Monday, June 06, 2016

Did our Ancestors Stumble From Night Paddocks to Grain Agriculture?

Did our ancestors stumble upon grain agriculture through paddock grazing?

Many grain crop ancestors exhibit fur-zoospory. In other words, many wild relatives of grain crops are adapted to burlike dispersal, forming spiny seedheads that tangle in livestock, etc. fur so that the seed is carried enmeshed animal’s coats to distant grounds to grow.
Night paddocks can protect herded animals from non-human predators. Burlike fur-zoospore  seed might be inadvertantly sown into night paddocks rendered fertile by livestock manure built up over the night stays of the animals.
A livestock rotation among night paddocks could induce grazing down of competitors, fertilizing with manure and seeding with large-seeded grain relatives, all to yield grain-like harvest after a seasons’ growth. Rotation among paddocks could help interrupt livestock pest and disease cycles.
Perhaps early nomadic gatherer-pastoralists noticed better wild grain relative yields where night paddocks were the year before, then tried sowing paddocks after grazing.

One way to check whether this happened is to see whether it is happening among current mixed pastoralists-agriculturalists now.

Raising Grain.

    Grain farming provides us with calories, protein, and edible oils (from oil seed crops). But the current culture of annual spring grain crops, (and ‘biennial’ winter grain crops) uses lots of energy-intensive plowing and cultivating, leading to wind and water erosion of our practically irreplaceable topsoil.

    Enter the dream of perennial grains, that would yield year-after-year continuously, and catch the spring sunlight that annual grain plants are still too small and young to intercept. By catching more sunlight, perennial grains might both yield well and have energy reserves to fight off diseases and such, to survive and yield for many years. Perennial grains could also preserve soil from erosion, by leaving little ground exposed by tillage, compared to frequent tillage for annual grains, at least in theory.

    In practice, according to Rodale’s Peggy Wagoner, attempts at perennial grains have yielded either lots for a few years or little for many years. This may be because of the different life strategies of massively-seed-yielding annuals versus massively-pest-resistant perennials. To explain, perennials face a longer window of disease and pest susceptibility. Their perennial life strategy is a gamble that they can do better than annuals by setting seed years from now, instead of this year (or next). To hedge their bet, they invest energy resources in preparing to fight, and actually fighting off, diseases and pests. This leaves less energy to build big seed yield in early life.

    This contrasts with heavy-yielding spring and winter grains, which dodge much pest and disease susceptibility by going to seed quickly and completely. This uses up energy that might have otherwise been available for weathering the long multi-year windows of disease and pest susceptibility faced by perennials. Is there a reason that it has been so difficult to combine large yearly seed yields with long life? Perhaps there has been both evolution of traits valuable for either lifestyle, as well as evolution of assemblages of these traits.

    DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) encodes traits in specific locations within chromosome chains. Maybe traits useful for either one lifestyle or another; either annual or perennial, have evolved to be grouped into assemblages of traits nearby on the DNA chain. They might tend to have evolved to be in two groups, one for each lifestyle, because plants did well with either one assemblage, say annual, or the other, perennial, but plants with mixed traits did poorly, and left relatively less mixed-trait offspring. This can explain why it’s been so difficult to combine heavy, constant yields and long life in grains.

    Is the dream of having living roots continually holding soil while yielding grain year-after-year practically impossible? Is there any way to use what we have created; short-lived heavy-yielding grains and long-lived, light-yielding grains, to piece together some method that can sustain itself, while sustaining humanity?

    Masanobu Fukuoka sowed winter grain into ripening rice in autumn, then, a couple of weeks later, he harvested the rice, leaving the winter grain growing with a head-start on the weeds. Late next spring, he then sowed rice into the ripening winter grain before harvesting the winter grain, so the rice growing in the stubble also had a head-start on weeds. This model of staggering two short-lived grains growing together to continually hold the soil might guide us.

