Controversy about GMO crops never seems to go away


We’re all familiar with the term GMO, and many have already made up their minds about these crops. Unfortunately, most people don’t really know how they were developed or how they are different from any other commodity.

That doesn’t stop opinions from forming. To be honest, genetically modifying food and other crops has been around since farming began. Farmers have always selectively bred crops and livestock.

Most plants considered GMO are ones that have been modified by a process other than simple selection and breeding. The results are organisms that contain genetic material from different species. We call these transgenic organisms.

Decades ago, scientists found that a bacteria species called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) produced a chemical that was toxic to most caterpillars. It was and is still used as a pesticide to kill these plant pests.

In the mid-1990s, the gene from this bacterium was inserted into corn DNA and the result was a plant that was resistant to European corn borer and other related pests. The corn plants were able to produce the same chemical that the Bt bacteria did. They needed no additional pesticide to control the caterpillars. Yield and quality increased.

Additionally, no traces of Bt related chemicals were present in any part of the plant other than the foliage. This meant fewer pesticides were necessary to produce corn, and if only the grain were used, no chemical would be consumed.

About the same time, scientists stumbled upon another bacterium that contained a gene resistant to the effects of the chemical glyphosate (Round-up). This gene was incorporated into soybean plants and Round-up Ready Soybeans were born. The soybean plants can break down the pesticide and not the other way around.

Glyphosate is a chemical that is non-selective. That means it kills all plants hit by the spray. This herbicide has many desirable traits. It has low toxicity to mammals, it doesn’t persist in the environment for very long, and it doesn’t get absorbed by plant roots.

Reducing the amounts of pesticide necessary to produce crops is a major goal of GMO research. Furthermore, EPA regulates all transgenic crops, so they undergo substantial testing before new ones can be released. Developing chemicals that decompose quickly makes producing crops safer, too.

The upside to GMO technology is high. However, there are potential environmental problems that could result. Back in 1989 scientists took a gene from a Chinook salmon and an ocean pout, which has the ability to eat and metabolize food at extremely low temperatures. They inserted this into an Atlantic salmon.  Atlantic and Chinook salmon are close relatives but won’t cross naturally. Ocean pouts are totally unrelated. The result was a growth rate that was close to four times faster.

This sounds great, but what if that cross was introduced into wild populations somehow? Other species might be put at a disadvantage and natural balance of ecosystems could be disrupted. I realize wild Atlantic salmon populations aren’t what they once were, but this could be like the dilemma of the resident Canada geese.

We also could generate superweeds if any cultivated GMO species crossed with wild ones. For example, if GMO sunflowers were developed and they crossed with wild types, it could be a problem.

GMO technology has great potential for solving world hunger, but scientific ethical standards are critical. Short-term thirst for money can destroy great science.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Jimsonweed is another poisonous plant in the potato family


Last week I wrote about angel trumpet, an ornamental plant in the potato family. Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) is a very close relative and a weedy plant some people think is attractive enough to be used that way. In fact, numerous nurseries sell it.

It has similar looking flowers to angel trumpet, but they are smaller. Plants can achieve heights of five feet and have large pointed edged leaves. Most varieties used ornamentally are much shorter.

Spiny seed pods look like horse chestnuts and can contain 500 or more bean-shaped black seeds. Each plant produces numerous pods. When these pods dry and split, seeds can be thrown ten feet or more. Seed production is part of the reason this plant is a noxious weed.

Jimsonweed is an annual plant, so producing seeds is crucial for its invasiveness. To make matters worse, seeds can remain dormant in the soil for decades without losing viability. Also, plants occasionally will be perennial in our zone 8 climate, so that’s another reason they are a great concern in the southern US.

A further reason we dread jimsonweed is that it is extremely toxic. All parts of the plant are poisonous. That’s a big problem when children spot them since foliage, flowers and seed pods are so intriguing. Additionally, plants have a bad and well-deserved reputation for misuse.

Another name for jimsonweed is devil’s snare, because of its toxicity. Several alkaloids including atropine are present in significant amounts. Atropine is a strong nerve agent, and misuse often means death.

This is a compound that should only be administered by professionals in known quantities. Concentration in plants can vary tremendously, so this is not a plant to play doctor with.

Jimsonweed also is a concern in wheat and soybean fields, as seeds could wind up mixed with the crop seed. Even small amounts mixed in livestock feed can be problematic, so controlling it is essential. Identifying the seed is a skill that farmers should develop, especially if they grow crops for seed.

