Thursday, December 29, 2016

Yes We Have No Bananas

Dr. Ben Brown (right) with Jim Tolbert (left) and Dave Webster (center)

["Conkey's Tavern" was my first blog. It dealt with local and organic food issues and the environmental destructiveness of industrial farming and monocultures. This past September my friend, Ben Brown, sent me "Yes We Have No Bananas". It is a privilege and honor to publish it. It's food for thought (yes, the pun is intended) that our eating habits contribute to monoculturism and, thus, to more environmental destruction. For more information, there are links to some articles below.]

Yes We Have No Bananas


Although the impact of the mid-XIX century potato famine is still a hot topic of discussion, few ask if it could happen again.  The answer is a dramatic yes!   Bananas, a major source of protein for a large segment of the world’s population, are under siege from the Panama fungus [Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense]  which attacks the root system.   For over 50 years, horticulturalists have been designing strategies to combat this plague.  But just as the strategies evolved, so has the fungus and today it has done an end run. Not only does it destroy the plant, but it impregnates the soil with chlamydospores or spores which can remain dormant for many years. Consequently, the chlamydospores destroy any potential to replant.  So, you may ask, how did we come to this? 

In the beginning, there were bananas:

In spite of popular wisdom, not all plants were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent or Central Mexico.  The archaeological evidence suggests that bananas were first grown in special terraces in or around the Kuk Valley of central New Guinea some ten thousand years ago and spread throughout the island archipelagos that lie between Asia and New Guinea.   From these humble beginnings a wide range of varieties developed, each with its particular ecological requirements and each with its own taste and texture.  By 5,500 BP, bananas were firmly established as a major food source. 

In conjunction with pre-Islamic and pre-European colonialism and trade, the more hardy varieties spread around the world and settled in most tropical climates producing a dependable abundance of fruit.  Containing any where from 90 to 110 calories per banana, bananas became an important food source. On average they contain more than 10% of the daily value of a number of beneficial elements and vitamins such as potassium and manganese, and vitamins B6 and C.  Although they contain very little fat, what fat they do contain in high in Omega 3 and Omega 6. High in fiber with a low Glycemic Index, who’s gon’a complain?

But there was a catch.  Or maybe two.   They no longer produced pollen and so required the help of the human hand to produce fruit. In other words bananas were, and still are, clones.  Their inability to cross pollinate meant that most plants were clones with a reduced resistance to the external threats found in their new environments.  Slowly but surely these threats reduced their vigor. The natural impact of these weaknesses was multiplied by the introduction of mono-cropping: extensive plantations of just bananas.  Diseases could gallop across a property, and all too often, jump from one plantation to another, even before the disease could be identified and the appropriate action taken.  

In the case of Fusarium oxsporum the plant dies from dehydration.  The fungus enters the plants’ roots from whence it is transported into the xylem vessels and disrupts the vascular system by cutting off the circulation of foods and liquids. 

Minor problem you might say:  Banana splits haven’t been popular for years! But that is just first world view.  While Americans yearly import and consume just short of 12 kilograms per capita, Ugandans are at the other extreme.  They eat more than 20 times as much.
Although Uganda is the world’s second largest producer of bananas, relatively few are exported.  Most bananas are needed for the home market.  At 0.7 kg. per day, it has the highest per capita consumption. Burundi and Rwanda follow suit also consuming anywhere three to eleven bananas a day per capita.  This comes out to about 250 to 400 kg per annum.  Bananas are so important to the diet that in some places the words for food and bananas are synonymous.  The hyper dependence on bananas could lead to a crisis similar to mid-nineteenth century Ireland. 

While this crisis will be most poignant in central Africa, there are many other countries, such as Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras, where bananas are the food of the poor and any short fall will be catastrophic. 

Can anything be done?

Science in it’s full glory is striving to find the appropriate solution but money and means are far away.  At the moment the biologically the best solution would seem to be bananas with seeds, but it is not clear if seeded bananas would win Mark Twain’s approval.  But in the meanwhile biologists are continuing their research and attempting to create new hybrids and GM varieties that are marketable and resistant to both the known and unknown challenges. So far, material borrowed from onions and dahlias have increased resistance but have not produced plantains or bananas acceptable to the market – sweet, seedless and bright yellow when ripe.

