Fungi and Viruses

Once upon a time, there was a disease. This disease was first identified in a different country overseas, but recently identified in the U.S. Not much was known about the pathogen, how it infected the hosts, or treatment options. But it caused problems. And plenty of debates sprung up about how it spread, how infectious it was, and if it really was a cause for concern. Sound familiar? Huh, I guess more people read my Masters thesis than the required four people.

At Michigan State, I studied a disease that was recently identified in the U.S. It was known to have been in Brazil and South Africa, but in 2014 through 2017, we identified it in eight counties in Michigan. Oh, and the disease I studied only affected beans. 

Often times, I feel that my grad school work in plant diseases doesn’t have any benefits beyond the agricultural world. But I’ve realized that my two and half years studying plant diseases have given me a basic understanding of our current pandemic. One of the main duties of a scientist is to share findings and information. I decided (while waiting for my own subsequently negative COVID-19 test) to share what I’ve learned about plant diseases and how it relates to our current situation.

A little bean plant with Fusarium root rot (distinguished by the red discoloration on the root).

I studied a fungal disease that caused a disease on dry beans and soy beans called Fusarium root rot. The first confusing aspect of diseases is the naming system (or one of my favorite words: nomenclature). Diseases are caused by pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, or viruses. The common cold is a virus, E. coli is a bacterial disease, and yeast infections are caused by fungi. However, the actual organisms that cause these diseases are called by different names. For example, the fungus that causes a yeast infection is Candida. The disease I studied is called Fusarium root rot. It is caused by several species of fungi known by names like: Fusarium phaseoli, Fusarium cuneirostrum, and Fusarium brasilience. The disease we call COVID-19 or coronavirus is caused by a virus that has been named SARS-CoV-2 (a note, in scientific nomenclature, species names are italicized so if SARS-CoV is written out “Severe acute respiratory syndrome – related coronavirus” then it would be italicized). The naming rules for microbes are strange. They follow taxonomy rules – how organisms are genetically related – and often named for where they’re found or by whom. The fungus I studied, Fusarium brasilience, was first identified in Brazil – hence the “brasilience”. The CoV-2 part of the virus’ name comes from its designation of being a coronavirus, a category of viruses based on their physical structures. Coronaviruses as a whole can infect humans or animals. 

My cute, little fungus, Fusarium brasiliense

Diving into any research may leave you frustrated because scientific language is confusing. It’s like its own language. Scientists are very careful not to use absolute language like “this is a newly discovered disease.” Instead, we say, “this is a recently identified disease” or “a novel disease”. But the word choice is intentional and important. A newly “discovered” disease conjures up the idea that the disease has never been known whereas the word “identified” means that it was the first time in scientific record that this disease has been known. Novel is also an intentional choice. When “novel” is used, it also means that it hasn’t previously been reported on in scientific records or literature. It’s not “new” because that is a judgment on the age or recency of the pathogen. For all we know, SARS-CoV-2 has been around for many years, it just hasn’t been around humans. The fungus I studied in Michigan often presented this challenge to me. To us, it was a novel pathogen in Michigan but not new because we didn’t know how long it had been in Michigan. The fungus may have been there for years and our tools unable to detect it or it could have been recently introduced. But it wasn’t for me to make the a judgment about its introduction.  My evidence wasn’t focused on when the fungus arrived or why, it just supported that the fungus was now present. 

This may seem like scientists are leaving the back door open for themselves. We often are. The very nature of science is that we learn something new and something contradictory everyday. Scientists don’t want to use absolute language because the next day new information may come along that changes our understanding. It should be comforting that scientists don’t use absolute statements, especially when describing something recently identified. It means we are open to new information.

Different levels of disease on bean roots, from least virulent to most.

