No more fish

The Economist had special report on the sea last week, aptly entitled “The tragedy of the sea.” It is a couple of pages long. Read it. After you read my summary and call for action.

The oceans are a common good. Hence we extract from it as much as we can, as quickly as we can, and then dump our trash in it. There is plastic floating everywhere. And we have all but wiped out the large predator fish (cod, tuna, sharks…) that we like to eat so much. We are the main predator now, and a voracious one at that. We have kept the catch from declining with much improved fishing technologies. But that is making things worse in the long run. The remaining fish, lower in the food chain, are getting smaller and smaller. We get more ‘dead zones’, which are quite alive actually, but with slimy and more simple organisms like jellyfish — this is called ‘reverse evolution’. And now we have started big time krill fishing to further undermine life in the oceans. Who knows what that will do. But it is quite likely that fisheries — and perhaps ocean life in general — will collapse.

Some species have already collapsed, but much worse is coming our way. There are many causes. And there are simple solutions. We have to stop dumping our garbage, quit certain fishing methods, we have to manage fish stock rationally, and we should simply eat less fish. Ok, there is fish farming to help. But that ain’t particularly great either (like catching mackerel to raise tuna). Farmed shell fish is probably best. Low in the food chain, and they feed on algae.

Some countries are actually trying to be responsible. For example Iceland and Norway, were fisheries are an important source of income. The European Union is perhaps worst of all. In the EU, the fish business appears to have — improbable as this may seem — an even more disproportionate political influence than the agricultural sector. So the quota are always set too high. And then everybody cheats and catches even more. All that heavily subsidized of course, with most money going to the worst offenders: the Spanish fishermen.1

There is not much fish left in European waters, so now they are buying up fishing rights in Africa; and happily deploying illegal fishing methods, and killing massive amounts of ‘by-catch’ such as turtles.

Meanwhile, the EU funds development aid to teach local fisher folk about sustainable fishing. But when the fish is gone, what can they do? Fortunately, in Somalia the fishermen were rather inventive. But who are the real pirates?

Where is the Big Environmental Activism in all this? Greenpeace used to work against nuclear waste dumping and whale killing. They still talk about it, but it seems they have diversified. Perhaps it is not part of their business model to attempt to make their rich constituency change their own behavior. It is perhaps easier to work on scaring us about GMO crops, and the big bad multinationals behind it.

The impeding death of the oceans should be of much more concern.

We need aggressive action. I propose a EU-wide fish-fast. Can we all boycott the EU fishing industry for a year? That should slow things down.2 And let’s choose a specific target. Spanish fishers seem to be the worst in the world. So let’s boycott Spain. We can make it the new South Africa. Stop drinking sherry and rioja. Don’t go to the beach3 of Torremolinos this summer. If you must go to Spain, perhaps because you are a bullfighting aficionado, or to toss goats from a tower, do not eat calamares or other sea creatures. The Spanish are in a bad economic downturn, so we can force them to their knees if we act quickly and decisively. After Spain backs down we’ll take the next target. We have a long list.

  1. It seems that the majority of the Spanish fishermen are Basque. I wonder if this these subsidies are an attempt to appease the Basques? Are we killing the oceans to undermine ETA? []
  2. But don’t replace fish with meat, just with grains, beans and veggies. []
  3. Sic. Ed. []

Biodiversity and rice pests

How should farmers deal with rice pests? Spray? Use resistant varieties? Or rely on bio-control ecosystem services?

Brown Plant Hopper Spraying is what many farmers do, to the detriment of their health and environment. It also makes the pest problem worse. Why? Because pesticides also kill the pests’ natural enemies, such as spiders. So you need to spray again, and again. Until the pests are pesticide resistant. This has led to huge outbreaks of brown plant hopper, like in Indonesia in the 1980s, which only stopped after most pesticides were banned.1

Use host plant resistance is what many researchers say. Sounds simple enough, and now there are GMO approaches to get that in different forms. Nature magazine recently had a piece2 about GM approaches to get insect resistant rice in China.3

But not everybody agrees. The problem is that some of the major pests occur in large numbers and rely entirely on rice for their life cycle. Strong evolutionary pressure means that these species tend to quickly overcome host plant resistance. In the Nature article, KL Heong calls pest-resistant GM crops a short-term fix for long-term problems caused by crop monoculture and overuse of broad-spectrum pesticides. “Pests thrive where biodiversity is at peril, instead of genetic engineering, why don’t we engineer the ecology by increasing biodiversity?”

