October 13, 2010
Environmental Changes Lowering Rice Yield

Using original seeds from a high yield rice called IR8 some agricultural scientists demonstrated that genetic changes in IR8 are not responsible for the drop in yield seen for this variety.

Los Baños, Philippines – Environmental changes are to blame for a 15% drop in the yield of "miracle rice" – also known as rice variety IR8 – since the 1960s when it was first released and lauded for its superior yields that helped avert famine across Asia at the time.

IR8 used to produce 9.5 to 10.5 tons per hectare, significantly more than other varieties in the 1960s when average global rice yields were around only 2 tons per hectare. But, when grown today, IR8 can yield only around 7 tons per hectare.

"IR8 still performs very well considering global average rice yields still hover around 4 tons per hectare, but a 15% yield drop is significant and we needed to find out what was happening," said Dr. Shaobing Peng, a crop physiologist from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and coauthor of a study published in Field Crops Research about the declining yields of IR8.

The troubling idea here is that the environmental problems might not be tractable and, worse yet, the environmental problems could get even worse. Hence yields could fall even further as the world's population grows by another 2 or 3 billion people.

"Hotter nights, which are known to reduce rice yields, and other environmental changes such as modifications in soil properties from maintaining the soil under flooded conditions and air pollution are all possible contributing factors," he added.

That population growth won't only increase the demand for food. It will also shift farm land toward use for housing. Plus, more humans mean more pollution.

Meanwhile corn prices are on track to achieve a yearly average record high.

Dr. Good said the average price for the new crop, which will encompass sales through next August, is expected to be a record, at about $5 a bushel, well above the $3.95 average price for the last three crops.

The government’s latest harvest forecast suggests that corn supplies into next year will be “precariously tight,” said Don Roose, president of U.S. Commodities, a consulting and brokerage firm in West Des Moines, Iowa. “At these levels, we have to cut back on our usage,” he said. “We can either cut back on exports, our ethanol consumption or our feed.”

It is not yet clear who will be forced to cut corn consumption.

Using corn to make ethanol is a bad idea. But government policies force a mixing of ethanol with gasoline that creates a demand for ethanol that isn't very price sensitive. Rising affluence in some Asian countries increases demand for corn to feed to livestock to make more meat. So, absent a much deeper economic downturn demand for corn looks set to grow.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s it was much easier to boost crop yields than it is today. There are diminishing returns on efforts to improve crop efficiency. We run up against limits to efficiency due to inefficient photosynthesis in plants. Plus, aquifers are depleted, fossil fuels for making artificial fertilizer are being depleted, and other physical constraints are becoming bigger problems.

Some people oppose genetic engineering of organisms. But here's the necessity of crop genetic engineering as I see it:

- The world is overpopulated.

- The world will become even more overpopulated.

- The overpopulation will cause more destruction of habitats, cutting down of rain forests, and damage to the environment.

- Industrial development, by boosting buying power, will reduce hunger. But it will also increase the buying power available to fund shifting of more land into agriculture as rising affluence shifts food consumption patterns toward more calories, more grains, more meats, more fish.

- Since population growth control is taboo the only options we have to respond to the environmental problem are technological.

- Biotechnology is a major potential way to reduce the habitat destruction by boosting yields of existing farmed land.

- Biotechnology can even reduce damage to farmed land by, for example, converting grain crops into perennials (no need to replant each year). This reduces nutrient run-off, top soil loss, and energy and chemicals used.

One can oppose genetic engineering of crops for a variety of reasons. But those reasons seem like small potatoes to me when compared to the scale of the problem which biotech seeks to address.

If someone wants to propose an alternative to biotech for the problems I outlined I'd like to hear it.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 October 13 05:41 PM  Trends Agriculture


Comments
Karen said at October 14, 2010 10:29 AM:

I think, we should stop pollution and other things which are destroying our environment.

Huh? said at October 14, 2010 1:22 PM:

"The world is overpopulated"
How does one determine this "fact"?

