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We’re Treating Soil Like Dirt

The Guardian. March 2015.  Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.

It’s literally and – it seems – metaphorically, beneath us. To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit textwritten in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.” Continue reading We’re Treating Soil Like Dirt

Plant Uptakes Heavy Metals-Potential For Bioremediation

NaturalNews.  Scientists from the University of the Philippines, Los Banos, and the University of Melbourne have discovered a new species of plant that is able to absorb heavy metals from the soil at concentrations up to 1,000 times higher than most other plants, as reported in the journal PhytoKeys. The researchers hope that the plant might be used as a tool to help remediate contaminated soils.

The new species was identified as part of a project funded by the Department of Science and Technology — Philippine Council for Industry, Energy, and Emerging Technology Research and Development (DOST-PCIEERD).

Species thrives in marginal soil

The new species, dubbed Rinorea niccolifera, was identified in the western region of Luzon Island in the Philippines. The soils in this area are well-known for being high in heavy metals, an environmental condition that is hostile to most species of plant. Yet, the newly discovered plant is able not only to grow in such conditions but also to thrive. The plant actively pulls heavy metals out of the soil, accumulating it in its tissues up to a concentration of 18,000 parts per million — 100 to 1,000 times higher than the maximum concentrations tolerated by most plants.

Nickel hyperaccumulation such as that observed in R. niccolifera is so rare that only 450 plant species have been identified that are capable of it, out of an estimated 300,000 extant species of vascular plant worldwide. Even among plants found in nickel-rich soils, only 0.5 percent to 1 percent are capable of hyperaccumulation.

“[Hyperaccumulator] plants have great potentials for the development of green technologies, for example, ‘phytoremediation’ and ‘phytomining,'” researcher Augustine Doronila said.

The potential of bioremediation

Phytomining refers to the use of hyperaccumulator plants to pull metals out of the soil, followed by the retrieval of those metals for commercial purposes. Phytoremediation is a more general term that refers to using plants to remove toxic agents of all varieties from the environment (and is itself a plant-specific version of the more general term bioremediation).

Because plants have adapted to so many different environments, numerous phytoremediation techniques have been discovered in addition to hyperaccumulation. Some species of plant are able to break chemical pollutants into less toxic or nontoxic components, while others absorb contaminants and expel them in a less toxic, gaseous state. Others change chemical or metallic contaminants into forms that are less easily absorbed by animal life, or bind them into the soil. Other plants stimulate the activity of soil microbes that themselves perform the actual bioremediation.

In an era of increasing soil and water contamination, bioremediation is a growing field of research. One such study, the findings of which were announced by Norwegian researchers in March, examined the conditions that might encourage naturally occurring ocean bacteria to digest oil spills more rapidly.  read more

Demand Pressuring Growers To Farm More Sustainably?

No-Till Farmer.  When it comes to the future of farming, growers have two choices: Take it upon themselves to implement sustainable practices, or expect someone to force them to. That’s the message philanthropist and no-tiller Howard G. Buffett shared last week at the 6th World Congress On Conservation Agriculture in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

And the pressure may not just come from the government. Buffett explained that big corporate food companies are trying to figure out how they can ensure the food they use in their products was grown sustainably. 


“If Coke wants to buy fructose and they want to say it comes from a sustainable farm production process, they can’t do that today,” he says. “There are 100 other companies, they’re all thinking about, ‘How are we going to know — because our shareholders demand it, our consumers demand it — that we have a sustainable process in place for the corn that produces fructose, or any other product?’”

Buffett, who currently serves on the corporate board of the Coca-Cola Co., says that currently, if a company buys his corn, they don’t know whether he no-tills, strip-tills, or applies 50 extra pounds of nitrogen that isn’t needed. But he expects that to change.

According to a report from Ceres, a nonprofit organization advocating for sustainability leadership, several national and international food companies, including General Mills and Kellogg, are “putting growing expectations on farmers in their supply chains to reduce fertilizer use and associated water pollution and greenhouse gases.”

One example is Wal-Mart, which recently set a goal to improve fertilizer-application efficiency of U.S. row crop farmers in its food supply chain by 30% by 2020. Another example is Coca-Cola, which last year announced its goal of sustainably sourcing all of its agricultural ingredients by 2020.

“It may come from regulation. It may come from corporate demand, or consumer demand,” Buffett says. “But it’s coming. And it’ll probably come slow enough we’ll have time to adapt. But you can’t stand still.”

