Lunar Hay Fever

As allergy season gears up in the northern hemisphere, yesterday brought news that even leaving the planet will bring no relief. A press release announcing the publication of a new paper in the journal GeoHealth warned that future astronauts may well suffer from “lunar hay fever,” complete with the characteristic sneezing, watery eyes, and sore throat.

In a fever of my own, I immediately assumed the research was about how the Moon-based agriculture of tomorrow will likely introduce new seasonal allergies into an otherwise season-less lunar year—and thus markers for a new, extra-terrestrial almanac. The term “hay fever”, after all, refers to the malady’s principal trigger: pollen from grasses, levels of which peak between May and July in much of the Northern Hemisphere, before the stems are cut down and bundled to make hay. John Bostock, the British doctor popularly regarded as the “father of hay fever science,” seems to have been the first to use the term in 1828, in follow-up to a 1819 paper that presented his own symptoms in a thinly disguised case study.

“With respect to what is termed the exciting cause of the disease, since the attention of the public has been turned to the subject,” he wrote, “an idea has very generally prevailed, that it is produced by the effluvium from new hay and it has hence obtained the popular name of hay-fever.”

In Bostock’s own opinion, the rays and heat of the sun were to blame; the earliest mention of seasonal catarrh, in a Persian text from 865, pointed the finger at roses instead. (It was titled “On the Reason why the Heads of People Swell at the Time of Roses and Produce Catarrh.”) Indeed, though Europeans appeared to be unaware of this paper, as of much Islamic knowledge, in the 1500s, Italian doctors referred to rare cases of seasonal allergies as “the rose cold.” In 1565, for example, Leonhardus Botallus of Pavia described persons “who held the smell of roses in deadly hatred because it gave rise to headache, sneezing and troublesome itching of the nose.”

By the mid-1850s, hay fever had become well recognised, at least in Britain—indeed, a German researcher labeled England as the “haunt of hay fever.” No less a personage than the King, William IV, was said to be a sufferer, reportedly escaping to Brighton to breathe the sea air each summer.

Intriguingly, the rapid rise of hay-fever took place during a time of equally rapid urbanisation in the U.K., as well as agricultural intensification, as a shrinking group of farmers fed a growing population. This link was pointed out in 1873, by another British scientist with hay-fever, Charles Blackley, who tested coumarin, the molecule responsible for the scent of newly mown hay, before narrowing in on the true cause: pollen.

IMAGE: LPX, or the Lunar Plant Growth Experiment. Photographs courtesy NASA Ames.

But, sadly, for a term so bound up with the history of agriculture, hay fever has since come to mean any form of allergic rhinitus, or nasal inflammation triggered by the immune system in response to atmospheric allergens. Thus, it turns out that the irritants responsible for the “lunar hay fever” mentioned in this new GeoHealth paper are in its soil, rather than its future crops. (Indeed, the term “lunar hay fever” was coined way back in 1972, by Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, to describe the watery eyes and sneezing fits he suffered after breathing in the lunar dust brought back into the command module on the surface of his spacesuit.)

After exposing human lung cells to finely ground-up lunar soil simulants, scientists at Stony Brook University documented significant injury—up to 90 percent of cells were killed, making it impossible to even measure the DNA damage. It seems that tomorrow’s lunar gardeners will have more to worry about than flowering mustard and cress.

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The Rise of Wackaging

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IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via.

If you’ve bought juice, crisps, cereal bars, soups, “breakfast pots” (porridge, as was), or any number of other ready-to-eat packaged foods in the U.K. this millennium, you may have noticed that your snack fancies a chat.

“British food packaging now has a matey, at worst babyish, tone that simply didn’t used to be there—commonly, food is describing itself in the first person,” explained an unimpressed Sophy Grimshaw, writing in The Guardian in 2014. “My basket of groceries now addresses me as though we are killing time on Facebook.”

