Mar 04 2014

Monoculture

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103 responses so far

103 Responses to “Monoculture”

  1. NNMon 04 Mar 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Been worried about this for a while… We’re so vulnerable.
    http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/gm-potatoes-and-disease-resistance/#comment-64648

    How about making sure contiguous crops are always different: not allowing 2 farmer neighbors to use the same variety.
    …And let nature mix things up again…

  2. zorrobanditoon 04 Mar 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Farmers are not doing this because they are Bad People. They are operating under economic imperatives. Farming is not gardening, nor is it an exercise in ecology. It is a business. Also, remember that on a global scale our food resources are pretty much stretched to the limit. The only reason we can halfway manage to feed our population is because we have become SUPER efficient at producing food. Many other values have fallen victim to this need for efficiency.

    If we want to change this situation we must manage some set of economic incentives for diversifying, with due consideration for maintaining production.

    I’m as appalled by this as anyone else. We’re sacrificing the future to the present. However it is going to be very difficult to arrange to do anything else.

  3. Will Nitschkeon 04 Mar 2014 at 4:31 pm

    @ Steven Novella

    If a major stable crop was hypothetically wiped out by a pathogen (which would not happen overnight) wouldn’t other major stables compensate until the issues were addressed?

    Are any major stable crops in this position? Perhaps bananas but they probably cannot be classified as a major staple.

    I suspect your piece is largely fear mongering. Humans, especially business people, are very clever at fixing problems if and when they arise. Humans are very dumb at fixing problems that don’t yet exist.

  4. Steven Novellaon 04 Mar 2014 at 5:13 pm

    Are you familiar with the Irish potato famine?

    If a large enough monoculture succumbed to a pathogen, it could have a significant impact on a single harvest, resulting in immediate food shortages. We don’t have a lot of buffer in the system, and food supplies are very short lived.

    Even if the system could absorb the loss without resulting in food shortage, it would be very costly. I have no doubt we would fix the problem, but what would be the cost in the meantime. Better to prevent the problem or at least build in mitigating factors ahead of time.

    In this case, market forces provide an incentive for short term profitability at the expense of long term sustainability. This is not an absolute, and farmers know this. The point of the new study is that, following trends over the last 50 years, these forces have resulted in a significant reduction in crop diversity. This makes crops more susceptible to pests and pathogens. I don’t know what the optimal balance of crop diversity is, but experts appear to be concerned about this so it’s worth discussing.

  5. steve12on 04 Mar 2014 at 5:32 pm

    There’s contrarian, and then there’s just being a dick.

    I wonder what sort of weird satisfaction Will gets out of this? Constantly having to make up stupid shit just to disagree. So odd.

    It’s like when you see people w/ weird fetishes. At some point, you just have to be thankful that’s not you because it would make life REALLY complicated.

  6. Will Nitschkeon 04 Mar 2014 at 7:43 pm

    @ Steven Novella

    “Are you familiar with the Irish potato famine?”

    Short of old jokes by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live, no.

    But wasn’t the Irish Potato Famine is the 19th century? If it was so easy to prevent some sort of hypothesised disaster ahead of time, why don’t we just prevent flu outbreaks ahead of time?

    I’m not objecting to the general concept of protection of assets. But I am calling into question the premise that any particular strategy is going to be affective if you don’t know what you are dealing with. Pathogens might have thousands of possible attack vectors. And time to try them all. Assuming we implemented every plausible defensive strategy in the here and now, how many attack vectors do we neutralise? A dozen? I don’t know. I suppose I’m asking, do you know? Or is this more of a feel good fingers crossed type approach?

  7. Davdoodleson 04 Mar 2014 at 8:35 pm

    @ Nitschke: “…Pathogens might have thousands of possible attack vectors. And time to try them all. Assuming we implemented every plausible defensive strategy in the here and now, how many attack vectors do we neutralise? A dozen? I don’t know. I suppose I’m asking, do you know? Or is this more of a feel good fingers crossed type approach?”

    Do you ever actually read what Dr Novella writes? Where did he (or anyone apart from you) suggest a “defensive strategy” aimed at “neutralising” pathogens?

    It is very clear to anyone that bothered to read this article that Dr Novella is discussing the risks associated with decreasing diversity of farmed species. He also, clearly to me but apparently not to you, concluded with the following:

    “It is, of course, easier to point out problems than propose solutions. I am not sure what the best solutions would be, and I leave it to the experts to propose fixes. Perhaps incentivising farmers to add more diversity to their staple crops, or perhaps seed breeders to offer greater diversity.”

    You see it, hidden right there in plain sight now? The only “solution” Dr Novella even suggested (and even then only as a possibility worth considering), was maybe thinking about increasing crop diversity.

    Nothing whatsoever about your silly “neutralising attack vectors” strawman. You just literally pulled all of it out of your arse. As usual. As Steve12 wondered, “Constantly having to make up stupid shit just to disagree.”

    Unlike most trolls, you seem at least to be literate and not an idiot. Just weird and attention-seeking. Why not try contributing something useful to the discussion?
    .

  8. tmac57on 04 Mar 2014 at 8:42 pm

    I guess it could be worse,because at least here in the U.S., by my experience,we are seeing a great increase in diversity in the produce aisle. I can remember when there was basically one type of potato,one type of apple,one type of carrot,one type of tomato,one type of lettuce,one color of bell pepper,and so on (probably an over statement,but you get the idea).
    Now we have (even at WalMart) a much greater variety of those mentioned,and much more.And if you go to more upscale grocery stores,you can see even greater variety. So I guess the problem is more of a world wide situation,where the traditional indigenous foods are being replaced by other easier to grow and market types?

  9. Will Nitschkeon 04 Mar 2014 at 8:48 pm

    @ Steven Novella

    Let me put it this way. If you’re going to decide on action X which is a commercial decision, a rational basis for action requires a cost benefit analysis. The costs can probably be calculated with reasonable accuracy, the benefits cannot.

    If you legislate to force farmers to plant, say, three varieties, or different varieties, it is always possible that a pathogen will attack a generic characteristic common to all of them. Or at least partly damage all of them. You also potentially create an unequal competitive environment which forces you into expensive and complex subsidisation. And for what? It may be cheaper in the long run to rely on the development of an effective herbicide or failing that, change varieties only when it becomes necessary to do so. Humans are very good at adapting. They aren’t very good at peering into the future.

  10. grabulaon 04 Mar 2014 at 9:29 pm

    I notice Will Nitschke replies only to Dr. Novella, it’s starting to get a little weird and I suspect a troll under the bridge. His responses are antagonistic and I suspect that even if whoever Will Nitchke really is held similar beliefs to Dr. Novella that he’d continue to harass him here.

    I wonder if things would balance out naturally over time as some crops become more rare and therefore become more profitable to grow? I’m not saying this would fix the issue but I have a feeling over time, crops that fall out of favor would return again when they become more profitable to grow, and that you’d see an ongoing sort of pendulum of favored crops.

  11. Will Nitschkeon 04 Mar 2014 at 9:57 pm

    @ grabula

    It’s odd that certain skeptics, who spend a lot of time criticising people and arguments, find it uncomfortable to have their own arguments criticised. If you self identify as a skeptic that doesn’t exempt you from skepticism. I’ve sure Steven prefers a criticism to worship or mindless praise. Or at least, I do. ;-)

    Since I’ve observed widespread reading comprehension disabilities on this forum, combined with Steven’s inability or unwillingness to moderate abuse, I’ll note that I don’t criticise most of his posts and if I do raise a criticism, I tend to be specific about the point of disagreement, if any.

    (I’m reading your comments if I stumble across them as Steven asked me to. So long as they are not particularly silly or abusive I’ll do that for the time being.)

  12. grabulaon 04 Mar 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Will – “Since I’ve observed widespread reading comprehension disabilities on this forum, combined with Steven’s inability or unwillingness to moderate abuse, I’ll note that I don’t criticise most of his posts and if I do raise a criticism, I tend to be specific about the point of disagreement, if any.”

    1 – I’ll ask you to go back to the krautmann discussion thread and look at your very first post in that thread. That should address your first statement above.

    2 – Dr. Novella isn’t afraid to ignore abusive posts, I notice many on the fringe have begun not allowing comments at all…interesting dichotomy to me. I think it shows who out there is generally interested in sincere discourse. Listen to the Skeptics Guide podcast you’ll hear him mention often comments made in blogs he posts or reads an dhow useful those posts can often be. Sometimes fringe posts will initiate discussions on that podcast as well.

    3 – Your specific criticisms often speak past the topic at hand, or Dr. Novellas comments to you directly and specifically addressing your concerns. I sincerely doubt you sincerity in having an in depth, logical, and coherent discussion on the facts based on that. your initial comments appear to miss the point so completely, and that has been pointed out by multiple posters on multiple threads, that it’s obvious you have an alterior motive than coming here to discuss openly and honestly. If you want to have an honest discussion on any of this my suggestion is to start by looking into how to determine logical fallacies and begin avoiding them. You tend to sow them liberally through your posts, and it makes it fairly easy for anyone who can spot them , to take those posts apart.

    Also, cutting and pasting specific points you are addressing helps, and finally, posting some research – open and honest research, helps to show you’ve been doing your own footwork.

    A great example is this topic. Dr. Novella examines an article about monoculture, than shares his own reasonable beliefs, even pointing out specifically that it is easy to dwell on the bad things and not examine the good things and you jumped straight to fear mongering. Really? That’s what you got from ‘reading’ this story?

  13. rezistnzisfutlon 04 Mar 2014 at 10:42 pm

    tmac57,

    I was thinking the same thing myself. The US is probably one of the greater practitioners of monoculture, if we want to call it that, but we’ve seen an ever increasing diversity of produce in grocery stores, and at more times per year.

    For one, at what point is the demarcation of monoculture? It seems to me to be a loosely defined term. For another, I think one reason why we see more diversity in developed grocery stores is a robust food distribution system as well as the most up-to-date and efficient agricultural system.

    I do think that developing countries will have issues as their economies change and they adopt more modern standards. One of the problems they have is that older forms of agriculture just aren’t sufficient for their own burgeoning populations, which for many have far exceeded local carrying capacity. As they adopt a market economic approach, they will tend to gravitate toward cash crops and away from subsistence agriculture, which, again, isn’t typically sufficient for higher populations.

    In many of these geographies, simply getting enough calories is a challenge which is one reason why calorie-dense and easy to grow crops are more in demand. Unfortunately, the short-term tradeoff is that they often replace one form of malnourishment, that of lack of calories, to another, that of lack of adequate micronutrients and/or specific macros (on a sidenote, it’s unfortunate that certain short- to medium-term solutions like Golden Rice or GM casava/sweet potatoes have become so unpopular, because until these economies develop, they can serve to help with malnourishment issues like vitamin A deficiencies that ravage indigent populations, a nasty byproduct of ignorant activism gone wild).

    Like with many other claims, I’m not sure that monoculture is necessarily “bad” (depending on how it’s defined). Obviously, if farmers planted the same crop in the same land for years and decades, that’ll be an issue, but monoculture isn’t necessarily “bad” by itself. Whether or not a “monoculture” situation is bad or not should be assessed situationally – what is bad about it, how can we mitigate it, do the positive contributions outweigh the negative, and if we determine it’s “bad”, what are the best solutions and tradeoffs?

    I see similar arguments for claims like “going local”, “supporting small farm”, and “shopping at farmer’s markets over supermarkets”, without demonstrating why these are necessarily better than their alternatives beyond mere personal preference.

  14. Lukas Xavieron 05 Mar 2014 at 1:36 am

    @Will Nitschke
    “If you legislate to force farmers to plant, say, three varieties, or different varieties, it is always possible that a pathogen will attack a generic characteristic common to all of them”

    But the greater the variety, the less change that will happen, obviously. We can never be certain, but that’s no reason not to try and limit our risk. We can certainly discuss what the best approach is, but I don’t see any reason to question the basic idea of maintaining diversity.

    “Humans are very good at adapting.”

    Sure, pretty much no matter what kind of pathogen springs up, we’ll make it through. Humanity will survive, persevere and prosper. However, there is that little snag concerning just how many people will die during this period of adaptation.

  15. Will Nitschkeon 05 Mar 2014 at 2:24 am

    @ grabula

    A skeptical activist group is oxymoronic in every sense of the word. But like all activist groups followers create a defensive shield around The Leader or The Leadership. There is high tolerance of personal attacks (and whining in general) of counter positions. Minor criticism may be tolerated if it only introduces nuance. The Leader views himself as largely infallible, and his followers will attempt a defence of all claims of The Leader even when they are without intellectual ability to do so. Abusive remarks are usually the result and these are tolerated and indeed encouraged. The Leader will express this as harmless or good natured ‘snark.’ Stereotypical pattern includes admonishments to read the literature of the group, conspiracy theories (I have secret conspiratorial motives that members of the group have discovered because of their mind reading abilities) and membership of the group bestows on followers possession of some sort of secret quality not enjoyed by others. In the case of Steven’s group this appears to be what I label The Method. This appears to be the conceit that the Leader especially, and members to some lesser extent, have special techniques of thought (logical fallacy lists, etc.) that permit them to separate Truth from non-Truth. The Method allows judgement to be past, although it may be qualified judgement, even if members do not possess deep (or any?) understanding of the technical subject matter.

    Besides ticking every box, you also had your chance to gain my attention and blew it fairly quickly.

  16. grabulaon 05 Mar 2014 at 2:48 am

    @ Will N

    You make a couple of mistakes, but again I suspect on purpose. First, we’re mostly just a bunch of people who share similar views. Sure we agree on most things, because most of the things discussed here are rational, and most of us try to look rationally at them. Second, Dr. Novella, and several others attempted to indulge you and engage you in conversation, but you’re not in a conversation, you’re a fountain spouting your beliefs and I suspect trolling this blog.

    Some tips:

    1 – Make sure you thoroughly read the intended topic of discussion please. While I may ‘blown it fairly quickly’ you blew it instantly when your first post was pretty clearly indicative that you hadn’t bothered to read the blog post.

    2 – Try not to talk past the individuals you’re supposedly trying to engage. Address specific points, as best you can. Provide some sort of official support for your stance wherever possible. Don’t try to turn the discussion around on everyone without providing any substance for your own.

    3 – Read up on logical fallacies. Everyone makes them, but you’re posts in this thread are a case study in several. understanding those allows you to not make those mistakes when you’re thinking through a topic. It goes a long way towards represented your viewpoint rationally. This crowd is like a pack of dogs on a 3 legged cat when it comes to logical fallacies so you have to be sharp.

  17. rezistnzisfutlon 05 Mar 2014 at 3:10 am

    Guys, I suggest just ignoring Will. He’s intentionally derailing conversations, seemingly on purpose, and no one here has been able to reason with him. Every single topic he’s raised a contrarian voice, the likelihood of someone disagreeing close to 100% of everything is low, so it would indicate he has an agenda outside of meaningful discourse or even debate (troll, poe, anti-skeptic, take your pick). Everyone here has given him his due in good faith and he hasn’t returned the favor. Just a suggestion, as I, for one, have no intention of having anything to do with him anymore. I’m inclined to think he’s getting some perverse pleasure reading people getting worked up over his antics.

  18. Bruceon 05 Mar 2014 at 4:09 am

    “Besides ticking every box, you also had your chance to gain my attention and blew it fairly quickly.”

    Oh dear grabula, now Will Nitpicks shall never address you directly again! How will you ever be able to log on to the internet without shame again?!

    I have come to enjoy seeing his posts as they are the classic Berenstain Bear “Bike Ride” examples of how not to argue a point. Thank you for your deconstruction though, I often wish I had the patience of Steve and other commenters here.

  19. grabulaon 05 Mar 2014 at 4:21 am

    I know I know. I haven’t seen him around except recently so I guess I swallowed it hook line and sinker.

