TED Talk: Five Special Plants from the Mascarene Islands

In this 14 minute TED talk given by Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, we are reminded of the important contribution that plants have to our health and to medicine. This requires habitat preservation of biodiversity. In this Anthropocene age it seems that natural habitats are constantly under threat.

“for every disease known to mankind there is a plant to cure it”

She shows us some humble plants which “hide surprising secrets” besides feeding us and giving us oxygen, telling us that there are 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world, the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean being one of them, including Madagascar.

“there is no such thing as a weed”

Gurib-Fakim discusses five plants: Benjoin, which has leaves of different shapes and sizes on a single plant; Psiadia arguta which has medicinal uses; Baobab, “the tree of life” for food security; the Resurrection plant from Africa, which can withstand up to 90 percent dehydration but then regenerate rapidly with water; and, Centella called a “weed”, which grows across the world in many habitats, and is used by cosmetic companies.

Reinert Interview: Farming and Monarchs

Today is the sixth post in this Monday series of subjects covered during my summer 2014 interview of Bill Reinert, recently retired energy engineer for Toyota who played a key role in the development of the Prius and then assumed the role of future transportation planning of alternative-fueled vehicles at Toyota. See his full bio here.
–Kay M.

K.M.: What is your impression of our farming system and what does it have to do with monarchs?

Reinert: The monarchs are in great decline. There is pressure from habitat loss due to illegal logging in Mexico where they go for the winter, but the bigger issue is the genetically modified crops and the loss of milkweed in the United States as marginal lands are put into production. Milkweed has become almost nonexistent, which is the plant needed by the monarchs to reproduce.

Although our food capacity is growing greatly, when we start looking at the effects, the Dead Zone, the pollution of the Mississippi River, the monarch, and the songbirds, then, it seems to me that we’ve made a deal with the Devil. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything in the overall scheme of things if the monarch goes away, but I happened to have a bunch of them in my yard yesterday and I thought to myself, “Oh, God, how beautiful.” So, it’s sad because they’re just another pointer.

There are really no more than 15 or 20 senators that are key to this farm policy, maybe less, and it’s a lot of money to advantage a small number of people at such a large cost. And it is ridiculous to think that the money is going to Mom and Pop farmer. It goes to big agribusiness. If you just moved the Iowa caucus elsewhere, things might change.

To see last week’s very popular interview subject of “Overfishing” click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s comments on the subject of climate change.

Photo credit: FlickrCC by Martin LaBar. Monarch butterfly caterpillar.

Ten Basic Rules for Following the Mediterranean Diet

Still Life with Mackerels, Lemons and Tomatoes – Vincent van Gogh, 1886

Obesity is one of the world’s top health problems and the problem is growing worse each year. We, believe it or not, are in control of what we eat. No one is force-feeding us. Because the Mediterranean diet is both healthy and flavorful, it is possible to lose weight and control our weight without being deprived of delicious comfort foods.

As we northern hemisphere populations are entering our short, dark, winter days of the year during which people often put on some extra pounds, let’s take a look at the simple guidelines for following the Mediterranean Diet. Following this diet is not expensive, and the cooking required by it is simple. It allows for a great amount of flexibility and customization, too.

This diet also fits the smart adage “everything in moderation”. And don’t forget that the bottom line for the success of any diet is the portion size.

Keep yourself moving, too, and Bon appétit!


1. Meals should be primarily vegetarian and include whole grains, legumes such as cooked dry beans, peas, or lentils, and vegetables. Use lots of herbs and seasonings for flavor.

2. Eat fruits and vegetables every day, several times a day. Good choices are tomatoes, grapes, broccoli, olives, spinach, eggplant, beans, peppers, and berries. Try to eat fresh, local, in season, or from your own garden. Include fermented olives and capers.

3. For dietary fat, use olive oil. Use it on breads, vegetables, and for cooking. Nuts are also good, especially walnuts.

4. Eat whole grains daily such as whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, oats, brown rice, and couscous.

5. Fish should be eaten a few times a week, especially oily fish like mackerel, tuna, salmon, trout, herring and sardines.

6. Dairy should only be eaten about once a week. Eat cheese and yogurt occasionally. Eggs should be limited to four per week.

7. Red Meat should be eaten only once every week or two, in a small portion size about equal to a deck of playing cards. Small portions of poultry, lamb or pork can also be eaten once a week, or so.

8. Dessert should be eaten only once a week. Ideas for fruit as dessert include broiled grapefruit with brown sugar, pears with honey, or baked apples with brown sugar and raisins.

