Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Eating Japanese Knotweed (and other daft ideas)

Image: Wikipedia
There have been a number of calls(1,2,3,4) in recent weeks and months to control the invasive plant Japanese Knotweed, at least partially, by eating it. In recent days, Kerry County Council in Ireland heard from one member who, albeit with tongue-in-cheek, urged citizens to make wine, jelly and other sweet treats from the plant.

This strikes me as a terrible idea.

The plant itself is certainly edible - the Japanese have been eating it for years. It's Japanese name, itadori, means 'well being' and it seems to have some medicinal properties. It also tastes a bit like rhubarb apparently. I wouldn't know, I haven't tried it.

I haven't tried it for the same reason I don't advise you try it. Encouraging people to harvest and transport a regulated, invasive species is the perfect recipe (if you'll pardon the pun) for its continued and accelerated spread.

Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is, as you will have guessed, native to Japan and the neighbouring region. It was introduced to the UK in the mid-19th century and quickly spread to Ireland and other parts of the world. Introduced as an ornamental plant, it quickly became a real problem.

The plant is capable of growing at a tremendous rate - 1 metre in a month- and forms big stands 2-3 metres in height. The early shoots are spear like, similar to asparagus in appearance and the plants produce delicate white flowers in late Summer. The real problem is underground where the plant forms tough rhizomes, adapted root-like organs, which remain in the soil even during the Winter when the rest of the plant dies back.

Japanese Knotweed thrives on disturbance and it is mainly spread by fragments of rhizome, crown or stem being accidentally or deliberately moved. This leads to some real (and expensive) problems including a massive reduction in biodiversity under the alien canopy; structural damage to buildings and infrastructure; and the significant cost of its removal.

Data from 2010 suggest that the plant costs the UK £165 million a year to control. If the plant were to be eradicated in the UK by current methods it would cost £1.56 billion. For one site alone, the 2012 London Olympic site, it cost £88 million to deal with this one invasive plant. Nobody wants Japanese Knotweed on their land.

Image: Wikipedia
Imagine you go to the supermarket and buy a bunch of rhubarb. The first thing you do is chop the top and bottom off the stalks and chuck them on your compost heap. Do this with Japanese Knotweed and you end up costing yourself (and potentially your neighbours) thousands in a cleanup bill.

Harvesting Japanese Knotweed from the wild, no matter how careful you are, is also fraught with problems. The plant can easily regrow from small fragments the size of your fingernail. If we're lucky, you'll drop these fragments at the original, infested site. If not, you'll drop them on your walk back to the car or in your front garden when you unload the car.

Simply put, encouraging people to mess around with an invasive species like Japanese Knotweed is, in my view, irresponsible. It may also be illegal.

In Ireland, it is an offence to "plant, disperse or cause to disperse or otherwise cause to grow" the plant. It is also an offence if "he/she has in his/her possession for sale or for breeding/reproduction/transport....anything from which the plant can be reproduced or propagated".

In the meantime, there are chemical and physical control options and scientists in the UK are developing a biological control approach using a sap-sucking insect called Aphalara itadori. This is an old enemy of the plant, found in Japan and currently being tested in the UK to see if it will do the same job in this part of the world (and not eat anything else, by accident). The trials haven't been a total success with numbers surviving over winter too low to have much of an effect, but the tests are ongoing. Hopefully, before too long we will have a sustainable control option for this invasive plant. In the meantime, stop eating it.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Dealing with Food Waste

Recent reports that Irish people are wasting one million tonnes of food give us, as the old idiom goes, food for thought.

According to some reports, this translates into 2 billion meals and around€1 billion worth of food. At a time when some of our citizens struggle to put food on their table, this is a worrying statistic. The figures also represent bad news for our environment and indicate a food production system under pressure.

Ireland is not alone in our wastage of food. A 2013 UK study suggested that, worldwide, between 30 and 50% of all food produced never reaches a human mouth. That amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted every year on the planet, with losses in developing countries mostly down to inefficient growing and harvesting. In developed countries, like Ireland, consumer waste is a huge issue. Put in monetary terms, $1 trillion worth of food is wasted every year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Up to 30% of the UK and Ireland’s vegetable crops are never harvested due to changing, and some might argue, unreasonable demands from the big supermarkets. This is very slowly changing. Under pressure from consumers and activists, some supermarkets have introduced ranges of fruit and vegetables which are perfectly edible but aren’t the perfect shape or size that is normally demanded. These “ugly” or “wonky” fruit and vegetables are a step in the right direction but represent just a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of produce that is destroyed each year because it doesn’t meet retail guidelines. 