  20. Steven Novellaon 05 Mar 2014 at 7:31 am

    Monoculture is a demonstrable problem. It is a vague term, but generally refers to growing a large number of identical or very similar plants. It is, in essence, the opposite of genetic diversity.

    The Gros Michele banana monoculture was wiped out by pathogens. These same pathogens are wiping out the Cavendish banana monoculture. In many parts of Asia and Africa banana varieties are staple food crops. They are also being threatened by pathogens, including the same ones that spread due to the vast banana monocultures intended for world-wide export.

    It is a simple principle – genetic diversity is a hedge against pests and pathogens. Significant reduction in genetic diversity renders a population vulnerable to pests and disease and makes it more likely that they will go extinct in the near future. This applies to all species, not just agriculture.

    Everyone planting optimal varieties may have benefits in the short term, but reduces the genetic diversity of our food crops overall. This is a problem that exists at a higher hierarchical level in the system than the farmer – typically the one making the decisions about what to plant. We should at least think about ways of changing the incentives in the system so that farmers are more likely to put a higher priority on diversity.

  21. SteveAon 05 Mar 2014 at 7:56 am

    In the UK, there’s been a significant push by various interested organisations (the Royal Horticultural Society amongst others) to conserve ‘heritage’ (aka ‘heirloom’) varieties of crops. Many of these varieties are becoming popular with home-growers who want to try something different, or who have identified varieties that are resistant to a particular problem they have (e.g. a gardener who’s had problems with sawflies in the past might want to plant a resistant variety of carrot).

    One draw-back is the EU policy of allowing only the sale of varieties that have gone through a formal registration process. Not a bad thing in itself, but the cost of the procedure is high and many commercial seed companies aren’t prepared to go through it for the less popular varieties.

    I guess over-reliance on a few ‘super’ crops is going to be an ongoing problem, but some efforts are being made to conserve diversity.

  22. Steven Novellaon 05 Mar 2014 at 8:49 am

    Will had declared his agenda, so it’s no mystery. He thinks skeptical activism is an oxymoron. That is his narrative, and he is a glaring (and I hope useful) example of the power of motivated reasoning, once someone thinks they see the truth.

    Clearly he is not fairly judging what people write here – and often isn’t even bothering to read it. Why bother when he already has our number.

    No one here has claimed that engaging in critical thinking and metacognition is a panacea or guarantees that one’s view will be correct. On the contrary – I constantly give the message of neuropsychological humility. Even skeptics have their narrative and are subject to the entire spectrum of cognitive biases and errors.

    Commenters here are quick, if anything, to argue, find fault, and probe for error. It’s all good.

    The only real core belief here is that truth matters, and that critical thinking is better than the alternatives (logical fallacies, motivated reasoning, lying, etc.)

    But of course, motivated reasoning can twist anything into a sinister straw man version of itself. Will is not engaging with the blog posts and comments here. He is engaged in an internal discussion with his meta-straw man about skeptics.

  23. NNMon 05 Mar 2014 at 10:13 am

    Ok… Brainstorming, instead of starting an argument about how to argue…
    Some suggestions pop into my mind:

    - Impose varieties on farmers, calculate an average price, same for all, no matter which variety they get (lottery?).
    (Bet americans are gonna gasp for air, and scream “Communist!”)
    - Grant bonus/compensation for farmers opting for less common varieties (that are maybe less productive or grow slower..).
    - Nationalize all crops, let the country’s agricultural government entity decide what goes where….
    (And plant a red flag in every crop, with a hammer and… hehehe… )

    Yeah, I’m gonna stop here, and just conclude: communism is the answer. :P
    Anyone got a better idea!?

  24. Steven Novellaon 05 Mar 2014 at 10:33 am

    Nationalize agriculture – like China did right before their great famine that killed millions of people, or the Soviet union did ushering in Lysenkoism and also destroying their agricultural competitiveness.

    Yes, these are cherry picked examples, but they are meant to illustrate the potential downside of draconian top-down control.

    Besides – it’s never going to happen in the US so it’s kind of pointless as a solution.

    I am shying away from proposing a very specific fix, since I am not intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the farming industry as a business. My broad brushstroke is just to provide some incentive to farmers so that planting an increased variety of crops would be an attractive business decision, and perhaps to seed companies so that it is easier and more attractive to develop a variety of seeds, rather than make most of their money on super mega crops. There is long term value in preserving local varieties, even if they are not the most profitable.

    I appreciate the power of free markets as feedback loops optimizing efficiency and productivity, but they have to operate within a system (a market) and those markets sometimes create perverse incentives. This is similar to evolutionary pressures sometimes creating selective pressures for short term advantage that actually guarantee long term extinction (like hyperspecialization). We need to manage the system, and manage the selective pressures, then let the system self-regulate. But we also need to monitor outcomes, and then tweak as necessary.

  25. Bill Openthalton 05 Mar 2014 at 10:59 am

    NNM –

    We know that central planning doesn’t work — not in the short term, and not in the medium to long term. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it fails miserably and comprehensively and causes wastage combined with shortages.

    Market driven approaches work fairly well (fairly, because of unavoidable inertia) in the short to medium term, but don’t work for the long-term, simply because humans don’t live very long. The fact that we manage to feed 7 billion people with only minor problems (which are mostly caused by external events such as wars) is a tribute to the efficacy of the approach. We should not jeopardise this by concentrating on diversity, even if this is required for long-term sustainability (if there is no short-term success, there is no need to worry about the long term).

    Running research projects, or subsidised small-scale cultures that focus on diversity and producing cultivars that are economically as compelling as the current favourites to promote commercial acceptance are probably the best way forward.

  26. Bronze Dogon 05 Mar 2014 at 11:29 am

    Nationalize agriculture – like China did right before their great famine that killed millions of people, or the Soviet union did ushering in Lysenkoism and also destroying their agricultural competitiveness.

    Yes, these are cherry picked examples, but they are meant to illustrate the potential downside of draconian top-down control.

    There are times when I think it’d be better to let the government take over something, whether it’s nationalizing an industry or service or issuing licenses to guarantee the quality of something. But then I remember the government is run by politicians who typically aren’t the most rational people. And then I think about how they can be corrupted. It’s just trading profit margins for campaign dollars.

    So much for easy life answers.

  27. SteveAon 05 Mar 2014 at 12:18 pm

    We have to remember that the drive for conformity is driven to a large extent by the needs of the purchasers. Industrial bakers want flour with a reliable protein content that will ensure the uniformity of their product. A national food chain like McDonalds will want potatoes with reliable, predictable cooking characteristics.

    Viewed in this light, monocultures are an inevitable by-product of mass market consumerism.

  28. elmer mccurdyon 05 Mar 2014 at 12:44 pm

    “Nationalize agriculture – like China did right before their great famine that killed millions of people, or the Soviet union did ushering in Lysenkoism and also destroying their agricultural competitiveness.”

    Oh, come ON, Davdoodles. Say something. Respond. This is idiotic and you know it. Show some friggin yarbles.

  29. elmer mccurdyon 05 Mar 2014 at 12:47 pm

    Seriously, does it not bother you when people reflexively bring up Stalin in response to the idea of nationalizing anything? This is far-right crap.

  30. elmer mccurdyon 05 Mar 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Lenin, whatever. The point still holds.

  31. sonicon 05 Mar 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Proof reader comment-
    paragraph 8 ‘the authors worn…’ should be ‘the authors warn…’ right?

    One seed company I use boasts they have added 275 new items for 2014.
    I see some of these things showing up in the supermarkets and now even Safeway is bragging about working with over 100 ‘local farmers’.

    One of my relatives is starting a farm a few miles from me- she plans to use unusual cultivars and non-chemical methods to grow the food. This will cost more in terms of labor, but she feels the rewards will include healthier land, healthier workers and more profits if she can pick the right things to grow.

    But we don’t have a food shortage and she doesn’t have a large loan to pay off.

    I talked to retired loan officer from a large bank who worked the ‘agribusiness’ desk.
    She seems to think the bank loans are what drives most of the decisions these days– the future is less than one year long as the loans mostly come due at the end of one season.

    Large loans to farmers put them in a position where they must produce or lose everything. I think this leads to bad farm practices– short term management rather than longer term.

    It’s called ‘agribusiness’ not ‘farming’ for a reason.

    Putting the soap box back in the closet now. :-)

  32. Kawarthajonon 05 Mar 2014 at 1:30 pm

    I know I’ll probably get some flack for even mentioning it, but organic farming may be one solution to this problem. I believe that organic farms (at least the ones locally) are better at promoting and preserving diversity in crops, even if they can not solve all of our food production problems. At the very least, they could be a bank to draw different varieties of crops from to increase genetic diversity, especially if more popular varieties get wiped out by diseases or become economically unviable. One of the biggest problems with monoculture is the heavy load of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer needed to maintain the monoculture, which pollutes our environment (i.e. check out the news about Lake Erie these days). Maybe a food production system that is more akin to the organic system would help to mitigate some of these problems. I am aware that there is a lot of unjustified hype about organic food, but I still think that it has value as a system.

  33. Bronze Dogon 05 Mar 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Seriously, does it not bother you when people reflexively bring up Stalin in response to the idea of nationalizing anything? This is far-right crap.

    For the portion about the Soviet Union, if you think it’s about the Communism, you missed the important part. It’s about the pseudoscientist Lysenko and his nonsense having unearned influence on policy. We’re experiencing something similar but smaller in scale with quacks right now.

    Granted, intention isn’t magic, but I don’t exactly see condemnation of stupidity that happened in Communists to imply far-right. I’ve seen plenty of liberals bring up the failures of historic Communism to illustrate various follies, often of the authoritarian aspect, rather than the liberal parts. It’s a lot different than the typical far right screed that doesn’t actually address what’s so bad about their example.

  34. NNMon 05 Mar 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Dr Novella, I (respectfully) disagree with your China example…
    China was a starving country, used as an example for children “finish your vegetables, think of the starving Chinese children…”;
    then they got organized: agriculture played a big part. (and so did “forcing” them to read the little red book: then, everyone could read).
    Just look at them now: in just about 100 years, they went from starving illiterates to being one of the strongest countries in the world.
    The way they organized agriculture is exemplary.
    You can hate communists all you want, but I think your American upbringing probably caused a major bias there… Some aspects of it simply work in the big scale.
    Anyway, this shouldn’t be a discussion about politics; just finding an optimal way of organizing massive populations. Capitalism has led everyone (not just USA) to aim for maximum profit, and once the formula is found, everyone follows it: everyone wants to get richer. It’s just human nature. If my neighbor makes more money with an equal parcel and less work, I want to grow the same crop as him.

  35. Bruceon 05 Mar 2014 at 2:42 pm

    Anecdote alert!

    The nationalised Grain Marketting Board of Zimbabwe is very much used as a political tool for control of votes.

    Not wanting the government to control food is not far right, it is just not far left.

  36. Eric Tergersonon 05 Mar 2014 at 3:52 pm

    @Steven Novella -I liked this follow-up comment of yours:

    “Monoculture is a demonstrable problem. It is a vague term, but generally refers to growing a large number of identical or very similar plants. It is, in essence, the opposite of genetic diversity.

    …..banana example…….

    It is a simple principle – genetic diversity is a hedge against pests and pathogens. Significant reduction in genetic diversity renders a population vulnerable to pests and disease and makes it more likely that they will go extinct in the near future. This applies to all species, not just agriculture.”

    *************

    I would add that, with modern tools such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, ect. ect. we can avert totally catastrophic events such as the potato famine, so maybe those drastic examples in history sound a bit far-removed. But this safety is achieved with a broad net of chemical treatments that have their own risks.
    Beautifully, we are now developing traits in plants that reduce or remove the need for some of these pesticide/herbicide treatments, but those advances are being thwarted by monoculture practices. We develop plants that resist certain bugs or diseases, requiring less chemical treatments, but due to intensive monoculture planting, those advantages only enjoy a small window of effectiveness.

    There will always be an ever-evolving arms race between pathogen and host, and genetic diversity is a fundamental weapon on our side.

  37. Eric Tergersonon 05 Mar 2014 at 3:55 pm

    As for the *application* of these ideas, we need someone with agricultural experience up in this conversation!

  38. Will Nitschkeon 05 Mar 2014 at 4:46 pm

    @Steven Novella

    “Will had declared his agenda, so it’s no mystery. He thinks skeptical activism is an oxymoron. That is his narrative, and he is a glaring (and I hope useful) example of the power of motivated reasoning, once someone thinks they see the truth.”

    Yes Steven nearly 100 years of academic research which refutes your position is only a “narrative”. Very post modern of you isn’t it? People who accept the academic research are engaging in “motivated reasoning” whereas you and your group are not. You know those guys, Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos and everyone in-between? (This extends back to the Vienna Circle at least for the modern era.)

    Your group does have a wonderful collection of words/labels/clichés designed to insulate the internal group-think process. That’s typical of this sort of group, whether it’s religious, environmental, atheist, political, etc. Your group is not exempt from these failings because your conceit is ‘rationality’.

    “No one here has claimed that engaging in critical thinking and metacognition is a panacea or guarantees that one’s view will be correct. On the contrary – I constantly give the message of neuropsychological humility. Even skeptics have their narrative and are subject to the entire spectrum of cognitive biases and errors. Commenters here are quick, if anything, to argue, find fault, and probe for error. It’s all good.
    The only real core belief here is that truth matters, and that critical thinking is better than the alternatives (logical fallacies, motivated reasoning, lying, etc.)
    But of course, motivated reasoning can twist anything into a sinister straw man version of itself.”

    Yes I know what your “narrative” is. You mouth it like scripture at every opportunity. But here is the problem and these are your choices as far as I can see them: You can engage in the Scientific Method, which skeptics acknowledge works well within its limits. Or you can engage in other techniques which may or may not get to the truth.

    The problem with these “other techniques” is we have no reliable means of evaluating how well they work. If you want to engage rationally, run experiments and get them published in journals. But your group doesn’t do that. You engage in a sort of philosophical meta-analysis using strategies that in the academic literature have been discredited. (See above.) Genuine skeptics appreciate these limitations. At best, for current active debates, they can contrast positions, but certainly cannot pass judgement. You frequently and regularly pass judgement on subject matters you have little to no understanding of or training in. What you are doing is collecting expert opinion, and repeating those opinions that “feel” favourable to you. Yes you call it ‘rationality’ and claim doing anything else is ‘irrationality’. That’s the central conceit. See it’s easy to mouth the words. It’s quite another matter to actually be able to do what you claim you can do.

  39. Bill Openthalton 05 Mar 2014 at 4:54 pm

    NNM –

    The great leap forward was an ideologically motivated disaster that caused the starvation you’re referring to. Deng’s pragmatic rejection of Communist “ideals”, coupled with his utter ruthlessness ensured the economy picked up again, but at huge human and environmental costs.

  40. Bill Openthalton 05 Mar 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Will Nittschke –

    If you want to engage rationally, run experiments and get them published in journals. But your group doesn’t do that.

    Will, this is a blog where Steven comments both on “experiments that are published in journals” and the very human, irrational behaviour of selected public figures. This educates and diverts his readers, and irritates you.

    Your definition of “genuine skeptics” seems to be people who do not take sides, but merely “contrast positions”, as if every position had equal merit. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but some opinions are wrong for clearly identifiable reasons. Why do you react so emotionally when these reasons are pointed out?

  41. steve12on 05 Mar 2014 at 6:17 pm

    Will:

    “If you want to engage rationally, run experiments and get them published in journals. But your group doesn’t do that.”

    Actually, this is what I do for a living. And when you called my whole field ‘pseudoscience’ and I challenged that in terms of specific literature, you turn and ran. Haven’t heard from you since.

