Thursday, April 15, 2010

Something to root for

Yesterday, we commented on the typical kind of societal, scientific, and biological complexity associated with genetically engineered food crops. Will evolution have its way, or will we keep one step ahead of famine? The issues have to do with world population demanding industrial-scale agriculture (or, at least, that's how modern societies are constructed).

Assuming that climate change doesn't change the entire name of the game, Mega-dust-bowl fashion, we are still feeding the world on the back of 'portable' fossil fuel (for fertilizers, insecticides, tractor and shipment fuels, and so on). We lay out huge fields of a single crop, as far as the eye (or a soaring eagle's eye) can see. These are largely grasses, the staple foods of most of the world. But the way we do this leads to disaster.

We are losing topsoil faster than a stripper loses clothes, and pretty soon farmland will be as bare as a stripper, too. We have water pollution problems due to runoff not just of soil but of fertilizer and pesticide. One reason is that we rely so heavily on annual grass crops. These need to be plowed under each year, baring and loosening the soil, which makes it vulnerable to runoff.

And mega-agribusiness removes family farms and their communities. Small farms traditionally had a mix and rotation of crops, grazing and other livestock (and their manure), and so on. And though the work was very hard, they had community. This lifestyle is not for everyone, but many pine for it, as it disappears.

However, a different kind of genetically engineered crop is being worked on by a few researchers in the US and elsewhere. Most notable is The Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas. There, under the direction and inspiration of Wes Jackson, new ideas are taking root. Many wild grasses related to commercial food grasses are perennials rather than annuals. They last for years, keeping roots to anchor the soil, reducing the need for fertilizers, keep the topsoil in place, and so on.

Jackson and his group of dedicated experimenters are using traditional agricultural breeding, and where possible, scientific methods, to get commercially useful annual crops to take on the relevant aspects of perennial stock, so that we can have perennial wheat, corn, and other crops. With even modest investment, they will likely be able to succeed. If they do, it will meld real science, both high-tech and traditional, with sound long-term future implications for our physical bellies and our social hearts.

Nobody claims that this will be easy, but it is easy to claim that we have little choice. The Land Institute has a web page where you can learn about these efforts:

1 comment:

Texbrit said...

Does this mean that the bloggers support introduction into GM foods?