    A part of Fukuoka’s method may be hand-harvesting - heavy mechanical combines might crush the young sprouts beneath the ripe standing ready-to-harvest crop. Can we overlap a set of the short-lived high-yielding perennial grains that Wagoner documented, to have living roots continually holding soil, but by a changing assemblage of plants? This might yield mixed-type harvests.

    Can we sort, after harvest, different grains mixed within the same year’s harvest, or use them mixed together? We now sort weed seed from grain commercially, so separating differently sized grains seems do-able.

    If this works, we might succeed at getting harvests of grain while living roots continually hold grain field soil, yet without any one grain opening a long window of susceptibility to diseases and pests.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Splitting the Difference with Somewhat-Perennial Grains

Splitting the Difference with Somewhat-Perennial Grains

    The difference being split here is between grain crops that live less than a year and long-lived crop relatives that persist over a decade. It is the difference between traditional grain crops and the perennial relatives under development for ongoing grain yields every year. The word ‘perennial’ has two meaning that contrast here; it means ‘year-after-year on an ongoing basis’ as used generally, and means ‘surviving more than a couple of years’ in a botanical sense. I accentuate this distinction because of the importance of crop relatives that ‘split the difference’ - they persist more than a couple of years, yet die out over a decade or more. But first a review of other competitive approaches.
    Most grain crops are annual or biennial. There are annual spring barley, oats, wheat and rye, as well as winter rye, barley and wheat, that can be considered biennial, as they survive a winter. After these crops ripen and are harvested, the ground is traditionally plowed and another crop sown. This kills weeds, but allows erosion of soil, as before the newly sown crop grows roots, the soil is not held in place by any living roots.
    Why not just use long-lived perennial relatives of our crops instead, as The Land Institute strives to do? Wes Jackson’s institute has striven to produce perennial grains that would yield lots of useful grain year-after-year, without yearly plowing. They’ve been cross-breeding our annual grain crops with their wild, perennial relatives, striving to combine long life with heavy yield. They hope to develop crops which yield well every year, while the living roots permanently hold the soil from eroding. But it has been difficult. They have been breeding plants for decades. While the dream of everlasting yields from one planting has drawn interest perennially, the work has been hard.
    The problem may lie in strong genetic linkages between, first, traits that we hope to combine, and second, traits that we hope to omit. We want large yields and long life. But long life provides an extended window of disease and pest susceptibility. Long-lived plants survive these long susceptibility windows by guiding energy to defense, energy that could have gone to large yields, as in our short-lived crops. Since there’s a limited amount of sunlight energy caught by any plant, there must be a choice between defense and reproduction - and this choice has been faced by our crops and their wild relatives for eons; faced for so long that clusters of these traits may have evolved to be tightly bound together, so that a plant either prepares to withstand long windows of susceptibility, or commits itself to forming lots of offspring rapidly, but not both. Breaking these genetic linkages may be the difficult challenge of The Land Institute’s approach.
    Let’s look a bit afield, for inspiration:
    1. Some varieties of biennial winter grains will not go to seed until they’ve experienced a winter, even if first planted three seasons earlier, in spring. But most crops are annuals, and die after going to seed.
