Permaculture – my final thoughts

We’ve had some good, vigorous discussion about permaculture, specifically around the book Gaia’s Garden.  I’ve pointed out some problems with the author’s understanding of relevant plant and soil sciences and will wrap up this week with a look at the glossary and bibliography.

Glossary

The glossary contains a number of scientific-sounding words and phrases with unscientific definitions; for example:

“Buffer plants: Plants placed between guilds or between allelopathic species. They should be compatible with the trees in each guild and should have a positive effect on one or both of the guilds to be linked.” (“Buffer plants” is a phrase legitimately used in ecological restoration where plantings separate wetlands or other natural areas from human activity.)

“Guild: A harmoniously interwoven group of plants and animals, often centered around one major species, that benefits humans while creating habitat.” (The term “guild” is ecological and refers to groups of species that exploit the same types of resources.  It has been hijacked and redefined for permaculture.)

“Narcissistic: Plants that thrive on the leaf litter of members of their own family, such as the Solanaceae, or nightshade family.” (In this case, this is an unscientific term given a scientific-sounding – but nonsensical – definition.)

“Polycultures: Dynamic, self-organizing plant communities composed of several to many species.” (Polyculture is an agricultural term referring to the planting of multiple crops. It’s a cultural strategy in Integrated Pest Management.)

“Sectors: Areas where outside energies such as wind, sun, fire and so forth enter a site. These energies can be mitigated, captured, or otherwise influenced by placement of elements in the design.”

Bibliography

There are only two books I would consider scientific; one soils textbook from 1996 and the other is Odum’s classic text Fundamentals of Ecology (1971). I’m disappointed in how scarce and dated these references are, given the wealth of more recent articles and books that are both relevant to urban gardens and scientifically sound.

The bibliography also includes many books on design and I’m not including them in this critique. Of those that remain, the bulk are nonscientific and in many cases pseudoscientific. Examples of the latter include The Albrecht Papers (Albrecht, 1996), Weeds and What They Tell (Pfeiffer, 1981).

And this last criticism embodies what permeates much of Gaia’s Garden: pseudoscience. In the glossary, we see scientific-sounding terms or definitions that are ultimately meaningless or incorrect. Furthermore, we see scientifically legitimate terms such as guild used incorrectly. Both of these practices are characteristics of a pseudoscience.

I think this is unfortunate. I’ve mentioned before that I agree with much of the philosophy behind permaculture. But dressing up this philosophy as science both misleads nonexperts and alienates scientists.

So here’s a challenge – why not write a new book on permaculture and collaborate with a scientist? (I know a few who are writers!)

Do Organophosphates cause ADHD?

Ever since Monday’s post I’ve been preoccupied thinking about that article which was mentioned in the comments section by Daniel http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/05/17/pesticides.adhd/index.html?iref=allsearch . This article basically summarized a study that seemed to show that ADHD in children was related to exposure to organophosphate insecticides.

Articles like this appear all of the time in mainstream media and they scare the bejezus out of us because, after reading them, we end up thinking “Holy crap! We’re killing ourselves and ruining our society with these insane chemicals!” Most of the time, however, this just isn’t the case.  Look, if everything that the papers reported about the negative effects of pesticides and other chemicals was true we’d all have cancer, mental illness, or we’d just be dead.

After the above you’re probably telling yourself that I’m some kind of maniacal chemical apologist.  Maybe I am, but I don’t think so.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading the actual articles from which these media pieces are written and I like to think I have a relatively balanced view of these chemicals – maybe I’m deluding myself though – I’ve been known to do that on occasion.  In any regard, what I’m going to do with this blog post is to take a look at the media article and let you know some of the questions that I want answered before I get very concerned about the research, and by answered I mean answered by the scientific article from which the media piece was derived.  Now, to be fair, I have not read the actual scientific article from which this media piece was derived.  It isn’t online as I’m writing this (at least nowhere that I can find it), though I have no doubt that it will be soon.  I suppose that I could have waited to write this until it came out, in fact I considered that idea carefully, but instead I thought that I would tell you about the things that I’m wondering about the article; In other words, the things that I’ll be looking for when I finally get to read it.  Media people want POW!  Scientists want to know what’s actually going on.

