Tag Archives: farming

Backyards could supply between 50% to 100% of your family’s protein needs

Could your typical US household grow enough proteins for its own needs in the backyard? Researchers say ‘yes’.

Image credits Julio César García.

Despite — or rather, due to — everything that’s been going on since last year, people in the US have taken to their gardens in a big way. Equipment and supplies ranging from garden seeds to coops and rabbit cages were highly sought-after in 2020, and they’ve been flying off the shelves.

This gives us a chance to analyze the potential that individual households have of growing protein — and, according to research at Michigan Technological University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, even a backyard is enough for this purpose. Dedicating just part of it to growing soybeans, chickens, or rabbits can fulfil the typical family’s demand for protein, they explain.

Backyard Barbeque

As a response to the shortages experienced during the early days of the pandemic, some people turned to in-house production. Chickens were particularly popular, since they’re quite cute, easy to care for, and also lay eggs. I’ve even made a short primer on how to care for them here.

On average, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI), your average person needs 51 grams of protein every day, which comes to 18,615 grams each year. Your average household, then, needs around 48,400 grams to make it through the year. We tend to get these from huge factory farms, since most people today don’t have the space to grow their own food, and we’d balk at having our cities full of livestock like our forefathers.

However, the researchers point out that small animals are much more efficient as a source of proteins than large ones, and they’re allowed within city limits. Furthermore, while lots of people don’t have extra room, the average backyard in the US ranges from 800 to 1,000 square meters, or about 8,600 to 10,700 square feet.

“You don’t have to convert your entire backyard into a soybean farm. A little goes a long way,” said Joshua Pearce, one of the study co-authors and Michigan Tech’s Richard Witte Endowed Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“I’m a solar engineer; I look at surface area and think of photovoltaic production. Many people don’t do that — they don’t treat their backyards as a resource. In fact, they can be a time and money sink that they have to mow and pour fertilizer on. But we can actually be very self-reliant when we treat our yards as an asset.”

Pearce’s co-authors initially banded together to perform an agrovoltaics study on the practicality of raising rabbits under solar panels. However, when they went out to buy cages in 2020, they found wide-ranging shortages all through the US. They then refocused their work to address the impacts of the pandemic, like a lot of other researchers. What they looked at is how backyards can help insulate families from shortages of essential goods, like food.

Using the average backyard as a measuring stick, a typical family could produce up to 50% of their protein requirement themselves, assuming these would be used as space to raise chickens or rabbits. To fully cover their own demand, a family would need to raise and care for 52 chickens or 107 rabbits, which wouldn’t be exactly easy (or legal, depending on where you live). According to the team, the “real winner is soy”.

Consuming plant protein directly is way more efficient compared to feeding it to animals. Such protein can provide 80% to 160% of household demand, the team explains.

Whether or not you’ll be saving money on this depends on exactly how you go about it, but it is possible even if food prices don’t increase, according to the authors. But how much you value your time, your effort and your enjoyment from tending to your crops, and how much importance you place on food quality will all impact how much you’d gain from a backyard farm.

“It does take time. And if you have the time, it’s a good investment,” Pearce said, pointing to other research on building community with gardens, mental health benefits of being outside, and simply a deeper appreciation for home-raised food. “Our study showed that many Americans could participate in distributed food production and help make the U.S. not only more sustainable, but more resilient to supply chain disruptions.”

The paper “U.S. Potential of Sustainable Backyard Distributed Animal and Plant Protein Production during and after Pandemics” has been published in the journal Sustainability.

Clean energy, high yields: greenhouse plants grow just fine with semi-transparent solar cells

Greenhouse farming could soon become much more climate-friendly thanks to the use of solar cells to obtain electricity to regulate temperature. A new study found that greenhouses equipped with renewable energy can generate clean electricity without affecting the growth or health of the plants inside, opening the way for a new type of greenhouse.

Image credit: Flickr / Lotus Johnson

A greenhouse provides an enclosed environment that allows for crop production. Greenhouses are not only more reliable than outdoor crops, but they can also offer more growth cycles per year. The protective environment – through a transparent envelope – drastically increases yield while lowering water consumption and pesticide use as compared to conventional farming.

The insolation leads to significant space heating that can be beneficial in cold weather but can result in overheating in warm weather. While the sunlight can support space heating in cold weather, the glazing of the greenhouse has poor thermal insulation, resulting in the greenhouse often requiring heating beyond what the sun can provide.

Hence, the need for energy in a greenhouse.

To lower the energy footprint of greenhouses, both farmers and researchers have been increasingly looking at ways to integrate solar cells into the greenhouse structure. The problem is that solar panels and plants are vying for the same resource: solar light. Many thought that with the light being captured by the solar cells to generate power, there simply wouldn’t be enough left for crop production. But there’s a way around it.

Semitransparent organic solar cells (ST-OSCs) have been of particular interest as they have absorption characteristics that can be tuned to complement the spectral light needs of the plant. While studies have shown the cells can be a beneficial source of power, nobody had asked the plants yet how they can be affected.

Researchers from North Carolina State University decided to address this, looking at the use of ST-OSCs in a model greenhouse in the US and their effects on crops. This solar technology is more flexible than others and the wavelengths of light they harvest can be adjusted, making them perfect – in theory, at least – for embedding into greenhouse roofs.

For the study, they grew groups of red leaf lettuce (Lactuca sativa) in greenhouses for 30 days. All were exposed to the same growing conditions and the only difference was light. A control group received regular white light and three experimental groups grew under light passed through filters, so to mimic wavelengths that would be blocked by the solar cells.

The researchers then monitored several indicators of the health of the plants, including their weight, number and size of leaves, level of antioxidants, and how much CO2 they absorbed. To their surprise, the lettuces grew just fine no matter the type of light they received, with no major difference seen in any measurement. This is very good news for the solar panels.

The study also showed that the organic solar cells contribute to reducing overheating in the greenhouse. For a greenhouse in Sacramento, California, the number of hours that the greenhouse overheats can be reduced from 280 to 82 hours. While this does not have a large impact on energy demand, it is expected to improve crop production, the researchers argued.

“We were a little surprised – there was no real reduction in plant growth or health,” plant biologist Heike Sederoff from North Carolina State University and co-author of the research told Futirity. “It means the idea of integrating transparent solar cells into greenhouses can be done.”

In a study published earlier this year, the same researchers found that the use of ST-OSCs could reduce the carbon footprint of greenhouses by powering the structures in warm and moderate climates. Semi-transparent cells on greenhouse roofs act as insulators as they reflect infrared light, helping keep the greenhouse warmer in winter and cooler in summer, they argued.

The study was published in the journal Cell.

Intensive farming increases the risk of epidemics

Low genetic diversity, and the increasing use of antibiotics increase the likelihood of pathogens becoming a major health risk.

Image credits: Johny Goerend.

Agriculture has been one of the most impactful inventions in human history, but modern agriculture has changed dramatically.

Modern practices affect the entire planet, changing the distribution of animal species, triggering soil erosion, and producing a hefty amount of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. The impact of agriculture isn’t just macroscopic, either — it’s also microscopic.

Previous research has shown that agricultural systems are highly conducive to the emergence and spread of pathogens, and intensive agriculture can increase the risk of zoonotic pathogens. A new study adds new evidence to that concern.

The study focused on the evolution of Campylobacter jejuni. C. jejuni is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in Europe and the Americas. The pathogen can cause bloody diarrhea in humans and is generally transferred from eating contaminated meat and poultry. Although it’s not as dangerous as typhoid or cholera, it can still cause serious illnesses, particularly in patients suffering from underlying health conditions.

Most cases occur as isolated events, not outbreaks, but around 1 in 7 people suffer an infection at some point in their life. It’s estimated that 20% of all cattle spread the pathogen through their faeces, and the bug is also highly resistant to antibiotics, due to the antibiotics used in farming.

