The Fort Knox of Food

In October, I visited the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. This “Fort Knox” of gene banks is part of a system that safeguards the American food supply. In November, I checked out another piece of that system — the Wolfskill Experimental Orchards in Winters, California. Read more about gene banks in my Newsweek feature story, and check out an excerpt below.

Inside the freezer vault at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation.

Inside the freezer vault at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. (Photo by Sena Christian)

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John Preece supervises the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Davis, California. (Photo by Sena Christian)

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One of the many pomegranate varieties grown at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository. (Photo by Sena Christian)

The Fort Knox of Food

In the bowels of an unassuming building in the Colorado Front Range is a vast library of plant and animal material that could keep humanity thriving for centuries to come.

By Sena Christian

In 1948, botanist F.W. Went began a modest experiment that has since grown and grown into what is now a massive science project networked across the globe with ambitions of saving humankind. But its initial goal sought to answer a remarkably simple question: How long do seeds survive?

The year the project launched, Life magazine wrote about the “wonderfully unhurried” experiment intended to last 360 years, complete with a photo of Went, a California Institute of Technology professor at the time, standing behind shelves lined with 2,400 slender glass tubes holding 120 types of dried seeds from California-native plants.

Sixty-seven years later, Went’s seeds reside in a beige multistoried building off the quad of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Its blandness masks the significance of the project it houses. This “Fort Knox” of gene banks—the nickname for the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—is designed to safeguard the American food supply from the numerous threats posed by a rapidly changing planet. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Droughts, floods, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and the resulting hunger, malnutrition and mass displacement of people will likely become more severe in coming years because of climate change. And though poor people in developing countries will be on the front lines, even wealthier nations like the U.S. are going to have to come to terms with the urgent need for action.

Additionally, the world is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate. Many believe Earth has entered its sixth mass extinction: a human-induced and accelerated decline of animal and plant species of massive proportions. What remains needs to be kept alive and available for breeding. Otherwise, the material could be lost forever—and when crop and livestock diversity is lost, so is our food supply’s resiliency to environmental threats. We can’t let that happen because the world’s population is projected to increase to nearly 10 billion by 2050. And that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Closing the ‘Adventure Gap’ by Getting Inner City Kids Outdoors

I’m so happy that my piece on the adventure gap has finally found a home with Earth Island Journal! Read an excerpt below. And check out this photo taken by Sonya Doctorian during a rafting trip with cityWILD in Denver, when I totally almost died.

Only a few minutes before, I’d been pleasantly surprised at how easy I’d found rafting to be on this, my first time doing the activity in 33 years of life. I’m in the front, peering back out of the corner of my eye to Doctorian, who’s been tasked with setting our pace.

I'm on the left, trying to maneuver through a rapid in the South Platte River in Denver on a rafting trip in May (Photo by Sonya Doctorian).

I’m on the left, trying to maneuver through a rapid (Photo by Sonya Doctorian).

We bunker our heads down as we approach the first set of rapids, Nicastro directing our maneuvers. I clench my lips tight and paddle hard, exhibiting laser-vision focus on the task at hand, when suddenly, my butt slipped. I’m sitting too close to the edge. Too late now to reposition, our raft tipping as we whirl backward. My butt slips and then slips again until nothing is underneath but dirty, city river water, probably rife with all strains of Hepatitis. My ankle hangs precariously on the raft’s edge, causing my head to sink below the water. I reach up to release my foot then grab ahold of the chicken line around the boat’s perimeter. Sonya and Elise extend their arms as I grip my paddle. They heave ho me up to safety (Sonya, later: “The classic photojournalist’s dilemma: help or photograph? Easy decision.”). I pat the top of my head, indicating to the lead guide in another raft that I’m fine; the two other rafts, filled with cityWILD kids, had paddled furiously over to provide assistance.

