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posted by martyb on Tuesday January 11, @04:47PM   Printer-friendly
from the Betteridge-says-"No" dept.

Can We Feed Billions of Ourselves Without Wrecking the Planet?

We are now producing more food more efficiently than ever, and there is plenty to go around for a human population of 7 billion. But it is coming at a drastic cost in environmental degradation, and the bounty is not reaching many people.

Sustainable Food Production, a new Earth Institute primer from Columbia University Press, explores how modern agriculture can be made more environmentally benign, and economically just. With population going to maybe 10 billion within 30 years, the time to start is now, the authors say.

The lead author is ecologist Shahid Naeem, director of the Earth Institute for Environmental Sustainability. He coauthored the book with former Columbia colleagues Suzanne Lipton and Tiff van Huysen.

This is an interesting interview with the author. Do you agree (or disagree) with his conclusions?

Columbia Climate School

[Also Covered By]: Phys.org


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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 19, @02:20AM (11 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 19, @02:20AM (#1213750)

    What part of green manure taking longer, fixing less, and either increasing risk by taking big bites out of the growing season or requiring extended fallow periods passed you by? It's not a laboratory curiosity because it doesn't work. It's a laboratory curiosity because on the scale of the original question (Can we feed billions without wrecking the planet?) it's a failure. It does not fix as much nitrogen as we would need, it does little or nothing for other nutrients, and you have provided precisely zero evidence to the contrary.

    But you know what? You're the boss. You're king genius! You're about to prove us all wrong with your secret vetch/alfalfa mix that will do all the things, and you're going to absolutely clean house both agriculturally and financially.

    Go on, genius, show us all how it's done.

    "It's interesting how even alleged experts often know little about their alleged areas of expertise isn't it?"

    Do tell.

  • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday January 19, @03:21AM (10 children)

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday January 19, @03:21AM (#1213771) Journal

    What part of green manure taking longer, fixing less, and either increasing risk by taking big bites out of the growing season or requiring extended fallow periods passed you by?

    Nothing at all. What passed you by was its relevance.

    But you know what? You're the boss. You're king genius! You're about to prove us all wrong with your secret vetch/alfalfa mix that will do all the things, and you're going to absolutely clean house both agriculturally and financially.

    Perhaps someday you'll learn to use sarcasm well.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 20, @04:32PM (9 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 20, @04:32PM (#1214210)

      "Nothing at all. What passed you by was its relevance."

      ... to .... what? "Can we feed billions without wrecking the planet?"

      No, the relevance to that did not pass me by. In fact, I reviewed it in that light. In fact, I did the sums and the answer came back dead in line with Betteridge: No. Feeding the world's population with green manure rather than other supplementation isn't a realistic prospect. If we drop to pre-supplementation technologies only, (no guano, no manure other than that of our livestock or ourselves, no potash or limestone mines, no calciferous sources other than bone meal) then we will have mass deaths to starvations counted in the billions and the authors of the original article are missing a good chunk of what made the Green Revolution even possible in the first place. Green manure doesn't change this, doesn't fix it, and at best could be considered a reasonably efficient take on fallowing strategies. Technically better than just letting weeds grow and deer graze? A little, sure. Enough to replace industrial supplement supplies? No, by a wide margin, and with a strong upper bound to the capability of the plants precisely because of the growing cycle and limited scope of broad plant nutrition supplementation, rather than a narrow band approach to nitrogen and fibre.

      But maybe there's some other relevant factor that's in mind. Your abstract claim that green manure, specifically, is one way, technically, of fixing nitrogen, specifically, regardless of whether it is limited in its application (it is), insufficient for feeding the world absent other supplementation (it is), and has other significant downsides inhibiting its use (it does) such as constraining available growing seasons (it does), increasing weather/climate related risks in agronomic planning (it does) and places additional demands on supporting the green manure crop itself (it does).

      This is a bit like trying to explain to freshly-minted marxists that Marx's ideas were founded in a world that doesn't exist any more, mostly existed as an oversimplified caricature even in his time, and consequently it's all a curate's egg. Even if they could conceptually work on some level, modern cooperatives don't prove their viability as such because they're too far removed from what he was talking about.

      • (Score: 1) by khallow on Sunday January 23, @06:36PM (8 children)

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Sunday January 23, @06:36PM (#1215055) Journal

        ... to .... what? "Can we feed billions without wrecking the planet?"

        Yes.

        Feeding the world's population with green manure rather than other supplementation isn't a realistic prospect.

