Jason Barton

Professional Information and Energy News

Archive for the ‘Food and Agriculture’ tag

Soil is essential, non-renewable, and disappearing

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The headline on the article below borders on yellow journalism (I hope I sufficiently toned down my own headline above), but the problem of soil erosion is very, very real. If there’s any doubt in your mind, head to the rural Midwest and take a look at a church yard nestled amongst the corn and soybean fields. The churchyard will be six to ten feet higher than the surrounding farm fields.

Why? Modern industrial agriculture, the methods widely practiced around the world, too often leads to massive amounts of erosion. The soil simply blows away or is washed downstream.

Deforestation leads to more erosion as plants that would have held the soil, and the water essential to healthy soil, are removed for timber or to make way for agriculture. The crops may be beneficial to the soils, a nice symbiotic relationship common in systems untouched by humans, but if the soil is left bare for months at a time, as is usually the case in the Midwestern US during the winter, that soil is still highly vulnerable to erosion, hence the church yard phenomenon.

Civilization’s Foundation Eroding

September 28, 2010

Lester R. Brown

The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilization. This soil, typically 6 inches or so deep, was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion. But sometime within the last century, as human and livestock populations expanded, soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation over large areas.

Sinai Desert
Credit: iStock Photo/stevenallan

[…]

In a section of his report entitled “The Hundred Dead Cities,” he described a site in northern Syria, near Aleppo, where ancient buildings were still standing in stark isolated relief, but they were on bare rock. During the seventh century, the thriving region had been invaded, initially by a Persian army and later by nomads out of the Arabian Desert. In the process, soil and water conservation practices used for centuries were abandoned. Lowdermilk noted, “Here erosion had done its worst….if the soils had remained, even though the cities were destroyed and the populations dispersed, the area might be re-peopled again and the cities rebuilt, but now that the soils are gone, all is gone.”

[…]
During the late nineteenth century, millions of Americans pushed westward, homesteading on the Great Plains, plowing vast areas of grassland to produce wheat. Much of this land—highly erodible when plowed—should have remained in grass. This overexpansion culminated in the 1930s Dust Bowl, a traumatic period chronicled in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In a crash program to save its soils, the United States returned large areas of eroded cropland to grass, adopted strip-cropping, and planted thousands of miles of tree shelterbelts.

Amazon Deforested

Credit: iStock Photo/Brasil2

During the late nineteenth century, millions of Americans pushed westward, homesteading on the Great Plains, plowing vast areas of grassland to produce wheat. Much of this land—highly erodible when plowed—should have remained in grass. This overexpansion culminated in the 1930s Dust Bowl, a traumatic period chronicled in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In a crash program to save its soils, the United States returned large areas of eroded cropland to grass, adopted strip-cropping, and planted thousands of miles of tree shelterbelts.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

September 29th, 2010 at 7:56 am

The success of genetically modified crops provides opportunities to win over their critics

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Many years of activist friends decrying the evils of GM food has led to a knee-jerk reaction on my part, resisting these Frankenfoods. But then, a few more years of working with some of the scientists who perform these genetic modifications has made me wonder. When I ask these scientists, people who ride their bikes to work and drink organic, free-trade coffee out of their reusable mugs, what they think of these protesters, they are thoughtful, considerate, and often come back to a similar response: ‘I don’t think these people really understand what they’re protesting.’

To me, that’s part of the reason for the protests. If we don’t understand it, maybe we shouldn’t be growing and then eating it. But these scientists claim that they do understand, and that it’s mostly very safe, and has vast potential for societal benefits. And people have been performing hybridization on plants and animals, creating stronger plow horses and better tasting sweet corn, for thousands of years. Still, there’s something fishy about crossing a strain of corn with a squid (pun regrettably intended).

As usual, this article from the Economist provides some excellent food for thought (yeah, another one). They are also attentive to the issue of poorer farmers. Since GM seeds are both more expensive, and produce more lucrative yields, the general belief is that the market is trending away from participation of smaller producers, and more towards industrialization and monopolization by large agri-businesses.

This is also, of course, central to biofuels, as the ability to ferment diverse, five and six carbon sugars into ethanol and other usable forms of energy, unlike the very easy to ferment glucose found in corn kernels and sugarcane, will likely rely on genetic modification of crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus, and even algae.

Indeed, it is a fascinating time to be alive, if even the focus is not always uniformly positive.

Genetically modified food

Attack of the really quite likeable tomatoes

Feb 25th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

IN THE 14 years since the first genetically modified crops were planted commercially, their descendants, relatives and remixes have gone forth and multiplied like profitable, high-tech pondweed. A new report (see article) shows that 25 countries now grow GM crops, with the total area under cultivation now larger than Peru. Three-quarters of the farmland used to grow soya is now sown with a genetically modified variant, and the figures for cotton are not that far behind, thanks to its success in India. China recently gave the safety go-ahead to its first GM rice variety and a new GM maize that should make better pig feed. More and more plants are having their genomes sequenced: a full sequence for maize was published late last year, the soya genome in January. Techniques for altering genomes are moving ahead almost as fast as the genomes themselves are stacking up, and new crops with more than one added trait are coming to market.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

February 25th, 2010 at 9:16 pm