Why Earth Day is more important than ever

It’s amazing, today marks the 46th Earth Day to be celebrated in North America.

Earth Day as we know it got it’s start in 1970 as the impacts of toxic, persistent agricultural pesticides and unabated industrial pollution were beginning to be recognized. Earth Day became a time that people would gather together and give back to the earth—planting trees, beach clean ups and other environmentally worthy acts.

The last time I wrote about Earth Day I was focused on doing this type of Earth give-back too. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is worthwhile to shift our focus, for one day or many, to consciously try to lighten our footprint and repair some of the environmental damage that has been done. But increasingly when I think of the “Earth”, I think of how much nature contributes to our own well-being.

In recent years there has been a surge of neuroscience and psychology research that measures the positive benefits that time in nature has on human mental health and well-being. For example:

Stanford’s Gregory Bratman designed an experiment in which participants took a 50-minute walk in either a natural or an urban environment. People who took the nature walk experienced decreased anxiety, brooding and negative emotion and increased memory performance. Bratman’s team found walking in natural environments can decrease rumination, the unhealthy but familiar habit of thinking over and over about causes and consequences of negative experiences. Their study also showed neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness was reduced in participants who walked through nature compared with those who walked through an urban environment.

Korean researchers investigated the differences in brain activity when volunteers just looked at urban versus natural scenery. For those viewing urban images, MRI scans showed increased blood flow to the amygdala region. In contrast, areas of the brain associated with empathy and altruism lit up for those who viewed natural scenes.

In Japan, scientists found people spending time in nature — shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” — inhale “beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions” which interact with gut bacteria to strengthen the body’s immune system and improve both mental and physical health.

Nature keeps us healthy. We should be keeping nature healthy too, and bring nature more closely into our everyday lives. How’s that for an Earth Day commitment!

IMG_1270

It is becoming increasingly apparent that considering the environmental impacts of our actions is not just about doing something good for the planet, it’s about securing a healthy future for humans. We’re in this together. And that is doubly true for the littlest humans among us who have a lot of living left to do on this blue planet.

So while I get a certain sense of nostalgia when my kids tell me that they are talking about the importance of recycling at daycare in the lead up to Earth Day (recycling is such a 90’s enviro issue!), I also want them to appreciate that there is a deeper reason for caring for the Earth. As a study published in Nature shows, as we become an increasingly urbanized species we are more susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression. Researchers found people who lived in cities for their first 15 years are more likely to have a permanently raised sensitivity to stress.

Spending time in nature will be more important for this generation of children than ever. Scientist, advocate, nature-lover and Earth Day pioneer Rachel Carson summed up the incredible gift that Earth gives us most eloquently—

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
— Rachel Carson

Happy Earth Day to you and yours.

The secret is the soil

If you’re feeling like this is the year to garden, you’re right. There has never been a better time to dig up a patch of lawn or fill those unused planter boxes with fresh soil.

Yes, food prices are climbing  and your efforts in the garden have an increasing economic value, but something else is happening while you are out there seeding and weeding your garden plot.

In preparation for my first family-friendly garden workshop I have been thinking a lot about soil. The more I read, the more I realize that soil is where all of the magic starts. Imagine this (from The Atlantic):

There can be 10,000 to 50,000 species in less than a teaspoon of soil. In that same teaspoon of soil, there are more microbes than there are people on the earth. In a handful of healthy soil, there is more biodiversity in just the bacterial community than you will find in all the animals of the Amazon basin.

Seriously. More biodiversity than in the animals of the Amazon! But this biodiversity is not just for looks, it has a function.

12SOIL-master675

Thanks to research like the five-year, National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project we now know that our health is inextricably linked to the health of microbes in our gut, mouth, nasal passages, and other “habitats” in and on us. We are not just our bodies, we are a residence for microbes with whom we have coevolved, who perform critical functions and provide services to us, and who outnumber our own human cells ten to one.

As above, so below.

A healthy human is an ecosystem of microbes, and so is healthy soil. Industrial agriculture has depleted soil microbes through heavy tilling, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and not adding organic matter–microbe food. Antibiotics and highly processed foods similarly destroy microbes in our gut.