In the new study, researchers analyzed the genetic evolution of the pathogen, finding that cattle-specific strains started emerging at the same time as cattle numbers increased in the 20th century — and intensive farming became a thing. According to the study conclusions, intensive agriculture brought changes in cattle diet, anatomy, and physiology — and these changes helped the bacterium to cross the species barrier, infecting humans.

Combine this with the increased movement of farm animals globally and you end up with a perfect gateway for the pathogen to move from farm animals to humans.

Professor Sam Sheppard from the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, explains:

“There are an estimated 1.5 billion cattle on Earth, each producing around 30 kg of manure each day; if roughly 20 per cent of these are carrying Campylobacter, that amounts to a huge potential public health risk.”

This is not an isolated event — our interaction with animals (both farm animals and wild animals) can increase our risk of pathogen outbreaks. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that COVID-19 is also a zoonotic disease, potentially emerging as a result of our interaction with wildlife.

“Over the past few decades, there have been several viruses and pathogenic bacteria that have switched species from wild animals to humans: HIV started in monkeys; H5N1 came from birds; now Covid-19 is suspected to have come from bats.

The results come with a warning: if we continue in the same line, we are essentially encouraging pathogens to make the leap to humans, and the long term effects can cascade into long-term global health issues.

“Our work shows that environmental change and increased contact with farm animals has caused bacterial infections to cross over to humans too. I think this is a wake-up call to be more responsible about farming methods, so we can reduce the risk of outbreaks of problematic pathogens in the future.”

Professor Dave Kelly from the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Sheffield gives a similar warning:

“Human pathogens carried in animals are an increasing threat and our findings highlight how their adaptability can allow them to switch hosts and exploit intensive farming practices.”

Evangelos Mourkas el al., “Agricultural intensification and the evolution of host specialism in the enteric pathogen Campylobacter jejuni,” PNAS (2020). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1917168117

Shifting away from monocultures would benefit both wildlife and people

Agriculture can help insulate wildlife from the worst effects of climate change, but only if it ditches the current focus on monocultures.

Hill slopes in the Nilgiris Mountains, India, being prepared for planting mixed vegetables.
Image credits Rafeek Manchayil / Flickr.

Farmlands can act as havens for wildlife species in a world where climate change is eroding their habitats, a new study explains. However, for that to happen, a shift needs to be made towards mixed cultures. Such a change would also make the farms themselves more resilient against climate changes, which would also benefit us and help solidify the global food supply against environmental shocks.

Although the study focused on bird species in Costa Rica, the team explains that birds can serve as a “natural guideline” for the health of other animal families throughout the world, as well.

Strength in diversity

“Farms that are good for birds are also good for other species,” said Jeffrey Smith, a graduate student in the department of biology and a co-author on the paper. “We can use birds as natural guides to help us design better agricultural systems.”

The team looked at long-term farming practices in Costa Rica and how these impact local bird biodiversity levels. Overall, farms that plant diverse crops can provide habitat for a larger number of bird species than monoculture farms, they found, and are also more stable as habitats over time. Diverse farmlands were also more effective at insulating the species they housed against the ecological damage caused by climate change.

Tropical areas and the rainforests that thrive there are “expected to suffer even more intensely” due to climate change than other areas, explains Gretchen Daily, director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project and the Center for Conservation Biology, and a senior author on the paper. Climate change will lead to longer dry seasons along with more and longer intervals of extreme heat, which will lead to more forest dieback — the process in which woody plants start dying from the leaves (and other peripheral parts) down due to harsh environmental conditions, pathogens, or parasites.

Climate change is already having an impact on wildlife, and, given the tectonically-slow rate of international action on the issue, there’s little reason to believe this effect will end soon. The paper explains that farming practices “really matter” when trying to boost climate resilience and protect biodiversity. Given the speed with which ecosystems can completely break down, and considering the importance of ones such as the Amazon Rainforest in the global carbon cycle, that’s definitely something we should be working towards.

As tropical areas are one of the most biodiverse in the world, the team focused their study on Costa Rica, using birds as a proxy for biodiversity at large.

Tropical Troubles

The Great Green Macaw is an endangered bird species that benefits from diverse farmlands.
Image credits Susanne Nilsson / Flickr.

As rainforests are cut down to make room for plantations of bananas or sugarcane, the amount of habitat available for wildlife shrinks — we’ve been clearing a lot of forest in the last few years, so that available habitat has shrunk quite dramatically, the team explains. At the same time, climate change is making dry seasons longer and hotter, placing even more strain on the animals living here and the plants which support them.

“It’s the one-two punch of land-use intensification and climate change,” said Nick Hendershot, a graduate student in the department of biology and lead author on the study.

“Wildlife populations are already severely stressed, with overall decreased health and population sizes in some farming landscapes. Then, these further extreme conditions like prolonged drought can come along and really just decimate a species.”

The study drew on 20 years’ worth of field data to map which species of birds live in natural tropical forests and in different types of farmland. Costa Rica has various agricultural systems in place throughout the country, which gave the team a chance to compare and contrast monoculture systems, diversified multi-crop farms, and natural forests. Monoculture farms analyzed in the study included pineapple, rice, or sugar cane, while ‘diversified’ farms either mixed several types of crops or were bordered by ribbons of natural forest.

All in all, diversified farms harbored more species of common birds, but also provided shelter for some of the most threatened ones — species such as the Great Green Macaw and the Yellow-naped Parrot, listed as Endangered and Vulnerable, respectively, on the IUCN Red List.

In farms that practiced intensive monocropping, however, the team found that biodiversity levels declined over time.

“Which species are in a given place makes a huge difference — it’s not just about numbers alone, we care about who’s there,” said Daily.

“Each bird serves a unique role as part of the machinery of nature. And the habitats they live in support us all.”

There is a lot of room to expand on diversified farming, both in Costa Rica and around the world, the team reports. It wouldn’t benefit just wildlife — mixed farming practices have been shown to boost crop yields, and they increase food security by making the crops more resilient against environmental shocks.

“There are so many cash crops that thrive in diversified farms. Bananas and coffee are two great examples from Costa Rica — they’re planted together, and the taller banana plant shades the temperature-sensitive coffee bean,” Daily added. “The two crops together provide more habitat opportunity than just one alone, and they also provide a diversified income stream for the farmer.”

I’d call that a win-win!

The paper “Intensive farming drives long-term shifts in avian community composition” has been published in the journal Nature.

A new study looked at how early complex European cultures farmed and ate

New research is shedding light onto the social and agricultural customs of early Bronze Age societies.

Map showing the maximum territorial extension of the El Argar culture with locations of the analyzed sites (La Bastida and Gatas)
Image credits Corina Knipper et al., (2020), PLOS One.

The El Agar society is known from a site in the south-western corner of the Iberian peninsula (today’s Spain). It is believed, however, that it held cultural and political sway over a larger area during its day, from 2200-1550 cal BCE. It also developed sophisticated pottery and ceramics, which they traded with other tribes in the Mediterranean region.

New research based on El Agar gravesites and the layouts of their settlements reports that it was likely a strongly-hierarchical society that revolved around complex, “monumentally fortified” hilltop settlements. The findings showcase the potential use of including trophic (food) analysis in anthropology, and help to reveal the complexity that societies in this period could achieve.

Farming for success

“It is essential to not only investigate human remains, but also comparative samples of different former food stuffs as well as to interpret the data in the light of the archaeological and social historical context,” explains Dr. Corina Knipper from the Curt Engelhorn Center Archaeometry, the paper’s lead author.

The team used carbon dating and nitrogen isotope analysis on artefacts recovered from two El Algar hilltop settlements: a large fortified urban site (La Bastida, in today’s Murcia region) and a smaller settlement at Gatas (in today’s Almería region). The samples analyzed include remains from 75 different individuals across all social levels, 28 domestic animal and wild deer bones, 75 grains of charred barley and 29 grains of charred wheat. All the samples hail from the middle to late El Algar civilization.