So, is there a moral to this story?

Beware of introduced crops.  Beware of mono-cropping and in the meanwhile, don’t be bashful, eat all the bananas you can.  They’re gon’a change or disappear!

R. B. Brown
MUREF / Centro INAH Chihuahua
Av. 16 de Septiembre y Av. Juárez
Centro Histórico, Ciudad Juárez
32000 Chihuahua, México


Since graduating from the University of Arizona, Dr. Brown has worked largely in northern Mexico. His projects have included archaeological investigation and conservation as well as paleontology.  For the last few years he's been focusing on the history of northern Mexico and is presently working on a biography of Cástulo Herrera, a little know revolutionary who died in Ciudad Juarez in 1957. He is, or has been, a  member of a wide range of international, national and local professional organizations such as INQUA, ARARA, the Society of American Archeology and the El Paso County Historical Society as well as a founding member and founding board member of CARTA, the Camino Real Trail Association.  He has organized a number of international symposia in the US, Mexico, Spain, Russia, and the UK. Dr. Brown maintains an active interest in paleoecology.  His thesis was entitled: The Paleoecology of the Northern Frontier of Mesoamerica.  One of his first historical studies focused on using changes in the wholesale prices of maize in Chihuahua as proxy data for the identification of droughts and drought cycles.  At the same time he maintained an interest in the archaeology of Australasia, the development of terrace agriculture in Australasia and the early domestication of bananas.  Needless to say, bananas are his favorite fruit!

He is presently based at the Museo de la Revolucion en la Frontera in Ciudad Juárez.

For further reading:

Banana market faces great change as monoculture threatens extinction of West’s most popular variety

We have no bananas today

Industrial Agriculture: The outdated, unsustainable system that dominates U.S. food production

Monoculture Farming


How the Growth of Monoculture Crops Is Destroying our Planet and Still Leaving us Hungry

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Solar Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels or Wind . . .

. . . in developing countries such as China, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, South Africa, and India. Here are links for more information:

From Bloomberg Technology: World Energy Hits a Turning Point: Solar That's Cheaper Than Wind

From EcoWatch: It's Official: Solar Energy Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels

It is not the case here in the United States - yet. Nor will it be for a long time. We are still heavily invested in coal and natural gas to generate energy. But there is good news: U.S. Solar Surges in Record-Breaking Quarter.

Here in El Paso we know that El Paso Electric will ask for a rate hike very soon in January. They will probably go after rooftop solar again perhaps next summer. I'm still in favor of some kind of subsidy for those who install solar - a break on their property tax or a refund. Maybe it is time to deregulate the energy industry in El Paso. Let EPEC go head to head with the solar industry.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Faucet Design Will Conserve Water

Don't expect to find this faucet at Home Depot any time soon. A prototype will cost about $335. Since I am no manufacturing expert, I do not know exactly when we can buy one of these for our homes. It won't be long in the scheme of things and it certainly will be much less than the prototype cost.

A design student, Simon Qiu, has invented a faucet that creates a beautiful swirl pattern and uses 15% less water than current designs. The faucet's stream is gentler to the touch and comes out a bit faster than regular faucets. It helps conserve energy because temperature is pre-set.

Whenever this design is ready for the consumer market, I want a shower head too.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Shelving the Bicycle Plan?

Scott White and Mayor Oscar Leeser help to launch SunCycle Bike Share in September 2015.
(Picture stolen without permission from Scott's Facebook page.)

One wonders whether El Paso is really serious about its Bicycle Master Plan or if the plan was just window dressing like Tree El Paso. 

Recently the City announced that it was looking for a Bicycle Program Coordinator - someone to push the Bike Plan. Scott White applied. Scott is a leader in the bicycling community and the Policy Director of Velo Paso. He would have been the ideal person for the job. Unfortunately, after applying, Scott got this reply from the City:

"Thank you for your interest in the Bicycle Program Coordinator position with the City of El Paso. We appreciate your time and effort spent in completing the application and collecting the needed documents. Unfortunately, although this is an important position, the City has decided to cancel this recruitment and we invite you to apply for this position when it opens for recruitment, or other positions with the City as vacancies occur and are advertised. Please check our website weekly for new openings at

If you have any questions, please call us at 915-212-7321.

