Tag Archives: farming

Technology and population growth

fieldThere’s a great interview over at New Scientist with environmentalist and techno-realist Jesse Ausubel on the subject of how technology and improved agricultural practices may enable and support continued population growth and economic prosperity:

You’ve said that we could feed 10 billion people on half the area we currently use by improving agricultural efficiency. How would that work?

High yields are the best friend of nature. Even if humans remain carnivorous, if we continue lifting yields at roughly 2 per cent per year, as farmers have achieved over the past 100 years, then simple arithmetic shows lots of land now farmed will be abandoned and can return to nature. The world population is increasing by only around 1 per cent per year, so sustaining 2 per cent yield growth could free half of farmed land over 75 years or so. The highest yields that have been achieved in China, India, the US and many other countries are typically 300 per cent of average yields, so 2 per cent yearly gains are not miracles. They are business-as-usual, but with a lot of sweat.

It’s weird to hear someone talking about population growth as if it was something manageable, rather than something to be worried about. I was particularly intrigued by the notion of quorum sensing:

Surely our inability to limit ourselves is a major issue.

Some recent research suggests organisms do try to sense limits. Even bacteria turn out to have networks of social communication and to use something called quorum sensing to coordinate their gene expression according to the local density of their population, and so avoid disastrous growth.

Ever the optimist, I see no reason why problems like global warming, deforestation, or resource depletion should not eventually be resolved. It rarely seems to be a matter of practical or even economic barriers, but rather political will to take the kind of action needed.

Clean air laws and action taken on the ozone layer show that it is possible to make the necessary changes.

[image from Olof S on flickr]

Pain-free animals and ethical carnivorism

cowsAll but the most ardent and uncaring carnivores among us would probably agree that factory farming is a cruel and unpleasant lifestyle for the animals that eventually become our food. There are numerous answers to this ethical dilemma (aside from vegetarianism, of course), the newest of which is the suggestion that livestock be genetically re-engineered so that they don’t feel pain:

“If we can’t do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimise the amount of suffering that is caused,” says Adam Shriver, a philosopher at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. In a provocative paper published this month, Shriver contends that genetically engineered pain-free animals are the most acceptable alternative. “I’m offering a solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering.”


Performing brain surgery on livestock wouldn’t be feasible on an industrial scale. Livestock would have to be genetically engineered to be pain-free for it to be profitable.

Zhou-Feng Chen, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis and colleagues are identifying the genes that regulate affective pain. Already, they have engineered mice that lack two enzymes which help neuron-to-neuron communication in the ACC. When the team injected a noxious, painful chemical into their paws, the mice licked them only briefly. In contrast, normal mice continued to do so for hours afterwards. This suggests that livestock could be spared persistent, nagging pain.

Now, I’m no militant animal rights campaigner, but Shriver’s suggestion sounds like aside-stepping of the issue rather than a solution. The ethical problem is the way we farm animals, and their suffering is a function thereof; removing their ability to feel pain would be like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than aiming to cure the disease itself, and the ethics of such a sweeping piece of genetic engineering is a whole new can of worms in and of itself. It certainly wouldn’t buy off my own guilt about factory farming… and it seems that I’m not the only one:

“Large farms have become an environmental disaster,” agrees Alan Goldberg at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. They generate enormous amounts of waste and greenhouse gases and breed antibiotic resistance. “I think factory farms have to go, it’s that simple.”

Goldberg also contends that public attitudes may make pain-free livestock a non-starter. He and colleague Renee Gardner conducted an online survey on the use of pain-free animals in research and found little public support, even among researchers who experiment on animals.

Even Shriver (apparently a life-long vegetarian himself) agrees that the better option is to abolish factory farming entirely, which makes me wonder whether his suggestion is in fact a form of deliberately provocative rhetorical gambit. Personally, I think that vat-grown meat is the best long-term solution… as well as the only one that has a chance of scaling in response to global consumption patterns. [image by law_kevan]

Back to the land for Japan’s newly unemployed?

tractor on farmlandTimes are tough all over the world thanks to the economic implosion, and Japan is definitely feeling the pinch of its worst recession since the post-war years.

One of the proposed solutions is to funnel the growing number of recently unemployed back into the agricultural sector, which is predominantly comprised of an aging demographic; going ‘back to the land’ seems to hold a certain nostalgic romance for the urban dispossessed, but it’s a tougher gig than many of them expect it to be:

Despite the popularity of the training programs and of the government’s longer, one-year farm internships, many young people end up returning to cities, unable to adjust to life in the countryside. Last year, Fukiko Oshiro, a farmer in western Okayama prefecture, hired five workers from cities like Osaka, including a couple of former salesmen, to work at her nursery and fruit farm. She said she has already lost three of them.

