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Ecological Economics

Herman Daly, Ph.D., is an ecological economist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. His life’s work is to explore how massive-scale human activities can be ordered in ways that take into account the biosphere — “ecosystem services” in economic parlance — the life support systems on which everything depends. As a professor, he’s encouraged students to look beyond the existing neoclassical economic paradigm — the one that says we can, in essence, have infinite growth on a finite planet. Daly came of intellectual age in the late 1950s and early ’60s while attending Rice University in Houston, Texas, his home state. He believed economics was a good choice for a major because it combined humanities, science and philosophy, and he figured it might help him make a living upon graduation. But he later decided choosing economics was a mistake, “because economics along with social science generally does not really have one foot in the sciences and the other foot in the humanities. I kind of thought it had both feet in the air,” he says. Still, that sophomore-year mistake led to his life’s work — attempting to ground economics in both the physical sciences and in the humanities and ethics. After receiving his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, Daly taught economics for a time, then went to Northeast Brazil to teach as Ford Foundation Visiting Professor at the University of Ceara. Daly worked as a senior economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank from 1988 to 1994.

He also served as a research associate at Yale University, visiting fellow at the Australian National University, and a senior Fulbright lecturer in Brazil. He has more than 100 articles to his name in professional journals and anthologies as well as many books, including Ecological Economics and the Ecology of Economics (1999); Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications (with J. Farley, 2003, 2011); and From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy (2014).

Interviewed by Leigh Glenn

ACRES U.S.A. You’ve said you were interested in helping to resolve poverty in Latin America through economic growth and development. How quickly did that change after you entered the field of economics?

HERMAN DALY. That took a while to disappear. In a way, that’s both fortunate and unfortunate. That made it easier for me to get along as an economist, to be promoted and get tenure. From the time I graduated, it took maybe 10 to 12 years before I had some experience teaching in Northeast Brazil. Reading Mathus, Rachel Carson and more recently then, having studied under Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen at Vanderbilt, re-reading John Stuart Mill — all of those things, plus the whole big population question in Northeast Brazil.

ACRES U.S.A. What kinds of real-life examples did you see in Brazil that prompted you to question the emphasis on economic growth as a panacea? Continue Reading →

New Livestock Integration

There is an old adage among livestock raisers that holds that blue ribbon-winning animals seldom make good parents, but generally make crackerjack grandparents. The one word answer for why this happens is, I believe, adaptation. A top Texas-bred bull, boar or ram whisked away to our Northern Missouri climes or someone else’s Maine environment is going to struggle to adapt and must go through a time of transition.

This is especially true if the move is made in a time of temperature and weather extremes. The changes an animal can face when moved from point to point on the map are many and varied, and some are too often overlooked in that flurry of activity.

The differences between a Northern Missouri and a Southern Texas winter are quite obvious, but there are also differences in soil types, water composition, ration mixtures and forms, owner temperaments and skill sets, differences in facilities, differences between gene pools, new parasite and disease challenges, different pasture varieties and a great many more.

Quite often, the animals being moved are young, inexperienced and lacking in natural immunities for their new environments. The more artifice and “push” that went into creating that animal the harder it will be for that animal to make the needed changes.

Altitude, for example is a real factor in how beef cattle perform with some lines clearly denoted as “high altitude” cattle. An old and very much kept off the books rule of thumb for swine breeders held that for every young boar going through a test station, a full or half sib should be retained at home to replace it should it fail to perform for the new owner.

The boar grown out in a very small group, fed a very complex and costly ration to accelerate growth in a limited space, living in such a stifling environment, may hang up some real performance figures but then fall apart quickly in the real world of the breeding pen.

In founding a new herd or flock or upgrading or replenishing an existing one it is necessary to look to outside sources for the needed genetic material, the genetic pieces to make corrections and accomplish desired goals. Continue Reading →

Root System Architecture & Nitrogen Management

Researchers questioned whether current improved rice varieties are suitable for organic agriculture. Through an experiment focused on nitrogen use efficiency (organic and inorganic sources) and root system architecture, they concluded that varieties bred for high-nitrogen inputs may not be suitable for organic agriculture — reinforcing the need for varieties to be bred specifically for organic agricultural systems. Here the researchers present their work:

The production and extensive application of N fertilizer to crops worldwide has contributed to major environmental problems due to soil leaching and greenhouse gas emissions that play a large role in ozone depletion. Sustainable agriculture aims to conserve natural resources with the mitigation of climate change, and there is increasing interest to move toward organic agriculture. An important issue regarding the acceptance of organic agriculture is the question of productivity. In addition to readily available ammonium and nitrate ions, the soil of organic agriculture can contain a wide range of organic nitrogen compounds such as peptides, proteins, free amino acids, amino sugars and nitrogen heterocyclic compounds. Continue Reading →

Phosphorus: A Limited Resource

Soil is a living, breathing ecosystem. Just as you and I breathe, soil too re­spires, and we measure that respiration rate as an indicator of microbial activity in soil. While there are large, non-mi­croscopic organisms living in soil such as worms, insects and small mammals, none of them exist by the billions in just a handful of soil except the microbes.

