Category Archives: Agriculture

Another source

Richard Conniff makes the case for a carbon tax on beef.

Agriculture, including cattle raising, is our third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after the energy and industrial sectors.

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Beef and dairy cattle together account for an outsize share of agriculture and its attendant problems, including almost two-thirds of all livestock emissions,….

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The emissions come partly from the fossil fuels used to plant, fertilize and harvest the feed to fatten them up for market. In addition, ruminant digestion causes cattle to belch and otherwise emit huge quantities of methane [a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide].

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The way feedlots and other producers manage manure also ensures that cattle continue to produce methane long after they have gone to the great steakhouse in the sky.

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Superb owls

Integrated pest management in Israel teams up with cross-border cooperation, as Josie Glausiusz reports.

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Some links: 81

Some links, Coffee and Birds Edition:

  • Jodi Helmer reports on the nascent coffee industry in California. Even in this non-tropical climate, at least one farmer is going the shade-grown route:

    Andy Mullins of Mullins Family Farm in Temecula… planted 1,000 coffee trees under the canopies of the avocado trees on his 4-acre farm.

  • A study from India by Charlotte H. Chang et al. indicates that coffee plantations given over to robusta supported nearly the same level of biodiversity as arabica farms, as summarized by the Wildlife Conservation Society.
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Perking

From the coffee and birds file: Juan Medrano et al. at the University of California, Davis have published the genome of Coffea arabica.

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Some links: 77

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Best practices

Gustave Axelson reminds us of the shade coffee-and-birds connection. His visit to a farm owned by Veronica Sanchez and her family is particularly heartening.

Why?, I ask Sanchez. Why do all this, preserving and planting trees and messing with plastic bottle traps, and forgo the money in the here-and-now that her neighbor is getting?

“We use good practices and we have a peace of mind knowing we are producing something of organic quality,” if not certified organic, she said.

“If we apply poisons to the coffee, we also poison the animals from the land and sky, such as insects and birds, and in turn we pollute the water.” And that affects everything from her family to the people who drink her coffee, she said.

Por eso son malas prácticas,” she said. These are malpractices.

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Cardenalito

Species preservation and coffee agriculture meet: Ed Yong explains the conservation prospects for the Red Siskin (Spinus cucullata).

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Messy

Stephanie Strom visits a big soybean/corn agricultural complex (spanning two states) and finds a old school farm practice that improves soil quality, reduces sediment runoff, and improves yields: cover crops.

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Some links: 75

Birds, habitat, coffee agriculture—and 10 ways of looking at Northern Virginia.

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Migrants

A reminder from BirdNote, with resource links, that shade-grown coffee is always a good idea.

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Some links: 74

A mini-roundup of bird-related links:

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Drupes

Tamara Bonnemaison introduces us to Coffea arabica for Botany Photo of the Day.

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Highbush

Dan Charles revisits the circumstances that led to the domestication of blueberries (Vaccinium sp.) by Elizabeth White and Frederick Coville. Blueberries are my favorite breakfast fruit, and my ex-wife did her doctoral research on blueberry pathogens. And extra serendipitous: I was in Hammonton just last month, and I saw some of the guys sweating out in the fields getting the crop in.

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Gut check

Javier A. Ceja-Navarro et al. suggest a novel means of controlling the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei), as summarized by The Economist. The authors provide evidence that one of the species of bacteria that reside in the beetle’s digestive system, Pseudomonas fulva, detoxifies the caffeine that the coffee plant produces as a natural herbivore deterrent. Knock out the bacterium, perhaps with a targeted bacteriophage, and you knock out the pest.

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Pondering

An op ed piece by Mark Lynas has been sitting in my clippings folder for several weeks. He makes the case for genetic engineering (GE) of food crops, with particular emphasis on its positive effects on yields in the developing world. While I can’t say that I’m entirely convinced, the column is persuasive — particularly when you consider that Lynas was once an activist against GMOs.

No one claims that biotech is a silver bullet. The technology of genetic modification can’t make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.

At about the same time, Tania Lombrozo posted about the psychology of public acceptance of genetic engineering, or, as she put it rather bluntly in her lede,

Why do so many people oppose genetically modified organisms, or GMOs?

And, again, I’m not sure that her analysis applies to my skepticism, but the effect of the two writings leads me to consider why I am mildly opposed to expanding high tech agriculture. I think the core of my opposition lies in business models and practices, in the troubling consolidation that is taking place in the seed industry—not in subjective assessments of what constitutes a “natural” food. I look to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which offers this pro- and con- assessment:

We understand the potential benefits of the technology, and support continued advances in molecular biology, the underlying science. But we are critics of the business models and regulatory systems that have characterized early deployment of these technologies. GE has proved valuable in some areas (as in the contained use of engineered bacteria in pharmaceutical development), and some GE applications could turn out to play a useful role in food production.

Thus far, however, GE applications in agriculture have only made the problems of industrial monocropping worse. Rather than supporting a more sustainable agriculture and food system with broad societal benefits, the technology has been employed in ways that reinforce problematic industrial approaches to agriculture. Policy decisions about the use of GE have too often been driven by biotech industry public relations campaigns, rather than by what science tells us about the most cost-effective ways to produce abundant food and preserve the health of our farmland.

“Public relations campaigns:” does anyone remember when DDT was going to save the world, and Rachel Carson was called a crank?

The Union’s policy recommendations, among other things, call for food labeling laws, “so that consumers can make informed decisions about supporting GE applications in agriculture,” and I am definitely behind that idea.

I would like to think that I can be convinced by reason and evidence, so I could change my mind. But for now, I’m hanging out in the gray area.

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