Community Outreach, Land Conservation and Forest Restoration, Sustainable agriculture

Into the wild: Revealing the secrets of wild vanilla

Blogpost by Charlotte Watteyn, doctoral researcher at KU Leuven (Belgium) and the University of Costa Rica, collaborating with Osa Conservation

If you think about vanilla, you immediately start to imagine delicious ice creams, cakes and other yummy sweets. But where does this vanilla come from? Well, it is extracted from the fruits (beans or pods) of orchid vines, producing an intense aroma resulting from a complex of molecules. These orchids belong to the genus Vanilla (Orchidaceae), a diverse group of climbing hemi-epiphytes growing around trees with their aerial roots. The genus contains over 100 species and is pantropic, meaning that they are present all around the tropics. However, the aromatic vanilla species, the ones that produce the lovely smelling pods, are native to the Neotropics.

Overview of the 5 different vanilla species growing in our study region ACOSA (Area de Conservacion Osa). Photo: Adam Karremans

Nevertheless, when you buy vanilla and take a further look at the country of origin, you will probably read “Madagascar.” But Madagascar does not fall within vanilla’s native growing regions, so only the introduced species that was brought over from Mexico a long time ago, Vanilla planifolia, is cultivated in Madgascar. Vanilla cultivators in Madagascar have to pollinate flowers by hand, because natural pollinators are absent, and use intensive production systems. Furthermore, the market chain involves several intermediaries that keep prices artificially high by holding back large quantities, explaining the currently high market prices. As a result, we realized there is a need for innovation in vanilla cultivation.

We want to determine the possibility of contributing to a more sustainable vanilla provision through a joint land sparing and land sharing approach (SPASHA), ensuring the conservation of wild vanilla populations while cultivating the economically interesting ones in a sustainable agroforestry system. There are several wild vanilla species, known as crop wild relatives (CWR), growing in the lowland tropical rainforests of the Neotropics, with presence of pods (that smell very nice!), indicating natural pollination. However, there is very little known about the distribution, biology and ecology of both the orchids and their pollinators. We are interested in determining the potential to cultivate wild vanilla and therefore create an alternative income source for local communities.

Left: The beautiful flower of Vanilla trigonocarpa. Middle: Fruits (green beans) of Vanilla hartii, the result from natural pollination, a mysterious process that we will study in more detail during the coming year. Right: Flower buttons of Vanilla hartii. All three species are native to the lowland tropical rainforests of Costa Rica and are growing within our study region ACOSA. Photos: Charlotte Watteyn & Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya

As part of the study, we made experimental plots, where we planted four aromatic vanilla CWR—V. hartii, V. odorata, V. pompona and V. trigonocarpa—in both reforestation areas and organic cacao plantations. One of the plots is located at Osa Conservation’s Osa Verde Agroecological Farm. We will measure growth and survival rate over time, as well as production and pollination processes during later stages.

We will be monitoring the vanilla’s success over the next few months and keep you updated with the first results of this exciting (and delicious) research!

 

The planting team at Osa Verde (Marvin, Johan, José, Ruth and Charlotte). We planted 120 vanilla plants, 30 plants of each of the four species, in our experimental plot within a 3-year old reforestation area with a mix of native tree species that act as tutor trees. Photos: Charlotte Watteyn and Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya

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

Miscellaneous, Sustainable agriculture, Volunteers and Visitors

Going ‘nuts’ at Finca Osa Verde

lettuce

Our Finca Osa Verde consists of 600 acres of pasture and forest, as well as 1.1 miles of sea turtle nesting habitat. Osa Verde includes a small farm that supplies Osa Conservation’s field station kitchen and dining halls with all types of fruits and veggies; from lettuce, to peppers, yucca, bananas, and rice.

peanit picking

This week we collected peanuts
from the Finca Osa farm and volunteers, research assistants, and staff members joined forces to create organic peanut butter for the very first time. The process is quite simple and the peanut butter is extremely delicious!

 

peanuts

First thing you need to know is that peanuts don’t belong to the nut family, they are actually from the Leguminosae family which includes beans and peas. They develop underground in the plant roots, just like potatoes.

 

cooking nuts
Follow these steps and you will be eating organic peanut butter in no time:

  • Collect the peanuts from the ground by pulling the plants out and collecting the peanuts from the roots. Buying the peanut pods from a supermarket works just as well.
  • Sun dry the peanut: spread the pods on the floor and dry them for a few hours. Be aware of the rain, especially if you are in the rain forest. If you bought your pods, there is no need for drying them.
  • Roast the peanuts: this part of the process was quite fun and challenging since we have to light our own wooden oven. Looking for fallen dry wood, making the fire (which was easier said than done), waiting for the fire to become a bed of coal, and then roasting the peanut pods without burning them was quite an experience.
  • Peel the peanut pods to extract the roasted seeds. This was a daunting job but luckily, everybody at the Station gave a hand with this part of the process. We decided to call ourselves the “nut team”.
  • Grind the peanuts with a food processer.
  • Add salt or sugar according to your preferences.

eatingGrowing, making, and eating your own food is not only delicious, but it’s a way to minimize adverse impacts on the natural environment. We are what we eat. Here at Osa Conservation we care about the food that we eat and where it comes from. Think about the food you eat: how can it be better for our environment and ourselves?

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