Hiring Department"

Hiring Department? How personal! The "City has decided to cancel this recruitment . . . " Probably it will be like the Veterans Officer that the City Manager also promised but is a position that doesn't seem to be going anywhere these days.

Scott emailed me that "canceling the recruitment" (great euphemism) "could spell the end of the Bike Program and lead to the shelving of the Bicycle Master Plan." Mr. White tells us that much time, energy and resources went into the plan.

El Paso is part of the important Southern Tier Bicycle Route. However, from city limit to city limit, bicyclers probably should do some praying.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Reduce Waste during the Holiday Season

Click image to enlarge.

Thank you, Ellen Smyth, Director of Environmental Services for the City of El Paso for sharing this infographic. Be sure to visit Recycle Right El Paso and Take Care of Texas

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Good News, Bad News?

It turns out that Trump did not pick McMorris Rodgers for Interior. Instead he turned to Ryan Zinke of Montana, a conservationist who has often voted with Democrats on conservation issues. That's the good news, we hope.

Bad news? Trump has picked former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to head the Energy Department. Perry is tied at the hip with Big Oil. He is a Director of the Board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company that wants to plow up sacred native land in North Dakota, Texas and build pipelines through the Big Bend and San Elizario, Texas. However, the Daily Beast points out that the Energy Department should really be called the Department of Nuclear Weapons. Let's hope that Perry won't have an "oops" moment while in his new office.

Nevertheless, look for strong support by Perry in the Trump cabinet for the pipelines. Also remember that this is the time to be active not whiny.

So, how can you help fight the Dakota Access Pipeline even if you can't go to North Dakota? Here are 10 Ways, including supporting the protesters' GoFundMe account

Monday, December 12, 2016

Environmental Opportunities During the Time of Trump

We all know that, for the next four years, we won't have a "green" government. Far from it. For EPA Mr. Trump has chosen Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier and someone who is deep in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry. Trump has chosen Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers whose overall League of Conservation Voters scorecard is 4% and in 2015 it was 0% for the year. She is all in favor of selling off public land to the gas and oil people. It's better to say that she's selling out our natural heritage. That great Republican President, Teddy Roosevelt, is spinning in his grave. 

Bottom line: don't expect the federal government to champion the environment in the next few years. In fact, expect it to do exactly the opposite including supporting the nasty, dirty coal industry.

There are two things that we can do as "greens". We can moan and groan and whine which will do us no good. True, there will be protests. There will also be court challenges and it will be worthwhile to financially support those groups that are best able to take on the federal government in court. Still, that's just spectator environmentalism. What can each of us do to make a difference to help our earth and to hold off the hordes of anti-environmentalists?

The next four years gives each of us the opportunity to examine our own lifestyles and see what changes that we can make personally that are more environmentally friendly and ecologically and socially just. 

We live in a market economy. Period. When we buy things, when we consume, that means that we give a green light to suppliers. That's how it works. If I'm in the business to find, distribute or sell natural gas and people are demanding it, I'm going to find, distribute and sell natural gas. El Paso Electric Company is looking for a hike in the fuel fee - a hike that is justified because the cost of natural gas has gone up. By law, when it goes down, they have to decrease that fee. Want to know how to decrease the cost of natural gas: demand more and produce more. How many of us want to live in a world without electricity? If that sounds enticing, try Aleppo.

My point is this, as a consumer of electricity and, therefore, of natural gas, I contribute to the market that leads to global warming. If I buy jewelry, I contribute to the pollution of metals mining. Heck, if I type another word on this computer and eat some more bandwidth with this blog or an email, I am contributing to the pollution caused by mining the rare earths needed to make electronic parts for my computer, cell phone and smart TV.

Obviously we need to find more sustainable sources of energy - or use more. We just need to know what moves the market and that may mean paying more for an extended period of time in order to "show" the market that we are demanding something else. How many of us will either buy solar panels in the coming year or sign-up for El Paso Electric's Community Solar Program? I just signed up to get their updates.

