Archive for the ‘Organic agriculture’ Category

Laser-Armed Robot Terminates Weeds Without Herbicide

Design News

Carbon RoboticsCarbon Robotics machine.jpgCarbon Robotics autonomous weeder, “Bud.”Carbon Robotics robots fry weeds with lasers instead of chemicals.

Dan Carney | Dec 13, 2021

The global herbicide market was $33.65 billion in 2020, according to ResearchandMarkets.com, but Carbon Robotics, an autonomous robotics company, aims to put a dent in that with an autonomous laser-armed weed elimination robot.

Like “The Terminator” for weeds, the Carbon Robotics machine, dubbed “Bud,” rolls through farm fields using artificial intelligence to discern weeds from crops and using a high-power laser to kill the weeds. This lets farmers cultivate crops with less herbicide and reduced labor, improving crop yields and saving money.https://www.youtube.com/embed/AP0yiOI8Qas

Related: How to Build a Better Planting Operation

“AI and deep learning technology are creating efficiencies across a variety of industries and we’re excited to apply it to agriculture,” said Carbon Robotics CEO and Founder, Paul Mikesell. “Farmers, and others in the global food supply chain, are innovating now more than ever to keep the world fed. Our goal at Carbon Robotics is to create tools that address their most challenging problems, including weed management and elimination.”

Carbon Robotics cites these benefits for farmers deploying its robots:  

  • A significant increase in crop yield and quality: Lasers leave the soil microbiology undisturbed, unlike tillage. The lack of herbicides and soil disruption paves the way for a regenerative approach, which leads to healthy crops and higher yields.
  • A reduction in overall costs: Automated robots enable farmers to reduce the highly variable cost of manual labor as well as reduce the use of crop inputs such as herbicides and fertilizers. Labor is often farmers’ biggest cost and crop inputs account for 28.2 percent of their total expenses. Reducing costs in both these areas is a huge benefit.
  • Adoption of regenerative farming practices: Traditional chemicals used by farmers, such as herbicides, deteriorate soil health and are tied to health problems in humans and other mammals. A laser-powered, autonomous weed management solution reduces or eliminates farmers’ needs for herbicides.
  • An economical path to organic farming: One of the largest obstacles to organic farming is cost-effective weed control. A solution to weed management that doesn’t require herbicides or an increase in manual labor provides farmers with a more realistic path to classifying their crops as organic.

Related: Autonomous-Capable Electric Tractor Promises Improved Farm Productivity

The Bud robot’s brain is an Nvidia AI processor that gathers information from a dozen high-resolution cameras to feed its crop and weed computer vision models. Bud carries lighting so that it can illuminate the scene to let the cameras spot weeds at night.

The business end of the robot contains eight independent weed-killing units, each employing a 150-watt laser that can fire every 50 milliseconds and hit targets with 3 mm accuracy. These have the capacity to zap more than 100,000 weeds per hour. It also has lidar sensors for obstacle detection. The entire 9,500-lb. machine is powered by a 74-horsepower Cummins QSF2.8 diesel engine powering four hydraulic drive motors.

It sounds straightforward, but it took a lot of work to make this practical. “Some of the problems we encountered are having to generate a lot of power in a mobile platform and then distribute that to all of our lasers and cooling systems,” observed Carbon Robotics’ electrical engineer Ben Neubauer. “One of the things that is really enjoyable about working on agriculture robotics like this is working with a lot of different industries and systems,” he added.https://www.youtube.com/embed/FgO4rl5H3Cg

Of course, the important thing with a weed terminator is avoiding collateral damage of crops. “One of the first things we worked on at Carbon is the ability to drive down the field without going into bed tops, without crossing them and going over crops,” said Raven Pillmann, deep learning software engineer. “The way we want to do that is by avoiding any GPS, location waypoints, or any sort of plotting. Our approach was to use deep learning and create a furrow detection model. It takes in images with the camera which has RGB and depth sensors, it will run this through a model that gives out the location of the furrow. At the same time running concurrently in another process, we have our controls which will take in the latest prediction, and it will look at where the robot is aligned and the difference between that and the furrow prediction and that will tell it which way to turn the wheel.”

