20 December 2002
YIELDS BOOSTED BY 880% ON POOR SOIL WITH ORGANIC METHODS/NON-GE NEMATODE RESISTANT PEPPER DEVELOPED IN THE US
from the current Ecologist Newsletter:
"God loves you and I love you and you can count on us both!" - DUBYA, DECEMBER 2002
"In a generation of swine, the one eyed pig is king" - Hunter S. Thomson
"You can fool too many of the people too much of the time." - James Thurber
"The most serious threat to democracy is the notion that it has already been achieved" - anon
item 1 is from GMWATCH editor Claire Robinson:
1.Yields boosted by 880% on poor soil with organic methods
2.Non-GE nematode resistant pepper developed in the U.S
[excerpt from from Who needs GM? ngin/gmwatchbulletin 20 Dec 2002
>Organic system doubles rice yield
>Philippines (December 20, 2002) - Norman Uphoff, director of Cornell
>University's International Institute for Food and Agriculture
>Development (CIIFAD), told visiting Filipino journalists in a lecture
>last month about a purely organic system of rice planting developed in
>Madagascar, which claims to increase rice yield per hectare by as much
>as 100% - doubling average rice yields of 3.5 metric tons (MT) per
>hectare to as much as 8 MT]
Did anyone see the Horizon programme The Secret of El Dorado on Thur 19 Dec 2002, BBC2?
summary available at
and full transcript also available.
Tucked away in an archaeological slot were facts that if fully taken on board, would drop the biotech brigade and their false promises of "feeding the world" into the dustbins of history.
The programme showed how in the time before the Conquistadors invaded, large and sophisticated Amazonian civilisations fed themselves sustainably (until they were wiped out by Western diseases brought by Conquistadors) by a system of organic farming which transformed the naturally thin, poor rainforest soil into rich, black, self-renewing fertile stuff that produced massive yields in a small amount of land.
!!! In a modern trial of the ancient Amazonian farming methods, using experimental plots, yields were increased by 880% over plots using the modern intensive farming methods. !!!
*** NOT slash and burn, which is what the corporate-driven agriculture is making South American farmers do at the moment. This only leads to rain washing out the few nutrients remaining in the soil, making the land sterile within 3 growing seasons and forcing the farmers to move on
*** NOT the addition of mineral fertiliser alone, another bright idea of corporate ag, which in experimental plots showed hardly any improvement in yield over slash and burn with no fertiliser
*** NOT genetic engineering, which has singularly failed to boost yield or to produce the much-vaunted crops for marginal soils [the program, oddly for a series which has previously hyped the "benefits" of GM in feeding the world, didn't mention GM; but anyone aware of GM hype could not fail to note the absurdity of the superstitious faith placed in this useless technology, in the light of what man and nature can do when they work in harmony]
The key to producing massive yields in poor rainforest soil is
*** scorching off the ground regularly with small fires and incorporating vegetable charcoal into the soil; incorporating fallen leaves/vegetation; and (in the modern experiment) adding mineral fertiliser
*** allowing billions of soil microbes to do the rest.
People who know a little about organic farming will note that there is little that is new about this. Incorporating lots of organic matter into the soil and encouraging a living soil by avoiding toxic chemicals has always been a mainstay of organic farming. And organic farming supporters will either be amused or appalled at the apparent amazement of the scientists involved in this project at their "discovery" that the soil is "living". However, I haven't heard specifically of the vegetable charcoal method before -- though I remain open to correction by any farming experts out there.
The bottom line (can the biotech brigade genetically engineer a crop that can better this?): "In experimental plots, adding a combination of charcoal and [mineral] fertiliser into the rainforest soil boosted yields by 880% compared with fertiliser alone."
Excerpts from summary:
In 1542, the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Orellana ventured along the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon Basin's great rivers. Hunting a hidden city of gold, his expedition found a network of farms, villages and even huge walled cities. At least that is what he told an eager audience on his return to Spain.
The prospect of gold drew others to explore the region, but none could find the people of whom the first Conquistadors had spoken. The missionaries who followed a century later reported finding just isolated tribes of hunter-gatherers. Orellana's story seemed to be no more than a fanciful myth.
A proven liar?
When scientists came to weigh up the credibility of Orellana's words, they reached the same conclusion. As productive as the rainforest may appear, the soil it stands in is unsuited to farming. It is established belief that all early civilisations have agriculture at their hearts. Any major population centre will have connections with a system of intensive agriculture. If a soil cannot support crops sufficient to feed a large number of people, then that serves as an effective cap on the population in that area. Even modern chemicals and techniques have failed to generate significant food from Amazonian soil in a sustainable way. The thought that indigenous people could have survived in any number - let alone prospered - was dismissed by most scientists. Scientific consensus was sure that the original Amazonians lived in small semi-nomadic bands and that Orellana must have lied.
Clues from the Bolivian savannah
Bolivia's Llanos de Mojos (Mojos Plains) are 2,000km from Orellana's route down the main channel of the Amazon. The terrain is savannah grassland with extreme seasons - floods in the wet; fires in the dry. Crops are hard to grow and few people live there. But back in the 1960s archaeologist Bill Denevan noted that the landscape was crossed with unnaturally straight lines. Large areas were also covered with striped patterns.
Recently, Denevan's work has been followed up by Clark Erickson, a landscape archaeologist. His attention was drawn to the numerous forest islands dotted across the savannah like oases. Down on the ground he found them littered with prehistoric pot sherds, a clear sign of early human habitation. Some mounds were as much as 18m high and much of the pottery was on a grand scale as well. Such huge vessels were too big for wandering nomads. Here were permanent settlements, where hundreds or even thousands of people had once gathered for huge ceremonies. To Erickson, these were signs of an advanced society - a civilisation.