So, think about that loaf of bread that you forgot about in the back of the cupboard and had to put in the bin after a few weeks. The first thing you should reflect on is that you really should clean your cupboards out more often. After that, it’s worth remembering that it’s not only the loaf of bread you’re putting in the bin. You’re also wasting all of the energy, water and other resources which went in to producing that loaf. 

From start to finish, from field to bakery to supermarket shelf, a 1kg loaf of bread takes about 1,600 litres of water to produce. Agriculture is thirsty work.

If you choose to add some roast beef to your bread it gets even worse: 1kg of beef takes 15,000 litres of water to produce. And that’s just one resource. You’ve also got to factor in the land, energy, fertilisers and pesticides it took to produce these foodstuffs that are ending up in the bin. Food waste is unsustainable.

About 9 billion people will live on this planet in 2050. According to the United Nations, we have enough food already to feed that many people if it was more fairly and less-wastefully distributed. With advances in agricultural technology, plant breeding and plant protection products, we are getting better at producing higher yields on the same amount of land. 

Energy is another limiting factor for food production, especially in light of obligations to curb climate change. For every calorie of plant-based food, it costs around 3 calories worth of energy to produce. However for every calorie of beef produced it costs 35 calories. When most of this energy comes from non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, meat (and dairy) consumption starts to look unsustainable on a global scale.

At the recent COP21 meeting in Paris, it was estimated that around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions globally come from agriculture. So, agriculture is a cause of global climate change but it is also a victim of it. Changes in weather patterns, temperature and rainfall will increasingly dictate what kinds of crops will be grown where. Agriculture will be forced to change if it doesn’t do so voluntarily. This is an opportunity for Ireland to lead global change to a more sustainable model of food production.

In fairness, the issue of food waste is being taken seriously at the highest level. One of the results of the COP21 talks has been the establishment by the G20 group of countries of a Technical Platform to measure and reduce food loss and waste. Recently, the Rockefeller Foundation has pledged $130 million to help sub-Saharan African farmers to improve their harvesting, storage and food transportation systems.

More locally, organisations like FoodCloud and the Bia Food initiative are finding innovative ways to connect companies with food at risk of becoming waste with charities who can use such food to fight hunger. Meanwhile, in Denmark a charity has just opened a supermarket stocking exclusively ‘surplus’ food. There is no doubt that for business, the issue of food waste has become an image problem and an opportunity to engage with society to develop novel solutions.

If all of that doesn’t convince you to waste less food, it’s worth pointing out that the Environmental Protection Agency reckons the average Irish household throws away about €700 worth of food every year. We bin 50% of all the salad we buy. 25% of all fruit and vegetable that we buy are thrown away (with potatoes and bananas being main culprits). 20% of bread and 10% of meat and fish is also dumped in homes up and down the country.

A small amount of food waste in unavoidable and food safety is an important issue. However, we all have an obligation to drastically reduce the levels of food waste if we are to develop a fairer, more sustainable society.

Dr Eoin Lettice is a plant scientist and lecturer at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork. This article originally appeared in the Evening Echo.

Friday, April 17, 2015

George Boole Road?

I had a thought....surely a bad idea to begin with, but regardless....

As we celebrate the year of George Boole and the wonderful, imaginative and informative celebratory events are in full swing, I got to thinking that there is no street named after the man in Cork.

This is George Boole, the noted academic, scientist, mathematician, teacher and father of the information age who spent much of his working life in Cork City and who died and was buried here.

UCC has done phenomenal work keeping his name alive, going back to the building of the Boole Library in 1983. However, at a civic level, his name has been somewhat neglected, not withstanding the plans by Cork City Council and UCC to refurbish his former home at Grenville Place.

So, I'm suggesting that Boole is probably about due a street named after him in Cork. Now, street naming is not a completely uncontroversial topic and there may be people who disagree with me, especially if we go usurping some other street and swapping some other historical figure's name with that of the noted mathematician. To avoid (some) of this controversy, perhaps Western Road in Cork City should be renamed in his honour?

