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Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture Hardcover – July 22, 2012
The Amazon Book Review
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"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
Top Customer Reviews
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). Whatever solutions one is proposing, some room should be left for bet-hedging—not mindlessly done, of course, but still encouraging a vibrant mix in how things are done and what models we embrace, as a way of creating wide-ranging pools of knowledge and a hedge for a number of contingencies.
I did find some of the analysis slightly off on rare occasion, once moving away from Denison’s main knowledge-base. He clearly knows a great deal about developing crops and the related evolution and ecology, but was less thorough and reliable on other food system topics that fall more into the realm of economics than yields. However, any objection I might have is minor and he wasn’t focused on those areas, but on exactly where his expertise lies. Thus, it’s not quite perfect, and it’s not exactly an entertaining read all the way through, but it is a worthwhile one that will make the reader think and probably teach him or her a few things about our crops. Highly recommended.
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. This means plant geneticists either have to make complex changes, which are still difficult to effect, or changes based on a change in plant goals: a plant may devote resources to getting taller to get more of the sun than its competitors, but this does not help yields for an entire field; we wish the resources to go into more edible seeds. The miracle rice, IR8, benefitted from shorter stalks. Too often, though, claimed improvements in genetics or agronomy were based on faulty experimental design, or ignored tradeoffs that only became apparent later.
If there are environmental changes, scientists can try to work faster than nature to adapt. In this regard, there is a nice discussion of the enzyme rubisco utilized in photosyntheis. Rubisco reacts with CO2, but occasionally selects O2 instead, creating a compound which the plant must then break down wasting energy. Scientists identified a version of rubisco in some algae which was more selective, making the O2 "mistake" less often, but this rubisco slowed down the speed of the reaction with CO2, hence the productivity of the photosynthesis. Denison suggests that as CO2 levels rise in the atmosphere, a less selective/faster acting version of rubisco might increase yields.
Fighting blight and pests has improved from genetic engineering, but there is a constant arms race, and already plants engineered to produce Bt toxin(a natural insecticide) are losing effectiveness. Natural predators can be useful, but it is important that they be able to reproduce where they are applied, so that they can co-evolve with the pest and thereby maintain their usefulness. Crop rotation to minimize pest damage is analogous to a strategy used by some oak trees, for example. All the oaks in an area use the same alternating schedule of high seed years and low seed years. The low seed years minimize pest abundance for the next year, so if you have 2 crops not attacked by the same pest species ……
Unfortunately the book can be a little repetitive.