Who said organic farming was for hippies?

By Joanna Wolstenholme

Organic farming seems to have earned itself a reputation amongst some in the scientific community for being unscientific and misguided. However, researchers at Rothamsted Research, in conjunction with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the Kenya Ministry of Agriculturehave been doing their best to combat this image, and inject some innovation into the field.

In principle, there is not much to dislike about organic farminga reduction in chemicals used to grow our foods can only really be a good thing; even if there is no link between eating organic and having better health (a recent study showed that those who ate non-organic foods were no more likely to contract cancer). For instance, a reduction in the energy required to produce and spray pesticides and herbicides would go a long way to making agriculture more sustainable. In poor subsistence farming communities, such chemicals are far too expensive to even dream of buying, so a cheap and effective alternative has the potential to radically improve yields.

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All Organic– Food for Thought (Album Cover)

Researchers at Rothamsted harnessed the power of compounds already produced by plants in their scheme for ‘Push-Pull’ companion planting, which has been implemented in West Africa, and produced great yield improvements. In this scheme, maize is protected from both the Stemborer moth ( considered the most important insect pest of maize at altitudes of 500m above sea level in sub-Saharan Africa)and the parasitic weed Striga, by the addition of a legume called Desmodium and a fodder plant,Napier grass, to the fields.

Desmodium is planted between the rows of maize, and produces volatile compounds to repel the Stemborer moth (the ‘push’ part of the system). It also produces compounds that induce Striga to germinate too early, before the maize has roots that are sufficiently developed for parasitism, and so the Striga dies off before it is able to establish itself. Additionally,as if this twin pest prevention wasn’t enough, Desmodium fixes much needed nitrogen into the soil and so also acts as a fertiliser. Napier grass (the ‘pull’ component), on the other hand, is planted at the edge of the crop, where is attracts the Stemborer moths to lay their eggs, yet prevents the Stemborer larvae from growing to adulthood. Furthermore, both Desmodium and Napier grass have value as fodder crops.

Napier Grass (Image Credit Forest & Kim Starr)

Napier Grass (Image Credit: Forest & Kim Starr)

This system has already proved effective in the field, with one family even saying that it increased their yields from just 5 bags of maize to 35! This means they are no longer reliant upon charity handouts, and have been able to use their profits to re-roof their house and send their son to school.

What is brilliant this about this effective system is its simplicity. Once a few families have been shown the benefits of such a system and seen the effect on their own yields, it is easy for them to teach others.In short, the movement becomes self-sustaining. Yet it is not only subsistence farmers that can benefit from such systems. We should be trying to integrate techniques such as these into our energy intensive Western farming techniques, in a bid to make them more sustainable. Organic farming may have been invented by hippies, but we all need it now.

For more information, and success stories: http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/Content/index-Section=ForThePublic&Page=GoodCompanions.html

And for more information on the Stem Borer: http://maizedoctor.cimmyt.org/en/component/content/310?task=view

 

 

 

 

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Plant factories: making organic pesticides?

By Tom Evans

In many peoples opinion, pesticides were one of the great tragedies of 20th century agriculture. They symbolized man’s dominance over nature: of the synthetic taming the organic – a cruelly ironic leitmotif of the modern world. In our post-Green Revolution era, most agricultural scientists see pesticides as anathema. Not only do they destroy the land and its biodiversity, but they also apply selection pressure onto insects to evolve resistant strains. The focal challenge of contemporary agriculture, then, is to devise new ways we can tame nature without inadvertently breeding resistance, or further damaging our precious ecosystems.

The bombyx mori silk moth

The bombyx mori silk moth

A recent paper in Nature Communications is part of a global effort to do just that. And, unsurprisingly, the answer comes through working with – not against – nature. A team of researchers from Kansas State University has genetically engineered a species of tobacco to produce chemicals known as pheromones. Plants do not usually make pheromones; in fact, they’re chemicals that insects produce, and they are usually involved in the communication systems of insects. For example, female silkmoths attract mates by producing a pheromone called bombykol. Male silkmoths can smell thispheromone from up to 10km away and follow the scent trail until they locate the female producing it.

So why has this group of scientists created a plant that makes pheromones?

The idea is we can harvest pheromones from plants and then use these natural chemicals in fields to control insects. At the moment industrially producing pesticides is bad for the environment, as well as the health of those working in pesticide factories. It’s also quite costly. By genetically engineering plants to synthesize pheromones, a so-called “plant factory” for pheromones could theoretically be established in the future, providing an environmentally friendly and cheap form of pest control. And moreover, the message is clear: nature is not our enemy, but our closest ally.

The Hidden Costs of Ethanol

By Sophie Harrington

For the last few years, biofuels have been a hot topic in the discussion of alternative fuel sources. The addition of ethanol to fuel, in particular, has helped spur the industry on. In the United States, 3.75 billion gallons of ethanol are required to be blended into petrol supplies.

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Credit: Seth Anderson

However, as ethanol began to be added to petrol supplies, significant concerns were raised regarding the effect on corn prices. The initially small size of ethanol production failed to have much of an effect on corn prices as a whole. However, dramatic increases in the industry size have reached the point where ethanol is expected to soon become the predominant use for corn in the U.S., overtaking livestock feed.

The Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO) has claimed that the increasing demand for ethanol has drastically raised the prices of maize worldwide, nearly tripling between 2002 and 2012. In the United States, the Renewable Food Standard has been critical in driving the growth of the biofuels industry, primarily ethanol, by requiring a minimum fraction of petrol to be made up of biofuels. According to some reports, if only 10.6% of global corn production was diverted towards ethanol rather than towards food production, a 68% rise in global corn prices would be expected.