These robots can handle row crops in fields between 200 acres and tens of thousands of acres in size, with each robot clearing 15-20 acres per day to replace several deployments of hand-weeding crews. The robots have undergone testing on specialty crops farms, working on fields with a variety of crops, including broccoli and onions.

“This is one of the most innovative and valuable technologies that I’ve seen as a farmer,” said James Johnson of Carzalia Valley Produce in New Mexico, who uses Carbon Robotics technology on his farm. “I expect the robots to go mainstream because of how effectively they address some of farming’s most critical issues, including the overuse of chemicals, process efficiency, and labor. These robots work with a variety of crops, are autonomous and organic. The sky’s the limit.”

Carzalia Valley Produce liked the idea of switching to organic farming practices, Johnson added, but couldn’t find a way to make it work until using the autonomous weeding robot. “Two years ago I thought that eventually, I could go organic,” he said. “After a year of trying my first regenerative [practices], I was back to thinking ‘There’s no way I can go organic.’ The biggest hurdle I had with transitioning to organic was organic weed control. This solves that problem. Conventional weeding consists of mechanical cultivation, herbicide application, as well as hand weeding. Any kind of chemical input, be it chemical fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide, or anything else that we would apply has an adverse effect either on plant health or soil health.”

So, as long as we can keep Bud and its brethren tending the crops with its lasers and not chasing saviors of mankind through the streets of 1984 Los Angeles, then only the weeds have anything to fear from these terminators!

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Jörg Eggers (Europlant Ltd) on today’s potato market

“We have a number of virus-resistant variety candidates in the pipeline”

On December 7, the internationally operating potato breeder Europlant Ltd invited interested parties to the Online Forum or Potato Day 2021. Europlant CEO Jörg Eggers first looked back on the past cultivation and harvest year. As expected, there was a reduction in yields last season, especially for table potatoes. In addition, there was a very late spring with planting until mid-June, which meant that the planting dates were often no longer optimal. Furthermore, late crop development and in some cases very low tuber set were observed.

At the beginning, the external quality of the potatoes was acceptable to good, but due to weather conditions and very late harvest dates, there were more defects later on. “For seed and ware potatoes, there will be below-average net quantities this year. The same applies to the typical recipient countries of German table potatoes in Central and Eastern Europe and Southeastern Europe. The quality after storage will be decisive, also for the subsequent price development of the potatoes,” Eggers explains.

Jörg Eggers delved into several topics related to potato cultivation and marketing.

‘Table potatoes could become scarce’
European potato acreage is trending downward: “If demand for fries returns to normal and the planned expansions in the processing sector become a fact, table potatoes could become scarce in the coming years, unless cultivation becomes more interesting compared to other crops,” Eggers added. According to the Europlant boss, there will be several challenges for the German potato sector in the near future, such as the restriction of plant treatment products, severe weather events, the problems with root penetration and the associated longer crop rotation and – last but not least – the higher consumer expectation in terms of quality, while the possibilities in production can rather be described as limited.

From today’s perspective, the Mediterranean countries will keep their area of early table potatoes stable, while southeastern Europe will generally continue to restrict their acreages, with a corresponding increase in demand. In Central and Eastern Europe, a slight expansion of cultivation is expected, with a steady demand nevertheless. In northwestern Europe, the area under ware potatoes is expected to stabilize, Eggers predicts, provided that the pandemic not lead to further restaurant closures.

Resistant varieties
Following the outlook and forecasts, Eggers answered several questions from online participants. For example, there were specific questions about breeding disease-resistant varieties. Eggers commented, “With certain varieties, we already bring high recognition reliability and virus resistance. If we wanted to combine the great traits and qualities of our varieties with resistance, the breeding process would be much more complex. We have a number of candidate varieties in the pipeline that can take this position in the coming years.”

Organic table potatoes
The rapidly expanding cultivation of organic potatoes was also addressed. “In my view, production must be based on demand. There is no point and no purpose if we were to produce organic potatoes on 20 to 30 percent of the German cultivated area. That is not for sale. The share of organic table potatoes in total sales is currently around 8-10 percent and roughly corresponds to the multiplication area we currently have. I do not expect organic table potatoes to come from abroad on a large scale, especially since the EU organic regulation is a basic requirement there as well. Something will come from Spain, Italy and other early countries. Otherwise, in my view, there is a lack of purchasing power and production security,” Eggers said.

