Thursday, 17 November 2011

Trees 'boost African crop yields and food security'

A recent BBC online article refers to a study reported in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability which shows that planting trees which improve soil quality can help boost crop yields for African farmers. In addition, fertiliser tree systems (FTS) also help boost food security and play a role in "climate proofing" the region's arable land.

The BBC quotes researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre who say poor soil fertility is one of the main obstacles to improving food production in Africa. "In Africa, it is generally agreed that poor soil management – along with poor water management – is most greatly affecting yields," explained co-author Frank Place, head of the centre's impact assessment team.

Although it has been known for centuries that certain plants, such as legumes, "fix" nitrogen in the soil and boost food crop yields, Dr Place said that the centre's researchers had been looking to develop a more active management approach such as fertiliser tree systems (FTS).

In some regions it is possible to rest land and leave it to lie fallow between crops. In others, where population density and food demand is higher, other means to boosts soil fertility are necessary which don’t limit crop production, such as intercropping annual crops with leguminous trees.

Read more here.

Friday, 11 November 2011

US researchers studying using perennial grasses for biofuels and biochar

Farmers in the United States will be urged to grow perennial grasses for biofuel production, as a result of a $25 million research grant aimed at developing transportation and aviation biofuels made from tall grasses, crop residues and forest resources.

According to Wallaces Farmer, a multi-state, interdisciplinary team led by Ken Moore, Iowa State University professor of agronomy, recently won a $25 million USDA grant and will develop the blueprint for using marginal farmlands to grow perennial grasses that will, in turn, provide a biomass source for a drop-in biofuel.

The article states that growing perennial grasses on marginal Midwest cropland has many environmental advantages, including reducing soil and nutrient runoff, slowing soil erosion and increasing carbon sequestration. Growing those grasses currently has few benefits for the farmers who own the land and make the production decisions, however. And convincing farmers to take land out of corn production when prices hover near $6 to $7 per bushel will require developing a market for the perennial grass that gives farmers a solid return. The researchers claim that using marginal land for this kind of biofuel production takes the "food-versus-fuel" argument out of the equation.

"In general, the lands we are using in our research aren't really very good for producing food, so we are taking the food-versus-fuel argument out of the equation," says Moore. "By using perennial grasses on this land, we are reducing soil erosion, improving soil and water quality and even providing wildlife habitat."

The comprehensive study will also involve researchers from many disciplines in order to look at the big picture. For instance, some will be studying pyrolysis, which is a process that uses thermal decomposition of biomass in the absence of oxygen to produce an energy-rich liquid known as bio-oil. Additional refining turns the bio-oil into gasoline and petrochemicals.

A co-product of the pyrolysis process is a carbon- and nutrient-rich solid called biochar that can be used to as a soil amendment to increase the productivity of poor soils. The researchers say that preliminary research suggests that biochar can improve corn production in marginal soils, and can even double yields in poor soil.

A twitter account has been set up to follow the research at @cenusabioenergy.

Read the full article here.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Arsenic-eating bacteria may boost food production

Physorg.com reports that arsenic-resisting bacteria could greatly improve cleanups of toxic environments and potentially boost agricultural production, according to a new University of Florida study. The bacteria were found in arsenic-contaminated soil surrounding the Chinese brake fern, a plant known for its ability to remove arsenic, a deadly, carcinogenic poison, from the environment.

After the scientists isolated bacteria from the soil, they added it to the fern’s growing environment in the laboratory where it broke arsenic down into a more available form readily absorbed by the fern. In addition to the increase in arsenic absorption, they also noted a gain in the uptake of the nutrient phosphorus by the fern, which led to better growth.

The researchers said that said more studies are needed to explore whether the bacteria can be widely used in agriculture.

Read the full article here.