Stories tagged agriculture

Ever pull that old bottle of beer out of the back of the fridge and try to remember how old it is? Should I drink it? It might be months, maybe even a year or two old. Well how about 11,000-year-old breweries? Archaeologists have found some very old evidence of breweries and it has created a debate over if grain production started as a way to make beer or bread.


Here on good ol' Planet Earth, the human population is growing and boy are folks hungry. By 2050, there should be 9 billion of us running around, but Earth isn't getting any bigger and we probably don't want to try farming on the moon. On the Buzz, we've read about some plants that have been modified to resist drought and tough climates, but what about the wisdom of the ancient Andeans?

The Andes: Just in case you didn't know what they look like. Kinda gorgeous, eh?
The Andes: Just in case you didn't know what they look like. Kinda gorgeous, eh?Courtesy David Almeida

No, no, not that wisdom, delicious as it is. I'm talking about Andean farmers. These guys are reviving tough heirloom potatoes, clever terraces, and Incan irrigation systems. The species and systems had been used for thousands of years, and were probably adapted to the uncertainties of agriculture in the high mountains.

But when Spaniards showed up a few centuries ago with their own methods, traditional ways slowly fell out of use even though they were better suited to the region's need. Now that farmers are rediscovering the benefits of these ancient traditions, they're hoping these methods can help hungry folks in other parts of the world, too. Now that's a wisdom I can sink my teeth into!


Boom!Courtesy sfllaw
Word on the street is that the world may be ending on Saturday. Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly when—I’m not keyed into the ins and outs of religious fear mongering enough to make an exact calculation—so I can’t tell you if you should cancel your lunch date, or if you’ve got until midnight to continue doing whatever it is you do. Jigsaw puzzles? Hard drugs? Far be it from me to judge.

And, you know, normally I’d dismiss this as an organization’s or individual’s effort to gain attention through a frightening claim that has no basis in reality, but … watermelons are freaking exploding in China!

Whatever holy scripture this May 21st thing was extrapolated from, I guarantee there’s a passage in there along the lines of, “And in the east, melons shall burst on the vine. Their shells will rupture, and tiny seeds shall fly forth. Juice will be everywhere.” I mean, it would fit, right? This is the sort of thing that always happens before the end of the world! How am I going to explain this to my cat?!

Now, some folks—I’ll call them unbelievers—insist that the exploding melons actually aren’t bursting from anxiety over the imminent end of everything they care about. Instead, they say that they’re bursting because of a lazy farming technique, where a chemical called forchlorfenuron has been over applied. Forchlorfer… whatever, causes increased cell division in fruit, and is sprayed on watermelons and their ilk to get bigger, faster growing fruit. The resulting watermelons can be oddly shaped, and don’t taste all that great, but they’re supposed to be harmless to humans. And, apparently, they can explode.

Now, generally we keep an open mind regarding fertilizers and high-yield farming techniques around here, but this is a good example of the hazards of wily-nily application of chemicals to farms. (Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this isn’t a symptom of the apocalypse.) If there’s no significant nutritional gain, it seems kind of crazy. And if this chemical is causing explosion in the crop it’s supposed to help, it makes one wonder what its effect will be when it’s absorbed in the soil or washed off the fields (and into other vegetation). And there’s the question of whether farmers should be allowed to do this. And what the market conditions are that make them want to/need to use chemicals like forchlorfenuron. And if there’s a benefit to using it in any situations.

But that’s all probably very complicated, and should only be considered by people who don’t believe that the world is on its way out. Me? I’m not even going to brush my teeth before Saturday.


Just a few of your billions of hungry friends
Just a few of your billions of hungry friendsCourtesy SchuminWeb
Buckle up, because this is a long post. But it’s about your second favorite thing: food. If you’re the impatient type, skip to the end for the bullet points.

(The number one thing is Hollywood gossip, duh. Go on and act like it’s not.)

So … imagine you and six of your friends standing in a room together. I know some of you don’t have six friends (Facebook doesn’t count), but for the sake of science pretend that you do. And I don’t know why you all are just standing around in a room. Trying to prove a point, I guess.

Imagine you and six of your friends are standing in a room together. Now, imagine one hundred times that number of people. Now imagine one hundred times that number. And one hundred times that number. And a thousand times that number.

That’s seven billion people, all just sort of standing around a room, and that’s about the number of people we have on the planet today.

And the thing is, all seven billion of y’all eat like Garfield. (Garfield, for all of you foreign Buzzketeers, was the 20th president of the United States, and he loved lasagna.) Seven billion people, eating, eating, eating. That’s you.