Seeking out foods that reverse these trends–as in organic and unprocessed–is an obvious step in the right direction for restoring microbe diversity in our own inner ecosystem as well as the ecosystems around us. But don’t underestimate the importance of your own garden efforts.

IMG_3972

Digging in healthy soil yourself means you will be exposed to soil microbes and recent research has shown they can improve mood, boost immunity and reduce vulnerability to depression.

Previous studies have linked early childhood exposure to bacteria to protection against allergies and asthma in adulthood. The new finding take this idea, called the “hygiene hypothesis,” a step further, and suggests bacteria-exposure not only boosts our immune systems, but alters our vulnerability to conditions such as depression as well.

The secret is in the soil my friends! Here’s how to boost soil health to maximize your microbes:

  • Protect your soil from hard rains & winter weather by mulching or cover cropping
  • Practice no-till agriculture, you do not need to dig or plow your beds yearly
  • Avoid synthetic chemicals which kill microbes
  • Add compost, especially worm compost, to give microbes plenty of food to thrive on

While you’re out there hauling compost or building new beds in this fine spring weather don’t be afraid to breathe deep. Rejoice in getting dirt under your fingernails, for city-dwellers soil is something like a long lost friend.

Happy spring!

Fire on the mountain

Hello,

There is something going on not far from where I live that is making national news. I had another post all ready to go, but decided to change the focus. Sometimes a love for nature can get political. For everyone who has worried about the future world their children will live in, this is for you.

Let’s start with the two minute overview of events as covered by Global News:

Now, I know clips of ranting protestors do not capture the hearts and minds of most people. But, stay with me, there is much history at work here. The events at Burnaby Mountain are becoming an opportunity to connect people from all walks of life with an issue of grave importance for our children and grandchildren.

Even those with little knowledge of Canada probably know we love hockey, we have a funny habit towards being overly polite and two of the greatest icons in Canadian pop culture are Neil Young and David Suzuki. While both of these greats have a deep commitment to environmentalism, David Suzuki is the rock star in this realm. An award-winning geneticist who began his career in broadcasting in 1974, David Suzuki became a household name through his award winning series, The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, that has been running for an incredible 54 years! Living in a small, resource-dependent town (yep, in the oil patch) I clearly remember my grade 9 science teacher wheeling in the TV trolley so he could exuberantly screen Nature of Things episodes for us. He, via David Suzuki, taught us about recycling and ecological limits. I had always spent time outside, but I was also surrounded by a culture where resource extraction equalled money. I still have a feeling of indebtedness to that Grade 9 teacher and to David Suzuki for opening my eyes to the world of science and ecology, and the idea that human activity needs to be balanced. It was the ’90’s, the concept of sustainability was brand new.

david_suzuki_tamo_campos_kinder_morgan_protest_at_rcmp_police_line_burnaby_mountain_sunday_-_mychaylo_prystupa_-_2014-11-23_w3000_1 (1)

David Suzuki has become an institution–as a broadcaster he is under contract with the CBC and the foundation that operates under his namesake has a policy against showing up at protests. So this week, when David Suzuki’s grandson, Tamo Campos, was arrested on Burnaby Mountain protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline it was news. Then a letter Suzuki wrote to his grandson supporting his action went viral. And then David Suzuki himself showed up at Burnaby Mountain in solidarity with his family–his daughter, granddaughter and grandson were all there. This raw, unscheduled reaction to a real time event made me excited. While the protest on Burnaby Mountain is specifically about stopping the expansion of a Kinder Morgan pipeline, it has become a flashpoint where Canadians are standing up to express their concerns about climate change, the failure of our governments to act in the public interest and the desire to start building a future that is less dependent on fossil fuels.