Before we begin I should tell you that I’m no fan of organophosphates.  They include a wide range of chemicals (though they are, obviously, all related in that they’re organic chemicals with phosphorus), some worse than others – from the relatively tame orthene and malathion to the scary-as-hell disulfoton (aka disyston).  Right now, as an extension specialist who works with growers, I can tell you that organophosphate chemicals are, in general, not a preferred choice for most growers simply because there are so many safer and more effective choices out there.  My feelings about organophosphates can best be summed up by what I wrote in my book The Truth About Organic Gardening “[Organophosphates] are an old class of insecticides that has served its purpose and for the most part should probably go the way of the dodo, with the possible exception of orthene and one or two others.”

So here we go, the things that I will be looking for when I read the actual scientific article:

1.  What’s the confidence interval?  In the media article it was stated that children with higher levels of organophosphates were about two times more likely to have ADHD, but no confidence interval was given.  In epidemiological studies such as this the likelihood of a given outcome is usually expressed as an odds ratio.  In this case the odds ratio that a child would develop ADHD given a high level of organophosphate exposure would be about 2 (because it would be 2 times as likely that a child would develop ADHD as it would be if the child weren’t exposed to the organophosphates).  But in a scientific article the odds ratio will always be coupled with a confidence interval.  A confidence interval tells you how confident you are in your odds ratio.  If you’re very confident then you’ll have a narrow confidence interval – maybe 1.8-2.2 — which means that it is 95% certain that the odds ratio is between 1.8 and 2.2 (the 2.0 odds ratio is basically just the most likely point on the confidence interval for the odds ratio to sit.  It’s kind of like, but not exactly the same as, an average).  For an epidemiological study that’s darn good.  If that’s the confidence interval present in the article then I’ll be impressed.  What we might find though is a confidence interval of something like 0.2 to 22.  That stinks and you’re deluding yourself if you think that a confidence interval like this “proves” anything – unfortunately I have seen plenty of media articles use research with confidence intervals such as this because of the POW! factor.  They ignore the confidence interval and just look at the odds ratio.  My guess is that this article has something in between the two confidence intervals which I listed above – we’ll see.

2.  I want to know how often urine was sampled.
Organophosphates move through the body very quickly.  In fact, I was recently reading a paper which showed that you can’t predict from one test time to the next what organophosphate readings will be because there’s so little consistency.  If you’re exposed to an organophosphate one day you may test high that day, but two days later you’ll be testing low again, so, I want to know if a single sample was done – which I would consider to be almost useless in terms of telling us actual organophosphate exposure – or if multiple samples were taken over time which I would consider to be much more useful.

3.  Did the organophosphate really come from food?  The implication that these organophosphates which, in theory, contributed to the onset of ADHD came from food bugs me.  I want to see if the author actually draws this conclusion in the paper or if it was made up by the media.  There are lots of places that organophosphates are and have been used, the singling out of fruits, vegetables, or any food seems ridiculous to me.  The author of the media article points out that organophosphates are not used around homes much – but that really isn’t the case and it certainly wasn’t the case just a few short years ago. There are still plenty of organophosphates being used quite regularly around homes.  I just did a search for orthene and malathion and found that I could buy them quite easily online.  Diazinon and chlorpyrifos are two others that shouldn’t be used by homeowners but which I know of people using – sometimes in heavily trafficked areas.

4.  I’d like to know about how the other potential contributors to ADHD were controlled.  There are other things that have been correlated with ADHD, how were these controlled so we know they weren’t the cause of the ADHD measured in this experiment?  For example, abused or neglected children seem to have a higher rate of ADHD, how was this taken into account in the study?  Was it taken into account?  A theory would be (and I’m totally making this up) what if abused children are fed more food with higher rates of organophosphates while non-abused children are fed more organic food.  Then the results would show that the neglected kids had higher ADHD and higher organophosphates – but was it the poor parenting or the organophosphates which caused the ADHD?

