Agriculture

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Earthworms are soil ecosystem engineers.  They are the key soil organisms that influence soil biology, nutrient availability and soil physical structure; and their abundance has been linked to significantly improving plant productivity.  The importance of earthworms has long been recognised, Charles Darwin stated “Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind; agriculture as we know it would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible”.

However, natures ploughs, specifically large, deep burrowing earthworms, are decimated by conventional tillage.  This soil management practice accounts for >95 % of all conventional and organic cereal production in the UK. So, is this a threat we should be concerned about, could there be a future where no earthworms = no bread?  Soil management practices that sustain abundant deep burrowing earthworm populations often require a drastic change in conventional thinking.

The conversion from conventional tillage to conservation agriculture is the adoption of a new farming system using zero tillage (using specialised machinery), diverse crop rotations and permanent soil cover (such as mulches); and my research is investigating the impact of this system on soil health and crop productivity.  However, this system is not without controversy when #glyphosateisvital to zero tillage agronomy; igniting the public debate on ‘sustainable agriculture’.  Earthworms are a vital part of the soil system that generate key ecosystem services, the question is, do they play any role in producing the food that you choose to eat?

The impact of deep burrowing earthworms on soils is being showcased at our half-term event #wormscience at the Science Museum in London from the 29 – 31st May between 11 – 1pm; 2 – 4pm.

Dr Jackie Stroud, Soil Security Programme

This post is one of several posts about our work as part of the Soil Security Programme for Global Soil Week. Find out more about our work here.

Phosphorus (P) is essential to all living things. Every single cell in plants, animals and microbes, down to our very own DNA requires P to survive and grow. Modern agriculture is dependent on P fertilizer, especially in high yielding systems where the biomass (and therefore the P) is continually exported to local, or sometimes international markets. Since the UK does not have an internal supply for P fertilizers, it is dependent on outside sources and makes it vulnerable to political instability and potential price fluctuations. The recent seizure of a New Zealand bound phosphate shipment highlights this issue. On the other hand, over application of P-containing compounds to soil may lead to serious environmental issues, such as algal blooms in down-stream waters. Nutrient transport is becoming an increasing concern as extreme weather events and flooding occur more frequently. Our food supply and the state of our environment is at risk and we must identify solutions now.

One possibility for reducing fertilizer requirements and decreasing the concentration of P in runoff is to improve the efficiency of P uptake by plants. Soils contain an abundance of P in various forms, although only a very small percentage of P may be present as orthophosphate (PO4) that can be taken up by plants. To deal with low PO4 concentrations, plants and microbes have evolved with remarkable (but poorly understood) techniques to break down larger molecules into usable forms. For example, many bacteria contain a set of genes that “turn on” when they don’t have enough orthophosphate (PO4) in their environment. This triggers the production of enzymes to break a bond in larger organic P molecules, thus freeing the PO4 for uptake.

Phosphorus cycling in the soil-microbe-plant continuum of agri-ecosystems aims to identify how plants and microbes can work together to improve P utilisation from the soil. We are growing oilseed rape plants in field soils (pictured) under controlled conditions to evaluate the effects of P fertilizer application and bacterial inoculants on soil enzymes, changes in P forms and plant growth. The focus is on the rhizosphere, the soil closest to the root, since this can be a hotspot for microbial activity and biochemical reactions. Advanced techniques in genomics, transcriptomics and proteomics are being applied, in combination with 31P nuclear magnetic resonance and enzymology to characterise the microbes, plants and soils. Ultimately, we need to understand the basic mechanisms to be able to create more sustainable production systems.

Dr Tandra Fraser, post-doctoral researcher , Soil Security Programme

This post is one of several posts about our work as part of the Soil Security Programme for Global Soil Week. Find out more about our work here.

Dr Giuseppe Feola is lecturer in Environment and Development in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science. He writes about an historical window of opportunity for Colombian agriculture to overcome its structural crisis, and the challenges ahead.

Out of the radar of most British and European mass media, Colombia was recently shaken by an historical social mobilization that raised important questions on the future of Colombian peasantry, and exposed the unsustainability of market-based rural development models in the country.

