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Pardes Yehuda: Is medical botany the answer to 'Silent Spring'?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Is medical botany the answer to 'Silent Spring'?

In the book that is credited with triggering the American environmentalist movement in the 1970s, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) claimed that the widespread use of chemical pesticides and herbicides were having an irreparable effect on our natural environment and our health. The New York Times reports on Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a research scientist studying medical biochemistry and botany at the University of Ottawa school of medicine.

The article opens:
Diana Beresford-Kroeger pointed to a towering wafer ash tree near her home.

The tree is a chemical factory, she explained, and its products are part of a sophisticated survival strategy. The flowers contain terpene oils, which repel mammals that might feed on them. But the ash needs to attract pollinators, and so it has a powerful lactone fragrance that appeals to large butterflies and honeybees. The chemicals in the wafer ash, in turn, she said, provide chemical protection for the butterflies from birds, making them taste bitter.

Many similar unseen chemical relationships are going on in the world around us. “These are at the heart of connectivity in nature,” she said.

The main focus of the report is on the many uses of trees and the many effects they have on our health and environment. Ms. Beresford-Kroeger has a somewhat radical idea in how we can incorporate medical botany into our urban planning and sustainable development. Again, from the NYT:
She favors what she terms a bioplan, reforesting cities and rural areas with trees according to the medicinal, environmental, nutritional, pesticidal and herbicidal properties she claims for them, which she calls ecofunctions.

Wafer ash, for example, could be used in organic farming, she said, planted in hedgerows to attract butterflies away from crops. Black walnut and honey locusts could be planted along roads to absorb pollutants, she said.

This theory, if researched and implemented correctly could spell the end of the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides, if the same result could be achieved by creative foresting.

Ultimately, the article leaves the reader with the notion that we really know very little. "Dr. Wilson, at Harvard, said that more research into the role of trees in the ecosystem was imperative and that it was alarming how little was known. 'We need more research of this kind to use the things we have, such as trees, to their fullest,' he said." "We," of course, are urban westerners. Indigenous peoples, have incredible knowledge of their native botany and its medical uses.

This knowledge is not lost and we can learn it from others. The important research that Dr. Diana Beresford-Kroeger is incredibly important for the future of our food production and could be key in producing urban farming as a reality.

Millions of pounds of synthetic chemicals are dropped on our food supply, and therefore into our soil and water, to protect crops from bugs. These chemicals are not harmless. 'Bioplanning' provides an alternative to the wasteful and harmful practice that utilizes our natural ecosystems instead; cycles and processes 'built in' so that our planet functions in balance and order.

Check out the article, it's a good read!

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