Perhaps the most challenging part of COVID-19 is understanding the pathogenicity versus virulence. Pathogenicity and virulence are foundational principles in the study of diseases. We’ll start with pathogenicity.  Pathogenicity is a yes or no question. Is this fungus or virus a pathogen? In grad school, when Fusarium brasilience was identified in Michigan, we had to first figure out if it was a fungus that was actually causing disease or if it was essentially a fungus along for the ride. To answer this question, we grew Fusarium brasilience in the lab on petri dishes that had a food source, a starch. Then we would allow a single spore of Fusarium brasiliense to colonize sorghum grains. After several weeks, the fungus would have grown all over the grains, using them as an all-you-can-eat feast. These grains were added to a soilless growing medium (so there were no other microorganisms to muddy the results) with bean seeds. The beans were monitored over a several week growing period, with careful observance for disease symptoms such as stunting, yellowing of the leaves, and discoloration or rotting of the roots. Finally, the bean roots were washed, dried, and DNA was extracted. We ran tests to see if the Fusarium brasiliense DNA was found in the bean roots. If we found Fusarium brasiliense DNA in multiple tests, it would confirm that the fungus was indeed a pathogen.

A seedling pathogenicity assay – how we tested the pathogenicity of different pathogens

With the identification of COVID-19 (the disease), scientists had to first confirm the virus in question and whether it was causing disease or not. Confirming the pathogenicity of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus) was different from how I confirmed pathogenicity in grad school. The biggest challenge with viruses is they only live and reproduce on living hosts. Fungi can live on alive (like bean plants) or dead hosts (like downed trees in the forest) and this characteristic makes it much easier to study fungi. Some of the first tests to study the pathogenicity of SARs-CoV-2 were done on lab mice (Bao et al 2020). The lab mice in the study confirmed that the virus was a pathogen specifically of the respiratory system. 

After confirming pathogenicity, scientists can then describe the virulence of a pathogen, or the severity of the infection. This is where debates start springing up in our national discourse. How serious is COVID-19? Why does it cause some people to be asymptomatic and send others to the hospital? First, we often forget that diseases like COVID-19 are caused by living organisms that respond and react to conditions. 

My first classes in grad school taught about the disease triangle. The disease triangle shows an interaction between the pathogen, the host, and environment. Fusarium brasiliense thrives in cool, wet soil where there is compaction or little oxygen. So it will thrive more in a year where there is flooding as opposed to a drought year. The main interaction of the host is its resistance to a pathogen and how it fights back. Resistance in plants is similar to how a mammal’s immune system. I tested two types of beans that came from two different genetic “families” and had different levels of resistance. In my study, black beans had more inherent resistance to Fusarium root rot than kidney beans. And finally, the pathogen. Understanding the pathogen is the most complicated part of the disease triangle, mostly because of the microscopic nature of pathogens. However, we’re living in a microbiology information revolution. While humans have known about microbes for hundreds of years, we’ve lacked the tools to study them in depth. Fortunately, since science is always progressing, we are gaining better tools and understanding every day. 

Without microscopes, I wouldn’t have been able to creep on the reproductive lives of fungi

Preliminary information about SARS-CoV-2 suggests that the virus “tricks” the host’s immune system, causing the immune system to initially downplay its response rather than attack steadily and immediately (Kumar et al 2020). Studies also show that the virus is easily transferred from cell to cell in the vascular system, which can explain its spread into other areas of the body and a larger array of symptoms. The immune system is the most important part of our bodies’ defense system but everyone has a different immune system. Our immune system is both due to our genetics and what we’ve been exposed to throughout our lifetime. This is why public health officials have been calling for people who have chronic illnesses, are older, or have otherwise compromised immune systems to be careful. But none of us know what our immune system is truly like. We can’t have our immune system revealed to us like our blood type. And what makes COVID-19 unnerving is that our immune systems haven’t fought against a virus like this before. The spike we’re seeing now are due to the disease triangle creating an ideal situation – we’re spending more time indoors and near people. Since the virus survives on living hosts, it transfers from person to person. 

Learning about the pathogen, environment, and hosts and how they all interact are crucial. But they’re crucial because they can reveal a game plan for treatment. My work in grad school was spent studying Fusarium brasiliense, but also looking at fungicide treatments to offer farmers a way of combating Fusarium root rot. What surprises me most about plant diseases versus human diseases is the treatment. It often seems we are much more willing to put effort into figuring out treatment for crop diseases than human diseases. One aspect of treating crop diseases is the cultural control. Fusarium root rot had higher rates of disease in compacted soil so farmers were encouraged to use deep tillage to break up compaction as the first step of defense. If they routinely struggled with Fusarium root rot, then a fungicide was suggested. 

