The Plant Destroyer


The plant pathogen genus Phytophthora, a water mold with similarities to a fungus, is a worldwide threat to ornamental and commercially valuable plants due to how it can develop undetected in the early stages of an infestation. While there are some species of Phytophthora that begin an infestation on the above ground portion of a plant, a much larger portion of the approximately 170 known species of the pathogen start out destroying a plant from within its roots. Phytophthora moves upward from the roots through the water channels of the plant, interfering with the plant’s ability to absorb water as it goes. The effect makes the plant appear drought-stricken, which is essentially the case.


One of the plants heavily afflicted by Phytophthora in the past 30 plus years has been the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, and specifically the cocoa trees planted in western Africa, where most of the world’s cocoa beans are produced. The species of Phytophthora doing the most damage in that period has been Phytophthora megakarya, a disease that blackens the pods which contain the cocoa beans, rendering most of them unfit for consumption. This disease and a virus transmitted by mealybugs called cacao swollen shoot virus (CSSV) in combination have decimated cocoa tree plantations in western Africa in recent decades.

Plant Disease Triangle
A Venn diagram showing the combination necessary for disease to form. This can apply to humans and animals as well as to plants. Illustration by Earlycj5.

Phytophthora megakarya was introduced from the Americas, where it had long co-existed with the native cocoa trees. The cultivated cocoa trees of western Africa had developed for generations without having to cope with infestations from megakarya, though they had long been contending with Phytophthora palmivora, a less devastating disease for them.

CSSV was native to the forest trees of western Africa, where it did little damage because of long term co-evolution of the trees with the virus. The introduced cocoa trees had no inherited defense against CSSV, resulting in afflicted cocoa trees losing vigor and dying within a few years. Meanwhile, the ants that farmed the mealybugs for their sugary secretions have ensured they continue to live safe from predators by guarding them, even building shelters for them.

Chocolate has grown steadily more expensive, at a rate beyond ordinary inflation, due primarily to shortages of cocoa beans caused by these pathogens. Another reason for chocolate price increases has been related to the salutary shift away from indentured labor on cocoa plantations, making the price more accurately reflect the true cost of production. The cost of production is bound to catch up with any resource as nature asserts itself in one way or another, or in many ways, and imagining that we are immune or insulated from the effects of that assertion is mere hubris and folly. Ultimately, we will pay the price.
β€” Izzy


Spilt Milk


“Oats. n.s. [aten, Saxon.] A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
β€” from A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson.

The detrimental effect on the dairy industry of lockdowns state governments have instituted in reaction to the coronavirus could have long term consequences, tipping the balance abruptly toward greater production of plant derived milks, butters, and cheeses. Traditional dairy has been losing market share to plant derived dairy for decades, with losses getting larger especially in the past decade. Now loss of revenue due to coronavirus lockdowns of schools and restaurants could mean bankruptcy for many dairy farms and a long term shift toward lower production as traditional dairy transforms into a lesser role.

There will no doubt always be demand for traditional dairy products, but if supermarket shelf space is an indicator of what consumers want, then plant derived milks have taken the largest chunk of shelf space away from traditional dairy, while butters, and particularly cheeses have been less competitive. The consumption of animal milk products has always been a peculiarly human practice. The desire for milk and associated products is so great that people will go to great lengths to produce and consume ersatz milk derived from nuts and grains. It is beyond the scope of this article to investigate why that is; it is enough merely to point out that consumption of milk fulfills for many people a deep-seated need, a need met for all other mammals in infancy, and then forgotten.


Hafermilch aus dem Bio-Supermarkt
Different brands of oat milk available in a German organic supermarket in September 2015. Photo by Fretdf.

“Milk. n.s. [meelc, Saxon; melck, Dutch.]
1. The liquor with which animals feed their young from the breast.
2. Emulsion made by contusion of seeds.”
β€” from A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson.

It follows then that animal milk production for human consumption is an artificial activity, consequently involving some pain and suffering by the animals, both mothers and their artificially weaned young. We have done these things for so long, for centuries going back ten thousand years or more to the beginning of agriculture, that we think the activities are natural. They are not. The closest parallel in the rest of the animal kingdom can be seen with how ants tend to aphids in order to secure for themselves the aphids’ honeydew secretions. Those secretions are not intended for consumption by the aphids’ young, however, but are merely a byproduct of their ingestion of plant juices. The relationship is closer – but not entirely the same – as our relationship to honey bees than it is to our relationship with dairy animals. The relationship we have with dairy animals is mere exploitation, closer to that of vampire bats with their prey, or to bloodsucking insects with their victims, or even to a virus with its host.
β€” Izzy


Love of Life


β€œTo see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
β€” William Blake (1757-1827), Auguries of Innocence

Biophilia – love of life – is a term popularized by the American biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson in his research and books of the last two decades of the twentieth century. Mr. Wilson was interested in how humans appear to require some connection with nature no matter how much the modern world tends to divorce them from that connection. City dwellers in particular may be live amidst steel and concrete structures to such an extent that they never step on grass in the course of an average day, but they still will find comfort at home in tending a few houseplants and a pet or two. Mr. Wilson proposed that the need to maintain a connection with nature was so pervasive in humans that it went beyond culture to genetics, and was therefore innate and undeniable. Humans may pretend to be above nature and separate from it, but their genetics and behavior said otherwise.

