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Reshaping the horse through millennia: Sequencing reveals genes selected by humans in domestication

Whole genome sequencing of modern and ancient horses unveils the genes that have been selected by humans in the process of domestication through the latest 5,500 years, but also reveals the cost of this domestication. A new study led by the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, in collaboration with scientists from 11 international universities, reports that a significant part of the genetic variation in modern domesticated horses could be attributed to interbreeding with the descendants of a now extinct population of wild horses. This population was distinct from the only surviving wild horse population, that of the Przewalski’s horses. The study has been published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The domestication of the horse some 5,500 years ago ultimately revolutionized human civilization and societies. Horses facilitated transportation as well as the circulation of ideas, languages and religions. Horses also revolutionized warfare with the advent of chariotry and mounted cavalry and beyond the battlefield horses greatly stimulated agriculture. However, the domestication of the horse and the subsequent encroachment of human civilization also resulted in the near extinction of wild horses.

The only surviving wild horse population, the Przewalski’s horses from Mongolia, descends from mere 13 individuals, preserved only through a massive conservation effort. As a consequence of this massive loss of genetic diversity, the effects of horse domestication through times have been difficult to unravel on a molecular level. Says Dr. Ludovic Orlando, Associate Professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, who led this work

“The classical way to evaluate the evolutionary impact of domestication consists of comparing the genetic information present amongst wild animals and their living domesticates. This approach is ill suited to horses as the only surviving population of wild horses has experienced a massive demographic decline in the 20th century. We therefore decided to sequence the genome of ancient horses that lived prior to domestication to directly assess how pre-domesticated horses looked like genetically.”

Recent advances in ancient DNA research have opened the door for reconstructing the genomes of ancient individuals. In 2013, Ludovic Orlando and his team succeeded in decoding the genome of a ~700,000 year-old horse, which represents the oldest genome sequenced to date. This time, the researchers focused on much more recent horse specimens, dating from ~16,000 and ~43,000 years ago. These were carefully selected to unambiguously predate the beginning of domestication, some 5,500 years ago. The bone fossils were excavated in the Taymyr Peninsula, Russia, where arctic conditions favor the preservation of DNA.

The human reshaping of the horse

While the horse contributed to reshaping human civilization, humans in turn reshaped the horse to fit their diverse needs and the diverse environments they lived in. This transformation left specific signatures in the genomes of modern horses, which the ancient genomes helped reveal. The scientists were able to detect a set of 125 candidate genes involved in a wide range of physical and behavioral traits, by comparing the genomes of the two ancient horses with those of the Przewalski’s horse and five breeds of domesticated horses. Says Dr. Dan Chang, post-doctoral researcher at the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab and co-leading author of the study:

“Our selection scans identified genes that were already known to evolve under strong selection in horses. This provided a nice validation of our approach.”

Dr. Beth Shapiro, head of the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab continues: “We provide the most extensive list of gene candidates that have been favored by humans following the domestication of horses. This list is fascinating as it includes a number of genes involved in the development of muscle and bones. This probably reveals the genes that helped utilizing horses for transportation.”

And Dr. Ludovic Orlando from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen concludes: “Perhaps even more exciting as it represents the hallmark of animal domestication, we identify genes controlling animal behavior and the response to fear. These genes could have been the key for turning wild animals into more docile domesticated forms.”

The ‘cost of domestication’ in horses

However, the reshaping of the horse genome during their domestication also had significant negative impacts. This was apparent in the increasing levels of inbreeding found amongst domesticates, but also through an enhanced accumulation of deleterious mutations in their genomes relative to the ancient wild horses. This finding supports an earlier theory coined ‘the cost of domestication’, which predicted increasing genetic loads in domesticates compared to their wild ancestors. Says Professor Laurent Excoffier, University of Bern and group leader at the Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics:

“Domestication is generally associated with repeated demographic crashes. Yet, mutations that negatively impact genes are not eliminated by selection and can even increase in frequency when populations are small. Domestication thus generally comes at a cost, as deleterious mutations can accumulate in the genome. This had already been shown for rice and dogs. Horses now provide another example of this phenomenon.”