This phenomenon has a name: wackaging, coined by journalist Rebecca Nicholson. Nicholson launched a tumblr to collect examples of the form in 2011, with the tagline “I blame Innocent smoothies.”

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IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via.

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IMAGE: Slightly blurry Innocent wackaging via Buzzfeed.

An interview with Innocent Drinks’ co-founder, Richard Reed, in today’s Observer confirms Nicholson’s suspicions. In a Q&A, Reed describes founding the company in 1999, with his “two closest mates,” outlines his philosophy of success, and confesses to the wackification of British packaging.

Is it true you were personally responsible for “wackaging”—the quirky labels that are now everywhere?
Yes, that was part of my beat. I do think, oh my God, will my long-term contribution to the species be that I was the guy who introduced really annoying body copy on packaging?

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IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via London Copywriter.

The standard media reaction to wackaging seems to be a pained grimace: for The Independent it triggers “a cute sense of irritation” at being treated “like idiots or children”; Buzzfeed’s listicle on the subject is headlined “16 Enraging Examples of Cutesy Packaging”; and Grimshaw concludes her article with a despairing plea, “Let’s please stop before ‘store in a cool, dry place’ becomes ‘I love it in the cupboard!'”

I, on the other hand, have quite a soft spot for it—a sentiment that is only increased by learning the inspiration behind Innocent’s labeling copy:

Was it an Innocent innovation?
If we can make one claim, we can make this—that was new. I’ll tell you where it came from: have you seen Kingpin?

The tenpin bowling movie with Woody Harrelson? Of course.
Well, there’s one scene, it’s not an integral scene, where somebody goes round to somebody else’s house and says: “Oh, I’m desperate for a dump, have you got anything to read on the toilet?” The guy looks around and passes him a bottle of shampoo and he looks at it and goes: “No, I’ve read this one already.” That’s where the idea came from.

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IMAGE: Innocent wackaging via.

This revelation raises a couple of thoughts. Firstly, might Dr. Bronner’s be true progenitor of wackaging? And, secondly, given that the rise of smartphones over the past decade has taken care of any possible bathroom- (not to mention commute-, kitchen table-, supermarket queue-, solo dining-, etc.) reading material shortage, why has wackaging become so ubiquitous during the same timeframe?

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IMAGE: Reddit user IRONFIRE.

The answer, I think, lies in seeing wackaging as simply a novel and perhaps peculiarly British chapter in the long story of packaging’s efforts to engender trust in an era of mass production. As I’ve written before, on the subject of butter packaging, the widespread decline in personal knowledge of food producers from the end of the eighteenth century is reflected in the simultaneous rise in packaging design that attempts to fill that gap.

As Gary Cross, co-author of Packaged Pleasures, explained on a recent Gastropod episode all about the history and science of packaging, the first labels promised a sanitary, standardised product—a cereal or cracker you could trust by virtue of its being made by machine.

More recently, as consumers have begun to mistrust “industrial” food, and sought instead to know where their food has come from and who made it, label copy has provided carefully edited personal stories and (frequently fake) geographies.

Seen in that light, wackaging is simply another iteration in this long shift from trusting people, to trusting institutions and companies, to trusting people again—a change that is playing out across society, not just in terms of food.

The difference, of course, is that if I had bought squashed fruit before the Industrial Revolution, I would likely have known the person who grew it; today, my only acquaintance with Richard Reed and his friends is through their label copy and media presence. In a way, Reed is like an online friend: the labels aim to communicate that same sense of knowing someone that you get from following the Twitter feeds of people you’ve never met, a technologically mediated kind of intimacy that is still real in its own way. Indeed, if packaging is a form of literature, wackaging is the social media equivalent.

Today, though, Innocent Drinks is ninety percent owned by Coca-Cola, a company that is synonymous with the industrial food system. Wackaging is simply part of Innocent’s brand now, rather than being any kind of personal connection to the people who made your smoothie. And corporations, despite the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, are not people. That, combined with its ubiquity, likely spells wackaging’s eventual demise, its authenticity eroded beyond belief. Enjoy those quirky labels while you can!