Humans struggle with the cultural treatments as well. We don’t like staying home or keeping our distance from people. But this disease is real. It affects people in ways we don’t fully understand. And the way we address it matters. Because the lives of human beings are far more important than human’s beans. 

(If you want to know more about my research (ya nerd), you can watch a short video I made for a communications class here, but you can’t read my thesis because that’s just too much)

Eight Years Later: Part 2

This fall marks the 8-year anniversary of an adventure that redefined me.  Eight years ago, I packed a few changes of clothes, sunscreen, and notebooks and boarded the first of several planes that would bring me to Tanzania, the first stop in a two-country study abroad experience. It was my first time traveling on a plane without my family, my first time leaving the country, and the first step in a new direction for my life.

               I spent the fall semester of 2012 in Tanzania and Kenya (very distinct countries from one another, though I’ll describe my experiences with the broader term East Africa) with a group of 29 other students studying wildlife management, ecology, the Kiswahili language, and the interactions of humans and the environment. Witnessing elephants and lions in their natural habitats, being immersed in new culture, and being away from my comfort zone profoundly moved me. Until this point in my life, I floated confidently through college classes with a close-knit group of friends around me and a faith in God that had not been put through any difficult tests. I thought I would graduate college and go onto a graduate degree in wildlife management to find a job in the National Park Service. Upon returning from studying abroad, I found my life upended.

               Eight years down the road, I’m reflecting back on the ways my life was impacted by my semester abroad. I’ll be reflecting on faith, my worldview, my relationship with environmental issues, and general life direction in this four-part series.  This is Part 2: Environment.

The first time I saw elephants in their natural habitat, everything else froze. I could only see the elephants. The way they gently swayed and slowly picked up their feet, their eyes examining the surroundings and staring warily at our jeep, the mothers shepherding their calves with their trunks. They were majestic. When they had passed and the world started moving again, I had to remind myself they were real. 

While studying abroad in Kenya and Tanzania, I was blessed to observe and marvel at animals I had long dreamt of seeing in their natural habitats. Over the course of the semester, we went to six different national parks and several wildlife conservation areas.  I saw countless hippos, a lioness stalking a herd of zebras, ostriches mating, a leopard dragging its prey up a tree, elephants playing, cheetahs resting in the shade of a nearby car, and even chased off some baboons from our kitchen. But beyond the moving experience of observing these magnificent animals, I also realized they don’t always inspire wonder among everyone.

Having a herd of elephants walk in front of your jeep is a humbling experience. It’s also terrifying. Female elephants are fiercely protective of their young and have been known to push over cars if they feel threatened. On one day in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, a female elephant felt we were too close to her calf and trumpeted and started running towards our jeep. Fortunately, our driver sped away before anything further happened. But we had protection of a vehicle. The people who live along wildlife corridors in Kenya and Tanzania don’t always have such protection and have lost their livelihoods and even lives to wildlife. 

A Kenyan friend, Francis, told me the story of a family member who lost his life because he stumbled upon an elephant in the dark and the elephant, acting in self-defense, trampled the man.  Unfortunately, such a story isn’t rare. We heard stories of others who had been attacked by hyenas or lions. 

In Kenya, we also met and interviewed farmers who had entire crops eaten by gazelles, trampled by elephants, or damaged by baboons. We learned from pastoralists, people who made their livings shepherding cows, sheep, or goats. Often these animals are easy prey for leopards or lions. Farmers and herders, angry at losing their livelihoods, often retaliate by killing or poisoning wildlife. 

Prior to talking to these farmers, retaliation against wildlife infuriated me. I recall reading about ranchers in the western United States who would go after wolves if the animals killed their sheep or cows. I couldn’t understand. Meeting farmers in East Africa gave me a new understanding of the conflict. And now as a farmer, it adds another layer. I farm in a forested area that is home to many deer. We’ve lost countless crops and thousands of dollars to deer. In deer hunting season, we are happy when hunters thin out the deer herd on our property. But deer aren’t valued in the same way as elephants or lioms so my celebration over thinning the deer herd doesn’t cause stirs. 

