FT Food Revolution
Metagenomics: mapping the mysteries of soil
A typical teaspoon of agricultural soil contains more than a billion living organisms. This biodiversity plays a key role in the ability of soil to support plant life, including agricultural crops, although identifying and counting soil microbes is an incredibly difficult task. But as the FT’s science editor Clive Cookson explains, new molecular fingerprinting technology known as metagenomics is coming to the rescue.
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After being shot in the gut, a young pepper farmer lies still and silent in a rickety hospital bed in the farming town of Miango in Plateau State, central Nigeria.
For many across the world who eat Nutella, it is simply a tasty hazelnut cocoa spread that can be enjoyed on toast or sometimes straight out of the jar.
Aldo Sánchez surveys a field of lofty banana trees, with cacao plants bursting with fruit nestled beneath. “Two and a half years ago, this was pure pasture,” he says. Indeed, his neighbour’s field is just grass.
The southeastern corner of the tiny island of Príncipe, about 200km from mainland west Africa, hosts the raw material to make some of the world’s best chocolate, says local farmer Arlindo dos Ramos, taking a golden cocoa pod from a short tree.
The most enjoyable science activity of my middle years at school involved soil biodiversity. We poured jugs of mustard water on to squares of grass and earth — and counted how many earthworms and other invertebrates escaped the irritating liquid.
Sitting in an anonymous science park a few kilometres north of Nara, an ancient Japanese capital, the Keihanna plant looks like any other factory churning out auto transmissions or electronic components.
Ruud Zanders is an unlikely candidate to be running a farm producing the world’s first carbon-neutral eggs.
Eating a mouthful of Magnum, Cornetto or Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, the typical consumer has little concern for the precise temperature at which it has been transported from the factory.
The rise of industrial-scale livestock farms in the US has put cheap meat on consumers’ plates, but it also has environmental costs. Among them are emissions of methane.
Sarah Singla is a cereal farmer who does not know how to plough. That is a sign not of professional laxness, but of her dedication to the conservation agriculture that her father embraced.
Rampha Khamhaeng, a farmer in central Thailand’s rice-growing Suphanburi province, was sceptical when she first heard about a new farming method for paddy fields that could reduce both water use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Emissions are likely to rise in the short term — but there is also a chance to build a more resilient food system.
FT Food Revolution
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FT Food Revolution is a video channel looking at the people and businesses working to create a more sustainable food system - from tackling food waste and environmental health, to sustainable farming and food security. The channel alternates between independent reporting from FT journalists and expert posts from Rabobank.