June 2013 Archives

Week 2 reading for this online course includes "Chocolate berries! Gingerbread plums!" from New Scientist (2009-11-7), describing how a World Agroforestry Centre program has helped people in Africa learn to domesticate, graft, and grow wild fruit trees. I'm in favor of anything that increases global crop diversity, since reliance on too few crops puts our food security at risk. And this program is dramatically improving the lives of some farmers.

But is this just another pyramid scheme? The formerly-poor farmer now "earning enough... to pay school fees for four of his children" is mainly selling trees to other farmers, not fruit. I assume there's some market for the actual fruit, but once all the trees he sells starting bearing fruit, will prices collapse, as they did for tulips and ostriches?

Here in Minnesota, there's some excitement about growing "pennycress" as an oil crop. It's also known as "fanweed" and "stinkweed", under which names we learn that it can be poisonous to livestock. But what worries me is that the "only commercial market for the crop is with Pennycress Energy Company LLC (PEC)." How many farmers would need to jump on the pennycress bandwagon before supply exceeds demand, prices collapse, and they're left with a problem weed rather than a valuable crop?

David Marks emails that it may be possible to use mutagenesis to "reduce weedy characters (such as secondary dormancy, seed glucosinolate accumulation)." That seems plausible, in which case pennycress may have potential as a future crop, at least in areas where it can fit between corn and soybean in a rotation (reducing erosion and perhaps suppressing weeds) and still reliably produce seed. In the years it takes to develop a nonweedy version, changes in subsidies or improvements in other alternate-energy technologies might undermine its value as a biofuel, but there might be higher-value uses as a chemical feedstock. Current promotion of this weedy "crop" seems premature, however.

In the course, Jason's video introduction to the FAOSTAT website was useful.

Students in this on-line course will be reading Chapter 1 of my book in a few weeks, and I'm sort of auditing the course to see what it's like learn this way.

I liked Jason's proposed definition of "sustainability" based on the impact of current choices on options available to future generations. For example, we could argue about current effects of biodiversity at a particular location, but global loss of species or genotypes clearly reduces options available to future generations.

Week 1 has an exercise on measuring the water content of food. Unless I missed it, there's no explanation of why we should care about water content. For example, is there some implication that water content affects irrigation requirements? It doesn't. Almost all the water used by crops is lost to the atmosphere through leaves. Water content does affect transportation costs ($ and energy) -- hauling tomatoes is mostly hauling water -- but farm-to-store energy use is only a few % of our food system's total (citation on p. 13 of Darwinian Agriculture).

Talks in Mexico and Utah

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Last week I was at Mexico's National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversiity (Langebio), giving a keynote talk on Darwinian Agriculture and learning about the diverse research program there, from microbial communities to manipulation of ant "bodyguards" by Acacia plants to using yeast to answer fundamental evolutionary questions. I was invited by the grad students, which is always flattering. The chair of the committee, Sergio Campos, wrote that my book, "Agricultura Darwiniana":

"es una lectura imprescindible para aquellos interesados en la problemática de la alimentación mundial bajo un clima cambiante [que] nos ilustra acerca de cómo la biología evolutiva puede aplicarse en la tecnología agrícola y la biotecnología. "

Maybe there will be a Spanish edition someday, although I'd settle for an inexpensive paperback.

On Sunday, June 23, I'll be giving a talk on Darwinian Agriculture, as part of the "Evolution Out of Bounds" symposium at the Evolution 2013 meeting, in Snowbird, Utah. These annual evolution meetings are usually really interesting, as I've discussed previously, and other talks in the symposium range from evolution of disease to evolving robots. Those interested in our evolution-of-multicellularity research should look for the talk by Kristin Jacobsen on Sunday afternoon and the poster presentation by Jenn Pentz Monday evening.