Why is this such a big deal? Some essential information:

  • Kinder Morgan is one of the largest pipeline companies in the US and it’s run by a former Enron exec
  • One large spill from a KM pipeline could cost $40 billion in damage and be catastrophic to the environment
  • Kinder Morgan has already had 7(!) spills and leaks in BC since 2005
  • At the hearings where the public is supposed to have input into the impacts of the pipeline climate change cannot be discussed
  • This is a pipeline being built to transport oil from the tar sands (oil  sands) from Alberta, which when fully developed will be the largest industrial contributor to greenhouse gases in North America, yet climate change cannot be discussed!
  • The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is strongly tied to the oil industry and was recently ranked one of the worst climate villains in the world
  • Since Harper has been in power he has retracted Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, weakened environmental regulations, gutted leading edge climate change research and systematically silenced Canadian scientists
  • Canada, under Harper, has reversed our previous leadership on global warming and is now ranked with Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia as countries lacking a federal policy to address climate change and no intention to create one
  • Governments at a local level are fighting the pipeline: the City of Vancouver, Burnaby and First Nations have all filed lawsuits in an attempt to halt construction of the pipeline
  • People from all walks of life are gathering at Burnaby Mountain–scientists, writers, nature enthusiasts, grandparents, parents and children

This clip of a well-respected molecular biology professor sums up the sentiment that all the usual things are no longer enough given federal and provincial governments who appear  captured by oil industry interests:

What will your kids think?

Given all of this commotion it seems like a good time to ask, what are we doing to make the world a better place for our children? Will our children wonder why, since we knew fossil fuels contribute to climate change and climate change is negatively impacting the world as we know it, why didn’t we change paths sooner? Why didn’t we do everything in our power to stop it? I think these are the fundamental questions that are motivating the surge of participation at Burnaby Mountain, including the 100+ people who have chosen to be arrested in acts of civil disobedience.

While research is lacking on what today’s children think about climate change, we do know that the Millennial generation (those who are currently 18-33) are the segment most motivated to address this issue. In a US poll, 69% of Millennials surveyed thought governments should be more involved in addressing climate change, not less. For those under 18 it is likely to be an even more defining issue. After all, they will bear the brunt of climate changes’ affects more than we will.

This weekclayoquot_sound_activists_marching_to_arrests_at_kinder_morgan_work_site_burnaby_mount_-_mychaylo_prystupa_-_2014-11-26_w3000 we’ve seen other historical leaders from the BC environmental movement, those who led the largest environmental protests in Canadian history in Clayoquot Sound in the 90’s, make their pilgrimage to Burnaby Mountain. Many of these leaders spoke of their motivation to do this for their grandchildren.

What kind of legacy are we leaving?

If you’d like to join the movement at Burnaby Mountain you can get the details at ComeToTheMountain or follow on facebook. This Saturday there is a special event for grandmothers, mothers and children.

If you’re too far away to join in person you can connect with climate change campaigns locally and globally.

Thanks to everyone who are asking themselves the tough questions and committing to a better world for future generations.

Hello again

Hello again world.

It’s been well over a year since I last wrote. How are you? What has been happening with you? Here’s what’s been happening with me…

I fell off the cliff of parenthood, again! A beautiful, wonderful little boy entered my life. And even though it was my second time becoming a parent it was no less of a your-life-will-never-be-the-same-again moment. …In all the good ways, and some of the tough ones.

But during many of the tired, tired moments in this past year and a quarter I have thought of this blog many times. I have thought of you blog readers and wondered what you might like to read about and have confirmed within myself that I truly enjoy the process of thinking, writing and sharing.

So here I am. Finally in front of my computer again with a small portion of my time dedicated to writing. I have expanded the scope of the blog as my own thinking has shifted. …I once saw gardening as a great focal point for connecting kids with nature, but after spending this year with my toddler turned preschooler I realized that the need to just play outside in nature is also oh, so important and can be overlooked in our busy, busy modern lives.

I realized too that in my mega sleep deprived state (my son, while lovely, is a terrible sleeper) I needed time in nature more than ever. Much more. Going “to the forest” became I kind of salvation for me that kept me from completely losing my sanity. And the upside was that my daughter and I struck upon something that can feed both her desire to run, jump and explore, while I can feed my soul’s craving for calm and a sense of perspective. Towering trees helped keep the days struggles from taking on more importance than they deserved. While my daughter does not seem to tire of the usual playground circuit, I had a chance to see her explore an entirely new environment that I enjoy much more. It felt much richer for the both of us. And *total bonus* my terrible sleeper always slept best the nights after we’d spent an hour or two among the trees.

