Andy Dyer

Andy Dyer

Andy Dyer is Professor of Biology at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. He is the author or coauthor of thirty journal articles and book chapters in plant ecology. Dr. Dyer's research interests are in population and community ecology, invasive species ecology, and habitat restoration. His current research focuses on population biology of invasive grasses, including competitive ability and germination traits.
Photo by Joanna Krosinka

Saving More Than Seeds

Gene banks and seed vaults are saving and protecting crop seeds and the genetic diversity within crops, crop races, and some closely related species. There are some 1,700 gene and seed banks in the world with perhaps the most well-known being the...

Gene banks and seed vaults are saving and protecting crop seeds and the genetic diversity within crops, crop races, and some closely related species. There are some 1,700 gene and seed banks in the world with perhaps the most well-known being the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Norway), but others include the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (Syria), Kew Millenium Seed Bank (UK), Global Crop Diversity Trust (Germany), and National Seed Storage Laboratory (USA). They are capable of storing and protecting many millions of species and crop cultivars.

These efforts are an insurance policy for protecting our future ability to produce food in case of catastrophic changes in climates that reduce or even prevent food production from the current crop lines and in our current agricultural regions. Without this global effort to save seeds of millions of species, including as many crops as possible from every place on the planet, we would be facing a future with literally no hope of recovering from climate-change driven loss of food production.

However, equally important is the growing recognition that protecting the progenitors of our crops, which are the wild species that still exist and are the source of critically important genetic material for strengthening their domesticated cousins. The wild species are often well known, but much less effort has been expended to save those species and varieties although this effort is gaining momentum. The reason for protecting the wild species is basic and incredibly important, but is rooted in the direction modern agriculture has taken for the past century and especially since WWII. That direction is the intentional reduction of genetic diversity in crop cultivars, which carries with it the highly consequential result of eliminating any ability of those crops to adapt, or even adjust, to changing environmental conditions.

Global Seed Vault (cropped)
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, via Wikimedia Commons.

If you were to walk into a corn field in Iowa, you would be in the midst of, essentially, a single plant. That is, every plant you see would be genetically identical to every other plant in that field. This process of genetic simplification through inbreeding and hybridization has been a normal practice in crop improvement research for many decades. In recent years, this simplification has been intensified because genetically modified strains of corn are patented genotypes belonging to the companies that produce them.

A modern strain of corn grows at a uniform rate, to a specific height, produces ears of a particular size and quality that ripen at exactly the same time, and can be harvested with a single attempt. This uniformity saves time and energy, reduces losses, and ensures buyers of the quality of the product. However, these genetically uniform crops have absolutely no ability to withstand change; that ability has been bred out of them. For the purposes of crop production in a uniform growing environment, any and all traits of a crop that divert energy from the maximum production of seeds or fruit are frowned upon.

Thus, corn, wheat, cotton, soy, and many other commodity crops produced at very large scales have been stripped down genetically and are now no more than biological production machines. They are like albino lab rats; if they were released into the wild, they would probably not last the night. And in the case of genetically weakened crop plants, a changing climate could spell disaster.

Corn fields near Royal, Illinois
Corn fields near Royal, Illinois, via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately for crop scientists and farmers, closely related wild species of our crops contain genetic material that is very highly adapted to the home environments of those species. And this genetic variation to many diverse environmental conditions can be used to rescue our crops (and us) from impending climatic changes that could dramatically affect our ability to produce food.

Plant scientists have for years searched for genes to strengthen corn and wheat and other crops that have been weakened as a consequence of the previously mentioned genetic simplification from inbreeding and hybridization. For corn, testing Mexican land races and even the original corn plant (teosinte) for useful genes is a regular practice. Without these genes for improving and maintaining the strength and vitality of modern corn cultivars, our genetically simplified and highly inbred strains would be unable to produce viable seed within a few years.

Protection of wild plant species is the same as protecting our future ability to feed ourselves. We should be growing a genetically diverse food base as a rule, as a matter of national importance, perhaps even pride. Although there are 4,000 types of potato, the large majority of US production is from a small number of cultivars of russet potatoes and 41% of all US production is the Burbank Russet. There are thousands of varieties of apples, adapted to all regions of the US, but the marketplace is dominated by only five varieties. Over the past 100 years, we have lost in one way or another the majority of our crop varieties by focusing commercial production on only a few. This does not bode well for a quick response to a changing climate and the doubt it creates concerning future farm production.

Example of one of the first genetic reserves established to conserve crop wild relatives near Kalakh al Hosn, Syria. Photo by Nigel Maxted, University of Birmingham, via Wikimedia Commons

The protection of existing genetic variation is equivalent to the protection of adaptations to the natural world. An adaptation in a wild species is an evolutionary response (and solution) to stress. Stress reduces growth, vitality, production, and survival, and increases the chances of losses to predators and pathogens. Adaptations reduce stress and therefore reduce losses in productivity. Thus, protecting biodiversity in the natural world should underlie our efforts to protect our future food supply.

