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)

JohnPreece

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

Pomegranate

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 …

What Happens to the Animals When the Circus Leaves Town?

My latest article for Newsweek about “What Happens to the Animals When the Circus Leaves Town?” is now online. Read an excerpt below:

Lions Rey and Simba are among 33 lions rescued by Animal Defenders International as part of its Operation Spirit of Freedom. (Photo courtesy Animal Defenders International/Rex Shutterstock/AP)

Lions Rey and Simba are among 33 lions rescued by Animal Defenders International as part of its Operation Spirit of Freedom. (Photo courtesy Animal Defenders International/Rex Shutterstock/AP)

What Happens to the Animals When the Circus Leaves Town?

By Sena Christian

Smith was destined for execution. The lion had already been castrated, declawed, separated from his mate, Amazonas, and caged with another male’s offspring. He was agitated. Then one day in August 2014, during a circus performance in Peru, as he sat perched on a pedestal above a spectator’s head, which was lowered, exposing the back of her neck, the trainer commanded Smith to jump, and his natural instinct prevailed. He pounced on the audience member, grabbing her in his jaws and dragging her around the ring until a handler beat Smith into submission and forced him back into a cage.

The spectator survived, but the incident triggered an outcry for the lion to be euthanized, says Tim Phillips, vice president of Animal Defenders International. His group countered by pointing out how it was people, not Smith, who had acted recklessly and violated a law banning wild animals in circuses. ADI successfully pleaded with Peruvian authorities for Smith’s life to be spared and, with law enforcement’s help, the group returned a few days later to seize the lion from Circo de Monaco. “The world would be appalled if a lion is effectively murdered for what comes naturally when it was human beings and the circus being completely irresponsible and stupid,” Phillips says.

In addition to Smith, 32 lions and about 60 other animals have been recovered from circuses in Peru and Colombia over the past year—following bans on the use of animals in circuses in those countries—as part of ADI’s Operation Spirit of Freedom. In some cases, the organization and the Peruvian government worked together to accept and relocate recovered animals, while other times they had to free the animals from circuses that refused to let them go. The rescue portion of the nearly $1.7 million operation was completed this July.

But freedom isn’t enough. These animals need an adequate place to spend the rest of their lives, and one that’s not “in the wild.” Animal activists can expect to encounter this challenge more often as governments continue to crack down on the use of animals in circuses; 40 nations have now outlawed this practice to some degree. (In the U.S., circuses are allowed to use wild animals in acts, though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 provides some minimum standards for the care of animals in traveling exhibits.) The stakes are high: Without a rescue group such as ADI assisting with logistics, these animals would likely be euthanized or put in zoos possibly without the infrastructure to accommodate them, or bans would simply go unenforced by overwhelmed authorities.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Farming Could Save Veterans, and Vice Versa

Here is the second article in my series on alternative farming and food systems. My first article was on the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal. This time I focus on military veterans and farming for Newsweek. Here’s an excerpt:

Evan Premer, a 15-year veteran of the Army National Guard, grows food in a greenhouse for his business, Dirtless Farm, in Colorado. Becoming a farmer has helped Premer manage his PTSD. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Evan Premer, an Army National Guard veteran, grows food in a greenhouse for his business, Dirtless Farm, in Colorado. Becoming a farmer has helped Premer manage his PTSD. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Farmers Could Save Veterans, and Vice Versa

By Sena Christian

Mornings are the hardest for Evan Premer, although nights aren’t much easier. His sleep, wracked with nightmares of war and violence, has no consistent pattern, so he often wakes up feeling tired and overwhelmed. But he does have a game plan for feeling better: Once he rises from bed, he hits the road, turning up the music in his Jeep on his drive to a greenhouse in the small town of Firestone, Colorado. Here he feels more relaxed, listening as water hydrates his plants. There are no cubicle walls or phones ringing or colleagues arguing. This is the office that works for him.

Premer, who is now 36, served 15 years in the military, most recently as a Colorado Army National Guardsman in Iraq. In basic training, he and his fellow soldiers were taught to only show strength. “You never let the enemy see your weaknesses,” he says. “And that’s why I’m so broken today.” When Premer returned from the Middle East in 2007, he studied photography in college for a while. But the strobes and flashing lights he had to use triggered bad memories of his time in war, so he gave it up.

Richard Murphy is program manager of the nonprofit Veterans to Farmers in Colorado. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Richard Murphy is program manager of Veterans to Farmers in Colorado. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Premer manages his post-traumatic stress disorder by growing food. About two years ago, he and his mother started a business, now called Dirtless Farm, growing microgreens, baby greens and culinary herbs for local restaurants. Premer had previously trained at Circle Fresh Farms in Denver, which is run by an ex-Marine, Buck Adams, who also founded the nonprofit Veterans to Farmers. At Circle Fresh, Premer learned about aeroponic production, a space-saving system where vegetables are grown out of vertical towers year-round, with no soil and little water. He can grow all sorts of produce, from vine plants like tomatoes, strawberries and eggplants to leafy greens and herbs.

He might also help save American farming. The average U.S. farmer or rancher is 58 years old, and many of them will soon retire. Most of these farmers don’t have a succession plan for their business or land, and that lack of planning makes farmland more vulnerable to development, and small-scale family farms easier for corporations to gobble up. That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is calling for at least 100,000 new farmers in the coming years.

… Read the rest of the article here …