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Notebook Science

A green farming movement



A green farming movement

Agroecology: Sensible idea or costly green initiative?

Agroecology, a back-to-nature farming approach based on ecological science, is growing into a movement proponents hope will transform the way we grow food. “Farming the land as if nature doesn’t matter has been the model for much of the Western world’s food production system,” wrote agroecology advocates Daniel Moss and Mark Bittman in The New York Times recently. “The results haven’t been pretty: depleted soil, chemically fouled waters, … a worsening of public health and more.”

While the definition of “agroecology” varies, it can include using compost as fertilizer, attracting both pollinators and pest-consuming predators, and using nutrients from the farm as fertilizers and pesticides rather than costly chemicals. Other practices include regenerating the soil by growing complementary crops and multicropping or using local seed varieties rather than costly patented types.

But some observers caution that certain practices advocated by the agroecology movement could, if widely adopted, drive up food prices for the world’s poor.

For some in the green movement, “agroecology” means minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, according to James Wanliss, a senior fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. “They may define this not in terms of price, yield, or mouths fed but rather in terms of some nebulous goal of saving the planet from carbon dioxide,” he said in an email.

Wanliss agrees that agricultural innovators have developed beneficial and ecologically friendly changes in recent years. He noted that no-till farming, in which farmers leave the biological layers undisturbed rather than turning the soil for each growing season, “is marvelous for the biota, excellent for erosion control and soil conservation, and is helpful in controlling some diseases.”

But the agroecology approach may only work for people who want to run a hobby farm. On a large scale, it would require greater amounts of land, produce lower yields, and increase the price of food globally. That defeats the ultimate goal of agriculture, said Jay Lehr, science director at the Heartland Institute: “Modern agriculture is about feeding the world at the lowest cost.”



Anti-cancer virus

Glioblastoma, a common and aggressive brain malignancy, afflicts 12 to 15 percent of brain cancer patients. Most patients who get surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment survive only 15 or 16 months. But a team of Duke University researchers recently completed the first clinical trial of a treatment that may improve the odds.

The scientists removed a gene from a poliovirus and replaced it with a gene from a harmless cold virus. They then infused the modified poliovirus into malignant tumors in the brains of 61 patients over a five-year period. The virus can infect and kill brain cancer cells and trigger the patient’s own immune system to attack tumors directly.

Twenty-one percent of the patients who underwent the treatment survived more than three years, compared with a 4 percent survival rate among people who did not receive the treatment. The researchers reported the results in The New England Journal of Medicine in July. —J.B. 



Joint solution

One in 10 people will suffer from arthritis at some point in their lives, but 3D bioprinting technology may one day offer a long-term treatment. Researchers at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands are developing a method that would use a patient’s own cells to print new cartilage, Horizon magazine reported. Implanted in a joint in place of damaged cartilage, the printed tissue would mature to become identical to the original, healthy cartilage. —J.B.