So my dear friends, IIMG_0906 am back. I am motivated. I can’t wait to bring you some interesting reading on connecting hearts and minds to nature: in the garden, through play outside in all the elements and in our homes with the foods we eat.

In this Take Two of Little Bean Farms I am hoping to connect more to the larger community of people who are striving towards similar goals and to laugh, smile and play while we explore this big, crazy, beautiful world together.

You’ll hear from me again soon, I promise.

GMO OMG!

Greetings!

With all of the rain we’ve had lately in my neck of the woods it feels more like movie watching weather than gardening weather, so I thought it was a good opportunity to focus on the hot food sustainability topic of the week–GMOs.

Last Saturday over two million people around the world took to the streets to raise awareness about the GMO seeds produced by seed and chemical giant Monsanto. In over 436 cities in 52 countries people of all ages were asking for labelling of GMO foods, including these incredible ladies pictured below–the Raging Grannies at a Montreal protest.

hi-monsanto-2-852-8col What’s the big deal anyway?

From what I have learned about farming I am convinced that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the use of GE (genetic engineering) technology are not improving our food system. One of the problems with GMOs is that there has not been enough research on the long term health impacts of eating these foods. What has happened with GMOs so far is enough to have us questioning why we are taking the risk of saturating our food supply with them. Top problems below as well as the stories of a teenager and father who are doing something about it.

1. More chemicals are being used
The major GMO crops grown in North America and elsewhere are cotton, corn, soy, canola and sugar beet (the US also grows GMO papaya and some GMO squash). All five of the major crops have been genetically altered to either withstand a Monsanto-made pesticide called Round Up or to exude their own natural insecticide (Bt). The problem is insects and weeds adapt quickly when you use a single chemical to try and control them, soon they become resistant and you need to find another, usually more toxic, chemical to get rid of your weed or pest problem. This is exactly what has happened with GMO crops, the original promise was that LESS chemicals would be needed to farm these crops, now MORE are needed. More chemicals means more pollution in our water ways, more toxic stuff on our food and more expense for farmers who have to buy more pesticides from Monsanto along with their GMO seeds.

2. Patent-protected seeds put the future of food production in the hands of corporations
Agriculture evolved by farmers saving some of their seeds from each year’s crop to plant the next year. This is the heart of food security–seed saving. Saving seeds also allows you to select the plants that perform best under your local conditions, building a naturally-selected seed bank over time that is best adapted to where you grow. GMO seeds are patent protected, which means it is illegal for farmers to save them and even if, as seeds tend to do, a field is cross-pollinated by GMO crops planted by a neighbour Monsanto has been known to threaten, sue and demand money from farmers who never planted a single GMO seed.

This is a really scary downside of corporations patenting seeds and exercising legal rights over them–essentially the companies that own the seeds control the food supply and since those companies need to make money from their seeds this undermines the viability of farmers (and all of us) to feed ourselves. It undermines crop diversity and is a direct threat to food system sustainability.

3. Adequate food safety testing is not in place
Another very scary fact:GM foods are approved for human consumption based on company-pnotscienceexproduced science alone. The data is secret and is not peer-reviewed by independent scientists, our government agencies (Health Canada and the US FDA) are not doing their own testing. To make matters worse, there are no standards set for what constitutes adequate testing and in the few independent studies that have taken place study trial times that are slightly longer than industry-science are showing health effects. Independent research on the impacts of GMO foods have been hampered by the patent on the seeds, companies will not release the seeds to independent researchers. But the companies don’t mind releasing GMO foods into the food system at large with no labelling, making us all the lab rats.

Many scientists warn that the process of genetic engineering could create new allergens and animal feeding studies indicate liver and kidney problems. Without mandatory labeling there is no way to track or monitor possible health impacts.

4. At least label it and let consumers decide
The Right to Know movement has swept the US resulting in state-level movements to label GMOs in Maine, Vermont and California. Efforts to get GMO labelling are also taking place in Canada. The argument is: if GMO foods are in the foods we eat consumers at least have the right to know what foods they are in so they can avoid them if they want. There is huge opposition from industry to this because they know consumer rejection can kill their market–just as it has in Europe and Japan where imports are tested and rejected if they contain GMOs.