    So please don’t pull your BS with me about not really engaging in science. You’re afraid to engage with actual experts in the lit because you know it’s the easiest way of being exposed as the fraud you really are.

  42. Ekkoon 05 Mar 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Apologies in advance for commenting on the comments and not the original topic (I enjoy the majority of topics on this blog but don’t have much to say on this topic today) but Will has so many blustery unintentional ironies in his comments I find them too hysterical to not comment sometimes. All of his non sequiturs , strawmen, and vague ramblings seem to stem from some objection more to the tone of the blog in general than anything specific. I think that is why he struggles to find any concrete, specific objections to the content and consistently misreads (or doesn’t read) things. He is essentially just tone trolling while pretending there are factual or logical errors in thought. This is why we get gems like:
    “If you want to engage rationally, run experiments and get them published in journals.” (So the only way to “engage rationally” is by running and publishing experiments?)

    “It’s quite another matter to actually be able to do what you claim you can do.” (what is Steven claiming to be able to do? Write a blog?)

    Its not like other people don’t also have objections or critiques of the blog topics in the comments from time to time, but they are readily comprehensible because they are on specific points. I think it must be challenging to come up with ways to be knee-jerk contrarian without completely devolving into incoherence and Will is rapidly approaching the event horizon.

  43. grabulaon 05 Mar 2014 at 9:41 pm

    @Bill Openthalt

    “We should not jeopardise this by concentrating on diversity, even if this is required for long-term sustainability (if there is no short-term success, there is no need to worry about the long term).”

    Maybe I’m not getting your meaning here but are you suggesting we give up long term survivability to maintain market driven processes?

  44. DietRichColaon 05 Mar 2014 at 11:15 pm

    First off

    @StevenNovella – it’s strange… I’m really an not all that interested in GMO as an independent topic (chemist, not a biochemist). But I think you’ve mentioned how what has drawn you is the fact that this really is a good area where skepticism can be applied and things haven’t truly settled out and there are still lots of good questions to be answered. And watching you all debate on this forum, and wanting to be a part of it is sucking me in too! I see hours of my life drifting away before my eyes…

  45. DietRichColaon 06 Mar 2014 at 12:31 am

    Now to where I’m probably going to get myself in trouble for inserting myself in this conversation. What can I say, I’m a slow learner.

    @WillNitschke – I’m new to commenting on this forum (though I’ve been reading it for quite a while now). So you and I don’t have a history. Hopefully that gives me an introductory amount of good will for us to start talking. Maybe the following will help too (temporarily at least).

    @EveryoneElse – Will is correct about one thing. None of you are addressing his actual question / argument. You have (rightly) pointed out his logical fallacies, and the strawmen he has erected as representing Dr. Novella’s position – I’m not excusing those. But even though he has mis-characterized Dr. Novella’s position, his underlying question about how we would deem to choose a strategy to combat or predict a future pathogen was a good one, and a worthy addition to this discussion about GMOs – at least to me – even if it wasn’t a position Dr. Novella was advocating in the first place. He needs to learn to bring them up better, and in a less contrarian way. But while everyone has been quick to point out his flawed logic and his strawmen, no one then took the time to address his actual point afterward, and it is a discernible point. Looking at all these posts… his actual question was ignored, and it has all just been pointing out fallacies since.

    Yes, I’ve seen a lot of his other posts and know this is a pattern, so I get the frustration. But still, if that was me… I’d feel pretty belittled, very quickly, and then likely be an unreasonable jerk afterward too. Kill them with kindness I always say… so I’m going to at least try to address Will’s positions too, even if I have to knock down a few strawmen first.

    I say this because, as a newcomer to this forum, I am deathly afraid of making a similar mis-step, then being discredited and shut down by everyone. I’m here to try to LEARN to be more skeptical… but I guarantee you I’m going to say some stupid things along the way. Seriously… Dr. Novella can look up the mail I sent the SGU last year, and then weep tears and how naive and fallacious I was in the argument I tried to make. I’ve come a long way since then. Maybe Will is not engaging in this forum with the same intention… but if he is, I want to give him a chance to learn the ways of Skepticism, as I did, so he can come along with us on this journey (okay, a little bit of SW nerdiness there).

    Back@WillNitschke – I just defended you. And not in some sort of sarcastic joke sort of way either. I seriously think your question is worth answering. Because I see where you’re coming at with your question, and would really like to address it and see other people put some thoughtful comments towards it.

    But first… you really do call this on yourself. Every single post I’ve seen from you has been needlessly contrarian. I personally think the point you brought up is worth discussing. I want to discuss it with you. But I’m afraid you don’t really want to talk about it either and just want to use it to pick a fight. I think you asked a good question, but you went about it in a completely unnecessary way:

    First off, you brought it up in the context of Dr. Novella holding a position that he never once stated he had. If he had advocated a specific strategy for addressing risks from pathogens, which as you point out would be very hard to predict, then your criticism would be more valid. Instead, he just advocated for general diversity, because the study showed we were decreasing global diversity and that has risks… but his EXACT WORDS were “I am not sure what the best solutions would be, and I leave it to the experts to propose fixes.” That actually seems perfectly in line and agreement with your exact point.

    You then took this strawman, and attacked it with “I suspect your piece is largely fear mongering. Humans, especially business people, are very clever at fixing problems if and when they arise. Humans are very dumb at fixing problems that don’t yet exist.” Maybe you thought it was ironic to talk about fear mongering since Dr. Novella’s previous article was about Food Babe fear mongering. But he didn’t do any such thing because the position you suggest he holds isn’t actually real. And you wonder why no one takes you seriously?

    As some others have said, it gives the impression you just do it on purpose. That you’re just a troll. So maybe I’ve just put myself as yet another person you’ll have in your sights… so no matter what I say or how I say it, you’ll take what I’m saying to mean something else. But I’d rather actually talk to you about the points you want to bring up. And do it logically, critically, and with a modicum of true scientific debate. Cause you seem like a smart guy, with some interesting things to say… you just always say it in a hostile way that makes assumptions about what others must already thinking even when that is exactly contrary to what they’ve actually said.

  46. DietRichColaon 06 Mar 2014 at 1:11 am

    With regards to specific strategies to combat pathogens:

    I think the concerns about monoculture are warranted. By relying on few crops that all share similar traits, I see how that opens up avenues for blights and pathogens to take out large portions of the crops.

    And what I feel Will might have missed regarding Dr. Novella’s position (or at least how I interpret it), is that’s why the only real suggestion seems to be to “promote diversity” in our crops to combat monoculture. On an intellectual level, I understand why diverse genes and / or diverse crops would certainly combat some of the issues with monoculture… but I have to be honest… what the hell does it actually MEAN to have a strategy promote the diversity?!!

    This is where I feel Will’s point was valid. If by “promote diversity” you mean specifically adding “protective genes” that give crops resistance to certain pathogens… how can you do that preemptively? Those strategies work well once we are confronted with an actual pathogen to fight. I don’t feel anyone necessarily took this point of view… and Will’s mistake was assuming this is what Dr. Novella meant in the first place… but that’s just it, what point of view DO you take when you said we should promote diversity? And what are the pros and cons of those methods?

    Now I’m not saying I don’t understand what diversity means in reference to this topic. Seems to me people have discussed planting different TYPES of crops, different varietals of the same crop, and planting the SAME variety of a crop (say, the one that is most popular), but making sure it comes from a different genetic line and therefore has some extra genetic diversity. And maybe when we say “promote diversity” we mean “all of the above”.

    But that’s kind of my issue with this topic. There are definitely some specifics to be discussed, but the overall discussion and solutions tend to get very vague and just devolve to the generic term “diversity.” Many of you suggested ways to “incentivize” the farmers to make their crops more diverse, or the seed industry to produce other seeds… but that still leaves the specific idea of what it will look like for farmers to have more “diverse” crops a bit vague. I feel like I want to know some concrete strategies proposed to combat monoculture so I can discuss them specifically. And part of the problem is that, other people keep assuming the discussion IS about specific strategies, setting up weird strawmen, when it really is more vague discussion of the idea of diversity.

    For instance, since GMO is intricately tied to this discussion… what exactly should we incentivize the seed producers to do that would make the crops more diverse? Make strains of crops that are resistant to certain pests and and pathogens, but make sure those resistances spread across multiple vulnerable species? Will that make farmers more likely to plant them? What about the idea of letting the seed companies still focus on “cash crops” but incentivize them to make new strains that still have the desired resistances, but using new strategies. Basically adding our own “genetic diversity” to the same crop and creating multiple strains.

    I have no idea if any of those ideas would even work. Again, chemist, not a biochemist. Maybe my understanding is still way too simplistic to make a useful contribution to the overall topic.

    Maybe everything I just said is summed up in Dr. Novella’s last paragraph, and that is simply that those are hard discussions and he (or I) are not the experts to be answering those questions. But there’s just a piece of me that is going “but aren’t those the fun discussions to be had here?!!”

  47. ChrisHon 06 Mar 2014 at 1:42 am

    Bronze Dog:

    It’s about the pseudoscientist Lysenko and his nonsense having unearned influence on policy. We’re experiencing something similar but smaller in scale with quacks right now.

    Part of it was also the politicians deciding what was “valid” science. I just finished reading Love and Math by Edward Frenkel, a Russian born mathematician now at UC Berkeley.

    It turns out one reason why there are so many prominent mathematicians from Russia is that it was one area of academia that the “state” did not dictate the rules. Even in the late 1970s the Soviet Union had rules on how to do biology and even linguistics.

    Though there was one silver lining in the Lysenko bit of insanity, many Russian biologists fled to other parts of this planet. Like many others, my dad took advantage of the GI Bill after WWII to attend college. He went to a land grant aggie school in his home state (Washington State College, now University). About the same time WSU hired an expert in poultry husbandry who fled from Russia due to Lysenko’s idiocy. My dad was one of the dozens of WWII veterans to beg the biologist to teach them Russian.

  48. Bill Openthalton 06 Mar 2014 at 3:25 am

    grabula –

    Maybe I’m not getting your meaning here but are you suggesting we give up long term survivability to maintain market driven processes?

    No. Market driven processes have been far more effective than anything else at feeding humanity. Diversity is an important consideration for long-term sustainability, but if we have to switch to central planning to promote it, there will be no need for long-term considerations.

  49. grabulaon 06 Mar 2014 at 7:18 am

    @DietRichCola

    “This is where I feel Will’s point was valid. If by “promote diversity” you mean specifically adding “protective genes” that give crops resistance to certain pathogens… how can you do that preemptively?”

    Will’s point is not valid, as usual he attacked strawmen without really paying attention to the meat of the discussion.

    The suggestion was that diversity would “combat” future pathogens by the strength of being diverse. A Pathogen attacks one strain, it may not make the jump to others. It’s the same concept as the flu vaccine (which I also believe Will makes a habit of attacking), it’s no guarentee but those of us who get it get it to provide protection against the strains of the flu that we can protect ourselves against.

    DietRich – one thing you need to realize, Will N attacks like a shark in a feeding frenzy. He doesn’t read the blog/comments, he doesn’t try to understand the points being made and he blindly lashes out at anything and everything he can. I’m about 99% sure he’s a troll, and the last 1% thinks he’s just a lunatic with a weird fixation on Dr. Novella and his work as a skeptic.

  50. grabulaon 06 Mar 2014 at 7:19 am

    @Bill Openhalt

    Fair enough, I didn’t think your comment was as irrational as it sounded but had to make sure!

  51. Steven Novellaon 06 Mar 2014 at 7:26 am

    Monoculture is more vulnerable to pathogens than a diverse crop. I think this premise is uncontroversial. We don’t have to predict specific future pathogens in order to say that a diverse crop will be less vulnerable – not invulnerable, just less so.

    GM technology (and breeding and other cultivation techniques) can be targeted at known pathogens – transferring known resistance from one variety to others, for example (actually a good way to promote diversity). I don’t know how they could target future pathogens, other than to make crops generically more hardy.

    In any case – this is all a huge red herrings. No one is talking about predicting future pathogens, and it’s not necessary. It’s just about reducing vulnerability to slow down the advance of pathogens (which will eventually happen no matter what we do) to reduce the cost to agriculture (money and productivity), reduce the probability of a catastrophic crop failure, and give us more time to develop strategies when pathogens emerge.

    This is exactly like developing strategies to reduce the emergence of antibiotic resistance. We don’t have to know what exact resistance mechanisms bacteria will evolve, just that the development of resistance is slowed by certain behaviors and accelerated by others.

  52. DietRichColaon 06 Mar 2014 at 11:54 am

    I was really tired last night, and I didn’t articulate myself very well.

    I didn’t mean to say Will’s “point” was valid, because his point was a big strawma. But what I meant was, wanting to know how specific strategies to increase diversity might work or to discuss their drawbacks is a valid topic to bring up. HIS issue was that he was using it as a strawman to attack a position Dr. Novella never held. BUT, maybe deep down, Will actually wants to discuss how that specific strategy fits into the overall discussion… and if so that would be a valid topic to talk about… so if he wants to engage in a REAL discussion about it (though I know why many of you think he does not), and not just use it as a strawman, then I want to give him the opportunity. He may be genuinely interested in genetic strategies to combat monoculture, but isn’t being given a fair shake or chance to discuss them because he… well… just doesn’t broach the topic very well. But I’ll try to look past all the other crap if he really does want to talk about it. And he also just needs to see that it certainly isn’t the only strategy people are talking about using anyway, so using it as a contrarian argument is just a strawman. But even if Will ISN’T interested in actually discussing it in any meaningful way… now I am.

    —–

    Whether Will intended it or not, the other thought his post brought to my mind was just this: One of the goals of science IS to be able to understand our world enough that we can start to predict these kinds of issues that we will face, and find a scientific solution for them. But Will was also correct that humans are really good at fixing problems after they arise, but really bad at anticipating specific problems and fixing them before they occur. But even when we know the broad “general problem”, like monoculture, I think humans are also just really bad at deciding on a pre-emptive strategy and employing it before it’s too late.

    Take global climate change for instance. We knew enough science even 50 years ago to say “you know, burning fossil fuels and increasing atmospheric CO2 is not a good thing, and might be affecting the planet’s climate.” But in 50 years, we’ve really done very little to actually combat it. We’ve debated and discussed, but no one has really come up with a good effective strategy to combat it. Its hard, because its one of those monolithic problems that requires several angles of attack to deal with, its intricately tied to our economy and the wealth of industries, and it isn’t a problem people can easily just “see” by taking a quick look at it. Strategies in the same vein as the ones everyone is talking about here with monoculture – “incentivizing” companies to make more fuel-efficient cars, trying to incentive the market to find alternate fuels, incentivizing companies to have carbon caps or produce less CO2, encouraging people to use public transit – they are all sorta being rolled out… but it’s hard to get the public behind them and its getting to be a little too little too late. Climate change may be too far to stop, so then we’re left with with the big radical strategies, which, even if we could do them, have massive side effects that may make it all worse (where did I read this? Here, SBM, Bad Astronomy? I was trying to link it but I can’t find the post).

    Human beings are hard to get to act on small incremental changes for some greater good. They want to think of things in terms of “problem” and “solution”… but when the problem is so monolithic and the solution is so multifaceted and nuanced… they tune out. They work better in situations like Will said… where the problem is specific and identifiable and – unfortunately – already happening and visible. But we SHOULD be able to use science to help guide us to a point where we are a logical, scientifically literate, and conscientiously proactive society, and not just a reactionary society.

    So I guess what is drawing me to this topic is just that question. Is there a distinct set of strategies, specific strategies, to advocate for, what are their pros and cons, and what will the “whole package” look like? Because I feel like if we don’t want monoculture to simply be the next global climate change – where we have a lot of science and a lot of ideas, but no one acts on them until it is too late – there needs to be a comprehensive strategy to sell to the public / politicians. Because they don’t respond to incremental changes very well.