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Egg on Your Face

An egg, it turns out, is not just the best thing to put on top of almost any dish. For starters, artists have been using eggs as a canvas for centuries; the International Egg Art Guild showcases some fine examples of “eggery,” from delicate laser-cut eggshells to traditional Ukranian wax-resist methods. The photo galleries from its annual Masters of Egg Art competition are well worth a browse.

But using eggs to copyright clown make-up? That was new to me when I read about it on Atlas Obscura last week.

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IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photograph by Luke Stephenson.

In the article, associate editor Ella Morton describes the Clown Egg Register, as documented by photographer Luke Stephenson. Each of the few hundred eggs in the collection serves as “a copyright register for a clown’s personal make-up design,” the Register’s curator, clown Matthew Faint, told the Financial Times in 2011. (Faint’s own egg boasts an elongated black-edged white outline around the lips and eyes, red cheeks and lips, and a flower-bedecked bowler hat.)

The Register started as a hobby: Stan Bult, a circus enthusiast who founded the International Circus Clowns Society in 1946, painted portraits of his founding members on blown eggshells for fun. Bult died in 1966, and, according to Morton, many of his initial egg portraits have since been crushed. But, when the Society reformed as Clowns International in 1978, the egg tradition was revived.

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IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photograph by Luke Stephenson.

Today, writes Morton:

A designated “egg artist”—currently Debbie Smith—paints a pottery egg for each clown who registers. Unlike the Bult-era eggs, which focused solely on faces, today’s eggs also incorporate elements of each performer’s costume. The clowns help the egg creation process by sending fabric swatches and photos of their made-up faces.

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IMAGE: Clown Egg Register photographs by Luke Stephenson.

Part of the Clown Egg Register, including the twenty-four eggs that remain of Bult’s oeuvre, is on display at Wookey Hole Caves, in Somerset. You can read the Atlas Obscura article in full here, and see more of the collection in Luke Stephenson’s short animation, below. Stephenson is currently working on a book about the Register, including the biographies of the men and women behind the make-up.

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Outside the Box: The Story of Food Packaging

The invention of food packaging is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It may seem hard to imagine today, but the first clay pots made the great civilizations of the ancient world possible, while paper’s first use, long before it became a surface for writing, was to wrap food. But packaging’s proliferation, combined with the invention of plastics, has become one of our biggest environmental headaches. In this episode, we explore the surprising history of how our food got dressed—and why and how we might want to help it get naked again.

In Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire, co-authors Gary Cross and Robert Proctor lead us through millennia of human ingenuity applied to the problem of how to contain food, from the clay pot, which transformed communal food reserves into wealth-generating private property, to the much more recent breakthrough in resealability represented by the Mason jar. That’s right, today’s hipster drinking vessel started life as the world’s first screw-lid container. Through the story of how soda got its pop and the invention of the cereal box, Cross and Proctor help us understand how recent mass-market food packaging is—and how it has revolutionized our relationship with food.

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Alongside these social and dietary transformations came an environmental nightmare. In the United States, the E.P.A. has found that a third of municipal solid waste—the stuff that goes into landfills—is packaging. And two-thirds of that once held food. But can we live without food packaging? We meet inventor David Edwards of Le Laboratoire and Café ArtScience in Cambridge, MA, who has developed and commercialized a form of edible packaging that keeps yogurt or ice-cream contained for fifty days, even after being rinsed under the tap.

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We explore the science behind his invention, but also the challenges that mean that, for now, his edibly packaged products are still sold in a box. And, with listener help, we explore the burgeoning “unpackaged” movement, in which individuals and small businesses are trying to reduce waste by reinventing the process of grocery shopping. Listen in now, and you’ll never look at a can of soup or a bag of spinach the same way again.