The enemy of agriculture is probably not so much the change in climate, but what can be triggered by a change in climate. That is, a warmer world may be somewhat more stressful to a crop plant, yes, but the movement of new insects and diseases is also very likely to happen with a changing climate and that could lead to catastrophic problems that we cannot anticipate. Our multitude of experiences with invasive plant and animal species and pathogens provide plenty of evidence for the dangers. However, we also need to recognize that our history of relying on technology to save us from every new peril is also the process of responding to danger rather than anticipating it. While saving the source of food in seed vaults is a critically important insurance policy, our food investment portfolio would be better protected against those things we cannot predict if it is diversified by including wild species and natural habitats as well.

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Island Press Authors Share the Love

This Valentine’s Day, we thought it would be fun for Island Press authors to share the love. We asked a few authors to choose their favorite Island Press book—other than their own, of course—and explain what makes it so special. Check out their...

This Valentine’s Day, we thought it would be fun for Island Press authors to share the love. We asked a few authors to choose their favorite Island Press book—other than their own, of course—and explain what makes it so special. Check out their responses below, and use code 4MAGICAL for 25% off and free shipping all of the books below, as well as books from participating authors.

What’s your favorite Island Press book? Share your answer in the comments.

My favorite IP book—not that I’ve read them all—is Mike Lydon’s Tactical Urbanism. This book shows how ad hoc interventions can improve the public realm, especially if they’re later made permanent. I discussed the concept on the latest Spokesmen podcast with architect Jason Fertig and illustrator Bekka “Bikeyface” Wright, both of Boston. 

Carlton Reid, Bike Boom and Roads Were Not Built for Cars

Last year I wrote a cover story for SIERRA magazine about how Donald Trump's proposed wall along the US-Mexico border would all but eliminate any chance for recovering jaguar species in the Southwest. In the course of my research I came across Alan Rabinowitz's An Indomitable BeastIt's a great read, blending Rabinowitz's own experiences as a big cat biologist with cutting-edge findings on this amazing species. As a writer, this book and its amazing details helped me bring the jaguar to life for readers. 

Jason Mark, Satellites in the High Country

This day is a time for reaching beyond data and logic to think about deeper ways of knowing. Love, specifically, but I would add to that faith, tradition and ethics. That's why I love Aaron Wolf's new book, The Spirit of Dialogue: Lessons from Faith Traditions in Transforming Conflict. Going beyond the  mechanical "rationality" of the typical public meeting is necessary if we are to address the big issues of global sustainability and the smaller issues of how we sustain our local communities. Aaron Wolf provides the experience, tools and promise of a better, deeper approach.

Larry NielsenNature's Allies

Like many others, I am indebted to to Island Press for not one but three books that profoundly influenced my thinking. Panarchy (2001, edited by Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling) introduced me to the concept of socio-ecological systems resilience. Resilience Thinking (2006, by Brian Walker and David Salt) taught me what systems resilience really means. And the follow-up book Resilience Practice (2012) helped me start to understand how systems resilience actually works. The latter remains the most-consulted book on my shelf—by Island Press or any other publisher—and I was thrilled and frankly humbled when Brian and David agreed to write a chapter for our own contribution to the field, The Community Resilience Reader (2017).

Daniel Lerch, The Community Resilience Reader

"A large percentage of my urbanism bookshelf is comprised of Island Press books, so it's very difficult to share my love for just one! So, I won't because the books we pull of the shelf most often these days are the NACTO Design Guides. Finally, a near complete set of highly usable and mutually supportive design standards that help us advocate for and build better streets, better places." 

Mike Lydon, Tactical Urbanism



Nicols Fox's Against the Machine is a book that’s becomes more relevant each year as technology impinges ever further on our daily lives. It’s a fascinating, deeply researched look at how and why people have resisted being treated as extensions of machines.

Phil Langdon, Within Walking Distance

Lake Effect by Nancy Nichols. I read this book several years ago. It is so important to hear the voices of those whose lives are impacted by industrial age pollutants, lest we slide into complacency. In this case, the story of the chemicals of Lake Michigan. It is a short, beautifully written, disturbing read.
Emily Monosson, Natural Defense and Unnatural Selection

Peter Gleick’s series, The World’s Water, is one of the most useful surveys of the cutting edge of global waters there is. Each edition brings in-depth coverage of the issues of the day, always eminently readable and backed up by the crack research team that he puts together for each topic. I use it in my classes, always confident that students (and I) will be kept abreast of the best of The World’s Water.
Aaron Wolf, The Spirit of Dialogue

Mark Jerome Walters' important book, Seven Modern Plagues, places great emphasis on linking emerging diseases with habitat destruction and other forms of modification natural processes. This book is a call for us to recognize that each new disease reflects an environmental warning.
Andy Dyer, Chasing the Red Queen

My favorite Island Press book is The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life, edited by Eric T. Freyfogle. Perhaps it remains my favorite IP text because it is the first IP text I remember reading front to back, twice! I first encountered the book as a graduate student and was struck my its scope and tone. The book is thought provoking. But it's also a joy to read, which isn't surprising in hindsight given the award-winning contributors.   
Michael Carolan, No One Eats Alone

Don't see your Island Press fave? Share it in the comments below!