  53. Steven Novellaon 06 Mar 2014 at 12:11 pm

    DRC – There might be some confirmation bias in your sense that people generally do not take proactive action to prevent problems. At least we have to recognize that when an industry or institution does effectively take proactive action to prevent a problem, you are unlikely to hear about it unless you are in that industry. You don’t notice non-problems. It is only when a problem hits and people look back and ask, “why didn’t we take action earlier?” that you notice.

    One example is Y2K – this problem was anticipated and fixed before it happened. This lead some people to think it was a non-problem all along, but that is not true. It’s an illusion of the fact that great effort was made to fix it proactively.

    The “doomsday vault” is another example of proactive thinking and concrete action.

    Perhaps the bigger issue is economic forces. People will prevent problems if they will be costly in a future, they are likely to experience them directly, or if the short term cost is not too great. It is difficult to get people to sacrifice now for some theoretical future benefit, especially if that future is likely to be beyond their lifetime.

    That’s why the best solutions are ones that do not require immediate significant sacrifices, just doing things smarter. I don’t think we should hurt the agricultural industry in a draconian way to limit monoculture. But perhaps we can simply raise awareness so that choices that are equal in other respects, but increase diversity, can be prioritized. Or perhaps there are some win-wins out there where diversity has other advantages.

    I also have to point out that the vulnerability of monoculture is not a purely theoretical future problem. I am sure banana growers understand that it is a real, present, and potentially devastating problem.

  54. DietRichColaon 06 Mar 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Dr. Novella – Well, I’m not sure I’d say it’s confirmation bias so much as outright pessimism on my part! But you’re correct, I am probably not crediting a lot of the problems we have “fixed” which then made them seem like a non-issue. Or is pessimism a form of confirmation bias itself? In any case, thanks for pointing it out (as I’ve said before, I’m new at this, and really want help figuring out where I have to do some meta-cognition and correction).

    I think my pessimism (and bias) is rooted in what I see with the denial of climate change. As a chemist, that topic really bothers me. My sense with global climate change is that if and when the climate change deniers are finally silenced (pipe dream I know) due to some final undeniable evidence that the planet is never going to be the same, the new cry of the politicians and people in power who could have done something about it will just be “yeah, but how were we supposed to know? And what exactly were we supposed to do about it?! And there’s nothing we can do about it now, so…” And the collective scientists of the past century will just silently weep as they munch on their Soylent Green…

    I guess I’m just afraid this is going to be one of those things where the scientists see it, anticipate it, want to fix it, but can’t rally enough support or action from the powers that be and who hold all the money and ability to fix it to actually do something about it. AT LEAST with monoculture you are correct that the monetary incentives on the growers and producers themselves are a little bit more imminent and real to them than are the issues cause by global climate change. So maybe that will be the difference here.

    Yeah… I think I’ve got some issues with pessimism :P But hopefully continued discussion on this topic will help me overcome it, or at least get a glimmer of hope!

  55. BillyJoe7on 06 Mar 2014 at 3:57 pm

    DRC,

    But you were also wrong about WN.

    He’s not interested in solutions.
    He’s interested in denial, negativity and contrariness.
    Just look at his posts on climate change.

    When he says humans are terrible at predicting the future, he means we should not do it, not that we should try harder.

    And, when taken to task, he simply opts out of the conversation.
    He’s a legend in his own mind, and a blight on everyone else’s.
    In short, he has been a complete waste of time and effort.

    Apart from that, I’ve really enjoyed your contributions here. (:

  56. Steven Novellaon 06 Mar 2014 at 4:42 pm

    I suspect the future of climate change denial may take one of a few paths.

    If we manage to develop clean energy sufficiently to reduce CO2 emissions and avoid the worst predictions of climate change, then the deniers will declare that they were right all along, because disaster did not happen.

    If disaster does happen, then they will say it was unavoidable. Or that it has a cause other than AGW. No matter what unwanted effects climate change has, the deniers can always say it was a natural trend, and not manmade.

    Or, in 50 years we’ll have an entirely new generation and they will have largely forgotten the debates of today. Only a few crusty skeptics will chronicle the story of climate change deniers from the turn of the century. How many people alive today realize that in the 1950s it was common for companies to market the latest tropical fruit juice as a super food and cure all? Or that radioactive tonics were popular until they were banned? So much goes down the memory hole.

    In fact, it might be a bit egocentric to think that the intellectual conflicts of our time will ring down through the generations. I suspect they won’t care much about our battles.

  57. Will Nitschkeon 06 Mar 2014 at 4:46 pm

    @ Steven Novella

    “One example is Y2K – this problem was anticipated and fixed before it happened. This lead some people to think it was a non-problem all along, but that is not true. It’s an illusion of the fact that great effort was made to fix it proactively.”

    This statement in itself is something of a popular myth. Software developers in all government and business environments are busy upgrading, replacing and fixing software. This is an on going and never ending process. Y2K was just item #47 on a very very long list. Worse than some problems perhaps, less worth than others. (Such as the need to replace an ageing minicomputer on a tight deadline, and so on.)

    The Y2K media and government hysteria was indeed hysteria. But it’s always entertaining to read people tell me what “really went down” from the outside, when I was deeply embedded in those activities on the inside. Hysteria is in fact, business as usual in our world. It’s only what people are currently hysterical about that changes.

  58. Bruceon 06 Mar 2014 at 4:52 pm

    May I paraphrase Will here:

    “Steven, what you say is a myth, what actually happened is what you said happened.”

  59. Will Nitschkeon 06 Mar 2014 at 5:02 pm

    @ Steven Novella

    “If disaster does happen…”

    Hmmm… an apocalyptic stream of consciousness intellectual revenge fantasy…?

    If people you view as your ‘intellectual enemies’ turn out to be right, what happens then? Do you admit they were right but for the wrong reasons? And do you acknowledge that you were wrong but for the right reasons?

  60. DietRichColaon 06 Mar 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Awww Will… really? All that effort and you still respond in the predictable fashion that all the people on this website expect?

    Even if we assumed you had some inside knowledge, and you had a point to make (and this time I’m not just giving it to you)… there are ways to do it that aren’t just blatant attacks trying against Dr. Novella.

    Once again, he never said anything promoting hysteria or that it was going to cause an apocalypse or even condoning the public’s reaction. In fact, unless he clarifies his position in a way that changes the perception, what he said was perfectly in line with what you said… it was a problem that was anticipated, programers and developers had a plan to fix it, and for the most part it was all done proactively and on time with only a few minor blips on the radar. He didn’t say programmers were freaking out or going crazy and joining the mass hysteria… in fact, he said they anticipated it and fixed it.

    What he was doing, was just telling me that I neglected those kinds of examples where we as humans were good at anticipating problems and dealing with them proactively. Perfectly in line with what you said. You’re the one twisting it into some weird narrative where people on the “outside world” are somehow telling you “what really went down”. *sigh*

    You will force me to have to agree with BillyJoe7 and your intentions on this website. My pessimism meter increases yet again. Sadness. :(

  61. Bill Openthalton 06 Mar 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Steven –

    Or, in 50 years we’ll have an entirely new generation and they will have largely forgotten the debates of today. Only a few crusty skeptics will chronicle the story of climate change deniers from the turn of the century. How many people alive today realize that in the 1950s it was common for companies to market the latest tropical fruit juice as a super food and cure all? Or that radioactive tonics were popular until they were banned? So much goes down the memory hole.
    In fact, it might be a bit egocentric to think that the intellectual conflicts of our time will ring down through the generations. I suspect they won’t care much about our battles.

    Seconded.

    Every generation has its problems to deal with. Their world will be “normal” to them even though we might not recognise it, and would probably not like some aspects of their lives and their choices. Our responsibility is to the people alive now, who are the only ones whom we know can and do suffer, and the only ones whose lives we can make better — or worse.

    Climate change will happen (it always does), and humans (like all living things to some extend) will have contributed to that change. It might be catastrophic because of us, or catastrophic without us. Future generations might thank us or curse us, but in all likelihood will not care one jot.

  62. Ekkoon 06 Mar 2014 at 6:38 pm

    There is a wide spectrum of people who deny AGW – from the loonier side that denies CO2 is responsible and that it’s all a socialist/statist wealth re-distribution scheme to those that just think the more dire predictions are not likely to pass. So I think it’s hard to say how they would all react. I would hope some would be swayed with more obvious mounting evidence – some maybe not unless it begins to impact them personally. Some will just re-formulate the goal posts of the scope of their denial. And some will just quietly disappear from public comment. There’s actually a really good blog post over at PLoS Blogs that looks at various types of denialist and covers a variety of ways scientists could communicate climate change better with the general public.
    http://blogs.plos.org/models/nine-lessons-and-carols-in-communicating-climate-uncertainty/

  63. grabulaon 07 Mar 2014 at 2:04 am

    Will N – now I can directly call your BS:

    “This statement in itself is something of a popular myth. Software developers in all government and business environments are busy upgrading, replacing and fixing software. This is an on going and never ending process. Y2K was just item #47 on a very very long list. Worse than some problems perhaps, less worth than others. (Such as the need to replace an ageing minicomputer on a tight deadline, and so on.)”

    I’ve been in the business of IT since the early 90′s and worked for a prominent firm doing a lot of IT work before and after Y2K. While most IT professionals understood the issue wasn’t quite as bad as the media was playing it up, there was most definitely a lot of scrambling around to fix systems because no one had any idea how some of them would react. Everyone knew it was going to cause problems and so large amounts of assets and money were moved in order to “fix” this in whatever way they felt necessary. While no one knew exactly what was going to happen, as Dr. Novella points out, a potential issue was identified and addressed prior to it actually becoming an issue.

    It’s not the best comparison but it’s apropos. The IT industry prepared for a future problem by implementing solutions. After Y2K it was found that in some cases there was no real issue, but better to have fixed it anticipating there might than to just ride it out. That’s where the comparison strikes home for me. Why not encourage diversity to anticipate potential future problems then shoulder shrug ignorantly as you suggest? What possible VALID complaint could you have against diversification versus monoculture?

  64. BBBlueon 09 Mar 2014 at 4:49 pm

    I am not clear as to how this…

    The authors provide interesting data on the changes of global crop production, documenting what many have suspected – that our food supply is globalizing at the expense of local varieties. -Dr. Novella

    …is supported by this:

    …the analyses lack the resolution necessary for elucidating trends in those geographically restricted cereals, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and other crops that may be especially sensitive to changes in the global food system. -PNAS Report

    The authors imply that there was an effect on local crop diversity, and I do not consider that to be “documentation”. Perhaps there is evidence to support that conclusion; I just couldn’t find it in the PNAS report. The analyzed data indicates that, while the mix of “important” crops among nations has become more similar, the number of crops represented in those mixes has increased.
    From the PNAS report:

    From 1961 to 2009, all 52 measured crop commodities, which included both individual crops and groups of crops producing similar products, with the exception of cottonseed oil, increased in geographic spread (i.e., were counted as contributing to food supply in an increasing number of countries.

    The richness of national per capita food supplies in regard to the 52 measured crop commodities increased consistently over the past 50 y for all variables.

    Therefore, the data suggest that the observed increase in homogeneity is due to countries “catching up” in terms of a more diverse crop mix rather than those that were more diverse becoming less so. Food production may be moving towards a global standard, but it is a more diverse standard.

    Genetic diversity comes not just from having a wide variety of species and cultivars, but in planting them in sufficient amounts so that further diversity can develop. -Dr. Novella

    I looked at world production statistics for three of the crops noted in the PNAS report as showing a singificant decrease in terms of their contribution to consumed calories and found the following for the period 1962 to 2012. http://faostat.fao.org/
    Sorghum: Production has increased 30%, area harvested has decreased by 18%, and yields have increased by 58%. Sorghum is well-adapted to poor soils and arid conditions, but drought-tolerant varieties of other grains have made some inroads on what was formerly exclusive sorghum and millet territory. The area harvested has increased by 75% in Africa as its cultivation has expanded into arid areas to keep pace with population growth. As a global commodity, its representation in the food supply fluctuates based on the relative economics of other grains.
    Cassava: Production has increased 250%, area harvested has increased by 100%, and yields have increased by 70%. Cassava is also widely adapted and tolerates arid climates well.
    Banana: Production has increased 365%, area harvested has increased by 140%, and yields have increased by 93%. Banana has a very narrow genetic pool, so they are particularly susceptible to pests, but to a large extent, it is the value and profitability of the Cavendish that supports breeding programs and expansion of the germplasm collection to meet the challenge that represents. I suspect that the genetic diversity in those collections is greater now than it has ever been.
    While Dr. Novella may have been referring only to “local varieties”, if a larger amount helps to further diversity, then over the past 50 years, conditions suitable for developing diversity have been improving for at least some of the crops even though they may have lost ground in the competition for calories.
    Within the context of the entire plant gene pool, even polyculture represents a relatively shallow set of genetic materials. How could it not? Does it make sense to cultivate crops within any system that are poor producers? Of course not. Monoculture succeeds because it is more efficient, both in terms of production and the use of resources, including land. As those resources become more limiting, shall we move to less efficient agricultural systems?
    Frankly, I don’t think monoculture per se is nearly as much of a threat to genetic diversity as is agriculture in general and the land use decisions that are being made to accommodate an increasing population. The greatest amount of diversity is represented by germplasm collections and wild types in nature, not among cultivated crops. When there is money to be made in farming, it encourages the expansion of those collections and the preservation of natural genetic reservoirs. That’s not a “doomsday” strategy, that’s just the way agriculture works.

    …I don’t think we can make a straight connection between the data in this study and issues of obesity and nutrition.

    I agree. Agriculture is market-driven. Nutrition is more about the choices people make based on what is important to them, their level of education, and what they can afford. In the US, where we have a very diverse and affordable food supply, nutrition is clearly linked to education and socio-economic status.
    And finally:

    If we want to change this situation we must manage some set of economic incentives for diversifying, with due consideration for maintaining production. -zorrobandito

    I always do a double-take when I read phrases like “we must manage some set of economic incentives…” I am not sure what Mr. Zorrobandito meant by that, but if he meant that a government should subsidize farmers who grow certain crops or practice certain production methods, then I would have to say there are better ways. (However, I may be willing to make an exception in the case of tax breaks for those who grow bananas in their basement.) I favor bottom-up incentives where consumers demand certain food items and farmers supply those demands as efficiently as possible.
    If one identifies those countries where people have the greatest number of food choices, it is clear that self-determination, capitalism, and education are paths to prosperity, which in turn, leads to better nutrition, or at least, the potential for better nutrition. To the extent that a country and its people have the freedom to develop the tools of social, economic, political, and educational development that provide for individual prosperity, they will succeed in diversifying their agricultural production, and improving their diets. Yes, there are legitimate concerns about monoculture just as there are about unfettered capitalism, but both represent the most efficient means of production in their respective domains.

  65. Mlemaon 14 Mar 2014 at 3:41 am

    “…but both represent the most efficient means of production in their respective domains.”

    Do you have any evidence to support that claim? My reading says otherwise.

  66. rezistnzisfutlon 14 Mar 2014 at 4:41 am

    Do you have any evidence to support that claim? My reading says otherwise.

    Perhaps you could cite your reading so that we can evaluate it for ourselves. Nothing wrong with asking for citations, but if you’re going to add a claim to your request for citations, then back at you to ante up as well.

    However, it seems that he already addressed this question in that the most prosperous nations with the greatest amount of food diversity, cheapest food, highest food availability, and highest SEC/educational standards are the ones who have agriculture economies primarily driven by market capitalism. However, there is no such thing as “pure capitalism” as all economies are mixed (blended). Even China which has a communist government has a largely capitalistic economy. Furthermore, the few examples of planned economies are market driven. If capitalism truly didn’t work, it wouldn’t be adopted everywhere (que the conspiracy theories).

