Darwinian Agriculture, R Ford Denison, Princeton University Press, Pp 258, $ 39.50
Inspired by Nature and informed by evolutionary biology, this book explores new approaches to improving agriculture. There is increasing recognition that we need to pay attention to the ongoing evolution, particularly to that of agricultural weeds, pests and pathogen. This ongoing evolution tends to undermine all our post-control measures and not just the methods based on toxic chemicals. Resistance-management strategies, developed by collaborative teams and consistently implemented by farmers, can slow down pest evolution and prolong the useful life of our pest-control methods.
The author shows that many of the traits that tradeoff-blind biotechnologists propose to change have already been improved so much by past natural selection that further improvements are difficult, especially if we ignore tradeoffs. He advocates breeding for enhanced cooperation as the most promising route to increased yield potential. Breeding for enhanced cooperation is the most promising route to increase the yield potential. As natural selection depends on individual fitness, it has rarely optimised the interactions of groups of plants, or the interactions of plants with partners of other species. Wheat plants that work together to shade weeds more than they shade one another can be bred or soybean varieties that selectively enrich the oil with the most beneficial indigenous strains of rhizobia can be bred.
What is needed is better farming methods of agriculture (broadly defined to include new crop varieties and better distribution systems for inputs and food) that are both more efficient and more sustainable. Development of improved methods will require a sustained increase in agricultural research.
This book is meant essentially for agricultural scientists.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey – 08540.)