Lost in translation?

“If we can copy nature, we will use fewer chemical inputs.”  

That’s the somewhat-misleading title on this mostly accurate summary of the talk I gave (video in Spanish) last week at CREAtech, an interesting meeting sponsored every three years by AACREA (the Argentinian Association of Regional Consortia for Agricultural Experimentation).

If you’ve read my book, you know that, although I see nature as a useful source of ideas to improve agriculture, I warn against “mindless mimicry of nature.”  For example, we know that monoculture can sometimes be sustainable, because fungus-gardening ants have been using monoculture for 50 million years.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that copying ant monoculture would improve human agriculture.  Instead, we should  increase crop diversity, although not necessarily in ways that closely resemble nature.  For example, crop rotation (growing different crops sequentially) may be less “natural” than intercropping (growing those crops as a mixture), but rotation may control soil-borne disease better than intercropping does.  So I would have phrased the statement above as a question.

I also pointed out one major reason that agriculture needs more inputs than natural ecosystems do: farms export large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus to cities, in the form of grain, meat, or milk.  High-yield agriculture will never be “low input.”  However, I do see great potential for agriculture to rely more on biological nitrogen fixation, a natural process that might be much improved through plant breeding or biotechnology.  This will, however, require a focus on the efficiency of nitrogen fixation, the ratio of nitrogen benefit to photosynthetic cost.  My lab may be the only one in the world that actually measures nitrogen-fixation efficiency.

AACREA is a very interesting organization.  Groups of a dozen farmers meet often to discuss ways to improve profitability and sustainability.  These local groups then share ideas nationally through CREAtech and many smaller meetings.  They also support a national research program that seems more ambitious than farmer-supported research in the US.

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