Fortunately Purselane is easily cultivated from stem cuttings and responds well to rooting hormones. But commonly Portulaca will self-propagate from seed and if sown in the right spot will form regular mats of vibrantly colored flowers. The most common variety of Purselane grown this way is commonly called Moss Rose, and it’s scientific name is Portulaca grandiflora. Moss Rose is edible, but the thin needle like leaves are hard to harvest and so moss rose is primarily used as a annual ornamental.

Portulaca oleracea – Flat leaf Purselane (Red Grunner and Goldgelber)

            The flat-leaf Purselane group is known as Portulaca oleracea. Flat-leaf Portulaca has wide flat leaves that are easy to harvest and make for a great crunchy addition to a salad or if you have enough of them and interesting thing to add to a stir-fry. It is only very recently that the Industry has picked up on these easy to grow plants and begun hybridizing a wide array of bloom colors. Fortunately purselanes are easy to grow, drought resistant, and free of pests so they make for a good garden option. With that said below you will find the Market list for both Wednesday and Saturday.

The Fayetteville City market occurs twice weekly at the Fayetteville Transportation Museum on 325 Franklin Street. The Wednesday market runs from 12:00 to 5:00 pm and the Saturday Market runs from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm. If you look below; the new plant list for this week includes some new selections.

4x Purselane, Red Gruner - $4.00
4x Purselane, Goldgelber - $4.00
3x Pepper, Flashpoint Habanero - $3.00
8x Pepper, Novelty - $5.00

3x Tomato, Pink Stuffer - $3.00
3x Tomato, Grand Rapids Cherry- $3.00
3x Tomato, Traveler 76 - $3.00
3x Tomato, Black Krim - $3.00
3x Tomato, Cherokee Purple - $3.00
3x Tomato, Brandywine - $3.00

2x Sweet Basil - $3.00
4x Cinnamon Basil - $3.00
2x Milkweed (A. tuberosum) - $ 4.00
2x Milkweed (A.incarnata) - $ 4.00

2x Small Aloe Vera - $3.00
6x Medium Aloe Vera - $4.00
2x Large Aloe Vera - $6.00