The findings showed no significant difference in isotope values between males and females, which is indicative of the fact that both genders shared similar diets. However, the team did find a difference between individual social strata — remains from individuals that made up the elite of La Bastida showed higher levels of both carbon and nitrogen than their peers. This could be indicative of individuals here eating more animal-based products (nitrogen concentrates the farther up you go along the food chain). However, the team further reported that while the nitrogen values for barley were similar at both sites, domestic animals at La Bastida showed higher nitrogen values. This means that the same general diet at both sites could still have resulted in the different nitrogen levels seen.

The latter view is further strengthened by the finding that these communities relied heavily on cereal farming, which they only supplemented with livestock. Analysis of the wheat and barley suggests that the landscape they grew in were dry and unirrigated, but likely fertilized with animal manure, judging from the high nitrogen levels they contain. Cereals and their by-products also seem to have provided most of the forage of domesticated animals (sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs).

The study is based on a small sample size, which limits the reliability of the results. However, it does highlight the role trophic chain analysis plays in helping archeologists piece together the past from human remains. It also goes a long way to show that El Algar farmers had developed relatively sophisticated practices for their time, which allowed them to feed a thriving community.

The paper “Reconstructing Bronze Age diets and farming strategies at the early Bronze Age sites of La Bastida and Gatas (southeast Iberia) using stable isotope analysis” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Field Fire.

Air pollution levels rise by 30% in India as farmers align to new groundwater depletion policy

New research shows how well-meaning environmental measures can backfire if they don’t take into account the wider picture.

Field Fire.

Image credits Natalya Kollegova.

A new groundwater conservation policy in northwestern India is increasing air pollution in the already haze- and smog-filled area, new research reports. The problem is caused by how water-use policies require farmers to shift rice crops to later in the year, which in turn delays the harvests and results in the burning of agricultural residue in November — a month when breezes stagnate, leading to increased air pollution.

Late burners

“This analysis shows that we need to think about sustainable agriculture from a systems perspective, because it’s not a single objective we’re managing for — it’s multidimensional, and solving one problem in isolation can exacerbate others,” said Andrew McDonald, associate professor of soil and crop sciences at the Cornell University, and a co-author of the paper.

India has quite a water problem. Being a (generally) pretty dry place, agriculture here relies heavily on groundwater resources — and they’re being rapidly depleted. First, authorities tried to convince farmers to plant less water-intensive crops than rice, but this failed due to a number of reasons (such as free electricity for irrigation, assured output markets, and minimum support price
guarantees for rice). So in March 2009, the government passed The Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act and the Haryana Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, legislation that forced farmers to delay rice transplanting (basically rice sowing) after the onset of the monsoon season on June 10; this was later adjusted to after the 20th of June.

So far, so good — the team notes that these groundwater acts helped “significantly reduce” groundwater depletion in northwestern India. However, they’ve also inadvertently helped increase air pollution levels. The team analyzed their effect on the timing of farmers’ planting and harvesting crops, and burning crop residues. They also connected this information with meteorological and air pollution data.

The team explains that residue burning patterns shifted following the groundwater acts, declining within October but significantly increasing in the first three weeks of November. “With the advent of combine harvesting in the 1980s, [on-field] burning of rice residues became the method of choice for accelerating the turn-around time between crops to ensure timely wheat planting and maintenance of yield potential,” the team explains. The sowing date imposed by the groundwater acts leaves farmers very little time to clear out reside apart from burning before the wheat season begins.

“Before the acts, maximum occurrence was on 24 October at 490 fires per day. After implementation of the acts, this increased to 681 fires per day, peaking around 4 November,” they add.

“Groundwater act implementation is associated with a concentration of crop residue burning into a narrower window, later in the season, and with a peak intensity that is 39% higher.”

The team further notes that this date coincides with weaker winds compared to October, which favors the build-up of air pollution. Daily PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter under 2.5 micrometers) in November rose 29% after the groundwater acts.

On one hand, northwest India needs to tackle groundwater depletion. On the other hand, air pollution claimed the lives of almost 1.1 million Indians in 2015, and costs 3% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the study. The team suggests technology that would allow farmers to plant new seeds without burning rice residue as a possible solution. Alternatively, they recommend the use of shorter-duration rice varieties that offer flexibility in planting and harvesting dates.

The paper “Tradeoffs between groundwater conservation and air pollution from agricultural fires in northwest India” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.


Farmers actually work more than hunter-gatherers, have less leisure time

New research says that agriculture may not have been the smartest move we ever pulled. The authors of the study report that hunter-gatherers in the Philippines who are transitioning towards agriculture work for significantly longer each day. Women seem to be the hardest hit by this transition.


Image via Pixabay.

A team of researchers led by University of Cambridge anthropologist Dr. Mark Dyble lived with the Agta people, a group of small-scale hunter-gatherers from the northern Philippines who are increasingly engaging in agriculture. The team says that engagement in farming and other non-foraging work resulted in the Agta working harder and for more time every day — in essence, it ate into their leisure time. On average, the Agta that primarily engaged in agriculture worked 10 more hours per week compared to foraging-focused ones. The women living in agricultural communities were especially hard-hit: on average, they only had half as much leisure time as their hunter-gatherer counterparts.

Toils of the earth

“For a long time, the transition from foraging to farming was assumed to represent progress, allowing people to escape an arduous and precarious way of life,” says Dr Dyble, first author of the study.

“But as soon as anthropologists started working with hunter-gatherers they began questioning this narrative, finding that foragers actually enjoy quite a lot of leisure time. Our data provides some of the clearest support for this idea yet.”

The researchers recorded what the Agta were up to at regular intervals between 6 am and 6 pm for every day they were there, across ten Agta communities. Using this data, the team then calculated how 359 Agta managed their time: in particular, they were curious to see how much time they assigned to leisure, childcare, domestic chores, and out-of-camp work per day. Some of the Agta people in the study engaged in hunting and gathering exclusively, while others mixed foraging with rice farming.

Increased engagement in farming and other non-foraging activities was linked to larger workloads and less leisure time, the team reports. On average, the Agta that engaged primarily in farming worked roughly 30 hours per week, while forager-onlys worked around 20 hours, the team estimates. The difference was largely due to women, they add, who had to forgo domestic activities and work in the fields. Women living in the communities most involved in farming had half as much leisure time as those in communities which only foraged.

Both men and women had the lowest amount of leisure time at around 30 years of age, although it kept increasing steadily later on. Overall, women spent less time working outside of the camp, and more on domestic chores and childcare (in-camp activities) than men. All in all, however, both sexes enjoyed a roughly equal amount of leisure time. Adoption of farming had a disproportionate impact on women’s lives, however, as we’ve mentioned above.

“This might be because agricultural work is more easily shared between the sexes than hunting or fishing,” Dr Dyble says. “Or there may be other reasons why men aren’t prepared or able to spend more time working out-of-camp. This needs further examination.”

“The amount of leisure time that Agta enjoy is testament to the effectiveness of the hunter-gatherer way of life. This leisure time also helps to explain how these communities manage to share so many skills and so much knowledge within lifetimes and across generations,” says Dr Abigail Page, an anthropologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and one of the paper’s co-authors.

However, “we have to be really cautious when extrapolating from contemporary hunter-gatherers to different societies in pre-history,” she adds. “But, if the first farmers really did work harder than foragers then this begs an important question — why did humans adopt agriculture?”

The paper “Engagement in agricultural work is associated with reduced leisure time among Agta hunter-gatherers” has been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Britain’s earliest farmers were immigrants from Greece and Spain

Neolithic cultures first appear in Britain circa 4000 BC — almost a thousand year later after they appeared in nearby areas of continental Europe. A new genetic study finds that these farmers came all the way from Greece, following a route along the Mediterranean.

