Sustainable agriculture

What’s the Deal with Sustainable Agriculture?

Blogpost written by Mollie Carroll, Intern


Most of us never think past the walls of the grocery store when it comes to our food. And, we definitely don’t often go as far as to think about the practices used to produce it. Yet, in an ever modernizing world, we should stop for a moment to question what really goes into making the food that we eat every day and ask ourselves, “What’s the deal with sustainable agriculture?”

In the United States, the amount of farms has drastically decreased as yield from industrial farms skyrockets. The goal of modern industrial agriculture is to increase output produced while also decreasing costs. The main issue with industrial agriculture stems from the negative externalities created when companies are focused on this goal.

A negative externality means that the cost shown on the price tag of food we buy does not represent the true cost to society. These added social costs include things like health risks and environmental problems. The false sense of price causes people to consume more than the socially efficient levels of outcome. Basically, we are lured into over consumption, and nothing acts as a deterrent from buying products that have negative health and environmental effects.

For now, we will focus solely on the environmental effects of industrial agriculture, and there are plenty.

Photo by Rob James

Photo by Rob James Garden Beds Without Pesticides

First, fertilizer use has increased dramatically in recent years, but the products are no more efficient. Only around 1/3 of the nitrogen in fertilizer gets absorbed leaving the rest to enter our runoff. Among other things, excess nitrogen in runoff creates dead zones in waterways.

Dead zones are areas in which oxygen is depleted and nutrient rich water allows for algae blooms. This causes not only asphyxiation of marine life, but can also impact reproduction and longevity of wildlife.

Pesticides cause similar issues with their inefficiency. Only about .1% of pesticides reach their target species! That means 99.9% of the pesticides we use cause unwanted damage. Chlorpyrifos, for example, is used on bananas grown in monocultures. While the amount of the pesticide found in the bananas is often low, communities and ecosystems around the farms exhibit extremely high levels of the chemical.  This damage includes disrupting delicate predator-prey balances. Pests (the prey) often recover much faster from population declines caused by pesticides than predators such as birds. Pesticides also are a suspected major cause in the decline of honeybees because they weaken their immune system and disrupt reproduction.

Photo by Rob James

Photo by Rob James Wild Pepper Growing Without Pesticides

Some of the increase in pesticide use can be attributed to the reliance on monocultures. When breeders attempt to make disease resistant crops under time constraints, they often cross breed plants isolating one resistant trait instead of the complex web of traits that is the cause of a species disease resistance. Because of this, diseases are able to evolve at a faster rate exacerbating the need for new varieties of plants and pesticide use. Monocultures intensify this need creating a vicious cycle.

Today, we rely on monocultures mainly to feed our livestock; 66% of grain production in the United States goes directly to livestock. The same amount of land, when used to plant legumes, can produce ten times the amount of protein.

Meat can also be tricky to produce.  One common inefficiency of meat production is the exorbitant amount of water it requires- almost 100 times the grain equivalent in protein.

Photo by Rob James

Photo by Rob James Commitment to Sustainable Animal Husbandry Practices

Water use in industrial agriculture is becoming an increasingly threatening problem. Around two-thirds of water worldwide goes directly to agriculture leading to the rapid depletion of aquifers. Similarly, the EPA states that 70% of stream and river pollution in the United States comes directly from agriculture.

This list includes just some of the many effects of industrial agriculture that harm our environment and make promoting sustainable agriculture more important every day. But what exactly is sustainable agriculture?

Sustainable agriculture is the production of food using practices that protect the environment and may even promote benefits such as increased biodiversity.

Photo By Max Villalobos Bird's Nest Found Among Crops on Wildlife Friendly Farm

Photo By Max Villalobos Bird’s Nest Found Among Crops on Wildlife Friendly Farm

At Osa Conservation’s wildlife-friendly farm, we make conscious decisions to ensure the sustainability of our farming practices.

One major sustainable practice that we implement is growing native crops that support the local ecosystem. Planting a large variety of local crops helps suppress weeds, which then reduces the need for harmful pesticides. It also means that crops can thrive in local soil without the use of fertilizers.

Keeping the farm substance-free is especially important because of the integration of crops and livestock. This practice is said to reduce soil degradation because manure from livestock continuously stimulates soil fertility. Further, integrating crops and livestock ensures that no failed harvests or crops go to waste. This not only means happy animals, but happy farmers too!

Photo by Rob James

Photo by Rob James

Another important task of our sustainable farming is to carefully care for our soil. Among other techniques, Osa Conservation uses reduced tilling methods, such as through the use of compost and biochar. Not only does biochar contribute to carbon sequestration, but it helps transform agriculture waste into soil.

It is hard not to support sustainable farming when you consider the differences in the environmental impact. At Osa Conservation, we are incredibly proud of our wildlife-friendly farm, and not just because our food is delicious!