AlanK said at October 14, 2010 4:23 PM:

Your case for a genetic engineering of crops is a good one, point by point. You could add a few additional points, as I'm sure you realize. So just for the record:
-- Genetic engineering can help develop crops that require less moisture, allowing better agriculture in impoverished dry areas like the Sahel region of Africa.
-- Genetic engineering has the potential to respond faster and better to blights, droughts, and rainy periods than traditional hybridizing can, so it should reduce the risk in food supply.
-- Ethanol right now still looks like a political product, a pork-barrel product, but genetic engineering may make it practical, a legitimate renewable energy from engineered crops. Given the prospect for oil production to peak and decline, that is important, and it might provide incomes for otherwise impoverished rural regions.
-- Genetic engineering is the classic example of the genie having escaped from the bottle. It will be temporarily slowed up here and there by the influence of activists and some self-interested shortsighted farmers, but there is just about zero chance that it will not be developed, so we had better focus on how best to make use of it.
-- The "alternatives" that people might propose actually are "additional" things. It is not an either/or situation. We need better, fairer markets that help people obtain food and reduce poverty, yes. We need more conservation, less waste, less pollution, yes. Those are many avenues to a common goal.

Randall Parker said at October 14, 2010 7:01 PM:

Huh?

How do I figure the world is overpopulated? I use common sense. I see fisheries depletion, shrinking wild habitats with massive areas of denuded landscape, shrinking animal and plant populations, extinctions, depleting aquifers, expanding dead zones at river outlets, rising land costs in desirable areas, shrinking crop yields (see above), loss of agricultural land to housing and industry, and other indications. I see all these problems would not be getting worse if human population had stopped rising a few billion people ago.

Really, this is not hard to see. One has to need to have a Panglossian outlook to fail to see it.

reckless driving virginia said at October 14, 2010 9:34 PM:

@karen: why we should stop population? I think we should have to stop only those elements which are destroying our environment.

Chris T said at October 15, 2010 10:13 AM:

For an overpopulated world, humanity seems to be doing better than ever:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/10/things-are-looking-up-for-the-worlds-poor/#more-6913

Engineer-Poet said at October 15, 2010 11:53 AM:

They'll look good until the systems underpinning the improvements break under the strains of peak oil, financial collapse, climate change, social unrest/insurgent movements, and the rest.  Then supplies of food, medicine, etc. will rapidly retreat to historical levels but with much higher populations dependent upon them.  Result:  the Four Horsemen ride again.

Chris T said at October 15, 2010 12:25 PM:

The world is always going to hell in a hand basket and always well be. I don't know the future, but the track record of such dire predictions is terrible.

Bruce said at October 15, 2010 2:55 PM:

Don't Panic. The overdue ice age was going to destroy the planet anyway.

bbartlog said at October 17, 2010 7:53 AM:

In the long run, you can't solve the problems created by exponential growth with bandaids like this. That is, population growth control must be put on the table eventually, even if it is taboo (in the West) at the moment. In the short run, sure - might as well try to alleviate some problems.
I'm not a great fan of GMO food myself. At least two broad classes of problems arise:
- food that is engineered to be pest-resistant will typically contain elevated levels of some toxin. These are obviously chosen to be far more toxic to the pest(s) in question than to us, but that doesn't mean the effects on humans consuming the product will be negligible, especially in the long run. And no, you can't trust Monsanto's (or fill in any other big agricorp's name) studies in these matters.
- food that is engineered to increase yields (mass) will often, indeed generally, have lower nutrient density. This is not a problem unique to genetically engineered strains - regular breeding for maximum yields has the same effect. It may not be a big deal, especially if we assume that people are looking mostly to get calories from some genetically engineered staple food and will get their minerals and vitamins via some other product; but it is something to consider.

I also believe that increased labor inputs can allow biodynamic/organic farming to compete with conventional production in terms of productivity per acre. This isn't necessarily a glowing recommendation: after all, we spent the last two hundred years *reducing* the labor required to grow our food - we'd be going backward! Further, some of the techniques are moderately complex, and while the various rotations and output/input transfers required would not daunt most American farmers(*), I am less optimistic about certain third-world populations' ability to implement the techniques.
However, blanket claims that it is utterly impossible to feed the world's population without GMO/synthetic fertilizers/factory farming don't really look at all possible options.

(*) - at least in terms of complexity. Finding cheap enough labor to do all of the extra work (while still being profitable) is another matter.

Matt said at October 17, 2010 2:44 PM:

http://colomboherald.com/wordpress/2010/09/supercrops-fixing-the-flaws-in-photosynthesis/

This is a cool article on engineering C4 crops from the C3 crops we have (rice, wheat, &c.) to cope with climate change (i.e. C4 plants are not affected by rising temperatures in the same way as the C3 photosynthesis crops we rely on).

In said at October 17, 2010 8:22 PM:

Randall

Another non-biotech solution is to change the culture. Imagine a world where everyone is perfectly content with the bare necessities of existence, Imagine how many people that could sustain and how little of an environmental footprint that would incur. Of course, such a world doesn't exist but the point is I think there are huge inefficiencies in the current system and that is supported by and could be worked on by the culture.