Farming is probably one of the most important developments in human history, but the exact circumstances through which this practice diffused through Europe remain unclear. Recent genetic analysis suggests that farming emerged in the Aegean Sea — the body of water between what is today the mainlands of Greece and Turkey, and this population spread through the Mediterranean, bringing the new technology with them.

It took them a while to spread through the continent, though.

The archaeological record clearly indicates a dramatic change in Britain around 4000 BC — but it wasn’t clear exactly what brought this change. There are several theories regarding the extent to which this change was influenced by cultural or demographic processes. This latest evidence seems to suggest 4000 BC is when farming settlers from the Aegean Sea came to Britain.

Mark G. Thomas, Ian Barnes and colleagues from the University College London analysed genome-wide data from 6 Mesolithic and 67 Neolithic individuals found in Britain, including ‘Cheddar Man’ — a famous human fossil found in Cheddar Gorge, England. The authors found that Neolithic populations in Britain were primarily descended from Aegean Neolithic farmers but also bear many similarities to Iberian Neolithic individuals, suggesting that the Aegean population came through the Mediterranean, some of them settling in today’s Spain and Portugal, while others continued moving on.

“Genetic affinities with Iberian Neolithic individuals indicate that British Neolithic people were mostly descended from Aegean farmers who followed the Mediterranean route of dispersal. We also infer considerable variation in pigmentation levels in Europe by circa 6000 BC,” the study reads. A minority portion of their ancestry comes from populations who took the Danubian route, researchers add.

Location of the samples involved in the study. Image credits: Brace et al / Nature.

Farming developed later in Britain than the rest of the continent

The British Isles is one of the farthest European places from the Aegean origin. The British Neolithic populations are geographically isolated from continental Europe by large bodies of water and had maritime climates which differ from the majority of mainland Europe — all factors that may have altered the nature of the adoption of farming.

This study indicates that the farming practice was brought by Aegean populations and was not developed independently by early Britons.

“Our analyses indicate that the appearance of Neolithic practices and domesticates in Britain circa 4000 BC was mediated overwhelmingly by immigration of farmers from continental Europe, and strongly reject the hypothesized adoption of farming by indigenous hunter-gatherers as the main process.”

Another interesting feature is that unlike other European regions, there is no detectable interbreeding with local foragers.

The study “Ancient genomes indicate population replacement in Early Neolithic Britain” was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Wheat crop.

The world’s farms are dominated by only four crops

Crop fields around the world are becoming increasingly uniform, and that’s a problem.

Wheat crop.

Image via Pixabay.

The world as a whole is increasingly narrowing agricultural production to only a few crops and lineages according to new research from the University of Toronto (UoT). This not only impacts the contents of our plates, but also makes global food production less resilient against pests and disease.

More of the same

“What we’re seeing is large monocultures of crops that are commercially valuable being grown in greater numbers around the world,” says lead researcher Adam Martin, assistant professor of  ecologist in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at UoT Scarborough.

“So large industrial farms are often growing one crop species, which are usually just a single genotype, across thousands of hectares of land.”

The team worked from data recorded by the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), quantifying which crops were grown on large-scale industrial farms globally from 1961 to 2014. While crop diversity in each region has increased — North America, for example, now grows 93 different crops, whereas the 1960s it was only 80 crops — it has gone down on a global scale. Large scale, industrialized farms in Asia or Europe, for example, are looking more and more like those in North or South America.

Soybeans, wheat, rice, and corn occupy just under 50% of the planet’s agricultural lands, the team reports. The rest is divided among 152 different crops. There is also very little genetic diversity within individual crops. In North America, six individual genotypes comprise about 50% of all corn crops, the team explains.

The 1980s saw a massive peak in global crop diversity as different types of plants were being sowed in new places on an industrial scale. This peak had largely flattened by the 1990s, and crop diversity across regions have declined ever since.

So, why is this a problem? Several reasons. The first is that it affects global food sovereignty, the team explains.

“If regional crop diversity is threatened, it really cuts into people’s ability to eat or afford food that is culturally significant to them,” says Martin.

Secondly, it’s also an ecological issue. If farms are dominated by a few lineages of crops, that makes the global food supply extremely susceptible to pests or diseases. All bananas (that we cultivate) today, for example, are clones —  they’re all genetically identical. And they’re being wiped out by the Panama disease, a fungicide-resistant fungus.

Martin hopes to expand his research to look at patterns of crop diversity in the context of individual nations. He says there’s a policy angle to consider, since government decisions that favour growing certain kinds of crops may contribute to a lack of diversity.

“It will be important to look at what governments are doing to promote more different types of crops being grown, or at a policy-level, are they favouring farms to grow certain types of cash crops,” he says.

The paper “Regional and global shifts in crop diversity through the Anthropocene” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.


UK millennials would happily sow, reap, and eat GMOs — unlike older generations

The majority of young adults in the UK say they’ve got no problems with GM crops and more tech in agriculture.


Image via Wikimedia.

Ah, GMOs, that horrible enemy that sends soccer moms scrambling for cover ever since the 1990s. According to a new poll, under-30s in the UK don’t share that view. In their eyes, GMO is a-ok, as is more technology and more futuristic techniques in farms.

Put it on m’plate!

The poll, carried out for the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) to gauge public opinion following farmers’ calls for post-Brexit innovation, involved more than 1,600 participants aged 18 to 30. Two-thirds of responders said more technology in farming is a good thing and that they would support futuristic farming techniques — such as the use of drones in livestock and arable farming to monitor livestock, assess and spray crops — according to The Telegraph.

A similar number said they’d support more innovation, such as the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to improve crop security and yields.

Only 20% of responders expressed having any concern regarding GM crops or about the benefits that gene editing can bring to agriculture — a very stark contrast to older generations. A similar number said they’d object to the use of self-driving tractors on farms.

The poll was requested by the ABC as part of their drive to have the UK Government capitalize on novel technology over Brexit. Many of the measures have been previously proposed and blocked on the EU-level. Once the country leaves the bloc and resets its agricultural policy, however, it will be free to pursue such technology should it desire. Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, believes next-generation food and farming technology could reduce the impact of pests and diseases — helping keep the UK agricultural sector competitive amid the Brexit fallout.

“We are delighted to see young people embrace technology as part of the future of farming,” says Mark Buckingham, chair of the ABC.“Using cutting edge technology and growing techniques will enable the UK to deal with the serious challenges of keeping our farmers competitive, maintaining a safe, affordable food supply, and protecting our natural environment.


Coffee beans.

Coffee farming “can be a win-win for birds and farmers”, paper finds

Which coffee is better: Arabica, or Robusta? Science can’t determine which you should prefer, but a new study delves into the issue from the the angle of biodiversity.

Coffee beans.

Image credits Jean Beaufort.

Arabica beans are known for their sweeter, softer taste. Robusta, meanwhile, imbue the brew with a bolder, deeper flavor. But the difference between these two species don’t end in the cup. A study from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Princeton University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison tries to determine which of these species is better from an environmental point of view.

The research, led by Dr. Krithi Karanth, an associate conservation scientist at WCS, surveyed bird species diversity in agroforests in India’s Western Ghats region, a traditional coffee-growing region. The research was prompted by previous studies, which found that shade-grown coffee (typically Arabica) can sustain relatively high levels of biodiversity. However, there’s a global shift of coffee farming towards Robusta, which requires much more intensive, full-sun agricultural systems, which have the potential to negatively impact forest biodiversity.

The authors found a total of 79 forest-dependent species living in the coffee plantations that they surveyed, including three IUCN Red-Listed species: Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria), the grey-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus priocephalus) and the Nilgiri wood pigeon (Columba elphinstonii). Plantations also harbor a diversity of mammals, amphibians, and tree species.