This week, in a letter to the editor of Nature, Settele, Biesmeijer and Bommarco also make a case for ecological engineering: the design and construction of ecosystems.

The nice thing about tropical rice is that there is not that much engineering needed to keep pests under control. This is my understanding of how it works:

  • Rule #1: do not kill the beneficial insects (avoid pesticides).
  • Rule #2: help the beneficial insects. For example, by providing ample organic matter to fields, you increase the population of harmless insects and with that the population of generalist predators (see below).
  • Rule #3, maintain a diverse landscape around the rice fields to support useful insects, such as parasitoids that, as adults, need nectar from flowering plants.

William Settle and colleagues studied rice bugs in Indonesia and summed their findings up like this:

By increasing organic matter in test plots we could boost populations of detritivores and plankton-feeders, and in turn significantly boost the abundance of generalist predators. We also demonstrated the link between early-season natural enemy populations and later-season pest populations by experimentally reducing early-season predator populations with insecticide applications, causing pest populations to resurge later in the season.

Irrigated rice systems support high levels of natural biological control that depends on season long successional processes and interactions among a wide array of species. Our results support the conservation of existing natural biological control through a major reduction in insecticide use, and an increase in habitat heterogeneity.

While it seems obvious that relying on and strengthening ecosystem services is the way to go, this is not what is happening. The brown plant hopper is coming back as a major problem, particularly in Vietnam and China. The response? Breeding & Spray, baby, spray.

It is tricky to generalize about agriculture and pests. There are always exceptions and special circumstances. And what if someone can make a rice plant that is truly immune to stem borers and plant hoppers. Well, some other insects would go after the available resources, but it could certainly be beneficial. Also, the biodiversity of insects in tropical rice fields, such as in Indonesia, is much higher than in China (probably largely because of the general relation between latitude and diversity, but perhaps also because of excessive pesticide use in China). So perhaps biocontrol ecosystem services are not as effective in China as in more tropical areas. We should find out.

And we should get serious about ecological engineering.

And not just in rice. Take this article that appeared in this week’s PNAS. It describes the need for maintaining landscape diversity in the USA, to support aphid control in soybeans by ladybugs.

  1. Brown plant hopper image from CSIRO. []
  2. Apologies for a post with many references to articles behind a paywall. []
  3. Also see this paper by Huang et al. in Science and the critical responses. []

Of cabbages and kings and laws and asses

ResearchBlogging.orgThis is a heartwarming tale of a group of farmers, isolated from the mainstream, seeking new products for a growing market, realizing that they have lost some of their traditional knowledge and their traditional varieties, and working closely with scientists in a participatory plant breeding effort to get what they need.

So far, so familiar.

The kicker is that these farmers are not isolated 3000 metres above sea level in a narrow valley. Nor are they eking out a living in poor red soils that are lucky to see 15 cm of rain a year. They are organic farmers growing cauliflowers and cabbages in Brittany in northwest France.1

Brittany has long been famous for its brassicas, notably broccoli, cauliflowers and cabbages. In the 1980s, breeders developed F1 hybrids that offered conventional growers the advantages of yield, uniformity and an extended harvest season. The first hybrid cauliflower was introduced in 1983. Before that time production was based on seed from open-pollinated populations raised on farms by growers who often specialized in seed production for their neighbours. While conventional growers were quick to adopt the range of F1 hybrids that the seed companies offered, organic farmers found themselves increasingly neglected.

They want seed breeders to respect both “the natural characteristics of species” and the “integrity of the organism”. The F1 hybrids, which require a form of male sterility developed by fusing two different types of cell, do neither. But conventional seed breeders do not find it worthwhile to develop varieties for organic farmers, a small market that actively seeks diversity and autonomy from the seed companies.

The organic farmers of Brittany are well organized. They have a professional body, Inter Bio Bretagne, and a research organization called PAIS (Plateforme Agrobiologique d’Inter Bio Bretagne à Suscino). The French National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) has undertaken organic research since 1999 and in 2004 limited European Union support became available. the organic farmers and scientists decided to develop the brassica varieties they needed.

