Andrew McGuire

Can We Save Nature by Improving Agriculture?

Posted by Andrew McGuire | September 16, 2014
An example of land sharing in Tanzania.  Photo: Rod Waddlington

An example of land sharing in Tanzania. Photo: Rod Waddlington

There is an ongoing debate about how to produce food for a growing population without losing more of our wild lands. Two options are being promoted; “land sparing” where production on current agricultural lands is intensified to produce more food thereby sparing the conversion of wild lands, and “land sharing” where agriculture and wild lands are integrated and small producing parcels are intermixed with wild lands. The former strategy is championed in a paper by Phalan et al. (2011) where the authors report that more bird and tree species were negatively affected by agriculture than benefitted from it. A contrary view from Tscharntke et al. (2012) argues that the land sparing view ignores the complexity of the real world, and that the land sharing strategy would produce more ecosystem services. From these two views, a range of options expand, all of which are being researched and debated.  Read more »

Filed under Food Systems, Global Environment, Sustainability
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Questioning the Value of Soil Quality for the Irrigated Arid West

Posted by Andrew McGuire | August 21, 2014

Grant County potato yield Sign“The Nation’s Leading Potato Producing County” states a sign on I-90 at the Grant County border1. In 2010, Washington potato yields averaged 33 tons per acre, compared to Nebraska at 20.7, Wisconsin at 19.8, and Maine at 14.5 tons per acre (Idaho’s main potato producing counties averages 27.2 tons per acre). And it is not just potatoes; the Columbia Basin produces high yields of corn, dry beans, onions, and many other crops. However, the productive soils in the Columbia Basin often have soil organic matter levels less than 1%, much less than the level considered as adequate for proper functioning, and certainly not high enough to be considered high quality soils. How can such “low quality” soils produce high crop yields, yields higher than other regions with higher soil quality? This paradox highlights a problem with the concept of soil quality; that it does not take into account the soil management practices that farmers employ to overcome problems in so-called “low quality soils” and therefore does not reflect real production capacity of soils, especially in the West. Read more »

Cold + Dry = Winterkill : 2013-14 Winter in Review

Posted by Andrew McGuire | June 18, 2014

Remember last winter? As June warms and temperatures in the 90s are in the forecast, it may be hard to recall, but here in the Columbia Basin, it was dry with a few notable cold spells. That combination of cold and dry can be hard on plants, agricultural and ornamental.

Plants, both annuals and perennials, from wheat to lavender, alfalfa to ziziphus, vary in their ability to survive winter conditions. However, there are three factors that combined to make last winter a “hard winter.” Read more »

The Sustainability of the Columbia Basin’s Irrigation System

Posted by Andrew McGuire | June 2, 2014

Although now teenagers, while in Ephrata’s elementary school my three daughters learned about hydropower generation, electricity and the dams owned and operated by the Grant County Public Utility District. This is good. I believe that people should know where the basics of life come from, so I would tell them at the dinner table that I was glad they were getting a good dam education. Eyes rolled. But earlier this year, when a crack appeared in Wanapum dam necessitating a 26′ drop in water level behind the dam, my girls knew what was at stake; the future of a unique and productive irrigation system.

Wanapum Dam at normal operation (photo: Dept of Ecology)

Wanapum Dam at normal operation (photo: Dept of Ecology)

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Filed under Sustainability
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Concentrate Organic Matter at Surface to Improve Soils

Posted by Andrew McGuire | April 30, 2014
No-till corn with surface residues (photo: McGuire)

No-till corn with surface residues (photo: McGuire)

Organic matter is the key to soil quality, but building soil organic matter levels can be slow and expensive. There is an alternative. Research shows (Franzluebbers, 2002) many soil functions improve when organic matter is concentrated the top 2-3″ of the soil, and that, for many soils and environments, this may be the most effective way to improve soil quality. Read more »

Ecosystems are Not Smart, We Are – Applications on the Farm

Posted by Andrew McGuire | March 5, 2014
17 species cover crop seed blend

Cover crop seed blend of 17 species

In a recent post, I argued that we should cast aside the ideas of “balance of nature” and “nature knows best” in designing farming systems. If nature has not been optimized by any process that we know of, and therefore consists of mostly random mixes of species dictated primarily by natural disturbances, then there is no reason to “follow nature’s lead.”  But if we don’t, what are we left with? Read more »

Don’t Mimic Nature on the Farm, Improve it

Posted by Andrew McGuire | March 3, 2014

Garden of Eden. Thomas Cole [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Behind many efforts to make agriculture more sustainable is the idea that our farming systems need to be more like nature. According to agroecologist Miguel Alteri, “By designing farming systems that mimic nature, optimal use can be made of sunlight, soil nutrients, and rainfall.” This strategy arises from a long history of thinking that there exists a “balance of nature.” This idea has greatly influenced how we look at nature1 and agriculture. In the latter case, it drives much of what is done in organic farming and agroecology, but also finds its way into no-till farming. Nonetheless, it is false, and because it is false we can abandon the restrictive “nature knows best” argument in designing agricultural systems. Instead, we can improve on nature.

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How about GMO cover crops?

Posted by Andrew McGuire | January 28, 2014

This post follows Chad Kruger’s introduction to the discussion of GMOs and sustainability.

In a past post, I argued that killing a cover crop with an herbicide was better for building soil than killing it with tillage. Here is another option. Why not develop genetically engineered (GE) cover crops that die easily when sprayed with an innocuous substance? Read more »

Cover the Soil for Quick Benefits

Posted by Andrew McGuire | October 16, 2013

As noted in colleague Chad Kruger’s informative posts about soil carbon sequestration (1, 2), it takes a long time to reap the benefits of building up soil organic matter. There is, however, a quick way to improve the function of your soil; keep it covered with crop residues. Read more »

Forego a Hamburger, Feed a Person

Posted by Andrew McGuire | September 5, 2013

I eat meat. More specifically, I eat feedlot beef from major supermarket chains and generally enjoy it. Nonetheless, the implications of a recent study have me questioning whether I will eat meat in the future. Read more »

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Contact Andrew McGuire

Email: andrew.mcguire@wsu.edu