9. A glass of red wine with one meal each day is fine. Drink plenty of water.

10. One of the healthy lifestyle secrets of the Mediterranean is to do moderate movement throughout the day such as noble work like sweeping the floor, gardening, or hanging out laundry, and walking or biking instead of driving to do errands and visit friends and family. Frequent social interactions and connections are also important, including dining with friends, family, and neighbors.


This diet is a heart healthy diet and its environmental impacts are gentler on the land.

This Election from a Food and Agricultural Perspective

Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton

I don’t talk politics.

I don’t like politics.

So I never thought I’d be writing about the election today, but after seeing the results and a few of the headlines, I decided it would be appropriate. No, I’m not going to get into who won which race in which state and how that will influence Ag policy. This site is named “big picture” for a reason.

The big question journalists are trying to answer today is why voters are so dissatisfied. There was so much hope for change back when President Obama was elected six years ago.

That change never came. In agriculture, his appointment of former lawyer-politician, Tom Vilsack, as Secretary of Agriculture was pivotal in ensuring that corporate agriculture interests would prevail. In my opinion (I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again) I think that Tom Vilsack will go down in history as one of the worst Secretaries of Agriculture that this nation has ever seen. Not since the days that led up to the dust bowl has our nation had such little respect for the soil, for wildlife, or for biodiversity. Under him we lost more than 10 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program acres (CRP) as we ploughed up the Dakota Prairie Pothole region to grow corn that we never needed.

And why? Where did that get us?

A few pockets got lined by taxpayers for a short while, but, by adding so many acres to monoculture crop growing, we ended up with today’s low commodity prices for Midwestern farmers which are below production costs. Today’s producer questions how to eke out a living next year. John Deere, ADM, and Monsanto did fine, however. Their sales have thrived over the past six years. The monarchs, the song birds, the honeybees, the soil, the Gulf Dead Zone, rural populations, rural main streets, rural vitality? Not so thriving. There is always a price to be paid.

Lord knows I’ve tried to explain ad nauseum why the most damaging and senseless policy here in the U.S. is the burning of our corn crop in our gasoline tanks. This policy is the root of the problem that has caused so much of the destruction we’ve seen these past six years. And the small sanely proposed reduction in the ethanol mandate by the EPA last year was never even acted upon, probably because no one wanted it to contribute to a loss of votes in yesterday’s election. Talk about ineffectual government, ineffectual leadership. They can’t even throw us a bone.

We have a population of thoughtful thinking voters who are opposed to corporate agriculture monoculture policies – policies which are financially backed by the tax payer. These voters are not happy.

We have the producers of these monoculture crops who are constantly struggling to pay for their input costs, battle their super weeds, and get the shaft from the public for their farming methods. They are not happy either for the box they’ve been backed into by today’s policy.

We’ve got a nation in which one-third of our adults is obese – at least in part, due to food policies. The fat unhealthy citizen feels helpless and is unhappy.

Thoughtful thinking voters are concerned about food policy and are trying to vote with their dollars to create the change they would like to see. They want to know where their food comes from and they’d like to eat local. I have watched over the past six years as media coverage of farming has exploded because the reader wants to know more. Most of us are concerned about food safety and quality. The foodie voters are unhappy, too.

We’ve got young people who would like to farm. But today’s mess, in part due to high land prices created by our farm bill and our mandated ethanol use, makes it nearly impossible economically for beginners to enter the field. And we sure could use those young farmers. These young would-be farmers aren’t happy with today’s system, either.

Things wouldn’t have to be this way. When we saw an energy crunch back in 2005, we started getting appointed Secretaries of Energy who had PHD’s in physics, who understood the science behind energy.

We need look no further than the EU for a better food and agricultural value system. In the EU, the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development has been led by Dacian Cioloş these past four years, a man trained in organic agriculture who values the soil, sustainable farming methods, and who was an advocate for preserving 7 percent of the EU’s farmland for environmental priority areas, areas which would be off-limits to the use of chemicals and high-tech farming methods. EU leaders and its citizens are willing to pay more for their food in order to preserve the smaller farms. They aren’t so interested in exporting agricultural products because they know that there are environmental costs to pay in doing so – which would make the nations there less secure in the future.

Here, it would seem, we try to export agricultural products to help make up for other bad economic choices we’ve made as a nation. Some of this is made possible only through the low wages paid to migrant laborers, another hot button in this election.

Where are we headed? Is there hope for real change in the future in the area of food and agriculture? Can we get Secretaries of Agriculture in the future who actually know the science of Agronomy before being awarded the keys to our agricultural department?

Only with… Hope and major changes.