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The Great British Mistake

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IMAGE: Websters is one of only six dairies that is allowed to make Stilton cheese. Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

I am both stunned and heartbroken by the UK’s Brexit vote, as well as selfishly angry that my future as a European seems to have been taken away* by a disastrous combination of opportunistic politicians, racist liars, and a nostalgic and under-informed electorate. (*I am also in denial.)

But enough of politics, you say—what about food? Well, as it happens, Tim Lang of City University London and Victoria Schoen of the Food Research Collaborative recently published a paper examining the implications of Brexit for the United Kingdom’s food system. It surveys the extent to which every aspect of food in the UK is intertwined with Europe and EU policy, from imports (the UK relies on continental Europe for forty percent of its fruit and vegetable supply) to labour markets (nearly a quarter of the employees of UK food manufacturing businesses come from elsewhere in the European Union, as well as more than one in ten workers in the food and beverage service industry) to regulations (as Schoen points out, after more than forty years of ever closer integration, EU regulations and standards underpin UK food policy—and thus any decision to leave “would require us to re-inject these processes back into UK law.”)

As with everything to do with this unprecedented and uncertain process, it’s impossible to know how (if?) the disentanglement will occur, and thus which unravelings will be the most disruptive. I would rather not have had to find out.

Meanwhile, one of the thousands of regulations that will require renegotiation is the EU’s “Protected Name Food Scheme”, which guarantees that more than sixty British traditional food and drink specialities can only be produced in their region of origin, using traditional methods. The Protected Name Food Scheme is the means by which European producers ensure that we can’t call any old fizzy white wine champagne or that thinly sliced deli meat can never be sold as Parma ham.

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IMAGE: Butts Farm Rare Breeds, which raises and slaughters Gloucestershire Old Spot Pigs using traditional methods, which includes “access to wallows, dips, or showers.” Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

As Matthew O’Callaghan, chairman of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association (itself one of Britain’s protected foods), explained to the BBC, post-Brexit, the UK will have to enact its own legislation to protect these iconic products internally, as well as negotiate a new trade deal to ensure those protections are respected in Europe. “My fear,” he added, “is that it’s going to get lost in everything else that’s being discussed.”

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IMAGE: Forced rhubarb is grown in the dark and harvested by candelight, resulting in stalks that are more slender and tender. (In the dark, the stalks grow so fast that you can hear them squeak and pop.) Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

In other words, supposing anyone ever takes the final step off the cliff and actually invokes Article 50, it’s entirely possible that in a couple of years’ time, Kentish winemakers will be free to call their sparkling whites “champagne” and, conversely, French cheese makers will be free to market their hard yellow cheeses as cheddar. A 2013 study commissioned by the European Union found that, in general, the Protected Name Food Scheme conveyed considerable benefits to food growers and manufacturers, not least of which is being able to charge substantially more for their product. Without that price premium, it’s hard to imagine foods as labour intensive as Arbroath smokies or forced rhubarb would continue to be produced.

During the run-up to the referendum, the amazing photographer Martin Parr travelled the country to document some of Britain’s protected foods, from the candlelight harvest of Yorkshire’s “Rhubarb Triangle” to Rutland Bitter, a “session” beer made using water and yeast from Rutland Lake. If you are able to face further evidence of Britain’s loss, head over to The New Republic to check out more images from the series.

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From Seed Drills to Cyborgs

I wrote a short essay for the “Field Test” exhibition catalogue, reprinted below. You can find essays by the exhibition’s other advisers—Mukund Thattai, a faculty member at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, Jane Stout of Trinity College Dublin, Charles Spillane, head of the Plant & Agrobiosciences Centre at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and Andrew Douglas, who created Urban Farm, an agricultural start-up based in Dublin—as well as the exhibition’s curators, Zack Denfeld and Cathrine Kramer of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, and Lynn Scarff from the Science Gallery Dublin—online here.

