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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.

Read more »

Greening Up with Cover Crops for Yield and Sustainability

Posted by David Granatstein | February 24, 2014

I had the good fortune to attend the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health in Omaha, Nebraska recently.  Soil health is in the limelight these days, with a new soil health initiative at the USDA-NRCS, a new Soil Health Partnership from the National Corn Growers Association, another soil health initiative from the Noble Foundation, and several recent meetings on soil health here in the Northwest including a session at the Washington State Horticulture meeting last December and a day-long soil quality workshop in Mt. Vernon.  Read more »

Prioritizing Soil Quality Research – What exactly does that mean?

Posted by Chad Kruger | February 10, 2014

Interest in “soil quality” (a.k.a. soil health) has grown rapidly over the past decade regardless of agricultural production system or geographical region. While there have been focused efforts on soil conservation in the past, there seems to be a growing consensus that agriculture at large has historically undervalued the important role that soils can play in improving sustainability. Some of these functions include disease suppression, nutrient cycling, and water management. Read more »

Do Farm Bills Drive or Deter Change?

Posted by Chuck Benbrook | February 5, 2014

Farm bills over the last forty years have shaped today’s agriculture systems and technology.  They have done so by setting the “rules of the road” and defining or shaping research and investment priorities.

The new farm bill provides farmers, agribusiness, rural communities, and the food industry a more stable policy framework in which to make investment and planting decisions.  But my sense is this farm bill could mark a historically significant inflection point. Farm bills since the 1970s have tried to become more market-driven, by lessening the impact of USDA farm programs on the choices made by farmers.  Read more »

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 »

Re-assessing the sustainability of genetically engineered crops?

Posted by Chad Kruger | January 24, 2014

Historically, there has been passionate resistance from advocates of organic and sustainable agriculture systems to the introduction and use of genetically engineered (GE) crops.  The position, as most often stated, is that GE and sustainable agriculture (specifically organic agriculture) are mutually exclusive.  This position is codified in the National Organics Standards which have excluded the intentional use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in organic production and handling.  The high-profile ballot initiative (I-522) had this issue front and center in Washington State for most of last fall. Read more »

The “Rest” of the Food System

Posted by Craig Frear | January 22, 2014

In recent years, increasing numbers of consumers have become interested in making sure the food system is more sustainable. However, the bulk of effort and attention has gone toward the part of the food system that leads up to their forks. Much less attention has been paid to the “post-fork” part of our food system. This part of the food system is big. In 2008, food losses were estimated to be 30% at the retail and consumer levels in the U.S., with a total estimated retail value of $165.6 billion (Buzby and Hyman 2012). Other estimates are similar, ranging from 25–40%. Read more »

The Foley Institute Panel: The Science, Ethics and Politics of GMO’s and Your Food

Posted by Chad Kruger | October 25, 2013

In an effort to provide a balanced and pro-active public forum for the discussion of issues related to GMO’s and the I-522 Initiative, Washington State University’s Foley Institute is hosting a lecture and panel discussion on Monday, October 28th. The panel features Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair Paul Thompson, one of the world’s most widely known and respected academics for his research on the intersection of ethics and science in GMO technology. I’ve personally read much of Thompson’s work going back to my days as a graduate student and have found his insights very helpful in developing my own “non-expert” perspective on GM technology.

In addition, two WSU Faculty Members with expertise in GM technology and its broader implications, Mike Neff (Crop Biotechnologist) and CSANR’s own Chuck Benbrook will be part of the panel.

This event should be very informative and worth your efforts to attend in person if possible. However, realizing that Pullman is a long trek for many Washington citizens, the lecture and panel discussion will be recorded and broadcast by KWSU.

The recording is now available here: http://foley.wsu.edu/ ; scroll down to “I-522 debate.”

WSU’s Official Policy on Initiative 522.

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 »

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