For more information:
Europlant GmbH
Jörg EggersWulf-Werum-Straße 1
21337 Lüneburg
Tel +49 4131 7480-05
Fax +49 4131 7480-580

Publication date: Fri 10 Dec 2021

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How do we feed our growing population?

Jacqueline Rowarth05:00, Oct 27 2021

The Detail: The sky-high cost of living in New Zealand

The Detail explores what makes our food so pricey when we produce enough to feed 40 million people.

There are also more than 350 restaurants, cafés and fast-food outlets involved – and the restaurant and ready-to-eat-food prices increased 4.6 per cent. Further, 30 per cent of the food budget is now spent on convenience, despite lockdown and the perceived focus on home cooking.

For the farmer, this means that more of what consumers spend is on processing and preparation, rather than on the basic food they have produced.

Food prices rose 4 per cent in the year ending September 2021 (file photo).
ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFFFood prices rose 4 per cent in the year ending September 2021 (file photo).

The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research analysed the farm share of retail prices in 2019. Approximately 31 per cent of every dollar spent on meat returned to the farm, 19 per cent of dairy dollars, 22 per cent of grain dollars, 10 per cent of fruit, 16 per cent of vegetables and 2 per cent of the egg dollar.

Not much, really.

And farmers are consumers – so they have been hit by inflation like every other business. In the last quarter, prices paid by farmers have increased 5.9 per cent. Prices received were certainly up 4 per cent, but that hasn’t covered the increase in costs of fertiliser, fuel, electricity and wages.

Even more of a shock might be that what is being experienced in New Zealand in terms of increased food prices is nothing in comparison with that being experienced in the world. The FAO food price index has increased 32.8 per cent from September 2020 – food prices globally have increased by a third in a year.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: “Ever-cheaper food ... is likely to be a thing of the past as farmers try to manage improved productivity (more food with reduced inputs) within the uncertainties of a changing environment.”
STUFFDr Jacqueline Rowarth: “Ever-cheaper food … is likely to be a thing of the past as farmers try to manage improved productivity (more food with reduced inputs) within the uncertainties of a changing environment.”

Uncertainty in harvest due to Covid-19, fire, drought and flood, as well as demand, have combined to stimulate inflation not seen since 2011. Food accessibility (available and affordable) is an issue globally.

Ever-cheaper food, though an expectation in developed countries, is likely to be a thing of the past as farmers try to manage improved productivity (more food with reduced inputs) within the uncertainties of a changing environment – due to both the climate and regulation.

The problem with the latter is that regulations are not always made with an understanding of the consequences.View the dashboard Tracking the speed of the economy

On April 29, the Sri Lankan Cabinet approved a ban on importation of chemical fertilisers and other agrochemicals in a bid to become the first country to practise organic-only agriculture. Less than six months later and the government has backed down. Yields and quality of tea crashed.

Despite well-meaning belief, there was insufficient organic fertiliser available for the tea plantations. And with lower yields and quality, tea prices increased, meaning local tea drinkers were as unhappy as the growers.

Sri Lanka wanted to be the first country to practise organic-only agriculture. Less than six months later and the government backed down after yields and quality of tea crashed.
JAROMíR KAVAN/UNSPLASH Sri Lanka wanted to be the first country to practise organic-only agriculture. Less than six months later and the government backed down after yields and quality of tea crashed.

In the European Union, Farm Europe (a think tank) has calculated that the new farm to fork strategy will have significant impact on food supply, and hence food prices. The strategy recommends reducing the use of chemical pesticides by 50 per cent and fertilisers by 20 per cent, setting aside of at least 10 per cent of agricultural area under high-diversity landscape features and putting at least 25 per cent under organic farming.

The estimated result will be a reduction in food supply by 10 to 15 per cent in the key sectors of cereals, oilseeds, beef, dairy cows; over 15 per cent in pork and poultry; and over 5 per cent in vegetables and permanent crops. There will be an increase in prices by 17 per cent and little to no increase in biodiversity or ecological benefits.