The opportunity that we have now is to examine our lifestyles and patterns of consumption and to make changes. Big government is not going to do it for us. Also, in a free market economy the biggest vote we have is the one we make with our spending. Sure, we can protest and sue and bang drums - and we probably should do some of that with Pruitt and Rodgers in charge. We can also ask ourselves how we can change habits and purchases. So, for the next four years, let's say the serenity prayer a thousand times daily and then deal with those changes that are within our power to make. Changes that, if stuck to, can change the market freely.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Marshall Carter-Trip "Nature Matters" Collection Officially Unveiled

Marshall Carter-Tripp and Rep. Jim Tolbert after the unveiling of the Nature Matters Collection. 
Photo by Neysa Hardin.
The Marshall Carter-Tripp "Nature Matters" Collection was officially unveiled at the Memorial Park Branch Library (MAP) yesterday evening. This new special collection which focuses on the natural world is now a part of the City of El Paso Public Library. Topics range from trees to water to sustainable energy to wildlife conservation and anything else related to our natural world and the human role in it!

Two years ago Marshall Carter-Tripp contacted me with her vision for a "library" of books she wished to donate. She wanted a place where others could borrow these books about ecology and the environment and where people could add other books to the collection. We discussed different places where people might find the books. However, publicizing the collection and having an accessible place for the collection where people could easily come to borrow books proved to be difficult. For a while they were housed at the Frontera Land Alliance office. 

Not long after my election to City Council, I suggested that we talk to the City of El Paso Public Library. I spoke with Quality of Life Interim Director, Dionne Mack. She immediately began working with library staff to make Marshall's dream come to reality. As Representative of District 2, I asked that the collection be housed at the Memorial Park Branch Library, a very centrally located place for the books. With the help of Director of Libraries, Mark Pumphrey, and others, Marshall's collection was cataloged. Last night it was unveiled in a ceremony presided over by Mr. Pumphrey with Nicole Ferrini, myself and, of course, Marshall Carter-Tripp as the speakers.

The City Library plans future events highlighting the collection.

Poignantly, the unveiling occurred on the birth date of the late and beloved ecologist, Kevin von Finger, who contributed greatly to the protection of environmental treasures in El Paso.

Representative Tolbert and the El Paso Library encourage donations of books to the Nature Matters collection, on topics ranging from trees to water to sustainable energy to wildlife conservation, and anything else you have found interesting related to our natural world and the human role in it!  Donations can be made at any library branch, or the Main Library Downtown.  Please mark them for Nature Matters, and include your name for the book plate!

If you would like to make a monetary donation for this collection,  make your check to the El Paso Public Library with “Nature Matters” in the memo line. Send it to: Technical Services Dept., El Paso Public Library, 501 N. Oregon, El Paso, TX 79901.

Click on the title below to see the books donated by Marshall Carter-Tripp which currently make-up the collection:

Monday, December 5, 2016

Aren’t 1,500 ft walls enough?

This week the Dallas Morning News and many other news outlets across the US including the Washington Post and the Associated Press reported on growing concerns on how a border wall in Big Bend National Park would destroy the park’s scenic beauty and threaten wildlife, including the return of the black bear to Texas.

The Greater Big Bend Coalition is quoted in the story where coalition founder Rick LoBello states “A big wall in Big Bend would basically destroy the wilderness quality Big Bend has protected.”

Earlier this year GBBC called upon the US and Mexico governments to designate lands currently protected by the National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife and Comisíon Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas as a Big Bend Rio Bravo Binational Natural Area to help to call attention to the importance of protecting the entire Big Bend and adjoining areas in Coahuila and Chihuahua, Mexico. The regions’ fragile environments need protection from development projects that could be harmful to the environment and ecotourism. Protecting this fragile desert mountain region and its wildlife and culture is important to people who live there and to our natural heritage and global ecotourism which is important to the economy of both countries and the world.

You can help support this effort by:
1. Sending a letter of support representing yourself, your business or organization to: Rick LoBello, Executive Committee, El Paso Sierra Club Group,
2. Signing the petition supporting the creation of Big Bend International Park.
3. Liking our facebook page at