First they rounded up genetic resources from genebanks in France and elsewhere; Wellesbourne in the UK, Wageningen in the Netherlands, CHERAC in Switzerland and the Vavilov Institute in Russia. A European programme, RESGEN, had collected numerous heritage varieties just before the flood of F1 hybrids.

The team focused on four primary aims:

  • Reviving the traditional activity of Roscoff cauliflowers and local cabbages.
  • Extending the traditional activity into autumn cauliflowers.
  • Diversifying production into new coloured cauoliflowers.
  • Creating new types of population for broccoli and coloured cauliflowers.

For each of these, the Euphytica paper goes into considerable detail. Cabbages, for example, were first grown out and assessed for marketable quality by the farmers and their advisers. the most promising — 7 of the 22 accessions evaluated — are being developed by mass selection at PAIS to make the varieties more suited to mass marketing. The growers adopted a similar strategy to improve autumn cauliflowers, where 8 out of 55 accessions are being pursued. Broccoli and cauliflowers with coloured curds are also in development.

The research side of developing new varieties was going well when, according to the researchers, “the next step occurred spontaneously in the field”. Farmers realized that although agricultural biodiversity, breeding and selection could give them the varieties they sought, they would then have to assure themselves of a supply of seed. “Some of them remembered having seen a father or grandfather producing and breeding seed.” Alas, they “did not remember the traditional know-how or were too young”. And the traditional methods covered only the traditional crops, not the new introductions.

cauliflower.png Working together, the farmers and their advisers are tackling these issues. They have introduced new varieties, with a label that mentions the role of PPB in their development. And they have re-established specialist seed farmers who supply seed for all in a collective framework. The big stumbling block now is European legislation.

Until now, the exchange of seed has remained an experimental dimension of PPB because of the current seed regulation which does not allow seed exchange of non-registered varieties. So, the seed legislation represents a limitation on the development of a “market” for seed from PPB. The term “market” is understood as all forms of gift, exchange, free or financial transactions.

The authors of the paper describe how poor farmers “from the Andes to the Himalayas and beyond” have made use of participatory plant breeding and have adapted local laws to make seed available to poor farmers. Europe lags far behind. As the authors say, “French seed legislation represents a limitation on the development of seed exchange by PPB”.

And not just French.

Photo from here.

  1. The work is described in this paper: Véronique Chable, Mathieu Conseil, Estelle Serpolay, François Lagadec (2008). Organic varieties for cauliflowers and cabbages in Brittany: from genetic resources to participatory plant breeding Euphytica, 164 (2), 521-529 DOI: 10.1007/s10681-008-9749-7 []

A landscape to marvel at


That image took my breath away when I saw it a couple of days ago. It shows rice terraces north of Pokhara, Nepal. The caption to the picture said that the economy of Nepal is based on agriculture,

“which employs 80 percent of the working population and accounts for 41 percent of the gross domestic product of one of the world’s poorest countries. Generations of farmers have tamed the mountainsides and prevented erosion by cutting terraces. Rice paddies thus rise in tiers as high as 9,800 feet (3,000 m) above sea level, covering 45 percent of Nepal’s cultivated land.”

The photo was one of almost 40 at a wonderful site called The Big Picture at Two or three times a week Alan Taylor assembles a portfolio of outstanding photographs from around the world. This time they were by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who has developed a wonderful technique of photographing nature and humanity from the air.

Many of the pictures that The Big Picture showcased depended for much of their impact on agriculture, and the patterns that human interference creates on the ground. This particular one caught my eye for two reasons. First off, it is very, very beautiful. Secondly, Pokhara is a famous name among some agrobiodiversity nuts (such as myself). I’ll explain in a minute. So, I made a note to come back and blog the story here when I had a moment. Imagine my horror, then, when I headed over to The Big Picture and found this note:

At the request of the coordinator of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s upcoming exhibit, the number of photographs displayed here has been reduced to ten.