This is something that was only detectable in the horse in comparison to the ancient genomes, as Przewalski’s horses were found to show a proportion of deleterious mutations similar to domesticated horses. Says Hákon Jónsson, PhD-student at the Centre for GeoGenetics, co-leading author of the study: “The recent near extinction of the Przewalski’s horse population resulted in the persistence of deleterious mutations in the population, following the same mechanism that once led to the accumulation of deleterious mutations in the genomes of domesticated horses. What is striking is that a similar order of magnitude was reached even though this occurred in a much shorter time scale than domestication.”

An ancient contribution to the present

In addition, comparison of the ancient and modern genomes revealed that the ancient individuals contributed a significant amount of genetic variation to the modern population of domesticated horses, but not to the Przewalski’s horses. This suggests that restocking from a wild population descendant from the ancient horses occurred during the domestication processes that ultimately led to the modern domesticated horses. Mikkel Schubert, PhD- student at the Centre for GeoGenetics, co-leading author of the study concludes:

“This confirms previous findings that wild horses were used to restock the population of domesticated horses during the domestication process. However, as we sequenced whole genomes, we can estimate how much of the modern horse genome has been contributed through this process. Our estimate suggests that at least 13%, and potentially up to as much as 60%, of the modern horse genome has been acquired by restocking from the extinct wild population. That we identified the population that contributed to this process demonstrates that it is possible to identify the ancestral genetic sources that ultimately gave rise to our domesticated horses.”

Agriculture and Food News — ScienceDaily

Reshaping the horse through millennia: Sequencing reveals genes selected by humans in domestication

Whole genome sequencing of modern and ancient horses unveils the genes that have been selected by humans in the process of domestication through the latest 5,500 years, but also reveals the cost of this domestication. A new study led by the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, in collaboration with scientists from 11 international universities, reports that a significant part of the genetic variation in modern domesticated horses could be attributed to interbreeding with the descendants of a now extinct population of wild horses. This population was distinct from the only surviving wild horse population, that of the Przewalski’s horses. The study has been published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The domestication of the horse some 5,500 years ago ultimately revolutionized human civilization and societies. Horses facilitated transportation as well as the circulation of ideas, languages and religions. Horses also revolutionized warfare with the advent of chariotry and mounted cavalry and beyond the battlefield horses greatly stimulated agriculture. However, the domestication of the horse and the subsequent encroachment of human civilization also resulted in the near extinction of wild horses.

The only surviving wild horse population, the Przewalski’s horses from Mongolia, descends from mere 13 individuals, preserved only through a massive conservation effort. As a consequence of this massive loss of genetic diversity, the effects of horse domestication through times have been difficult to unravel on a molecular level. Says Dr. Ludovic Orlando, Associate Professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, who led this work

“The classical way to evaluate the evolutionary impact of domestication consists of comparing the genetic information present amongst wild animals and their living domesticates. This approach is ill suited to horses as the only surviving population of wild horses has experienced a massive demographic decline in the 20th century. We therefore decided to sequence the genome of ancient horses that lived prior to domestication to directly assess how pre-domesticated horses looked like genetically.”

Recent advances in ancient DNA research have opened the door for reconstructing the genomes of ancient individuals. In 2013, Ludovic Orlando and his team succeeded in decoding the genome of a ~700,000 year-old horse, which represents the oldest genome sequenced to date. This time, the researchers focused on much more recent horse specimens, dating from ~16,000 and ~43,000 years ago. These were carefully selected to unambiguously predate the beginning of domestication, some 5,500 years ago. The bone fossils were excavated in the Taymyr Peninsula, Russia, where arctic conditions favor the preservation of DNA.

