Scientists hope to cultivate an immune system for plants

New York Times – Thursday 16th June

The balance of nature is a thing of wonder and this is never more true than in the microbial communities of soil. As research on the soil microbiome increases, we are learning some remarkable things including the fact that soil has an immune system of sorts made up of the micro-organisms that are critical to its fertility and health. So-called ‘suppressive soils’ are so rich in microbial life that they keep fungi and other plant dangers at bay. The sheer numbers of soil microbiota leave little for predator microbes to survive on. Some micro-organisms also actively fight dangerous bacteria, and all this can make it very hard for predator microbes to flourish.

Scientists are trying to find ways to exploit this, but that’s not proving easy. The soil microbiome, just like the human gut microbiome, is an incredibly complex ecosystem with a vast and diverse range of micro-organisms interacting in it. But rather than dropping foreign bacteria into a microbiome and seeing if anything happens, it’s perhaps more effective to find bacteria that helps to foster health. One scientist, Mark Mazzola, has found that some plants are very good at gathering good bacteria around them and it might therefore be possible to breed for this trait, just as one might breed for yield or drought tolerance. There are also other, perhaps simpler ways to promote the health of plants, as demonstrated in the work of soil microbiologist Elaine Ingham, by supporting the balance of the soil microbiome and letting nature do its work.

The enormous threat to America’s last grassland

The Washington Post – Thursday 16th June

The destruction of North Dakota’s vast grasslands provides a disturbing example in microcosm of all our most thoughtless impulses when it comes to the environment. North Dakota’s ‘prairie pothole’ as it is known, is part of an extensive grassland region which stretches through America’s Midwest and up into Canada. It is rich with biodiversity, supporting over 100 plant species per square mile, many rare species, along with delicately balanced ecosystems supporting an array of bird life along with insects, reptiles and amphibians, on up to mammals. These lands have been protected by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and farmers are paid not to cultivate them, but in the last decade, it has been more profitable to burn the grass and plough the land, and much of these protected grasslands are now being destroyed.

Growing corn and soy on these critical grasslands now makes more money than the CRP pays, so there is little to incentivise farmers to protect them. As a result grassland birds and pollinators are declining significantly. But, perhaps, most impactful is that the region’s grasslands have been locking up vast amounts of carbon and as they are ploughed this is released into the atmosphere, potentially as much as 12 million tonnes. The change to the Dakota landscape reverberates through its ecological systems as the long-term gains of protecting these lands are forfeited to the short-term profits of a relative few farm businesses.

New rules to regulate Europe’s hormone disrupting chemicals

The Guardian – Thursday 16th June

As the European Commission (EC) launches new regulations and rules on classifying and banning endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), it seems that everyone – from NGOs and consumer groups to scientists and industry – is unhappy about them.

Over the past decade or more there has been growing concern over the effects of these chemicals on the environment and public health and a need for their stricter regulation and possible banning has been recognised and lobbied for by civil society organisations, consumer groups and scientists. The EC is finally tackling the issue – or not, as many seem to think.

There is widespread unhappiness about a number of issues with the EU proposal. Some argue, it is likely to lead to regulatory inconsistencies. Pesticide Action Network feels the proposed laws would be unlikely to lead to the banning of any EDCs. Also contested is the allowance for an exemption from regulatory laws where there is “negligible risk of exposure” to EDCs. The Commission has suggested determining this through risk assessments done by industry – undeniably a clear conflict of interest.

But industry is also unhappy with the proposal, arguing the regulations were inconsistent and amounted to, in the words of the European Crop Protection Agency, “regulation by derogation”, marred also by a failure to make a clear distinction between what is safe and what is harmful. And, finally, an array of retail businesses, including H&M and Ikea, have also complained about the lack of rigour in the regulations – they want to increase consumer confidence in their products.

With everyone out of sorts about what is being done to regulate EDCs, the EC is likely to have a tough time pushing them through. It could well be back to the drawing board, with hopefully, better results next time.

The Gulf of Mexico is about to experience a ‘Dead Zone’ the size of Connecticut

Mother Jones – Friday 17th June

Year on year the dead zone in the Gulf gets bigger and more damaging to the creatures living there. The dead zone is caused by the fertiliser run-off from intensive farming operations across the Midwest, which pours into the Mississippi River and is carried down to the Gulf where it generates vast algae blooms. When these blooms die off, the bacteria feeding on them suck up all the oxygen in the water – without which, everything else dies. This is called hypoxia and its an annual event in the Gulf.

The blooms offer a powerful example of farming costs that should be paid by the farmer, but aren’t. The costs of the environmental damage and pollution which results from agricultural run-off into our waterways is borne by the taxpayer and the environment rather than the original polluter. Because there is no penalty for this pollution – which is a problem in many US lakes and rivers as well, where drinking water is often affected – there is no reason to change the way these operations farm. A true cost accounting of our food and farming could fix this, by restoring responsibility for the damage to the businesses causing it.

EU Council calls for national antibiotic resistance measures

Farming Online – Monday 20th June

There is some hope that an EU ‘Action Plan’ to address antimicrobial resistance is finally getting off the ground. On the heels of the recently published O’Neill review, health ministers across the EU are urging member states to make plans for tackling this dangerous issue, and in a timely manner with plans in place in a year’s time.

The EU Council is also urging member states to take the use of antibiotics seriously in farm animals as part of this. In particular, it is urging measures which address the prophylactic use of antibiotics in farm animals that is widespread in intensive farming operations, along with restrictions on the use of antibiotics medically important to humans and a ban of the use of ‘last resort’ antibiotics in veterinary medicine. Importantly, they are strongly suggesting that measures are legally binding and not merely voluntary. This is significant headway in an area of antimicrobial resistance that has seen slow movement towards meaningful change in how antibiotics are used in the sector.

There is still much more that has yet to make its way onto the agenda for antimicrobial resistance in farming. Really, changing how antibiotics are used in farm animals should fundamentally change how we farm. High animal stocking levels, indoor confinement of animals and other practices of factory farming will have to go too, once antibiotics are largely out of reach on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet. The SFT has been a vocal proponent for stronger regulation of antibiotic use in farm animals, since long before it became a critical issue of public health. For more articles and information on this topic, click here.

Photograph: Heather

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