Global reawakening of agriculture’s importance

Agriculture's success in feeding the world for several decades has had its drawbacks. As farming became boringly efficient, research funding dried up, business looked elsewhere for high-yielding investment and the best and brightest students looked for more exciting fields to study. Since the food price shock of 2008, those attitudes seem to have changed. Last week, for instance, The Economist's cover story was 'How to feed the world', in which the magazine noted that soaring levels of investment in agriculture are in conflict with a new era of protectionism based on food security concerns. (Time magazine's cover was 'Banking on trees', a crop that may also play a big part in the farms of the carbon-conscious future.) The Economist's weighing into the discussion is part of a global reawakening to the central importance of agriculture to human affairs. This fresh appreciation is bringing a flood of new investment to the area (if not yet a flood of new profits to farmers) – but with the rewards...
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Turning corn stubble into biochar

Researchers around the world are trying to economically convert cellulosic biomass such as corn stover into "cellulosic ethanol." But Agricultural Research Service scientists have found that it might be more cost-effective, energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable to use corn stover for generating an energy-rich oil called bio-oil and for making biochar to enrich soils and sequester carbon. The research, under-written by the National Corn Growers Association, suggests it could be more cost-effective to produce bio-oil through a distributed network of small pyrolyzers and then transport the crude bio-oil to central refining plants to make "green gasoline", rather than transporting bulky stover to a large centralised cellulosic ethanol plant. Researchers found that the bio-oil captured 70 per cent of the total energy input, and the energy density of the bio-oil was five to 16 times the energy density of the feedstock. Also, the research indicates that about 18pc of the feedstock was converted into bio-char, which contains most of the mineral nutrients in the corn residues. Using...
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How grass hedges save water on farm

Planting grass hedges could be the answer to successfully bringing some United States Conservation Reserve Program land back into production. Researchers at the Agricultural Research Service have found that grass hedges can help farmers preserve soil and protect water quality by trapping sediment that would otherwise be washed away by field runoff. Their findings are based on a series of studies conducted over 13 years to assess the effectiveness of grass hedges for erosion control in wide or ultra-narrow-row conventional tillage or no-till cotton systems. The researchers established single-row continuous swaths of miscanthus, a tall perennial grass, across the lower ends of 72-foot-long plots with a five per cent slope. The hedges eventually became a yard wide and were clipped two to three times every year after the grass was 5 to 6.5 feet tall. The scientists found that the ability of the hedges to trap sediment increased as the hedges matured. The hedges were more effective at intercepting sediments that washed out of conventionally tilled...
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UN envoy: World set for new food crisis in 2010

Inaction to halt speculation on agricultural commodities and continued biofuels policies is paving the way for a re-run of the 2008 food price crisis in 2010 or 2011, argues Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, in an interview with EurActiv. Olivier De Schutter is professor of law at the University of Louvain (UCL) and the College of Europe (Natolin). He was appointed UN special rapporteurexternal on the right to food by the Human Rights Council in March 2008. He was speaking to EurActiv’s Giacomo Fassina. To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here. Are you satisfied with the outcome of the summit on world food security? Most of the observers are very critical of the results. FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf was himself quite disappointed. The summit did not lead to any financial commitments despite his insistence that governments should have reserved some $44 billion per year to re-launch agriculture in developing countries....
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Tomorrow’s sheep industry will be a global affair

WORLD sheep and wool council director Ben Watts says the future of Australia’s wool industry can be enhanced by more international collaboration - especially in global wool marketing. Speaking at a national farm food safety conference in Launceston last week, Mr Watts entered the “wool future” debate by suggesting that although consumers were already seeking ethical products, the Australian wool industry was at risk of losing its opportunity to sell to them if it failed to act collaboratively. The British Retail Consortium last month signalled that ethical consumerism in the United Kingdom had grown by 15 per cent in recent years to reach 35.5 billion pounds in value, of which ethical clothing was the fastest growing category, with sales 71 per cent higher than that in the previous year. “Why is it that when most Australian wool growers are ethical producers their story is not being told?” Mr Watts asked. “For too long wool has been shackled in tradition - we have a product...
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Robotic farming – the way of the future?