Obviously y’all have to eat, so we put a lot of effort into producing food. Right now, humans have used up about 40% of the planet’s land surface, and the vast majority of that is dedicated to agriculture (i.e., food production). In fact, if you were to take all the crop-growing land in the world and lump it together, it would be the size of South America. And if you were to take all of the pastureland (land for raising animals) in the world and lump it together, it would be the size Africa!
The land we use: Green areas are used for growing crops, brown areas are used for raising animals.
The land we use: Green areas are used for growing crops, brown areas are used for raising animals.Courtesy IonE

That is obviously a lot of land. The transformation of that land from its natural state into agricultural land may be responsible for about a third of all the carbon dioxide mankind has released into the atmosphere. And each year agriculture is responsible for more than 20% of all the new greenhouse gas emissions. And the whole process takes 3,500 cubic kilometers of water, and hundreds of millions of tons of non-renewable fertilizers, and lots of people don’t have enough food …

But we’re pretty much doing it. It’s not pretty, but we’re feeding the planet.

Here’s the punch: there’s a lot more people coming soon, and not much more food. By 2050, there will very probably be about 9 billion people on the planet. How are we going to feed 2 billion more people than are alive today? While there is a lot unused land out there, very little of it is arable. That means that we’ve already used up almost all of the land that’s good for growing food.

Oh, shoot.

What we need to do is produce more food with just the land we’re already using. Fortunately, scientists are working on ways to do this.

I’m going to get the first one out of the way right now, because you aren’t going to like it …

Eat less meat. Eat a lot less meat.
A handy meat conversion chart!: Keep one in your wallet, or tattooed on your forearm.
A handy meat conversion chart!: Keep one in your wallet, or tattooed on your forearm.Courtesy IonE

Don’t get me wrong—I agree with you that meat is delicious and manly (or womanly), but we eat a lot of meat, and raising meat animals is a really inefficient way to get food. To get lots of meat, and to get the animals to grow quickly, we feed them grains that we farm. But to get just one pound of beef (not one pound of cow; one pound of beef) we have to feed a cow about 30 pounds of grain. Say what you will about meat being calorically more dense, it doesn’t have 30 times the nutritional value of grain.
How much of what we grow gets eaten?: Crops grown in the blue areas are mostly eaten by people. But in the yellow and red areas, the crops are mostly used as animal feed. Say what?
How much of what we grow gets eaten?: Crops grown in the blue areas are mostly eaten by people. But in the yellow and red areas, the crops are mostly used as animal feed. Say what?Courtesy IonE

If you look at the maps that compare the volume of crops we grow to the volume of crops we actually eat, you find that places like North America and Europe actually use most of their crops for something besides directly eating—mostly because we’re feeding them to animals (and using them for biofuel feedstock).

Leaving alone the amount of water animals need, and the pollution they can cause, eating meat doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So there you go. I told you that you wouldn’t like it. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one causing the problem—the rest of the world, as it gets wealthier, wants to eat as much meat as you, and so unsustainable meat production is on the rise for just about anyone who can afford it.

Ok, here’s the next idea:

Cut it all down, and turn the planet into one big ol’ farm.
You can barely hear the chainsaws: ...over the sound of the baby animals crying. Seriously, though, as awesome as that would be, it's probably an awful idea.
You can barely hear the chainsaws: ...over the sound of the baby animals crying. Seriously, though, as awesome as that would be, it's probably an awful idea.Courtesy Jami Dwyer

We aren’t going to be growing crops in the arctic any time soon, but there are areas we could take advantage of still. Like the tropical forests. We could bulldoze those suckers down, and use the land for crops.

This, of course, is a horrible solution, and I snuck it in here just to bother you. Even if you don’t prioritize the biodiversity of the world’s tropical forests, or the ways of life of the people who live in them, tropical forests play a huge role in keeping the planet a livable place. So we should table that one for a while, unless you really, really want to bulldoze the rainforests.

And then there’s this idea:

Grow more food on the land we’re already using.

Of course! Why didn’t we think of this before?!

Well, we did think of this before, about 60 years ago. Back in the middle of the 20th century, populations in developing countries were exploding, much faster than food production was increasing. Trouble was on the horizon.

And then … Norman Borlaug came along. Of course, lots and lots of people helped deal with the food crisis, but Borlaug was at the center of what became known as the Green Revolution. He worked to build up irrigation infrastructure (to water crops), distribute synthetic fertilizers (mostly nitrogen chemically extracted from the atmosphere), and develop high-yield crop varieties that would produce much more food than traditional crops, when given enough fertilizer and water.
The man they call Borlaug: On the left. The other guy is just some hanger-on, I guess.
The man they call Borlaug: On the left. The other guy is just some hanger-on, I guess.Courtesy University of Minnesota

Now, some folks point out that the Green Revolution had plenty of environmental and social drawbacks, but the fact remains that it also kept millions upon millions of people from starving. And Borlaug himself said that while it was “a change in the right direction, it has not transformed the world into a Utopia.”