Right now people expect to pay extremely little for food and have little concern for quality (though the trend is away from that). If the culture changed and people didn't mind spending as much on food and/or desired better quality food, the gas guzzling factory farms would go out of business and more money would go to producers of organic/sustainable farms. I suspect that bbartlog is correct that organic sustainable methods, with increased labor input, could come close to the productivity of factory farms and would be much more sustainable. I also agree with bbartlog that that is not necessarily desirable to increase farm labor, but again that is a point of culture and there are trade offs. It might be much better than trusting the untrustworthy (Monsanto and co.)

Another cultural change would be that people start gardening more of their own food. Perhaps the negatives of this could be offset by another cultural change of working less.

The point of this comment is that there are a lot of lower tech solutions if people were willing to change their ways. There are advantages and drawbacks to factory farming. And yes it is possible to change the culture(culture of smoking has changed). In fact, depending on how peak oil plays out this might become inevitable. My advice to anyone worried about hard times would be to get used to paying more for food (i.e. buy organic). Also learn to cook and garden.


In said at October 17, 2010 8:28 PM:

Oh, and I still agree with you that long term GMOs will probably be beneficial/important long term... In the meantime I'd like to see more research on GMOs and more utilization and refinement of organic/permaculture methods.

Randall Parker said at October 17, 2010 9:30 PM:

bbartlog,

GMO for livestock feed pretty much avoids the toxicity issue. Some toxins (e.g. Bt) are proteins. Cows or pigs break them down into amino acids in their digestive tracts. Other plant toxins do not harm humans and some even help us (e.g. sulfurophane in broccoli) by up-regulating liver enzymes that break down real toxins.

In,

You can't do a cultural change that will make people happy with just bare necessities. That'd require genetic engineering.

But even if that was possible all it'd do is increase the world's carrying capacity for more people and so human populations would increase until once again we used too much. Of course, the same will happen with crop genetic engineering.

Bruce,

It is pretty easy to heat the planet. We have lots of cheap ways to do this. So there's not going to be another ice age as long as industrialized civilization stays intact.

Engineer-Poet said at October 18, 2010 9:27 AM:

Especially that last.  Methane and N2O are cheap and easily made and can be controlled fairly well (we probably don't want too much CF4 and SF6 because they last much too long).

In said at October 18, 2010 3:51 PM:

Randall
Or course, it was a thought experiment. To clarify, I'm saying that we currently have a food production culture that favors, cheap, low quality, low labor, high environmental impact, high centralization. The point is changing this culture even slightly could feed more people more sustainably.

"GMO for livestock feed pretty much avoids the toxicity issue. Some toxins (e.g. Bt) are proteins. Cows or pigs break them down into amino acids in their digestive tracts"

Some toxins end up in the animal's fat. Furthermore, even if the toxicity to humans is not direct, common sense suggests that you'd rather not be eating a poisoned animal.

Engineer-Poet said at October 19, 2010 7:57 AM:

Robert Rapier has called for a repeal of the blender's tax credit, because the mandate requires a certain amount regardless of price and all the credit does is subsidize consumption.

Bob said at October 19, 2010 12:04 PM:

Ethanol in gas blends is not as green as claimed, but it does reduce our demand for oil, and by reducing demand also reduces the price we pay it, improving our economic and national security.

Over time having an ethanol processing infrastructure in place will lead to more R&D on better methods of production than corn farming, and speed new innovations to market.

There are better methods of reducing oil consumption, but ethanol is basically pain-free for the average person since you can put it in your F-150.

Given issues the world has with overpopulation, keeping grain prices high by also using them for transport fuel discourages additional births among the very poor.

Cohiba Magicos said at July 7, 2012 11:20 AM:

Los Baños, Philippines – Environmental changes are to blame for a 15% drop in the yield of "miracle rice" – also known as rice variety IR8 – since the 1960s when it was first released and lauded for its superior yields that helped avert famine across Asia at the time.
Cohiba Magicos

serta mattress said at July 13, 2012 2:06 AM:

The demand of ethanol is now increased . And Using corn to make ethanol is a bad idea. But government policies force a mixing of ethanol with gasoline that creates a demand for ethanol that isn't very price sensitive.
It is very bad for the user and I don't support it.

serta mattress

Pranks said at August 1, 2012 10:40 PM:

Hotter nights, which are known to reduce rice yields, and other environmental changes such as modifications in soil properties from maintaining the soil under flooded conditions and air pollution are all possible contributing factors.
pranks

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