If you’re looking for a once in a lifetime opproutunity to be a part of the sustainable agriculture movement, come volunteer with our program in the Osa. Learn more about it here!

Sustainable Farm Research Field Assistant

Sea Turtles

Every Day is Sea Turtle Day Here in the Osa

Blogpost written by Marina Garrido, Sea Turtle Volunteer

 

World Sea Turtle Day was just last week and the sea turtle team at Osa Conservation was super excited. Why? Because to us, it is not just a day, but a day in which we hope the whole world can remember and think about, even if just for a moment, these amazing animals.

Sea turtles are one of the most ancient animals alive. They belong to the family Quelonidae, which  also encompasses terrestrial turtles. One interesting fact about sea turtles, is that unlike the terrestrial turtles, they cannot hide their bodies inside their shells.

Photo by Marina Garrido, baby sea turtles journey back to the ocean

Photo by Marina Garrido, baby sea turtles journey back to the ocean

Currently, there are seven sea turtle species swimming in the seas and oceans. Costa Rica is home to four of these species including: the Olive ridley, the Pacific Green turtle, the Hawksbill and the Leatherback. All four of them can be found in the Osa Peninsula!

All sea turtle species are considered highly endangered. Here in Osa Conservation, we are conserving and protecting sea turtles to make a change. How do we do it? We patrol two beaches every day, looking for turtle tracks. If we find a nest, we move it to the hatchery in order to protect it. Thanks to the hatchery we can control the nests and study them to improve the success of the hatchlings. For example, one of the things we control is the temperature of the nests. Why? The sea turtles are reptiles and therefore the temperature surrounding the nest determines gender. Females are born on high temperatures and males on low temperatures. Unfortunately, the temperatures have increased in the past few years due to climate change, and so, more females are being born than males.

Photo by Marina Garrido, volunteers observe a nesting female at night

Photo by Marina Garrido, volunteers observe a nesting female at night

We have been very successful in protecting the turtles thanks to the help of everyone that comes to volunteer. Last year we set around 15,000 hatchlings free. Still we need a lot of help from all of you! Below you can find a little list of things you can do to help the sea turtles:

  • Do not throw any trash into the ocean.
  • Clean the beaches as you walk and close to where you spend time.
  • Reuse and Recycle.
  • Use reusable fabric bags instead of plastic bags.
Photo by Marina Garrido, Sea turtle volunteers release hatchlings back to the ocean

Photo by Marina Garrido, Sea turtle volunteers release hatchlings into the ocean

IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE SEA TURTLE DAY FOR YOU TO HELP THE TURTLES. YOU CAN MAKE CHANGE HAPPEN!

 

 

 

 

 

Uncategorized

The Unexpected Values of Vanilla

Blogpost written by Lesley Mould, Intern

Since vanilla is so popular, it was surprising to learn how challenging it is to grow it in the wild! Vanilla is one of the many rare and distinct plants that can be found in the Osa. The uniqueness of the vanilla plant is fascinating, and its potential to both reforest and spur regional development is heartening in a field that can often be cynical.  As an intern in Osa Conservation’s Washington, D.C. office with a strong interest in botany, I find the traits and characteristics of the vanilla plant incredibly enticing.

 

A brief history of Vanilla

Vanilla is the most popular flavoring in the world, the second most expensive, and an incredibly time- and labor-intensive crop. In the 17th century, factories to manufacture the vanilla flavor began to emerge throughout Europe. Vanilla became a common commercial crop in 1841 after Edmond Albius discovered an effective method for hand pollination. This is still the dominant harvesting methodology today.

Photo by Osa Conservation

Photo by Osa Conservation

Fast Facts about Vanilla

The vanilla grown in Costa Rica is a Vanilla planifolia. The vanilla vine grows on a host tree, and if unattended, can grow up to 30 meters and reach the tops of forests. The vanilla bean is the fruit of the Vanilla orchid, and is the only edible fruit of the 25,000 orchid species native to Central America and the surrounding regions. The vanilla flower only blooms for 24 hours, and if it is not pollinated, the plant dies and the beans cannot be used. There are over 50 species of vanilla, but only a few of them are used for flavoring.

Vanilla must be grown in a moist, tropical climate between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and between 10 and 20 degrees north and south of the Equator. It is impossible to grow the same vanilla vine in the more than one country because of soil and climate variances, so each growing region produces vanilla with a slightly different flavor.

Photo by Osa Conservation

Photo by Osa Conservation

Vanilla Pollination

Manual pollination of the vanilla plant is done with a very small stick and takes a great amount of time and precision. Fertilization by a native species is incredibly rare—so rare, in fact, that scientists are unsure of exactly which species are pollinators. It has been suggested that the Melipona bee is a vanilla pollinator, but its small size makes is an unlikely candidate.

screen-shot-2017-06-14-at-9-38-51-am

Photo by Osa Conservation

Vanilla Conservation

Conservation of the vanilla plant is of paramount importance. Its labor-intensive cultivation, niche growing environment, short life-cycle, and extraordinarily high demand place a great deal of pressure on vanilla crops. That is why Osa Conservation is excited to help further this conservation research! An exciting project is under development, so stay tuned for more information on what is happening in the field as Osa Conservation works towards gaining a better understanding of the role of vanilla in the rainforest.