A major issue with human-wildlife conflict in East Africa is over the value of wildlife. Tourists bring about 1 billion US dollars yearly to do as I did – travel to national parks and be astounded by the wildlife. However, in Kenya, all wildlife belongs to the government.  If humans are killed or injured by wildlife, the Kenyan government has a process for people to receive compensation for their loss. The compensation for a deceased family member is 5 million Kenyan shillings, about $46,000 US dollars, while an injury is worth about $18,000 US dollars. But the process to receive compensation is laborious and often gets tied up in Kenyan bureaucracy for years. The entire situation leads many Kenyans to wonder who is more valuable, the wildlife or the humans. 

The challenging nuances of human-environmental conflict wasn’t real to me until my semester in Kenya and Tanzania. I had always landed on a preservationist side regarding the environment. I thought the environment, including wildlife, should be preserved at all costs and that humans should intrinsically value pristine wilderness and wildlife. I began to realize there were more factors in the value calculation than I had thought. 

Wildlife and the environment are indued with immense intrinsic value. I believe that the environment was created with joy and that God looks on it with love and satisfaction that. I enjoy the environment beyond what it can provide for me. And I believe humans are tasked with the role of caring and protecting the environment. Yet the balancing act of human lives and the environment is challenging. Can I tell another human that their livelihood is less valuable than an elephant or lion? Is it wrong for humans to feel the urge to retaliate against wildlife if a loved one is taken from them? Are there times that we put more resources into protecting wilderness than protecting the lives of humans? 

While I believed when I was younger that the environment could be something separate from humans, I learned that caring for the environment means also regarding humans. Habitat destruction is a large problem in many places around the world, including Kenya and the United States. Often natural forests or grasslands are destroyed to make way for human activities. But if we zoom out from habitat destruction, we see many times that destruction is preceded by poverty.  Even poaching, one of the major environmental crises of our time, is done by people who need money to feed their families or send kids to school. When people are struggling to find food, it’s hard for them to enjoy the majesty of an elephant that trampled down their means to a paycheck. 

Any environmental action needs to take humans and their values into account. Most humans won’t do something if it doesn’t align in their value calculations. This is why climate change action is so tricky. If people don’t see direct effects of climate change in their lives, they have little impetus to adapt. A good example of an environmental solution aligning with values in Kenya are beehive fences. Elephants fear African honeybees and have been observed to make a distinct rumble to alert other elephants when faced with a hive. Fences made of honeybee hives protect fields and offer an additional source of income to farmers from the sale of honey and beeswax. When humans aren’t coming into conflict with wildlife, they are more able and willing to see the value of wildlife. 

As our world faces environmental challenges like wildfires, climate change, poaching, and deforestation, we will need to find solutions that protect humans and livelihoods while also not forsaking our role as caretakers and stewards of the natural world. 

Eight Years Later: Part 1

               This fall marks the 8-year anniversary of an adventure that redefined me.  Eight years ago, I packed a few changes of clothes, sunscreen, and notebooks and boarded the first of several planes that would bring me to Tanzania, the first stop in a two-country study abroad experience. It was my first time travelling on a plane without my family, my first time leaving the country, and the first step in a new direction for my life.

               I spent the fall semester of 2012 in Tanzania and Kenya (very distinct countries from one another, though I’ll describe my experiences with the broader term East Africa) with a group of 29 other students studying wildlife management, ecology, the Kiswahili language, and the interactions of humans and the environment. Witnessing elephants and lions in their natural habitats, being immersed in new culture, and being away from my comfort zone profoundly moved me. Until this point in my life, I floated confidently through college classes with a close-knit group of friends around me and a faith in God that had not been put through any difficult tests. I thought I would graduate college and go onto a graduate degree in wildlife management to find a job in the National Park Service. Upon returning from studying abroad, I found my life upended.