        You moved the goalposts. Originally, you claimed

        You can put the nutrients back into the soil in two ways. The 1st method that all you vegetarians love so much is processing oil into fertilizer. That is not sustainable. The 2nd option is to either graze herds across the crop fields or manually spread natural fertilizer (animal poop).

        When I mentioned green manure, you claimed

        There is no green manure, no legume that remotely keeps pace with the kind of nitrogen delivery that fossil fuels give us.

        At that point, I noted that green manure already covers half the nitrogen delivery of "fossil fuels". That's pretty close already. At this point, I don't consider your protests interesting.

        Moving on, there are two interesting emerging green manure technologies that I think will weaken your argument even further. First, microbe augmentation in soil. Basically, it involves finding microbes that will fix nitrogen for plants that aren't normally nitrogen fixing. For example: [futureofag.com]

        The same is true for plants. Companies like Indigo Ag are taking this advanced understanding of microbiology and applying it to crop performance with some impressive results. I had the chance to chat with David Perry, CEO and Director of Indigo Ag for the Future of Agriculture Podcast.

        [...]

        Currently, Indigo delivers their beneficial microbes via a seed treatment. The microbes then grow as their “host” (the plant) grows. In cotton, for example, trials demonstrated a 14% yield increase over cotton not treated with Indigo’s microbial technology.

        Notice that this would also help cover your six week gap in legume nitrogen fixing, when it is applied to legume seeds!

        Moving on, I think the other big technology will be cyanobacteria farming. A variety of cyanobacteria species can fix nitrogen. So in a sunny part of the world, turn sea water, air, and CO2 into nitrogen-rich bacteria ready to fertilize those fields, pretty much as a replacement for ammonia-based fertilizers.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 23, @11:31PM (7 children)

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 23, @11:31PM (#1215142)

          Feeding the world's population with green manure rather than other supplementation isn't a realistic prospect.
                        You moved the goalposts. Originally, you claimed
                            You can put the nutrients back into the soil in two ways. The 1st method that all you vegetarians love so much is processing oil into fertilizer. That is not sustainable. The 2nd option is to either graze herds across the crop fields or manually spread natural fertilizer (animal poop).

          Wrong AC, Bubba. I made no such claim. Nor would I; I'm well aware of a number of other strategies, including (but not limited to) green manure.

          When I mentioned green manure, you claimed

                    There is no green manure, no legume that remotely keeps pace with the kind of nitrogen delivery that fossil fuels give us.
                        At that point, I noted that green manure already covers half the nitrogen delivery of "fossil fuels". That's pretty close already. At this point, I don't consider your protests interesting.
                        Moving on, there are two interesting emerging green manure technologies that I think will weaken your argument even further. First, microbe augmentation in soil. Basically, it involves finding microbes that will fix
                        nitrogen for plants that aren't normally nitrogen fixing. For example: [futureofag.com]

          See, this is where the crazy comes in. "half" is not "remotely keeping pace". It's a runner being lapped twice on every lap they run. It's not "pretty close already". For a strategy that has been in place, with progressive refinements, before BP or Shell ever existed, it's firmly off the pace and there is no current prospect of a catchup with respect to turning a field to maximum yield. I don't care whether you consider my, or anybody's protests "interesting" or not; the world of production doesn't care either. You have a case to make? Go prove the big boys wrong, collect your Nobel Prize, and masturbate on CNN for all I care. Green manure ain't feeding the world, and even if you somehow magicked a fuckton of nitrogen out of it that ain't appearing now, without the growing season or other downsides that we currently know already exist in it because of fucking magic (good luck with that one!) you still haven't solved another damn thing, whether it's potassium or calcium or something less famous, such as selenium. Green manures do nothing worth writing home about for any of that, and have no prospect of doing so because you don't fix phosphorus from the air, nor potassium, nor calcum, nor iron, nor selenium, nor a whole bunch of other nutrients. As far as additional microbes, they won't fix any of the other nutrients I'd mentioned either because ... again, the air will basically give you carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and teeny-tiny bits of other stuff such as some occasional sulphur. Those microbes, by the way, had better fix nitrogen like turbocharged bunnyfuckers if they are to deliver maximum yield rates (and if you'd read some of the links I'd sent earlier you'd know that no green manure on earth does that right now).