    2. There are crop wild relatives that are not quite as short-lived as annuals, yet are still pioneer species adapted to large seed yields and short life spans, unlike long-lived perennials. For example barley, Hordeum vulgare, is closely related to Hordeum bulbosum, a short-lived perennial with large yields of big, heavy seed, which crosses with barley. And rye, Secale cereale has a relative, Secale montanum, that also colonizes disturbed soils for a few years, via its large seed yield of heavy seed.
    3. Farmers sometimes ‘oversow’ seed for a following crop above the previous standing crop, before harvesting the standing crop. This leaves the ‘oversown’ crop with a head-start on any weeds that start to grow after the previous crop’s harvest, if everything works out.
    4. Shingles protect an entire roof, yet each shingle is shorter than the whole roof.
    In light of these four factoids, perhaps there’s another way that splits the difference between annuals and long-lived perennials. Perhaps we can conceed long life, because what we really want is living roots always holding the soil. Could we have a constantly-changing succession of plants growing roots that protect soil over the duration, like a roof, yet with each crop itself only surviving a short portion of that time, like a roof shingle? Perhaps we can have living roots constantly holding soil, yet have those roots grow, not from one long-lived crop, but from an overlapping series of short-lived crops, growing one after another. If these crops overlap their times in the field, one crop’s roots can grow in as a previous crop’s roots die, so that soil is always held by living roots. Thus, like shingles, each crop’s life is short, yet together their roots hold soil for the duration. This is a central concept to an alternate approach that might be called ‘somewhat-perennial grains.’
    As an aside, these two wild relatives, Hordeum bulbosum and Secale montanum, share an adaptation; a means of seed dispersal. They form seedheads which get stuck, via long spiny parts, to the fur of animals that travel and distribute that seed. Fur-zoochory or animal-fur-borne dispersal of seed, allows the seed to be heavy, compared to wind-dispersed seed, and still disperse. This seed density may have been very attractive to early humans, because they could easily winnow apart heavy seed from light chaff. Perhaps early animal herders protected their flocks in night paddocks, which got grazed down, manured and seeded to these wild crop relatives via fur-zoochory. Then perhaps Hordeum species grew and set much seed, and people harvested it, liked it, understood what happened, and learned to sow to repeat this feat. In any case, fur-zoochory in crop relatives may signal usefulness in somewhat-perennial grain cultures.
    ‘Grains’ here means seed crops, and includes peas, lentils, edible vetches and chickpeas and their wild relatives, as well as flax, sunflower and the like. And as folks at The Land Institute have so ably envisioned, polycultures of somewhat-perennial grains could include:
    1. summer-adapted grasses, like sorghum, maize and millet, and their wild relatives,
    2. cool-season-adapted grasses like barley, wheat, rye and oats, and their relatives,
    3. composites, like sunflower, and relatives, and
    4. legumes like peas, lentils, vetch and chickpeas, and their relatives. These could grow together, and their seed could perhaps be separated by shape, size and density, if harvested together, or could be used together.
    In sum, some short-lived wild grain relatives (with lifespans in the single digits) might help form a more sustainable agriculture that would use plowing only rarely. These grain relatives might be over-sown into ripening crops before the earlier crop's harvest, to allow the over-sown crop a head-start over weeds. Like shingles shielding a roof, these crops together might protect soil over an extended duration, while yielding year after year, yet without any one crop presenting a long window of vulnerability to pests and disease.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Garden plot after 2015/16 winter.

