What's behind a poor harvest these days?

By | August 8, 2012

Musings on this year's poor crop, plant robustness, and the changing gene pool

Ever wonder what modern agriculture has done to biodiversity? It certainly isn't what I'd like. But is it too late to turn the tide?

The current situation
This is the second year in a row that we're pulling in a poor harvest. But the surprise is in what is poor and what is poorer: the new crops fare worse than the old ones. In the picture are the 'old crop' grape vines in my garden. You can see that they are laden with grapes. But not as many as most years; you can see more leaves than grapes. In a good year, you'll see more grapes than leaves. You can tell it's from the old crop because the grapes are the size of blueberries – that's how the old genes were. Very aromatic, not as sugary, and not as big. The new crop that I planted 2,5 years ago which is supposed to have higher yields, bigger grapes, and sweeter grapes is doing poorly: not a single grape in sight, and they show signs of not enough water. That's not a very resilient crop: new shoots from the old crop the same age as the new crop are 1,5 times as tall, and have grapes on them already.

This isn't unique to vinyards. The blackberries have similar results: the old crop grows 2-3 meters a year and produces actual berries, the new crop grows 20-30 cm a year and produces few berries in comparison. Yes, they're sweeter, but there aren't as many of them and the plant is much more fragile in terms of water, nutrient, and sunlight requirements.

The contributing problems
I'm not a large scale farmer, so I obviously don't experience the same problems folk in the industry face. But what I notice is:

1. We've sacrificed plant robustness and yield in favor of bigger sized produce and sugar content.

2. In order to make up for the loss in robustness, we have to more carefully regulate the environment in which the crops grow, which means carefully dosed fertilization, watering, drainage, etc.

3. We've introduced policies making access to these 'old crop' seeds close to impossible, unless you have a hobby operation that has preserved those genes against all the popular market introductions.

Combined together, that means we have given ourselves low-yield, fragile crops with more attractive looking fruit. At the same time we have increased our reliance on chemicals and tried hard to get rid of robust crop strains.

Sound pessimistic? It gets worse. All that is not even taking GMO crop into consideration. The GMO industry – like conventional breeding – had the potential to increase yields, speed up cross-breeding by splicing the robust genes of a specific species into the next generation. But instead we have an industry grafting genes between completely unrelated species (like bacteria and corn) to fight against crop pests that the crop never had before (like root infections). Anyone else hear a dream gone doubly wrong?

Getting out of the devil's circle
Don't get me wrong: I do think that we need GM crops and selective breeding in order to feed the world. But I don't think that the industry is sufficiently regulated, nor acting in its own long-term interests given the extreme weather trends that are frequently attributed to global warming. I find it worrying that even conventional crops are more poorly suited to survive than they were 20 years ago, and I can only hope that the growing awareness around these issues will be sufficient to cause some serious policy changes soon, before the remaining 'old crop' fades out of existance.

So much for wishful thinking. Now back to work, as even despite the poor crop (I'd estimate it at 70% of normal yield), it'll take days and weeks for me to pull in the harvest and process it.

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