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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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The Next Big Thing #4: Nine Billion Served

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 27, 2013

The great challenge in agriculture is to double the amount of food being produced without plowing under what’s left of the natural world. The twentieth-century Green Revolution did it with massive doses of commercially manufactured fertilizer. Now we need to ramp up food production again—but without the environmental costs. Conventional fertilizer-manufacturing processes release large amounts of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel combustion. Even worse, only a fraction of the nitrogen fertilizer actually gets into the crop. The rest ends up in ocean dead zones such as the one at the mouth of the Mississippi River—or in the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

But researchers have recently discovered an unexpected diversity of soil microbes capable of breaking down nitrous oxide into nitrogen. They’re also figuring out how farmers can use these bugs at precise temperatures or moisture levels, or at certain stages in the life cycle of a plant, in order to get more nitrogen fertilizer into crops—and less into the environment. “Precision agriculture” is the term for that kind of farming, and microbes will play a major role in making it happen.

For instance, one reason it’s so hard to feed families in the tropics is that the clay soils there trap phosphate. A farmer may need to dump 100 units of imported fertilizer onto the land just to get 10 units into his crops. A lot of farmers go without costly chemicals, or they clear more forest to grow the food needed. But researchers at the University of Lausanne and the National University of Colombia are now working with a mass-produced root fungus that efficiently delivers phosphate to cassava, a staple food for much of the developing world. In the first season of field testing, this fungus cut phosphate use in half while boosting yields by 20 percent.

Microbes in the roots of plants are also nature’s way of getting nitrogen into plants, thus enabling peanuts, soybeans, and other legumes to extract (or “fix”) it out of thin air at a rate of hundreds of pounds of nitrogen per acre. Researchers have developed nitrogen-fixing bacterial strains that can increase yields for some crops by 50 percent. The hitch is that hardly anyone invests in getting those improved strains to farmers in the developing world, says Ken Giller of N2Africa. Given access to nitrogen-fixing bacterial strains that already exist, he says, subsistence farmers would have far less need to cut down forests to make new fields.


One Response to “The Next Big Thing #4: Nine Billion Served”

  1. […] Wildlife Probiotics 2. Working on the Right Mussels 3. Eats Dry-Cleaning Fluid for Breakfast 4. Nine Billion Served 5. A Crop for All Seasons 6. Disarming the Enemy 7. Post-Antibiotic World 8. Brewing a Better […]

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