Most livestock generally avoid eating jimsonweed plants in pastures, but when pasture growth is limited, they sometimes are forced to consume it. If plants wind up in hay, the likelihood animals might eat some is even greater.

In a vegetable or flower garden, jimsonweed can be controlled by cultivation. The only concern is ridding the area of it before plants go to seed. That shouldn’t be too difficult as the plant is so conspicuous.

On a large scale, controlling this weed chemically is the only way. Many herbicides effective against broadleaf plants can be used to kill jimsonweed. Pre-emergent chemicals are also a good choice, especially in field crops like soybeans, wheat and corn.

This is a plant I often contemplated writing about since it is so common. I was always hesitant, because of my concern about people experimenting with it.

Toxicity among individual plant specimens varies tremendously, and that makes jimsonweed especially dangerous if consumed by any manner. Avoid even touching this plant without washing your hands afterward. I’m serious.

Young jimsonweed plant

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Angel trumpets love the summer heat


 

We’ve had some beastly hot weather recently, and many landscape plants are suffering. One that isn’t is angel trumpet (Brugmansia sp.), a member of the potato family.

Angel trumpet plants grow to the size of a large shrub, but in our climate, they die to the

ground each year. Still, once they begin growing in spring it doesn’t take them long to achieve heights of ten feet or more. In warmer climates, angel trumpets don’t die to the ground and can grow to be 30 feet tall.

These dramatic plants are often used as specimen plants as they can attract everyone’s attention with their large and copious flowers. Flowers are as big as a football, and hummingbirds and butterflies love them.

The leaves are large as well. I’ve got a couple pale peach colored specimens at school that stop traffic when they are in full bloom. Every year people ask me what they are. Blossoms are short-lived, and sometimes plants can be covered with blooms one week and then not flower again for a month.

Angel trumpets grow best in full sun, but they also tolerate partial shade. Increasing the shade will reduce blooming and the overall size of the plants.

The fragrant flowers might tempt you to taste them, as flowers of many plants are edible. Don’t even consider it for this one. Angel trumpet is deadly poisonous when ingested.

I’ve read where some people even have reactions to touching the plant, but I have never run into anyone with that affliction. Still, I don’t recommend them in areas where pets might eat them.

If that isn’t a problem, these plants are easy to grow. They tolerate a wide variety of soils, but they perform best in rich moist soils with high organic matter. Heavy mulching is often helpful, especially if winters are harsh.

Plants also respond well to fertilizer. I prefer to use slow-release types as fertilizer burn will rarely occur. I’ve found that fertilizers with a roughly equal ratio of nitrogen phosphorus and potassium seem to work best.

Propagation is simple too. Plants readily root from stem cuttings any time of the year. I usually take cuttings in the fall right before the first hard frost. I clip stems about 12-18 inches long or when they contain about four leaf buds. Rooting hormone is rarely necessary.

In the fall, the whole stem will die in our climate. However, it is very important that plants are not pruned to the ground until they are completely dormant, and all possibilities of Indian summer are gone. If plants begin growing in the fall after pruning, they’re likely to experience winterkill.

Don’t be alarmed if plants are slow to emerge the following spring. They are among the last to show themselves, but like lantana, once they do, they grow like gangbusters. The only major problems they face early in the season are from slugs and snails.

Angel trumpets are dramatic plants. However, they are large and will dominate the space. They also are poisonous to people and pets who try to eat them.

Angel trumpet plant in rapid growth

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Elephant ears make an interesting addition to your garden bed


Elephant ears (Colocasia sp.) are that plant with the huge heart-shaped leaves that look like they belong in a tropical rainforest. That’s probably because they do. They are native to Southeast Asia.

These peace lily and caladium relatives are one of those plants that can be perennial, but usually, it takes some ingenuity to get them to return year after year. Leaves of some types can be over two feet across and three feet long, so they can be quite dramatic.

Most species of that Arum family are tropical, but there are exceptions. Growing up in Maine, I regularly encountered a plant called skunk cabbage. It is an elephant ear relative that is very winter hardy.

Just as there is variation about the hardiness of all Arum family plants, there are considerable differences concerning specific types of elephant ears. Some may be left in the ground with no additional protective mulch and come back year after year.

Dwarf elephant ears are usually less winter hardy than the giant types. These should either be treated as annuals or dug up and stored until spring.