               Eight years down the road, I’m reflecting back on the ways my life was impacted by my semester abroad. I’ll be reflecting on faith, my worldview, my relationship with environmental issues, and general life direction in this four-part series.  This is Part 1: Faith.

               Growing up, I was steeped in Christianity. I was fortunate to have adults in my life who encouraged me to ask challenging questions about God and who would search for the answers with me. As such, I never was never given pat answers to questions like “can women be in ministry” or “what is prayer” or “how do we even know God exists”.  I was taught to dig into faith and that God could stand up to my questions. But my faith was relatively easy; living in a middle-class, privileged family and attending a faith-based college where most had similar upbringings kept me comfortable.

               I realized my semester abroad was going to be out of my comfort zone when I met up with my other twenty-nine other classmates in Heathrow airport in London. We had a twelve-hour layover until we would fly to Nairobi (and then on to Tanzania), so we camped out by some chairs and idly chatted. I remember thinking “These people are not like my classmates at Bethel”. Many of them dabbled in what my upbringing would consider “worldly things” like partying, drinking, drugs, etc. At first all these “worldly pursuits” stood out like like a stain. A side effect of a Christian upbringing is a tendency towards judgment and a legalist attitude about things outside the church. The initial meeting distressed me and my judgment initially closed me off to my classmates. I remained closed to my classmates until a week or two into our time in Tanzania when we went on a safari at a nearby national park.  We were split into jeeps with four or five other students and I had a blast with the people in my jeep, a realization that surprised me at first.

               As I stood, watching the savanna rumble by, I realized it was ridiculous to judge my classmates by standards I had defined. I heard a whisper saying “The Lord does not judge by outward appearances but looks inward at the heart”.  I was convicted. If I believed God was the ultimate creator, God had created my classmates with the same love and compassion with which I was created. I learned that the standards were instead a mask of judgment. While I judged people for partying, I was being judged by God for harboring resentment or fake righteousness against others. Cracking the façade of false holiness allowed me to open myself up and understand my classmates as loved and cherished creations of God. During the semester I came to know my classmates and was moved by their hearts, character, and passion.

                The other development of my faith wasn’t fully realized until I came home. Being immersed in East Africa meant learning about a new culture, a new vision of the world. This worldview extended to a different vision of faith. Sometimes in western culture, Jesus is relegated to a holy wish granter or someone who protects us from the hard facts of life. He is pictured in the classic church paintings as a white man with long brown hair and a beard. In many churches his teachings are also watered down and sanitized. But in Tanzania, I saw a vision of Jesus as a black shepherd among the Maasai herdsmen, wearing red plaid cloths called shukas and keeping watch out for the lions. If the Holy Trinity created humankind in their image, then God was a nomad, a herdsman, a shepherd, a warrior like the people I met.

After I returned home, I went back to a church I had been attending in the Twin Cities.  The pastor gave a sermon instructing the congregation of the necessity of finding good mentors to help people improve in their personal lives or businesses. I remember the only connection to Christ was one random verse plucked from the Bible to back up his words. As I sat there, I was disheartened and frustrated. If faith in Jesus was only good for shoring up our financial interests or making our personal lives more productive, I didn’t see the point.

               I stopped going to church. I had met Jesus who walked among his creation and people while in East Africa. He commanded his followers to clothe, care for, teach, and feed those who orphaned, HIV-infected, hungry, or oppressed. But I wasn’t seeing that Jesus clearly in the U.S. I kept seeing churches focused on money, politics, or reputation.  Looking back, I count myself among the apathetic church crowd. As a broken person, I care more about myself and my desires than loving and caring for others. But a year after I first boarded the plane for Tanzania, I took a class called the Theology of Mission where a thoughtful professor walked us through the Bible and showed how the entire Bible spoke to a central theme: God’s people were given knowledge, favor, and privilege not to enrich themselves but to cast it off for the sake of serving others in the name of Christ. Suddenly the Bible spoke to me again. It propelled me to consider my brothers and sisters and act as Jesus’ hands and feet.  

