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Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture Paperback – August 16, 2016
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
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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
"This book is a rich source of information for evolutionary biologists, biotechnologists and agriculturalists. It illustrates important evolutionary principles in an accessible way, using the farm of brother Tom as a recurrent tangible example. Evolutionary concepts, such as kin selection and relatedness are explained clearly, and illustrated with many examples that can be used for teaching. I can recommend this book to all students of evolutionary biology and ecology who are not afraid of applications. In fact, I may want to recommend it even more strongly to all those researchers, institutes and companies whose research aim it is to face the challenge of a growing world population that needs to be fed on a planet on which the climate is rapidly changing. Denison's arguments are convincing and we as humans may be missing out on a bright future if we ignore this book."--Duur K. Aanen, Evolution
"Darwinian Agriculture provides an interesting and passionate but rather personal perspective that certainly challenges us to think a lot harder about what eco-evolutionary principles might have to offer agriculture (and vice versa), and it will hopefully stimulate a lot more scientists to conduct research across the agroecological interface."--Peter H. Thrall, Evolutionary Applications
"This is an extremely interesting and provocative book and written in a very engaging way. . . . It is clear what Denison thinks about the topics he raises but he also brings in the opinion and experiments of others to provide breadth of examples and case studies. It is an ideal book for a graduate seminar or undergraduate capstone course. . . . If you're only going to buy one hard cover book this year, this should be it. By the time you're finished, the page margins will be filled with annotations!"--Marshall D. Sundberg, Plant Science Bulletin
"This volume is yet another winner from Princeton. . . . Although I have known the author for several years, I had no idea of the depth of his knowledge and amount of thought he has given to the topics covered in this book . . . The fact that reading this book kept me fully occupied on a 13 hour flight is a testimony to its interesting contents."--Janet Sprent, Bulletin of the British Ecological Society
"Above all, Denison's book makes farming seem like the greatest show on earth and the most exciting game in town. Everyone reading it will want to become a farmer!"--Stanley Shostak, European Legacy
"Although 768 pages long, Hodges' Alan Turing: The Enigma is extremely readable."--Andrew Holleran, Gay & Lesbian Review
"Darwinian Agriculture seems to provide important contributions for researchers as well as other experts and stakeholders in fields like agronomy, animal husbandry, breeding, pest control and nutrition. Moreover, this book also provides valuable insights for economists who have an interest in agriculture, ecology, and last but not least economic theory."--Alfons Balmann, Journal of Bioeconomics
From the Inside Flap
"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--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Unfortunately the book can be a little repetitive.
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 ……
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.