Some people like to plant elephant ears in large pots and bring them inside for the winter. They grow well in a sunny window but require quite a bit of space. They are also easily mutilated by pets, so they might look a little ragged when taken outside in the spring.

If planted directly outdoors, elephant ears grow best in well-drained but moist soils and partial shade to full sun. We are in zone 8, which is at the limit of hardiness for even the giant types.

For those concerned about their plants dying over the winter, I suggest cutting the plants back after a frost and digging up the underground structures. Let the plants dry down before storing and keep them in the garage or another cool dry place for the winter. If this method is used, it is important not to replant them until all danger of frost has passed in the spring.

Most people refer to these fleshy structures as bulbs, but they are corms, much like on gladiolus. Anatomically, these corms more closely resemble the tubers of potatoes than they do bulbs.

By the way, corms of one type are edible and grown for food production throughout their natural range. This is a group of plants referred to as taro, and they are cooked before they can be consumed. People eat cooked taro leaves too.

Young common elephant ear corms may be cooked and eaten by some people, but many suffer mouth irritation as plants contain calcium oxalate. Leaves should not be consumed raw or cooked. In fact, they can be somewhat toxic to pets. Several references refer to elephant ears as being readily consumed, but I suspect many of these are confusing elephant ears with taro. They are very similar looking.

Many folks like to incorporate their landscape with that tropical look. If you are one of those people, elephant ears might be for you.

Elephant ear plant ready for transplanting

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Dill is a useful herb, but many people struggle to grow it


Everyone has eaten dill pickles, by themselves or in salads or sandwiches. Some love them and some may not, but dill (Anethum graveolens) is a spice often overlooked.

Many folks try to grow it in their herb gardens with varied success. One reason many might have problems is that dill plants don’t transplant very well. This herb has a long taproot, and plants with this type of root system usually don’t respond to being moved. It’s usually best to plant them directly from seed.

This is true for many plants, but gardeners, especially beginners like the instant effect of planting seedlings. Success is also much better for cilantro, anise and fennel when they are planted from seed. Basil and oregano transplant easily.

Plant your dill in full sun on moist well-drained soil. Wait until soil temperatures are at least 60 degrees or germination might be poor. Sow the seeds about a quarter inch deep and thin plants to 12-18 inches apart when they are a few inches tall. It’s often advantageous to make successive plantings every two to three weeks to get a constant supply of young healthy plants.

There seems to be a considerable argument as to whether dill is an annual or a perennial herb. It’s an annual, but in mild winters mother plants often return. In harsher winters plants still re-seed themselves readily. Therefore, there is always a constant supply of seedlings, but transplanting can be challenging.

Once established, dill is easy to maintain. Cutting plants back frequently will keep them from going to seed. This will also keep the herb garden looking neat. Plants will grow indoors or in partial shade but are healthier if established in full sun.

Dill is used in countless recipes. Pickles might be what people think about, but it has been one of the most commonly used herbs for centuries. Hundreds of recipes use it. It’s also a great addition to a salad, and I love it in both egg and potato salads.

Both seeds and foliage have that similar dill smell and flavor, but the seeds have a stronger taste. When plants are young, the aroma is like anise.

Nutritionally, dill is loaded with things the body needs. It’s very high in potassium and very low in sodium. It’s also high in calcium, magnesium and fiber. Vitamins A and C are in good supply as are flavonoid antioxidants.

Unlike cilantro, dill is easy to dry and doesn’t lose much of its flavor when dried. If dried and stored in a cool dry place it has a long shelf life.

Aside from culinary uses, dill is an important medicinal herb. It’s included in many holistic medicines to treat a variety of ailments, mostly digestive disorders. It also has been used to lower blood sugar.

Oil from dill plants has antimicrobial properties and is used topically to help heal wounds. It’s also a muscle relaxant and sedative. Dill oil is a mild diuretic, so potentially it could cause dehydration in large amounts. Everything considered, dill is a lot more than pickle flavoring.

young dill seedlings ready to plant

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Remembering a past Mother’s Day


My father passed away last June, so this is my mom’s first Mother’s Day without him. I know it will be difficult for her. They were married for nearly 64 years.

When I was a kid, Mother’s Day usually signaled the beginning of landlocked salmon and brook trout seasons in northeastern Maine. It was also prime fiddlehead time. We usually foraged enough for an army.

I remember one Mother’s Day weekend we went trolling for salmon and my mother tore them up. I was about ten-years-old. Overloaded, we ventured out onto the lake in serious choppy water. Just when we got comfortable, the spray slapped us in the face. The waves bounced us around like crazy in that little 14-foot boat, but nobody got seasick, just cold.