               God has not been handed down to the western churches to dole out as we see fit. Jesus came down as a poor, Middle Eastern human to unleash his kingdom to the entire world. Faith is action. It requires us to push from our comfort zone, to join the brokenhearted and oppressed. Faith propels us to be unattached to our physical goods and be attached to the intangible – mercy, compassion, grace, and love. In Kenya and Tanzania, I found God cannot be confined. God cares for all nations and tribes. God speaks every language. God is Mungu.

Baba yetu uliye mbinguni, jina lako litukuzwe; ufalme wako ufike, utakalo lifanyike duniani kama mbignuni.

(Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven).

Enjoying the Serengeti landscape in Tanzania with a dear friend

Reclaiming the Thistles

Before the adjective “essential” was attached to specific jobs and careers, environmental stewardship was designated essential by God. The first designation of this crucial role came in Genesis 2:15 when God appointed the first humans to “tend and keep” the earth. After creating the physical, chemical, and biological elements of the universe, God turned to Adam and Eve to offer them a task: to name, care for, and keep creation. When Adam and Eve were turned out of the Garden of Eden in brokenness, God declared their sacred callings would now be burdened with toil and pain.

As a vegetable farmer, I often find myself remembering the first act of rebellion when cultivating weeds. Genesis 3:17-19 speaks of thistles and thorns being produced from the ground rather than good, nourishing food.  Whether hacking away at thistles with a hand hoe or the tractor weeding equipment, I turn my frustration towards Adam and Eve. However, modern weed science has shown that certain weeds respond to specific environmental conditions. The Canadian Thistle, a common weed in certain fields on our farm, is an indicator of compacted soil.  Compacted soil is the byproduct of working the soil improperly just as my grudge toward the thistles and Adam and Eve is misplaced frustration at my own brokenness. God gave humans a calling to care for the earth, but too often we have neglected that calling and brought harm to the earth.

Much has been said about the failures of farming in particular to protect our natural resources. Farming has been a responsible for acts of degradation such as algal blooms in lakes, rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico from over-fertilization, or the incredible erosion of Iowa topsoil over the last several decades. In August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report describing land use and its impact on climate change.  Agricultural enterprises were found to contribute about 20-35% of the human-caused greenhouse gasses.

When the information was released, many farmers felt their livelihoods were being unfairly targeted. Corn and dairy farmers in our region of Wisconsin shot back their defenses on social media or around the coffee pot at church.  But farmers must do more than defend; we have been designated as keepers and tenders and have an essential role to play in climate responsibility. Since farmers have their feet on the ground, we must reckon with environmental successes and failures.

Farmers must join with activists, policymakers, and lay people if true reckoning and actions are to be accomplished. Farmers, including myself, take pride in putting our heads down and working without asking for help. The first year my husband and I farmed on our land, we refused the warnings of older farmers regarding the land, thinking we knew better.  At the end of a disheartening year, we learned pride had closed our ears and hearts, that the older farmers were correct. Nothing is more important than the call from God which asks us to join in keeping and tending. Pride, political disagreements, and cultural divides are the thistles and thorns dissuading us from striving for climate improvement. Though they may be onerous to work around and require work to dig out, a fruitful crop requires labor.

The best solution to remove thistles from a field is to break up compaction through deep tillage. It is a several year act that requires mindful work and perseverance. But essential work, like climate stewardship, is painful. It requires discipline to change the ways we act, travel, purchase, and grow.

Like the brokenness flowing from Adam and Eve’s first sin, the command given to them in Genesis 2:15 extends to us all. We are all essential workers in God’s creation. Our earthly labor is to hoe the weeds and reclaim a small patch of ground at a time. But with every swipe of the hand hoe, we remember: to tend, to keep, to reclaim.