So, those are the four questions that I’ll be asking right off – and there are more that I’ll think of once I actually read the article.  All of these questions don’t mean that I think the article is bad though – regardless of what their answers are.  This research was probably well conducted and will enlighten scientists and lead to new avenues of research.  But, I’m willing to bet that the POW! from the media article (ADHD is caused by eating organophosphates on food) isn’t quite as powerful when the whole article is read with a more critical eye.

Permaculture – more concerns

One of the gardening topics I’ve researched extensively is the use of landscape mulches.  (You can read a literature review I did a few years ago here.)  So I was more than a little frustrated to see one of the worst mulching techniques – sheet mulching – extolled in the book Gaia’s Garden (pp. 85-90).

Sheet mulches, like newspaper and cardboard, can be used successfully as a temporary weed control measure (i.e. a few weeks before planting a vegetable garden).  Long term, they are not a sustainable choice and often cause more damage to the system than the presence of weeds.

The two-dimensional structure of sheet mulches functions as a barrier to not only weeds but to the movement of air and water as well.  While this may initially increase soil water retention since evaporation is reduced, over the long term they will create soils that are unnaturally dry.  This condition is worsened on low-maintenance sites,where neglected sheet mulches easily dry out, causing rainfall or irrigation water to sheet away rather than percolate through.

In contrast, wet, poorly drained soils will become even more so as layers of moist paper or cardboard restrict evaporation and aeration.  Moreover, this condition encourages root growth on top of the sheet mulch, which can injure desirable plants when and if the sheet mulch is removed.

There are other disadvantages as well.  Exposed newspaper and cardboard mulches are easily dislodged by the wind, animals and pedestrians and often provide food for termites and shelter for rodents such as voles.  Combined with a somewhat marginal ability to control weeds compared to other organic mulches, sheet mulches are arguably one of the least attractive or effective choices for a sustainable landscape.

Sheet mulching proponents will argue that newspaper and cardboard are only part of the mulch structure – that organic materials such as compost and wood chips need to be added as well.  To which I respond – then why bother with the sheet mulch?  Why not just use deep layers of coarse organic materials?  That’s exactly what forest duff layers consist of.  It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that thick layers of coarse organic materials are the best and most natural choices for mulching.  (See, for instance, my  Ecological Restoration article on using a foot of arborist wood chips to suppress blackberry and enhance native plantings. )

The appeal of sheet mulching is its formulaic structure and logical approach – it’s like making lasagna (the name of yet another nonscientific approach to mulching).  Unfortunately, sheet mulching is neither natural nor particularly effective.

Permaculture – the discussion continues

We’ve started a robust discussion on the topic of permaculture, especially as applied to home gardens.  Let’s continue looking at some of the advice provided in Gaia’s Garden targeted towards home gardeners.

The book contains several lists of plants suggested for specific functions.  For brevity’s sake, I’ll just mention two:

“Host plants for Beneficial Insects” (pp. 157-159)
This list is prefaced in the text with “many of these florae are very attractive and can (and should!) be included even in the most formal garden bed.”  With this strong endorsement, the author then presents an unsourced list of plants, several of which are identified as noxious weeds in many states in the country.  They include Washington noxious weeds false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), toadflax (Linaria vulgaris), cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), sulfur groundsel (Senecio vulgare), and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).

“Dynamic Nutrient Accumulators” (pp. 131-134)
We are told “certain species draw specific nutrients from deep in the soil and concentrate them in their leaves” and given an extensive table of these plants and exactly which nutrients they accumulate. The references for this table are not scientific, and in at least two cases are mystical in nature (Cocannouer’s Weeds: Guardians of the Soil and Pfeiffer’s Weeds and What They Tell).  As in the previous table, many of these plants are designated noxious weeds in Washington or other states and include nodding thistle (Carduus nutans), Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), toadflax (Linaria vulgaris), creeping thistle (Sonchus arvense), and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).

