Stolen: Potatoes and pine trees
September 22, 2009
Seeing all the beetle-killed lodgepole pines in our area reminds me of why a predominance of one species in nature is not environmentally healthy. What’s occurring is in many ways a natural event, fueled in part by a uniformly older lodgepole forest. As I understand it, the miners cut down most of the trees in the area, and what most uniformly grew back were the lodgepole pines – a natural monoculture and the dominant species over much of the mid and upper elevations all along the Rockies.
The lodgepole is actually not meant to live much beyond the century mark. An old Scandinavian saying goes that a tree’s life is like that of a man’s. At 25 years, flexible, but lacking strength. By age 70, though, both are interesting to look at and strong. By age 100, each is almost worthless. The Lodgepole is both vulnerable to wildfire and reliant upon it for procreation. In a kind of macabre variant of symbiosis, the tree releases its seed even as it is consumed by the heat of fire. From Colorado to Washington State, years of mountain pine beetle epidemic has killed roughly 6.5 million acres of forest. On the brighter side, a whole industry had grown up using beetle-killed pine wood for building. Because the symbiotic fungus stains the wood blue, the “designer” wood is now called “denim pine.” It’s a catchy phrase: “Go green with blue wood!”
In agriculture, “monoculture” describes the practice of relying on a very small number of genetic variants, of a food crop for commercial agricultural. Modern agriculture relies on standardization of crops so that the technology for tilling, planting, pest control and harvesting can be used over large geographical areas for economy. Monoculture, however can lead to large-scale crop failure as the single genetic variant becomes susceptible to a disease.
A classic example of the dangers of monoculture was the Irish Potato Blight famine that was caused by a fungus that probably booked passage on a square rigger from South America. This fungus could turn a field of potatoes into black slime overnight. The potato was the mainstay for the Irish, and during 1845-1851, the loss of the potato crop caused a major famine. Those that didn’t die of hunger and disease migrated to other countries like the US. An estimated 12 percent of the Irish population died during this period.
The wine industry in Europe was devastated by susceptibility to a small aphid. The Great French Wine Blight occurred the mid-19th century and destroyed many of the vineyards in France and nearly destroyed the wine industry. This aphid (commonly known as grape phylloxera), originated in North America and was carried across the Atlantic sometime around the late 1850s. France was the worst affected, but there was a great deal of damage to vineyards in other European countries. Each crop then had to be replaced by a new variant imported from another country not susceptible to the bug. So the key for agriculture is hybridization, and the development of more resistant crops and to plant several varieties of a crop in one location.
We have very few areas in the world where the natural original ecosystem exists. The journeys of the Europeans to the “New World” forever changed human health and history. They brought their plants, animals and diseases to new territories altered the world’s ecosystems. In some places they burned entire virgin forests and planted new crops. In one century, Europe launched social and biological evolutions that previously would have taken thousands or millions of years.
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Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.