The human reshaping of the horse

While the horse contributed to reshaping human civilization, humans in turn reshaped the horse to fit their diverse needs and the diverse environments they lived in. This transformation left specific signatures in the genomes of modern horses, which the ancient genomes helped reveal. The scientists were able to detect a set of 125 candidate genes involved in a wide range of physical and behavioral traits, by comparing the genomes of the two ancient horses with those of the Przewalski’s horse and five breeds of domesticated horses. Says Dr. Dan Chang, post-doctoral researcher at the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab and co-leading author of the study:

“Our selection scans identified genes that were already known to evolve under strong selection in horses. This provided a nice validation of our approach.”

Dr. Beth Shapiro, head of the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab continues: “We provide the most extensive list of gene candidates that have been favored by humans following the domestication of horses. This list is fascinating as it includes a number of genes involved in the development of muscle and bones. This probably reveals the genes that helped utilizing horses for transportation.”

And Dr. Ludovic Orlando from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen concludes: “Perhaps even more exciting as it represents the hallmark of animal domestication, we identify genes controlling animal behavior and the response to fear. These genes could have been the key for turning wild animals into more docile domesticated forms.”

The ‘cost of domestication’ in horses

However, the reshaping of the horse genome during their domestication also had significant negative impacts. This was apparent in the increasing levels of inbreeding found amongst domesticates, but also through an enhanced accumulation of deleterious mutations in their genomes relative to the ancient wild horses. This finding supports an earlier theory coined ‘the cost of domestication’, which predicted increasing genetic loads in domesticates compared to their wild ancestors. Says Professor Laurent Excoffier, University of Bern and group leader at the Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics:

“Domestication is generally associated with repeated demographic crashes. Yet, mutations that negatively impact genes are not eliminated by selection and can even increase in frequency when populations are small. Domestication thus generally comes at a cost, as deleterious mutations can accumulate in the genome. This had already been shown for rice and dogs. Horses now provide another example of this phenomenon.”

This is something that was only detectable in the horse in comparison to the ancient genomes, as Przewalski’s horses were found to show a proportion of deleterious mutations similar to domesticated horses. Says Hákon Jónsson, PhD-student at the Centre for GeoGenetics, co-leading author of the study: “The recent near extinction of the Przewalski’s horse population resulted in the persistence of deleterious mutations in the population, following the same mechanism that once led to the accumulation of deleterious mutations in the genomes of domesticated horses. What is striking is that a similar order of magnitude was reached even though this occurred in a much shorter time scale than domestication.”

An ancient contribution to the present

In addition, comparison of the ancient and modern genomes revealed that the ancient individuals contributed a significant amount of genetic variation to the modern population of domesticated horses, but not to the Przewalski’s horses. This suggests that restocking from a wild population descendant from the ancient horses occurred during the domestication processes that ultimately led to the modern domesticated horses. Mikkel Schubert, PhD- student at the Centre for GeoGenetics, co-leading author of the study concludes:

“This confirms previous findings that wild horses were used to restock the population of domesticated horses during the domestication process. However, as we sequenced whole genomes, we can estimate how much of the modern horse genome has been contributed through this process. Our estimate suggests that at least 13%, and potentially up to as much as 60%, of the modern horse genome has been acquired by restocking from the extinct wild population. That we identified the population that contributed to this process demonstrates that it is possible to identify the ancestral genetic sources that ultimately gave rise to our domesticated horses.”

Agriculture and Food News — ScienceDaily

Reshaping the horse through millennia: Sequencing reveals genes selected by humans in domestication

Whole genome sequencing of modern and ancient horses unveils the genes that have been selected by humans in the process of domestication through the latest 5,500 years, but also reveals the cost of this domestication. A new study led by the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, in collaboration with scientists from 11 international universities, reports that a significant part of the genetic variation in modern domesticated horses could be attributed to interbreeding with the descendants of a now extinct population of wild horses. This population was distinct from the only surviving wild horse population, that of the Przewalski’s horses. The study has been published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The domestication of the horse some 5,500 years ago ultimately revolutionized human civilization and societies. Horses facilitated transportation as well as the circulation of ideas, languages and religions. Horses also revolutionized warfare with the advent of chariotry and mounted cavalry and beyond the battlefield horses greatly stimulated agriculture. However, the domestication of the horse and the subsequent encroachment of human civilization also resulted in the near extinction of wild horses.

