Monday, 31 October 2011

Water: inefficient use not shortage the problem in food production

New Agriculturalist – funded by the UK’s Department for International Development – reports that the world's major river systems have enough water to double food production by 2050 if it’s used efficiently and distributed fairly.  The quoted CGIAR study finds that inefficient use and inequitable distribution of water are the problem, not water scarcity. With a 50 per cent increase in water productivity in rain-fed agriculture, the authors argue that the world can be easily fed if farmers have access to the proper inputs, technology and markets.

Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today," says Alain Vidal, director of the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF). "Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern." He adds, "Huge volumes of rainwater are lost or never used, particularly in the rain-fed regions of sub-Saharan Africa. With modest improvements, we can generate two to three times more food than we are producing today.”

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Sunflowers no help for decontamination efforts

I reported in an earlier blog post that growing sunflowers on Fukushima’s radioactive soil may help to decontaminate it. Well, unfortunately, this has not happened.

The Japanese Daily Yomiuri reports that in spite of their reputation for absorbing radioactive caesium, they have had little effect on cleaning up the soil around the damaged nuclear plant.

The experiment on removing caesium started in May in farmland totalling 7,000 square metres in Iitatemura and other locations in Fukushima Prefecture. Following the outbreak of the nuclear crisis, a large amount of radioactive substances were released, contaminating the areas around the plant. Four soil decontamination treatments were trialled, the least effective of which was the use of plants. The most effective was scraping away the topsoil, but this is very expensive and leaves a large amount of radioactive soil which needs to be properly disposed of.

Read more here.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Organics – it is, or is perhaps not, the answer

Two interesting articles I’ve come across in the past couple of weeks which explore the seemingly age-old question of which is better – organic or non-organic food and production. This seems to be one of those debates which will go on forever, and while the mudslinging (in the UK at least) seems to have abated in recent years, it seems a shame that the two production systems are so often presented as ‘either/or’, diametrically opposing and incapable of existing alongside one another.

Me? I think that both systems have a lot to offer and that more should be done to foster links and share knowledge between them. They can both play a part in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.  I do believe that organic agriculture has a lot to offer in terms of its proponents' and practicioners' better understanding of soil managament and health, in general, than the conventional sector.  Conventional agriculture also has substantial potential, not least it's enthusiasm for embracing new technology, including GM (where caution is definitely needed), which may be viewed with suspicion by organic enthusiasts.

According to this report which quotes Dr Steve Savage from the University of California, organic agriculture will neither save, nor feed, the planet.  In a nutshell, his reasons for this are that the sector is too small, production costs make organic food too expensive and, in general, organic production systems just aren't as productive as conventional ones.

Conversely, however, this article reports on America's longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming practices has come out with some results which appear to contradict the views above.   Originally created to study the transition from conventional to organic production, this 30-year study also examined productivity, soil quality, energy and economics.   Key findings show that organic yields match or surpass conventional yields and outperform them in drought years.   Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, and use 45% less energy than conventional production.   In addition, the report finds that organic farming systems are also more profitable.