WRM, similarly “lacking the scientific chops”, I find your universal/human discourse via Brazil both informing and aspiring. Optimism still counts and a samba resonates more brilliantly than a dirge.
Also, WRM the Malthusian contrast with Brazilian greens give discourse a human dynamic within technical discussion as it focuses attention on 21st century issues.
I like your overall stance but would like to see some improvement in your agronomic assertions to reflect better science.
“you can get two and even three crops a year from the same fields in Brazil. (New techniques involving the use of nitrogen fixing bacteria help reduce the need for fertilizer even with the extra crops.) ”
Soya is a legume. It always and everywhere benefits from symbiosis with rhizobial bacteria that swap nitrates to soya in exchange for sugar. There are many strains of rhizobia. Some do not thrive in Brazilian soil and climate, but some do. Using the right rhizobial inoculant is required. They have done so, but that isn’t some sort of breakthrough, it’s just competent farming. Every farmer everywhere does the same thing, or fails. The story line is that Embrapa found a good strain and made it available to growers.
“As more of the savannahs are converted to soybean production, cattle ranchers may clear more rainforest to replace the lost pastureland. Nevertheless, using grasslands to produce protein directly rather than feeding it to cattle is a more efficient and more sustainable way to use the land.”
No, it isn’t, since the overwhelming majority of soya is used as animal feed, not human food. A better story would be about the development of super productive pasture grasses for cattle. There’s an Africa connection since they adapted an African grass and improved it. There’s a nitrogen connection in that the grass, Brachiaria, has the clever ability to suppress soil bacteria that consume nitrogen, leaving more for plants. The root exudate of Brachiaria is called brachialactone and there is ongoing work to see if other crops such as cereals can be taught to do this trick. That would be a spectacular agronomic hack if achieved.
“cows are a leading source of greenhouse gasses”
Cows produce no GHGs. Digestive bacteria produce methane, but they do that decomposing plant flesh no matter whether a cow has eaten it or not. The same fodder, just left in the field to rot, would produce the same gasses as the natural carbon and nitrogen cycles were completed. The nice part is that when the rot takes place inside a cow you get cow flesh for free as a side benefit. Even better, pasture land is a net sink rather than a source of GHGs since more of gasses (including methane consumed by methane eating bacteria) are drawn down than are emitted no matter how many cattle are grazed.
Overturning traditional cow bashing by greens seems like it would fit nicely with your thesis. It is surprising that your are right there where so much progress is being made and yet cling to the tired old narrative.
You may still be giving global warmists and the evidence for man-made global warming more credit than they deserve. Consider this review of what came out of the “Climategate” revelations: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BQpciw8suk
Prof. Muller is a bit of a showboat, as you will see, but he is a serious scientist, and I await his promised re-analusis of the temerature data with interest.
In the meantime, why is everybody so eager to jump on the man-made global warming bandwagon? The Earth has been getting warmer for the last 10,000 years, since the end of the last Ice Age, and I doubt it was because of rising emissions from Stone Age factories and and automobiles. Could it possibly be that whatever has warmed the Earth for ten millenia is still the culprit (if that is the word for something that drove the glaciers back from Long Island and Westchester County, among many other places) is still what’s at work on the climate today?
Excellent and informative piece. We shouldn’t be too surprised: knowledge, science, and discovery have been making life for mankind generally better for centuries now, and there is no good reason to believe that that process has come to an end.
I am glad to see that the “can-do” spirit seems to be thriving in Brazil. I hope we can just keep that spirit going here in America during these difficult times.
I follow Lubos Motl for the science of global warming. He doesn’t suffer fools, and is a first rate scientist.
Motl is 90% confident that there has been some warming over the past centuryj. But he thinks it impossible at this point to separate out the human contribution from the noise, natural variability, and a number of other identifiable factors driving climate change.
The major outstanding scientific issue, in his view, is how “sensitive” the climate is to a doubling of CO2? He thinks the evidence shows around one degree centigrade, a third of what the alarmist maintain. A lot of the uncertainty has to do with the effects of clouds, and more generally whether any feedback mechanisms are positive or negative. The alarmist say positive, but nature generally prefers negative as it leads to stability. Over the eons earth’s temperature has been pretty stable in spite of vast fluctuations in the composition of the atmosphere, solar radiation, etc. Life depends on that stability — and here we are.
But then there is the 2nd major question of whether global warming would be a good or bad thing on balance? Probably a good thing on commonsense grounds. Look at all the real estate in the northern latitudes.
Finally there is the 3rd major question of what if anything we could do to prevent global warming in either a best or worse case scenario. The answer is very little — though we could easily bankrupt ourselves trying.
A lot of the debate gets bogged down over the issue of sensitivity at the expense of the 2nd and 3rd considerations, which really is pretty ridiculous when you stop to think about it.
