What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Study: Earth can sustain more terrestrial plant growth than previously thought, News Bureau, Illinois

Seeds of Truth – A response to The New Yorker, Dr Vandana Shiva

New resource shows half of GMO research is independent, GENERA

UN Draft report lists unchecked emissions’ risks, The New York Times

Specter’s New Yorker GMO Labeling Essay Misses the Mark, Just Label It

Seeking Fertile Ground for a Green Revolution in Africa, PAEPARD

Is soil the new oil in Africa’s quest for sustainable development?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

How the private sector can catalyze innovations for feeding Africa, Devex

The good and bad of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), New Vision

Research is ‘no panacea’ for development, finds DFID, SciDev.Net [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Can alternative economic indicators ever be any good if they are devised solely by experts?, From Poverty to Power

Misgivings About How a Weed Killer Affects the Soil, The New York Times

Seeds of Doubt, The New Yorker

Off the shelf: are people finally turning away from supermarkets?, The Guardian

Cultivating a Neglected Field, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Plants may use language to communicate with each other, Virginia Tech researcher finds, Virginia Tech News

Scraping the Seafloor for Fish Harms Biodiversity, Scientific American

Infographic: 9 plant diseases that threaten your favorite foods–and how GM can help, Genetic Literacy Project

Promoting Developmental Research: A Challenge for African Universities, Journal of Learning for Development

Uncovered, the mystery of exchanging genes with wild relatives, John Innes Centre [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Big Data and development: Upsides, downsides and a lot of questions, Duncan Green, Oxfam

Cash Crops With Dividends: Financiers Transforming Strawberries Into Securities, The New York Times

Video: ‘Journey of a gene’ illustrates science of genetic engineering for consumers, Genetic Literacy Project

Why NGOs can’t be trusted on GMOs, The Guardian

The Guardian, Marc Gunther and some NGOs can’t be trusted on GMOs, Political Concern

International Food Security Assessment, 2014-24, USDA

On Trial: Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa, Chatham House

Could businesses do for aid what Amazon did for retail?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Missing Food, APPG on Agriculture and Food for Development

The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Food in the United States, CAST

‘Peak soil’ threatens future global food security, Reuters [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Roadmap for Strengthening Forest and Farm Producer Organizations, FAO

Six innovations revolutionising farming, The Guardian

Could insects feed the hungry world of tomorrow?, BBC

Beating the heat, Nature Biotechnology

Crop yields and global food security, Australian Government (GRDC)

Acres of genetically modified corn nearly doubled in a decade, Harvest Public Media

What’s the best way to measure empowerment?, Duncan Green, Oxfam

Majority of African Farm Workers Struggle to Afford Food, Gallup

Wild about Agricultural Innovation in Botswana, Global Food for Thought

Pesticide blamed for bee deaths now linked to bird declines, Los Angeles Times

Food Security and WTO Domestic Support Disciplines post-Bali, ICTSD

Why does Europe hate genetically modified food?, Rappler

Can Africa create a new green generation of food producers?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Higher Food Prices Can Help to End Hunger, Malnutrition and Food Waste, IPS

[Read more…]

The value of soil

ID-10064167“For all things come from earth, and all things end by becoming earth.” Xenophanes, 580 B.C. You could, in reading this quote, be mistaken in thinking that the soil is a regenerating, renewable resource. Soil is formed from slowly decomposing rocks, sediment and organic matter. This process is so slow in fact that it takes 2,000 years to build 10cm of topsoil, such an unhurried rate of growth that soil should be thought of as finite, non-renewable and a resource that needs to be protected.

Healthy soils provide a variety of ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, water regulation, flood protection, habitats for biodiversity and food production. For approximately 1 to 1.5 billion people in the world land degradation is reducing some of these services, negatively impacting their quality of life and livelihoods.

So far we haven’t been doing a very good job of protecting the soil. We overuse and cultivate unsuitable land which leads to land degradation. Soils left bare in conventional farming practices and farming on slopes accelerate soil loss and erosion. Forests and plants protect the soil but every year 13 million hectares of forest are cut down and to date an estimated 75% of the world’s primary forest has been cleared.