... Denevan and Erickson have shown that the striped patterns are relics of a system of raised fields. From the air, the area which appears to have been turned over to such agriculture is clear. It covers thousands of square kilometres. In conjunction with the controlled irrigation a canal network might offer, it could have sustained hundreds of thousands of people. Erickson believes the Mojos Plains were home to a society which had totally mastered its environment.
If land now little suited to agriculture could once have supported hordes of people, is there a chance Orellana's mythical El Dorado has some basis in fact?
When anthropologist Michael Heckenberger met the Kuikuru tribe in the central Amazon he was impressed by the complexity of their social structure. Why, he wondered, would a tribe of just 300 people adopt such a hierarchical way of life? (Received opinion held that Amazonian tribes were small, egalitarian societies.) He found evidence that the Kuikuru had once lived in an integrated network of villages, each one many times the size of their modern-day settlements. Heckenberger believes the prehistoric Kuikuru were not the semi-nomadic wanderers of anthropological theory. Instead, they lived in large chiefdoms - the advanced society described by Orellana.
The secret of the soil
The search for clues in the Amazon takes place at grass roots level - in the soil itself. Along Brazil's Tapajos River, archaeologist Bill Woods has mapped numerous prehistoric sites, some with exquisite, 2,000 year old pottery. There is a common thread: the earth where people have lived is much darker than the rainforest soil nearby. Closer investigation showed that the two soils are the same, the dark loam is just a result of adding biological matter. The Brazilians call this fertile ground terra preta. It is renowned for its productivity and even sold by local people.
Archaeologists have surveyed the distribution of terra preta and found it correlates favourably with the places Orellana reported back in the 16th century. The land area is immense - twice the size of the UK. It seems the prehistoric Amazonian peoples transformed the earth beneath their feet. The terra preta could have sustained permanent intensive agriculture, which in turn would have fostered the development of advanced societies.
Archaeologists like Bill Petersen, from the University of Vermont, now regard Orellana's account as highly plausible... [describes how Amazonian populations were wiped out by diseases brought by Conquistadores] Yet the Amazonians' greatest achievement lives on. Soil scientists analysing the terra preta have found its characteristics astonishing, especially its ability to maintain nutrient levels over hundreds of years. 20th century techniques of farming on cleared, torched rainforest - so-called slash and burn agriculture - have never been sustainable. With the vegetation burned off, the high rainfall soon leaches all the nutrients out of the soil. Research has shown that even chemical fertilisers cannot maintain crop yields into a third consecutive growing season, yet terra preta remains fertile year after year.
Nature and nurture
Again, Orellana's accounts offer potential insight. He reported that the indigenous people used fire to clear their fields. Bruno Glaser, from the University of Bayreuth, has found that terra preta is rich in charcoal, incompletely burnt wood. He believes it acts to hold the nutrients in the soil and sustain its fertility from year to year. This is the great secret of the early Amazonians: how to nurture the soil towards lasting productivity. In experimental plots, adding a combination of charcoal and fertiliser into the rainforest soil boosted yields by 880% compared with fertiliser alone.
Yet terra preta may have a still more remarkable ability. Almost as if alive, it appears to reproduce. Bill Woods has met local farmers who mine the soil commercially. They find that, as long as 20cm of terra preta is left undisturbed, the bed will regenerate over a period of about 20 years. He suspects that a combination of bacteria and fungi is causing this effect.
Today, scientists are busy searching for the biological cocktail that makes barren earth productive. If they can succeed in recreating the Amerindians' terra preta, then a legacy more precious than the gold the Conquistadors sought could spare the rainforest from destruction and help feed people across the developing world.
2.Non-GE nematode resistant pepper developed in the US
genet-news mailing list
-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------
TITLE: Hybrid Bell Pepper Is Latest Bad News for Nematodes
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service,
by Luis Pons
DATE: Dec 19, 2002
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
Nematode-resistant varieties of hybrid bell peppers may soon offer desirable characteristics possessed by nonresistant types. This is because Agricultural Research Service scientists at the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, S.C., have bred an experimental hybrid that inherits its resistance from just one of its parent varieties.
Nematodes are microscopic roundworms that cause millions of dollars in annual damages to crops nationwide. Root-knot nematodes are a major problem for bell pepper growers.
The hybrid, developed for research purposes by plant pathologist Judy A. Thies and geneticist Richard L. Fery, shows that nematode-resistant bell pepper hybrids can be developed by crossing a resistant, open-pollinated bell pepper type with varieties lacking the key resistance gene but possessing other positive characteristics such as large fruits or resistance to disease. The new hybrid is as resistant as hybrids developed by crossing two resistant pepper varieties.
The hybrid marks the latest success from ARS research in nematode-resistant bell peppers at the Charleston laboratory. In 1997, Fery released Charleston Belle and Carolina Wonder, the first bell peppers resistant to root-knot nematodes.
Those peppers' resistance stems from what is called the N gene, which Fery obtained from Mississippi Nemaheart, a pimiento pepper variety that carries the resistance gene. The gene controls resistance to three major root-knot nematode species: Meloidogyne incognita, M. arenaria and M. javanica.
The experimental hybrid was developed by crossing the resistant Charleston Belle with Keystone Resistant Giant, which lacks the N gene.
Progress with nematode-resistant crop varieties is significant because the soil fumigant methyl bromide, the primary control method now used to combat the parasites, is scheduled to be banned in 2005 because of its negative effects on the ozone layer. A 1995 economic study declared that banning methyl bromide without an alternative method of controlling nematodes would cost the nation's bell pepper industry $127 million in losses.
ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.