Here we have a road which is geographically appropriate, as it is the formal address of UCC. It also is named for nothing more that the direction of traffic.

It's just a suggestion. Don't bite my head off. But let the debate start here.

Comments welcome.

Food for thought

With the world population set to reach 9 billion people by 2050, it’s no surprise that governments and societies are beginning to rethink how they will produce food for all these extra people. 

In Ireland, we’re lucky to have some of the most ideal conditions to produce lots of healthy, nutritious food; with a benevolent climate, committed producers and a world-class ‘food infrastructure’ built up over time. 

In Cork – ‘Ireland’s food capital’. Someone who wanders around the cathedral to food that is the English Market cannot fail to notice the importance of food to this region and the central place it has within our city. With a proposed new food innovation centre on the Grand Parade, it looks like that moniker of Ireland’s food capital is being assured.

Ireland’s exports of food and drink reached nearly €10.5 billion in 2014, with the industry making up about 9% of total employment in the country. The Irish food industry has been one of the success stories of the Irish economy throughout the last number of very difficult years. The challenge, as we seek to grow this sector and produce more food for a growing world population, will be to do so in ways that are sustainable and do as little damage to the environment as possible.

English Market, Cork. (Image: William Murphy, Creative Commons)

There are many ways in which this sustainability can be achieved. For example, both industry and consumers have a real obligation to ensure that food waste is minimised as much as possible. Some estimates put the total percentage of food wasted and lost before it gets in our stomachs at between 30 and 50% globally. That means that up to half the food in our fields never reaches a human mouth and is lost either under attack from pests and diseases in the field or binned by suppliers, supermarkets or consumers for a variety of reasons. 

How we grow food crops is the subject of much debate. And so it should be. Consumers have an obligation to be informed about the way in which their food is produced. Hence the recent debates around issues like pesticide residues, genetically-modified crops, organic production, etc. These are good conversations to be having. If nothing more, a country like Ireland which relies on the food industry for 9% of its total employment must be informed about the best food production and plant protection techniques.

At University College Cork, we have a long history of studying plants and crop production. We are also the second ‘greenest’ university on the planet and the first third-level institution in the world to fly the green flag for environmental policies. So, the production of food crops in an environmentally sustainable way is a central tenet of our teaching and research at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UCC. 

In 2012 we launched Europe’s only MSc course in organichorticulture to service a growing demand for higher qualifications in the sector. Organic horticulture (and organic production in general) is often defined by what it isn’t rather than what it is. For example, most synthetic chemical fungicides and pesticides are not permitted for use by organically certified growers so they must employ alternative plant protection techniques like biological control. 

From a scientific point of view, that poses some really interesting research questions like how we can increase yields of plants in ways which don’t rely on synthetic chemical inputs. For example, conventional potato growers often apply between 15 and 20 applications of fungicide each season to control late blight of potato (that’s the same disease which caused the Irish famine). That works for now, but there are clear drawbacks to this approach, putting all your eggs (or potatoes) in one basket. Research on ‘organic’ control techniques for late blight means that we might be able to expand our options for controlling this important disease in one of our most important crops. This sort of research can have benefits for both organic and conventional agriculture.

Organic horticulture is not without its challenges. The lack of conventional chemical fertilisers and pest control means organic yields are often lower than that obtained through conventional means. Additionally, and despite a premium paid for organic produce, small organic growers can often find it hard to balance the books. By recognising the main challenges, we can focus our research strengths accordingly so that we improve the lot of organic growers as well as farmers in general. This will ensure that the organic produce that consumers want is on the shelves and, where possible, is produced in Ireland.

At the moment, the organic sector in Ireland accounts for just less than 1.2% of our useable agricultural area (PDF). The retail value of the sector is about €100 million annually. The current government aims to increase this area under organic production considerably. For example, the Food Harvest 2020 plan seeks to have 5% of our useable agricultural area under organic cultivation by 2020. To do this, significant training of new organic growers is required along with upskilling of current growers. Additionally, there is a need for significant research and development in the area of organic crop production in Ireland. The MSc Organic Horticulture programme at UCC has the dual aims of training scientists and producing a body of Irish research on organic crop production techniques.

From looking at alternative methods of controlling slugs with coffee grounds and seaweed, to using computer software to monitor disease outbreaks in potato, to the study of charcoal as a soil additive, we’ve already produced a range of research through this MSc programme. This is the sort of research which is needed to ensure that growers have a variety of tools at their disposal to produce the food we want, when we want it.

