January 2013 Archives
...on scaling up and on perennial grains.
No spam so far, just constructive criticism.
The first review is in Evolution, and written by Duur Aanen, from the University of Wageningen. He's best known for his research on "agriculture" by nonhuman species, particularly fungus-growing termites, including mechanisms that limit the evolutionary success of "cheater" strains of fungi. I also liked his recent commentary on weeding vs. intercropping in the algal gardens of damselfish.
Professor Aanen's review summarizes and apparently accepts the main arguments in my book, only faulting me for not citing recent work by Piter Bijma, relevant to my suggestion that improving the collective performance of fields and flocks will often require reversing the effects of past individual selection. Looks like his work might stretch my math ability and that of some of my readers.
The second review is by Peter Thrall, of CSIRO, and published in Evolutionary Applications. He has published extensively on coevolution of legumes and rhizobia and on the application of evolutionary principles to agriculture.
This review is more critical, though constructive. Thrall doesn't seem to disagree so much with my scientific hypotheses as with my characterizations of the views of others. Maybe he's right that "the world has moved on", both in rejecting natural ecosystems as a model for agriculture to copy, and in the tendency of biotechnologists to ignore tradeoffs. I hope I gave enough examples of promising work by agroecologists (such as Jacob Weiner) and biotechnologists to make it clear that the habits of mind I criticize are not universal. I agree that agronomists often think about tradeoffs and whole-crop performance and credited Colin Donald, an Australian agronomist, as a key source of my ideas.
Thrall is more optimistic about developing C4 rice than I was in the book, but maybe I'll change my views after visiting the International Rice Research Institute in March.
He writes that "there is a bibliography, but individual statements are not consistently referenced." That was my main objection to Diamond's otherwise excellent Collapse, so I tried to provide specific references for points that I thought might be controversial, except for those that were clearly matters of personal opinion. Apparently I missed some. In closing, he writes:
"I don't agree with everything in it, and there are many other topics that could have been included, but it has certainly got me thinking, and that is really all one can ask of a book such as this."
That was my intent. If disagreements with my book inspire more smart people to work at the interface of evolution and agriculture, it will have served its purpose.
The online magazine Next City quotes me in an informative story about urban farming.
Dunn admits there aren't enough high-end restaurants or CSA customers willing to pay a premium for the produce generated by 10 or 20 one-acre [urban] farms, much less 10,000. He's looking for alternative buyers, such as hospitals or schools, but has yet to hit on a scalable option.
So-called "vertical farms" have additional problems, but I run into this scaling problem all the time.
When I was at UC Davis, people gushed about how much "more sustainable" a farm that grew seeds of native plants was, relative to those growing wheat, almonds, or tomatoes. Great, but that one farm pretty much saturated the market for native-plant seeds.
My brother earns a reasonable income growing wonderful vegetables and fruits organically, but that doesn't mean it would be easy to convert all our farms to organic methods. If each acre of organic farm needs manure from chickens fed corn from four acres of land fertilized with synthetic fertilizer, that seems to set an upper limit of 25% for organic farmland. Long before that, though, we might run out of customers willing to pay organic premium prices.
Here's a link to a recent talk discussing these questions, and the broader issue of "Evolutionary Tradeoffs as Constraints and Opportunities."
Also available is a higher-quality video of an earlier talk, my keynote at the Applied Evolution Summit in 2010.