Overwintered yellow vetch, Vicia grandiflora cv. 'Woodford'.
Overwintered spinach, cv. 'Giant Winter' March 16th, 2016
Foreground: Yellow Vetch. Midground: Overwintered Chicory-Endive cross. Background: Spring Crocuses. Mar 16th, 2016

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Our Future After Progress

Mostly, we currently progress technically, which is dependent on industry. Industry itself depends on burning fuel carbon into air.
Because our agriculture depends on a steady climate, and increases in air's carbon alter our climate, our food system can not withstand much more carbon in our air.
So, to keep eating, we must stop burning. Hence our industrial progress must cease.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Why green jobs will abound in any green future.

Industrial humanity uses fuel and tech to eliminate labor. This approach cleverly suited a world empty of laborers and replete with fuel, mineral resources and air to pollute into. But in our current world, now emptying of fuel, mineral resources and air to carbonate, and full of workers willing to labor, we can all do better together by altering the tech we use to that which employs more of our plentiful labor and uses up less of the now-scarce fuel and resources, as well as less of the air we depended on for climatic stability. I tip my hat to Herman Daly and Hazel Henderson, from whom I learned this.

Some argue that the future holds less work and more leisure or unemployment, but this supposes industrialism somehow continues eliminating labor with resources and tech. While that has certainly predominated in the past, we know this can not continue, since resources are growing scarce. Air, into which to burn carbon, is the first limit, and our past stable climate is an early casualty of industrialism. Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide can not continue. Either industrialism will end the agriculture industrialism relies on, by altering the climatic stability farmers need; or in a green future, fuel will be used less, and labor more. Any robotic replacement of human labor would rely on industrialism’s dependence on finite resources, hence must be fleeting. The sooner we acccept the essentiality of labor in our green future, the better.

Is USA a special case? Does USA's dependence on industrial agriculture now bode slack labor tomorrow? Or can we assure the now-jobless USers of green jobs?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Climate, krill, iron,and the Southern Ocean

Half a year of humanity's fossil carbon release might be bound in an iron-nourished Southern Ocean each year, but what would the climate effect be?

Humanity causes 36.7 gigatons of carbon release into air each year, from land use, cement-making and fossil fuel burning. But if future krill trawlers went to sea, not empty, but full of iron, half that carbon could be fixed by sealife in the Southern Ocean, where the krill are caught per year. But what would happen to the carbon thus caught? Would it fall to the bottom? Would it anaerobically become methane, or induce nitrous oxide release, both worsening the climate crisis, or would it remain in sediments, halfway solving our greenhouse gas problems?

I understand China hopes to increase it's annual Antarctic krill catch 7-fold, to 2 million tons wet weight[8]. This krill catch would, at 28 micrograms iron per gram of krill dry weight[3], and at 20%dry weight:wet weight[5] contain 11.2 tons of iron.

The projected Chinese krill catch, ten-fold existing catches, would be from wild standing stock of ~0.5 billion tons[2], which might contain 2,800 tons Fe[3,4]. Since 1/4 of the krill's range's Fe[1] is in the krill, there could be a total krill range iron content of 11,200 tons. So taking 11.2 tons/year from this would reduce total Fe in range by ~0.1%.

Let's say those trawlers carried 2 million tons of ferrous sulfate heptahydrate from China's iron works to the Southern Ocean's' krill pastures in otherwise empty holds, and spread it evenly as they caught their krill each year. This would contain, at an Fe:S:O4:H14:O7 ratio of 56:32:64:14:112, about 1/5th Fe, or 0.4 million tons Fe.

With krill containing 1gram Fe for every 355 grams P and at Redfield's ratio of 106C:16N:1P , every ton of Fe ending up in krill would temporarily bind 1 x 355 x 106 = approximately 37,630 tons of carbon. So (37,630 x 0.4 million tons x 1/4 of the range's iron being in krill [1], the year's iron supplied by the fleet could fix ~3.8 billion tons of atmospheric carbon temporarily, in living krill, with an additional 11.3 billion tons of carbon in phytoplankton or dissolved. Summed up, 15 gigatons of carbon per year might be fixed, which is about half the fossil fuel carbon emitted per year.

But would all that iron be taken up by Southern Ocean sealife? The Southern Ocean is 20.3 million square kilometers[6], about 4% of Earth's total surface area of 510 millionsq. km. This ocean's productivity is iron limited; It is a part of the 
1/5th of the world's oceanic area limited by iron. Experimental addition of iron
to the Southern Ocean resulted in vastly increased photosynthesis[7]. I'm still 
pursuing the effects on sealife.

But if half the carbon temporarily fixed became methane and a fifth of that returned as methane to the atmosphere, with 72 times the warming potential effect of CO2 over two decades (1/2  x 1/5 x 72 =7.2), the carbon as methane would increase heat trapped by about seven times. We need to know the fate of that carbon.