For 21 days thousands of farmers across the country went on strike and took the highways including the vital Ruta Panamericana linking the north and the south. This was the extreme measure adopted by several organizations of smallholders to make their objections and petitions heard by the national Government. The farmers were concerned by the high production costs (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides, transport), and the free trade agreements with the United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU), which came into force in 2012 and 2013 respectively. These treaties are considered to put smallholder Colombian farmers in open competition with stronger international competitors, for example by reducing or eliminating protectionist barriers, constraining the use of native seeds in favour of certified ones, and facilitating the import of produce at low prices.

The strike had significant effects on the food prices in most of Colombian cities, with produce seeing an increase of up to 150% in the markets of Bogotá, the capital district. The protests were faced with an inconsistent approach by the government. In a 2-week time span, they were first denied, then demeaned, then violently repressed, and, finally, acknowledged with the opening of negotiation talks between representatives of the national Government and of the farmers.

This social mobilization was historical for at least two reasons. Firstly, despite the food price increase, it was widely supported by the urban middle classes. This marked a symbolic convergence between urban and rural areas, which in the last decades have been divided by a growing gap, wealth spreading -albeit unevenly- in urban areas and poverty dominating in rural ones. Secondly, the social mobilization was initiated in regions such as the Andean Department of Boyacá, in which peasant have traditionally known to be characterized by an ethos of passivity, social reserve and scarce aspirations to improve. Moreover, this social mobilization came at a crucial point in the long and sad history of violent conflict in Colombia.

The government of president Santos and the biggest armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are negotiating a peace agreement of which rural development constitutes one of five main axes. If the recent entry into force of the above mentioned free trade agreements, and the current implementation of a governmental sustainable development plan under the slogan ‘Prosperidad para todos‘ (‘Prosperity for all‘), of which agriculture is one of five locomotoras‘ (‘locomotives’), are considered, it is apparent that the current time is a very significant window of opportunity for historic change for Colombian peasantry and Colombian agriculture more broadly.

In fact, the protest and the strike were largely the result of a decades-long crisis, address through  market-based policies that were pursued by several successive governments in substitution of a proper agrarian reform, and accompanied by the demeaning of the social, cultural and economic role that peasants play in the national economy and society. Colombia has one of the most unequal land distributions in the world, land property rights are often informal and uncertain, and 65% of agricultural workers live in poverty conditions.

The liberalization of Colombian agriculture has been promoted on the assumption that the exposure of local markets to competition from regional and global ones would attract foreign investment, promote innovation and efficiency, and thus favour both the productive sector and consumers. Similarly to what observed in other Latin American countries, liberalization policies have favoured the supply of cheap food to the growing urban middle classes, but have been largely based on abstract and oversimplified neoclassical economic models that do not account for the diversity and specificity of local agricultural systems, ignore the social and cultural value -as opposed to the purely economic one- of particular farming systems, and leave little space for practices that are to not compatible with profit maximization in a competitive market.

What was actually at stake, therefore, was much more than the price of agricultural inputs, or the right to use native seeds. The social mobilization put fundamentally into question the type of rural development that Colombia decided to follow: one in which peasants and smallholders are bound to become workforce in those industrialized agricultural firms that will stand international competition, or in urban industry and services, and in which agricultural land will possibly be used to fuel other ‘locomotives‘ such as mining. However, it is not yet clear how radically the negotiations will tackle these issues. While the Minister for Agriculture recently promised an agrarian reform, the fact that grassroots peasant organization decided not to take part in the talks because not satisfied by the agenda on the table, unlike the well organized representation of more industrialized agricultural sectors, is a sign of the limited scope of the reform to come.

Is there a future for Colombian peasantry? Is there a future for small scale food production which is culturally and socially rooted in a territory, in a growingly globalized and liberalized agri-food system? Will the urban middle class be willing to concretize the symbolic support for peasants, for example by paying an extra price for food produced locally and at small scale, but inevitably at higher cost? Will peasant and smallholders, on their hand, manage to develop practices that are socially and culturally meaningful, but more environmentally sustainable and economically efficient? Most importantly, how radically is the Colombian government ready, or able, to discuss current models of rural development? Will peasants and indigenous populations have a say in this process? Colombian agriculture faces transformative pressures, but it is in the hand of the Government and the interested parties to shape the breath, depth and direction of this transformation.