“Peak Soil” Threatens Future Food Security And Supply

Reuters. 17 July 2014.  The challenge of ensuring future food security as populations grow and diets change has its roots in soil, but the increasing degradation of the earth’s thin skin is threatening to push up food prices and increase deforestation.

    While the worries about peaking oil production have been eased by fresh sources released by hydraulic fracturing, concern about the depletion of the vital resource of soil is moving center stage.

    “We know far more about the amount of oil there is globally and how long those stocks will last than we know about how much soil there is,” said John Crawford, Director of the Sustainable Systems Program in Rothamsted Research in England.

    “Under business as usual, the current soils that are in agricultural production will yield about 30 percent less than they would do otherwise by around 2050.”

Surging food consumption has led to more intensive production, overgrazing and deforestation, all of which can strip soil of vital nutrients and beneficial micro-organisms, reduce its ability to hold water and make it more vulnerable to erosion.

Such factors, exacerbated by climate change, can ultimately lead to desertification, which in parts of China is partly blamed for the yellow dust storms that can cause hazardous pollution in Asia, sometimes even severe enough to cross the Pacific Ocean and reduce visibility in the western United States.

Arable land in areas varying from the United States and Sub-Saharan Africa, to the Middle East and Northern China has already been lost due to soil degradation.

    The United Nations‘ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that 25 percent of agricultural land is highly degraded, while a further 8 percent is moderately degraded.


Crawford said the degradation of soil could in theory lead to more land being bought into agricultural production, which would deal a serious blow to efforts to stem climate change, since clearing forests for farmland leads to a heavy net increase in greenhouse gases.

    “If we keep treating our soil the way we do, we will have to convert about 70 percent of the earth’s surface into agriculture to meet demand for food by 2050 (from about 40 percent now),” Crawford said.

That is in part because there will be many more mouths to feed. The United Nations has projected that global population will reach 9.6 billion by 2050, up from 7.2 billion last year.

Emerging nations are also embracing Western diets that include more consumption of meat, which will add further to the strain on agricultural resources.

    Crawford also noted that moderately degraded soil could only store about half the amount of water of good soil, adding to pressure on limited water resources.

“We need to find ways of pricing the true cost into food, including the environmental cost of soil degradation,” Crawford added.

Food security became a hot topic after record high grain prices in 2008 marked the start of a period of volatility.

Agricultural markets are still unstable, after near-record prices in 2012 prompted increased production, which led to surpluses. [ID:nL6N0PM324]

Prices have since fallen back on the rebound in production and global stocks, with decent harvests expected in several major grain producers including the United States this year, but there’s a risk of complacency on the long-term outlook.

“We are trying to make sure when we talk about food security we talk about healthy soil. The link has been missing to some extent,” said Moujahed Achouri, Director of the FAO’s Land and Water Division.

    “We do believe there that now there is momentum (to tackle the soil problem).”

Price pressure and ultimately margin pressure can lead to farmers taking shortcuts to achieve something in the short term at the expense of the long term, said Nicholas Lodge, managing partner at Clarity, a Gulf-based agricultural investment firm.

“You can really have a harmful impact on soil in as little as one season,” said Lodge.

“If you happen to have damaged the soil and you’re losing the top soil, it’s not then an easy matter to repair that situation or replace that soil.”


    One of the main drivers of soil degradation has been the trend towards less diversity in agriculture.

    “In a lot of agriculture it has become a monoculture, so you just don’t get the diversity of plants that are necessary for healthy soil, and often the agricultural practices are all about mining the soil rather than managing it,” said Tim Hornibrook, head of Macquarie Agricultural Funds Management Limited.

    Vietnam is one example of a country where there has been an increased focus on one crop with a huge surplus of robusta coffee grown to export to the global market.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture also estimates that corn will be harvested on around 177 million hectares this year, a rise of around 65 percent over the last 50 years.

    “Farming with monocultures leads to decreased productivity,” Hornibrook said.

Excessive use of fertilisers can also cause damage to soil, at times altering its acidity or salinity in ways that reduce microbial activity and therefore ultimately plant growth.

More education in the farming sector on how to conserve soils, along with better use of technology, is expected to help tackle the problem.

    “Technology which can help includes imagery which allows you to do soil mapping of what mineral and nutrients are in the soil and applying fertilizer according to the requirement of each individual area of the farm,” said Hornibrook, adding that investment was challenging as the sector was fragmented and capital starved.

    “The issue doesn’t get addressed without capital. Investing in your soil costs money and therefore the ultimate way to incentivise farmers to do it is higher food prices.”

