Nostalgia? Returning to More Natural, Biological Technology in Farming

Farming methods may to modern eyes seem to have once been more natural but are we being romantic and nostalgic?

A great website that traces the history of the countryside and agriculture – ukagriculture.com – is an easily digested history of UK population and economic developments and their impact on farming from the days of Saxon England onwards.

One small example is the fluctuation in the country’s woodland from approximately 11% woodland cover during the Roman period (100AD) to 15% in Norman era. It was down to around 7% by 1350AD, even less than today, and then climbed to a broadly stable 10% while the total length of hedgerow continued to grow as more fields were enclosed.

Meanwhile there was from very early times an inexorable drift of population from the countryside to the towns and cities, which accelerated after c1750 and the onset of the industrial revolution.

Two more significant moments in history are the Second World War with the need to increase domestic food production and then, fuelled by a rural labour shortage, the development of the combined harvester.

Add in population growth, the search for profit and the need to increase food production and the result is so-called agribusiness, getting rid of the hedges that used to enclose our fields and the woodland that got in the way of the big machines that allegedly made farming more efficient.

It’s pretty clear, therefore, that producing food – farming – has always been driven by economics and by population changes.

So while in the past there may have been a better balance in the way farmland was used thinking nostalgically is something of a red herring. Farming is now and historically always has been a commercial activity.

Urban population growth and production costs are the twin pressures to produce more from the same amount of land, especially on an island like Britain. They led in the 1960s and 70s to using more and more chemicals to get rid of pests and diseases and to increase yield per acre.

Then came the wake-up calls: the BSE and other scares, tales of hormones in our chickens, increasing evidence of chemical-induced carcinomas from our food.

A couple of decades on and we no longer tolerate damage to people’s health from chemicals in our food, or the threatened destruction of the environmental balance on which we all depend for life.

The growth in global communications and in global travel have also opened people’s eyes to inequalities in both food production and people’s access to enough food.

It’s becoming urgent that we balance the need for more food against the imperative to preserve the quality of the land it comes from. It’s commonsense, it’s not about nostalgia.

That’s why the growing emphasis on sustained farming, organic and more natural agriculture and on biological agricultural products like biopesticides and biological yield enhancers that could arguably be as crucial to the small developing-world farmer as they are to bigger operations in the developed world.

It’s about trying all kinds of things appropriate to the local ecology – as illustrated by this story about Zambian farmer Elleman Mumba a 54-year-old peasant farmer growing maize and groundnuts on his small plot of land in Shimabala, south of Lusaka.

Feeding his family used to be a problem and the yield was very little. “We were always looking for hand-outs; we had to rely on relief food.”

With no oxen of his own to plough his field he had to wait in line to hire some, often missing planting as soon as the first rains fell. for every day of delay the potential yield is shrunk by around 1% – 2%.

In 1997, Mr Mumba, thanks to free training given to his wife, switched to conservation farming. It uses only simple technology, a special kind of hoe and Instead of ploughing entire fields, farmers till and plant in evenly spaced basins.

Only a tenth of the land area is disturbed. it reduces erosion and run-off and in the first season increased his yield to 68 bags of maize – enough to feed the family and buy four cattle! (his full story is on the BBC Africa website)

That’s what innovation, sustainable farming and thinking outside the box are all about. It’s about economics and what works, not about nostalgia.

Science, Technology, Biology And Our Future

A new era of science has begun. Starting now, and lasting for at least the next 15 years, many discoveries will be made and found at an incredible rate. Of course we will have incredible discoveries 15 years out, but right now marks a particular point in our history within science and technology that will shape our lives for many years ahead, and will revolutionize our thinking. Here are just a few of those things that will change the world.

Within the past year a new form of stem cell research has begun. Stem cell research has always been riddled with controversy because of the need for human embryos. A new technique is being perfected that allows scientists to take the skin cells off of a patient and essentially transform them into stem cells (this has currently only been done on animals). With a patient’s own stem cells now (from the patients skin, no embryos needed) available they can then convert them into any cell in the body and replicate them. This is huge, and advancements can come quickly now because human embryos aren’t needed and politics won’t get in the way.

Recently The Large Hadron Collider project announced it’s soon-to-be completion. They installed the last major part in this huge under ground particle accelerator. Scientists are hoping by bashing elements and atoms at near light speeds they can unravel many of the mysteries in science and quantum mechanics. The Large Hadron Collider will possibly tell us if there are other dimensions, and possibly make Michio Kaku happy by also letting us know if strings do exist (sub atomic scale) and if String Theory is fact.

Lastly, we are also entering a new telescope type era. The Large Binocular Telescope has officially announced its competition. It has two 8.4 meter mirrors to view the night sky like never before. It will have ten times the resolution of the Hubble Telescope. Coming up we have the Kepler Mission which will look at 100,000 stars and look for earth-like planets in space. We also have the Giant Magellan Telescope, and The Thirty Meter Telescope (Major Funding By Gordon Moore) slated form completion by 2015.

Within the next 10 years these telescopes will be able to confirm if there are truly rocky earth-like worlds out there with the ingredients for life. Our new science is telling us that at least a quarter of all stars have planets orbiting them. Considering that there are about 400 billion stars in our galaxy, and at least 100 billion galaxies, the odds are great for earth-like planets to be around. We already have confirmed multiple rocky slightly larger than earth planets in the habitable zone. With our new technology and telescopes we can see just how many there are, and exactly what their atmospheres are made out of.

Going a step further. It’s possible we will make one of the biggest discoveries of all time within the next 20 years if we continue at the rate of technological advancement that we are going at. We may possibly know the answer to if there is other life out there, not from earth. I personally believe it could simply be there is or isn’t, but the scientific community is saying within 15-20 years we may finally have an answer.

Concluding. We are making huge advancements in medicine, technology, space, and other areas. It’s interesting to see how far we have come as a civilization. Hopefully along with our advancements we still realize how important the simple things are and keep our earth healthy and clean. It is an exciting future, enjoy the ride.