Integrated soil-crop system management: Journal Club with Angesh Anupam

After a break over Easter, the Grantham Scholars reconvened to discuss the possibilities offered by integrated soil-crop system management, in a Journal Club session led by Grantham Scholar Angesh Anupam.

This week’s paper

Integrated soil-crop system management for food security’ by X. Chen, Z. Cui, P. M. Vitousek, K. G. Cassman, P. A. Matson, J. Bai, Q. Meng, P. Hou, S. Yue, V. Römheld, and F. Zhang

angesh-anupamThe paper I chose for this Journal Club was ‘Integrated soil-crop system management for food security’ by Xin-Ping Chen, Zhen-Ling Cui, Peter M. Vitousek, Kenneth G. Cassman, Pamela A. Matson, Jin-Shun Bai, Qing-Feng Meng, Peng Hou, Shan-Chao Yue, Volker Römheld, and Fu-Suo Zhang, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The reasons for selecting this paper on this very occasion are manifold. We Grantham Scholars have a wide range of backgrounds and therefore, it was essential to pick a paper which can fit into this broad spectrum. But we are all interested in food sustainability and this paper addresses this problem to a fair extent. In addition, this research also involves computer modelling as a part of its methodology, and so shares some similarities with my own PhD project.

The authors in this research have tried to introduce a sustainable way of increasing the production of maize in China. Rapidly developing economies like India and China face the dual challenge of substantially increasing yields of cereal grains while at the same time reducing the major impacts of intensive agriculture. A model-driven integrated soil-crop system management (ISSM) approach was used to increase the yield of maize to almost twice the yield from current farming practice, without increasing the use of Nitrogen fertiliser.

While discussing this paper, the majority of us agreed with the authors in many regards, but there was some debate about the choice of crop, as well as one of the strategies used in the research – in-season root-zone nitrogen management strategy (IRNM). This method identifies the most effective nitrogen fertiliser management tactics to ensure non-limiting nitrogen supply with minimum losses to the environment.

There are some interesting bits covered in this paper, which not only deals with food security, but it also addresses some problems our planet faces – for example, nitrogen pollution is one of the major concerns for today’s climate scientists. The other interesting thing about this work is that it does not seem to be influenced by big corporate houses, and discusses including some generic approaches to increasing yields in the most optimised manner. A lot of researchers are going in the field of genetic modification, which has been debated many times. This blog is not intended to comment on the GM approach, but it should be well accepted that genetic modification is not enough to solve every problem related to the food security. Hence, this kind of inclusive approach is welcome.

This paper also raises a few relevant policy-based questions, which should be further researched in order to make any integrated approach more effective. For example, how can farmers obtain the information necessary to apply the ISSM system? What are the potential barriers to implementation by individual farmers, and how can they be alleviated? These questions are really crucial because the actual implementation of any new approach depends upon farmers, and there can be several possible tactics to be adopted in order to communicate the advantages of these types of sustainable farming practices. The role of government is equally significant because it can play very important role in bridging the gap between the scientific community and farmers.

Most of the Grantham Scholars found the paper easy to go through and were able to give their own views on all the major points covered in the literature. They also found it relevant in their own research. The main idea put forward by the authors, although it may seem to be very obvious and simple, of course carries a strong message about the need to look for sustainable ways of developing agricultural practices.