“Kevin fell out too!” Sonya shouts, above the ruckus of the moving river. His head surfaces about 10 yards behind us. With Nicastro back aboard, I’m laughing inside in a delirious, adrenaline-drunk way, seeing the look of bewilderment on the faces of these kids staring at this inept woman who fell overboard on the very first rapid. I’ll never be as good at rafting as them, I think. It makes me really happy, for them, to realize that. And I’m willing to bet most of them will love rafting for the rest of their lives.

Now, here’s that excerpt:

Colorado Outfit Works to Close the ‘Adventure Gap’ by Getting Inner City Kids Outdoors

America’s wild places need urban youth and minorities to get interested and invested in nature

By Sena Christian

Students scurry around the decrepit warehouse, pulling up the legs of their waterproof pants and zipping up splash jackets, strapping on life vests and organizing themselves into two river-rafting teams. This isn’t just a typical summer afternoon at cityWILD in Denver, Colorado. This is race day, when the kids will demonstrate their abilities on the water with speed and technical skill. They’ll have a three-mile stretch to strut their stuff, and the South Platte River is flowing abnormally high today — running at 2,320 cubic feet per second instead of the usual 800, following a week of steady rain and snowmelt.

Anticipation builds, prompting the program director Kevin Nicastro to issue reminders about sportsmanship. “We don’t normally do competitions like this. There will be people who win and people who lose today. So I want you to strategize how you want to win, and how you want to lose,” Nicastro tells the students, who don’t look like the typical whitewater rafters. Most are multi-ethnic and come from poor neighborhoods in northeast Denver where violent crime and gang-related activity are rampant. Since 1998, cityWILD has been getting these kids out of the concrete jungle and on camping, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and snowshoeing trips. The nonprofit recognizes that starting with youth is key because when kids play around in the outdoors they tend to carry this enthusiasm into adulthood.

Students with cityWILD had spent the month before their big May race learning how to raft the South Platte River, which flows through downtown Denver past homeless encampments, an REI outlet, an amusement park and Sports Authority Field at Mile High where the Broncos play. On race day, 18-year-old Tim Smith paddles a raft confidently through rapids. He joined cityWILD as a seventh grader and by the time he was 14 years old had achieved the status of a junior raft guide, meaning he could help lead excursions. Now he’s about 6-feet tall and a high school graduate with a firm handshake, and preparing to enter the US Army National Guard.

“Before I became a student here, I had no experience (with nature),” Smith tells me. “I went walking once in awhile with my grandma, but that wasn’t really hiking. I went way out with cityWILD to places with no city lights, no cars within a mile.” The organization also paid for him to attend a month-long National Outdoor Leadership School program in Wyoming.

Youth come to the organization primarily from school referrals, outreach at community events and word-of-mouth. These youth are marginalized, whether socially, culturally or behaviorally, some with tumultuous home lives, others who have survived violence. Most have never gone on a trip with their families, says cityWILD executive director Jes Ward. Over spring break, several students camped in Moab, Utah.

… Read the rest of the article here …

A Visit to Where the U.S. Government Keeps Confiscated Animal Parts

I’m taking a departure from my agriculture reporting to showcase an article I wrote on the illegal wildlife trade for Newsweek. In February, Ted Scripps Fellows visited the repository at the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver, Colorado to learn about trafficking and see up close and personal the many products and dead animals seized by law enforcement in this global trade. Here’s an excerpt from my article:

A rug made out of a lion at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge repository in Colorado.

A rug made out of a lion at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge repository in Colorado.

Where the U.S. Government Keeps Confiscated Animal Parts

By Sena Christian

When visitors to the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver enter the 16,000-square-foot warehouse and see the full array of dead animals and products kept within, they tend to stop short, open their eyes wide and utter something that suggests shock and awe. “Whoa” seems to be a popular choice.

“I always like to see people’s faces when they turn the corner,” repository supervisor Coleen Schaefer tells a group of visitors on a warm day in February. She’s part of the office of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which confiscated all of these products from the illegal wildlife trade and brought them to the repository, situated inside the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

Outside the repository, snowcapped mountains rise up in the distance. Throughout the year, deer, coyotes, burrowing owls, bison and a few hundred other creatures roam the 15,000 acres. Once an Army weapons factory and then a manufacturing plant for pesticides and herbicides, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal underwent a massive environmental cleanup and was designated as a refuge in 1992. The cleanup finished in 2010.