The only surviving wild horse population, the Przewalski’s horses from Mongolia, descends from mere 13 individuals, preserved only through a massive conservation effort. As a consequence of this massive loss of genetic diversity, the effects of horse domestication through times have been difficult to unravel on a molecular level. Says Dr. Ludovic Orlando, Associate Professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, who led this work

“The classical way to evaluate the evolutionary impact of domestication consists of comparing the genetic information present amongst wild animals and their living domesticates. This approach is ill suited to horses as the only surviving population of wild horses has experienced a massive demographic decline in the 20th century. We therefore decided to sequence the genome of ancient horses that lived prior to domestication to directly assess how pre-domesticated horses looked like genetically.”

Recent advances in ancient DNA research have opened the door for reconstructing the genomes of ancient individuals. In 2013, Ludovic Orlando and his team succeeded in decoding the genome of a ~700,000 year-old horse, which represents the oldest genome sequenced to date. This time, the researchers focused on much more recent horse specimens, dating from ~16,000 and ~43,000 years ago. These were carefully selected to unambiguously predate the beginning of domestication, some 5,500 years ago. The bone fossils were excavated in the Taymyr Peninsula, Russia, where arctic conditions favor the preservation of DNA.

The human reshaping of the horse

While the horse contributed to reshaping human civilization, humans in turn reshaped the horse to fit their diverse needs and the diverse environments they lived in. This transformation left specific signatures in the genomes of modern horses, which the ancient genomes helped reveal. The scientists were able to detect a set of 125 candidate genes involved in a wide range of physical and behavioral traits, by comparing the genomes of the two ancient horses with those of the Przewalski’s horse and five breeds of domesticated horses. Says Dr. Dan Chang, post-doctoral researcher at the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab and co-leading author of the study:

“Our selection scans identified genes that were already known to evolve under strong selection in horses. This provided a nice validation of our approach.”

Dr. Beth Shapiro, head of the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab continues: “We provide the most extensive list of gene candidates that have been favored by humans following the domestication of horses. This list is fascinating as it includes a number of genes involved in the development of muscle and bones. This probably reveals the genes that helped utilizing horses for transportation.”

And Dr. Ludovic Orlando from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen concludes: “Perhaps even more exciting as it represents the hallmark of animal domestication, we identify genes controlling animal behavior and the response to fear. These genes could have been the key for turning wild animals into more docile domesticated forms.”

The ‘cost of domestication’ in horses

However, the reshaping of the horse genome during their domestication also had significant negative impacts. This was apparent in the increasing levels of inbreeding found amongst domesticates, but also through an enhanced accumulation of deleterious mutations in their genomes relative to the ancient wild horses. This finding supports an earlier theory coined ‘the cost of domestication’, which predicted increasing genetic loads in domesticates compared to their wild ancestors. Says Professor Laurent Excoffier, University of Bern and group leader at the Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics:

“Domestication is generally associated with repeated demographic crashes. Yet, mutations that negatively impact genes are not eliminated by selection and can even increase in frequency when populations are small. Domestication thus generally comes at a cost, as deleterious mutations can accumulate in the genome. This had already been shown for rice and dogs. Horses now provide another example of this phenomenon.”

This is something that was only detectable in the horse in comparison to the ancient genomes, as Przewalski’s horses were found to show a proportion of deleterious mutations similar to domesticated horses. Says Hákon Jónsson, PhD-student at the Centre for GeoGenetics, co-leading author of the study: “The recent near extinction of the Przewalski’s horse population resulted in the persistence of deleterious mutations in the population, following the same mechanism that once led to the accumulation of deleterious mutations in the genomes of domesticated horses. What is striking is that a similar order of magnitude was reached even though this occurred in a much shorter time scale than domestication.”

