ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

20 December 2002


from the current Ecologist Newsletter:

"God loves you and I love you and you can count on us both!" - DUBYA, DECEMBER 2002

"In a generation of swine, the one eyed pig is king" - Hunter S. Thomson

"You can fool too many of the people too much of the time." - James Thurber

"The most serious threat to democracy is the notion that it has already been achieved" anon

item 1 is from GMWATCH editor Claire Robinson:
1.Yields boosted by 880% on poor soil with organic methods
2.Non-GE nematode resistant pepper developed in the U.S


1.Yields boosted by 880% on poor soil with organic methods

[excerpt from from Who needs GM? ngin/gmwatchbulletin 20 Dec 2002
>Organic system doubles rice yield
>Philippines (December 20, 2002) - Norman Uphoff, director of Cornell
>University's International Institute for Food and Agriculture
>Development (CIIFAD), told visiting Filipino journalists in a lecture
>last month about a purely organic system of rice planting developed in
>Madagascar, which claims to increase rice yield per hectare by as much
>as 100% - doubling average rice yields of 3.5 metric tons (MT) per
>hectare to as much as 8 MT]

Did anyone see the Horizon programme The Secret of El Dorado on Thur 19  Dec 2002, BBC2?
summary available at
and full transcript also available.

Tucked away in an archaeological slot were facts that if fully taken on  board, would drop the biotech brigade and their false promises of  "feeding the world" into the dustbins of history.

The programme showed how in the time before the Conquistadors invaded,  large and sophisticated Amazonian civilisations fed themselves  sustainably (until they were wiped out by Western diseases brought by  Conquistadors) by a system of organic farming which transformed the  naturally thin, poor rainforest soil into rich, black, self-renewing  fertile stuff that produced massive yields in a small amount of land.

!!! In a modern trial of the ancient Amazonian farming methods, using  experimental plots, yields were increased by 880% over plots using the  modern intensive farming methods. !!!

The secret?
*** NOT slash and burn, which is what the corporate-driven agriculture is making South American farmers do at the moment. This only leads to rain washing out the few nutrients remaining in the soil, making the land sterile within 3 growing seasons and forcing the farmers to move on

*** NOT the addition of mineral fertiliser alone, another bright idea of  corporate ag, which in experimental plots showed hardly any improvement  in yield over slash and burn with no fertiliser

*** NOT genetic engineering, which has singularly failed to boost yield  or to produce the much-vaunted crops for marginal soils [the program,  oddly for a series which has previously hyped the "benefits" of GM in  feeding the world, didn't mention GM; but anyone aware of GM hype could  not fail to note the absurdity of the superstitious faith placed in this  useless technology, in the light of what man and nature can do when they  work in harmony]

The key to producing massive yields in poor rainforest soil is

*** scorching off the ground regularly with small fires and incorporating vegetable charcoal into the soil; incorporating fallen leaves/vegetation; and (in the modern experiment) adding mineral fertiliser

*** allowing billions of soil microbes to do the rest.

People who know a little about organic farming will note that there is  little that is new about this. Incorporating lots of organic matter into  the soil and encouraging a living soil by avoiding toxic chemicals has  always been a mainstay of organic farming. And organic farming supporters will either be amused or appalled at the apparent amazement of the scientists involved in this project at their "discovery" that the soil is "living". However, I haven't heard specifically of the vegetable charcoal method before -- though I remain open to correction by any farming experts out there.

The bottom line (can the biotech brigade genetically engineer a crop that can better this?): "In experimental plots, adding a combination of charcoal and [mineral] fertiliser into the rainforest soil boosted yields by 880% compared with fertiliser alone."


Excerpts from summary:

In 1542, the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Orellana ventured along  the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon Basin's great rivers. Hunting a hidden  city of gold, his expedition found a network of farms, villages and even  huge walled cities. At least that is what he told an eager audience on  his return to Spain.

The prospect of gold drew others to explore the region, but none could  find the people of whom the first Conquistadors had spoken. The  missionaries who followed a century later reported finding just isolated  tribes of hunter-gatherers. Orellana's story seemed to be no more than a  fanciful myth.

A proven liar?

When scientists came to weigh up the credibility of Orellana's words,  they reached the same conclusion. As productive as the rainforest may  appear, the soil it stands in is unsuited to farming. It is established  belief that all early civilisations have agriculture at their hearts. Any  major population centre will have connections with a system of intensive  agriculture. If a soil cannot support crops sufficient to feed a large  number of people, then that serves as an effective cap on the population  in that area. Even modern chemicals and techniques have failed to  generate significant food from Amazonian soil in a sustainable way. The  thought that indigenous people could have survived in any number - let  alone prospered - was dismissed by most scientists. Scientific consensus  was sure that the original Amazonians lived in small semi-nomadic bands  and that Orellana must have lied.

Clues from the Bolivian savannah

Bolivia's Llanos de Mojos (Mojos Plains) are 2,000km from Orellana's  route down the main channel of the Amazon. The terrain is savannah  grassland with extreme seasons - floods in the wet; fires in the dry.  Crops are hard to grow and few people live there. But back in the 1960s  archaeologist Bill Denevan noted that the landscape was crossed with  unnaturally straight lines. Large areas were also covered with striped  patterns.

Recently, Denevan's work has been followed up by Clark Erickson, a  landscape archaeologist. His attention was drawn to the numerous forest  islands dotted across the savannah like oases. Down on the ground he  found them littered with prehistoric pot sherds, a clear sign of early  human habitation. Some mounds were as much as 18m high and much of the  pottery was on a grand scale as well. Such huge vessels were too big for  wandering nomads. Here were permanent settlements, where hundreds or even  thousands of people had once gathered for huge ceremonies. To Erickson,  these were signs of an advanced society - a civilisation.