While certain groups have argued that the purported link between ethanol production and rising corn prices is merely a symptom of rising food prices as a whole, significant concerns have been raised regarding the effect of biofuel production on food security across the world.

Debate is currently ongoing in the US regarding the fate of the new Renewable Fuel Standard. Cuts to biofuel requirements are being considered, supported particularly by the oil lobby. Biofuel lobbyists are contending that removing federal support from the industry would only serve to increase reliance on foreign fuel and hurt investment in the industry. The revisions include a cut of between 1.25 and 2.25 billion gallons of the ethanol required to be blended into fuel.

Many have pointed towards second-generation biofuels as the answer to the food conundrum. After all, developing fuel from non-food crops would eliminate the concern that biofuels were driving up prices. Yet research into other sources of biofuels has yet to present alternatives with the same yield and profit margin as ethanol. Whether or not the changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard go into effect could potentially have a dramatic impact not only on the price of corn worldwide, but also on the research funding provided to second-generation biofuels.

For more information, see the Heritage Foundation’s report on the Renewable Fuel Standard.

International Seeds of Mystery

By Sophie Harrington

The path to new varieties of hybrid seeds created by companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer is long and expensive. They come from crosses between lines of inbred seeds, each line of which can cost between 30 and 40 million USD and take up to 8 years to develop. These seeds are closely guarded by the companies, with concerns that individuals or other companies might attempt to obtain varieties of inbred seed that they could then cross with a separate inbred, creating their own hybrid line. But until recently international espionage hadn’t been considered.

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Are spies stealing our seeds? (Credit Tony Fischer Photography)

As reported in the New York Times, various Chinese nationals are suspected of returning inbred rice seeds to crop researchers in mainland China. Mo Hailong is one of the few who has been charged with stealing trade secrets. Mr. Mo was caught in 2011 digging up seeds in a DuPont research farm, from which he fled in true super-spy style in a getaway car. The F.B.I had Mr. Mo under surveillance until his arrest last December.

While the implication of China in a case of so-called “economic espionage” is in and of itself not particularly surprising, the reach into agriculture is unprecedented. But perhaps this, too, is to be expected. Growing middle class populations have resulted in a sharp increase in demand for meat, putting pressure on the supply of corn, often diverted for use as animal feed rather than as food. In the US requirements for ethanol in fuel have also served to drive up the prices of the crop. Obtaining a new line of more virile and fit crops, such as corn, could be crucial in allowing an increase in production.

Yet the strict control that companies such as Monsanto and DuPont have maintained over their proprietary seeds has been a barrier to the easy dissemination of such traits. Corn yields per plant in China haven’t changed significantly in many years, while it’s been over 10 years since the last major Chinese hybrid strain was developed. Stealing the inbred lines developed by American corporations appears to be much quicker and more effective when you aren’t caught. It’s unlikely that this will be the last we hear of agricultural espionage.

More details on the case can be found here

Holding up half the sky: The importance of women in agricultural development.

by Sophie Harrington

As the world’s population continues to edge skyward, concerns regarding our ability to feed all these new mouths gain more and more credence. Yet what if I were to tell you that we could reduce the number of those suffering from malnutrition by up to 150 million people? If women farmers were provided with the same resources as men, their own crop yields could improve by up to 20%, increasing total agricultural yield around the globe by up to 4%.

But why aren’t women already producing the same crop yield as men? It’s not because they’re simply worse at farming—studies have shown that when provided with the same resources as men, women at least equal their yield. Instead, the pervasive inequality women face preventing their full recognition as independent farmers serves to hinder their productivity.WomanRiceAttrib

A key issue throughout much of the developing world is the lack of land titles available to women. Often, women are involved in farming land solely tied to their male family members, or indeed are farming “unclaimed” land. Whilst there have been some legislative reforms to enable women to inherit land and jointly hold land titles with other family members, their implementation can be patchy at best. In order to ensure the effectiveness of any legislation, it’s crucial to engage elders of the community in encouraging awareness and support for women’s land rights.

At the same time, women farmers are often less able to obtain credit and financing, and what little they do obtain is often out of their control, instead in the hands of male family members who are less in touch with the requirements of the tasks carried out by women. While there have been improvements in the microfinancing available, it continues to be difficult for women to obtain more substantial financing and gain a foothold on the traditional credit ladder.

Many enrichment programs for small-scale farmers in the developing world have been focused on being “gender-blind” in their mandates and missions. However, such attempts have almost inevitably resulted in their primary benefits aiding male heads of households. Increasingly, focus is being placed on “gender-equitable” programs, which take into account social and cultural baggage surrounding women farmers. For example, women are often prevented by social expectation from being involved in the ploughing of their crop fields, leading those women who head their own households to be dependent on helpful male friends or extended family members to plough her field, in addition to their own. Unsurprisingly, such arrangements can serve to drastically reduce the yields women obtain.

WomanFarmAttrib New initiatives spearheaded by groups including the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are increasingly focused on raising awareness of the unique difficulties faced by women farmers and working to reshape societal constraints. This new focus on “gender-transformative” programs aims to engage key members of communities, such as village elders and community leaders, to give their support for reforms in legislation that, for example, would increase the ability of women to hold on to their own land titles.

The key policy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in this area can be summed up as “Know Her, Design for Her, Be Accountable to Her.” Increasing our focus on helping women farmers gain greater access to economic and societal platforms that would increase their autonomy and ownership would bring clear and tangible benefits in terms of crop production. We have the potential to reduce worldwide undernourishment by up to 17% by championing the ability of women to run their own farm’s economic, social, and physical tools tailored to their needs. It seems like too good of a deal to pass up.

If you’re interested in reading more about the programs involved in helping women increase their agricultural output, take a look at this FAO report.