To My Son

Shortly after finding out I was pregnant with our first child, we went on a family trip to Maui.  Snorkeling through coral reefs, among zig-zagging fish and sea turtles was an experience I will never forget.  While floating, I thought of the child in my womb and how I hoped they could experience this wonder some day.  Even though my son didn’t experience the snorkeling first hand, it felt like we were dancing through the coral reefs together. I wrote this poem right after snorkeling to remember.  On my first Mother’s Day with my son outside of the womb, I’m remembering this precious moment and all of the moments of wonder my son has had so far: his face lighting up at the presence of our dog, his tiny fingers running through the grass, touching a tree for the first time.  I’m so grateful to be experiencing these first with him and dream of our continued explorations. To my dear, sweet son who brings joy and laughter every day, I love you.  Let’s keep exploring the wonders of this world. 

 

When you were yet in my womb

we pirouetted in the push and pull

of an underwater ballet

moving in the same force

as the butterflyfish, tangs,

parrotfish, and wrasse. 

This world, this world of brilliant blue

and neon yellow,

of cauliflower coral, brain coral

is the world you will soon inherit.

When you walk on this planet

built of colonies of polyps

and singing humpback whales

I hope you explore in wonder.

But child, you will walk on a planet

fragile and fatigued

the coral reef where we spun

was faded.

Together, you and I,

we will nurture, redeem, and dance

caring for the damselfish and oak trees

as our friends in divine creation.

When you leave your watery womb

you will find this watery world

marvelous and broken

dance with me, child, and

together we will redeem.

On Farming and Motherhood

Last fall, Dirk and I attended a vegetable farmer “meet-and-greet” lunch.  We spent the afternoon mingling with other farmers, exchanging tips of the trade, and of course, eating each other’s kale or cabbage salads. Towards the end, we sat in a circle and had the opportunity to ask the whole group questions on challenges that would be ameliorated through brainstorming.  Among the group, Dirk and I were the only childless couple and I watched as the farm-grown children scampered off, at ease around equipment and dirt.

“Dirk and I are thinking about starting to try for kids soon.  How do you make kids and a farm work?” I asked the gathered group.  Opinions immediately began flying at us as everyone told us to wait as long as we could and focus on the farm for a while as having a baby the first year on a new farm would be a terrible idea. We took the advice to heart, but we never have complete control over our plans, much less our reproductive systems.  Now I sit, fourteen weeks pregnant, with a perceptible rounding of my belly, and constantly wonder about farming and motherhood.

Long before I became pregnant or started farming, I decided I would be a working mother.  I came from a long line of working mothers.  My mother, both grandmothers, and at least one great-grandmother had all raised kids while working outside the home.  While I never had the chance to talk to my grandmothers about the challenges; I learned from my mom that working and raising children is challenging.  My mom, a compassionate and talented nurse who loves her work, cut back from full time to part time and switched from working on a floor with long shifts to the dependable hours of a clinic so she could spend more time with us kids. Yet I have always admired how my mom found joy in both working and mothering.

Being both a farmer and mother isn’t an insurmountable challenge.  Farming is just another job, albeit a job that is demanding. I’ve heard it said by many farmers that “the farm will take all you can give and more”.  The challenge with farming and being a mother is the commitment required by both. To a certain extent, people with office jobs can leave their physical work at the office.  Farmers step out of the door and are at work.  Farmers make strange boasts like “I work 24/7” or “I can’t remember the last time I took a vacation” as a way to show their commitment to the farm.   With motherhood, or even an attempt at wellbeing, this attitude just isn’t possible. For me, farming is a vocation, a holy call, and a passion, but I would drop growing vegetables instantly for the sake of the human growing inside me.

The search for balance between work and family is not new for women.  I’m another woman in a line of billions realizing anew the complexities of our system and unseen expectations for women.  I always planned on being a working mother, but until I saw my child on the ultrasound screen and heard its heartbeat, I didn’t realize how much I wanted “mother” to outrank any work I accomplish.  I want to be a good farmer, to feed and nourish people and the soil.  But I want to feed and nourish my child more, to raise my child into a person who is gentle, loving, compassionate, curious, and conscientious.  Fortunately, my job can help show my child one example of living out those attributes, I just have to figure out how to make the farm work for my family.

IMG-8025

Farmer and Mother (just didn’t know about the mother part yet!)