As readers of this blog know by now, we GPs are not “plant purists.”  But it is highly irresponsible to encourage people to plant listed noxious weeds in their gardens.  Even the author seems to understand this, and states (on page 15) that “it is foolish to deliberately introduce a species known to be locally opportunistic.”  It’s mystifying, then, that he does exactly that in these two tables.

The inclusion of the table of “dynamic nutrient accumulators” demonstrates that this book tends to wander far afield of the philosophical roots of permaculture.  It is an excellent example of pseudoscience, as it creates a scientific-sounding phrase (“dynamic nutrient accumulator”) and misleads non-experts into believing a scientific claim (nutrient accumulation of specific minerals) without providing actual supporting data.

Thieves purr

Today I found a cool website – it’s an anagram generator (http://wordsmith.org/anagram/).  The title of today’s post is the first of the 553 anagrams generated from the word SUPERthrive.

I’ve been getting free samples of SUPERthrive for a long, long time.   For those of you living on a remote desert island, SUPERthrive is a product invented and sold by “Dr. John A. A. Thomson (in 27 different title Who’s Who Directories),” according to one of the promotional flyers.  The same flyer features Nick Federoff (“ ‘Most Listened-to’ Radio Garden Expert”), who says of Dr. Thomson “he has saved far more trees than anyone else in the world.”

Space constraints and my patience limit how many of the product claims I can include.  Here’s one from the package:  “Dozens of the world’s science miracles in each drop!”  Well, what are these science miracles?  The only identified compounds on the label are Vitamin B-1 (which plants make themselves, and which I’ve written about here), and NAA, an artificial auxin used as a rooting hormone.   The rest are mysteriously referred to as “crystalline compounds of C, H, O.”

Since this product has been around since 1940, there should be plenty of documented research on its efficacy.  But thorough searches of the plant science databases turned up only two:  one on growing hydroponic orchids (where SUPERthrive is used as part of the experimental protocol but not as a treatment) and one on rooting stem cuttings of Intsia bijuga, an Indo-Pacific tree in the pea family.  Sadly, SUPERthrive was not as effective in promoting rooting as were traditional rooting hormones (IBA and NAA).  An online research report from TAMU found SUPERthrive to have no effect on cotton.  Even California Science Fair participant Chingiz R. Bigalimov was disappointed that SUPERthrive did not enhance rooting of narcissus bulbs.

Why would Dr. Thomson, who “by 1979 had received a Ph.D in biochemistry and nutrition, and a Doctor of Arts in biochemistry and horticulture,” claim that SUPERthrive is a “billions-proven extra-life-maker” without the science to back this up?   I tried to find more information on Dr. Thomson’s doctoral research at Columbia Pacific University (an unaccredited distance learning school in California), but it had been closed by court order in 2000 for, among other things, failing to employ duly qualified faculty and failing to meet various requirements for issuing PhD degrees.

I think all of us GPs would agree that if you like a product and it causes no harm, more power to you.  But please consider these last few caveats, especially if you are a Master Gardener or garden professional:

  • There is no established science supporting the use of SUPERthrive;
  • NAA is an artificial rooting hormone classified by the EPA as a pesticide, making SUPERthrive an unregistered pesticide.  Some states ban the sale of this product.

Think I’ll go play with the anagram maker some more…

Water droplets and burned leaves, continued

A few weeks ago (January 20 – “Help, help, the sky is falling”) I started a discussion about an article appearing in the peer-reviewed journal New Phytologist.  That posting focused on the methodology and results in the paper.  Today let’s take a look at the authors’ underlying arguments (their introduction to the study) and their conclusions.

1)  The authors’ premise is that “laymen and professionals alike commonly believe water drops on plants after rain or watering can cause leaf burn in sunshine.”  To support this statement, the authors surveyed “relevant topical websites.”  They found 29 sites (primarily .org and .com, but no .edu sites) that agreed with this statement and 9 sites (including 4 .edu sites) that disagreed.  How this translates to “professionals” believing that water drops cause sunburned leaves is unclear, especially when all the .edu sites surveyed disagreed.  In my opinion, the authors should have surveyed ONLY .edu sites to test their hypothesis about what professionals believe.  And why only 38 sites?  We’re not told how or why these sites were selected.