The change in the right direction part is what scientists are working on now.

Researchers at organizations like the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) are figuring out implement the sorts of things Borlaug worked on more fully, and more efficiently.

By combining satellite data with what can be observed on the ground, IonE is determining exactly where crops are growing, how much each place is growing.
This is how much corn we grow right now
This is how much corn we grow right nowCourtesy IonE
This is how much corn we could grow: If we grew corn everywhere.
This is how much corn we could grow: If we grew corn everywhere.Courtesy IonE
This is how much more corn we could grow: If we focus on the areas where we already grow corn. The green areas are growing almost as much as possible, but the yellow areas could grow a lot more. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Central America could grow a lot more food with the right resources.
This is how much more corn we could grow: If we focus on the areas where we already grow corn. The green areas are growing almost as much as possible, but the yellow areas could grow a lot more. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Central America could grow a lot more food with the right resources.Courtesy IonE

They can then compare this information with estimates of how much each place could grow, given the right conditions. The difference is called a “yield gap.” What it will take to close the yield gap, and get area place growing as much as possible, differs from place to place. But IonE is trying to figure that out too—some places need more water, and some need more nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium fertilizers.

Knowing how much of a particular resource a place needs, and what the food payoff will be when it receives those resources is a big step in working up to feeding nine billion people. It’s not the last step, not by a long shot, but it provides an excellent map of where future efforts would be best invested.

Aaaaannnnd … the bullet point version for you osos perezosos out there:

  • In a few decades, there will be about 9 billion people on the planet.
  • There’s not enough food for 9 billion people.
  • There’s not really enough land available to grow enough food for 9 billion people.
  • We can get more food out of the land we’re already using.
  • Scientists are trying to figure out which areas have the potential to grow more food, and what it will take to get them to do it.
  • Doing this will be difficult, but probably not impossible.

Disease Detectives
Disease DetectivesCourtesy Disease Detectives
Earlier this year I got the chance to work as the crew of high school staff in the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center ( at the museum to create a series of web-based videos about infectious diseases for the Disease Detectives exhibit. We worked from January through August learning video production skills, learning about different infectious disease topics, talking to experts and folks on the museum floor. We're just getting the videos online now, and all of our videos will be on the exhibit website soon ( but I wanted to share them here as well.

For this video, titled "Got Beef? The Story Behind Antibiotics and Livestock" the crew to a slaughter house on in South St. Paul, the Minnesota Department of Health, U of M St. Paul (at 7AM to see the cows grazing), Mississippi Market Co-op, and did hours of research, prep, and post production.
Got Beef? The Story Behind Antibiotics and Livestock from Disease Detectives on Vimeo.

You can check out the video here.


Industrial hemp: Fields of green, etc, etc. Don't be tedious.
Industrial hemp: Fields of green, etc, etc. Don't be tedious.Courtesy Aleks
Oh, happy day! It was getting dry out there, Buzzketeers. I’m referring, of course, to the dearth of hilarious science news items; everything is extinction this, cancer that, radioactive this, greenish discharge that. If you wanted to write a clever and humorous article about scientific research, you’d have to lower yourself to making fun of oil-covered seabirds, or the stupid things babies do when they’re learning. Ugh.

But not any more, thanks to researchers at the University of Connecticut. By exploring the potential of industrial hemp to be a bio-fuel feedstock, they have opened up a plentiful new source of raw material for puns.

We could spend hours discussing how “green” the research is! Ha ha ha! Or, like, the high expectations scientists have for technology that can convert up to 97% of the oil from hemp seeds (a commonly discarded byproduct in hemp farming) into biodiesel. Ho ho ho ha!

Or what about this: there’s been a lot of… buzz surrounding biofuel production, because it could potentially remove food crops and high quality land from our food production system. But because hemp—which is typically grown for its fibers—can grow on relatively poor-quality land, it shouldn’t affect our production of munchies! Ha ha hahahahaaa!

It turns out that industrial hemp has a lot of applications, but it can’t be used as a drug! Ha ha… Oh, wait, I guess that wasn’t really a pun.

In any case, it’s illegal to grow industrial hemp in 41 states, so this one is probably just for other countries.

PS—Drug abuse isn’t any funnier than drug-related puns. Don’t yell at me.

We've talked about "planetary boundaries" on Science Buzz before—natural thresholds past which life gets tricky. There's a new study out on one of those boundary areas: the nitrogen cycle.

The article behind the link talks about why nitrogen is important, how it's dangerous, and what we can do to let natural self-correcting systems kick in for the nitrogen cycle.


Not real: Not even close. So don't go thinking that what's happening in this picture is real.
Not real: Not even close. So don't go thinking that what's happening in this picture is real.Courtesy Paranoid
Check this out, my little ducks: Scientists have genetically modified corn, so that it produces a deadly toxin. And that toxin is now appearing in waterways across the country.