    I’m not sure that BBBlue meant to include “unfettered” as part of his final statement, but he’ll have to answer that himself. His statement is largely correct, though, in that they are the most efficient in their respective domains. Capitalism by its nature tends toward the most efficient system in order to provide the most profit, so it will always tend toward the greatest gain for the least cost (the very definition of efficiency). Monoculture, currently, truly IS the most efficient means for the greatest agricultural output. That doesn’t mean it’s the best in terms of what a person’s values is, but it’s the most efficient – it provides the most output for the fewest resources and costs. Furthermore, as it stands now, it’s the only method available that can adequately provide for the population. Are there better solutions? Most likely. The trick is in finding them.

    Also, I maintain that monoculture isn’t automatically “bad” (a subjective moral value statement). Monoculture, just like anything else, should be evaluated on its merits. What are its strengths and weaknesses? Can we retain the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses? What is monoculture anyway? I doubt what most people think it is is what it truly is, and what most people think exists as monoculture is actually what exists in reality. If we must ultimately do away with monoculture, how will we mitigate for that effect? Sorry, but a gajillion small farms isn’t going to cut it, moving back to less efficient methods isn’t the answer, and looking back to agricultural standards of 100 years ago is naive and unrealistic.

  67. Mlemaon 14 Mar 2014 at 6:40 am

    “His statement is largely correct, though, in that they are the most efficient in their respective domains.”

    I’m not even going to address something as amorphous as a political or economic system. Show me the proof that monoculture cropping is the most efficient type of agriculture. You’re making the claim – what do you have to back it up?

  68. BBBlueon 16 Mar 2014 at 10:51 am

    I see, it’s the Hitchen’s Razor challenge, is it?

    Mr. Rezistnzisfutl accurately reflects most of my thoughts on the subject. Thank you Rez.

    The vast majority of farmers in the US choose to operate production systems that fall within the definition of monoculture. Why is that? Certainly not because those systems are less efficient. As Mr. Rezistnzisfutl notes, farmers choose monocultures of one sort or another because that is the way to maximize output from available resources. If polyculture was more efficient, it would be the dominant agricultural system in the US. I consider that to be evidence.

    Don’t just look at agriculture; look at any manufacturing process. What utilizes resources more efficiently, a large factory producing one kind of widget or the same size factory producing many different kinds? When one can optimize a system to produce just one thing, it is going to do so more efficiently. How much proof is needed or is logic enough? Of course, some factories do produce more than one kind of widget, but that is because pure efficiency is not the only factor in play.

    It is widely agreed that increased productivity is the main contributor to economic growth in U.S. agriculture. The level of U.S. farm output more than doubled between 1948 and 2011, growing at an average annual rate of 1.49 percent.

    That has happened while the number of farmers has decreased, and mechanization and the average farm size has increased; indicators of movement towards monoculture, not away from it.

    After peaking at 6.8 million farms in 1935, the number of U.S. farms fell sharply until leveling off in the early 1970s. Falling farm numbers during this period reflected growing productivity in agriculture and increased nonfarm employment opportunities. Because the amount of farmland did not decrease as much as the number of farms, the remaining farms have more acreage—on average, about 400 acres in 2012 versus 155 acres in 1935. Roughly 2.2 million farms are currently in operation.

    Technological developments in agriculture have been particularly influential in driving change in the farm sector. Advances in mechanization and the increasing availability of chemical inputs led to ever-increasing economies of scale that spurred rapid growth in the size of the farms responsible for most agricultural production. As a result, even as the amount of land and labor inputs used in farming declined, total farm output more than doubled between 1978 and 2011.

    Monoculture facilitates those technological developments. For instance, it is a physical impossibility to apply the same level of mechanization to polyculture as is applied to monoculture. If one needs proof of that, they must only visit a farm that employs polyculture production systems.

    Efficiency is not the only measure of an agricultural system, but it is the one I referred to. Same goes for capitalism. If one can show me a case where feeding the horse results in better fed birds when compared to feeding the birds directly, then I may have to reevaluate, but running resources through a government bureaucracy before they reach the people and expecting that to be a more efficient process defies logic if the goal is for individuals to prosper. As Mr. Rezistnzisfutl correctly interpreted my words, the proof exists all around us and the answer was in my original comments: The countries with the highest GDP per hour worked have capitalism at the core of their economies, not statism. While one may have the impression that countries like Norway or Luxemborg are not really capitalist economies, they would most certainly be wrong. Same goes for every list I have ever seen that ranks the “happiest” countries of the world. I have had this discussion with many people and I am often presented with hypotheticals about how government-run economies can work to the advantage of its citizens. All I can say is that real-world evidence indicates otherwise.

    As for my use of the word “unfettered”, I meant that in the sense of unregulated or free from rules of any sort. I do think certain basic rules applied to capitalist enterprises are necessary. For instance, product safety laws, copyright laws, certain antitrust laws, taxes for public infrastructure and national defense, etc. However, I do not think that a government should be in the business of “managing” an economy or picking winners and losers.

    I am curious as to what you have been reading, Mr. Mlema.

  69. Mlemaon 17 Mar 2014 at 5:03 pm

    BBBlue,
    I was partly confused by your use of the word efficiency to mean production. Also your inclusion of labor I think. But I think I do have to consider what you’re saying as it applies to labor. Mechanization and monocultures minimize labor. So if you’re talking about efficiency of human labor i would have to agree. But I think when we’re talking about efficiency with monoculture vs. polyculture or diversified agriculture, we’re talking about comparative use of resources.

    A factory making one kind of widget isn’t necessarily more efficient than a factory making many kinds of widgets. It just depends how each widget is made. This maybe sounds like I’m playing with words, but I don’t mean to. I will grant you that it requires less human labor per ear of corn to grow a monoculture of bt corn than it does to grow corn as part of a diversified system. But if we take into account the required inputs and use of resources it’s less efficient. We also have to consider ecological effects which must be dealt with eventually one way or the other. That plays into efficiency when we accept that it’s a necessary part of operations.
    So: monocultures are an efficient use of human labor, inefficient use of all other resources

    When we talk about how much food (nutrition and yield) is drawn from the same amount of land, and figure in the comparative use of resources/input, diversified systems are more efficient. And we can potentially reduce labor if we tailor mechanization to suit diversified systems. But this would still be a trade off i admit. I think the difference between the two approaches becomes most important when we look at trying to “export” our means of production to regions that will never be able to adopt such practices. It’s both more efficient AND more productive in many regions to adopt diversified agricultural systems. Our system in the US is fairly unique, and has at times been a great detriment to export prices for other countries, because we heavily subsidize commodities which are then grown in monocultures. To get an in-depth picture of how this happens, you have to investigate the US farm bill history.

    Corn in the US is a unique story because over the decades we’ve bred corn to produce more and more in a smaller footprint. But I think we still have to consider use of resources and quality of output in that situation.
    Thanks for your thorough response. I ran across this article a couple weeks ago and thought it might interest you:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/opinion/sunday/breeding-the-nutrition-out-of-our-food.html
    I especially enjoyed the graphic on the second page.

    also, I should probably make sure that we’re not just talking about monoculture meaning any area that’s planted with one crop regardless of size. Small monocultures which are alternated over time with other crops are very different than vast fields planted with the same crop year after year.
    I hope I’m not being overly dramatic when i say i think we are at a fork in the road. We’ll find a way to be more diversified and efficient (with resources) or we won’t be able to sustain the kind of production we have now. One problem of the growing industrialization of agriculture is wider geographical separation of the elements which all play a role in production too.

    And finally, i have to point out that, as regards the research Dr. Novella is discussing, the article says that the variety of foods readily available to each country has increased. But these tend to be the same foods from one country to the next. So we still have to guess whether there remains a greater variety of local food plants in each country. If the standard food crops are being grown more (yield wise) in more countries (as with GM crops) doesn’t it stand to reason that there are fewer amounts (yields) of local varieties being grown? Even if the genetic diversity remains, there would be less plants which represented that diversity, making it more vulnerable to extinction. Now perhaps I’ve misunderstood what you’ve said, so I’m willing to reconsider my interpretation.

    We already have governmental management of agriculture to a certain degree. I honestly don’t have an opinion on that. Perhaps you’re more familiar with what this means “in the trenches”.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/farm-bill-why-dont-taxpayers-subsidize-the-foods-that-are-better-for-us/2014/02/14/d7642a3c-9434-11e3-84e1-27626c5ef5fb_story.html

  70. Mlemaon 17 Mar 2014 at 5:04 pm

    “Monocultures used in agriculture are usually single strains that have been bred for high yield and resistant to certain common diseases. Since all plants in a monoculture are genetically similar, if a disease strikes to which they have no resistance, it can destroy entire populations of crops. Polyculture, which is the mixing of different crops, has natural variation and a likelihood that one or more of the crops will be resistant to any particular pathogen. Studies have shown planting a mixture of crop strains in the same field to be effective at combating disease. Ending monocultures grown under disease conditions by introducing crop diversity has greatly increased yields. In one study in China, the planting of several varieties of rice in the same field increased yields of non-resistant strains by 89% compared to non-resistant strains grown in monoculture, largely because of a dramatic (94%) decrease in the incidence of disease, making pesticides less necessary. There is currently a great deal of international worry about the wheat leaf rust fungus, that has already decimated wheat crops in Uganda and Kenya, and is starting to make inroads into Asia as well. As much of the worlds wheat crops are very genetically similar following the Green Revolution, the impacts of such diseases threaten agricultural production worldwide.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monoculture

    This reduction in diversity is what concerns scientists. For example, the solution to the diseased rice, with our current paradigm, would typically be to engineer a resistant variety and go on planting the monoculture. But incorporating a solution that’s been around forever and doesn’t require expensive r&d or chemicals is a more efficient and sustainable way to combat the problem. And it maintains a higher level of diversity.
    And organic doesn’t equal diversified or polyculture, in case anybody’s confused about that.

  71. Mlemaon 17 Mar 2014 at 5:06 pm

    Dr. Novella, the following piece “fleshes out” some of what you’ve covered in your post (which I greatly appreciated by the way. After all, how many of us really think about monoculture from one day to the next? :)
    Modern Agriculture: Ecological impacts and the possibilities for truly sustainable farming
    http://nature.berkeley.edu/~miguel-alt/modern_agriculture.html

    this is much broader – world agricultural and food systems:
    UNCAD Trade and Environment Review 2013
    http://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=666
    this reads like a doomsday prophecy, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that there’s “666″ in the link :)

  72. sonicon 17 Mar 2014 at 7:13 pm

    Mlema-
    Mechanization is labor saving.
    The current machinery is best for monoculture crop systems.
    It seems societies have gone through this for years- now it’s China’s turn- people moving from the farm to the city.
    The techniques for growing without the mechanization and imported fossil fuels still exists. But they do involve more human labor than the modern industrial chemical food production facilities.

    I liked the link from the Berkeley guy– my prejudice showing through, no doubt.

  73. Mlemaon 17 Mar 2014 at 9:38 pm

    sonic – yes i know (to all of your statements)

    “It seems societies have gone through this for years- now it’s China’s turn- people moving from the farm to the city.”

    The march towards industrial agriculture isn’t a predestined evolution of mankind, where each country will inevitably take its “turn”. To me it’s imperative that we improve efficient use of resources if we want to feed everybody. As in a number of other areas, there’s a mythology attached to certain ways of doing things, that attaches a value to the process instead of the outcome.
    Perhaps we could ask the question: instead of the “industrialization” of agriculture – would people want to develop improved agriculture into diversified systems which would sustain agricultural communities, instead of displacing rural populations?

    http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/pubs/pubs/ib/ib11.pdf

    We’ve used our intelligence to improve production/human labor ratio. Will we use our intelligence to sustain production? Certainly there are brilliant people who can also solve the problem of human labor. So we can all sit back, relax and watch the crops grow ??? :)

  74. sonicon 18 Mar 2014 at 3:03 am

    mlema-
    One example of an older farming method of interest- ‘the three sisters’- that is corn, beans, and squash grown together. The beans climb the corn and fix nitrogen, the squash covers the ground and helps maintain soil moisture and shades out all weed competition. No need for fertilizer or herbicide in that mix.

    The obvious problem is in harvesting– a tractor can’t get out there without ruining the squash- the corn can’t be cut down without ruining the beans…

    Perhaps robots could be built to handle the job.
    It takes a lot of engineering brilliance to produce a society that is morbidly obese. I believe the achievement is in sight, however. :-)

    I think ‘Permaculture’ is the word used to describe what most people think ‘Organic’ should mean now. That’s the word I’m hearing anyway.
    Sepp Holzer.

    Cornell University is doing excellent work in this area BTW.

  75. Mlemaon 18 Mar 2014 at 3:31 am

    thanks sonic. Nowadays you need to be resourceful to afford a healthy diet, that’s for sure. Unhealthy is cheap and easy. When i was a kid we still dug dandelions, went hunting for mushrooms, gathered watercress, and ate wild berries. The berries were a little scary sometimes, but I always let my cousins eat them first :) I never realized what a wealthy kid I was. Of course, I also ate a lot of baloney sandwiches, Pepsi-cola and oreo cookies too. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s not a sin hahaha

  76. BBBlueon 18 Mar 2014 at 6:31 am

    Hi Mlema,

    First, let’s clear up a common misconception: Today’s monoculture isn’t your great-great-grandpa’s monoculture. Wikipedia’s definition of “growing a single crop or plant species over a wide area and for a large number of consecutive years” is an entirely inadequate definition. It may apply to a time (1800’s) when cotton was king in the south, but many lessons have been learned since and what is called monoculture today incorporates those lessons. What you seem to envision as monoculture is a caricature of “modern” agriculture from a bygone era.

    As for polyculture, as a student many, many moons ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the “Berkeley guy”, as Mr. Sonic refers to him, at his lab at UC Berkeley where he was examining the contents of bat stomachs to find out what they were eating, and I have also heard him lecture more recently. I think Dr. Altieri’s vision of agroecology may have a place where farming is more about subsistence and food security, but as a business model in developed nations, it just doesn’t make sense. You stated that “Monoculture is an efficient use of labor but an inefficient use of all other resources.” That’s a bold statement, and now I must ask you to provide evidence. There is nothing I have read in the literature that supports that statement unless one has constructed a trial using the worst possible scenario for monoculture and the best circumstances for polyculture. Are you saying inefficient when what you really mean is “irresponsible” or “not ecologically sustainable”? If so, that’s not the same thing.

    What I said applied to more than just labor. Whether you look at GDP per hour worked or multi-factor productivity, the data supports the conclusion that capitalism as opposed to statism, is the superior economic system. As for agriculture, mechanization was offered as an example of one element among many that have led to increased agricultural productivity, but it is one of the most important. Plant breeding, pesticides and fertilizers, improved cultural practices including crop rotation and soil conservation are some of the others, but not the only ones. Those are all parts of modern monoculture.

    In a typical, non-ag factory setting, the rule of thumb is that costs for labor are 1/3, costs for materials are 1/3, and costs for overhead (machinery, structures, energy, admin, etc.) are 1/3 of the total cost of production. For the crops I am involved with, because there is little opportunity for mechanization, the cost of labor is easily 50% of the total cost of production. For crops in volatile markets like lettuce, when supply exceeds demand, labor costs for harvest alone are often greater than the value of the crop itself, and that can result in lettuce left rotting in the field. Labor may be just one factor, but it is a huge factor.

    If the standard food crops are being grown more (yield wise) in more countries (as with GM crops) doesn’t it stand to reason that there are fewer amounts (yields) of local varieties being grown?