Professor Richard Tiffin, Director of the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading discusses the House of Commons International Development Committee report on Food Security, published this week.

The House of Commons International Development Committee report on Food Security is a comprehensive and challenging attempt to highlight some of the issues which confront us with this complex problem.

The report highlights: the potential of GM to contribute to food security but recognises that care must be excercised in promoting this as a solution; the importance of agricultural research; the importance of open international markets in protecting against shocks; and that a focus on malnutrition may be as, if not more, important than that of hunger.

However, while the aim of the report is to take a global focus, it is perhaps guilty of oversimplifying the issue of meat production and coming to locally-centred, rather than global, conclusions. It notes that the rate of increase in meat consumption is unsustainable and recommends that meat should be promoted as an occasional product. By highlighting the place of animals in ensuring global food security the report is to be applauded but the reality is that this area is complex and not well understood at the moment.

It is irrefutable that demand for meat globally will grow as populations become richer.  At a local level, it might be sensible for us to reduce meat consumption and the reality is that price increases will probably lead us to do this voluntarily.  At a global level, however, it is much more important to consider how the inevitable increase in demand can be met and what its implications are for human health. We should not solely focus our attention on repelling the tide.

The report correctly states that we need to identify sustainable livestock systems, but it is not necessarily true that extensive pasture-based systems are more sustainable. For example there is evidence to suggest that more intensive feeding reduces the emission of greenhouse gases caused by livestock.  The role played by livestock in providing a route out of poverty for some of the poorest farmers should also not be overlooked.

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On world food day Professor Richard Tiffin from the University’s Centre for Food Security discusses the challenges faced when meeting the global demand for food.

The present debate around how best to meet the global demand for food has a tendency to polarise into two camps.  First there are those who argue that the food system is broken and what is required is a return to more ‘traditional’ ways in which food is produced on labour intensive small farms and distributed locally.  In the opposite corner are technologists who argue that the only way that we will be able to meet the predicted increase in demand for food of between fifty and one hundred per cent, is to continue the process of intensification that characterised the development of agriculture during the twentieth century.  Instead of this polarisation however perhaps some cross fertilisation is necessary.

A return to a more traditional agriculture has some appeal.  There is no denying that small scale production gives a better looking countryside and increased rural employment.  Its diversified products also provide a nice contrast to the commoditised food products that dominate the supermarket shelves.  In a more subtle way the greater diversity of the farming system employed on these units may provide us with a greater degree of resilience in the face of increased risk of extreme weather events which climate change brings.  

This is all logical but the problems arise when attempts are made to scale the approach up to meet a much larger part of our food needs.  Increased labour intensity demands more labour and we have to ask where this will come from.  ‘New-lifers’ can only go so far, farms will need to reverse the reality of the labour market in which non-agricultural jobs have better conditions and therefore draw people out of the sector.  It is sometimes overlooked that farm employment is often dangerous, cold, wet, depressing and poorly paid. 

The argument becomes much more dangerous, however, when we apply it to developing countries.  Here the small scale sector is often vital in ensuring short term food security, but to argue that it should remain so risks consigning these countries to a permanently less developed state.  The process of agricultural intensification must be seen as one component of the process of economic development.  Blocking agricultural development will stop the release of labour (and other resources) from agriculture which drives growth in other sectors of the economy.  Without this, growing populations may or may not have enough food, but they will be without the services that are necessary to support their inevitably more urban lifestyles.

So, we are left with a situation in which ‘intensification’ must continue, but we must also learn from the practitioners of ‘traditional’ agriculture.  These farmers are acutely aware of the fact that food production is not an industrial process.  Food is, at least in part, a product of nature.  This is a fact that seems not have escaped the food consumer, where all the evidence points to the fact that ‘natural’ food is valued.  The implication is that we cannot divorce our food production from the ecosystem which supports it.  Changes in our farming system have implications for the other things which our ecosystem gives us, for example biodiversity and carbon cycling.  Equally changes in the ecosystem, for example reductions in the population of pollinators, have implications for food production.