Increasingly, research is showing that our best chance of preserving biodiversity and achieving ecological benefits is to ensure productivity gains on existing agricultural area. This will avoid needing more area to compensate – deforestation being the most obvious detrimental effect. The big differences in biodiversity are between natural and managed ecosystems, not within different types of management (organic versus conventional, for instance).Get the latest small business updates, straight to your inboxSubscribe for free 

While the wealthy countries develop new technologies to assist the challenge of meeting the nutritional needs of an ever-increasing global population from current agricultural land, work is vital with the less developed countries to help them achieve higher yields – to overcome what is known as the yield gap.

Better soil management, improved genetics and matching inputs with plant and animal needs (including health and welfare) is key. So is harvesting, processing, storage and distribution to reduce waste.

New Zealand farmers already hold global records in yield (grain) and low GHG (meat and milk). They are also leaders in precision agriculture. Food here is produced without the subsidies common in other countries. Removal of technological tools will increase prices to the consumer as already calculated for the EU.

For good policy to be developed, all the different consequences need evaluation. Research is showing the way.

– Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. Contact her at jsrowarth@gmail.com.

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Singapore: New accreditation scheme underway for pesticide-free vegetables

Work is being done on a new accreditation program to certify farms in Singapore that meet the national guidelines of producing pesticide-free and sustainably grown vegetables. This new program – to be drawn up by the Singapore Accreditation Council (SAC), which ESG oversees, together with the Singapore Food Agency – will ensure that independent certification bodies can competently assess and recognize clean and green farms.

In March of this year, guidelines to ensure produce from local vegetable farms are grown sustainably & free from pesticides were launched. They are known as the Singapore Standard (SS) 661: Specification for Clean and Green Urban Farms and contain criteria that urban farms have to meet in terms of minimizing contaminants in the food production process, as well as sustainable practices on resource and waste management.

ESG’s director-general of quality and excellence, Choy Sauw Kook: “You will also know that local farmers have implemented management systems to optimize the use of resources, such as water and electricity, in the farming process. With this information in hand, consumers know that locally-produced vegetables are grown without chemical pesticides and responsibly.”

This is where the accreditation program comes in to provide ‘an additional layer of checks’. “The accreditation program that the SAC is developing will ensure that conformity assessment bodies are qualified to assess farms’ compliance with the clean and green standard. This is how quality and standards build trust among consumers,” Ms. Choy told channelnewsasia.com.

Publication date: Wed 29 Sep 2021

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Cow urine kills farmers’ pests in India’s first fully organic state

Nimtshreng Lepcha seeps medicinal leaves in cow urine and sprays the brew over his tomatoes. It’s the main way pests are repelled on his farm in the Himalayan foothills and across the northeastern state of Sikkim, the first in India to go fully organic.

For more than a decade, Sikkim’s 66,000 farmers have shunned chemical weed killers, synthetic fertilizers and gene-altered seeds. Their return to traditional farming methods has made the tiny state, sandwiched between China, Nepal and Bhutan, a testing ground for a counter movement to the Green Revolution, the half-century-old system that relied on modern seeds, chemicals and irrigation to boost crop yields and stave off hunger.

Now, faced with health and environmental problems ranging from poisoned waterways and degraded farmland, to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and diet-linked disease, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is backing Sikkim’s approach as a safer, more sustainable way to produce food, support farm jobs and reduce the nation’s fertilizer bill.


A general view of the city of Gangtok, Sikkim, India, on Monday, May 2, 2016. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

“Other states can take a lead from Sikkim,” Modi told political leaders in the nearby state of Meghalaya last month. “The North East can become the organic food basket for this country. Organic products are going to be increasingly used widely,” he continued, and the practice “will contribute immensely to the income of the people and the region.”
Employment Boost

India already has some 650,000 organic producers—more than any other country. Expanding the industry could boost employment by 30 percent through recycling resources, and certifying, marketing and packaging products, a parliamentary committee said in a report in August, without giving a time frame. Farmers in more than a dozen states, including Kerala, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Modi’s home state of Gujarat, are embracing organic farming.