An ancient contribution to the present

In addition, comparison of the ancient and modern genomes revealed that the ancient individuals contributed a significant amount of genetic variation to the modern population of domesticated horses, but not to the Przewalski’s horses. This suggests that restocking from a wild population descendant from the ancient horses occurred during the domestication processes that ultimately led to the modern domesticated horses. Mikkel Schubert, PhD- student at the Centre for GeoGenetics, co-leading author of the study concludes:

“This confirms previous findings that wild horses were used to restock the population of domesticated horses during the domestication process. However, as we sequenced whole genomes, we can estimate how much of the modern horse genome has been contributed through this process. Our estimate suggests that at least 13%, and potentially up to as much as 60%, of the modern horse genome has been acquired by restocking from the extinct wild population. That we identified the population that contributed to this process demonstrates that it is possible to identify the ancestral genetic sources that ultimately gave rise to our domesticated horses.”

Agriculture and Food News — ScienceDaily

Reshaping the horse through millennia: Sequencing reveals genes selected by humans in domestication

Whole genome sequencing of modern and ancient horses unveils the genes that have been selected by humans in the process of domestication through the latest 5,500 years, but also reveals the cost of this domestication. A new study led by the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, in collaboration with scientists from 11 international universities, reports that a significant part of the genetic variation in modern domesticated horses could be attributed to interbreeding with the descendants of a now extinct population of wild horses. This population was distinct from the only surviving wild horse population, that of the Przewalski’s horses. The study has been published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The domestication of the horse some 5,500 years ago ultimately revolutionized human civilization and societies. Horses facilitated transportation as well as the circulation of ideas, languages and religions. Horses also revolutionized warfare with the advent of chariotry and mounted cavalry and beyond the battlefield horses greatly stimulated agriculture. However, the domestication of the horse and the subsequent encroachment of human civilization also resulted in the near extinction of wild horses.

The only surviving wild horse population, the Przewalski’s horses from Mongolia, descends from mere 13 individuals, preserved only through a massive conservation effort. As a consequence of this massive loss of genetic diversity, the effects of horse domestication through times have been difficult to unravel on a molecular level. Says Dr. Ludovic Orlando, Associate Professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, who led this work

“The classical way to evaluate the evolutionary impact of domestication consists of comparing the genetic information present amongst wild animals and their living domesticates. This approach is ill suited to horses as the only surviving population of wild horses has experienced a massive demographic decline in the 20th century. We therefore decided to sequence the genome of ancient horses that lived prior to domestication to directly assess how pre-domesticated horses looked like genetically.”

Recent advances in ancient DNA research have opened the door for reconstructing the genomes of ancient individuals. In 2013, Ludovic Orlando and his team succeeded in decoding the genome of a ~700,000 year-old horse, which represents the oldest genome sequenced to date. This time, the researchers focused on much more recent horse specimens, dating from ~16,000 and ~43,000 years ago. These were carefully selected to unambiguously predate the beginning of domestication, some 5,500 years ago. The bone fossils were excavated in the Taymyr Peninsula, Russia, where arctic conditions favor the preservation of DNA.

The human reshaping of the horse

While the horse contributed to reshaping human civilization, humans in turn reshaped the horse to fit their diverse needs and the diverse environments they lived in. This transformation left specific signatures in the genomes of modern horses, which the ancient genomes helped reveal. The scientists were able to detect a set of 125 candidate genes involved in a wide range of physical and behavioral traits, by comparing the genomes of the two ancient horses with those of the Przewalski’s horse and five breeds of domesticated horses. Says Dr. Dan Chang, post-doctoral researcher at the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab and co-leading author of the study:

“Our selection scans identified genes that were already known to evolve under strong selection in horses. This provided a nice validation of our approach.”

Dr. Beth Shapiro, head of the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab continues: “We provide the most extensive list of gene candidates that have been favored by humans following the domestication of horses. This list is fascinating as it includes a number of genes involved in the development of muscle and bones. This probably reveals the genes that helped utilizing horses for transportation.”

