Once again I was fortunate enough to attend the International Meeting of the ASA, CSSA, and SSSA this time held October 21-24 in Cincinnati, OH. This year’s theme was ‘Visions for a Sustainable Planet’. I’d thought I would share a few of the ideas and research discoveries that I found particularly interesting or enlightening.
Our opening keynote speaker was Heather Hanson from the World Food Program USA who shared with us some thoughts on ‘The Real Dirt about Ending Global Hunger’. I bet you didn’t know that there are more hungry people in the world than the combined populations of the United States, Canada and the European Union – that’s more than 870 million people (1 out of 7). Or, that more than 2.5 million children die from malnutrition each year and those who do live are more likely to suffer from lifelong developmental and physical difficulties. Ms. Hanson laid the situation out well plus emphasized the need for attacking hunger on a global basis. Sooner or later it is going to impact all of us whether because of political unrest, economic instability, depletion of resources, pollution or climate change.
Another prophetic speaker was Dr. Daniel Hillel, a renowned scientist and international authority on sustainable management of land and water resources. His timely topic was ‘Considering the Future of Agriculture and the Environment in a Changing World.’ Our world is changing quicker than most imagine because of population growth, consumer demand, climate change and the political unwillingness to base policies on science rather than on emotion. Our soils support all life on earth – including us. If we lose the ability to grow food, we die. Dr. Hillel highlighted the importance of wise soil management in lieu of changing climatic conditions and a society detached from the land.
Talks at the conference are typically15 minutes in length, just enough to whet your appetite and to make you want to find out more. An interesting talk by Dr. Donald Davis of the University of Texas gave some insight into why as the yields of many crops are increasing, their nutrition value is decreasing. Basically this is because breeders are selecting for plants with higher biomass which translates into more carbohydrates and possibly water but with the same amount of nutrients as the old variety. He and his research team looked at a number of crops – and found that as yields increased, the concentrations of minerals, vitamins and proteins in most vegetables, fruits and grains decreased. A most interesting point he brought up was that up until this research, many blamed the decrease in nutrients in produce on the depletion of nutrients in the soil over time. He showed that it is not the soil to blame for lower nutrients in many edible plant parts but instead it is caused by the plant (genetic dilution) itself! Backyard gardeners can grow older, more nutrient dense varieties.
Dr. Paul Ebner from Purdue University spoke on antimicrobial use in livestock production. I bet you didn’t know that the United States produces 15,000 TONS of antibiotics for livestock use each year! Not only that, but the antibiotics are not just used to make animals well but to improve growth efficiency. He noted that antibiotics are poorly absorbed by animals (maybe 10% or so) so the rest is just excreted and then where does the manure go? This is a major source of agricultural controversy that needs to be addressed because of the very real threat of creating antibiotic resistant bacteria that can make us humans ill. More research is needed and more precautions as well. Some studies have indicated effects of antibiotic-laden manure on important soil microbes.
Silicon is all around us. In fact, it is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust, following oxygen. It is found in soils, rocks and dust particles in various forms of silicates or silica (silicon dioxide). Dr. Joseph Heckman from Rutgers University believes it has long been an overlooked yet essential plant nutrient and organized an afternoon-long symposium on this ubiquitous element. It has recently been designated by the Association of Plant Food Control Officials as a plant beneficial substance.
Of particular interest was Dr. Lawrence Datnoff’s (Louisiana State University) presentation on silicon’s suppression of plant diseases, both root and foliage ones. Also silicon was shown to suppress diseases caused by fungi, bacteria, nematodes and viruses! It seems that the suppression of plant diseases improved as the silicon concentration increased in the plant. What is not clear yet is whether this effect is due to a mechanical effect or a cellular one so more research is needed. Also, it was noted that suppression occurred when the supply of silicon to the plant was continuous rather than interrupted. At any rate, I am going to try applying some potassium silicate to my cucumber plants in hopes of having less of a problem with powdery mildew next year.
Yes, I did get out for a short bus tour of Cincinnati. Here’s a picture of Fountain Square where the opening shots for WKRP Cincinnati were taken and murals at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Best ice cream in Cincinnati – Graeters coconut!