And now for a two minute video interlude…



The power of youth and parents 

All of this may sound quite dire, but public pressure has already significantly set back Monsanto’s GMO plans. GM varieties of tomatoes, potatoes and wheat have been taken off the market because of consumer rejection. Where GMOs are still showing up in our food supply are mainly processed foods and conventional animal feeds–corn, soy, canola and sugar beet are heavily used in animal production and as processed food ingredients. If you want to avoid them buy certified organic foods (no GMOs and no pesticides allowed) or, if an organic option isn’t available, you can look for the non-GMO project label that verifies no GMO ingredients have been used.

Now let’s meet two of the over two million people pushing for change on this issue.

First up, 13 year-old Rachel Parent who started the Kids Right To Know project in Canada. She established her own website to raise awareness about GMOs at age 11. Don’t doubt that youth are ready to change the world, check out her articulate interview on Global TV.

KidsRighttoKnowglobalnews

But let’s not wait for the next generation to do something about this. Filmmaker Jeremy Seifert started out to make a film about GMOs. In the process he became a father on a crusade to get GMOs out of his kids’ diets. His documentary, GMO OMG, has just started screening. Watch the trailer below and keep an eye out for local screenings.

GMO OMG Trailer from Compeller Pictures on Vimeo.

Want to learn more? C-BAN is a great resource. Right now there is push to approve GMO alfalfa and a GMO apple in both Canada and the US. Keep on the look out for ways to support these campaigns and take pride in your gardening efforts however small. Learning to grow food is one of the best things you can do to help support future food sustainability.

See you next week when we get back into the garden.

Earth Day Resolution

Hi Earthlings, happy earth day!

earthdaygirlOver a billion people across 192 countries will celebrate Earth Day this year. This is a major mobilization of human effort. And the best part is, this is a celebration all about setting our human-centric-ness  aside and doing something positive for the plants, animals, air, water and soil– you know, all those things that support life on this planet.

If you find yourself feeling a little jaded about too much empty eco-speak and too little action, take heart today, things are a-changing.

One of the watershed events that triggered the original creation of Earth Day in 1970 was the best-selling book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. When this damning exposé on the impacts of pesticide use was released growing chemical-free food was a fringe movement. Today, the majority of North Americans are buying organic food on a weekly basis. The year before Earth Day started, a Cleveland river caught fire because it was so contaminated with chemicals. Industrial pollution continues, but since this time groups large and small have taken responsibility for local watersheds and have successfully brought life back to formerly toxic environments.

The challenges are immense, but people are more aware and more connected than ever before. And most importantly, in our heart-of-hearts no one wants to be contributing to a worse-off world. Slowly, but surely, things are shifting in a new direction as it becomes more obvious that it is possible to do things in ways that make things better.

IMG_1308

A Simple Pledge

This year I decided to celebrate Earth Day by making a simple pledge– like an Earth Day New Years’ resolution. My pledge is to make a little more space on this planet for the plants, animals and creatures that keep our ecosystems going.

How might I go about doing this? Two ways, I think.

One is trying to apply the principle of Ahisma to my daily life, something I think about from time to time but not that consistently. Ahisma is a sanskrit word that means to do no harm. It’s an important part of Buddhist, Hindu and Jainist practice and was a key part of Ghandi’s philosophy.

Making an effort to reduce your ecological footprint is a kind of Ahisma practice. A lighter footprint means less negative impacts from your actions. When you make a choice like buying food grown without chemicals you are doing less harm to the places where the food was grown and the people that grew it (not to mention your own body).

The second strategy is to take small actions. You already know that I am really excited about making cities more hospitable by bringing more plant life (and all kinds of life) into them. I’ve started to introduce native plants into our yard and have just put up our first bird feeder. I know there are a lot of other small things that I can do and I’m excited to see what kind of mini-ecosystem activity builds up around them and how it affects my family and neighbours. Excitement, and action, are contagious.

What about you?

