K-State professor to discuss feeding the world's population without poison

01/19/05

At AAAS annual conference

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- Feeding the world can be a constant battle between opposing forces.

Agriculture is often seen as being in conflict with natural resources as farmers attempt to feed the world without poisoning the Earth, said Charles W. Rice, a Kansas State University soil microbiologist and professor of agronomy. Excessive tillage, low productivity, soil erosion and residue removal result in loss of soil structure, organic matter, nutrients and biodiversity.

Even greater demands will be placed on agricultural systems in the future.

"Properly managed, agriculture ecosystems can provide food and energy security and provide environmental services," Rice said. "A sustainable agricultural system needs to consider the conservation of the soil and water in addition to production of food, fiber and energy."

Rice will present the symposium, "Managing Water and Soil Resources While Feeding the World," at the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Conference, Feb. 19 in Washington, D.C. The conference, "Can We Feed the World Without Poisoning the Earth?" runs Feb. 17-21. Rice is also scheduled to be honored as a Fellow of the association at the conference.

Rice, who will conduct the symposium with three other presenters, will discuss the challenges and opportunities for agriculture to provide food and energy security while sustaining soil and water resources in the world. He will emphasize that productive soils and protection of water quality are the basis for a healthy and sustainable food chain.

"There are numerous examples where food production systems have depleted soil and water resources and negatively impacted air, soil and water quality," Rice said. "Combinations of excessive tillage, low productivity, soil erosion and residue removal results in loss of soil structure, organic matter, nutrients and biodiversity.

"Water resources have been mismanaged so that availability is limited or the quality degraded ," Rice said. "The loss of quality soil and water resources becomes a vicious downward spiral causing further degradation and undermining human health."

According to Rice, technology for better management of the soils and waters is available now for sustaining soil and water while providing food, fiber and energy for the world's population.

Rice recommends several remedies for erosion and water useage -- two of the biggest problems associated with agriculture. He said no-tillage farming and buffer strips could serve as effective combatants of erosion, while subsurface drip irrigation and new crop development are efficient ways to use water.

"No-tillage farming involves leaving all plant material on the soil surface so that when it rains, more water infiltrates the soil,'' Rice said. "If the water runs across the surface, it can carry soil and chemicals into the water supply.

"Some things have multiple benefits. No-tillage farming improves the soil and protects against erosion. If you can prevent runoff, more water will stay in the field, thus providing more water for crop production."

According to Rice, buffer strips such as trees and grass can be planted between fields and water supplies to help control field runoff from entering the water supply. He said a more efficient water irrigation system, subsurface drip irrigation, could help combat loss of water during irrigation. In subsurface drip irrigation, crops are watered underground, resulting in less loss of water through evaporation. In addition to a more efficient irrigation system, Rice said new crops could be developed that need less water but still produce ample food.

"With wise management of water and the linkage with the soil it may be possible to sustain these important resources for the world's population," Rice said. "Investment in research development and delivery of technology worldwide must continue to ensure these management strategies are available to the world's population."

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the word by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association. Founded in 1848, the association serves some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals.

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