India isn’t the only country looking for alternative ways to nourish its people. The United Nations’ new development agenda, which began in January, calls for more sustainable food production systems and the implementation of resilient agricultural practices that increase production, help maintain ecosystems and progressively improve land and soil quality.

fragile soils.png

“Poor farmers who cannot afford the inputs for intensive agriculture can benefit most from adoption of organic methods,” said Anil Markandya, a British environmental economist, who has advised international development banks, the UN, European Union and the governments of India and the United Kingdom.

Farmer Lepcha, who also grows maize, cardamom, cauliflowers, carrots, radishes and pumpkins on 2 hectares (5 acres) in Lower Nandok, abandoned his father’s farming practices 20 years ago, returning instead to the natural cultivation methods of his grandfather. The rewards from organic farming aren’t just monetary, he said.

“This field has given us enough of the best-quality food for my family and enabled me to provide higher education for three of my children,” said Lepcha, 56. “We all are in good health and stamina. I don’t remember when we last purchased medicines.”

Soils are nourished with composted cow manure and other organic matter, while pests are managed with the cow-urine spray brewed for three months, he said. In the colder months, Lepcha grows vegetables under clear plastic domes that trap heat and moisture, and are fitted with sprinklers for irrigation.

Yields Rebound

Crop yields fell in the first few seasons after he stopped using conventional fertilizers and chemicals, but then increased as the fertility of his soil improved, he recalled. These days, Lepcha earns more than 400,000 rupees ($6,000) a year.

“I am getting profit with low input costs and higher margins,” he said.

organic tomatoes.jpg

Organic tomatoes: Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

Benefits of organic farming include less pesticide-related illness, improved household nutrition and gender equality, said Markan, who is the former scientific director of the Basque Centre for Climate Change in Spain. Last year, he edited a 415-page report on organic agriculture for the Asian Development Bank.

“I don’t see organic agriculture replacing conventional, intensive agriculture, but as an important complement to it,” Markandya said. “There are many places where producers can benefit from adoption of such methods, and the demand for organic products is growing—not only in the rich countries, but also inside India.”

Growing health consciousness among India’s middle-class consumers is fueling demand, TechSci Research said in a report last August. It predicts the organic market will expand more than 25 percent annually to cross $1 billion by 2020.

“Consumers want it even though there is a premium attached to it,” said Renzino S. Lepcha, chief operating officer of Mevedir, a non-government organization in the Sikkim capital, Gangtok, that helps farmers to grow, certify and sell their organic produce.

Organic goods typically fetch about 20 percent more than conventionally grown products, according to Lepcha, who is not related to farmer Nimtshreng Lepcha. “This is creating jobs, an avenue and a market. This is favoring farmers and India.”

Sikkim achieved organic certification of 74,190 hectares (183,000 acres) of agricultural land last year, the culmination of a movement that began in 2003.

organic bonanza

“The start was not smooth,” said S. Anbalagan, executive director of the Sikkim Organic Mission, in an interview in his office in Gangtok. “We struggled to provide farmers required knowledge and infrastructure.”

Birds and the Bees

With those problems behind them, farmers are now expanding into poultry, bee-keeping and other areas of livestock production, while the state focuses on improving services, including marketing, cold storage and transportation, he said. “Whatever Sikkim has achieved, it has done it mostly on its own,” Anbalagan said.

Organic exports will be bolstered by an airport in Sikkim, Modi said in January at an organic festival and conference. Discussion at the meeting “set the tone for a new holistic vision for the country’s agriculture,” he said. “The winds of this organic effort would now spread across the country.”


Vendors sell organic vegetables from stalls at the Sikkim Organic Market in Gangtok, Sikkim, India
Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

Modi’s government has earmarked 4.12 billion rupees ($61 million) for spending on organic farming in the year ending March 2017. It’s promoting organic fertilizer and says the use of natural nutrients could defray part of the 700 billion rupees India spends each year on fertilizer subsidies.

With the second-highest number of undernourished people in the world and an annual food requirement set to increase by almost 20 percent to 300 million tons by 2025, India’s needs won’t be met with organic farming, according to Shanthu Shantharam, a scientist who helped formulate the country’s agricultural biotechnology regulations in the 1990s.
‘Romantic Idea’

“In many ways, organic farming is a romantic idea that won’t work,” said Shantharam, who teaches plant biotechnology at the Iowa State University. He argues that organic production is impractical on a mass scale because of inadequate supplies of organic fertilizer and the lower crop yields resulting from organic farming. “India cannot meet its food security obligations if the entire nation goes organic. Organic is good as a kitchen garden.”