The team’s results show that although Arabica plantations were richer in bird species compared to its counterparts, Robusta crops offered substantial biodiversity benefits themselves. Some highlights include the fact that Robusta supports higher densities of “several sensitive avian populations” such as frugivores (fruit-eaters). Another advantage is that farmers use less pesticides for Robusta crops, which are naturally more disease-resistant.

The study’s results are important in the context of coffee production moving away from Arabica and into Robusta. Coffee farming is already a major driver of landscape transformation, and shifting between crop species can have a dramatic impact on the agroforestry ecosystems they’re part of. The authors write that coffee certification efforts should emphasize maintaining native canopy shade trees to ensure that coffee landscapes can continue providing biodiversity benefits.

“Coffee farms already play a complementary role to protected areas in a country like India where less than four percent of land is formally protected,” says Dr. Karanth.

“Therefore, building partnerships with largely private individual and corporate land holders will provide much needed safe-passage and additional habitats for birds and other species.”

Overall, the authors say the results are encouraging, as they show that coffee production, as is the case in the Western Ghats, “can be a win-win for birds and farmers” as well.

The paper “Birds and beans: Comparing avian richness and endemism in arabica and robusta agroforests in India’s Western Ghats” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Farmer toy.

Europe’s first farmers mingled with the locals, slowly mixing the communities together

Early farmers didn’t move in and replace hunter-gatherers from the get-go, new research has found. Instead, the two coexisted and interacted for some time after early farmers spread across Europe.

Farmer toy.

Image credits Erika Wittlieb.

The agricultural revolution is one of the most hotly debated turning points in human history. In Europe, the shift from foraging and hunting to a more sedentary, farming lifestyle started around 10.000 years ago. It would culminate in farmers largely replacing pre-existing hunter-gatherer communities.

‘How do you do’ or ‘I’m gonna stab you’?

Previous studies of ancient DNA have shown that the agricultural revolution in Europe wasn’t based on a flow of ideas. Rather, the spread of farming throughout the continent was owed to farmer populations from the Near East expanding into the continent and bringing the practice along with them. Finding a single point of origin for early farming populations throughout Europe was an unexpected discovery, given how diverse prehistoric cultures were in this area.

However, the intricacies of this process are still poorly understood. For example, we don’t really know if it was a peaceful transition, one done at scythe-point, or one aided by disease. In other words, whether newly-arrived farmers would displace the people already living in Europe through war and disease, or they simply co-existed with and out-competed them over time.

The current study suggests it was likely the latter. It found that these two groups likely lived side-by-side following farmers’ migration into Europe. Later, they would start slowly integrating local hunter-gatherers into their communities, a process that seems to have increased in speed and scope as time went on.

The authors from Harvard Medical School, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History say that these early farming communities also exhibited various levels of hunter-gatherer ancestry. The current paper focused on this element, and the wider framework of interactions between early farmers and preexisting hunter-gatherer groups in three locations: the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Spain and Portugal), the Middle-Elbe-Saale region in north-central Europe, and the Carpathian Basin (largely overlapping today’s Hungary and western Romania).

The team drew on high-resolution genotyping techniques to analyze the genomes of 180 early farmers, 130 of whom are newly reported in this study. The individuals lived from around 6000 BC to 2200 BC.

“We find that the hunter-gatherer admixture varied locally but more importantly differed widely between the three main regions,” says Mark Lipson, a researcher in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and co-first author of the paper. “This means that local hunter-gatherers were slowly but steadily integrated into early farming communities.”

The share of hunter-gatherer genes in these communities’ genome never reached high levels, but it did increase over time. This suggests that hunter-gatherers weren’t pushed out by the encroaching farmers — rather, the two groups lived side-by-side, developing deeper ties and interacting more frequently over time.

Local interactions

Furthermore, the team reports that farmers in each location only mingled with hunter-gatherers from the same area. This suggests that once they remained largely sedentary after settling an area, thus limiting their interaction with farming or hunter-gatherer communities farther away.

This allowed the researchers to differentiate groups of early European farmers by their “specific local hunter-gatherer signature,” says co-first author Anna Szécsényi-Nagy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, adding that it’s the first time anyone has been able to do so. Farmers in Spain, she explains, “share hunter-gatherer ancestry with a pre-agricultural individual from La Braña, Spain.” Those in central Europe are more closely tied to groups such as hunter-gatherers from the Loschbour area, Luxembourg, and those in the Carpathian basin share ties with local groups in their area.

Using statistical models to track the origin of DNA blocks inherited by 90 individuals from the Carpathian Basin who lived in roughly the same period, the team also produced a rough estimate of how the populations mixed. The results indicate an ongoing process, starting off small and picking up in speed and intensity over time.

“We found that the most probable scenario is an initial, small-scale, admixture pulse between the two populations that was followed by continuous gene flow over many centuries,” says senior lead author David Reich, professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School.

The team believes that thorough, detailed databases similar to the one used in their study could help reveal new information about how and when peoples in other areas of the world mixed and evolved.

The paper “Parallel palaeogenomic transects reveal complex genetic history of early European farmers” has been published in the journal Nature.

Mixed legume and cereal crops don’t need fertilizer to yield a lot of food

Planting legumes alongside cereals could improve crop yields and reduce the environmental impact of farms, researchers have found.

Image credits Hans Braxmeier / Pixabay.

Following the Green Revolution and the wide-scale implementation of intensive farming, nitrogen fertilizers became vital for the way we grow crops. It has become essential to maintain high crop yields, with cereal crops usually getting around 110 kg of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare. But this nitrogen is usually derived from fossil fuels and it has a huge carbon footprint. The work of Dr Pietro Iannetta of the James Hutton Institute on intercropping could drastically reduce or remove our need for such fertilizers altogether. The findings were presented at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting in Liverpool last week.

Intercropping is the practice of growing two or more types of crops on the same soil at the same time, as opposed to the intensive farming practice of planting a singe crop per field at a time.Dr Iannetta’s work shows that adopting this method of farming could cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for fertilizers, while boosting biodiversity, food security, and widening markets for local food and drinks at the same time.

A peas of cake

Dr Iannetta grew trial crops of peas and barley together at a 50-50% rate and found that despite using not nitrogen fertilizer, he could produce a total yield in excess of what barley alone would produce. This happens because peas and other legumes fix their own nitrogen — when grown with other crops such as barley, the peas supply the cereal’s nitrogen requirement.

Related story: Make your own compost.

Not only cheaper and more efficient, but this approach is also cleaner. Dr Iannetta estimates that emissions could be reduced by 420,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent if the UK planted its spring barley alongside legumes and used no fertilizer. That’s the equivalent CO2 that over 420,000 trees process in a year. And, since agriculture makes up around 15% of global greenhouse emissions, this approach could make a huge difference.

Western agriculture currently relies on a narrow range of crops — it’s wheat, barley, and potato heavy. By growing more legumes alongside these staples, intercropping would boost diversity and help make farming more resilient to environmental factors, crop diseases, and pests. It would also help diversify farmers’ produce, and the wider range of locally-available crops would stimulate new markets for sustainable foodstuffs. To this end, Dr Iannetta is also working on developing new ways to brew peas and beans into alcohol. With the help of Professor Graeme Walker of Abertay University working on the enzymes involved in fermentation, Barney’s Beer in Edinburgh, and Arbikie Distillery in Arbroath, he’s working on developing a beer made from 40% whole faba beans.

“Beans are notoriously difficult to ferment, but we have discovered a way of doing this by neutralising the fermentation inhibitors,” he explains.

“Tundra [the beer] is a wonderful, heavily hopped American IPA. By turning pulse starch into fermentable sugars and alcohol from 40% beans intercropped with 60% barley — we have produced a beer using 40% less artificial fertiliser.”

Such research is particularity relevant in countries with little arable soil, those who can’t afford fertilizers, or countries with a heavy tradition in brewing. Scotland, for example, uses 60% of all non-grazing arable land to grow barley, around half of which is for malting and distilling.