But higher prices alone won’t encourage consumption patterns that provide a healthy balance for both people and soil.

“Consumers make choices largely on price, farmers make decisions largely on profit,” Crawford said, adding there was no clear incentive to encourage behavior that benefited health or the environment.

“We need to try and encourage better diets from a health and environment point of view.”


AP. 8 January 2014. Hundreds of people fell sick across Japan after eating frozen food that may have been tainted with a pesticide.

Food maker Maruha Nichiro Holdings used full-page ads in major newspapers Wednesday apologizing and warning consumers not to eat any of the tainted food, including pizza, croquettes and pancakes manufactured at a factory in Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

The company began recalling 6.4 million packages of various frozen foods on Dec. 29, saying it found some were tainted by high levels of malathion, a pesticide.

Maruha has received hundreds of thousands of calls about the problem.

“The products will have a strong smell and eating them may cause vomiting and stomach pain,” it said in the notice, which included 51 color photos of the problem products.

The health ministry said it had confirmed 556 people suffering such symptoms after eating those products as of late Tuesday. In a notice on its website, it ordered Maruha Nichiro to recall all potentially affected products and to be forthright in informing the public about the situation.

Estimates of the number of people affected vary. Public broadcaster NHK said Wednesday that its tally found 1,700 people sickened after eating the Maruha products, while Kyodo News agency put the number at 1,400. Earlier, NHK said information from local governments showed 356 people were affected.

Both reports said it was unclear whether consumption of the tainted products was directly responsible for the illnesses, suggesting a possibility of some public hysteria. The health ministry said it had not detected malathion in nearly three dozen cases tested.

Tokyo-based Maruha Nichiro said it had so far retrieved about 1.1 million packages subject to the recall.

Last week, it issued a formal apology and appealed to consumers not to eat any of the affected products. Police are investigating how the items were contaminated with malathion, reportedly by up to 2.6 million times the allowable limit.

Malathion is a pesticide used in farming and gardening, and to kill fleas on animals and people. At high enough concentrations, it can cause death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

There have been no reports of life-threatening illnesses from Maruha’s products, but the contamination has further shaken public confidence undermined by various food quality scandals.

Late last year, a slew of top-notch hotels and department stores apologized after it was found that some of the items they were selling were actually cheaper substitutes.

California Citrus Industry Sowing Social Media Seeds?

Western Farm Press. 30 December 2013.  For all the distractions that social media can have in our lives, it has its benefits and advantages. California Citrus Mutual (CCM) is to be applauded for embracing these tools in an effective way.

I recently came across web links to two different YouTube videos featuring CCM officials talking about two totally different issues that impact growers and their consumers.

Several months ago Orange Cove citrus grower Kevin Severns recited, without cue card or teleprompter, some best management practices field workers and growers can use to slow the spread of the Asian citrus psyllid in the San Joaquin Valley. He later elaborated on his ideas with us, which we shared with you.

Severns, who was elected CCM’s chairman earlier this fall, is now featured on a YouTube video that spells out these BMPs for growers and citrus industry workers. The practices he shares are identical to what he shared with us shortly after ag officials discovered a couple small mandarin trees in a Dinuba, Calif., neighborhood that were infested with the Asian citrus psyllid. The discovery was a wake-up call to local citrus growers.

Severns is featured in a related YouTube video that encourages residents to inspect their citrus trees monthly for the psyllid and signs of Huanglongbing.

Discussing a totally different issue, CCM President Joel Nelsen and several California citrus industry representatives are part of another YouTube Video put together by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The video highlights efforts regulators and agriculture are partnering in to improve air quality in the basin that grows much of America’s food supply.

The San Joaquin Valley is a location known for its rich soil and Mediterranean climate. It is one of only several such zones in the world where climate and soil combine to make a good growing region for many different agricultural commodities. What makes the San Joaquin Valley special in that regard also leads to challenges because of the meteorological aspects of the valley and the millions of people that live work and play in Central California.

The point here isn’t to spell out what’s in the two videos. You can watch them for yourself. The point is to highlight what one agricultural industry is doing to help others understand the issues facing them and the efforts they employ as they partner with state regulators and others to improve air quality in a basin responsible for growing much of the nation’s food supply, including much of America’s fresh-market citrus.

Whether it’s an invasive pest that threatens to decimate California’s iconic citrus industry, or issues related to air quality which impacts millions of Californians living in the Central Valley, the citrus industry is to be praised for its leadership and use of an effective tool to communicate its efforts and successes.