But you should also check this out, my little chickpeas: That toxin (called “BT toxin”) is also naturally produced by the soil-dwelling bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, which is already found sort of all over the place, including on leaves of plants. Also, all evidence indicates that while the toxin is deadly to certain insect species, it is utterly harmless to vertebrates (including people). Which is good, because most of the corn planted in this country has been engineered to produce the toxin in its leaves and stems,a nd that’s the way it’s been for years. And that may be good itself, because the bug killing toxin the plants produce can allow farmers to use a lot less synthetic, broad-spectrum pesticides (broad spectrum pesticides kill off lots of different bugs, instead of a specific few).

And consider this, my little Turkish delights: Those manufactured pesticides definitely run off fields into ground and surface water. See? So it seems like pointing out that the chemicals produced by the plants themselves also find their way into the water is a little bit of a “well, duh,” situation.

But science doesn’t run on “duhs,” my little Faberge eggs, it runs on empirically confirming or disproving explanations and ideas, whether or not they initially seem obvious. Because the toxin was contained in the leaves and stalks of the plants, it seemed less likely to get washed away in the same way sprayed-on pesticides usually are. But it got washed away nonetheless.

It got washed away, my little candy apples, but not in the same way—the toxin was present in streams 6 months after harvest, inside the floating detritus from cornfields. That is, the toxin was inside the bits of leaves and stems that had washed off cornfields, and into streams.

That doesn’t mean that the BT toxin is harmless, my little floral prints, but nor does it mean that it’s necessarily harmful. BT toxin appears to be a pretty environmentally safe pesticide on land, but that doesn’t say much about effects it could have in an aquatic ecosystem. It could be that the presence of BT toxin in the water is still much safer than the alternative (chemical pesticides), or it could be that it will have far reaching effects—Corn Belt streams end up in the Mississippi and Missouri River basins, and eventually in the Gulf of Mexico, after all.

So, my little rabbits’ feet, we should try not to be all, “well, duh,” or to get too freaked out about the whole situation. Before that happens, scientists will have to figure out what environmental effects the BT toxin has, and how those compare to other pesticide run-off, and how each might balance against our need for crops that haven’t been eaten by bugs.

Scientific American’s brief article on the presence of BT toxin in streams also brings up the issue of no-till farming. Scraps from corn fields ending up in streams is very common, apparently, but the SA article suggests that no-till farming might be increasing the amount of that kind of organic matter that end up in the water. No-till farming is a method of farming where the soil isn’t regularly plowed or turned over, and scraps from crops (crop residue) are left on the field after harvesting to increase soil quality. No-till can increase the amount of water in the soil and decrease erosion, but the remaining crop residue might end up in nearby streams to a greater extent.

If this is the case, my little supernovas, it makes me wonder if the crop residue from no-till fields is worse for the water than soil washed off of tilled fields (and whatever washed away with that soil).

I also wonder what becomes of the toxins in BT-producing crops when the crop residue is not left on the field. Because, of course, that stuff doesn’t just disappear. Crop residue can be burned on the field, or processed into ethanol fuel, burned in a power plant to generate electricity, or maybe dumped into the ocean. So, my little chitterlings, even without bringing our thirst for fuel and electricity into the mix, what happens to BT toxin in those scenarios? Probably nothing, for the most part, but, again, we don’t want to invest too much time in saying “duh.”

It’s all very complicated. But you knew that already, didn’t you, my little safety goggles?

According to a recent study, the rate of groundwater depletion more than doubled since 1960. Groundwater provides most of the water we use in our homes and fields, including drinking water. It's estimated that groundwater depletion accounts for about 25 percent of sea level rise each year because most of the removed water evaporates and falls into the ocean. To compound matters, hard surfaces such as concrete prevent rainwater from replenishing underground reservoirs and aquifers.

About 70 percent of the world's freshwater is frozen in land-based ice sheets and glaciers, which are also melting into the ocean. So, cisterns? Desalination plants? How do you think we'll get freshwater when the frozen stuff is all that's left?

Food for thought

by Shana on Aug. 03rd, 2010

Yum!: Roasted crickets at a market in Mexico.
Yum!: Roasted crickets at a market in Mexico.Courtesy Meutia Chaerani / Indradi Soemardjan

You may think that eating live cockroaches is a bad idea, but the UN Food and Agriculture Organization thinks that eating insects may address a bevy of problems, such as poor nutrition in developing nations and the high greenhouse gas output from raising livestock for meat. Raising insects produces far less greenhouse gases and the insects provide essential proteins and nutrients, filling a similar role in the diet to meat. While people all over the world already eat insects, the critters may be hard to swallow in squeamish western countries where the practice is rare.