    “Doesn’t it stand to reason”, in this case, appears to be common sense fallacy to me. No, one does not necessarily follow the other. When I was doing a little background research on the PNAS report, I ran across an interesting piece of information. In the case of Myanmar and food consumption classification (I looked at Myanmar because it was a bit of an outlier in terms of the FAO data presented in the PNAS report), the consumption of staples remained fairly constant as the total amount of food consumed by a family increased, but the amount of other food items increased (Figure 4). What that suggests to me is that as people are able to afford more food, they consume both a greater amount and a greater variety of food items. I see anecdotal evidence of that in the US; one finds a greater diversity of food items in upscale markets than in poor areas. Has that not been your experience? There is absolutely nothing presented in the FAO data or the PNAS analyses of that data that demonstrates an effect on local diversity, there is only conjecture. Socio-economic factors may have more to do with the diversity of a food supply than anything to do with monoculure. That is why I say that if one’s intent is to improve the diet of a population, the first step should be to promote those things that contribute to individual prosperity.

    As for nutrition, if more people want sweet corn because it tastes good rather than being good for them, is that the fault of monoculture? There are crops that are essentially just filler that have been bred for yield rather than nutrition, but I think it is the consumers’ responsibility to demand something different and vote with their pocketbook. I view this the same way as I do people who don’t vote yet complain about their elected officials. If you want healthier foods, buy healthier foods and farmers will meet that demand, but don’t tell me it’s someone else’s responsibility to protect you from your own choices.

    Wheat stem rust has been a threat to farmers for centuries, but it also represents a great success story for modern plant breeding techniques and could represent a great success story for genetic engineering too, unless the anti-GMO crowd has its way. If wheat was grown using the polyculture-subsistence model of widely distributed farms, stem rust may require less technological effort to keep it in check, but then more people would have to move back to an agrarian lifestyle and make do without many of the advantages of city life. While a life actually lived on the farm or one of hunting and gathering may be more environmentally friendly, I doubt you will be able to convince more than a handful of city folk to return to what many now consider a primitive lifestyle.

    In one study in China, the planting of several varieties of rice in the same field increased yields of non-resistant strains by 89% compared to non-resistant strains grown in monoculture, largely because of a dramatic (94%) decrease in the incidence of disease, making pesticides less necessary.

    And finally, I mean no offense, but since you are a regular to this blog, you should know better. You can’t offer information like that without a proper citation and expect anyone to take it seriously.

  77. sonicon 18 Mar 2014 at 10:44 am

    BBBlue-
    Manufacturing 1 ton of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer requires 33,500 cubic feet of natural gas.
    We now get the gas by fracking.

    I believe it is less resource intensive and therefore more efficient to grow a nitrogen fixing cover crop rather than to frack for natural gas that can then be turned into fertilizer to be transported by fossil fuel burning truck to the farm site.
    Should I quote a study?

    “…but then more people would have to move back to an agrarian lifestyle and make do without many of the advantages of city life. While a life actually lived on the farm or one of hunting and gathering may be more environmentally friendly, I doubt you will be able to convince more than a handful of city folk to return to what many now consider a primitive lifestyle.”
    And that’s the great fear- nobody will show up to do the work. It is a real situation. It takes great engineering to produce a society of morbidly obese people who can’t and/or are unwilling to pick the food they eat. Another 20 years?

    Mlema-
    Oreos aren’t good for you? Oh my… :-)

    There are numerous approaches to food security.

    It seems having large equipment and massive chemical factories producing fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides from natural gas fracked from miles away is one way to go.

    I figure I’ll learn to grow food without any of those inputs, using effort that I can do and enjoy.

    I really am a foolish idiot, aren’t I?

  78. BBBlueon 18 Mar 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Dr. Miguel Altieri’s perspective in his own words.

    EcoFarm 2011: University of California, Friend or Foe? +/-20 minutes

  79. rezistnzisfutlon 18 Mar 2014 at 10:09 pm

    And that’s the great fear- nobody will show up to do the work. It is a real situation. It takes great engineering to produce a society of morbidly obese people who can’t and/or are unwilling to pick the food they eat. Another 20 years?

    And we’re back to the statism suggestion, that people can’t or are unable to make proper decisions for themselves so someone should dictate to them how they should act.

    It’s not fear that people won’t move back that is the reason why, it’s because the green revolution has allowed people to choose a life other than that of a farmer. This has freed up many common citizens to pursue business and intellectual interests that were unavailable to them before because they either had to continue working on the farm, or there was not enough agricultural output to provide for this kind of behavior. I, for one, am grateful for the opportunity to choose my occupation in life, and not starve in the process.

    One thing that ideologues tend to ignore is that, if their particular ideal is met, what are the consequences of that ideal, and what are the consequences of removing the other system. If people were, for all intents and purposes, forced to move back onto farms like what it appears that is being suggested, there will be fewer people to occupy former positions that they were likely more suited to. And, there’s the matter of removing choice from their lives.

    Furthermore, because a particular problem has developed as a result of one situation doesn’t mean that reverting to the old system is the better choice. It would be better to retain all the beneficial components of the new system while fixing any problems that came up as a side effect. The issue with obesity, unfortunately, is a matter of choice and personal responsibility, and it’s an aspect of our nature that works against us. We are selectively “programmed” to seek out certain foods (called “high quality” in biological and anthropological circles) that are typically seasonal and of limited availability when in season. In my estimation, it’s a matter of overcoming this problem, not by reverting to an old system by force or reducing the population by attrition, but by finding ways to solve the problem (hopefully while not creating an equally problematic side effect).

  80. sonicon 19 Mar 2014 at 2:11 am

    BBBlue-
    Thanks for the lecture link.
    I’m going to have to find out more about what some of those farmers are doing.
    Oh, and I think it’s true: ‘Sustainability’ is now a political term. This puts in the the same category as ‘organic’- somewhat defined according to the desires of the larger campaign contributors.

    rezistnzisfutl-
    Sorry if I offended.
    But honestly- If you aren’t laughing at that comment you haven’t understood what I was saying. :-)

  81. Mlemaon 19 Mar 2014 at 2:31 am

    BBBlue,
    I don’t know what “great-great-grandpa’s monoculture” was like. But Grandpa’s monoculture was more like a diversified system. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent time in the midwest, but we do indeed grow vast tracts of single, genetically homogeneous plants – namely corn and soy – and not much else. This requires tons of water supplied by the Ogallala aquifer, which is being rapidly depleted. It also requires increasing amounts of synthesized fertilizer and pesticides, whose manufacture and transport are more inefficient uses of resources. Water pollution remedies must also be considered against efficiency wherever they are made. How is this a caricature?

    When I say “most efficient use of resources” I mean inputs that don’t utilize as much fossil fuel to get where they need to be, integrated pest management, etc. Improved cultural practices including crop rotation and soil conservation predate massive monocultures – the fact that they’re something you think we’ve more recently adopted makes me think that your own characterization of modern agriculture is that of the section that is beginning to re-incorporate long standing practices. The vast monocultures of the US are highly productive, but they’re propped up by inefficient practices that aren’t sustainable. They’re heavily subsidized and restricted by our tax dollars, and they’re reducing diversity. That’s the source of the conversation: what will we change going forward in order to regain efficient use of resources?

    Altieri’s talk was interesting and i thank you for the link. If you listen starting at around 16 minutes, you will hear him make a comparison between two central American farms and an American midwest farm with regards to energy efficiency. This is what I’m referring to when i say that our monocultures are efficent use of labor, but inefficient use of everything else. They’re highly productive, but no more than they would be if diversified. i think it’s a lack of imagination that won’t let us see that diversifying US agriculture would be a step forward and not have to decrease productivity. it could increase productivity in areas that now aren’t productive at all. It would likely increase employment, but it’s not like “we’re all movin’ back to the farm”. it could increase the price of meat, which is artificially low in the US. To some people this would be good, to others, it freaks them out.

    I think the history of US agriculture can offer an microcosm of what the PNAS report shows. There was a lot of diversity in species cultivated throughout the Americas pre-European immigration. The US increased the availability of more foods through importing from other places and adapting them to the US. But at the same time, the diversity of corn, for example, is a tiny fraction of what is was, and we have to hope that Mexico’s maize will sustain it’s own genetic diversity. It is partly about people demanding what they want to eat. But it’s also about federal policies that make the choices harder – with a head of broccoli costing as much as a double cheeseburger that’s already prepared to eat. Which will a working class Mom, too busy to cook and trying to get some protein and calories in her kids buy? She’d like to buy the broccoli, too, but might have to choose between that and some necessity which has increased in price during the last 40 years, compared to her income. Without government intervention, the broccoli might cost less because it might be grown more widely, but the meat would cost much much more. So, it would also be a shame to make meat cost so much that a working class person couldn’t afford it. What should we do? Really? Should only the rich have access to phytonutrients?

    US wealth can contribute to global diversity by providing a market for regionally unique foods. But instead, we’re exporting our agriculture in the form of patented seeds, land grabs that are turned into biofuel monocultures, broader production of the same food staples that comprise the average American diet, etc. Local diversity is displaced. It’s not that it doesn’t still exist, it’s that it’s a smaller and smaller part of even the average regional diet.

    “That is why I say that if one’s intent is to improve the diet of a population, the first step should be to promote those things that contribute to individual prosperity.”

    The question is : what are those things? In developing nations, individual prosperity can be increased by empowering small scale farmers by ensuring fair markets and not pushing them off their land through indebtedness. Didn’t the US path include supporting the success of individual farmers so that their children had a choice and a chance to pursue other careers? Don’t we argue now about how to preserve the US farmer in the face of growing corporate ownership? What do you propose we do to contribute to individual prosperity in those places where we have poor subsistence farming? Buy them tractors? Sell them GE commodity crop seeds and hope they can compete in the global market against subsidized nations like the US? I would think that the improvement of irrigation, power, roads, agricultural knowledge adapted to their region, and education in general. But these are things the “state” must coordinate. Is it better for global capitalism to come in, buy them out or push them out and take their land to plant ge corn or soy some other commodity that the globe is consuming at an increasing rate, often to feed meat?

    “Whether you look at GDP per hour worked or multi-factor productivity, the data supports the conclusion that capitalism as opposed to statism, is the superior economic system.”

    I don’t want to get into an argument about what form of economy is “best”. There are no pure examples. Norway has a mixed economy just like us, only they have more federal ownership of things like oil companies, telecommunications, and they run a lot of their schools and hospitals. Not exactly an ad for unregulated free enterprise, but rather an ad for a mix of socialism and democracy, as we have here. Only with less corporate governmental influence. That’s all I really want to say on “capitalism” – I can’t defend or criticize an ideal, only its manifestations, and whether or not they can lay claim to causation of any tangible effect. It sounds like you’re using “American ideals” to defend monoculture, or implying that monoculture = capitalism. It’s most confusing.

    It is what it is. I’m not proposing anything beyond diversification of agriculture as opposed to growing monoculture. I’m not even sure how we got into some kind of equivalency between government styles and agriculture styles. I’m just asking questions and sharing my view. You say monocultures are more efficient. I don’t see the evidence. They may be more productive, but the jury’s still out on that one. And if they are more productive, at what cost? Can their production be sustained in light of their energy inefficiency? Would somewhat less productivity that can be sustained over time be better than maximum productivity that must eventually collapse? What about just choosing to eat less meat if you knew you were helping to ensure that someone else might not have to go hungry? Are we at that point in global interconnectivity? Many things to consider.

  82. Mlemaon 19 Mar 2014 at 2:33 am

    oh, I’m sorry – I almost forgot the reference. Not sure what i did there before.

    Genetic diversity and disease control in rice
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v406/n6797/abs/406718a0.html

  83. Mlemaon 19 Mar 2014 at 3:51 am

    sonic – thanks for a concrete example. With monoculture so dependent on fossil fuel inputs, how can we avoid continually increased food costs or insecurity as those get more expensive? Hydrofracking will divert water from other uses, like agriculture. What about contamination of ground water used for agriculture or drinking? The world is getting very small.
    and i don’t think it’s so much what those farmers did that makes such a stark comparison, it’s how we’re mainly farming here that becomes a stark example.

  84. sonicon 19 Mar 2014 at 10:17 am

    Mlema-
    Regarding corn-
    Our method has depleted the aquifer, depleted the top soil, made a ‘dead zone’ in the gulf of Mexico (run off from nitrate fertilizers) and has required $84,427,099,356 in subsidies over the past 17 years from a government that regularly says they need to borrow money to pay the interest on the loans they have out (aka- bankrupt).

    http://farm.ewg.org/region.php?fips=00000

    Which part of that fits the definition of ‘sustainable’?
    If you were in charge of a country, would you want the people who put that together instructing your farmers?

  85. BBBlueon 20 Mar 2014 at 3:46 am

    Sonic-

    Should I quote a study?

    That would be helpful. Is growing a nitrogen-fixing cover crop a complete substitute for applied fertilizers? You present “cover crops” as if to imply that there are no costs associated with growing a cover crop. Do you have data to show that cover crops are a cheaper source of N within the context of the business decisions being made? Now if you want to talk about sustainability, which seems to be your point, that is a different matter.

    And that’s the great fear- nobody will show up to do the work. It is a real situation. It takes great engineering to produce a society of morbidly obese people who can’t and/or are unwilling to pick the food they eat. Another 20 years?

    Yes, we have engineered a food production system that gives people the opportunity to eat themselves to death. Actually, that is quite an achievement for a bunch of former hunter-gatherers.

    I really am a foolish idiot, aren’t I?

    I know farmers who have made a conscious decision to make less profit because of the life they wanted for themselves and their families, and their personal values were inconsistent with maximizing profits. I have no criticism of that. They don’t think they are better than everyone else for having made what they consider to be a more socially, or environmentally responsible decision, and they don’t pretend that their enterprises are more efficient in a strict business sense; they chose their path because that is what was right for them and their families. They offer themselves as examples for others and recognize the compromises they have made. It’s a matter of choice and what is right for individuals or families.

    As for Dr. Altieri, or Dr. Shiva in India, or Dr. Melgarejo in Brazil, etc: They are looking at agricultural systems within the context of politics and their notion of what is best for rural populations in developing countries. They feel that those populations are better served if they do not become dependent on technology- and petrochemical-based agricultural systems. Again, that is fine, a people should be able to choose which path is right for them. However, when one approaches science from a political perspective, the truth often suffers. Conversely, there is also a danger that one will discount evidence because it comes from someone with a strong political viewpoint. It’s fine to understand the political context in which information is offered, but we must always be vigilant and apply consistent scientific standards.

  86. BBBlueon 20 Mar 2014 at 3:49 am

    Mlema-

    The classic examples of monoculture depleting soils are those like cotton in the south during the 1800’s where it was cotton-cotton-cotton-cotton. I have never farmed in the Midwest, but my understanding is that much has changed since the dustbowl days in terms of crop rotations, soil conservation, and managing water supplies.

    How is this a caricature?

    You referenced Wikipedia’s definition of “monoculture”; that’s a caricature. Monoculture is not the same now as it was 50 or 100 years ago. In many ways, the monoculture found in the Midwest now is more sustainable than it was, for instance, as evidenced by the trends in soil conservation techniques and more efficient irrigation methods. On the other hand, one can certainly say that the original sod-busters didn’t have the tools to disrupt the Midwest ecosystem on the same scale that is possible today, that families living off the land, providing for their own needs with maybe a little left over represents a much smaller human footprint on the land. But then that leads to a discussion about population growth and control, not farming methods. Do you really think that a network of small family farms in the Midwest can meet the same demand at the same cost as very large enterprises with obvious economic advantages of scale? Do you favor some sort of government-imposed business model?

    When I say “most efficient use of resources” I mean inputs that don’t utilize as much fossil fuel to get where they need to be, integrated pest management, etc.

    “Sustainability” is not the same thing as expenses/revenue (business efficiency). My comments were related to efficiency and business decisions; you are arguing a different point.

    They’re heavily subsidized and restricted by our tax dollars, and they’re reducing diversity.