Osa Conservation’s BioStation is the perfect place to conduct further research on the vanilla plant and its pollination. We have several vanilla plants, both wild and domesticated, that researchers can observe and study, and maybe even use to find new solutions to the problems of deforestation, regional underdevelopment, and vanilla shortage!

Uncategorized

Why the Osa is Impossible to Forget

Blogpost written by Robert Baker, Volunteer

Hi, my name is Bob Baker. For the past 10 years, my wife Lindsay and I have come to the Osa Peninsula for two weeks every March. We come to enjoy what National Geographic calls the “most biologically intense place on earth.” We typically stay in vacation rentals in the Cabo Matapalo area which is about 18km south of Puerto Jimenez at the tip of the peninsula. Last March (2016), we arranged to visit Osa Conservation’s biological station and during our visit,  Manuel Sanchez (Sea Turtle Program Coordinator) asked if we would like to join him on a sea turtle beach patrol one evening. Joining Manuel, and rescuing and releasing 17 baby Green sea turtles to the ocean was such an amazing experience that I decided to become a sea turtle volunteer with the program again this past March for a week.

Photo by Bob Baker

Photo by Bob Baker

On the first day, we met for an orientation session and learned that our duties would begin at 5:00am the next morning when Manuel, our supervisor, would meet us at the dining station. From there we started our hike to Piro beach and began our first sea turtle patrol.

Beach patrols as a sea turtle volunteer involve walking, paying attention and more walking. Manuel taught us that there are primarily 2 species of sea turtles that visit this beach, as well as Pejeperro beach, for nesting purposes. These are the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and the Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) and Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) also occasionally visit these beaches. We even got to see a Leatherback nest during our stint. Manuel taught us about the different species and how to identify them. For example, Olive Ridley sea turtles leave asymmetrical, or alternating, tracks. On the other hand, Green turtles leave wider, symmetrical tracks due to their size.

Photo by Manuel Sanchez

Photo by Manuel Sanchez

On this first morning, we recovered approximately 100 Green sea turtle eggs and carried them to the hatchery. The hatchery is a covered area within the vegetation just off the beach. Careful to maintain the same dimensions as the original nest, we dug a hole in the hatchery compound placed the eggs in the new “nest,” We then removed about 25 Green sea turtle hatchlings from another nest and watched them make their small journey to the waiting ocean. Fantastic!

The next morning, we were up at 3:30am to patrol the longer Pejeperro beach. We found Green and Olive Ridley tracks and a few new nests. We did not remove the eggs  from their nests on this beach due to lesser rates of poaching and predation.

Photo by Manuel Sanchez

Photo by Manuel Sanchez

During my week as a sea turtle volunteer, I saw other wildlife including Fiery-Billed aracaris, baby Green iguanas, a Red-eyed tree frog, Yellow-headed caracaras, Squirrel monkeys and a Common potoo. Although we did not see them, we used our skills to determine that other species were nearby.  Manuel, Delaney and I hiked to a camera trap and found an amazing photo of a jaguar. This jaguar had been in front of this camera the previous evening. Manuel was so excited because it was the second jaguar they had seen and documented recently. We also encountered Puma “scratchings” on the trail to the camera trap location.

Photo by Manuel Sanchez

Photo by Manuel Sanchez

Later in the week, alone on the Ajo trail I came upon a herd of approximately 50 White-lipped peccaries. At first, I thought they were the more common Collared peccaries. However,  Osa Conservation’s Andy Whitworth later corrected me and explained that Collared Peccaries travel in small groups (usually no more than 10-20). White-lipped Peccaries travel in herds from anywhere between 50-300 individuals.  After showing Manuel my photos he confirmed they were of the white-lipped variety. The abundance of peccaries, one of the jaguar’s natural prey, further explain the jaguar in the vicinity.

Photo by Manuel Sanchez

Photo by Manuel Sanchez

On my last full day, I went out on 2 patrols (Piro at 3:30am and Pejeperro at 8pm), transferred 137 Olive Ridley eggs to the hatchery, hiked the Ajo and Tangara trails, visited 2 camera traps and  hiked to the Sunset rocks to watch another beautiful Pacific Ocean sunset. The next morning, I went on my last sea turtle patrol with Manuel and Marina (a new research assistant). Tired from the night before, we doggedly walked the beach. We ended up transferring 93 Olive Ridley eggs to the hatchery, a great way to end my sea turtle volunteer experience. A big thanks to Manuel, Alejandra, Karla, Rachael and Andy for their support and making this a wonderful life experience. Cheers!