“Minimising the amount of artificial nitrogen used to grow barley would save carbon, save money and deliver Scottish whisky — the UK’s greatest export and tax revenue resource — in a more sustainable way.”

“The public wants healthier food that is grown more sustainably. It’s great that shops are now selling grain legume-based crisps and bread, but I wish they used more home-grown legumes. There is a huge opportunity for small growers to diversify and shorten their supply chains by developing their own high-quality legume-based products.”

The by-product of the fermentation is also high in proteins, which can be used as feed in fisheries. Dr Iannetta hopes to have commercially available green beers and neutral spirits by the end of 2017.

“These will have been produced using no human-made fertilisers, and give co-products that provide sustainable and profitable protein production for the food chain,” he concludes.

Philidris nagasau and a young specimen of its Squamellaria host, Credit: G. Chomicki, LMU

Fiji ants were the first plant farmers some three million years ago

You won’t find people who take greater pride in their work than farmers. Maybe for good reasons, too, considering that their sweat and blood keeps us all fed. The advent of every human civilization is tied up with agriculture. That’s the very least a race needs to master before it can move to something bigger, like writing poetry or landing spaceship or playing golf. It took our human ancestors a while before they realized the same plants they were foraging could be coaxed to sprout where they desired, at a predictable rate. That happened only some 13,000 years ago. Ants, on the other hand, have been doing it for millions of years.

World’s first farmers

Philidris nagasau and a young specimen of its Squamellaria host, Credit: G. Chomicki, LMU

Philidris nagasau and a young specimen of its Squamellaria host, Credit: G. Chomicki, LMU

Since the Pliocene Epoch, about three million years ago, an ant species native to the Fiji islands called Philidris nagasau has been farming and harvesting Squamellaria plants. These ant-favored crops look more like lichen than plants, growing inside the crevices of trees. But don’t let appearances fool you. These are still plants and the ants take all the precautions and with all the diligence a human farmer would entrust to see their crops blossom.

The ants live inside the plant’s hollow structures, the domatia, and Guillaume Chomicki, a botanist at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, followed their lives for a couple of months. This is how he and colleagues eventually found that the ants actively and purposely gather the Squamellaria seeds and place them at strategic locations. They then fertilize the seeds with their poop. Once the plants grow, the fruits are harvested and distributed among the colony, while the seeds are yet again collected to restart the process.

Because the crops double as a nest, a colony can cover several Squamellaria plants.

“One often finds dozens of colonies, connected by ant highways, on a single tree. All of these individuals are the progeny of a single queen, whose nest is located in the center of the system,” Chomicki explains.

While Fiji’s Philidris nagasau ant look like the world’s first plant farmers, they’re certainly not the first farmers. That distinction belongs to other ants, the famous leaf-cutter ants whose ancestors have been farming fungus since at least eight million. A recent Smithsonian paper which studied the genomes of various species of attine ants as well as the fungus that they cultivate found farming could be as old as 65 million years. Other species of ants have their own livestock, herding aphids by chemically subduing them. The ants then ‘milk’ the aphids for their sugar-rich secretions.

The relation between Squamellaria and Philidris nagasau is far more specialized than anything seen in another species that practice farming. Besides being the first ant species that farms plants, their relationship is highly dependent on one another. The plants can’t draw nutrients from the soil, so they rely on the ants for fertilization. The ants, in turn, can not survive without the fruit and shelter of the plants.



Farmer ants still struggle with undomesticated crops, study finds

A new Panama Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) finds that modern relatives of the first fungus-farming ants still haven’t domesticated their crops. The study draws a strong parallel between the difficulties these ants faced and early human farmers faced.

Image via pixadus.

Some time after the dinosaurs went extinct 60 million years ago, the ancestors of leaf-cutter ants decided it was time to settle down. Just like us, they traded hunting and gathering for a more secure source of food — agriculture. You can still see their legacy snaking in busy lines through the rainforest carrying bits and pieces of plants over their heads. All this material underpins a huge, almost industrial agricultural complex. But for all their hard work, the ants’ harvest is limited by a farmer’s worst nightmare — a wild crop.

A new study at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama revealed that living relatives of the earliest fungus-farming ants still have not domesticated their crop, a challenge also faced by early human farmers.

Modern leaf-cutter ants and the fungus they grow can’t survive without each other. The fungus is so important to the ants that young queens take a bit of it from the home nest and the colony they establish revolves around the farms they set up from this tiny bit. The fungus, in turn, doesn’t have to waste energy producing spores to reproduce itself. But what if the fungus…wants to make spores?

“For this sort of tight mutual relationship to develop, the interests of the ants and the fungi have to be completely aligned, like when business partners agree on all the terms in a contract,” said Bill Wcislo, deputy director at the STRI and co-author of the new publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We found that the selfish interests of more primitive ancestors of leaf-cutting ants are still not in line with the selfish interests of their fungal partner, so complete domestication hasn’t really happened yet.”

Humans harvest vegetables before they go to seed — at this stage, the plants start diverting most of their energy and nutrients towards producing seeds, thus limiting their value as foodstuffs. And just like us, ants want to make sure that the fungus puts as little energy as possible into growing spores so it will grow bigger and fatter. What ants want is for the fungus to grow hyphae, the thread-like protrusions which they can eat. But the crop has its own plan so the ants carefully starve it into doing what they want.

Marie Curie Post-Doctoral Fellow of Jacobus Boomsma’s lab at the University of Copenhagen Jonathan Shik and his team found in an STRI study of Mycocepurus smithii — an ancestor of the leaf cutters that has not yet domesticated its fungal crop — that the ants alter what they feed the fungus to limit its spore production. The ants carefully manage the protein and carbohydrate content of the fertilizer they use to control how many mushrooms their cultivars produce. When they fed it mulches rich in carbohydrates, the fungus can produce both hyphae and mushrooms. But carefully rationing the amount of protein it receives can prevent the fungi from making mushrooms.

The downside of this is that by starving their crops, the ants severely limit the output of their fungal cultivars.

“The parallels between ant fungus farming and human agriculture are uncanny,” Shik said. “Human agriculture evolved in the past 10,000 years.”

“It took 30 million years of natural selection until the higher attine ants fully domesticated one of their fungal symbiont lineages. We think that finally resolved this farmer-crop conflict and removed constraints on increased productivity, producing the modern leaf-cutter ants 15 million years ago,” Boomsma said.

“In contrast, it took human farmers relatively little time to domesticate fruit crops and to select for seedless grapes, bananas and oranges.”

The full paper titled “Nutrition mediates the expression of cultivar–farmer conflict in a fungus-growing ant” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Is the impact of climate change on agriculture underestimated?

A new study looking into the dynamics between climate change and agricultural output found that only a third of production loss seen in Mato Grosso, Brazil over the last few years can be attributed to lower crop yields. The paper, written by Brown and Tufts university researchers suggests that we’ve been overlooking how two key human responses to climate — the total area farmed and the number of crops planted — will impact food production in the future.

Image via pexels.com

The paper, published in Nature Climate Change, focused on the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, an emerging agricultural region that produced 10% of the global supply of soybeans as of 2013. By analyzing temperature and precipitation data from this area over an eight-year time period, the team calculated how sensitive the agricultural industry of the region is to climate change. Basing on these estimates, they projected that an increase of 1 degree Celsius will cause a 9 to 13 percent reduction in soy and corn output in Mato Grosso.

“This is worrisome given that the temperature in the study region is predicted to rise by as much as 2 degrees by midcentury under the range of plausible greenhouse gas emissions scenarios,” said Avery Cohn, aassistant professor of environment and resource policy at Tufts, who led the work while he was a visiting researcher at Brown.

The accuracy of these figures hinges of course on the assumption that patterns observed in the past will hold true in the future. But study’s most alarming find however doesn’t come from crop yields alone, but from the mechanisms that drive changes in agricultural output.