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Waiting for the Crisis: Zika and Political Inaction

Earlier this month, media announced the first Zika-related death in the United States, meanwhile Congress recently adjourned for a seven-week recess without passing additional funding to fight the virus. Check out what Chasing the Red Queen...

Earlier this month, media announced the first Zika-related death in the United States, meanwhile Congress recently adjourned for a seven-week recess without passing additional funding to fight the virus. Check out what Chasing the Red Queen  author Andy Dyer  had to say about this political inaction below.

The Zika virus has a common and abundant vector: the mosquito. Photo credit: Day Donaldson via Flickr.

The Zika virus is a very real public health threat to the United States and to the world.  Unlike the Ebola virus, Zika has escaped confinement and is moving rapidly and cannot be contained. Rather than stopping it, the best we will be able to do is develop medical interventions to treat at-risk populations both before and after infections have been detected. And once Zika becomes a permanent part of our medical landscape, we will never be fully rid of it. This is unavoidable because Zika is both contagious and has a common and abundant vector: the mosquito, which provides a place to hide from humans and which cannot be eradicated. Thus, we are faced with another emerging health crisis. To confront the reality of Zika, our Congress needs to get serious about funding additional research and preparations for an epidemic.  As rational and intelligent beings, we have the ability to anticipate future events and to take preventive action, but we cannot afford to have a political system that mimics the behavior of frogs and canaries.

Although the belief is false that a frog will refuse to leave pot of water that is slowly heating up to the boiling point, frogs are helpless to do anything about slow toxic changes to their environment. As amphibians, frogs can live on land, but must return to the water to reproduce. When they deposit their eggs in water, the eggs are exposed to anything in the water, including all manner of pollutants, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. From egg to tadpole, the frog’s entire development takes place in this chemical cocktail, and the immature frog can do nothing to avoid toxic insults from the human environment. As a result, development is often impaired, and physical abnormalities and high mortality rates are common. 

In contrast to frogs, humans are able to recognize changes in the environment, and we are able to manipulate our environment in response to those changes. However, it also seems to be true that we are loath to make changes to our accustomed way of life. That apocryphal frog in the pot is a symbol of human behavior and represents a typical political response to looming environmental problems, particularly those of our own making. We see it, but we refuse to recognize it, especially if by doing so we have to change the status quo. This unwillingness to reconsider our path is embedded in and maybe even defines human politics. 

Researchers at NIAID Vaccine Research Center load samples of the Zika virus into a microcentrifuge. Photo Credit: NIH NAID via Flickr.

On the other hand, canaries were used throughout history as a warning sign to indicate rapid lethal changes to the human environment.  For coal miners, a dead canary was a warning that an environmental disaster was immanent and to leave the mine immediately. That warning was heeded without question because in a coal mine there is nowhere to escape except out.  To survive, miners had to act and act fast.  The Earth, our world, is very similar to a coal mine; we really have no escape options.  In a finite and confined world, the first warning may be the only warning. 

Our current political path seems to be to observe and lament deformed frogs and dead canaries as if their fate is somehow not intertwined with our own fate.  We believe we can endure the environment we have created and attempt to live with the consequences. We must recognize that those consequences will include increasing medical issues in babies and children, earlier onset of age-related diseases, more frequent loss of function from disease, and shorter lifespans.  The costs of these consequences will be prohibitive, disastrous, and tragic. A continuation of this mindset, I predict, will be the return of the era of high mortality from infectious diseases, which we thought we had conquered more than 60 years ago.  This would be a monumental failure and one that our descendants would find difficult to forgive.

Or we can accept the rules of the evolutionary game. To do so we must recognize and overcome the obstacles created by basic human nature.  We live a different world today than in 1950, we must act faster, as soon as we recognize a problem, and not wait until we have an uncontrollable crisis. This means that medical research must have the money to develop vaccines now, when we recognize a threat, not later when the threat has escalated to a crisis. This means that environmental and health issues cannot be used as political footballs with one political party attempting to score points at the expense of the other party. Today, we know for a fact that when a disease is spreading in a faraway place, that disease is only weeks, days or even hours away from us. Air travel has reduced the size of the planet to a single, very large, very dispersed city, and no one is safe from any epidemic.

When we recognize an environmental threat, we cannot wait until it knocks on our door. We can’t wait until the residents of Miami are a foot deep in sea water, until mercury is in every fish in every stream, until ground water is 500 feet down and salt water intrusion destroys our coastal water supplies, or until hundreds of babies are born with reduced brain size. When the facts tell us we must act, we should not argue with the facts because it is politically inconvenient. In the long run, facts will win every argument and losing some of those arguments will cause irreversible damage to our world. Zika is just one more canary and, while one political party blames the other for inaction, that canary is dying.