PRECISION Agriculture is about to take the next step and see robots planting, spraying and harvesting crops… or is it? This is one of the questions Gilgandra, NSW, grain grower James Hassall was keen to answer, as part of a Nuffield Australia Farming Scholarship sponsored by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC). Over the past 12 months James has spent a significant amount of time in Europe and America, discovering what is actually possible with current computer technology and how it might be adapted to Australian conditions. “So much of Precision Agriculture is driven by global positioning systems, or GPS, that understanding developments in that area was a key part of the trip,” James said. “A great deal of effort is going into increasing the accuracy of GPS and to set up independent testing for the accuracy of auto-steer vehicles. In the not-too-distant future, the location of vehicles could be available in real time over the internet.” This leads to the question of what...
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Why ‘eco-friendly foods’ can be worse for the environment

SO-CALLED "environmentally responsible" food purchases need to be based on sound science rather than merely perception as work out of Washington State University has shown that those foods consumers tend to think are "intuitively correct" may indeed be the least environmentally friendly option. Dr Jude Capper, assistant professor of dairy sciences at Washington State University, believes the food industry should use a whole-system approach and assess environmental impact per gallon of milk, pound of beef or dozen eggs, not per farm or per acre. She calls it a "lifecycle assessment" approach, which evaluates all inputs and outputs within the food production system and allows for correct comparisons of different production systems. "Consumer demand for milk, meat and eggs is going to increase as the population continues to grow," Capper said. "Therefore, the vital role of improved productivity and efficiency in reducing environmental impact must be conveyed to government, food retailers and consumers." Intuitively, today's modern production practices often seem to have a higher environmental...
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Can GM rice fill the world’s shortfall?

Genetically modified (GM) crops are not the only answer to Asia’s looming food deficit, but multinational crop technology company Syngenta argues that they must be part of the mix. Syngenta made the case for GM technology to journalists in Bangkok two weeks ago, as part of a broader effort to open Asian government doors that have so far remained closed to genetically modified food crops. Among the Asian nations, only India and China and The Philippines have embraced the technology, with India planting around 7.6 million hectares of cotton in 2009. The Philippines is the only Asian country to date to introduce a GM grain crop, planting about 400,000ha of maize in 2008. Syngenta believes it is time for the barriers against GM to come down, so that biotechnology companies can confidently invest in GM research ahead of the looming food crisis. “Given the projected increase in population and with less land and water available, we will need all available agricultural technologies, including biotechnology,...
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GM crops not just for rich farmers

ONE of the most common criticisms of GM technology is that it's major incarnation in the form of herbicide resistant traits is only of benefit to relatively well-off first-world farmers and is of little benefit to poor growers in the third-world - a misconception, according to Monsanto’s director of research Harvey Glick. Dr Glick said GM technology would play a large role in assisting the billions of subsistence and low-income farmers worldwide who eke out a living from less than five acres (2.1ha), and by doing so, assist international food security. Dr Glick said both first generation traits, such as herbicide resistance, and traits close to being rolled out, such as drought tolerance and nitrogen efficiency, would aid poor farmers. "We see biotechnology as a means to increase yields and a way to reduce crop inputs," he said. "Farmers will be able to replace chemical use with GM traits, while the benefits of drought tolerance and nitrogen efficiency are self-explanatory." Dr Glick said he had...
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The future Farm machinery

This is the week of Agritechnica, the huge indoor, seven-day farm show at Hanover, Germany. Held every-other-year the show claims to be the "The World's No. 1". Organisers say their attendance for the full run of the show should be about 300,000, as growers come to see exhibits displayed by more than 2100 companies from 45 countries. The future agri machinery - 600 HP Deutz Fahr tractor, huge sprayers with nighttime functions, 'steering by wire' John Deere tractors etc etc. Please watch the slideshow player: http://theland.farmonline.com.au/slideshowplayer.aspx?id=9598...
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