And Dr. Ludovic Orlando from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen concludes: “Perhaps even more exciting as it represents the hallmark of animal domestication, we identify genes controlling animal behavior and the response to fear. These genes could have been the key for turning wild animals into more docile domesticated forms.”

The ‘cost of domestication’ in horses

However, the reshaping of the horse genome during their domestication also had significant negative impacts. This was apparent in the increasing levels of inbreeding found amongst domesticates, but also through an enhanced accumulation of deleterious mutations in their genomes relative to the ancient wild horses. This finding supports an earlier theory coined ‘the cost of domestication’, which predicted increasing genetic loads in domesticates compared to their wild ancestors. Says Professor Laurent Excoffier, University of Bern and group leader at the Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics:

“Domestication is generally associated with repeated demographic crashes. Yet, mutations that negatively impact genes are not eliminated by selection and can even increase in frequency when populations are small. Domestication thus generally comes at a cost, as deleterious mutations can accumulate in the genome. This had already been shown for rice and dogs. Horses now provide another example of this phenomenon.”

This is something that was only detectable in the horse in comparison to the ancient genomes, as Przewalski’s horses were found to show a proportion of deleterious mutations similar to domesticated horses. Says Hákon Jónsson, PhD-student at the Centre for GeoGenetics, co-leading author of the study: “The recent near extinction of the Przewalski’s horse population resulted in the persistence of deleterious mutations in the population, following the same mechanism that once led to the accumulation of deleterious mutations in the genomes of domesticated horses. What is striking is that a similar order of magnitude was reached even though this occurred in a much shorter time scale than domestication.”

An ancient contribution to the present

In addition, comparison of the ancient and modern genomes revealed that the ancient individuals contributed a significant amount of genetic variation to the modern population of domesticated horses, but not to the Przewalski’s horses. This suggests that restocking from a wild population descendant from the ancient horses occurred during the domestication processes that ultimately led to the modern domesticated horses. Mikkel Schubert, PhD- student at the Centre for GeoGenetics, co-leading author of the study concludes:

“This confirms previous findings that wild horses were used to restock the population of domesticated horses during the domestication process. However, as we sequenced whole genomes, we can estimate how much of the modern horse genome has been contributed through this process. Our estimate suggests that at least 13%, and potentially up to as much as 60%, of the modern horse genome has been acquired by restocking from the extinct wild population. That we identified the population that contributed to this process demonstrates that it is possible to identify the ancestral genetic sources that ultimately gave rise to our domesticated horses.”

Agriculture and Food News — ScienceDaily

Thanksgiving Leftovers: Keep Your Family Safe Through the Holidays

For some, the biggest benefit of Thanksgiving is the leftovers. That’s especially true for the cooks of the family, who know that the leftovers from Thursday’s dinner will give them a break from the kitchen on Friday.

But before you dig in to the refrigerated turkey and mashed potatoes, consider some food safety advice from us at Food Safety News.

First, ask yourself a few questions before you heat up those leftovers:

  • Has everything been kept out of the “danger zone”?
  • Was everything cooled rapidly?
  • Was everything stored safely?
  • How can I reheat everything to be sure it’s safe?

The Danger Zone

Hot foods need to be refrigerated within two hours of exposure to room temperature to minimize the amount of time they’re held within the danger zone, the range of temperatures at which bacteria easily grow.

Bacteria grow most easily between 40 and 140 degrees F (4.5 to 60 degrees C). Make sure that all of your leftovers have been taken out of that range within two hours by either refrigerating them or hot-holding them above 140 F. Throw away anything that’s been held at room temperature for more than two hours.

Cool and Store Foods Safely

Once in the fridge, your food needs to cool below 40 degrees F rapidly, and that usually requires dividing food into shallow containers. The smaller the portion size, the faster it will cool in the fridge, and you’ll avoid having the centers of food portions linger in the danger zone for hours.

Pay attention to how long foods have been stored in the fridge and freezer. According to foodsafety.gov’s handy chart for safe storage times, cooked poultry is good for 3-4 days in the fridge and 2-6 months in the freezers.

