Duxton’s Agri Bits and Pieces Vol. 257
Posted on: October 22nd, 2015


This week’s quote comes from David Taylor, Chair of America’s National Association of Clean Water Agenices (NACWA) Water Quality Trading Workgroup and expresses the importance of establishing an efficient market for water.

“Faced with an ever-growing crisis on nutrient pollution and an environmental statute in need of updating to allow for more holistic, watershed-based approaches, the sector must look to further broaden the use of water quality trading and similar management approaches to find more opportunities for collaboration between point and nonpoint sources, including agriculture.”

Read more: http://goo.gl/XXWTqe



Creating a sustainable agricultural system is one of the greatest concerns facing the world today.  Human population growth, degraded lands, and stagnating productivity gains are combining to produce a global agricultural emergency.  Past work has predicted that crop productivity will need to double to feed a growing population of 7 billion.  The solution will likely come from a combination of sources: altered dietary habits, technological breakthroughs, and more sustainable and efficient use of currently cultivated lands.

In recent years, ecologists have focused more intensively on agricultural production methods that may use land more efficiently and more sustainably: namely the development of economically and ecologically efficient intercropping systems.  Intercropping is the agricultural practice of growing multiple crops in the same field at the same time.

Intercropping is sometimes complemented with double cropping, wherein a farmer may alternate cropping of different crops over time.  Both practices can improve overall nutrient and light utilization of the system (due to niche complementarity) and increase pest control for crops (due to dilution effects of species-specific pathogens).

While intercropping can be a more intensive harvesting practice, it is an important and viable option in intensively farmed regions where the majority of farming relies on small subsistence-based or family farms.

Increased efficiency and implementation of intercropping systems will likely rely on increased optimization.  Much of the research being done on the optimization of these systems is coming from China, where this style of agriculture is common.

Recently, the Chinese government has begun encouraging research on and implementation of a “double high” agricultural standard: emphasizing both high yields and higher nutrient use efficiency.  Over the past several years, work published in PLOS One has highlighted the great diversity of research being done on intercropping in China.

Much of the work on intercropping relies on the nitrogen fixing ability of plants in the legume family.  Whereas all other species of plants need nitrogen supplied from the soil (usually in the form of industrially applied fertilizer), plants in the legume family have evolved a symbiosis with belowground rhizobia that allow them to “fix” nitrogen out of the nitrogen-rich atmosphere. Growing non-legume plants alongside legumes can reduce nitrogen-competition between species and enrich soil nitrogen reserves.

The future of intercropping success and efficiency, however, likely lies in the details.  Research has found that the most efficient intercropping ratio alternated between four rows of corn and six rows of soybean.  This 4:6 intercropping system increased the economic benefit of the land by 26% over the corn monoculture – and this was after accounting for fertilizer costs, seed costs, machinery use, and labor.

Thus, the gross economic benefit to the small-scale farmer can increase average annual farm income from USD 2,534 to USD 3,883 – an increase of 54%.

Furthermore, the intercropping systems more efficiently removed nitrogen from the soils – indicating increased resource use efficiency in the intercropped systems.  Nitrogen use efficiency is particularly important in northern China where environmental degradation due to fertilizer runoff has caused acidification of farmland and eutrophication of surface waters in the past.

The ecological basis for intercropping success relies somewhat on the complementary strategies that different plant species employ for utilizing resources.  A single species likely uses resources in one very specific way: when grown in monoculture that species may deplete its own resource base very rapidly and comprehensively.

Widespread implementation of intercropping systems will rely on our ability to increase the economic and ecological efficiency of these agricultural practices in a diversity of different countries and biomes.  The work being done by a great number of scientists in China may be paving the way for greater adoption and economic feasibility of these options in the future.  While the solution to global issues concerning food security and agriculture will certainly by multi-faceted, increasing the efficiency of lands must be one part of this solution.  It’s exciting to see such important research being done at the intersection of classic ecology and agricultural science.

Read more: http://goo.gl/Js8NZs



The humble bumblebee might help disrupt the multi-billion dollar synthetic pesticide industry. A new system uses bees to help deliver natural pesticides and beneficial fungi directly to plants—and because bees are so much more precise than the typical sprayers on farms, they can use a tiny fraction of the pesticide and make plants stronger.

“Imagine you have an apple orchard,” says Michael Collinson, president and CEO of Bee Vectoring Technology, the Vancouver-based startup behind the technology. “Because apple trees have a very large canopy, even though you may spray it and use a special type of spray that doesn’t go everywhere, you still won’t touch every bloom. Whereas the bees deliver product every single day, to every single bloom.”

The new system, originally developed by researchers at the University of Guelph, uses a tray filled with a patented mix of natural, beneficial microbes. The tray goes in a beehive that farmers already have. When bees head out to pollinate crops—their main job—they walk through the powder on the way, and end up delivering tiny helpful spores to flowers as they make their rounds.

Because the bumblebees deliver the powder directly to plants, they also help avoid runoff, a common problem with traditional pesticides. Typically, pesticide is mixed with hundreds of gallons of water and then sprayed everywhere. “99% of that is going to end up in the wrong place,” he says. “One percent ends up where it’s supposed to be, but 99% ends up in the water, or on the ground, or other non-targeted area.”

Normally, farmers can only spray once or twice while apple trees are in bloom, and because sets of trees bloom at different times, it’s easy to miss about half of the orchard. The bees can deliver their organic pesticide continuously, so fruit ends up stronger and more likely to make it to make it to the grocery store.

The special mix of powders also includes beneficial fungi that helps eliminate common diseases like botrytis, which causes mold. The company has done years of testing to make sure the process is safe for bees.

Because the process uses so little product—and free labor from bees—it’s priced competitively with traditional pesticide. The company’s main target is conventional farms, even though they qualify for organic use as well. “We are extremely cost-effective, and more importantly, our product is extremely efficient at controlling the pathogens that are out there,” says Collinson.

He sees the product as the beginning of a shift away from chemical pesticides. “we know that as the world population grows and we have to feed more and more people every day, the need for higher yields and higher quality in crops is paramount, and we’re certainly looking for non-chemical ways of doing that,” he says. “So we can find biological ways that work in concert with nature. I think that’s where most of the major chemical companies are starting to look, because it costs so much money to bring a new chemical to market.”

Read more: http://goo.gl/YQdPuU



This week’s chart comes from the World Resource Institute’s report Creating a Sustainable Food Future: Interim Findings and shows how the locus of agricultural growth (rate of output growth as a percentage per year) has shifted from input increases to efficiency gains.

Read more: http://goo.gl/fGepx9





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