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Jethro Tull—the man, not the British prog rockers—invented a horse-drawn seed drill in 1701. Using his machine, a farmer could, with a single motion, sow seeds at regular intervals and at the correct depth. Because Tull’s drill planted seeds in a straight line, it opened up the possibility of using a machine to remove weeds between the rows of crops. Tull went on to invent a mechanical horse-drawn hoe to do just that. Combined, his innovations reduced waste and greatly increased yield: the resulting productivity boost helped fuel Britain’s Agricultural Revolution, and, thus, its subsequent Industrial one. Of course, Jethro Tull’s seed drill—commonly considered the first agricultural machine—also set the stage for many of the most serious problems facing farming today, from monocultures to erosion.

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IMAGE: Jethro Tull’s Seed Drill, in Horse-hoeing Husbandry, 4th edition, 1762, via Wikipedia.

More often than not, thinking about the future of agriculture means thinking about the future of food. How will changes in the contents of our supermarkets and the composition of our dinner plates reshape the landscape around us in five, ten, or even fifty years? “Field Test” offers a rare opportunity to consider this fundamental relationship from the other, less-considered point of view: how will changes in the science and technology of farming change what we eat—and how we live?

If history is any guide, those changes will be both all-encompassing and rather slow. The dawn of agriculture, for example—an invention that is described with equal frequency as humanity’s best and worst idea—eventually led to the development of mathematics, measurement, property rights, and government, while disrupting the planetary nitrogen cycle, triggering the Sixth Great Extinction, rewriting genomes across hundreds of species, and even weakening human shin bones.

These kinds of massive changes occurred over millennia, but even smaller shifts take generations: it wasn’t until a century later, in the early 1800s, that Jethro Tull’s seed drill finally displaced the ancient method of hand-broadcasting seed. Farmers are not, as a general rule, Luddites: as in any field, there are first adopters and laggards, and new technology often requires time and iteration in order to work at scale and economically. Plants and animals provide their own inertia, by virtue of their lengthy growing cycles—if a newly planted tree only starts to produce apples after five years, ripping out an orchard to introduce new cultivars or make space for robotic harvesters may also have to wait.

Meanwhile, forecasting the future is a notoriously failure-strewn activity; humans are especially bad at imagining transformations that are long, gradual, and interconnected, as those prompted by agricultural innovation tend to be. Nonetheless, the seeds of future farms are here now.

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IMAGE: Sketch from Cyrus Hall McCormick’s 1845 patent for an improved reaper, via Wikipedia.

When Cyrus Hall McCormick’s mechanical reaper machine began the “power farming” era in 1831, it harvested as much grain in a few hours as two or three men could in a day, but it was for the most part seen as noisy, unreliable, and impractical. Few contemporaries had the foresight to imagine that, over the next 150 years, mechanization would mean that farming would slip from a majority activity to a specialised profession carried out by a tiny percentage of the population.

Today, as embedded sensors, drones, and robot harvesters promise to revolutionise farming once again, can we do any better at predicting the future? If we follow their logic across continents, cultures, and climates, what can the signals gathered here—the kitchen bioreactor, the franchised apple, acoustic pest control—tell us about future ecosystems, epidemics, economic models, and, of course, meals?

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Field Test

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IMAGE: Screenshot from the Science Gallery’s Field Test video—watch it in full here.

In Dublin, my smog meringue collaborators at the Center for Genomic Gastronomy have been busy curating an exhibition all about the future of farming. Called “Field Test,” the interactive installation is on display at the Science Gallery until June 5, and, if you’re in town, you should most definitely visit. There are countless events, publications, and exhibits about the future of food, but many fewer about how shifts in agricultural technology and ownership will also help reshape landscapes and dinner plates alike. “Field Test” is a welcome—and exciting—counter-balance.

