Margaret Lauterbach

Spuds that grow in saltwater gain interest

These Russet Burbank potatoes from J.R. Simplot Co. were grown in fresh water. Someday, the nutritious tuber – a staple food worldwide – could be even more plentiful, if an experiment proves a success.
These Russet Burbank potatoes from J.R. Simplot Co. were grown in fresh water. Someday, the nutritious tuber – a staple food worldwide – could be even more plentiful, if an experiment proves a success. NYT

A bright spot in human food future is the discovery of potatoes that grow in salty soil and that can even thrive watered with sea water. They’re being grown on one of the northern islands of the Netherlands, an island called Texel. An elderly Dutch farmer who is knowledgeable about thousands of potato varieties helped a farmer inspired by sea cabbage and the Free University in Amsterdam grow such a conventional crop (that is, not genetically altered) watered by sea water, winning the prestigious U.S. Aid grand challenge award last year, according to “The Guardian.” There were 560 competitors from 90 countries vying for the award.

They shipped seed potatoes from that winning crop to Pakistan and Bangladesh, areas where the sea is rising, flooding agricultural areas.

Most of the water on earth is salty sea water, and as polar ice melts, its encroachment on land increases. Does the salt water make the potatoes salty? Researchers claim that the salt mainly stops in the leaves of the plants, not affecting the tubers.

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Yet what is the status of our food future? It’s a question that nags at me time and again. Congress and the U.S. administration believe Monsanto’s claim that only genetically modified crops will feed a growing world. If genetic modification produces larger crops or crops at less cost than non-GM crops, I haven’t seen any evidence online to support that belief.

So-called “super weeds” that resist the killing effect of Roundup have forced development of new herbicides such as Dicamba to control weeds and probably humans, since it’s also carcinogenic. Studies I’ve seen indicate genetically modified (GM) food crop production costs are higher than those for organic crops due to increased need for chemical pesticides. Some destructive insects adapt to pesticides, passing on that avoidance to their offspring, becoming “super bugs,” requiring even more pesticides in fields where beneficial insects are absent or few.

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Also on the food front, there is serious concern about a worldwide contamination of the herb basil with downy mildew. I haven’t seen it in my garden, but many in other parts of this country have since 2007, and in Canada since 2011. The disease kills the plants, and is visible as a whitish powder on the leaves. The Canadian herb experts at Richters say “there are no effective organic treatments for it” but a cultivar named Eleonora is resistant to the disease. Loss of this flavorful herb would be a major blow to our food future.

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Honey bees are some of the most beneficial insects on this planet, responsible for about 80 percent of all insect pollination, but they’re under assault by numerous predators including varroa and tracheal mites, other parasites, viral diseases and now the parasitic Phorid fly (Apocephalus borealis) is attacking honey bees in the U.S.

Honey bees are not native to America, but were imported by settlers in the 17th century. Phorid flies are native to this continent, formerly known to parasitize bumble bees. Now they’ve been found to turn honey bees into zombies (some calling them “zom-bees”) in the northeastern part of the U.S. and the West Coast. Parasitized bees leave their hives at night and die soon afterward.

Beekeepers understandably are watching out for those destructive flies. One person in postal zone 83706 in Boise is reported to be monitoring them, but as far as I can learn they’ve not been found parasitizing honey bees here yet. Honey bees are not the only insect pollinators of our food, but they’re the most efficient.

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War of course is threatening our entire future, not just food. In Gary Paul Nabhan’s book, “Where Our Food Comes From,” he writes that prior to the heralded American invasion of Iraq, scientists had boxed up the most valuable and unique seeds in the Iraq seed vault, some even from Mesopotamian times, and shipped them for safekeeping from the suburb of Abu Ghraib to Aleppo, Syria. I hope they were moved again before Aleppo became a target for the world’s bombers and the ISIL vandals.

There are seed repositories in many parts of the world, but there has been a concerted effort to gather the world’s seeds in an icy vault at Svalbard, an island north of Norway. In the event of a world calamity, the only people who could get seeds from Svalbard are those people who deposited seeds there. Provided they can get there to receive the seeds. Syrian officials have already asked for some of their seeds to be returned.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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