Archive for January, 2010

And the new adventure begins…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 28, 2010 by soilplantfood

In 6 days I will be traveling to Malawi for research. When this opportunity first presented itself in the fall, I knew very little of the country besides the fiasco involving Madonna  trying to adopt children illegally.  So, here is a little about Malawi:  It is a small land-locked country in the southern eastern region of Africa.  Like most African nations – it was ruled by a long time “President for Life” until the mid 1990’s named Dr. Hastings Banda.  Banda was oppressive and authoritarian, however, unlike many similar African dictators – he had a very pro-western foreign policy and allowed in many missionaries, US Peace Corp and other aid agencies.  On another interesting note, was also close with the South African apartheid government, causing tensions between Malawi and other African states.  Since 1995, it has had a democratically elected government.  Yet, Malawi remains one of the world’s poorest countries, is home to refugees from many other African nations and struggles to feed itself.

The other interesting thing I recently realized is that Malawi is a country that has inspired me for several years.  In 2007, an article appeared in the New York Times describing how Malawi had decided to ignore demands by the World Bank and USAID allowing only market forces to control the fertilizer industry.  By subsidizing small-holder farmer’s purchase of fertilizer they had reversed a growing food shortage and quadrupled yields.  I was moved by the story – not because I am a champion of the fertilizer industry, but because it reminded me how complex and urgent the issue of fertility and food security are, and of how soil fertility can have a dramatic impact on human dignity.  Sometimes the sustainable agriculture movement can be blinded by dogma, preaching that organic farming and fertilizers are good, while synthetics are bad.  But focusing on dogma alone can miss the fact that people are starving.  While this story was an inspiration for my graduate school essays, I didn’t remember exactly what country it was about.  I have to thank Dr. Kamprath, an emeritus professor in the department for bringing me a copy of the article yesterday.  I’ve included a link here for those of you who would like to read it.

But what, you ask, will I be doing in Malawi?  Well, for the past 8 or 9 years, work has been happening in a northern region of the country to introduce farmers to legume crops.  Legumes are special for a few reasons.  They include soybeans, peas, all dried beans and pulses – lentils etc., as well as forages like alfalfa and clover.  They are incredibly nutritious and most contain high amounts of protein.  They also can improve soil fertility by moving Nitrogen – one of the MOST important plant nutrients – from the atmosphere to the soil.  However, they don’t do this alone.  In order to get the nitrogen from the atmosphere they have to have a specific type of bacteria – rhizobia – infect their roots.  These bacteria naturally exist in most soils – but not all of them, and soybeans are picky about what kind of rhizobia they will allow to infect their roots.  Our project is focused on 2 crops that have proven to be the most popular with the farmers – Soybean and Pigeon pea.  By growing these crops farmers can diversify their diets, feed their children more protein, improve their soil and even sell the extras for a little money. So this is the problem I’m working on. What kinds of rhizobia exist in these soils?  Are they compatible with the varieties of soy we are planting? Can we get inoculants to add the correct bacteria, and if we do, will they survive?


Food. part 1

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 9, 2010 by soilplantfood

This is my hypocracy. I study organic agriculture and I do research for organic farmers, but when I go to the grocery store, I buy Gold Medal flour, and Quaker oats, and while I stare longingly at the Organic Valley milk and free range organic eggs, I think about my 16K income as a graduate student and I buy the cheap stuff. I buy dried Goya beans, generic brand butter and the rice in a large 10lb sack from the Indian market. I go to the farmer’s market for vegetables because I do like buying from local farmers – but the market I go to – the cheaper state market that is open year round – has no organic growers. I believe that paying the true cost for food is important, but I can’t always decide whether the cost of organics reflects the true cost of the food or whether I’m paying for the word “organic”.

The flip side is that I believe in sustainable production practices. There are some things I do stick to. I don’t buy conventional meat. The factory farming of animals disturbs me and as a result I eat very little meat. I’m not vegetarian – there is a big hunk of venison in my freezer right now – but I try not to buy it. I’ve recently switched to a middle ground on the milk – a local dairy that is not certified organic , but is local, allows their cows to wonder outside, has a conservation easement on their land and sells milk (conveniently) in local grocery stores. I don’t really buy processed foods (except ice cream) and I make sure to buy fair trade organic coffee. But the bulk of what I eat comes from large industrial farms. I can’t hate these farms. I grew up around these farmers. I know some very successful many generational family corn farmers in the mid-west. They support 9 children – 4 of whom are adopted – off the income from the “corn and beans” model. They are just as dependant on the longevity of their land as small organic vegetable growers, and although they use fertilizer, and round-up, they do their best to adopt best management practices. They reduce tillage, rotate as much as is economical, and use genetically modified seed so they can use less herbicide. For them, it works – for now…

Still, I believe or organic agriculture because the movement has forced us to consider alternative options… innovative options. And because of this, with time and research, I believe I that we could produce a good portion of our food organically without sacrificing very much. Business models may have to change. I hope they do. It would be great to see a de-centralization and a re-localization of our food system. If we re-adjust our diets to reflect our surroundings, if we ask questions, if we think about our food and the economy – and not just look for the word “organic” on everything we eat, we will realize that this issue is about more than just whether or not farmers use fertilizer. Its about the whole picture, and how we will feed ourselves and each other tomorrow.

Soil part 1

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 1, 2010 by soilplantfood

In the soil there exist billions upon billions of organisms struggling to survive; to live and grow and reproduce themselves.  Those that we can see are the rarest: the beetles and earthworms and tiny little mammals.  While you can scarcely dig your shovel into the ground on a warm wet summer day without pulling up several wiggly ones, these are really the top predators, like the leopard on the savanna they are the top of the food chain and so are relatively few.  Bacteria however number in the billions per gram of soil. There are so many different kinds of bacteria we have given up on trying to classify or identify single species and instead just characterize “community genetics” and “functional density”.  For the most part anyway… there are a some bacteria that we do characterize.  My primary interest is in one type of bacteria called Rhizobia.  Rhizobia are fantastic, important amazing!  They are vital to food production, soil nutrients, human nutrition, and all agriculture.  If there is a way to solve food crisis, rhizobia will be a part of the solution.