Janet Sprent, whose research I've admired for decades, reviewed my book in the Bulletin of the British Ecological Society. I couldn't find a web link to the review. She writes that "not all readers will agree with the arguments against these holy cows [perennial grain crops] but they deserve serious attention." Given our shared interest in nitrogen fixation, she was surprised by the lack of discussion of nitrogen-fixing cereals. But the book was already long enough to keep her "fully occupied on a 13 hour flight."
I probably could have lumped nitrogen-fixing cereals with C4 rice: both are big enough changes that we can't assume they have already been "tested and rejected by natural selection", but both may be "beyond anything humans today could design and implement from scratch." I may have to modify the latter statement for C4 rice after seeing what progress they've made at the International Rice Research Institute, next month, although copying other C4 plants isn't the same as designing a new photosynthetic system "from scratch." Making nitrogen-fixing cereals might be even more difficult, however, as I have discussed on my other blog.
Chris Smaje, a regular commenter here, reviewed my book for Permaculture Magazine (link to docx file here) and separately on this blog, Small Farm Future. Both reviews are examples of the kind of thoughtful discussion I hoped to generate with the book. He wrote:
"I suspect that it's ultimately impossible to create any kind of agriculture that can usefully be regarded as 'natural', but the further we depart from it the more we're flying blind..."Similarly, I wrote (p. 74):
"the more we depart from nature, the more we enter unexplored territory, with possible unknown risks."Still, the quantitative comparisons in Chapter 6 are consistent with my theoretical argument that it may be possible to improve on the overall organization of natural ecosystems. For example, crop rotation may be a good idea, even though natural ecosystems rarely have such dramatic changes in plant species from one year to the next. In contrast, Chapter 5 argues that making simple, tradeoff-free improvements in individual-plant traits like drought resistance will be much harder, even with biotechnology. This is because natural selection has tested individual traits competitively against alternatives, over millennia. Meanwhile, no natural process has consistently improved overall ecosystem organization on that time scale -- see previous post.