“Integrated pest management” is a mouthful. But the farming method, involving growing multiple crops together and playing their strengths and weaknesses off each other, could be key to using fewer chemicals to grow more food. Though it’s been discussed for decades, a set of recent experiments reported in the journal PLOS ONE puts more weight behind it: using this style of farming with moderate use of fertilizers and pesticides, the study found, is just as productive as industrial agriculture while requiring fewer chemicals. Read More
It has been a summer of withered crops and wildfires, the U.S.’s driest in the last fifty years, during which 55 percent of the U.S. has experienced a drought. And of the land dedicated to corn production, 87 percent has been dry.
Over at Technology Review, Jessica Leber wrote about an engineering solution to the problem of parched corn: seeds bred or genetically enhanced to resist drought, some of which have been tested this summer and will be sold by three big seed companies next year.
Gallus gallus, the undomesticated ancestor of modern chickens
Chickens, the surviving descendants of once-mighty therapod dinosaurs, have come to dominate American dinner tables, where its meat is consumed at a rate of 80 pounds per person per year. How the wild grub-eating Gallus Gallus was tamed and commodified into frozen breaded cutlets is actually quite an epic story, one that involves (possibly) saving Greek civilization from Persians, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and continues today with KFC’s remarkable invasion of China.
Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler have written a cover story for Smithsonian magazine on the taming of the chicken that delivers these tidbits and gives plenty more food for thought. It was the Egyptians, for example, who first figured out how to artificially incubate eggs, so they could be hatched without the presence of hens—a method so important that their methods were kept secret for centuries:
Most of us assume that by the time food arrives at the grocery store, it’s been checked for any chemicals that might harm us. That’s not necessarily the case: food manufacturers and federal employees test for some known culprits in some foods, but the search isn’t exhaustive, especially when it comes to imported items. Recently, scientists working with ABC News checked to see whether imported farmed shrimp bought from grocery stores had any potentially dangerous antibiotic residue, left over from the antibiotic-filled ponds in which they are raised. It turns out, a few of them did.
Out of 30 samples taken from grocery stores around the US, 3 turned up positive on tests for antibiotics that are banned from food for health reasons. Two of the samples, one imported from Thailand and one from India, had levels of carcinogenic antibiotic nitrofuranzone that were nearly 30 times higher than the amount allowed by the FDA. The other antibiotics the team discovered were enroflaxin, part of a class of compounds that can cause severe reactions in people and promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, and chloramphenicol, an antibiotic that is also a suspected carcinogen.
The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has got many experts predicting a future in which currently tractable diseases, like tuberculosis, became untreatable again. The popularity of modern antibiotics, ironically, is what is leading to their downfall: antibiotics in consumer products, like soaps, as well as the excessive use of antibiotics by people who have no bacterial infections, help select for strains of bacteria that don’t respond to drugs. Factory-farmed livestock, which receive tremendous doses of antibiotics in their feed, are also a likely breeding ground for resistant bacteria that could potentially infect humans.
Proponents of factory farming have scoffed at such claims [pdf], but now, scientists have provided definitive evidence that this happens: through genetic analysis, they found that a strain of MRSA, already resistant to one family of drugs, had hopped from people to farmed pigs, acquired resistance to another antibiotic being fed to the pigs, and then leapt back into humans, taking its new resistance with it. That strain, called MRSA ST398 or CC398, is now causing 1 out of 4 cases of MRSA in some regions of the Netherlands [pdf], where it arose, and it has also been found across the Atlantic in nearly half of the meat in US commerce. After this strain arose in 2004, the European Union began a ban the use of antibiotics in livestock feed. In the United States, however, where most of the antibiotics in circulation are being used in farming, no such regulation exists.
Image courtesy of wattpublishing / flickr
The only thing worse than a huge stinking pit of manure may be a huge stinking and foaming pit of manure that blows up the barn. Over the past few years, explosions have destroyed several Midwestern pig farms, killing thousands of hogs and causing millions of dollars of damage. Pig farmers and scientists have been at a loss to explain these explosions. Could the culprit be a small microbe?
Indeed they do, say scientists who have studied a kind of amoeba that might be the world’s tiniest farmer. From Ed Yong:
The amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum, is also known as a slime mould, but scientists who work with it sometimes use the more affectionate name of Dicty. Dicty spends most of its time as a single cell, oozing through the undergrowth in search of bacteria to eat. When they run out of prey, the amoebas unite to form a many-celled mobile slug. When the slug finds a good spot, it stretches upwards to form a ball at the end of a stalk. The ball is loaded with spores, which eventually blow free on the wind. When they land, they hatch into new amoebae and the life cycle begins again.
Scientists pieced together Dicty’s life cycle decades ago, but it still carries surprises. Debra Brock from Rice University captured 35 wild amoebas from Virginia and Minnesota and found that a third of them carried bacteria in their slugs and spores. The bacteria hail from a number of different species, and half of these are found on Dicty’s menu. When the spores land in new locations, their bacterial cargo start to multiply, which provides the amoebae with food.
Dicty doesn’t need to farm the way we do with our fertilizers and crops. It simply totes along its bacteria and lets them grow upon reaching a new destination. And by doing this, the bacteria-carrying amoebas fared better than their counterparts when Brock placed them in a sterile environment to simulate sterile soil.
For plenty more about Dicty, check out Ed’s full post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
DISCOVER: Slime Molds Show Surprising Degree of Intelligence
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Predatory Slime Mold Freezes Prey in Large Groups
80beats: Brainless Slime Mold Builds a Replica Tokyo Subway
Image: Wikimedia Commons
The people who lived in the Amazon regions back before any Europeans showed up on the scene had an ingenious way to survive there. By creating mounds of biochar, the pre-Columbian peoples made beds for their crops that drained far better than the native soil, which is nutrient-poor and prone to flooding. And, it seems, they unintentionally contributed to the biodiversity of the region.
In a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists led by Doyle McKey of France investigated the savannas of French Guiana, in the far northern part of South America. These plains are flooded during the rainy season, dry and parched in the summer, and often burned by fires. It was while walking through this landscape that McKey started wondering about undulations in the terrain [New Scientist]. Just how effective were these people at creating favorable cropland? McKey found that the drainage capacity of the mounds was nine times that of the rest of the savanna.