Plant intelligence

ID-10046055New research has shown that plants may be more intelligent than we think. A recent study conducted by the University of Western Australia, demonstrated that the plant, Mimosa pudica, could learn new behaviour and retain this memory for weeks. Mimosa pudica is a plant that when touched folds inwards, thought to be a reflex in response to predation. But when the plant was dropped several centimetres down repeatedly it quickly learnt, within minutes, that this posed no threat and stopped folding its leaves, a behaviour that persisted when plants were dropped weeks later. When shaken instead of dropped the plant would fold its leaves in response to this new threat. Watch a video of the plant’s response here.

Plant intelligence experiments are not new although earlier studies have been met with criticism for being unscientific. The 19773 book, “The Secret Life of Plants,” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, presented some of these, including experiments claiming plants could effectively read minds. Although much of this work has been discredited, it’s thought by some to have had a negative effect on the momentum of the field of plant intelligence. But this is changing. In 2006, an article in Trends in Plant Science suggested a new field called “plant neurobiology.” Authors of the article explained that some behaviour in plants could not be solely attributed to genetic and biochemical mechanisms but instead plants could sense and respond to a variety of factors: light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants.

Of course plants don’t actually have brains but they do collect, analyse and integrate knowledge and react in new ways through analogous structures to our neurological system. They also don’t have ears but have been witnessed secreting defensive chemicals in response to hearing caterpillars eating nearby. Plants can also sense objects before coming into contact with them and move away from them. They have systems for sending electrical and chemical signals (such as dopamine or serotonin also found in humans). How these systems work is still largely unknown. And there remains significant disagreement, not least in calling the field plant neurobiology despite plants having no neurons, on the credibility of investigation into plant intelligence. In the 1980s scientists working on plant communication and signalling faced similar scorn. The Mimosa pudica experiment has also received its fair share of criticism with some scientists claiming the plant’s behaviour is more to do with habituation, desensitization or adaptation, talking issue with the use of the words learning, memory and intelligence.

So it seems plants can learn they can retain memory and they are conscious of their surroundings. Whether this can be called “intelligence” depends largely on the definition of intelligence but one thing is for sure, the differences between plants and animals is becoming much less clear.

More information can be found about plant intelligence and current debates by watching Stefano Mancuso’s TED talk.


Scaling Up Sustainable Land and Water Management Practices

ID-100135195Land degradation and declining soil fertility are major threats to agricultural productivity and food production, particularly in the drylands of sub-Saharan Africa, where land management practices, high fertiliser prices and water shortages contribute and exacerbate the problems. The World Resources Institute have previously calculated that to eradicate food insecurity we need to produce 69% more calories between 2006 and 2050, while at the same time protecting the world’s water, climate and ecosystems. A new report by the WRI entitled Improving Land and Water Management, instalment four of their Creating a Sustainable Food Future series, outlines some of the land and water management practices that can mitigate land degradation and increase agricultural output. They highlight four practices that are particularly promising, which along with raising yields and productivity can increase incomes, natural capital and resilience to climate change. These are:

Agroforestry – the integration of trees and shrubs onto farms

Conservation agriculture – the combination of reduced or no tillage, crop rotations and on-farm conservation of crop residues or cover crops

Rainwater harvesting – the use of on-farm systems such as bunds, pits and trenches, to collect rainfall and prevent water loss from soils

Integrated soil fertility management – the incorporation of prudent and targeted use of fertiliser with organic alternatives such as manure, compost, leaf litter, crop residues and phosphate rock

The report provides evidence of the impacts these farming practices can have, for example, the combination of conservation agriculture and crop rotations has resulted in 50% higher yields of maize in Zambia. These practices can be combined with each other as well as with more conventional technologies e.g. microdosing of fertilisers.