Central Park-from Rock Center2
Looking north at Central Park from the top of Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. 2009 photo by Piotr Kruczek.

Scientific research since then has confirmed Mr. Wilson’s hypothesis, some of it confirming common sense notions such as how hospital patients with window views of trees and greenery appeared to recover faster than ones with a view of the building next door. The idea of biophilia itself appeals to common sense, but science needs to quantify things, and that’s for the best because there have after all been other notions in the past which seemed common sense, such as the Sun revolving around the Earth. Lately there has been a resurgence in belief that the Earth is flat, though it’s hard to tell just how seriously Flat Earthers expect to be taken by everyone else, or even by themselves.

Everyday proof of biophilia, however, seems so commonplace that it is hard to refute. Still, there are people who live for making their environment as sterile and devoid of nature as possible, and it seems there are more of them now than ever. Children especially seem to have withdrawn from nature both on their own and because of their parents’ protective instincts. Children now spend an inordinate amount of their time in front of screens, and much of the remainder of their time is structured education or play. They are seldom left on their own to scratch around in the dirt in their backyards and observe the ants at work, as Edward O. Wilson himself did for countless hours as a youngster and, indeed, as an adult, since his specialty as a biologist has been myrmecology, the study of ants.

Central Park west
A western part of the 843 acres of Central Park in New York City. Recent appraisals of the value of Central Park’s 1 and 1/4 square miles of prime real estate in the middle of Manhattan are well over $500 billion. May biophilia influence New Yorkers for generations to come so that they continue to prize Central Park for its connection to nature rather than its speculative value in dollars. Photo by Ad Meskens.

The steep drop in hands-on discovery of nature among the latest generation does not bode well for future conservation measures when those children grow up and start making their own decisions. Reading about a tree in a book can take a person only so far without the furtherance of education granted by resting under the shade of a tree on a hot day. Even the tactile act of reading a paper book, its pages made from trees, gives the senses a greater depth and breadth of perception than reading from an electronic screen. We are animals, with the senses of animals, and we engage the world through those senses every bit as much as we engage it with our brains, even when we are cut off from nature. But with a lack of input from our senses our decisions about the natural world are likely ill-informed, and much as we might try to help conserve animals, plants, and resources, we are not doing as much as we could because they are not part of our everyday world. How can you love the natural world which supports you if you cut yourself off from it and avoid embracing it with not only your intelligence, but with all your senses so that you can feel it as well as know it, and understand thereby you are a part of it and not separate from it?
β€” Izzy


Consider the Source


Fake news is in the news these days. There’s nothing new about that, really. We have always had to contend with dubious sources for our information, and ultimately we have always had to fall back on our own healthy skepticism and critical thinking to discount those sources. The difference now seems to be with how fast and how far lies can spread through social media, and how well people who believe those lies can insulate themselves from contrary information. Don’t confuse them with the facts!


A reasonable discussion of the issues confronting our society is not possible when different sides come armed with their own facts, all of which conveniently confirm their biases. Before discussion is even possible we have to agree on at least some facts that are, as it were, self-evident. If we insist on our own so-called facts to the exclusion of others, then we descend into tribalism.

What is truth
“What is truth? Christ and Pilate”
painting by Nikolai Ge


How to determine fact from fiction? Common sense observations are a good place to start. Gravity is a fact. Dispute it at your own peril. The Earth is round, as one can see when the Moon moves into the Earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse. Despite that observable fact, because the conclusion requires a leap into abstract reasoning many people throughout history have not agreed the Earth was round. Some people still don’t agree. From celestial mechanics down to whether an ant can move a rubber tree plant all by itself, there is more or less room for dispute regarding the facts of life, depending on how well we can prove them ourselves or trust the proofs of others.

Think of all the common expressions people have used over the years relating to skepticism and the alternative, gullibility:

  • Prove it!
  • Show me!
  • The proof is in the pudding.
  • There’s a sucker born every minute.
  • Tell it to the marines!
  • I’ll believe it when I see it.
  • Falling for something hook, line, and sinker.
  • If you believe that one, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.

There are many more, of course. Another expression has to do with learning a hard lesson from gullibility:

  • Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

A twist on that with a nod to a rock song by The Who was coined by George W. Bush:

Currier and Ives Brooklyn Bridge2 courtesy copy
1883 illustration of the Brooklyn Bridge, looking west; by Currier and Ives


Facebook and other social media sites which share news sources with their members have promised to more vigilantly curate what they allow on their platforms, but ultimately the responsibility lies with readers to view all news skeptically, and question their own willingness to hear what they want to hear and little else.
– Ed.