Growing Produce. 13 December 2013. University of Florida’sInstitute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) faculty work on myriad of food-related topics. As 2014 approaches, here are just a few of their food-related predictions — everything from better fruit packaging to a new focus on reducing food waste — that may soon be on the public’s radar:

  • Good taste, less waste: Food researchers like Doug Archer say roughly one-third of food produced for humans around the globe is lost or wasted each year – 1.3 billion tons of it. Discussion of this problem is expected to make its way from food industry and academic circles and into American homes, with home food preparers becoming more sensitive to reducing food waste.
  • Fresher fruit: Jeff Brecht works on ways to improve fruit flavor and consumer experience. To that end, he’s worked with UF and University of California, Davis researchers on “modified atmosphere packaging” for a range of fruits, including berries and tomatoes. In that packaging, special polymers interact with fruit respiration so that oxygen is decreased while carbon dioxide is increased. The result? Handlers can wait longer to pick fruit; it takes longer to go bad.  And tropical and subtropical fruits can be held at higher temperatures to avoid flavor-robbing chilling injury.
  • Better-tasting home-grown tomatoes: Harry Klee, UF’s tomato-taste tinkerer, has worked for years to target the most universally consumer-pleasing tomato flavors. He and colleagues are poised this year to release two hybrid tomatoes, suitable for non-commercial growers, and both are said to knock it out of the park in taste tests.
  • Garlic: Sue Percival, chairman of IFAS’ Food Science and Human Nutrition department, and colleagues found modest changes in the immune responses of human subjects who consumed an aged garlic extract every day, as part of a six-month research study. A control group took placebos. Both groups kept health diaries and gave blood samples. The garlic didn’t prevent colds or flu, she said, but researchers did find that cold and flu symptoms were reduced between 30% and 50%.
  • Eat your broccoli: According to Archer, consumers will begin to focus more on vegetable consumption, both for better health and to lessen their environmental footprint. Demand may outpace supply, and while Food Safety Modernization Act requirements will help ensure safer produce, it will undoubtedly boost costs for growers, packers and grocers — and consumers.
  • And your mushrooms:  In a more recent study, Percival’s team tested shiitake mushrooms’ effect on human health outcomes. One group ate a daily serving of chopped, dried mushrooms; a second group ate two servings. Blood was taken from both groups at the start and end of the study. Both groups’ test results revealed “remarkable” beneficial changes in their immune-system regulating cytokines and immune function, she said.


Wine Industry Insight.  While American wine lovers are familiar with Syrah – often sold as Shiraz on Australian labels – the popularity of this grape as a varietal red wine has been on a notable wane in recent years.

Petite Sirah, on the other hand, has become more popular than ever.  It is not the same grape as Syrah:  it is a crossing of two grapes, Syrah and Peloursin, originally developed in Southern France in the 1880s, and introduced to California shortly thereafter.  Although wine connoisseurs have always considered Syrah to be the far greater of the two grapes, many American consumers now prefer Petite Sirah over Syrah.

When it comes to wine, as the old Latin phrase goes, de gustibus non est disputandum (“there is no disputing in matters of taste”):  these particular wine lovers know what they like, and their passion is Petite!

In the Lodi AVA – a region typified by a Mediterranean climate that is strikingly similar to original European home of all the classic wine grapes – few wineries have parlayed the recent popularity of this variety as successfully as Michael David Winery.

The largest of Lodi’s premium producers (now topping 400,000 cases in yearly production), Michael David has been bottling two separate versions of Petite Sirah, both highlighting the most appealing aspects of the grape, and both selling like hotcakes.  The two current releases:

  • The inky black-purplish, no-holds-barred 2010 Michael David, Earthquake Lodi Petite Sirah ($26); replete with unabashedly oak driven, blackberry and blueberryish aromas tinged with notes of smoked bacon; big, chunky, even funky in the mouth, yet ultimately compelling, like a big-buckled Elvis painted on black velvet canvas.
  • A kinder, gentler 2011 Michael David, Lodi Petite Petit ($18) – blended with about 15% Petit Verdot (the latter, one of the five major black skinned grapes originating from France’s Bordeaux region) – yet still a vivid black-ruby in color, showing off flamboyantly ripe, plummy aromas infused with notes of peppery beef bouillon and smoked bacon; the exuberant, plummy flavors continuing in a dense, medium-full body, filled out by smooth yet generous tannin.