Implementing and combining these four techniques at scale will require much coordination between different users of the landscape, warranting an integrated landscape approach that acknowledges and plans for multiple land uses. Adoption of these practices is currently low and the main barriers to successful scaling include poor knowledge dissemination, weak land tenure systems and poor coverage of extension services. The potential of these improved land and water management practices has been calculated: if implemented on some 75 million hectares of cropland, with an expected increase in yields of 50%, farmers would produce 22 million tons more food each year, equating to an extra 615 kilocalories per person per day for 285 million people living in Africa’s drylands. [Read more…]

Soil biodiversity and ecosystem function

SoilIt has long been recognised that organisms living in the soil are important for making nitrogen available to plants and for storing carbon in the soil but a new paper in PNAS by de Vries et al, Soil food web properties explain ecosystem services across European land use systems, investigated the impact of communities of soil organisms on the overall functioning of ecosystems.

The study is the largest of its kind, involving researchers from across Europe, and is the first time whole communities of soil organisms have been investigated. Spanning 60 sites across 4 countries and three types of land uses (intensive wheat rotations, extensive rotation and permanent grassland), the study marks a significant piece of evidence for the importance of soil biodiversity.

Researchers found a strong link between soil biodiversity and the performance of ecosystems, in particular on carbon and nitrogen cycling. Indeed soil biodiversity was a greater predictor of C and N cycling than land use. Intensive wheat rotation was found to reduce soil biodiversity across the food web in all countries. The authors hope that this and other research will lead to the development of sound land management practices that support soil biodiversity, in turn increasing the productivity of land while mitigating climate change.

The study concludes that we require more research into soil food webs and in particularly how they might alter in response to changes in land use and climate change. Soil biodiversity is understudied, perhaps because of its scope, but it is under increasing threat from, for example, urbanisation, climate change, pollution and agriculture. Mapping and conserving soil biodiversity is urgently needed if we are to include their roles in C and N cycling models, which will in turn help us to better understand the likely impacts of climate change.

The importance of seed diversity

ID-100144378 (2)Seeds might be small, inconspicuous things but they hold a great deal of power. For some, seeds mean survival, ritual, life. They are the basis of much of the food we consume. Perhaps because of their power and their value to the planet’s food security, seeds are a controversial topic. The sale of seeds, the modification of seeds and the saving of seeds are all issues which inspire much discourse and disagreement.

The Gaia Foundation produced a video called Seeds of Freedom, which documents the century’s old custom of saving and selecting seeds best adapted to local conditions, cultural preferences, and resilient to environmental constraints. The film highlights the threat that privatisation of the production and sale of seeds poses to these traditional farming practices.

Cycles of seed saving and the maintenance of agricultural biodiversity have been challenged by the introduction of higher-yielding hybrid and introduced crops that can lose their vitality after the first season, thus requiring farmers to purchase new seeds every year. The video paints the leaders of the Green Revolution as seeking power over the seed value chain. And while many would disagree with this, that scientists were developing high-yielding locally adapted crops with the aim of increasing food production and reducing hunger, there is little doubt that agricultural crop biodiversity was lost as the rise of monocultures and heavy chemical use expanded rapidly. In the Philippines, a poster country of the Green Revolution, only 8 rice varieties out of 3,500 are now grown.

Agricultural biodiversity and the wealth of information and traits it contains is particularly important given the global challenges we face, not least climate change. There are crops and crop varieties that can withstand extremes that would decimate many of the crops we regularly eat. Pearl millet for example, a crop grown annually on more than 29 million hectares in the arid and semi-arid tropical regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America, can survive the most hot and hostile Sahelian conditions.  Thus conserving seed diversity both in situ and in seed banks is imperative. A recent blog on Food Tank outlines 15 seed saving initiatives protecting biodiversity for future generations.

For many the concept of saving seeds is firmly entrenched in the ideals of food sovereignty, which is about the right of people to define their own food systems. Few would argue against increasing food production in developing countries and reducing the huge amounts of imports, which can leave poor consumers at the mercy of volatile global food prices. But in the extreme, food sovereignty espouses the restriction of all food trade and corporate involvement which raises a couple of issues.