We had a boatful of fishermen, but she was the only one who caught any keepers. Boy, did she tie into them! I think she caught seven legal-sized fish in less than three hours, which any salmon fisherman will tell you is hitting the jackpot.

The rest of us kept changing flies to duplicate the nine-three streamer fly she was using but to no avail. It didn’t matter. She had everyone’s limit. We came back to the dock cold and wet, but I can’t remember many fishing excursions I enjoyed as much as that one. I had another reason to be satisfied. I tied the fly she caught all the fish with.

Mother’s Day morning we let Mom sleep in. She stayed back at camp and we didn’t catch a thing. Still, we had a great Mother’s Day feast. For the next few days, we ate very well. Fresh baked or grilled salmon is hard to top.

That fishing trip was extra special, because my grandfather (her father) had just bought her a new fishing rod and reel and that Mother’s Day weekend was the first time she ever fished with it.

I think it’s important for families to establish their own traditions and not rely on the status quo. For most folks, Mother’s Day is not about fishing or foraging for greens. It’s for giving that special woman a day off and maybe some flowers too. If that’s the case, we might wonder about the most appropriate flowers for this day.

Carnations are the unofficial Mother’s Day flowers. Pink and red are most traditional if she is still living. If she isn’t, we can adorn her monument with white ones or have some at home in memory of her.

The first official Mother’s Day holiday was in 1917. The second Sunday in May became the chosen date, but Mother’s Day isn’t just an American holiday. It’s celebrated in numerous countries all over the world.

My mother is 86 and will be working at her church and at the local museum on this holiday. Nothing seems to slow her down. I won’t be able to be with my mother this Sunday, but I’ll be sure to call her Sunday evening and see if she received her bouquet of red and pink carnations.

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This is a picture of my mom and dad not too long before my dad’s passing.

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Here’s one of my mom, my sister and me back in 1960 or 61.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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All pollen is not created equal


 

I took a relaxing boat ride on the Perquimans river recently and noticed copious amounts of tree pollen floating on the water. I suspect much of it was from bald cypress trees since most loblolly and longleaf pine pollen has been shed already.

Watching these yellow masses flow down the river made me think. There’s a lot of pollen that never hit the target. It also made me realize why some pollen causes more problems than others.

Pollen is the male gamete of plants, just like sperm cells are in animals. Plants can be pollinated in one of three ways. The most common way is by wind, and this is the method that causes most problems for allergy sufferers. Wind-pollinated plants produce huge amounts of pollen that must stay in the air long enough to find a suitable female gamete for reproduction.

Pine pollen and cypress for that matter are more of a cosmetic problem than they are harmful. They are not major allergy causes because the pollen grains are relatively large. Therefore, they don’t stay suspended in the air as long as pollen grains of oaks and grasses. If they aren’t airborne as long, it is less likely they’ll find their way into nasal passages.

In general, wind-pollinated plants are the worst problems for two reasons. First, they usually produce huge amounts of pollen. This pollen also stays suspended in the air. Corn is wind pollinated and if you plant your garden with just a few long rows of corn, you might be greeted with many half-full ears come harvest time.

Wind is just one mechanism pollen is spread. Some is transferred by insects and other pollinating animals. This type of pollination makes it less likely for allergy sufferers to contact the pollen.

Plants that rely on pollinators usually have pollen that is somewhat sticky. This makes it stick to an insect’s body. Remember, an insect’s goal is not to pollinate flowers. The goal is to collect nectar and maybe some pollen too. Pollinating the flowers is just an added benefit for the plant.

Sticky pollen is not likely to wind up in one’s nose. That’s one reason I always shake my head every time I hear people blaming goldenrod for fall allergies when they should be blaming ragweed. Goldenrod flowers are very visible, but their pollen is sticky. Ragweed has less visible flowers, but the pollen is easily airborne and it’s what causes most people’s problems.

A third way plants are pollinated is by self-pollination. Generally, this method is not problematic to allergy sufferers. There’s no free pollen to wind up bothering anyone.

The method is also good for people who like to save their own seeds. If pollen never leaves the flower, we can be pretty sure what the resulting offspring will be. That’s why many old-timers save their heirloom tomato and bean seeds.

There’s a lot more to pollen than that nasty yellow stuff that accumulates on your car. We listen to many misconceptions and false accusations, but pollen is necessary for life.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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