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Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture Hardcover – July 22, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

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"Darwinian Agriculture offers an engaging and bold explanation of why agricultural research must take better advantage of insights from evolutionary biology."--Allison A. Snow, Science

"Darwinian Agriculture shows just how much plant breeding and biotechnology can learn from evolutionary biology, and takes an honest look at agricultural techniques from genetic engineering to organic farming."--Biologist

"Denison's book begins with a broadly accessible introduction to key concepts of evolution and sustainable agriculture, drawing the reader in with a blend of good storytelling, sound science, and fascinating examples of natural parallels to the agricultural system. . . . Even readers who begin the book with little understanding of evolution can finish it with an appreciation of how current research applies evolutionary theory to advance agriculture."--Choice

From the Back Cover

"Darwinian Agriculture is a very important contribution to our understanding of the links between nature and agriculture, and to the future of our human race. Denison underpins his arguments with an incredible wealth of insight and knowledge about plants, animals, physics, chemistry, biology, and ecology. The depth and breadth of scholarship embodied in this book is stunning. I know of nothing else like it."--Kenneth G. Cassman, University of Nebraska

"I found this book to be tremendously interesting and thought-provoking. Darwinian Agriculture should be read by everyone interested in increasing agricultural production in a sustainable way--from biotechnologists to agronomists, and everyone in between."--Jay A. Rosenheim, University of California, Davis

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (July 22, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691139504
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691139500
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #633,941 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

R. Ford Denison, the author of Darwinian Agriculture, has given invited and keynote talks throughout the US and in ten other countries. Other scientists cite his publications on evolution and agriculture more than once a day, on average. Much of his research has focused on symbiosis between legumes and the root-nodule bacteria (rhizobia) that supply them with nitrogen. He and his students have also published papers on other topics, including: 1) why natural toxins plants make to defend themselves against insects (perhaps especially on organic farms) can benefit human health; 2) how solar tracking by leaves can decrease whole-crop photosynthesis; 3) why crop yields often decrease, at least temporarily, after switching to organic farming methods; and 4) showing that simple multicellularity can evolve in only two weeks in the lab. He also co-invented devices to assess root-nodule function and to measure sunlight capture by field crops.

Less famous than some other Harvard dropouts, he studied ecology at the Evergreen State College and earned a PhD in Crop Science from Cornell University. After postdoctoral research at UC Davis and UCLA, he did lab and field research with USDA for several years, before returning to UC Davis as a faculty member. There, he taught crop ecology and directed LTRAS, a 72-acre long-term experiment on agricultural sustainability and resource-use efficiency. Meanwhile, his research on nitrogen-fixing crops developed an increasingly evolutionary focus. Soon after promotion to full professor, he took early retirement and moved to Minnesota, where his wife had been a faculty member for many years.

At the University of Minnesota, he is an Adjunct Professor in Ecology & Evolution, mostly mentoring students. He is also a Fellow in the College of Agriculture, advising Minnesota's 3-site long-term agricultural research network.

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Format: Hardcover
This book is one very much worth reading for anyone interested in the future of feeding people. It might not please anyone mindlessly dedicated to one easy solution or thinking that certain approaches are foolish or evil (both biotechnology approaches and total imitation of nature get strongly criticized, but neither is dismissed entirely, either), but the book convincingly presents an argument that evolutionary theory has a lot to contribute in how we look at agricultural solutions, no matter the political angles taken or the pet cause wanting to be promoted.

Denison’s explanations are clear and thoughtful, and he keeps the content fairly approachable for anyone interested in the topic, not just academics (although if one is an academic, there are plenty of references to read for greater detail). He also has just the right amounts of confidence and humility—he gives his hypothesis of three principles (or two and an opinion) and his evidence, but he honestly presents objections and possible counter-examples and admits he could be wrong, even if he thinks he’s right. In other words, he comes across like a scientist, which is not common enough in the genre of food, agriculture, and environmental writing.

I particularly appreciated what Denison had to say about the benefits of diversity in the system (the principle that was more his opinion rather than a hypothesis forming a principle), even if that means backing off of maximizing yield all the time. I come from a different academic direction from Denison, but arrive at much the same conclusion on this topic (diversity is a strong concept when modeling resilience in economics as well as ecology).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Anthony Morris on October 18, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this book. I have an interest in agriculture and in how we can improve it. This book gives a great overview of some of the problems in agriculture and explains how nature and man are sometimes at cross-purposes.

Unfortunately the book can be a little repetitive.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By algo41 on March 6, 2015
Format: Hardcover
“Darwinian Agriculture” is a brilliant book by a terrific scientist. The book flap does not do justice to his credentials. For example, for 10 years he directed the Long Term Research on Agricultural Systems project as a professor at UC Davis, also supervising PH.D. students. Denison writes clearly, but the book is somewhat densely written, and it definitely helps if the reader already has some familiarity with evolutionary concepts. In this book Denison is concerned not just with what is true, but also what is untrue, and why some experiments and analogies have been misleading. I find him completely objective.

Denison is interested in the problem of increasing yield sustainably, where yield is the amount produced per scarce resource whether that resource be land, water, fertilizer. Sustainability may depend on your time horizon: the ancient mid-east suffered declining yields over a millennium as the use of irrigation slowly built up the salt content of the soils due to evaporation. Denison worries both about feeding an ever expanding population, and dealing with short term catastrophes such as a major volcanic eruption blocking sunlight. I was amazed that according to a book cited by Denison (note 7), the world had only a 7 week supply of grain in storage in 2007.

According to Denison’s sources (p.59), genetic improvement has had little impact on potential yield (i.e. in the absence of pests/weeds) of the 3 major crops (wheat, rice, corn) since 1980. Nature has had a long time to find simple mutations which increase yield.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By May on November 4, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book was very interesting. It's especially useful if you're looking for sources since this author has many. Personally I was not very fond of his writing style, but he provides the reader with a lot of useful examples and he certainly gets his message across.
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