IMG_7109How have you been celebrating Earth Day? Earth Day has morphed into Earth month, so feel free to commemorate Earth Day in your own way this month or keep up the momentum of the celebrations you have already been a part of.

If you’re stuck for ideas here are some food related suggestions (13 in fact, for Earth Day 2013) and the folks at Happy Planet have introduced a Grow for Good seed giveaway to inspire more people to grow their own food (a shout out worthy initiative).

Post your ideas, activities and events and please feel free to join me on the journey of small things this year.

Call of the wild (alive and well in the city)

I missed you last week– I was subsumed with the release of organic market research. But I was thinking of you, and the world outside that is quickly coming to life with the spring days.

A few inspiring things came my way recently, many of which you’ll hear about in upcoming posts, but one that I was particularly struck by was an article,  A Wilder Way, in the New York Times style magazine.Wilderness in the city

“The city may have become our habitat, but we are increasingly learning how we can share it with other species,” says the New York Times.

This is exciting to me because when a trend you’re noticing (and appreciating) is declared in print by one of the most influential media outlets in the world you know that this is not a trend, something substantial is happening.

In cities around the world a movement is afoot to bring nature back into our landscapes and our lives. Lawns and manicured garden beds are slowly being replaced by plantings inspired by local ecology–native plants, wildflowers and perennial plants of all kinds that work with nature and provide habitat for insects and other creatures.

NYC Highline ParkThis is where two things re-connect for mutual benefit: us humans and the wildness of nature. We’ve become a primarily urban species and their has been a price for our rapid shift to city life.

Why we need nature
If you’re reading this you probably already suspect that being in nature is good for human health–fresh air, exercise, clearing the mind. Your hunch is well supported by a varied body of scientific research. It only makes sense, on the timescale of human existence the vast amount of our human history has been spent living in close proximity with nature. Evolutionarily speaking we are not that well adapted to live without nature.

Our minds and bodies function better when nature is around us. Hospital patients even recover more quickly when they have a view of plants and greenery rather than brick or concrete. We are truly better off when we have nature in our daily lives (Green Nature/Human Nature is a fascinating read that explores this connection).

Why nature needs us
The wild things of the world are impacted by human activity, now more than ever. Back to the New York Times:

“For many a city dweller, this is as close to nature as they will ever get. For urban bees, butterflies and birds, this is nature.”

The world we create is also the word that nature exists in. The nature, however small, we can create in cities is becoming increasingly important. We don’t tend to think of cities as “habitats”, but when it comes to insect life our cities can be more hospitable habitats than some rural landscapes.

Take bees for example. Urban beekeeping is a rising trend and surprisingly the city is a great place for a honeybee to live. There is a huge diversity of plant life with varying bloom times that provide steady sources of nectar (bee food), unlike mono-cropped agricultural areas. Many cities now have cosmetic pesticide bans that protect foraging bees from exposure to harmful toxins, unlike most agricultural areas. You won’t find GMO crops in the city either. When drought hits, city dwellers still get to water their gardens keeping up the bee food supply. Now you sticklers out there might point out that honeybees are not native to North America, true. But honeybees have become a pollinator that is integral to the functioning of our food system and what’s good for the honeybee is good for many other insects.

Bringing nature closer to home
The next few posts are going to revolve around the themes of birds, butterflies and bees and simple projects that nature-supporting, city dwellers of all ages can do to help bring more nature to the places we live. We’ll be making close encounters with the wild things of this world a more frequent occurrence.
HabitatIsland_2335

In the meantime, get inspired by visiting an ecology-inspired park. You don’t have to travel as far as New York’s High Line (pictured above), many cities are integrating native plantings into park landscapes. Vancouver’s Habitat Island deserves mention on the international list of really cool nature-inspired parks. Built as part of the Olympic Village development in Southeast False Creek the small island is home to over 200 native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses and the tideline was carefully designed to support local marine life. The design was an official success when Habitat Island was the site of the first herring spawn in False Creek for decades! Many kids and families give this little island oasis rave reviews.

Stay on the lookout this weekend for the wild things that call your neighbourhood home; feel free to post photos of what you find.

See you next week with an Earth Day special edition and a post that’s for the birds.