Firstly agro-ecological methods and traditional farming, while often more resilient than conventional monocultures, have limits to the amount of food they can produce per unit of labour. In Africa, where smallholder farms dominate, maize yields average 1 ton per hectare, compared to Iowa, where farmers have access to the most cutting edge of technologies including GM and get, on average, yields of 11 tons per hectare. The answer is not in transferring an Iowan system of farming to Africa but technology does have the potential to transform productivity and livelihoods. [Read more…]

Assessing African Land Grabs

landgrabsLand grabbing is a hotly debated topic and nowhere is it more contentious than in Africa. On the one hand large-scale land investments are praised for their potential to bring job opportunities and boost economies while on the other, some deals have led to irresponsible and damaging use of natural resources and to the displacement of inhabitants without compensation.

Launched last year, the Land Matrix Global Observatory aims to analyse what appears to be a growing trend for private and national investors to acquire large tracts of land in developing countries. Early results show that over 46 million hectares of land have changed hands in 756 verified land deals. Approximately half of all these deals have taken place in Africa, many in Mozambique and Ethiopia.

Contrary to media reporting, the Observatory’s database finds China’s involvement and the impact of an increasing demand for biofuels to be less than estimated. But there are major concerns. While agriculture needs both private and public sector investment if it is to meet the needs of a growing population, this investment must be transparent.

Obtaining information regarding acquisitions can be very difficult, especially as private investors can act almost invisibly through such things as contract farming or by buying stakes in local agribusinesses. Instituting fair systems of land titling would at least ensure fair compensation is paid to those individuals whose land is appropriated.

In a new book, The Great African Land Grab?, Lorenzo Cotula, discusses the history of land acquisitions, the situation now and the impacts of land grabbing on African people. The book appraises the consequences of land deals, both good and bad, and provides a balanced account of what is a controversial and polarised issue in a bid to generate open and, in Cotula’s words, “a more constructive debate”.  As Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, states, “Invest in small-scale farmers, not in the land on which they depend, and read this book, if you care at all about the future of agricultural development in poor countries.”

A Paradigm Shift for Agriculture: The Case for SRI

cubanrootPerhaps the greatest change in mindset in human history was from the belief in a Ptolemaic or geocentric view of the universe (Earth at the orbital centre of all celestial bodies) to a Copernican or heliocentric (the sun at the centre).

Today the world is facing many threats not least the need to feed an ever increasing population amid severe resource constraints. World food production per capita peaked in 1984 and if we are to achieve global food security we require, according to Norman Uphoff, political scientist at Cornell University and lead of the SRI-Rice group, a similar paradigm shift.

Presenting his case for the use and adoption of Systems of Rice Intensification at the International Institute for Environment and Development on 4th July, Uphoff explained the dire need for a change in mindset in agriculture: from an egocentric view, placing humans as the producers of food and manipulators of nature, to a heliocentric, whereby humans capitalise on the power and resources of natural systems while accepting their role within the system rather than outside. So often we view food production systems as closed, whereby inputs and outputs are measurable, linear and proportional but in doing so we neglect the biology of these systems. We fail to understand the myriad of ecological relationships that combine to create the food on our plate.

For decades the Green Revolution has allowed food production to keep pace with population growth, based on two pillars:

1) The improvement of genetic potentials of crop and animal genotypes; and

2) Greater application of external inputs.

But today we are seeing declining returns to this form of farming. In China where the application of 1kg of nitrogen fertiliser to crops would result in a 20kg increase in rice yields we are now seeing an increase of only 1 to 5kg. Despite this failing to maintain the momentum of past productivity trajectories, Uphoff explains that many agronomists are still arguing for current farming methods, only slightly improved. He believes we need a greater focus on the ecological sciences. In particular the contributions of plant roots and soil biota to crop health, and research into how to get more productive phenotypes from existing genotypes through making beneficial changes in crop environments. And SRI does just that. What’s proven to be a rather controversial method of farming rice and other crops, and seemingly dismissed by many research institutions, has yielded impressive results. [Read more…]

The Soil Atlas of Africa

ID-100147244 (2)The Africa Soil Information Service is continuing with their plans to develop an “interactive, web-accessible digital soil map”, outlined in a previous blog article. This map will cover all the non-desert areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and is to be completed by the end of 2013. More recently, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has commissioned and launched, at the meeting of the African Union (AU) and EU commissions in April 2013, the first ever comprehensive map of African soils.