Most similar studies only look at how changes in a region’s climate influence crop yield, i.e. how much food is harvested from a unit of agricultural land. But if you only focus on this single variable you’ll miss the critical dynamics that affect overall output says Leah VanWey, professor of sociology at Brown and senior deputy director of the Institute at Brown for the Study of Environment and Society (IBES).

“If you look at yields alone, you’re not looking at all of the information because there are economic and social changes going on as well,” VanWay, one of the study’s senior authors, said.

“You’re not taking into account farmers’ reactions to climate shocks.”

If yields decrease, farmers may be less inclined to farm the same area as it’s just not profitable anymore — a decrease in production per square meter means lower profits at harvest, but the farmer’s cost while growing the crop stays the same.

Another factor that plays a part in decreasing overall production is be the reduction of number of crops per season. The planting of two successive crops on the same land in a growing season — known as double-cropping — is a common practice in Mato Grosso. If climate takes a shift for the worse and crops don’t grow, farmers may be inclined to save their money and effort for better times by not planting a second crop.

For this study the team analyzed not only crop yield figures in the region, but also the yearly variation in field area and double cropping. Cohn and VanWey worked with Brown University Professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences Jack Mustard and graduate student Stephanie Spera, who gathered satellite images of the Mato Grosso region from NASA’s MODIS satellite — which is used to monitor land cover and use around the world. They were able to identify cropland on these images as they turn green during the growing season but then quickly become brown as the plants are harvested. Two green stages in the same growing season was indicative of double-cropping.

“The changes in cropping that we quantified with remotely sensed data were stunning,” Mustard said.

“We can use those satellite data to better understand what’s happening from a climate, economic, and sociological standpoint.”

Satellite map showing variations in crop area and incidence of double cropping.
Image credits NASA/Brown University.

The team found that an increase of 1 degree Celsius led to substantial decreases in total farmed area and in double cropping incidence. In fact, more than 70 percent of the overall loss in production can be attributed to these two factors, the paper concludes. Only the remaining 30 percent is attributable to lower crop yields.

“Had we looked at yield alone, as most studies do, we would have missed the production losses associated with these other variables,” VanWey said.

Cohn believes that the results suggest more traditional studies “may be underestimating the magnitude of the link between climate and agricultural production.”

This hold true especially in countries that invest little in agricultural subsidies, such as Brazil. Here farmers are more dependent on the profitability of their crops and if yields drop, they just don’t have the money to farm the same area of land.

“This is an agricultural frontier in the tropics in a middle-income country,” VanWey said. “This is where the vast majority of agricultural development is going to happen in the next 30 to 50 years. So understanding how people respond in this kind of environment is going to be really important.”

VanWey said the next step might be to repeat this study it in the U.S. to see if increased subsidies or insurance help to guard against climate shocks. If so, it might inform policy decisions in emerging agricultural regions like Mato Grosso.

“We may need to figure out a way to create incentives — credit products or insurance — that can reduce farmers’ responses to climate shocks,” VanWey said.

How climate change is driving Australian farmers mad

Farming is arguably one of the most risky business as out there, but also one of the noblest. Everybody has to eat, but for all their efforts farmers can easily lose a year’s worth of crops due to a dry season or some other freak weather event. And as climate change intensifies, so does the stress on farmers and their crops. Australian researchers interviewed 22 farmers from Newdegate, found in the country’s southwest, to see how their mental health fares under ever worsening farming conditions. Needless to say, the study paints a grim picture. These lands are not only their workplace, but also their homes – for some, it has been this way for generations. Yet, many farmers in Australia and likely many other climate change plagued parts of the world have an ever difficult time seeing a bright future. They’re all in a terrible shape, it seems.

australian farmers

Credit: activism.com

“The farms are more than just a business for these farmers – it’s their home, their personal history. There is no escape if they have a bad day at work,” said Neville Ellis from the Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability. “Some I talked to had become completely disengaged from the predictions and the forecasts – they shut themselves off in their properties with the curtains drawn so they wouldn’t have to face the realities outside.”

Ellis and other colleagues at Murdoch University interviewed the farmers in 2013 and 2014, which proved to be some of the most driest and warmest on record in Southwestern Australia. The variable weather is, apparently, breaking down their mental health.

“The South West [sic] of Western Australia has experienced abrupt and severe climate change in the last forty years,” Ellis said. “Farmers have always worried about the weather but today that worry is becoming detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing. They feel they have less ability to exert control over their farmlands and as a result are fearful for their future.”

Since the 1970s rainfall during the Australian winter has fallen by 20%, while average temperatures rose by nearly a degree. The extra heat brought more heatwaves, frosts and droughts which ruined crops from Australian farmers time and time again.

According to Ellis, the Australian farmers would check weather forecast websites even up to 30 times a day for signs of rain.  “I also met farmers who track storm systems off the horn of Africa in the hope that the rain will arrive ten days later,” Ellis said.

Ellis believes Australian farmers should be counseled and receive support from professional health agencies. “Unfortunately, with all the projections predicting our climate will get hotter and drier, it is only going to get harder for many of these farmers,” said Mr Ellis.

Australia is one of the most vulnerable places in the world. According to a report released in 2015 by  CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, there’s “very high confidence” that average annual temperature will be 1.3C warmer in 2030 compared with the average experienced between 1986 and 2005. In a business-as-usual scenario, meaning the world goes about the current carbon emission trend, then Australia could see between 2.8C and 5.1C of warming by 2090. The effects on agriculture alone would be tremendously dreadful.


How feeding pigs with leftovers can save the rainforest

In 2001 a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom was traced back to a farmer that illegally fed uncooked waste to his pigs. It left the country’s agricultural industry in tatters — over 10 million sheep and cattle were killed in an effort to contain the disease. Later that year EU legislators banned the use of human food waste (or swill) as pig feed, a decision that is now coming under a lot of fire from disgruntled livestock farmers and the scientific community.

Image via wikimedia

Following the ban, EU pig farmers had to turn to grain and soybean-based feedstock for their animals, a costly and land-consuming swift; a new study, looking into the effects this decision has had on the industry, estimates that lifting the ban would not only provide a use for the estimated 100 million tonnes of food wasted in the EU each year, but also save 1.8 million hectares of global agricultural land – an area roughly half the size of Germany. These areas include hundreds of thousands of acres of uniquely biodiverse land in developing countries, such as South America’s forests and savannah.

Hot leftovers, hotter debate

The main concern of legislators that decided upon the ban was preventing a similar outbreak from hitting what was at that time a struggling industry. But while the EU took this drastic decision other countries, most notably Japan, responded by (very successfully) regulating the heat-treatment system that turns food waste to animal feed. Japan is currently reusing over 35% of its food waste as feedstock, and its swill-fed “Eco-pork” makes a pretty profit in Europe as a premium product.

This is why researchers and farmers have come to describe the EU’s ban as a “knee-jerk reaction,” a panicked hit on the big red “NO” button that just doesn’t make sense anymore.

The authors looked at the current land use of EU’s pork industry, availability of food waste and quality and quantity of the meat from feed trials that compares pigswill to grain-based diets to estimate how much land could be saved if the ban was lifted. The models in the paper show that pigswill reintroduction would not only decrease the amount of land the EU pork industry requires by 21.5%.

Where there’s swill there’s a way

Lead researcher of the study, Erasmus zu Ermgassen from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology said in the paper:

“Following the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, different countries looked at the same situation, the same evidence, and came to opposite conclusions for policy. In many countries in East Asia we have a working model for the safe use of food waste as pig feed. It is a highly regulated and closely monitored system that recycles food waste and produces low-cost pig feed with a low environmental impact.”