Nitrogen can play a close second in the nutrient race, but in most soils phosphorus is the most limiting nutrient.

There are many scientific classifica­tions for microbes in soil, but from the farmer’s perspective only two catego­ries are relevant. Good microbes (major­ity) and bad microbes (small minority). Good microbes enhance plant growth, and bad microbes cause disease in plants. Of course, things are never quite so clear-cut in nature. Some things can be good under some circumstances and bad under other circumstances. So keep in mind this is a simplification of what are, in reality, very complex interactions.

Our management practices should be refined to support the good (most of the time) microbes and suppress the ones known to cause diseases in crop plants. Diseases are not always caused directly by organisms. Sometimes the balance of the system gets thrown off and something ordinarily not a prob­lem finds a new niche and can become problematic.

Weak plants may also be susceptible to organisms in the envi­ronment that normally would not have much impact on them. For instance, a nutrient deficiency might weaken a plant and lead to susceptibility. The good news is, of the thousands of microorganisms identified in soil thus far, only a handful of those really fall into the bad category. The good far outweigh the bad, and with a little thoughtful management, you can keep it that way.

In the case of good microbes, we can take this a step further and narrow our focus to the most crucial organisms within this group, which are those that provide the macro and micronutrients plants require for growth. The most limiting of these nutrients is typically phosphorus.

Nitrogen can play a close second in the nutrient race, but in most soils phosphorus is the most limiting nutrient, often occurring in quantities a thousand times lower than other miner­als. One of the reasons for this is the high reactivity of phosphorus. It tends to bind to soil particles and complex with metals in the soil. This makes it unavailable to plants even if it is present in the soil.

Continue Reading →

Genetically Engineered Moth Trials

By Lori Fontanes, August 8, New York

According to Liana Hoodes, Policy Advisor, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), Cornell University plans to begin open-air trials of genetically modified diamondback moths at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, New York, sometime this month. Hoodes received notice of the pending first-time release of the novel species from a representative at Cornell a few days before the university’s sole public forum regarding the field release experiments. The public meeting, to be held today (August 9), will feature a panel of experts headed by Cornell entomologist Dr. Anthony Shelton and NYSAES interim director Dr. Jan Nyrop as well as a representative from U.K.-based Oxitec Ltd., the manufacturer of the imported GE insect. Oxitec is the company that also engineered the modified Aedes aegypti mosquito that has been at the center of a similar debate in the Florida Keys.

Although not listed as an invasive species in New York by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, diamondback moth is a serious scourge of cruciferous crops around the world. As Shelton and Nyrop wrote recently in Finger Lakes Times, the tiny moth is “one of the world’s worst agricultural pests,” causing global damages estimated at “up to $5 billion each year.” Organic farmers in New York, however, have also expressed concerns about the possible negative economic impacts from a GE version of the insect. NOFA-NY, in particular, has continually raised the issue of risks to organic growers’ federal certifications as well as to their livelihoods if GE insects eventually come to market. Continue Reading →

Reducing Pesticide Use

A 2017 study, conducted in France by Lechenet, Dessaint, Py, Makowski and Munier-Jolain, reveals that conventional farmers could dramatically reduce pesticide use without crop or monetary losses. With food security and food production clearly in mind, the research demonstrates that chemical crop treatments could be effectively reduced to meet farmer demand for protection of human and animal health and the environment.

Achieving sustainable crop production to feed a growing population has been acknowledged as one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. For this reason, addressing global food security while reducing pesticide use continues to be a key topic for world governments, global think tanks, nonprofits and philanthropies. As the debate continues, decision-makers are asking “Can we reduce pesticide use without sacrificing crop yield and farmer income?”

Arable farmland is defined as land capable of being plowed and used as farmland to grow crops. The study demonstrates clearly that low pesticide use rarely decreases productivity and profitability on arable farms. Analyzing data from 946 non-organic arable commercial farms, the authors could not find any conflict between low pesticide use and high productivity and profitability in 77 percent of the farms. As a result, the authors of the study estimate that total pesticide use could be reduced by 42 percent without any negative effects on either productivity or profitability in 59 percent of the farms surveyed.

This corresponds to an average reduction of 37 percent, 47 percent and 60 percent of herbicide, fungicide and insecticide use, respectively. The authors also suggest that these findings would produce major changes in market organization and trade balance between the country’s imports and exports. Continue Reading →