How to Protect Bananas from Becoming Endangered

The banana stands out in the fruit section because it is strange; a long, curved, yellow fruit amongst the rounder red, blue, and purple fruits.  But for all of our love for the peculiar fruit, it is endangered, due to a disease called Fusarium wilt.  Fusarium wilt, caused by a fungus called Fusarium oxysporum f.sp cubense tropical race 4 (TR4), began its attack on bananas in Southeast Asia in the 1990s and exploded across global banana-producing regions, leaving behind a wake of wilted, discolored trees with no viable fruit.   Since the emergence of the disease, countless preventions and treatments have been tried without success resulting in diminished banana supply affecting people in the U.S. and in developing countries alike.  That’s why agricultural researchers at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, IITA, or a new start-up called Tropic Biosciences are turning to genetic modification to breed a new banana that can withstand Fusarium wilt.

The banana we know was plucked from its tree because it was a mutant, a lone tree producing yellow bananas in a grove of small, red bananas.  Unlike other red bananas, which had to be cooked before consumed, the mutant yellow banana was tasty when it was raw.  Because the yellow bananas were mutant themselves, any new tree that was planted started as a sucker or side-shoot of an existing tree.  Soon banana groves in Latin America, Australia, Southeast Asia, or Sub-Saharan Africa were populated with thousands of trees with the exact same genetics.  However, it’s nemesis, TR4, quickly rose up to challenge the banana craze.   TR4 saw the genetically-identical plantations as an opportunity, a smorgasbord of its favorite food.

The crisis of bananas vs. TR4 is a case study in the dangers of monocultures. An entire field of plants with the exact same weapons is left defenseless if their weapons are outmatched.  Encouraging plantings of diverse plants species and individuals allows an ecosystem to bounce back when threats do emerge.  But at this point, if we want to continue the production of our favorite fruit, we need to focus on the plant’s genetics as well.

Plant breeding has been around since the advent of agriculture. It’s how we got corn or wheat from native grasses and the wide variety of crops we grow. Humans have always been selective about the plants and traits they desire and grow.  But in the past, we planted seeds and hoped for the best.  When researchers discovered DNA in the 1960s, we gained a better sense of the exchange of chromosomes that happens during reproduction and were able to be more particular about the crop traits we were hoping for.  The traits that we love about bananas, their amount of fruit and seedlessness is a result of being triploid.  Instead of two sets of chromosomes like humans have, bananas have three sets of chromosomes which often renders them sterile.  In order to get a new banana variety, breeding involves tedious steps of crossing bananas, planting a new tree, and waiting to see if the banana actually has the desired trait, which can take up to ten years.

There is another option available to us besides traditional breeding called gene-edited crops, or GECs.  Like producing GMOs, creating a GEC does involve taking a fragment of DNA and inserting it into the genome sequence of a crop, but unlike GMOs, the DNA fragments aren’t from different species but the exact same one.  While our favorite, yellow banana doesn’t have the genetic ability to defend itself against TR4, other bananas do.  Researchers can determine what part of the red or green bananas genome causes immunity and “copy and paste” those sequences into yellow bananas. GECs have the potential to help create more disease-resistant or drought-resistant crops while using traits already available in the plant population.

What makes GECs especially important for bananas is that traditionally breeding bananas is complex and unreliable. While this tool isn’t a panacea and we should strive for agricultural systems that are diverse and sustainable, gene-editing is an assistance in an ever-changing world.  Hopefully, through the addition of gene-editing techniques to our crop production tool belt, we can continue to produce and preserve important crops, even the curved, yellow banana.

Table For One, Please

As a woman, eating at or exploring a new place alone can seem at worst, dangerous, and at best, lonesome; but I’ve found it instead to be life-giving and empowering.  The first time I ate alone in a restaurant, and not just to eat a quick bite or grab a cup of coffee, was at an Indian restaurant when I was a junior in college.  I had wanted to try this restaurant, Taste of India, for months and had planned to go with my then-boyfriend as our first date after I returned from studying in Kenya.  Shortly after returning to the U.S. however, I endured a messy breakup with said boy all while experiencing reverse culture shock.  The restaurant fell to the back burner as I locked myself up from the outside world.

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