Anyway, read Motl. He’s the best one out there.
And another thing the greens would not be happy about, with extra CO2 everything grows better, already estimated at additional 15% agricultural productivity.
Shame they are so frightened of this plant food that they want to capture it and sequester it. Super NUTS.
“lab grown meat” What’s so new about that. I think I ate lots of it in the service.
Back40, I was going to raise the same issues (though I have nowhere near the level of learning, I’d say). Wheat, corn, and soybean cultivation is terrible for the environment and destroy the topsoil. That’s apparently part of the reason the Middle East is no longer a Fertile Crescent: over-cultivation. (NASA stated that over-cultivation and destruction of rainforest may have been part of what destroyed at least one South American civilization. I think Maya, but I’m not sure.) Cattle, fed on grass, produce less methane than cattle fed on corn and other foods not included in what cattle evolved to eat, i.e. foods which irritate the gut of the animal. Some attempts to reverse desertification by increasing the quantities of cattle on the land have apparenlty been quite successful.
Wheat, corn, and soybeans are pretty terrible for people too, and the use of grains as a staple food (rather than the starvation food they apparently were throughout most of human history) has quite possibly led to the issues with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer which we see in our society today. Trying to turn ecosystems into agriculture kills the ecosystem and feeds people terribly unhealthy food in exchange.
All in all, we should be pushing to reduce our dependence on industrial agriculture…particularly of the grain- and legume-growing variety. It’s terrible for the planet and it’s terrible for us.
Unfortunately I can’t cite as many sources as I’d like because I’m away from my personal computer, but Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories is a good place to start for the nutritional aspect. FWIW, I’d like to read a book-length piece on sustainability by WRM.
Rick, did you read the line, “New techniques involving the use of nitrogen fixing bacteria help reduce the need for fertilizer even with the extra crops”?
Fertilization is the antidote to over-cultivation. That’s been true since humanity discovered the three-field crop rotation system, but it’s particularly true now that we’re approaching the whole process of agriculture scientifically — and, yes, industrially.
Your “terrible for the planet” articles of faith are exactly the sort of alarmism that WRM is warning against.
It’s a mystery to me why any one still believes that AGW has any purchase left. It was always suspect, made urgent only by the terms in which it was discussed, not in the terms of the scientific evidence. Chock full of nuts ain’t the half of it. The basis of science is “Here’s my hypothesis. Prove me wrong.” Whatever appears “settled” isn’t for long. What the green apostles have done is set themselves up as gatekeepers for the credibility of their critics, denying them access to the evidence to test the theories, using falsified and inadequate data to feed into models designed to prove the greens correct, and then proclaiming their results sacred and unchallengeable. There’s nothing scientific about this process. Paying obeysance to AGW is as unnecessary as it is unwise.
I wish to avoid being boorish in WRM’s abode by hijacking his thread to neep about agro-tech too much, but you are right that a great deal more could be said about some bad data and false premises that underlie higher level analysis of economic and socio-political systems. Garbage in, garbage out, as is said. His general approach seems good, so such defects may well be corrected in future, especially since they strengthen his case rather than weaken it.
As careful thinkers say, agriculture does not just have problems, it is a problem. This leads into WRM’s tossed off ideas about cultured foods, the techno-vegetarian dream, but it applies even more to field and row crops than to some meats. I say some meats because it is only ruminants – cloven hooves and cheweth the cud – that are environmentally benign. Other meat animals are omnivores or carnivores with inefficient digestive systems and so directly compete with humans for food. Chickens, pigs and game fish for example eat high on the food chain and so are necessarily comparatively rare in nature.
You say “Cattle, fed on grass, produce less methane than cattle fed on corn”. It’s the opposite. Methane results in a circuitous manner from the digestion of complex carbohydrates such as cellulose and hemi-cellulose. Simpler carbohydrates such as the starches in grain produce less methane. But one must remember that the majority of the biomass produced by the maize plant is coarse stems, leaves and cobs. They still have to be decomposed and that is where the methane is produced. It’s a hide-the-pea game and sloppy accounting to cite grain feeding as a methane reduction technique.
“Some attempts to reverse desertification by increasing the quantities of cattle on the land have apparently been quite successful.”
True, especially in Africa. See Allan Savory for more than you ever wanted to know about this issue.
“All in all, we should be pushing to reduce our dependence on industrial agriculture…particularly of the grain- and legume-growing variety. It’s terrible for the planet and it’s terrible for us.”
I don’t think that this is possible. Our need for more food and fiber continues to increase. A better approach IMV is to get better at agriculture. One day we may be able to synthesize such materials directly from air, water and space rocks, but until then I advocate increased competence. There are some interesting harm reduction hacks involving conservation tillage, improved seed, and precision application of amendments that are currently available. As our ability to gather and process more real-time data improves due to advances in information technologies ever more precise applications become both possible and economical.