... Denevan and Erickson have shown that the striped patterns are relics  of a system of raised fields. From the air, the area which appears to  have been turned over to such agriculture is clear. It covers thousands  of square kilometres. In conjunction with the controlled irrigation a  canal network might offer, it could have sustained hundreds of thousands  of people. Erickson believes the Mojos Plains were home to a society  which had totally mastered its environment.

If land now little suited to agriculture could once have supported hordes of people, is there a chance Orellana's mythical El Dorado has some basis in fact?

When anthropologist Michael Heckenberger met the Kuikuru tribe in the  central Amazon he was impressed by the complexity of their social  structure. Why, he wondered, would a tribe of just 300 people adopt such  a hierarchical way of life? (Received opinion held that Amazonian tribes  were small, egalitarian societies.) He found evidence that the Kuikuru  had once lived in an integrated network of villages, each one many times  the size of their modern-day settlements. Heckenberger believes the  prehistoric Kuikuru were not the semi-nomadic wanderers of  anthropological theory. Instead, they lived in large chiefdoms - the  advanced society described by Orellana.

The secret of the soil

The search for clues in the Amazon takes place at grass roots level - in  the soil itself. Along Brazil's Tapajos River, archaeologist Bill Woods  has mapped numerous prehistoric sites, some with exquisite, 2,000 year  old pottery. There is a common thread: the earth where people have lived  is much darker than the rainforest soil nearby. Closer investigation  showed that the two soils are the same, the dark loam is just a result of adding biological matter. The Brazilians call this fertile ground terra preta. It is renowned for its productivity and even sold by local people.

Archaeologists have surveyed the distribution of terra preta and found it  correlates favourably with the places Orellana reported back in the 16th  century. The land area is immense - twice the size of the UK. It seems  the prehistoric Amazonian peoples transformed the earth beneath their  feet. The terra preta could have sustained permanent intensive  agriculture, which in turn would have fostered the development of  advanced societies.

Archaeologists like Bill Petersen, from the University of Vermont, now  regard Orellana's account as highly plausible... [describes how Amazonian  populations were wiped out by diseases brought by Conquistadores] Yet the  Amazonians' greatest achievement lives on. Soil scientists analysing the  terra preta have found its characteristics astonishing, especially its  ability to maintain nutrient levels over hundreds of years. 20th century  techniques of farming on cleared, torched rainforest - so-called slash  and burn agriculture - have never been sustainable. With the vegetation  burned off, the high rainfall soon leaches all the nutrients out of the  soil. Research has shown that even chemical fertilisers cannot maintain  crop yields into a third consecutive growing season, yet terra preta  remains fertile year after year.

Nature and nurture

Again, Orellana's accounts offer potential insight. He reported that the indigenous people used fire to clear their fields. Bruno Glaser, from the University of Bayreuth, has found that terra preta is rich in charcoal, incompletely burnt wood. He believes it acts to hold the nutrients in the soil and sustain its fertility from year to year. This is the great secret of the early Amazonians: how to nurture the soil towards lasting productivity. In experimental plots, adding a combination of charcoal and fertiliser into the rainforest soil boosted yields by 880% compared with fertiliser alone.

Yet terra preta may have a still more remarkable ability. Almost as if alive, it appears to reproduce. Bill Woods has met local farmers who mine the soil commercially. They find that, as long as 20cm of terra preta is left undisturbed, the bed will regenerate over a period of about 20 years. He suspects that a combination of bacteria and fungi is causing this effect.

Today, scientists are busy searching for the biological cocktail that makes barren earth productive. If they can succeed in recreating the Amerindians' terra preta, then a legacy more precious than the gold the Conquistadors sought could spare the rainforest from destruction and help feed people across the developing world.


2.Non-GE nematode resistant pepper developed in the US
genet-news mailing list
-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------
TITLE: Hybrid Bell Pepper Is Latest Bad News for Nematodes
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service,
by Luis Pons
DATE: Dec 19, 2002
------------------ archive: ------------------

Nematode-resistant varieties of hybrid bell peppers may soon offer desirable characteristics possessed by nonresistant types. This is because Agricultural Research Service scientists at the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, S.C., have bred an experimental hybrid that inherits its resistance from just one of its parent varieties.

Nematodes are microscopic roundworms that cause millions of dollars in annual damages to crops nationwide. Root-knot nematodes are a major problem for bell pepper growers.

The hybrid, developed for research purposes by plant pathologist Judy A. Thies and geneticist Richard L. Fery, shows that nematode-resistant bell pepper hybrids can be developed by crossing a resistant, open-pollinated bell pepper type with varieties lacking the key resistance gene but possessing other positive characteristics such as large fruits or resistance to disease. The new hybrid is as resistant as hybrids developed by crossing two resistant pepper varieties.

The hybrid marks the latest success from ARS research in nematode-resistant bell peppers at the Charleston laboratory. In 1997, Fery released Charleston Belle and Carolina Wonder, the first bell peppers resistant to root-knot nematodes.

Those peppers' resistance stems from what is called the N gene, which Fery obtained from Mississippi Nemaheart, a pimiento pepper variety that carries the resistance gene. The gene controls resistance to three major root-knot nematode species: Meloidogyne incognita, M. arenaria and M. javanica.

The experimental hybrid was developed by crossing the resistant Charleston Belle with Keystone Resistant Giant, which lacks the N gene.

Progress with nematode-resistant crop varieties is significant because the soil fumigant methyl bromide, the primary control method now used to combat the parasites, is scheduled to be banned in 2005 because of its negative effects on the ozone layer. A 1995 economic study declared that banning methyl bromide without an alternative method of controlling nematodes would cost the nation's bell pepper industry $127 million in losses.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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