This article first appeared in the Evening Echo on April 14th 2015.

Dr Eoin Lettice is a plant scientist and lecturer at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Homeopathy doesn't work

As if it needs restating, there is no evidence that homeopathy works.

This fact has been reconfirmed by a recent report by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.

Having reviewed the scientific evidence they found that:

  • There was no reliable evidence from human research that homeopathy was effective for treating a range of health conditions.
  • For some conditions, the placebo was more effective than homeopathy.
  • People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness.

You can read the full report here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The (plant) science of Christmas

Plants are fascinating. One of the most fascinating aspects of plants is the way they have become embedded in human culture and society. This is, perhaps, mostly evident at this time of year. From the Christmas Tree to Brussels Sprouts, plants are as much a part of Christmas as Santa himself.
This article originally appeared in the Irish Independent's 'Science of Christmas' magazine.

Kissing under the mistletoe
If you’re lucky, you might just get a kiss under the mistletoe this year. Viscum album is what’s known as a hemi-parasite. That means it derives nutrients and water from a host plant, whilst also photosynthesising to harness sunlight for energy. It’s a sort of middle ground between being completely parasitic and completely free-living.
Mistletoe can parasitise over 200 different tree and shrub species and can ultimately kill these plants. The plant is poisonous to humans, yet lots of animals can overcome its toxins and depend on it for food in the wild.
It’s really odd then that a poisonous parasite would be at the centre of such a romantic tradition.
The plant has featured in folklore since Greek mythology and these days is hung in homes around the world in the hope of a quick kiss. The reasons for this are unclear but certainly the Greek naturalist Pliny the Elder (23 to 79 BC) recorded the widely held belief that because the mistletoe stayed green during the winter (it’s an evergreen) and the host tree generally lost its leaves, that the mistletoe somehow contained the ‘life’ of the tree.  This connection with life and fertility meant it got caught up with the tradition of Christmas and kissing.

Holly wears the crown
The red and green colours of holly (Ilex aquifolium) have become the quintessential Christmas colour combination. Since pre-Christian times, it’s had an association with winter; when the red fruits and dark-green, foliage are at their peak.
In fact, there are about 400 species of holly around the world. Eighty of them are considered threatened in the wild. The bright red fruits are attractive to birds who eat them and deposit seed elsewhere in their droppings, often under trees. For some plants, germinating in the shade would be a problem. Not so for holly which is very shade tolerant. So much so that it is becoming a real problem in forested areas where it is not native, including the US.
Holly is dioecious, which means that it has separate male and female plants. The distinctive red berries (which are mildly toxic to humans) are produced only by female plants and only when both male and female plants are grown together.
Its attractiveness as a Christmas decoration means that in some places it is endangered. This year, Killarney National Park has had to organise special patrols to prevent people chopping down whole holly trees for the lucrative Christmas market. One of Ireland’s few native evergreen trees, it has become a victim of its own popularity.

Christmas Cactus
The mountains of Brazil might be the last place we imagine when we think about Christmas.
However, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera buckleyi) is native to Brazil where it lives as an epiphyte – that’s a plant that grows on another plant. It’s not a parasite (like mistletoe) because it doesn’t take nutrients from the host plant. It just thinks it’s a really nice place to hang out.
The green parts aren’t technically leaves. They are a sort of modified stem which are flattened to increase the amount of sunlight that the plant can absorb. The more sunlight it collects, the more energy it has for growing.
The flowers are interesting too as they have evolved to attract hummingbirds to transfer pollen from one flower to another in order to produce seed. They come in a range of colours , from white to red and deep purple.
While in the northern hemisphere the plant is known as the Christmas cactus and closely associated with this time of year, down in Brazil it’s often called Flor de Maio (the May flower) because of the time of year it flowers in their winter.
If you want to grow your own cactus, twist off one or two stem segments, let them dry out for a few days and then plant the ‘cut’ end, about 1cm deep in a simple potting mix. Don’t plant them too deep and have patience. They’ll take about 12 weeks to root but by next Christmas you’ll have lots of free plants to use as gifts!