There are some encouraging signs that a middle way may become our focus.

The concept of sustainable intensification is on the agenda.  This recognises that we must not stop the search for new ways of producing food but that we should do so in ways which work with nature rather than in a box apart from it.  We should learn from our traditions but not harp back to them.  By 2050 there will be 2bn more people in the world, 1.9bn of whom will be in developing countries.  We owe it to them.

Professor Richard Tiffin is Director for the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading. Richard is an Agricultural Economist and his current research is focused on diet and health policy, in particular the impacts of fiscal policies with the objective of improving dietary health, such as so-called ‘fat tax’.

 

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Michael Garratt, from School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, tells us why we should care about insects as National Insect Week approaches.

Since I picked up my first ladybird as a child, insects have fascinated me. Now 25 years on I am a professional entomologist. This is fun to research and worthwhile, especially encouraging the public to realise how important insects really are. During my MSc, my PhD and working at the University of Reading I have been lucky enough to be involved in outreach projects and activities that get the public interested in scientific research. When chatting to adults and children alike, I invariably get asked those dreaded questions! “What is the point in wasps?”, “Why do we have flies?”, “What are beetles for?”. I could give the facetious answer to this question by saying “What is the point in humans?”, but other than maybe getting an eight year -old to question their existence, this does little to answer the question.

I have worked on projects related to agricultural pest insects, including aphids infesting barley and caterpillars eating cabbages, and their existence, in any human terms, are hard to justify. So to avoid being too philosophical, my usual response to these tough questions typically referred to an insect’s place in the ecosystem, the complex interactions between species and their role in food webs. My current role at the University of Reading, however, sees me working on crop pollination by insects and I am delighted to say the answers to these questions are now far easier!

Insect, including bumblebees, solitary bees, honey bees and hoverflies, help pollinate 84% of European crop species. Recent research at Reading has shown that the service these insects provide is worth at least £510m to UK agriculture. Crops pollinated by insects include fruit like apples and strawberries and field crops such as beans and oilseed rape. Clearly the importance of pollinating insects cannot be overstated – they provide much of our food. Here comes the bad news: many species upon which we rely for pollination are showing widespread declines in abundance and diversity. In the UK in recent decades we have seen some bumblebee species become less widespread and both solitary bee and hoverfly diversity has fallen. Furthermore, the number of honey bee hives kept in the UK halved between 1985 and 2005. Despite their importance to UK agriculture, there are still many unknowns in insect crop pollination research, including which pollinators are actually important for pollinating many crops and how best we can manage farmland to support healthy and effective pollinator communities.

The University of Reading is part of a major UK research programme called the Insect Pollinators Initiative, aimed at understanding and addressing the decline in pollinating insects. The University is involved in several projects in this programme.  I and my team are working on ‘Sustainable pollination services for UK crops’. We have been gathering data on the importance of pollinating insects to common crops, including apples, strawberries, beans and oilseed rape. We are now starting to understand the true importance of insect diversity to food security and their contribution to crop yield and quality. Importantly we will be testing how best we might mitigate against pollinator losses or try and arrest the declines all together. As part of any research project today it has become increasingly important to make results more accessible to the public and policymakers – this is not just an issue for researchers but for wider society. With the advent of National Insect Week, this provides us with an invaluable opportunity to ‘spread the word’ and get the public behind us.

National Insect Week is led by the Royal Entomological Society and in 2012 begins on the 25 June. Hundreds of events will be running across the country from butterfly walks to public lectures at venues such as the Oxford University Natural History Museum and the University’s own Harris Gardens. Our research team will be attending lots of events with our crop pollination roadshow and I encourage everyone to come along. After all, with public support comes financial and political support and we can then start securing crop pollination services for future generations!

For further information on National Insect Week or our research at the University of Reading see links below or contact me on M.P.Garratt@reading.ac.uk.

http://nationalinsectweek.co.uk/

http://www.reading.ac.uk/caer/

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