    Not all of agriculture is subsidized by tax dollars in the same way that certain commodities like corn or milk are. And where those subsidies do not exist, as in the case of the crops I am most familiar with, farmers still choose variations on a monoculture theme.

    As for total genetic diversity, even your grandpa’s farm was not all that diverse. If he grew wheat, he still only grew a very limited selection of wheat varieties, and most of his neighbors probably grew the same or very similar selections. Having many, widely distributed plots of wheat represents a certain hedge against a new pest blowing through a region’s entire planting of that crop, but I don’t think it is much of one, and there are ways of mitigating those risks. Potato production in Ireland during the mid-1800’s was comprised of many small tenant farms, and geographic distribution turned out to be a weak defense against late blight. The total genetic diversity of Triticum represented by wild types and germplasm banks is orders of magnitude greater than the diversity found in any type of commercial agricultural system, including your grandpa’s. http://wheat.pw.usda.gov/ggpages/pickGG.shtml

    If we consider local diversity, then I agree, sometimes large-scale commercial agriculture reduces the diversity of the crops grown in a particular location or region, but not necessarily on a national or global scale. That is not always a bad thing. Take for instance the buy-local trend: some people have latched onto that concept to such a degree that it has become dogma; local = good, remote factory farms = bad. There are lots of competing data on whether moving small lots of local produce to farmers’ markets in pickup trucks is more efficient than moving large quantities long distances by rail, truck or ship to regional retail distribution systems, and I am not going to make any claims one way or another on that subject because I don’t have time to properly cite references, but as a farmer, I do know that some things grow better in some areas compared to others. Based on that direct observation, it makes business sense for me to grow crops where they do best, and sometimes that means devoting vast tracts of land to a relatively narrow range of crops. Grow corn, soybeans, wheat, etc. in the Midwest and leave vegetable production to those areas where soils and the environment are best suited to those crops. It’s not just modern agriculture that has changed that equation; the development of efficient, large-scale transportation systems and refrigeration contributed greatly. I suppose one could say that horse-drawn wagons are more sustainable too.

    On a global scale, when I think of the things that have the greatest effect on biological diversity, I think of population growth, not agriculture. I was looking at the Virunga Mountains in Africa on Google Earth the other day, and was sad to see the degree to which agriculture has encroached on mountain gorilla habitat. Is that the fault of monoculture? No, that is a consequence of population growth and inefficient land use. As I have said in previous comments, even polyculture is not all that diverse with respect to the total genetic diversity of plants and it is the global demand for natural resources, including farm land, and the need to support an exponentially expanding population that is taking the greatest toll on that diversity. I think producing more on less land is a better way to reduce that impact when compared to systems that require more land dedicated to agriculture. Food sovereignty is a political issue and a political solution; it is not a solution for the consequences of exponential population growth.

    Let’s consider an alternative just for the sake of discussion:

    Assume for the moment that global trade is open and efficient and that all nations are motivated to to ensure their citizens have access to nutritious foods and an economic system that makes individual prosperity possible.

    Imagine that nations specify agricultural zones where infrastructure is optimized for the crops that are best suited to those areas. Further imagine that the agricultural systems employed are selected because they provide for the most reasonable balance between productivity and sustainability. Under those conditions, I envision nations where people move to the cities, have proper sanitation systems, clean water, and opportunities for education. Because of mechanization and economies of scale, farmers would represent a type of skeleton crew left behind to produce food. You know, sort of like agriculture in the America.

    The minimum amount of land possible would be devoted to agriculture and people would get an education. And by the way, the most educated populations in the world, particularly educated women, are those with the lowest population growth rates. http://bit.ly/1eUus3B

    What do you think, any merit to that idea?

  87. BBBlueon 20 Mar 2014 at 3:56 am

    In regards to Genetic Diversity and Disease Control in Rice:

    Very interesting paper for someone like me who enjoys plant pathology. Thanks.

    The research was done with glutinous (sticky) rice which, according to the authors, is a low-yielding, high value specialty crop used in confections and specialty dishes. In the region where the research took place, rice is hand harvested.

    Of particular note, the researchers’ “approach was based on an observed farmer practice of dispersing single rows of glutinous rice between rows of hybrid rice…” In other words, farmers had already figured this out and were employing this technique because it returned a greater profit.

    In addition to diluting the susceptible population, a microclimate less favorable for disease development was created because glutinous rice is taller than hybrid rice so it stuck up into relatively dry air and therefore, was also able to capture more light for photosynthesis

    A major disadvantage of this sort of system is that it can obviate mechanization, but since rice is hand harvested in this area, that was not a huge penalty.

    The authors conclude: “Further, one cannot expect all variety mixtures to provide functional diversity to a given plant pathogen population, nor can one predict the time for which they may remain effective. Indeed, we have identified variety combinations that provide little or no blast control in Yunnan Province. Nonetheless, our results demonstrate that a simple, eco-logical approach to disease control can be used effectively at large spatial scale to attain environmentally sound disease control.”

    I think this is a great example of when a practice makes economic sense; it is often employed well ahead of the research that ultimately explains all the details of why it works. That’s what happens when there is free will and an economic incentive. There is a significant acreage of mixed genotype wheat grown in the US, including the Midwest. To the casual observer, it still looks like a solid field of wheat, and it is; it is also still monoculture. Dairy farmers in my area grow a lot of mixed forage, which is a combination of grains and legumes. The grains give the legumes something to climb up on and the mix produces a more nutritious feed for cows. The concept described in this paper is not new and it has been put to use in commercial agriculture for some time. Where it fits and makes business sense, it will continue to be adopted. (One huge disadvantage in wheat for flour is that milling characteristics are variable in mixed genotype crops, and uniformity is highly prized at the mill. The efficiencies that count are not just on the farm, but at every step along the way to the consumer.)

    I’ll give you a pass for your insult to American farmers when you claimed they have failed to diversify because of a lack of imagination, but you really ought to recognize the limits of your own understanding of a subject before you make such accusations. It’s not polite, and regardless of what you think, I know American farmers to be among the most resourceful, imaginative people on the planet.

  88. Mlemaon 20 Mar 2014 at 11:41 pm

    Well I guess my communication/writing skills must be pretty bad for you to extract an insult to American farmers from anything I’ve said. I apologize for my lack of ability. I blame the current negatives of our agricultural system on no one in particular, but everyone in general. What I really wish i could change is that people don’t investigate, and seem to like to believe that the status quo is always the best we can do. I trust farmers to make the best decisions possible from the choices they have. The fact that they are, in growing ways, prevented from having all the choices they would like to have, I blame on the same old characters: greed and fear. (NOT the greed and fear of farmers, in case you’re going to twist that around again) I’m talking about the greed and fear of the people who have the power to influence and benefit from our current system in a big way.

    What is the compromise that you feel some farmers have made to farm with more “socially, or environmentally responsible decision”?
    I know farmers who feel they’ve compromised in the other direction. Not to get rich, but to survive. Farmers continue to leave their farms in droves, unable to compete against the forces of big ag.

    The dust bowl happened in western Kansas, Eastern Colorado, the panhandle of Oklahoma and northern Texas. We were able to resurrect the area with national conservation programs. This doesn’t really reflect on agriculture in the Midwest. Now that we’re drawing water for irrigation from underground aquifers, we won’t have to worry too much, until the water is gone (experts predict about 50 years). It could take thousands of years to “refill”. Seed/chemical companies claim to have engineered “drought tolerant” plants – but what that means is they’ll live longer in drought before they, like any other plants, will die. You just can’t get around the need for water. Yes, crop rotations, soil conservation, etc. were implemented in the years following the dust bowl – hence the reason why i say that grandpa’s farm was much more diversified. This was addressed in Altieri’s article that I linked to earlier. It’s in more recent years that we’ve relinquished that wisdom. If there’s any rotation going on, it’s between GE corn and GE soy (of course I’m exaggerating a bit for effect and there are farmers who are working very hard to re-incorporate a number of methods towards diversification. But they have to fight a food production system that tends to financially punish them.

    And you really can’t claim “business efficiency” because our largest commodity/monocultures are heavily subsidized.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:United_States_farm_subsidies_%28source_Congressional_Budget_Office%29.svg

  89. Mlemaon 20 Mar 2014 at 11:42 pm

    (did you know we still subsidize tobacco? Also – please note that the newest farm bill made some changes as far as how they restrict what a farmer who receives federal payments can plant. Did you know that farmers who receive direct payments are limited as to what they’re allowed to plant? They can only grow what they’re being subsidized to grow. At the same time, we have billionaires who have received farm bill money through their “agricultural investments.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/07/us/billionaires-received-us-farm-subsidies-report-finds.html?_r=0
    http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116470/farm-bill-2014-its-even-worse-old-farm-bill
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-krotz/small-farms-and-the-farm-_b_817869.html
    You absolutely can’t claim that giant monoculture farms are more financially efficient because the economics that would allow us to make legitimate comparisons are completely distorted by federal direct and insurance subsidies. 80% of independent farmers (the ones who might be more able to follow the principles of diversification) receive little or nothing. So, how do we measure financial “efficiency”?

  90. Mlemaon 20 Mar 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Are family farms being taken over by corporations? No, not directly. The farmers take the losses, with corporations selling them inputs and buying their outputs.
    http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/09/does-corporate-farming-exist-barely
    http://www.farmaid.org/site/c.qlI5IhNVJsE/b.8586841/k.382D/Corporate_Power_in_Agriculture/apps/ka/ct/contactus.asp?c=qlI5IhNVJsE&b=8586841&en=clKNK3NLJbJWJdMOLaKTJaPZImJQKaPWKmKXIdO4LvJdG
    http://www.renaissancealliance.org/farmer.html
    What do you think about how corporations “squeeze” the average farmer?

  91. Mlemaon 20 Mar 2014 at 11:44 pm

    How’s this for efficiency?
    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/06/ag-gag-laws-mowmar-farms
    hog farming has become very efficient (ps – I didn’t watch the video but I doubt it’s something I would recommend that you do. I’m sure it’s horrible)
    But I drift from monoculture.

    You and i are continuing to use different definitions of efficiency, you are using one that refers to production, labor, and now also profitability. I am using the definition that refers to use of resources. They’re both legitimate definitions, so i think it’s ok for us to focus on them independently. If researchers have shown that production can be comparable, especially when measured against input (which would also effect financial efficiency), then we are starting to make reasonable comparisons.

    So here’s what i do agree with you about: these things we’re discussing are a function of the size of the human population. Like you, i have pointed out on this blog that wherever we educate and empower women, population growth rates slow. Another reason to support independent female farmers in developing countries: wherever they’ve been given control over the farm and its money – they turn a profit and invest it back into the farm. The absolute best thing we can do to preserve the quality of life we have now and expand that experience to more people is to limit our growth. On the other hand, this is something that has to happen voluntarily. I think increased life long income security also encourages lower birth rates because the only insurance poor people have is their children.

    And of course we also agree that a growing population must be fed, and that our history has been one of ingenuity in maximizing and securing our harvest year after year. Our government has intervened to try to protect farmers livelihoods at the same time it’s intervened to protect workers and the safety of our food supply. But now we see that that’s become a perverse incentive to consolidate corporate power in ag biz. AgBiz lobbies ensure that each new farm bill ensures their continued draw on the taxpayers. This consolidation of corporate power is a direct function of our changing legal system during the last 30-40 years. Its effects reach into every aspect of our society, including what the food on our store shelves looks like, tastes like, and how it effects our bodies. You claim it’s all about what we choose to eat. I concede that plays a huge role, but I also claim it’s about what’s available and affordable and placed before the eyes of people who don’t know that potatoes come out of the ground, or that pigs are being tortured and abused before they become the bacon on their bacon burger.

    You are suggesting that farmers are growing monocultures under environmentally friendly conditions which incorporate practices that prevent soil degradation, promote water conservation, diversity, etc. I’m saying that although that was approximated some years ago in some regions, it’s not so much anymore as a general rule.

    “Imagine that nations specify agricultural zones where infrastructure is optimized for the crops…(Etc.)”
    I think you’ll have a tough time enforcing your vision of Utopia. Americans don’t like being told where they should go or what they should do. Would these vast agricultural areas be simply corporate farms, with employees managing and working on them? Hmm, maybe that is where we’re headed. Guess you’re feeling good about the future? Well, that’s a good feeling. I try to feel the same. I know I can’t change the world, and if people want more of the same, who am i to stop them from getting it?

    I’m going to let you have the last word. I sense you’re committed to a certain view on monocultures, which I have no desire to attempt to dislodge. i sought to cause you to support your statements. And i shared my own opinions in response. You believe monocultures are productive. I don’t disagree. You also believe they’re efficient. Here I say: we have to qualify what efficiency we’re talking about, and I also say that we have no way to measure economic efficiency because of the distortion of cost by influences other than supply and demand.

  92. Bill Openthalton 21 Mar 2014 at 4:22 am

    Mlema –

    We are feeding more people than ever before, with better and more varied foodstuffs than ever before. Yes, there are lots of people who go hungry, and yes, we do not know if in 50 or 100 years, we’ll still be able to feed so many. But never during the course of human history have we been sure humanity would still be around two generations into the future. Can we do better? Maybe. Could we have done worse? Most definitely (as we know from history).

    It’s the old question of the glass half full or half empty — you are a pessimist, fearing for the future and believing that if it doesn’t in all facets match the present, it will be a disastrous failure. You are even prepared to give up on today to assuage your fears for tomorrow.

    Tomorrow will take care of itself.

  93. Mlemaon 21 Mar 2014 at 1:12 pm

    “We are feeding more people than ever before, with better and more varied foodstuffs than ever before. Yes, there are lots of people who go hungry, and yes, we do not know if in 50 or 100 years, we’ll still be able to feed so many. But never during the course of human history have we been sure humanity would still be around two generations into the future. Can we do better? Maybe. Could we have done worse? Most definitely (as we know from history).

    We still don’t know if humans will be around in two generations. A meteor could wipe us out. But we have to live as though humans will be around in the future. That’s why scientists are working on what to do if a meteor hit is imminent. That’s the whole purpose of what I’m saying. If your grandchildren are around, what will their life be like? Aren’t you willing to do anything to try to ensure that their life is at least as good as yours? or even better? If we do nothing, things will get worse. Some people don’t want to change even the smallest of their habits. Are you denying that humans should use their intellect and insight to avoid the repeat of disasters of the past or try to improve the future? The potato famine? The dust bowl? Some people say “it can’t happen” – I’m saying that scientists are saying that the modern equivalent of those sorts of disaster will happen if we don’t change. We’ll be fighting over water. We’ll have many millions dying due to famine. Some people just cop the attitude: not me.
    “…you are a pessimist…”
    I am a realist who cares about people, even people who aren’t my relatives or neighbors – everybody.

    “…(you are) fearing for the future and believing that if it doesn’t in all facets match the present it will be a disastrous failure.”
    I am fearless. I face facts. And if you show me my facts are wrong, I am fearless in facing that as well. I don’t want the future to match the present, I want it to be better. I want us to fix the problems that are currently working against a future that’s even as good as our present and most likely much worse if nothing changes. (plus, what did I say that caused you to draw that conclusion about me?)

    “You are even prepared to give up on today to assuage your fears for tomorrow.”
    I look at what’s bad AND good today and ask “how do we make it better?” (and, again, how did you draw that conclusion about me?)

    “Tomorrow will take care of itself.”
    Ah, you’re a Christian.
    “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:34
    A lot of Christians believe that no matter what humans do – it’s OK because God will take care of it. Or, the world will end when God says so and we can’t hurry it or slow it down. And God will take care of those who place their faith in him and everyone else can (and will) go to hell. There’s a correlary in scientism: Science can and will solve every problem. Now that’s a little more inclusive, since we could potentially call many environment, social and economic solutions “science” – it just depends how broadly we define science. Likewise, if we think God controls everything, then there’s nothing we can do anyway. And anything we do was caused by God too.