Dr Eoin Lettice is a lecturer in plant science at University College Cork.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Plants are at the heart of many crucial global issues facing us today

If we were to close our eyes and imagine a world without animals, what would it look like? It’s not that difficult to imagine a planet devoid of humans or other animals.

Now try and imagine a world without plants. It’s almost impossible to conceive. Although we sometimes take them for granted, plants have made possible and shaped life on Earth while making this a truly green planet.

Plants are at the centre of many of the most crucial global issues that face us now and will face us in the century to come. How can we ensure that a growing human population has enough food to eat? How can we produce that food and, at the same time, reduce the environmental impact of crop production and agriculture generally? How can we reduce the impending threat of global warming?
Can we use plants to power our homes and cars? How do we maintain global biodiversity and use medicines produced by plants to cure diseases and promote human health? All these questions and more require us to look again at our relationship with plants and how they can ultimately be useful to our society and economy.

Looking back through time, plants have shaped the world we now live in and are ultimately responsible for creating the conditions for human life to exist on Earth in the first place. When the earliest land plants appeared on Earth about 450 million years ago, they drastically changed the Earth’s atmosphere; reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and increasing the level of oxygen. That change allowed other organisms to evolve and flourish – some of them, our evolutionary ancestors.
Green plants are nature’s solar panels that have colonised much of the planet. Through a powerful process called photosynthesis, plants are capable of harnessing the vast energy radiating from the Sun. They can then make that energy available to animals, which lack this amazing ability to gather energy from an extra-terrestrial source. The Sun is the ultimate source of all energy in our solar system but we would have no way to access that energy without plants.

Our use of plants to produce food is, perhaps, the most central element of the human connection to this green planet. Since the earliest of farmers, 10,000 years ago, humans have sought to (subconsciously at first and then, more and more, consciously) select for plant types and varieties which gave the most fruits, tastiest tubers or most stable yields. Now, we’ve got more powerful tools at our disposal for plant breeding, but the basic process is essentially the same – select the best plant from this year’s crop and grow its seed next year.

But growing plants for food is just one of the ways in which we utilise them in the modern world. The ancient Egyptians once chewed willow bark to reduce fever and headaches. Now we know that the bark of willow contains the active ingredients of aspirin. More recently, a chemical derived from daffodils has been used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and cancers have been treated with the medicine taxol, derived from the yew tree. Plants are also gaining attention as “edible vaccines”, where vaccines for diseases like HIV could be produced in a plant that might also act as a delivery vehicle.
The Irish government seem to recognise the importance of plants to Ireland’s economy. If we look at the 2012 Action Plan for Jobs, sectors highlighted for potential job creation include the “Green Economy” and “Agri-food production”.  Both of these sectors have plants at their centre. Tourism – another sector flagged for growth – also relies heavily on Ireland’s natural landscape and our native flora.

Taken together with the fisheries sector, the agri-food industry in Ireland directly employs about 150,000 people and represents about 60 per cent of manufacturing exports by Irish firms. Our success in this area is hinged on plants, whether as crops grown for direct consumption, as raw materials for other products or as animal feed for the meat and dairy sectors. In recent years our reliance on plants within the agri-food sector was emphasised by the fodder crisis. A longer than usual winter meant reduced grass growth and a need to provide an alternative food source for Ireland’s more than 6 million cattle. As the effects of climate change become more obvious on our weather patterns, this type of event may become more common.

Perhaps then, the economic and societal importance of plants only becomes truly obvious when they fail us. Ireland’s history of famine due to late blight of potato in the mid 19th Century had profound effects on Irish population levels and social history.

As well as an economic impact, plants also have an aesthetic quality which makes them good things to have around. A number of studies have reported the mental and physical health benefits of being exposed to plants and green spaces in general. One study, from the Netherlands, looked at 10,000 people’s general health and compared it to the amount of green space in their neighbourhood. A clear trend emerged: people living in areas with more plants, on average, experienced less symptoms of ill-health and perceived their own health to be better.

In a classic study conducted in the US in the 1980s, patients in a hospital ward with a view of a natural setting, including trees and other plants, recovered more quickly from surgery and took less pain-killing medication than patients with a window view of a brick wall.

Rather than taking them for granted, the role plants play in our lives needs to be recalled. The Irish writer Jonathan Swift once wrote: “Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together”. With apologies to our local and national representative, I’d have to agree with Swift.

This is an adapted version of a piece I first wrote for The Journal.

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