The Soil Atlas of Africa aims to increase African countries’ understanding of the diversity of soils found on the continent, the importance in managing this key resource and to aid governments in strategically planning land use and investments in agriculture and urban development.

The project started four years ago and is a collaboration between experts at the European commission, the AU and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Already the map has helped identify areas, in central Africa, some parts of West Africa, and southern Africa where soil is particularly fertile. Experts working on the project also hope it will strengthen government support for national soil bureaus and for training users of the Atlas at the regional level.

Declining soil fertility and soil loss is a significant problem in Africa. Nearly 3.3% of agricultural GDP is lost in sub-Saharan Africa each year due to soil and nutrient loss while more than 75% of total land in the area has degraded or highly degraded soil. The Atlas will help to identify trouble zones so that plans for the sustainable use of soil can be put in place.

Forests and insects for food security

ID-10035951-1The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has recently brought attention to two neglected areas of food security: forests and insects.

On the 13th to 15th May 2013 the FAO hosted an International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition which aimed to increase understanding of the role that forests, trees and agroforestry systems can play in improving the food security and nutrition of rural people. 1985 was designated the year of forests and food security but since then it has disappeared off the international agenda.

Forests, trees and agroforestry are often forgotten in national food security strategies and yet 1.6 billion people rely on forests and other natural systems for food and their livelihoods. Forests and trees are important in a number of ways:

  • They provide affordable sources of food, nutrients, fibre and fuelwood as well as sources of income
  • They help deliver clean water to agricultural lands by protecting catchments
  • Herders in arid and semi-arid lands depend on trees as a source of fodder for their livestock
  • Agroforestry can improve productivity, resilience and is a climate-smart agricultural practice.

In order to fully realise the potential of forests in tackling food insecurity, issues of land tenure, access and sustainable extraction need further investigation and policy agencies of agriculture, environment, health, development, nutrition, conservation, land-use planning and forestry require greater integration. Background papers to the conference discuss the role of trees in the livelihoods of the poor and the enabling political environments needed to increase the contribution of forests to food security. [Read more…]

Antiobiotic use on organic apples and pears

ID-1005279 (2)Think organic farming doesn’t use harmful compounds, think again. As the expiry date for the use of the antibiotics, Streptomycin and Oxytetracycline, on organic apple and pear farming in the US approaches, much debate has arisen over the standards for organic farming and food labelling.

Apples and pears are subject to an infection called Fire Blight, which can devastate entire orchards For that reason organic farmers have received an exemption allowing them to spray certain antibiotics to tackle this disease. In 2002 when the US Department of Agriculture’s national organic labelling standards went into effect the two antibiotics were included in a list of ‘allowed’ compounds subject to periodic review. This exemption is set to expire in October 2014, which supposedly allowed time to develop new, non-antibiotic, methods of control. But as 2014 approaches and a viable alternative is still lacking, some groups are battling for an extension on this expiry date.

Last week the National Organic Standards Board met to discuss a petition from organic farmers to extend the exemption. They rejected this petition and use of the antibiotic Oxytetracyline will not be allowed beyond the existing expiration date. In six months’ time the Board will meet again to discuss the use of Streptomycin. [Read more…]

World Soil Day 2012

December 5th was a day dedicated to an often overlooked resource that underpins food production on the planet, soil. In One Billion Hungry, chapter 13 lays out the threats to soil and ways in which soil degradation, depletion and fertility loss can be tackled.

World Soil Day was first proposed in 2002 by the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) as a means of publicly recognising the importance of soil to human wellbeing; food, water and energy security; maintaining biodiversity; and tackling climate change. Soil is commonly undervalued in policy despite widespread degradation due to unsustainable use. In one study, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an estimated 1.9 billion hectares of soil was found to be degraded across the world. [Read more…]