In 2011, an estimated 24 billion tonnes of soil were lost, which amounts to some 3.4 tonnes of soil lost per person. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that one quarter of the world’s 13 billion hectares of land is degraded. In the pursuit of greater yields and profits we have compromised soil health, mining soils for nutrients, over-using fertilizers, creating over 4 billion hectares of man-made deserts and depleting over 8 billion hectares of deep organic soils.

Soils for Life, an Australian project, produced a video for 2012 Global Soil Week, which likens the world’s store of soils to money in a bank account, from which we continually withdraw without paying in.

Only more recently have we begun to explore the costs land degradation imposes on the environment and society.Soil degradation costs every person on the planet $70 each year, totalling $490 billion and this doesn’t include the indirect impacts of poor soils such as reduced water supply and declining crop yields, in turn leading to poverty, food insecurity and conflict, impacts that are only expected to worsen. In Africa two-thirds of crop land is expected to be lost by 2025. One thing is clear: it is not economically viable to carry on using and exploiting soils in the way we do today.

Recently the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative produced a video explaining the value of soil. The video explains that degraded soils leave us vulnerable, reducing ecosystem goods and services and resilience. For example degraded soils can’t store as much carbon, contributing to climate change. But soils can also be degraded as a result of changing weather patterns.

Both videos point to sustainable land management as the answer to land degradation and declining soil resources. While acknowledged as being expensive to implement, such practices are more cost effective over the long-term. Through farming methods such as conservation tillage we can rebuild soil stores. Some studies have shown that organic matter can increase by as much as 1,800 pounds per acre per year under long-term no-till production. Sustainable land management practices could, it’s estimated, add additional crop production of 230 billion tonnes each year.

We cannot overlook soil as there is no life without it. There is hope for the future that through sustainable agricultural practices we can reverse current trends of land degradation. But we need a better understanding of the value of soils, the processes that occur in soils and the best way to protect and restore soil reserves. To end with another quote: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” Leonardo DaVinci, circa 1500s.

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Disturbing Report Highlights the State of the World’s Oceans, Green Africa Directory

Africa Week Recognizes Development, Governance Progress, IISD

Regional Economic Outlook: Sub-Saharan Africa, IMF

From Plates that Grow Food to Certified Cocoa: UN Awards Innovative Green Enterprises at Green Economy Symposium, SEED Initiative

UN highlights role of farming in closing emissions gap, BBC

Farmers dig into soil quality, Nature

An exclusive interview with Bill Gates, The Financial Times

FAO expects more balanced food markets, less price volatility, FAO

Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies, The New York Times

New Effort Launched to Measure and Monitor Global Food Loss and Waste, UNEP

Nitrogen fixation helps double some African farm yields, SciDev.Net

Crop pests spreading polewards under global warming, European Commission

Food waste: ‘Six meals a week’ thrown away by Britons, BBC

We’ll rise or fall on the quality of our soil, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

How complexity thinking cut malnutrition in Vietnam by two thirds, From Poverty to Power, Duncan Green

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.

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.

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Can market solutions unlock Africa’s agricultural potential?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Scientists’ Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century, Ideas for Sustainability

A soiled reputation. Adverse impacts of mineral fertilizers in tropical agriculture, Heinrich Böll Foundation and WWF

Can a Growing World Feed Itself Without Genetically Modified Crops?, Brain Heap

Target, Giant Eagle, H-E-B, Meijer Say No to Genetically Engineered Salmon, Center for Food Safety

Declining agricultural diversity a ‘threat to humanity, Farming Online

Cassava’s huge potential as 21st Century crop, FAO

Seeking Food Ingredients That Aren’t Gene-Altered, The New York Times

Non-GM canola oil demand has crusher scrambling, The Western Producer

Mapping the Way to Even Healthier Rice, USDA

Could African Crops Be Improved With Private Biotech Data?, The Salt

Can climate-friendly development survive a fossil fuel boom?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Preserving the Soil and Reaping Greater Harvests, IPP Media