Inside, visitors come face-to-face with more than 1.5 million specimens in the repository—the only one of its kind in the United States. The sheer volume is, Schaefer says, “mind-boggling.” There are palettes of sea-turtle-skin boots, fur coats, taxidermied tigers, exotic birds, coral stolen from the ocean and rows and rows of reptiles from Mexico and South America. There are curios—turtle paperweights, bookends made of zebra feet and footstools crafted from elephant feet. Tiny seahorses packed tightly into plastic bags will never reach their intended destination in Southeast Asia for use as traditional medicine. Shelves stock the heads of tigers and jaguars, their mouths open in a perpetual roar.

Schaefer motions to a small item on a table across from the heads. “Probably the saddest thing is the tiger fetus carved out of its mother, stuffed for someone to put on a shelf,” she says.

… read the rest of the article here …

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Don’t get too excited, but here we have the third article in my series on alternative farming and food systems, which I’m working on as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism in Colorado. And you can expect my fourth article to publish within the coming weeks. I’ve been one busy bee! My first piece was on the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal. Next up: efforts to encourage military veterans to become farmers, written for Newsweek. My latest article is on the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol and its role in the food-versus-fuel debate for EIJ. Wham bam, thank you ma’am! Here’s an excerpt:

Michael Crowley, a senior scientist with the Chemical and Biosciences Center at NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Michael Crowley, a scientist with the NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Ongoing efforts to commercialize this clean energy source may lead the US to a more independent energy future

By Sena Christian

For a long time it seemed like turning the inedible parts of plants into a commercially viable biofuel, known as cellulosic ethanol, was nothing more than a pipedream. The enzymes needed to release sugars from cellulose — the fiber that forms plant structure — to be fermented into ethanol were inefficient and expensive. And the cellulose found in virtually every plant, flower, tree, grass, and bush is by its very nature evolved to withstand decay.

Ethanol can be derived from sugar-based, corn-based, and cellulose-based materials. In Brazil, sugarcane is the feedstock of choice, while in the United States that designation goes to corn. The starch in corn kernels easily converts into simple sugars, with the enzyme catalyzing this process costing a mere .03-cents per gallon; the sugars are then fermented into alcohol (additives make it undrinkable). Because of the relatively low cost, corn-based ethanol has been meeting America’s demand for an alternative fuel source, especially as people drive less and fuel economy improves.

Why even bother with cellulosic ethanol? For one, there’s the questionable carbon footprint of corn ethanol, which, depending on how it is produced, can be significantly better or significantly worse than that of petroleum. Greenhouse-gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol, on the other hand, are estimated to be roughly 86 percent lessthan petroleum sources. And using cellulosic materials doesn’t create a food-versus-fuel scenario. Ramping up production of the biofuel could reduce the nation’s reliance on imported oil. In 2012, the US imported about 40 percent of the petroleum it consumed, nearly three-quarters of which fueled transportation around the country. The US government also spends millions of dollars on military support to keep oil shipping lanes open; money that could go toward domestic needs instead.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Way High Up

The Ted Scripps Fellows recently walked the alpine tundra at Niwot Ridge in the Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado, reaching an elevation of 11,300 feet.

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Alpine tundra in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

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Fellows, at an elevation of 11,300, learned about the work of the Mountain Research Station

Fellows at Niwot Ridge in Colorado.

Fellows at Niwot Ridge in Colorado.

 

My Upcoming Adventure

It’s official! I’ve been named a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism. I’ll be in Boulder, Colorado, reporting on the growth of small-scale sustainable farms in the American west and their role in transforming domestic food systems. Here’s the press release with information on my fellow, um, fellows.

Boulder, Colorado. Beautiful!