The meat industry is a big part of the global agricultural sector — some 75% of farmland worldwide is used to feed and rear our livestock. The European Union reports that around 34kg of pork are produced domestically per capita each year, a huge 21 and a half million tonnes of meat in total. And much of the industry’s environmental burden can be attributed to the farms that grow their feed — dedicated farming of cereal and soybean meal uses up in excess of 1.2 million hectares of land across South American countries.

But swill is readily available, doesn’t require any new farmland to be cleared and is much cheaper than soybean-based feed. Reintroducing swill feeding would reduce operating costs of EU pig farmers by 50%, the researchers report. So why are legislators reticent in changing current policy? Zu Ermgassen argues that those concerns are largely based on incorrect assumptions that feeding pigs our leftovers is unnatural.

“Pigs are omnivorous animals; in the wild they would eat anything they could forage for, from vegetable matter to other animal carcasses, and they have been fed food waste since they were domesticated by humans 10,000 years ago. Swill actually provides a more traditional diet for pigs than the grain-based feed currently used in modern EU systems,” he said.

“A recent survey found that 25% of smallholder farmers in the UK admit to illegally feeding uncooked food waste to their pigs, so the fact is that the current ban is not particularly safe from a disease-outbreak perspective. Feeding uncooked food waste is dangerous because pigs can catch diseases from raw meat, but a system supporting the regulated use of heat-treated swill does not have the same risks,” he added.

As demand for meat and dairy products is believed to increase by 60% till 2050, reducing the environmental footprint of our livestock farms will become increasingly critical. Zu Ermgassen points out that economic and environmental concern is driving a reassessment of EU animal feed bans that were put in place in the 2000s, as well as attempts to recycle food waste more effectively. The EU is currently looking into repealing bans on using waste pig and poultry products as fish feed and reintroducing insects as pig and poultry feed.

“The reintroduction of swill feeding in the EU would require backing from pig producers, the public, and policy makers, but it has substantial potential to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of EU pork production. It is time to reassess whether the EU’s blanket ban on the use of food waste as feed is the right thing for the pig industry,” he said.

Bacterial infections turns amoebae into the world’s tiniest farmers

In 2011 the Queller-Strassmann lab, then at Rice University, made a surprising announcement in Nature Letters.

They had been collecting single-celled amoebae of the species Dictyostelium discoideum from the soil in Virginia and Minnesota. While laboratory grown strain of Dicty happily fed on the bacteria provided for it by its keepers, roughly one third of the wild strains showed a green (or maybe bacterial) thumb. When food was short, they gathered up bacteria, carried them to new sites and seeded the soil with them.

Dictyostelium Aggregation
Image via wikimedia

Pretty smart for something you (usually) can’t even see with a naked eye, right? News of the discovery of the “world’s smallest farmer” went viral. At the time most people assumed that the amoebae were somehow in charge in this relationship. They were, after all, bigger, their spores sometimes contained bacteria, and they ate the bacteria. The theory was that the farming amoebae had different genes than their “hunter-gatherer” brethren.

Who’s teaching them to sow?

The lab has since moved to Washington University in St. Louis, where David Queller, PhD, is the Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts & Sciences, and Joan Strassmann, PhD, is the Charles Rebstock Professor of Biology, also in Arts & Sciences.

In the August 24 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they published their work revealing that things are a bit more complicated than they first seemed. They were joined by postdoctoral research associate Susanne DiSalvo, PhD in their research.

Their paper suggests that bacteria, not amoebae, may be in charge; not the bacteria the amoebae are farming, but a third member of this symbiotic relationship. Surveying the bacteria found in association with their stable farmer clones, they found both both edible and inedible bacterial species, but the assemblage always included bacteria of the Burkholderia genus. This was intriguing because this is not a genus of bacteria they find edible; amoeba raised on a lawn of Burkholderia die.

They learned that when a nonfarmer amoebae was infected with Burkholderia, it brought out its plow and started exhibiting behaviors consistent with primitive farming practices; they began to pick up and carry bacterial passengers, such as the tasty Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria, and “planting” them in more productive areas of the cultures.

It's a farmer's life for me. -Amoeba, Infected.

“It’s a farmer’s life for me.”
-Amoeba, Infected.

When treated with antibiotics that killed the Burkholderia bacteria, they reverted to the non-farming type and no longer picked up or carried food bacteria.

The scientists concluded that Burkholderia has both pathogenic and beneficial properties; pathogenic ones that facilitate infection and beneficial ones that promote the maintenance of a relationship once established.

Symbiosis apparently benefits all three partners. Dicty that carry edible bacteria are better able to survive starving times; and bacteria that hitchhike on Dicty are dispersed more widely. Dicty sometimes eat the edible bacteria, but the Burkholderia sometimes eat the Dicty.

“Now we know that Burkholderia are the drivers,” said DiSalvo, “likely to benefit by exploiting new terrain and sometimes harming their vehicle in the process.”

Extra salted: California’s almond industry is being crippled by salty ground water

California’s going through a bit of a dry spell. As the drought drags on, the almond industry has come under scrutiny.

Almonds use a lot of water — about one gallon per nut. As their surface water has been cut off, most growers are relying on groundwater even more than usual. But that brings a different problem all together: too much salt.

Yep. It’s salt.
Image via wikipedia

Paul Parreira and his brother David ship over 30 million pounds of almonds around the globe each year from Rpac Almonds, in California’s Central Valley. KVPR asked him about the salty situation:

“The trees just don’t look healthy,” he says. “Everybody is watering at the minimum levels with high-salinity water,” he added. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

High salinity levels in groundwater used for agriculture has long been a problem in the west side of the Central Valley, but this year, it’s also an issue on the east side, a growing region at the base of the Sierra Nevada that’s usually wet.

Many farmers have zero allocation of surface water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, so they’re forced to irrigate with salty groundwater. And the few farmers who do get delta water say it’s also saltier than normal these days.

“Without any adequate rainfall to move those salts down through the soil, there’s just no way for us to remove those salts,” Parreira says. “Not only is it staying there, we’re adding to it because of the poor quality [of water] from the delta.”

More and more almond farmers are dealing with problems caused by the lack of water: smaller almonds, less-than-modest yields, and salt-burned leaves, as the plants suffer from high salinity in the soil.

Salinity is a problem for almond growers throughout the Central Valley, where around 800,000 acres of the nut are harvested. The region is the center of the global almond industry. That’s why the Almond Board of California has a focused effort on salinity.

“Water quality and quantity are very big issues for us,” says Bob Curtis, the board’s director of agricultural affairs. “To that end, we are funding research on updating the impacts of salinity on almond tree growth and productivity.”

That research will help farm advisers across the region educate growers on the issue. One of those farm advisers is David Doll with the University of California Cooperative Extension based in Merced. He’s better known as the “almond doctor.”

“We’ve been seeing this increasing problem over the past couple years — due to the lack of winter rain — of sodium burn, or salt burn on leaves,” says Doll.

Seven years ago, Doll realized there were very few resources for almond farmers on how to grow their crop safely and efficiently. So he started a blog called The Almond Doctor. Today there are nine “almond doctors” across the state, and his blog is considered a hidden gem by the industry.

Doll is diagnosing an orchard in Merced County, where the effects of salty groundwater are evident.

“From a distance, you can see that these trees are just lacking the color that we would normally expect,” Doll says. “It’s a little bit of a lime greenish. It’s not that dark green. As we look down the row, we can even see a little bit of a bronze tinge, kind of, on the outside canopy of the trees.”

“This tree is screwed,” Parriera says. “You can actually see, out on the end of this branch, where the tree has tried to re-leaf. You see these small, tender leaves where it defoliated completely and now has tried to leaf out again.”

Doll’s advice to farmers is to try to wash the salts away by flooding the fields with any extra irrigation water they can get their hands on, and wait for the rain.

But if rain doesn’t come, Doll says to expect a shrinking California almond crop in the years to come. According to the Almond Board, that’s already happening: Crop yields for almonds statewide are projected to go down by 4 percent this year.