Some of the artifacts on display are simply on the cutting edge of today’s technology: something like 25,000 calves have already been born using Moo-call, the latest in wearable computing for cows. The Silent Herdsman, a smart collar and software platform, has been generating data points on the eating and rumination habits of British cattle ten times per second since 2010.

IMAGE: “Second Livestock” by Austin Stewart.

These two devices are both in the exhibition’s section on “Farm Cyborgs,” which Zack Denfeld and Cat Kramer of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy have identified as a “bridge species,” somewhere between electrical engineering and anatomical reality, the cloud and the manure lagoon. Other items on display in this section are more speculative, and, indeed, provocative: Austin Stewart’s “Second Livestock,” an Oculus Rift for chickens, conjures up an entirely credible future in which the use of virtual reality to enhance livestock well-being is standard practice—but also raises the question of whether our own technologically mediated existences qualify as humane living conditions.

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IMAGE: “Stir-Fly: The Nutrient Bug 1.0,” The Tissue Culture & Art Project in collaboration with Robert Foster. “Field Test.” Credit: Science Gallery Dublin.

Elsewhere, the plastinated remains of the first cultured beef burger, served by Mark Post in 2013, are on display alongside a working, table-top bio-reactor that is growing insect cells within the gallery. Unlike mammalian tissue, insect cells can be grown at room temperature, making them a perfect protein for domestic fabrication. (The installation is called “Stir-Fly,” which may or may not be a serving suggestion; no word on whether its harvest will be available for sampling!)

My favourite section, at least from afar, may well be the Seed Boutique: an installation that puts ten carefully selected seeds on a pedestal—and in a gumball machine, which dispenses one of the ten at random, in return for a one Euro coin.

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IMAGE: “Field Test.” Credit: Science Gallery Dublin.

These range from the Beefy Resilient Grex Bean, a pulse that not only “tastes more beefy than beef does,” but is part of the Open Source Seed Initiative, to an Outredgeous Lettuce seed, specially bred for flavour as part of the Culinary Breeding Network and distinguished by being the first lettuce grown and eaten in space. Together, the seed selections raise issues of intellectual property and agricultural espionage, industrial consolidation and food independence. And they force us to question the goals of plant breeding and genetic modification: is yield or pest resistance actually more important than environmental resilience or flavour?

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IMAGE: Astronauts sampling space-grown Outredgeous red romaine lettuce. Credit: NASA TV.

I was honoured and delighted to serve as an adviser to the exhibition, and even more chuffed to be listed as curator of one of the installations: Pest Sounds. I selected a soundtrack of insect recordings from a database assembled by U.S.D.A. entomologist Richard Mankin, whose research focuses on the acoustic detection of pests in stored foods, as well as sonic pesticides. For more on the challenges of finding a seventeen-day-old rice weevil in a grain silo, as well as the possibility of exploiting male citrus psyllids’ attraction to the mooing of horny lady psyllids, you should read this Edible Geography post and listen to this “Field Recordings” episode of Gastropod.

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IMAGE: “Pest Sounds.” “Field Test.” Credit: Science Gallery Dublin.

I can’t wait to check out “Field Test” in person. Fortunately, I don’t have to: I’ll be in Dublin next week, giving a free talk at the Science Gallery on Tuesday evening. You can register here—hopefully I’ll see some of you there!

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Watery Biscuits

Carrs Water Biscuits

[Thanks, Dad.]

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Rootstock Archaeology

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IMAGE: Katie Holten, Photograph of an excavated Cox’s Pippen tree re-erected in a shed in East Malling (Original photograph (1952) courtesy of David Johnson, East Malling Research, UK), 2005.

On Christmas Day, artist Katie Holten posted this stunning image of an excavated Cox’s Orange Pippen tree, originally taken at East Malling Research in 1952.

The Cox is Edible Geography’s apple of choice: it is “considered the greatest-tasting apple of all time,” according to food writer Rowan Jacobsen. East Malling Research, the U.K.’s leading fruit research institute, also holds a special place in the otherwise cold heart of this refrigeration-obsessed author for its pioneering work on the controlled atmosphere storage of apples.