    Sounds like philosophical excuses for not having to change anything. As a skeptic, I believe in self-examination. Not just for the sake of making sure I’m not self-deluded, but in order to change my behavior and find solutions in the real world. I guess some people are skeptics just for the sake of argument.

    But, now that I think about it, I really have no problem with your blasé attitude. Because I could be wrong about everything. Maybe God will fix everything and we will live in bliss. Heaven on earth. Or maybe a meteor will hit before we have time to deal with it. Or maybe the super volcano under Yellowstone will explode and wipe North America off the map. That sounds like something God would do to punish the modern Roman Empire. hahaha. Whatever. If you think I’m fearful and pessimistic, i think you don’t know me. But thanks for sharing your opinion.

  94. sonicon 22 Mar 2014 at 9:11 am

    BBBlue-
    I had a funny thought-
    Some people grow food to get into business. I grow food to get out of business. I don’t want to buy herbicide or water or equipment- I’m not in business- I grow food so I don’t have to buy it- and it’s fun.

    I have run businesses and I owned one before it got bought, and the trick is to be most efficient in terms of time and money. If I were growing for business, one equation would be to compare the expense of composting and cover cropping to 10-10-10. I would also calculate the soil fertility after a cycle.
    Where I am, I think the compost and cover crop wins, but that would be different depending on the site that was being calculated for.

    It would also depend on the type of business one wanted to do.

    Here is an excellent site about cover crops-
    http://covercrops.cals.cornell.edu/

    A crop I use is buckwheat-
    “Buckwheat does well in low-fertility soils. It is a scavenger of phosphorus and calcium and mineralizes rock phosphate, making these nutrients available for later crops. Residue from the succulent buckwheat plants decomposes quickly. Buckwheat uses the shortest window of opportunity of any cover crop.”

    So buckwheat and bell bean will help get you N-P and calcium.
    Of course, taking the food out of the system removes minerals that have to be replaced. Tree leaf compost is often suggested.

    As I drive down I-5 I see more fields in cover crops now than a few years ago.
    This year is going to be strange because of the drought.

    Are you going to be OK?

    Mlema,
    One reason that we are feeding more people now than in the past– there are more people to feed.
    Or is it that they didn’t feed 6 billion 500 years ago because they were slackers? :-)

  95. BBBlueon 22 Mar 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Sonic-

    If you just look at N, the calculation should involve comparing sources of synthetic N that are much greater than 10%, like urea (46%), or ammonium nitrate (34%) or even something like anhydrous ammonia (82%). I don’t really consider 10-10-10 to be a commercial fertilizer because it is so expensive per unit of N, P, and K, although there are some triple-mixes used in high-value crops.

    Composts are very expensive in terms of N value because of transportation costs and the process to make it. Raw manures are expensive, again, because of transportation costs (lots of water in raw manure), furthermore, there can be salt issues, and the presence of human pathogens is a huge concern. In regards to pathogens, our customers audit us and we are not allowed to use raw manures for that reason. The fully-composted feedlot manure I buy is 1.25% N. The organic matter is worth it to me, but not the N. If one has a polyculture system with animals on site, that is a good way to reduce costs of N in manures or composts, but now you have to raise animals. Lots of big dairies are integrated in that way, but the market for animal flesh and milk is only so big. That sort of thing is often better suited to gentleman farmers such as yourself and feeding operations that can integrate it as part of a successful business plan.

    Most nutrients cycle to the surface. Roots transport N, P, K, etc., to the above-ground parts of the plant, harvest removes some parts and the remainder is left behind, P & K are not that soluble, so they tend to remain at the surface while N can mineralize and move in the soil profile. Shallow-rooted crops may be able to recover lots of those minerals, but then that limits crop selection. One can use mechanical means, like a mouldboard plow, to incorporate crop residues deeper in the soil, but that takes lots of horsepower. Composted animal wastes and green manures have their place, especially in regards to improving soil structure and increasing cation exchange capacity, but as a straight nutrient source, they are rather inefficient in a commercial setting when compared to high-analysis synthetic fertilizers.

    Then there is carbon-nitrogen ratio to be concerned about. If your green manure is adding back too much carbon, such as is often the case with something like wheat straw, decay microbes may actually exhaust soil N. A crop residue can be so high in carbon that one actually needs to add N just to feed the decay microbes or else proper composting won’t take place. Lots of info around on proper C:N ratios, but suffice to say, as in everything we do, balance is important and there are no panaceas.

    I wouldn’t read too much into what you see along the I5 corridor. There are some huge farming enterprises that have expanded into that area and what you see may be a consequence of the practices of just one or two large operations that have always used those methods. Also, production is expanding into topographies that are more prone to erosion, and winter cover crops have been employed for decades under those circumstances to hold soil in place during the rainy season. In my area, at least, there are about the same number of farms using cover crops now as there was 30 years ago.

    We are fine for now in terms of water. Thanks for asking. Not dependent on Federal or State water projects, fortunately. However, if this represents the new California, things will definitely change for us in the future.

  96. BBBlueon 24 Mar 2014 at 10:34 am

    Sonic-

    Your Cornell reference is a good one for those who want to understand the basics of cover crops. Here is another reference that explores many of the interactions between cover crops and N under various crop and climatic conditions: http://bit.ly/1jvCaEw

    Cover crops have been around for a very long time, and their use and value is about as well understood as any concept in agriculture. When they are not used, its not for lack of understanding, or as some would have us believe, a lack of imagination, its because cover crops are not always necessary, the don’t fit a particular production system, they don’t pencil from a business efficiency perspective, etc.

    For instance, high-production almonds need about 250 lbs of N per acre per crop. There is no cover crop system I know of that can supply that demand for N every year. However, as is well known, there are other benefits derived from cover crops besides supplying N, so where those benefits justify the costs, cover crops are employed.

    For a small, non-commercial operation, it is possible to rotate in and out of cover crop to build up organic matter and N because if you are not growing a cash crop on 100% of your acreage, its not going to affect your bottom line much, or perhaps you do it that way just because you want to, but for a business enterprise, growing cover crop for its N for a season or two or three and not growing a cash crop on that land is a huge cost and one that is seldom justified considering the cost of N fertilizers.

  97. Mlemaon 24 Mar 2014 at 1:39 pm

    BBBlue, I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your work, and sincerely wish you great success always.

    soni – likewise I hope your garden continues to grow :)

  98. sonicon 26 Mar 2014 at 2:11 pm

    BBBlue-
    That chapter was interesting. I notice they found different fixation rates and so forth depending on conditions. I notice how site specific these things can be.
    A couple interesting stories–
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140319124849.htm
    Planting cover crops in rotation between cash crops — widely agreed to be ecologically beneficial — is even more valuable than previously thought, according to a team of agronomists, entomologists, agroecologists, horticulturists and biogeochemists.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140325113232.htm
    Pesticides are sprayed on crops to help them grow, but the effect on earthworms living in the soil under the plants is devastating, new research reveals.

    Yesterday a lady who has done conventional and organic farming saw my place– I do ‘permaculture’ apparently. And you are right, most of what I grow goes back to the soil…

    Drove highway 128 (Napa, St. Helena) Monday. The wineries were closed and no traffic made for a fantastic drive. Such a beautiful place.

    I’m not a gentleman or a farmer BTW :-)
    And no need to justify making money to me. GFI ;-)

    Mlema-
    I’ll keep feeding the worms– they do the work. :-)

  99. BBBlueon 26 Mar 2014 at 6:25 pm

    From True value of cover crops to farmers, environment, Science Daily:

    “As society places increasing demands on agricultural land beyond food production to include ecosystem services, we needed a new way to evaluate ‘success’ in agriculture…”

    “The most common metrics for evaluating cropping systems are grain and forage yields and short-term profitability,” he said. “Within this context, cover crops are treated as a tool to be used only if they do not interfere with cash-crop production.”

    That is the crux of the issue. There have been many comments on this and other related subjects such as GMOs and pesticides that speak to the value of more sustainable methods, but which ignore business realities or considers profit motive to be irresponsible in some way. If one claims that more sustainable methods or alternatives to monoculture are more efficient and wishes to see them adopted, a real value has to be placed on those methods. For instance, ethanol fuel blends are seen as a means of making our petroleum reserves last longer and our vehicles pollute less. Uncle Sam thought that was a good idea and subsidized corn and ethanol production. A real monetary value was assigned that affected the expense side of the ledger, and demand led to increased real value on the revenue side. Of course, as with most attempts by our government to stimulate a particular type of economic activity, there have been unintended consequences. An obvious one in the context of this discussion is that a lot more corn of the same type is planted, and in some cases, those plantings have expanded into areas where the land is marginal or water is in short supply.

    The article cited above does not attempt to place a real value on the long-term benefits of cover crops; it just claims those benefits exist, are greater than previously thought, and implies that a value should be placed on something called “ecosystem services”. This is where things get dicey. How far do we take that concept? We already have carbon taxes, won’t be long before we have an ecosystem services tax, and when we do, there will be a real value placed on specific production practices that directly affects business efficiency. Such taxes are often regressive, so they in turn may lead to more manipulation by government to reduce their effects on the poor. And then there are the unintended consequences…

    Science has the wonderful potential to cut through all this bullshit, lay the facts bare, and allow people to make informed decisions and compromises. Unfortunately, science is often Uncle Sam’s bitch.

    I have far more faith in bright, imaginative farmers making science-based decisions about production methods, and in well-educated consumers making decisions about what they buy than I do in politicians making those decisions for them. Sure, establish some broad guidelines and make rules to ensure that everyone plays nice and aren’t given unfair advantages, but don’t presume to know more than the people who you govern and don’t usurp their power because you mistake dissent for ignorance.

  100. BBBlueon 26 Mar 2014 at 6:30 pm

    Mlema-

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Best to you as well.

  101. sonicon 29 Mar 2014 at 1:42 pm

    BBBlue-
    This actually does have a lot to do with monoculture- it might seem a bit tangential, but I think it goes to the heart of the issue.

    I notice some of the state ag bureaus are talking like this needs to be regulated or enforced… Let’s keep the government out of this. I would agree that each farmer has to deal with his specific circumstances and that he is best to decide with maximum information and minimum regulation.

    Also I think we can get passed the notion that ‘profit is bad’ and/or ‘environment is good’ sort of thinking.
    At this point it seems your goals for growing food aren’t exactly the same as mine– We could act differently and both be right- :-)

    I was in the foothills yesterday at the place where the guy has done cover cropping for years…He tells me that it really takes about 2 or maybe 3 years to see the benefits. He says he started doing it for weed control (and now he has no weed problems) but the biggest benefit is in the soil fertility. He would not consider going back to the other way he was doing things.

    Here’s the line–
    “The NRCS estimated that the increased annual use of cover crops in 2011 led to an average 78 percent reduction in sediment loss, 35 percent less nitrogen surface loss, a 40 percent cut in nitrogen subsurface loss, and a 30 percent decrease in total phosphorus loss.
    But many farmers have not planted cover crops because they have not seen financial incentives to do so, according to Kaye. That is largely because the traditional method of calculating the economic value of cover crops used by agricultural producers — only estimating the resulting increase to cash-crop yields over a short period — was not compelling.
    “The most common metrics for evaluating cropping systems are grain and forage yields and short-term profitability,” he said. “Within this context, cover crops are treated as a tool to be used only if they do not interfere with cash-crop production.”"

    http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/usda-cover-crop-survey/
    “During the fall of 2012, corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6 percent increase in yield compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops.  Likewise, soybean yields were improved 11.6 percent following cover crops.
    In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, yield differences were even larger, with an 11.0 percent yield increase for corn and a 14.3 percent increase for soybeans.
    Farmers identified improved soil health as a key overall benefit from cover crops.  Reduction in soil compaction, improved nutrient management, and reduced soil erosion were other key benefits cited for cover crops.”

    So the metric is ‘yield’, but what the farmers see is “improved soil health” and that shows up in a variety of ways.

    Here’s my experience-
    I started with very poor soil- apparently you can’t grow food on a tennis court. :-)
    I was worried about getting enough food, and I had problems with that. I tried fertilizers and watering techniques and different cultivars… problems getting enough food production.

    Then I switched my thinking (my backwards approach)– I only worry about soil fertility. I consistently try to improve the soil- adding organics mainly, but composting, mulches, cover crops…

    You know what– I don’t worry about getting enough food anymore– the plants grow like crazy and I get to eat all I want.
    But I am constantly trying to figure out how to make the soil better.
    I’ve come to love worms and soil fungi BTW. :-)

    If I were being an advocate, I’d point out that you can try these on very small areas as experiment, not even in the main growing area…

  102. sonicon 01 Apr 2014 at 3:33 pm

    BBBlue-
    I was going to write a promotional piece for soil health and cover cropping- but it looks like the USDA beat me to it–
    http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1082147.pdf

    An aspect of this I find interesting-
    you point out that ‘ecosystem services’ is vague and may be referring to unimportant aspects of things.
    I agree- currently ‘soil health’ is a little like ‘gut health’.
    It seems there are bacteria and so forth that make for a good human digestion system– an ‘ecosystem’ of gut bacteria, if you will.
    But nobody knows enough about it to have a fully quantized measure.

    Similarly, healthy soil contains numerous living things, bacteria, fungi, worms, beetles,… but I’m pretty sure nobody knows enough to do a fully quantized analysis, so we get talk of ‘ecosystems’ and such.

  103. BBBlueon 03 Apr 2014 at 12:15 am

    I started with very poor soil- apparently you can’t grow food on a tennis court. I was worried about getting enough food, and I had problems with that. I tried fertilizers and watering techniques and different cultivars… problems getting enough food production.

    Sounds like your initial diagnosis was flawed. You can’t correct a soil structure problem with fertilizers and watering techniques. You finally improved the soil structure, allowed the roots to breath, and they probably tapped into lots of residual nutrients you applied but which they couldn’t use before. No surprise that plants did well after that. The key is to find the most limiting factor and work down from there. In your case, soil structure may have been the greatest limitation, at least, in the beginning. Doesn’t matter much what you do in terms of fertilizer and water, if the soil is compacted and roots can’t get enough oxygen, it is all for naught. Cover crops are not the only way one can improve soil structure. You should focus on what cover crops are doing for you, not the cover crops themselves. If a farmer recognizes that poor soil structure is the most limiting factor in his field, then there a number of ways he can go about correcting it. Cover crops sometimes are the most economical solution, but not always.

    I was in the foothills yesterday at the place where the guy has done cover cropping for years…He tells me that it really takes about 2 or maybe 3 years to see the benefits.

    Seriously? You visit this blog because you are interested in scientific skepticism and you offer anecdotes as evidence?

    But many farmers have not planted cover crops because they have not seen financial incentives to do so, according to Kaye. That is largely because the traditional method of calculating the economic value of cover crops used by agricultural producers — only estimating the resulting increase to cash-crop yields over a short period — was not compelling.

    I don’t know how many ways I can make the same point. A farming practice needs to make sense in terms of economic efficiency before it is widely adopted by those who farm commercially. It’s not about whether profit motive is good or bad, it’s about a very simple business calculation you say you are familiar with. “Good for the environment” is not a good enough reason. One has to place a tangible value on that if they are to make a comparative analysis within a business context. You can cite studies that show increased yields due to cover crops all day long, but unless you have objective data, an understanding of what the limiting factors are, and a comprehensive economic analysis of that practice compared to alternative practices and systems, you haven’t accomplished anything.

    At this point it seems your goals for growing food aren’t exactly the same as mine–

    Evidently. My goals are achieved by using sound scientific and economic principles. If you place a personal value on the things you love, that’s great, factor that in and do what is right for you, but don’t call it science.

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