1    NicoiS 2010 'Southern Ocean fertilization by...'
3    LocarninaSJP 1995 'Trace element concentrations in Antarctic Krill, Euphausia superba'
     Locarnina reports Fe content of 28 micrograms/gram fresh weight, and 9.94 milligrams P per gram, for an P:Fe ration of 355P:1Fe.
4    Partly derived from an estimate within JenningsS, KaiserH, ReynoldsJD; _Marine Fisheries Biology_, John Wiley & Sons 2009 :34 "..if krill wet weight is 10% carbon(Morrill et al 1988, Ikeda & Kirkwood 1989)..."
5   Approximate average from Table 1, RaymontJEG 1971 'The biochemical composition of Euphausia superba'
6    06/30/15
7    BarberRT 'SOFeX: Southern Ocean Iron Experiments. An Overview of the Biological Responses.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Dear Bill Gates: On high taxes not stopping high growth.

The "highest economic growth decade was the 1960s. Income tax rates were 90 percent."  
Bill Gates on Sunday, May 17th, 2015 in an interview on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS"

In sum: While true, there's no longer any room on earth for such growth, if the growth is real. If it's not real growth, then it's just inflation, which won't help. We need to separate economic health from economic growth. Growth promises equality, but never delivers. We need to enforce fair markets and anti-trust law to head toward equality.
Could you expand on your point a little? I admittedly know little about the subject, and this seems like an interesting point.
On this, I'm echoing Dr. Herman Daly, ex-World Bank economist and co-author of the textbook Ecological Economics. His Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE)'s website is a good place to start on this:, as are the writings of Hazel Henderson, and John Michael Greer.
Seven plus billion of us live now on our planet, depending on it for our food and more (fiber, ores, etc.) With so many of us, our dependence is degrading our earth's ability to provide 'tomorrow' what it yielded 'yesterday'. For example abusive ag.'s soil erosion degrades future crop yields. We're running out of resources, including room to pollute, while we're increasing in number of willing workers.
Those before us, in a world empty of workers but full of resources, figured ways to eliminate labor using resources and technology. Yet in today's world, full of workers but emptying of resources, we still idolize LABOR efficiency, when what suits our present circumstances is RESOURCE efficiency.
Economists among us idolize economic growth as politically-acceptable panecea for inequality. There's growth in population and per capita income growth, but there's nowhere to put any of this growth on our earth. We can't fit infinite growth on our finite earth, even per person growth in income, because if the income growth is real, it means more resources extracted and used.
Meanwhile, the effort to increase equality has been thought of as a way for the rich to acceed to the demands of poor, so it is thus a 'reason' for growth. Yet, equality has been progressively receding away over our horizon even as we clamor, through growth, toward that horizon.
So since growth doesn't fit earth today, and won't deliver equality, how do we cope with that and Piketty's insight that capital returns exceed growth rates throughout history? How do we deal with the frightening cries about poverty that stress us all? Measures of well-being in societies with great inequality are on average worse than more equal societies, according to the thoroughly researched Wilkerson and Picketts' The Spirit Level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. Further, how do we make opportunity fairly available to each child, as demands the meritocracy that we aspire to be, and philosophically lean on as rationale?
We should, at least, drop suicidal oil exploration subsidies, for example. We should, at least, face ourselves 'at the pump' with the true pollution costs of the gasoline energy we use to eliminate labor.
We should, at least, charge 'at the pump' for the inevitable degradation of the now polluted commons we all suffer in, rich and poor alike, when we as spenders chose to eliminate labor with use of resources that pollute when used. Also, we should at least recognize that the value of market share, as distinct from pure 'economies of scale', is monopolist's money, unfairly gotten. We should, at least, extend legal protection, conveyed now in the form of ‘common carrier’ law, to small and minority retail consumers, to the wholesale markets as well, as in Maryland’s law that small hospitals can’t be paid less for the same procedure than larger hospitals are otherwise able to negotiate, with market share’s clout, when dealing with health insurance companies.
Here in Boston, this should take the wind out of the hospital ‘consolidation’ drive. It should also, in opposing fashion, squeeze the breeze on health insurance conglomeration as well. It should take the profit out of market domination by large market share buyers of small market share sellers, for example, as well as by large market share sellers squeezing small market share buyers.