Holten’s photo, however, points toward another facet of East Malling Research’s outsized impact on the apple: the wholesale redesign of orchards around the world using so-called “dwarfing” rootstocks. As a pamphlet published to mark the laboratory’s centenary explains, before East Malling Research was founded in 1915, apple orchards consisted of “tall, widely spaced fruit trees, yielding about seven tonnes per hectare.”

Over the millennia since the apple’s domestication, growers had tried to exploit spontaneously occurring genetic mutations that made the trees shorter and thus easier to harvest, grafting the best fruiting varieties onto these cloned dwarfing rootstocks. The first order of business of the new lab in East Malling was to respond to the demand from Kentish orchardists to improve and standardise the various dwarfing rootstocks then in circulation. Pomologist Ronald Hatton studied the relationship between a tree’s anatomy, its “vigour” (scientific shorthand for an apple tree’s growth, health, and fruit yield), and its rootstock, screening cultivars from across Europe to select and breed a series of freely distributed rootstocks, labelled in descending tree-size order from M1 to M9.

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IMAGE: The effects of commercially available Malling rootstocks on apple tree height and shape.

Today, more than ninety percent of eating apples grown in the U.S. and Europe are grown on M9 rootstock. According to a report (PDF) issued in 2013, attempting to quantify East Malling Research’s value over its one hundred-year history, the M9 rootstock clone produces low, compact, and uniform trees. The result: growers could fit between 7-8,000 trees per hectare, compared to the 3-4,000 common in orchards before, vastly increasing the overall yield from the same amount of land. And, because the fruit could be picked without need for ladders, harvesting labour costs were halved. In its first forty years, between 1920 and 1960, the M9 rootstock, in the report’s conservative estimate, “provided 18m tonnes of additional apples globally as well as saving 70m hours of picking time.”

Beneath the surface, invisible and, outside the industry, unknown, this single clone has reshaped the global landscape and economics of apple production. But, if the impact of East Malling Research’s rootstock studies is astonishing, the techniques developed for studying tree roots are, as Katie Holten’s photograph hints, equally arcane and fascinating.

Wolfgang Böhm, a scientist at the Institut fur Pflanzenbau und Pflanzenzuchtung at the University of Göttingen, surveyed the history of root studies in his 1979 textbook, Methods of Studying Root Systems. He dates the first example of the traditional “skeleton technique” of dry root-excavation to the eighteenth century, when British clergyman Stephan Hales (who was also the first person to measure blood pressure) carefully dug around the roots of a sunflower in order to measure and weigh them. It wasn’t until 1926, Böhm writes, that the American ecologist J. E. Weaver “developed this simple excavation technique with garden tools into a recognized scientific method”—one that has remained largely unchanged ever since.

To excavate a tree root, one must dig a trench, far enough away from the plant so as not to accidentally lop off any sideways-spreading roots but close enough so as not to create extra work. For the trench, backhoes and shovels are permitted; according to Böhm, “Cullinan (1921) used dynamite … but in general this technique cannot be recommended.” From then on, however, the soil must be removed particle by particle from the plant-facing side of the trench. A variety of hand tools can be used, depending on the delicacy of the root system: Böhm lists “ice picks, small metal forks, screw drivers, forceps, spatulas, small dental picks and sharp pointed needles of different sizes.” As if this process was not already painstaking enough, the root system must, Böhm specifies, be drawn on a 3D grid and photographed as soon as it is uncovered.

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IMAGE: Anonymous man excavates grass root systems using a needle. This photograph and the one below from Wolfgang Böhm’s Methods of Studying Root Systems.

Raspberry root excavation

It’s hardly surprising, then, to read that “one man needed five weeks to excavate, measure, and record the root system of a 15-year-old lodgepole tree.” In all, Bohm writes, “nearly 60 tons of soil had to be moved in the excavation of a mature orchard tree” such as the Cox’s Orange Pippin, above.