Product integrity is also a challenge for India’s organic industry, he said. “Whether organic rules are strictly followed or not, they slap an organic label on it and sell it a premium price,” Shantharam said. “Their niche market is urban elites who have lots of cash jingling in their pockets, and who want to buy organic just to feel good.”

Prohibitive Prices

At the Sikkim Organic Market in Gangtok, vendor Birbal Rai says it’s mostly the health-conscious who are aware of the advantages of organic products and are buying from his stall. “Others turn away when they see the price difference,” Rai said. Still, “the demand for the organic foods is gradually picking up.”

About 40 kilometers away, Vivek Cintury has set up a business to process ginger and turmeric, and dreams of becoming one of his country’s biggest organic exporters. “After overcoming some difficulties, like a lack of cold storage and residue-testing laboratories in Sikkim, we have started making a profit,” Cintury, 29, said. “This inspires me to expand the business.”


Vivek Cintury: Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

Environmental activist Vandana Shiva says organic farming provides a solution to conventional “chemical farming” promoted since the late 1960s’ Green Revolution, which she says, leads to $1.2 trillion a year in environmental and social costs in India.

“Organic farming is also the only solution to climate change,” said Shiva, a former atomic physicist and the managing trustee of Navdanya, a movement that promotes organic farming, biodiversity and conservation. “All the mega problems, it has a solution to. All the life and death problems, it has a solution to.”
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Publication date: 3/23/2015

eight_col_064_IS09AL1QZFarmer with basket of organic potatoes.

New research shows a plastic mesh cover laid over potato crops could be the answer to fighting potato pests without using chemical sprays.

Scientists at the Future Farming Centre and Lincoln University say field trials of the mesh cover is showing exciting results in controlling the tomato potato psyllid as well as reducing potato blight.

The psyllid arrived in New Zealand in 2006 and can cause severe crop loss through its bacterium.

Researchers Dr Charles Merfield said the trials over two growing seasons in Canterbury showed potatoes under the mesh covers had reduced numbers of psyllids, increased tuber size and an increase in overall yield.

He says the covers were widely used in other countries and he expected them to become popular in New Zealand.

“These mesh crop covers have been in use in Europe for probably nearly two decades now, so they’re very widely used over there for pest control, particularly amongst organic growers, so these strike me as being an ideal way of controlling psyllids on potatoes on field crops.

“We did some initial trials at the Future Farming Centre and we’ve got some very good results in terms of controlling psyllid – and we also got the surprise effect of a dramatic reduction in potato blight as well.”

Dr Merfield said the mesh could also control a wide range of pests on many different field crops and was being used by organic growers in Hawke’s Bay to control root fly on carrots.

Source: radionz.co.nz


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Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 2:17 pm
Press Release: NZ Genomics
Biopesticides Being Tested Against Moth Pest

tuta S american

Scientists working under the banner of the Lincoln University based New Zealand Bio-Protection Research Centre are examining how to harness naturally occurring fungi and bacteria as biopesticides capable of killing insect pests.

Centre Director Professor Travis Glare says they are currently performing field trials against the diamondback moth, a caterpillar pest, which has become a major problem worldwide attacking cruciferous crops such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and bok choy.

“About $1 billion per year is spent on trying to control this pest. One of the key challenges posed by the diamondback is its ability to quickly become resistant to chemical pesticides.”

Researchers working on the project are tapping into the expertise of specialists at New Zealand Genomics Ltd (NZGL), a genomics infrastructure provider established in 2010 by three universities – Massey University, The University of Auckland and University of Otago – with support from the Government. NZGL provides an integrated suite of genomic services involving gene sequencing, bioinformatics and genomics appropriate information technology.

Professor Glare says the Bio-Protection Research Centre, a Government-funded Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE), is working with strains of Beauveria, a fungus that acts as a parasite and can kill or seriously disable insects. They are testing chemicals released by the fungus for their potential as active agents in biopesticides.

“Beauveria has a lot of strain variations which generate different toxins capable of killing insect pests. We are particularly interested in working out which genes encode for those toxins.”