“People have been loving these wines,” says Michael David President/Co-Owner David Phillips.  “The Petite Petit has the more colorful ‘circus’ label, and brings out the fun side of the grape.  When Petite Sirah is blended with Petit Verdot, the two grapes seem to counter-balance each other.  Each variety produces monster flavors, but together they seem to make each other more approachable.  I don’t understand the chemistry behind it, but it works.

“While Petite Petit has been the crowd pleaser,” adds Phillips, “the Earthquake Petite Sirah is still the showiest wine we make.  It’s just a black monster of a wine – good for cold, snowy evenings by the fireplace.”  Throw in a good roast or some open fire grills, and the crowd cheers for more!  read more


Western Farm Press. 31 October 2013.  As I sometimes do on the research road to compiling subject material to write this column each month I peruse the Internet, newspapers, TV broadcast reports and news magazines. Sometimes I get distracted from my initial goal topic and end up with an entirely unrelated chorus of facts I had no intention of spending much time on. 

This is one such case. The thought spring up after I read a report in Slate magazine that food scientists at Cornell University have produced a strain of broccoli that thrives in hot environments.  This will likely make it possible for states with sweltering summer months to grow the vegetable.  This got me to thinking how fortunate Californians are to live in such a rich agricultural state.  Here the cool coastal fog is perfect for growing typical broccoli and we currently produce more than 90 percent of the broccoli grown in the U.S.  But what if California suddenly lost its massive agricultural ability to feed the U.S. and the world?  What impact would this have on consumer choices and food prices?

I may be guilty of stating the obvious here but often I do believe that those who benefit most from the hard work of growerstake California’s “Horn of Plenty” for granted.  So our good fortune frequently needs repeating.

Our home state leads all of the other states in farm income.  It’s positioned as the agricultural powerhouse of the United States. About 73 percent of the state’s ag revenues are derived from crops while the other 27 percent of revenues are generated by livestock commodities. In terms of revenue generated, California’s top five ag products are dairy products, greenhouse and nursery products, grapes, almonds, and cattle and calves.  California agriculture generates roughly $37.5 billion annually, more than any other state.

So a loss of California ag production would hit hard consumers’ wallets and their diets would become less balanced. This is because our state produces a sizable majority of American fruits, vegetables and nuts; 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots and the list goes on and on.  A lot of this is due to our soil and climate. No other state, or even a combination of states, can match California’s output per acre.

Lemon yields, for example, are more than 50 percent higher than neighboring states. California spinach yield per acre is 60 percent higher than the national average.  Without California, supply of these products in our country and abroad would dip, and in the first few years, a few might be nearly impossible to find.  Orchard-based products specifically, such as nuts and some fruits, would take many years to spring back.

Soon, the effect on consumer prices would become attention-grabbing. Rising prices would force Americans to alter their diets. Grains are locked in a complicated price-dependent relationship with fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. When the price of produce increases, people eat more grain. When the price of grain rises, people eat more fruits and vegetables. (In fact, in some parts of the world, wheat and rice are the only “Giffen goods” – a product in which decreasing prices lead to decreasing demand.)  Young people and the poor in America, more than others, eat less fresh fruit when prices rise.  read more


27 August 2013.  1. The Corn That Broke the Cattleman’s Back? The number of American feedlots leaving the business increased by 9,900 percent in the last year — a mass exodus prompted by the rising cost of feed. (National Review)

2. Anti-Atrazine Crusader Marches On: Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes will never stop claiming that atrazine wreaked havoc on Darnell the frog’s genitals. Hayes has made sure to push his fame quotient alongside his atrazine research. (Forbes)

3. Giant Feral Pig Killed by Farmers: When Larry Smith went hunting for a massive wild pig that was tearing up his corn field, he was stunned when the chase played out and the pig proved even bigger than he’d ever suspected. (Delta Farm Press)

4. Older Farmers: No Hurry to Stop: Time to leave the farm? Not so fast. (NPR)

5. 6 Mind-Boggling Facts About Farms in China: China’s food supply infrastructure is creaking. (Mother Jones)

6. Young Farmers Break Bank Before Breaking Ground: Beginning farmers walk a tough road toward land and capital. (The Salt)

7. Gaps in the GM Crop Fence: Gaps in oversight of transgenic technologies allow scientists to test the waters for speciality varieties. (Nature)

8. Stone Age Tribes and Farmers in a Tangle: Tribal land and farmland doesn’t mix well. (Spiegel)

9. Cattle Rustling Jumps: Over 10,000 cows and horses were reported missing or stolen in Oklahoma and Texas last year. (State Impact)

10. The Return of Mead: Little honey; little water; mead is back. (Modern Farmer)