Nonetheless, over the years, the scientists at East Malling Research have excavated dozens of apple trees, raspberry bushes, and strawberry plants, in order to develop new rootstocks as well as observe the effects of soil type, orchard density, irrigation, pruning methods, and shading on the root systems and resulting harvest.

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IMAGE: East Malling Research’s rhizotron, an architectural device for subterranean observation.

In the 1960s, East Malling Research supplemented the excavation method with the construction of the world’s first underground root laboratory, or rhizotron. This is an underground corridor whose walls consist of forty-eight shuttered windows, which researchers can open to peer out onto the root systems of adjacent trees and plants. At East Malling, the rhizotron has been planted with a Gala apple grafted onto M27, M26, and M9 rootstock, and, while the resulting photographs and measurements only document a section of the tree’s root system, they have the advantage of allowing observations over time.

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IMAGE: Apple tree excavation, 2013, from the East Malling Research annual report.

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IMAGE: “Fruit of the Tree,” East Malling Research’s display at the Chelsea Flower Show, 2013, via.

The tradition of dry excavation continues. Indeed, in 2013, East Malling Research won a medal at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show—the first ever awarded to a scientific exhibitor—with a display whose centrepiece was a fully grown apple tree on M9 rootstock. The video below gives a short glimpse of the process, which took a team of ten three weeks.

I had always thought of the branching filigree of a tree’s root system as a spectral mirror of its aboveground architecture, but, as it turns out, it is in fact the rhizosphere that determines the shape of the tree that we see.

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Honey Fences

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Gratuitous cute elephant photograph by Brian Snelson.

Edible Geography readers have perhaps heard of “pollinator pathways,” an initiative to thread together isolated pockets of green space into nectar-filled corridors, in order to give butterflies and bees easier passage across otherwise unfriendly urban expanses of concrete and asphalt. A recent article in British Airways’ High Life magazine about efforts to save Kenya’s last remaining elephants introduced me to an interesting twist on the concept of bee-based landscape design: “honey fences.”

Although the main threat to the elephants’ survival is ivory-market driven poaching, a significant number are also killed each year following altercations with local villagers. As Angela Carr-Hartley, director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, politely put it, “These communities have mixed feelings about an elephant coming into their smallholdings overnight, as they can wreak havoc eating the crops.”

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Beehive fence, photo via The Elephant and Bees Project.

Zoologist Lucy King came up with the honey fence solution, which takes advantage of the fact that elephants are terrified by the sound of bees. (The delicate skin inside their trunks is apparently particularly vulnerable to being stung.) King had read that elephants tend to avoid acacia trees, usually a favorite food, if bees have built a hive in the branches. Based on that initial insight, and after several years of behavioral experiments, including playing elephants the sound of disturbed bees from a hidden loudspeaker and filming their reaction, King developed the honey fence system: a series of hives, suspended at ten-metre intervals from a single wire threaded around wooden fence posts. If an elephant touches either a hive or the wire, all the bees along the fence line feel the disturbance and swarm out of their hives in an angry, buzzing cloud.

A pilot honey fence in 2009 proved successful, deterring all but one bull elephant, and The Elephants and Bees Project has since spread to sites across Africa. Neville Sheldrick of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust told Africa Geographic that nearby farmers are sure the fence is working: “When I visit they proudly walk me around showing me the footprints of elephants that have walked up to and along the fence in several locations before turning back towards the park.”

By encircling a village with a cordon of hives, the village’s crops are protected, the elephants steered away from potential conflict, and, adds Carr-Hartley, “the farmers are able to garner some revenue from the harvesting of honey.” The result of truly delightful example of interspecies landscape engineering, jars of “Elephant-friendly” honey are for sale at The Elephant and Bees Research Centre in Tsavo, Kenya.

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