2)  Building on this shaky premise, the authors then address the apparently popular concern that water drops can cause forest fires.  They survey “the forestry literature” to find “the prevailing opinion is that forest fires can be sparked by intense sunlight focused by water drops on dried-out vegetation (Table S3).”  Table S3 is not included in the online article but is in a supplementary file.  Happily, it is short enough that I can paste it in here (so you can find the sites yourself):

Table S3 Survey of websites discussing the possibility of forest fires due to sunlight focused by water drops. We posed the question: “Can sunlit water drops spark forest fires?” The rate of the ’yes’ answer was 3 / 3 = 100%.

URL

Title of article

Answer

yes

no

http://fotozz.hu/fotot_megmutat?Foto_ID=30936

Forest fire and water drops

+

 

http://mek.oszk.hu/01200/01214/01214.pdf

Radó (2001) Role of vegetation in protection of the environment

+

 

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Whether_presence_of_water_cause_forest_fire

Whether presence of water cause forest fire?

+

 

I must say this took my breath away.  This is not a survey of the “forestry literature.”  It is 3 websites, two in Hungarian and one in English, chosen for unknown reasons.  The first site is actually a stock photo website with comments about pictures of water drops on leaves.  The second is entirely in Hungarian and is not in the scientific databases.  The third is in English, and here’s what “wiki answers” has to say:

“When I was a youngster and could not afford a magnifying glass, I would twist a piece of wire around a pencil so that it formed a round piece at the end of the wire. I would then dip the rounded end into water so that a blob of water made a very small magnifying glass. I suspect that when it has rained this same effect is left on leaves, millions of tiny magnifying glasses all concentrating the suns rays onto what they happen to land on. Just one tiny focal point of a rain drop could possibly generate enough heat to start a fire.  Robert”

[Note to the editors at New Phytologist:  What I really want to know is how this kind of junk science can slip through peer review.  It is embarrassing.]

3)  The authors (none of them plant scientists) nevertheless address plant ecophysiology in the discussion:  “If, after rain, leaf blades were covered by a water film, they could not breathe, because gas exchange through the stomata would be blocked…To avoid this, plants evolved efficient water-repelling and water-channeling structures which build up and roll off rain drops. For example, water drops easily roll off the highly hydrophobic leaves of lotus, Ginkgo (Fig. 2b), and floating fern (Fig. 3b,c) if leaves are tilted or shaken.”

Two comments here:  the stomata through which terrestrial plants “breathe” are primarily on the underside of the leaves.  It is true that floating aquatic plants have most of the stomata on the upper leaf surface.  Which leads me to ask…if water drops easily roll off of floating fern leaves, then how did the researchers do the following?  “…the experiment was concluded by cutting and scanning several Salvinia leaves – still holding water drops – in the laboratory in order to document their sunburn.”

4)  The conclusion of a research article, as any Garden Professor knows, is meant to summarize the results of the experiment.  Yet the last paragraph of the conclusion reads as follows:  “Lastly, a similar phenomenon might occur when water droplets accumulate on dry vegetation (e.g. straw, hay, fallen leaves, parched grass, brush-wood) after rain. If the focal region of drops falls exactly on the dry plant surface, the intensely focused sunlight could theoretically spark a fire. However, the likelihood of this is considerably reduced by the fact that after rain the originally dry vegetation becomes wet, and as it dries water drops also evaporate. Thus, claims of fires induced by sunlit water drops on vegetation should also be treated with a grain of salt.”

Even though the authors seem to discount the possibility of these scenarios, they did NOT test the ability of water drops to cause combustion.  This speculation really belongs in the discussion, if anywhere at all.  So why is does it make up 50% of the conclusion?  The cynic in me says it’s because 90% of the people looking at this article will read only the abstract and the conclusion – and this is especially true of nonscientists.  It’s a great way to get immediate attention, even with a complete lack of supporting evidence.

Don’t believe me?  Just type in “water drops cause forest fires” without the quotes into Google.  146,000 hits, and all the top ones reference this article.