          The same is true for plants. Companies like Indigo Ag are taking this advanced understanding of microbiology and applying it to crop performance with some impressive results. I had the chance to chat with David Perry, CEO
                    and Director of Indigo Ag for the Future of Agriculture Podcast.
                    [...]
                    Currently, Indigo delivers their beneficial microbes via a seed treatment. The microbes then grow as their “host” (the plant) grows. In cotton, for example, trials demonstrated a 14% yield increase over cotton not treated
                    with Indigo’s microbial technology.
                        Notice that this would also help cover your six week gap in legume nitrogen fixing, when it is applied to legume seeds!
                        Moving on, I think the other big technology will be cyanobacteria farming. A variety of cyanobacteria species can fix nitrogen. So in a sunny part of the world, turn sea water, air, and CO2 into nitrogen-rich bacteria
                        ready to fertilize those fields, pretty much as a replacement for ammonia-based fertilizers.

          Now I know you're not doing the homework. 14% on cotton over untreated is not impressive. Just check (because I googled this for you; it's fun and easy!) https://extension.okstate.edu/fact-sheets/cotton-yield-goal-nitrogen-rate-recommendation.html [okstate.edu] where the maximum yield rate is over 300% from a base level. Moreover they explicitly call out P and K nutrients as key elements. If 14% is their headline heartthrob number, they have a lot of work to do before I'd even roll out of bed for their stuff, let alone pay money.

          Now I get that you're fixated on the holy grail of Nitrogen, and you're studiously ignoring all the other everything that the original story's author would call unsustainable and/or wrecking the planet, but your green manure fantasies aren't fixing that, and regardless of your miraculous fairyfart variety of clover that will suddenly give you abundant nitrogen a week after planting, or whatever, you're still mining like a demented kobold for other minerals - and we have no fix for that on the horizon. None. Doesn't exist.

          Now, I breathlessly await your detailed description of a lichen that will miraculously transport potash across the Great Plains to fill our larders ...

          • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday January 24, @03:39PM (6 children)

            by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 24, @03:39PM (#1215265) Journal

            Wrong AC, Bubba.

            Maybe you're the wrong AC, maybe not. I didn't see any "I'm a different AC" warnings in there. But if you really are a different AC, then keep up by reading previous posts. I'm not here to argue different straw men arguments every time a new AC decides to pipe up. Here, the straw man argument is that I'm somehow advocating for replacing all fertilizer, including non-nitrogen supplements by green manure. Didn't happen.

            "half" is not "remotely keeping pace".

            It's only a factor of three to keeping pace, remotely or otherwise. I'm not claiming that this is going to be just as perfect as using fertilizer, I'm pointing out how close it was in the first place.

            Moreover they explicitly call out P and K nutrients as key elements.

            Again. You're not going to get those elements from fossil fuels. Nobody made any claims about those nutrients and I explicitly noted earlier in the thread that I was looking at nitrogen only. The goalposts have been moved.

            • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 25, @03:07PM (5 children)

              by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 25, @03:07PM (#1215583)

              The only goalposts shifting here are yours. The original (incorrect) statement was: "You can put the nutrients back into the soil in two ways. The 1st method that all you vegetarians love so much is processing oil into fertilizer. That is not sustainable. The 2nd option is to either graze herds across the crop fields or manually spread natural fertilizer (animal poop)." and this wasn't limited to nitrogen. Your response was: "You're just discussing nitrogen. Green manure is a third way, using a nitrogen-fixing plant or microbe to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and then till that into the soil. Legumes, for example, are a great nitrogen-fixing group of plants and often generate a lot of economic value in addition to the nitrogen-fixing." which is a straightforward misconstrual of the original statement, and even within itself limited to the capabilities of nitrogen-fixers (which aren't up to what we can do with fossil fuels - again, check the mathematics) and in no way addresses all the other nutrients stripped by what the original poster called "effectively mining the soil for its nutrients".

              Even if you want to try to retcon this as only being about nitrogen in your head because that's all that green manures will do for you, you're not solving the big problem, but in reality you're missing the point that it doesn't all have to be from fossil fuels as such if we're using fossil fuels to mine for things like limestone and phosphate deposits, making up for natural nutrient cycles that we have far outstripped. None of those massive mines constitute sustainable agriculture, most definitely not as the original article's author would have it.

              Summary: if it's not just about nitrogen (as per the original poster, and the original article), then you're monumentally wrong. If it is just about nitrogen (as per your particular beef, which nobody else seems to follow), then the sums still don't work for you.

              • (Score: 1) by khallow on Tuesday January 25, @10:00PM (4 children)

                by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday January 25, @10:00PM (#1215686) Journal

                Even if you want to try to retcon this as only being about nitrogen in your head because that's all that green manures will do for you

                What part of "You're just discussing nitrogen. Green manure is a third way, using a nitrogen-fixing plant or microbe to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and then till that into the soil." is wrong?

                you're not solving the big problem, but in reality you're missing the point that it doesn't all have to be from fossil fuels as such if we're using fossil fuels to mine for things like limestone and phosphate deposits, making up for natural nutrient cycles that we have far outstripped. None of those massive mines constitute sustainable agriculture, most definitely not as the original article's author would have it.