Pokhara had vanished. Yikes! That’ll teach me to procrastinate. But, knowing as I do the Dark Side of the Web, I simply assumed that someone, somewhere, would already have stolen it, and I was right. Lock, stock and barrel, the entire sequence of 38 images had been scraped by a nefarious site (to which I will naturally not link). They’d even had the gall to put their own credit on the image, a matter of minutes to excise. So, saved, by evil.1

Which brings me to the importance of Pokhara. The farmers there have been working with a local NGO called LI-BIRD and with Bioversity International to develop a local landrace of rice. After a concerted effort to find and then assess hundreds of versions of the landrace, the farmers came up with an improved version that was eventually registered with the Nepalese authorities as a “proper” variety that can be sold. That may not sound like much of an achievement, but take it from me: it is. But I had never seen the agricultural landscape in which this work was undertaken. Now that I’ve seen Arthus-Bertrand’s picture, I’m even more impressed.

You can read about Pokhareli Jethobudho at the web site of Bioversity International and at the International Development Research Centre in Canada, one of the donors that supported the project.

  1. It is, of course, not Evil to do exactly the same thing and steal back the photo for Good. []

Harlan II, day 3

Robert Hijmans’ third dispatch from Davis. Previous one here. Keep ’em coming, Robert!

Day 3 of the Harlan II symposium had another cornucopia of fine presentations. Farmed fish, genetic chips, fruits for the poor, improving desert crops, ecosystems services research, transgenic goats, selling diversity to the rich to name a few topics. One subject shared by several talks was on-going and future domestication.1 From conservation to innovation.

Dennis Hedgecock described the big wave of domestication in our time: aquaculture. Within a decade or so, there will be more fish produced on farms than caught in the oceans. The ocean catch won’t increase much any more (or worse); we have reached the limits. And how wild is caught fish anyway? Fish stocks in the ocean are increasingly being replenished with small fish from hatcheries. The majority of Japanese fish descends from hatchery fish. Whether this is good or bad for the genetic diversity of the fish depends how it is done. Guess how it is done.

Overfishing of oceans and the subsequent shift to farming is strikingly similar to the domestication pathways of some land animals that were also hunted before they were domesticated (discussed yesterday by Melinda Zeder). So what is all this fish farming about? Shrimp, salmon, tilapia? No. Number 1 is the Pacific Oyster and 60% of fish farming is carp production in China.

The breeders are at it too. They have developed a tetraploid Pacific Oyster. Crossing it with the normal diploids creates infertile, but larger, triploid offspring. They are not being commercially produced yet, but here aquaculture mimicks plant domestication.

Roger Leakey described a project of further or re-domestication of tree crops. Going into villages in West Africa, Leakey and colleagues asked farmers what trees they valued and would like to have more of. They then looked at the variation in the species, selected some with good fruits, and helped find a place for them in the farming system, e.g. as shade crop in cacao. Seems like fairly simple work, if labour intensive.

In some places the result was stunning, with very poor farmers earning an extra US$700 per year from a few trees in their field. Diversity can improve livelihoods of poor farmers. We will need to revise the agronomy curricula to make it happen on a large scale.

Meanwhile, in India, good old pigeonpea is being renewed. Landraces are perennial bushy plants. But Laxmipathi Gowda and collaborators at ICRISAT have produced many other types: short duration; determinate; daylength insensitive; and even hybrids. And in California there might be renewed attempts to use jojoba, now for bio-energy. Stephen Kaffka talked about some of the difficulties of domesticating a highly heterozygous, variable, and slow growing shrub. So far there is no evidence that we can use our new molecular biology prowess to reduce the domestication process from 1000(0) years to 10.

Food trends start in California, said Karen Caplan. Perhaps she is right. Perhaps most societies will go through an agrobiodiversity bottleneck when they urbanize; but then bounce back when they get rich enough. In a respectable farmers’ market here in Northern California there will — in the right season — always be a stand with only tomatoes, and a least twenty varieties of them. The weirder the shape the better, as long as they taste good. Guess what I had for dinner in my Best Western hotel. T-bone steak? No, a heirloom tomato salad.

Caplan discussed some of the inner workings of getting more agricultural biodiversity through the modern food-chain. Flavor is king. Ignore obstacles. Use influencers such as TV cooks and movie stars to rave about your new potato or brassica. Get it mentioned on a blog.

  1. Domestication in the not very strict sense of using more of relatively little exploited biological resources. []