Reheating and Thawing

You should reheat leftovers to 165 degrees F. When in doubt, stick a food thermometer into the center of the food to check.

Soups, sauces and gravies should be brought to a boil.

When possible, stir foods during the reheating process. Let foods stand for a few minutes after taking them out of the microwave so that heat can continue to redistribute.

Frozen leftovers can be thawed in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. The refrigerator is the safest way, but it’s also the slowest.

When thawing leftovers in cold water, place them in a leak-proof package or plastic bag and change out the water every 30 minutes to speed up the thawing process.

Find more specific tips in our sidebar on the right-hand side of this article, and enjoy those leftovers.

Food Safety News

Protecting rainforest through agriculture, forestry

Every year, 130,000 square kilometers of rainforest disappear from the face of Earth — an area equivalent to the size of Greece. The majority of this land is cleared for agricultural development — even in tropical mountain areas. These fields are quickly overgrown with weeds, however. Bracken is particularly tenacious. It cannot be permanently eliminated using herbicides or by burning the land. As a result, farmers often abandon the land after a few short years and start clearing new areas of forest.

“This cycle has to be broken,” explains Prof. Thomas Knoke from the Institute of Forest Management at Technische Universität München (TUM). Prof. Knoke is lead author of the study that has just been published. “We’ve been investigating whether this abandoned pasture land can be recultivated, and if so, how.”

The team did not just look at economic benefit when evaluating the different concepts. For the first time, this study also took environmental and socio-cultural criteria into consideration, factoring in issues such as the amount of carbon dioxide and nitrogen assimilated by plants and soil, biomass production, soil quality, impact on climate, water management and acceptance among farmers.

Sustainable land use

The area under investigation (around 150 hectares) is located in the Ecuadorian Andes at an altitude of between 1,800 and 2,100 meters. The researchers looked at five different concepts:

  • No land use — abandoned land is left to nature
  • Afforestation — planting a native species of alder
  • Afforestation — introduction of a non-native pine species
  • Extensive pasturing — mechanical weed control followed by initial fertilization and land use
  • Intense pasturing — chemical weed control and land use with regular fertilization

Afforestation with alder and pine species proved particularly sustainable. In addition, forested regions offer the best protection against erosion in the long term. “Our study also showed that afforestation with the native Andean alder had a much more positive impact on the climate and water balance than the other land use options,” adds Prof. Jörg Bendix from Phillips-Universität Marburg.

Engaging the farmers — a key factor

Typical rainforest flora and fauna are also able to gradually recolonize afforested regions. Intense pasturing scored much higher on the ecological scale than extensive pasturing. Economic benefits stemmed from the sale of wood (afforestation) or the sale of meat and milk (pasturing). Alder plantations achieved the greatest financial returns.

A survey conducted among land users showed that the majority of livestock farmers also viewed afforestation as the best land use option due to the positive ecological balance and greater long-term earnings potential. “If we want recultivation concepts to be a success, the people using the land have to be engaged,” elaborates Bendix.

Reference project for other tropical mountain regions

The sustainable land use concepts all come at a cost, however. Over a period of twenty years, farmers who do not use slash-and-burn techniques are exposed to an annual loss of earnings. This amounts to 87 dollars per hectare for afforestation and 100 dollars per hectare for intense pasturing. The researchers regard compensation for recultivation as an important incentive for encouraging famers to replant abandoned grazing land. In the long term, trade with CO2 certificates could also provide an additional source of income.

The researchers also believe that their study could be used as a reference for evaluating recultivation concepts in other tropical mountain forests, for example in Brazil or Africa. “Abandoned agricultural land is a huge resource that is not being harnessed,” summarizes Thomas Knoke. “The German Research Foundation (DFG) is currently funding a number of projects that are working with farmers in Ecuador to implement the findings of the study,” concludes Erwin Beck, professor at the University of Bayreuth and the man who started the project in Ecuador 17 years ago.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Agriculture and Food News — ScienceDaily