                We don't have to use fossil fuels as such for things like limestone and phosphate. Just saying.

                Summary: if it's not just about nitrogen (as per the original poster, and the original article), then you're monumentally wrong. If it is just about nitrogen (as per your particular beef, which nobody else seems to follow), then the sums still don't work for you.

                The problem word: "if". And the "sums" do work for me. I already said how.

                • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 26, @03:43PM (3 children)

                  by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 26, @03:43PM (#1215843)

                  "What part of "You're just discussing nitrogen. Green manure is a third way, using a nitrogen-fixing plant or microbe to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and then till that into the soil." is wrong?"

                  The original poster did not say nitrogen, but "Growing crops is effectively mining the soil for its nutrients." Nutrients. In fact, not even merely bulk nutrients (which might have been a reduced reference to NPK) but also includes others from sulphur to selenium. That is what is wrong, moreso because even if you had a magic legume that fixed all the nitrogen you'd need without a growing period of its own (spoiler: not even close), it wouldn't do diddly for the other nutrients on the list. It's like saying your car only needs gasoline, when in fact it also needs air, lubricant, coolant and so on - and everyone else is talking about fluid needs while you keep thumping a jerrycan.

                  "We don't have to use fossil fuels as such for things like limestone and phosphate. Just saying."

                  No, we don't. We can go back to pickaxes and pit ponies. You're right about that, but the prospect of doing so is minute, the cost would be exorbitant, and even if we mine it with cuddly bunnies and happy thoughts we're still exhausting mines rather than using a sustainable cycle. This seems to fall under what the original author would have called "wrecking the planet", because it becomes less welcoming as a place to feed ourselves.

                  "The problem word: "if". And the "sums" do work for me. I already said how."

                  Yeah, we already covered your problems there, whistling past the graveyard of why farmers aren't saving bank on urea because of all the problems with green manure.

                  • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday January 26, @04:04PM (2 children)

                    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday January 26, @04:04PM (#1215851) Journal

                    The original poster did not say nitrogen

                    Hence, my correction. You're welcome.

                    We can go back to pickaxes and pit ponies.

                    Or electricity from non-fossil fuel sources. I bet that would go further. Funny how you missed that one. Looks to me like you're too busy moving the goal posts to rationally think about this.

                    Yeah, we already covered your problems there, whistling past the graveyard of why farmers aren't saving bank on urea because of all the problems with green manure.

                    And we already covered how you acknowledged I was right in a backhanded way. I consider this finished.

                    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 31, @02:57AM (1 child)

                      by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 31, @02:57AM (#1217118)

                      "Hence, my correction. You're welcome."

                      If only it were a correction. Instead, many other nutrients, untouched by green manure as a strategy, are of major concern. This is why your focus on nitrogen is so misleading; the green manure strategy does precious little for the larger problem, and depending on factors such as soil acidity can make it actually worse.

                      If that's your idea of help, please go help the Taliban. I understand they need all the help that they can get.

                      "Or electricity from non-fossil fuel sources. I bet that would go further. Funny how you missed that one. Looks to me like you're too busy moving the goal posts to rationally think about this."

                      Thus ignoring this part: "...even if we mine it with cuddly bunnies and happy thoughts we're still exhausting mines rather than using a sustainable cycle. This seems to fall under what the original author would have called "wrecking the planet", because it becomes less welcoming as a place to feed ourselves."

                      Funny how you mention moving goalposts in this context. I like 'em just where they are, so would you care to address the point at issue: the exhaustion of mineral resources and the damage involved in doing so?

                      "And we already covered how you acknowledged I was right in a backhanded way. I consider this finished."

                      ... self-delusion aside, apparently the answer would be not. I mean, please, do feel free to farm all with green manure all the time and show us how to do it. Go on. Be famous.

                      But please do it for the Taliban, because we don't deserve your kind of help.

                      • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday February 02, @02:05AM

                        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday February 02, @02:05AM (#1217883) Journal

                        This is why your focus on nitrogen is so misleading; the green manure strategy does precious little for the larger problem

                        Same goes for fossil fuels. You're not going anywhere with this.

                        "...even if we mine it with cuddly bunnies and happy thoughts we're still exhausting mines rather than using a sustainable cycle.

                        Or open up new mines. Not seeing the point of your concern about sustainability since such exhaustion is a lot slower than the problems of population growth.