Food Futures

Whenever I see reports making this slant on the future of agriculture and the apparent difficulties, I become very impatient. In my lifetime, both India and China has doubled their populations and also hugely improved the living standards of their citizens, without having to import a lot of anything.

Yet the same silly arguments were made back then. Agricultural growth is all about access to capital. The truth is that we have only begun to optimize agriculture across the globe.

For starters, let us go to the tropics. All the soils are unable to hold nutrients unless you are in former swamp turned into a rice paddy. Now we know that biochar will grab those nutrients and hold them for us. Therefore five acres of that same infertile soil can begin with hand tools and back work from a family, to produce the three sisters crop. This consists of corn on hills, beans and squash. After the corn and beans and squash is harvested, the stalks are reduced to biochar and used to rebuild the seed hills. This is done over and over again until you have a competent layer of terra preta. Add capital, and you have a thriving community.

In the meantime you have had bumper crops of dried corn, dried beans and dried squash to provide a complete diet. We are describing tons of food. This method was used in North America as far north as Montreal and Huronia on contact.

Suddenly you have a rapidly emerging successful body of former subsistence farmers everywhere. The secret is all in the biochar.

I actually cannot make this point any stronger. I was stymied for years in figuring out how to manufacture viable soils. Biochar solves it in one fell swoop and does it in a few short years if you have a crop like corn to naturally provide dried biomass. The icing on the cake came a couple of weeks ago when a researcher ran a test with rice in a pot filled solely with round charcoal and produced an optimal result. The pot was filled with roots. No one believed that this would actually work in such an extreme case.

It is not an instant solution for all soils but I expect it to be proven a quick solution for all soils. Adding carbon to the soil matrix produces a ready framework for a robust expanded root system that is a dream come true for agriculture.

I lean on corn culture because it will easily produce a ton of char each year it is applied. Once applied in the form of either rows or hills for that matter, each successive application builds up the soil inventory of carbon. In the early stages eighty percent of the soil may be left untreated until the seed hills or rows have been fully optimized. This obviously lends itself to low tillage methods besides, since turning over the soil diverts the carbon into the remaining unused soils.

However all dried bio waste is a candidate for the making of biochar if it is available in satisfactory quantities.

Projected food, energy demands seen to outpace production

Friday, June 26, 2009

By Terry Devitt

With the caloric needs of the planet expected to soar by 50 percent in the next 40 years, planning and investment in global agriculture will become critically important, according a new report released today (June 25).

The report, produced by Deutsche Bank, one of the world's leading global investment banks, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, provides a framework for investing in sustainable agriculture against a backdrop of massive population growth and escalating demands for food, fiber and fuel.

"We are at a crossroads in terms of our investments in agriculture and what we will need to do to feed the world population by 2050," says David Zaks, a co-author of the report and a researcher at the Nelson Institute's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.

By 2050, world population is expected to exceed 9 billion people, up from 6.5 billion today. Already, according to the report, a gap is emerging between agricultural production and demand, and the disconnect is expected to be amplified by climate change, increasing demand for biofuels, and a growing scarcity of water.

"There will come a point in time when we will have difficulties feeding world population," says Zaks, a graduate student whose research focuses on the patterns, trends and processes of global agriculture.

Although unchecked population growth will put severe strains on global agriculture, demand can be met by a combination of expanding agriculture to now marginal or unused land, substituting new types of crops, and technology, the report's authors conclude. "The solution is only going to come about by changing the way we use land, changing the things that we grow and changing the way that we grow them," Zaks explains.

The report notes that agricultural research and technological development in the United States and Europe have increased notably in the last decade, but those advances have not translated into increased production on a global scale. Subsistence farmers in developing nations, in particular, have benefited little from such developments and investments in those agricultural sectors have been marginal, at best.
The Deutsche Bank report, however, identifies a number of strategies to increase global agricultural productions in sustainable ways, including:

* Improvements in irrigation, fertilization and agricultural equipment using technologies ranging from geographic information systems and global analytical maps to the development of precision, high performance equipment.

* Applying sophisticated management and technologies on a global scale, essentially extending research and investment into developing regions of the world.

* Investing in "farmer competence" to take full advantage of new technologies through education and extension services, including investing private capital in better training farmers.* Intensifying yield using new technologies, including genetically modified crops.

* Increasing the amount of land under cultivation without expanding to forested lands through the use of multiple cropping, improving degraded crop and pasturelands, and converting productive pastures to biofuel production.

"First we have to improve yield," notes Zaks. "Next, we have to bring in more land in agriculture while considering the environmental implications, and then we have to look at technology."Bruce Kahn, Deutsche Bank senior investment analyst, echoed Zaks observations: "What is required to meet the challenge of feeding a growing population in a warming world is to boost yield through highly sophisticated land management with precision irrigation and fertilization methods," said Kahn, a graduate of the Nelson Institute. "Farmers, markets and governments will have to look at a host of options including increased irrigation, mechanization, fertilization and the potential benefits of biotech crops."

The Deutsche Bank report depended in part on an array of global agricultural analytical tools, maps, models and databases developed by researchers at UW-Madison's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. Those tools, including global maps of land supply for crops and pasture, were developed primarily for academic research, says Zaks. The Deutsche Bank report, he continues, is evidence that such tools will have increasing applications in plotting a course for sustainable global agriculture.

© 2009 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

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