“These young people think it’s their right to come and impose on us,” said Ms. Oshiro as she surveyed her busy farm stand recently. “They have no idea how much work we put in to teach them.”

I remember a similar romance with simple lifestyles lived close to the land emerging in the wake of the recession of the early nineties here in the UK; I suppose it’s inevitable that when modern life lets you down you start looking for alternatives, and looking backward is always easier than looking forward.

Japan’s aging agricultural sector may have the need (if not the desire) for an influx of new young hands, but in places like the UK and the US things are very different; I can’t see either government coaxing young people back into the fields as a solution to unemployment. But perhaps that urge for a simpler life will express itself in other ways – remember the small footprint communes setting themselves up in the bargain-price foreclosed properties of Detroit?

There’s plenty of land out there – more so in the States than the UK, granted, and not all of it suited to being lived on – and it may tempt people with the old dream of self-sufficiency. But that dream tends to pass over the degree of sheer physical labour that the lifestyle demands, alongside the other pressures that are slowly driving us towards wholesale urbanisation; many may still decide to try, but few will stay the course, perhaps.

Is self-sufficiency a dated idea unsuited to a networked globe, or does it still have valid lessons for us? [via MetaFilter; image by Nicholas T]

Garden on the moon

grand-lunar“The Selene Gardening Society,” anybody? Two corporations want to grow vegetables and flowers in a bell jar-like miniature laboratory greenhouse on the moon.

The “Lunar Oasis” has a certain poetry going for it.  “Imagine a bright flower or a plant in a crystal clear growth chamber on the surface of the Moon, with the full Earth rising above the Moonscape behind it...” says Paragon Space Development founder and Biosphere 2 veteran Jane Poynter. Plants have never been grown in a fraction of Earth’s gravity.

Candidates for the experiment besides flowers include aquatic plants and also the unpoetic brassica family (which includes cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts).  The garden could be sprouting as early as 2012.The project is a contender for the Google’s $30 million lunar robotics prize.

H.G. Wells, Pierre Boulle, Steve Erikson, and presumably Busby Berkeley must be smiling.

[Image: Grand Lunar (OK, U.S. Rep.) Gabrielle Giffords with lunar greenhouse prototype, Paragon Space Development]

Daewoo in Madagascar – the new corporate colonialism?

farm land in MadagascarWith the headlines all taken up by news of crises closer to home, you might not have heard about the civil unrest and political turmoil currently underway in Madagascar.

Even if you have, you might not be aware of what is emerging as one of the trigger factors: Korean company Daewoo inking a deal with the Malagasy government to buy 1.3 million hectares of land, approximately half of the country’s arable real estate.

The company said it had leased 1.3m hectares of farmland – about half the size of Belgium – from Madagascar’s government for 99 years. It plans to ship the maize and palm oil harvests back to South Korea. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The pursuit of foreign farm investments is a clear sign of how countries are seeking food security following this year’s crisis – which saw record prices for commodities such as wheat and rice and food riots in countries from Egypt to Haiti.

It’s not news that food shortages are affecting many countries at the moment, but this move has a distinct whiff of colonialism, no matter how Daewoo’s project manager paints it as a unique expression of Korean psychology. Possibly more worrying still is the fact that few Korean companies seem willing to invest in the project, while a number of foreign interests apparently are. And then there’s this gorgeous slice of doublethink from a Korean journalist covering the story:

I feel more convinced than before that Korea needs Daewoo’s success in Madagascar, not only to prove that its model is different from the models of Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Japan during their colonial pasts, but also that it is setting a new precedent for both African states and outside investors to benefit from.

Because, y’know, the best way to prove you’re totally different from the old colonial empire-builders is to pretty much replicate their tactics under cover of supposedly legitimate and benevolent business.AMIIRITE?

As the effects of climate change increase the pressure on global agriculture, we’re going to see a whole lot more of this sort of thing; as the nation-state concept loses strength, it’s the weaker nations that will suffer first as their bigger rivals seek to consolidate their remaining power and resources. Borders are just lines on a map to hungry people… and hungry corporations.

All the links above (and a number of others to help you get up to speed on this story) can be found on MetaFilter. [image by World Resources Institute]