“So far we have sequenced four strains of Beauveria, and we plan to compare these with strains from elsewhere in the world to find variations that may be even better.”

Professor Glare says NZGL has proved to be an incredible resource for their research, providing not only gene sequencing services but also bioinformatics so the massive amounts of data generated can be analysed fully.

“As a Centre of Research Excellence we rely on NZGL to help us handle the large datasets and bioinformatics that drive our science. It is also incredibly useful to have someone you can talk to and work over results with.”

The research has attracted commercial partner interest and Professor Glare says the spray tests they are now doing are to test their efficacy in field situations.

NZGL Chief Executive Tony Lough says this is exactly the kind of project that NZGL has been set up to assist.

“We provided a package of services, starting with upfront consultation on project design, before advising and assisting with sample preparation. The NZGL team was then able to carry out the sequencing and follow that up with expertise in bioinformatics.”


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By Nathanael Johnson on 24 Nov 2014 8:08 am




Why aren’t agroecological techniques farming spreading faster among poor farmers? If you are a farmer in the rural part of an undeveloped country, where it’s hard to get synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds, it only makes sense to turn to a form of agriculture that eschews those things. Instead of requiring technological inputs, agroecology and organic farming require skills — which are free and non-proprietary. Organic farming also builds up the organic matter in the soil, which helps it catch and hold moisture; that’s especially important in semi-arid lands without irrigation infrastructure.

So why don’t we see organic production raising developing rural areas out of poverty? I’ve seen two possible explanations: Big Agribusiness is sabotaging the nascent growth, or farmers aren’t getting the training they need.

I see the first explanation all the time, but I don’t see evidence. It’s easy to pin the blame on some bogeyman, but doing so is almost always the product of sloppy thinking. Cirocco Dunlap parodied this ploy perfectly in an ode to the too-good-to-be-true effects of coconut oil:

After saving my own life, I wanted to save someone else’s. So I stopped at a nearby children’s hospital and cured every child with a dropperful of coconut oil. It was so nice and so easy; I’m confused why people don’t do this more often. Probably because of Monsanto.

The second explanation, that there’s not enough education, seems more likely. Farming knowledge is location-dependent, and it takes time to pass it on. With a salable product, by contrast, the profit motive alone can drive adoption around the world. You can buy a Coke, for instance, just about anywhere in the world that a few people live together.

The combination of these two explanations is also plausible: It’s not that agribusiness is out there setting fire to organic crops, but Big Ag corporations are actively working with charities and aid organizations. That means they can influence the direction that education, and each nation’s agricultural policy, takes.

Of course, there’s one other possibility: It could be that organic methods just aren’t working for poor farmers.

A pragmatic take from Tanzania
It’s been hard for me to figure out exactly what’s going on here, so I was intensely intrigued by a paper titled “Facing food insecurity in Africa: Why, after 30 years of work in organic agriculture, I am promoting the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides in small-scale crop production.”

The paper is by Don Lotter, a strong critic of genetic engineering with a PhD in agroecology who teaches conservation agriculture at St. John’s University of Tanzania. It’s a nuanced and valuable piece from someone driven by the facts on the ground rather than by ideology.

The problem, Lotter wrote, cannot be pinned on lack of education alone:

[A]n organic version of CA [conservation ag] (no herbicide or synthetic fertilizers) has failed to be adopted by the majority of African farmers subject to years of promotion and trials … The most recent report from Tanzania showed only 13 percent of targeted farmers adopting the practice after several years of promotion.

This squares with something I learned from talking with Keira Butler about 4-H in Ghana. 4-H teaches kids all kinds of exciting agroecological techniques, but the adults don’t use those techniques — they use chemicals. I asked:

Is that because they don’t have access to those natural techniques, or they are benighted? Or is it because they are like, this just doesn’t work, if I want to make a decent living?

A. They are like, this just doesn’t work.

It’s simply more time- and cost-effective to use herbicide, for example, she said.

There’s a hint of frustration in Lotter’s writing when he touches on the continued emphasis on techniques that don’t work for farmers in Africa, especially when it is justified with pseudoscience. For a while he managed an organic farm in a part of northern Tanzania that attracted lots of foreign volunteers. Corn in the area suffered nitrogen deficiency because farmers refused synthetic fertilizer.

These farmers had been told by foreign volunteers, nearly all of them untrained in agriculture, that fertilizers “poison” the soil—despite the fact that it is very likely that 99% of the calories that these amply-fed volunteers had consumed in their lives were from crops amply fed with synthetic fertilizers, grown in fields that are to this day still highly productive.

Lotter says that soils fertilized with synthetic nitrogen aren’t as healthy and microbially rich as those fertilized with compost and manure, but they are by no means toxic. The same goes for the herbicide glyphosate (the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup — though Monsanto’s patent expired in 2000, and now many companies produce the weedkiller). Some people are worried about the potential health effects of glyphosate, but these concerns are tiny compared to the real and undisputed dangers of soil loss and hunger.

Life expectancy here in the central region is about 45 years — these people hardly get the opportunity to get cancer, largely because of food insecurity.

Lotter works in the Dodoma region of Tanzania, where population has quadrupled since the 1960s. People there are farming more land, in marginal areas like mountainsides. Instead of allowing fields to lie fallow, farmers must plant every year, which means plowing every year. All this has led to massive erosion, which makes the land less productive and speeds the cycle. Lotter warns that Africa in the next few decades could go the erosion-crippled way of Haiti.

Using a herbicide allows farmers to vastly reduce the amount they plow. This allows the root-structures to remain in the ground, holding the soil and preventing erosion. Eventually the plant residues rot, turning into organic matter, which increases the fertility and water-holding capacity of the fields.

The scarce rainfall here commonly comes in intense events, often with just a few rainstorms providing most of the water for the entire season. Anchored plant residues on the soil surface and a higher soil OM [organic matter] content are crucial to capturing and holding this water.

Farmers using zero-tillage techniques (i.e. without plowing) in Malawi quickly tripled their profits, Lotter wrote.

Corn and fertilizer
Millet and sorghum are the traditional African grain staples. But, Lotter says, there’s a reason the vast majority of farmers in central Tanzania grow corn instead. New research suggests that farmers get a lot more food from corn (maize):

The research showed that even in drought years, with or without fertilizer, maize substantially outyields millet and sorghum, by an average of about 50 percent, even when bird damage is controlled in the latter two. Adding to this is the problem of Quelea birds (Quelea quelea L.) which can devour entire millet and sorghum crops but cannot touch maize.

Corn is incredibly responsive to fertilizer; it’s hard to grow corn to its optimum without bringing in some form of nitrogen. It’s possible to nearly satisfy corn with agroforestry — growing rows of nitrogen-fixing trees in the fields, and using their leaves as green manure. The problem is that farmers have to water and tend the trees for five years before they start to see real benefits.

Farmers can see an immediate benefit from synthetic fertilizer, but it has problems, too. Even if farmers have the money or credit to buy fertilizer, it’s often simply unavailable in their area. Agroforestry poses similar challenges: Farmers need access to the tree seedlings, and have to pay for them.

The takeaway
Lotter winds up with a frank but grim assessment. He notes that aid agencies have failed for the past 50 years to enrich subsistence farmers in Africa.

I’m not sure what will work. Social unrest and religious-political extremism are ominous possibilities.

There are hurdles no matter which way you turn, but the option to use synthetic fertilizer and herbicide could allow some farmers to shift from a destructive cycle, and into a virtuous cycle, enriching themselves and the land.

The only route I see out of African food insecurity in the next decade is via sustainable intensification — the use of both agrichemicals and organic methods together. My change from working exclusively with organic methods to the inclusion of conventional agrichemicals in Africa is, I believe, not a change in my values. The well-being of people and the environment are still at the center of my ethos, with the proviso that the long-term care of the environment enhances human well-being.

There are no easy answers here. Of course, it’s not like this is the only paper ever published on small farmers in Africa. There’s a study showing the success of just about anything, from cover crops to GM seeds, and oftentimes there’s another study showing its failure. But there’s special value in a paper like this from someone like Lotter — someone familiar with this entire literature, someone ground-truthing the claims every day. That makes his case against an all-organic program for small farmers in Africa all the more persuasive.

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