Category Archives: Agriculture

Ozone pollution is causing billions worth of damage to East Asian crops

In the upper atmosphere, ozone protects us from dangerous ultraviolet radiation but closer to Earth it can harm plants, animals, and even humans. In East Asia, a growing concentration of ground-level ozone is severely affecting air quality and crops, with a cost estimated at $63 billion a year due to lower yields, according to a new study. 

Image credit: Shawn Harquail / Flickr.

Surface ozone is created by the chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This happens when pollutants emitted by power plants, cars, refineries, boilers, and other sources chemically react in the presence of sunlight. Ozone can be transported long distances, so even rural areas can be affected.

Ozone in the air we breathe can affect our health, especially on hot sunny days, when ozone can reach unhealthy levels. Elevated exposure can also affect vegetation and ecosystems. In particular, ozone can harm vegetation during growing season. When it enters a plant, it affects a plant’s ability to carry out photosynthesis (the process to convert sunlight into energy), which can severely affect or outright kill the plant.. 

In a new study, researchers from the Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology in China analyzed the threat of elevated surface ozone levels to crop production in East Asia, especially to wheat in China and rice across China, Japan, and South Korea. They combined air monitoring at 3,000 locations and ozone experiments, quantifying the damage and the cost caused by ozone pollution. 

“Despite the deceleration of the increase or even decrease in America and Europe in the last two decades, surface ozone concentration is increasing in Asia and has outweighed trends in other regions,” the researchers wrote in their paper on Nature. “Surface ozone poses a threat to food security due to its deleterious effects on crop production.”

The ozone challenges

In the study, the researchers found that an average of 33% of China’s wheat crop is lost every year because of ozone pollution, with 28% lost in South Korea and 16% in Japan. For rice, the average figure in China was 23%, though hybrid strains were more vulnerable. In South Korea, the figure was almost 11%, while in Japan it was over 5%.

This is an especially concerning issue for China, as it has to feed 20% of the world’s population with just 7% of the world’s farmland. The country has lost 6% of its arable land (or 7.5 million hectares) from 2009 to 2019, according to government data, a trend that is expected to continue by 2030 due to industry, energy, and urban expansion. 

“The quantification of the ozone impacts is a premise for any planned actions to protect Asian food production from the increasing threat of surface ozone. However, the real challenge would be to reduce the O3 levels, which should be achieved by applying drastic cuts in the emissions from road transportation and the energy sector,” the researchers wrote. 

In the study, they suggest rigorous emission regulation among Asian countries could lead to higher ozone reduction targets. Besides this, ozone-induced crop yield losses could also be reduced by implementing a combination of agronomic practices such as adjustment of water supply and breeding and selecting more ozone-tolerant cultivars and hybrids.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Fields in North America will see their first robot tractors by the end of the year

American farm equipment manufactured John Deere has teamed up with French agricultural robot start-up Naio to create a driverless tractor that can plow, by itself, and be supervised by farmers through a smartphone.

Image credits CES 2022.

There are more people alive in the world today than ever before, and not very many of us want to work the land. A shortage of laborers is not the only issue plaguing today’s farms however: climate change, and the need to limit our environmental impact, are further impacting our ability to produce enough food to go around.

In a bid to address at least one of these problems, John Deere and Naio have developed a self-driving tractor that can get fields heady for crops on its own. This is a combination of John Deere’s R8 tractor, a plow, GPS suite, and 360-degree cameras, which a farmer can control remotely, from a smartphone.

Plowing ahead

The machine was shown off at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, an event that began last Wednesday. According to a presentation held at the event, the tractor only needs to be driven into the field, after which the operator can sent it on its way with a simple swipe of their smartphone.

The tractor is equipped with an impressive sensory suite — six pairs of cameras, able to fully perceive the machine’s surroundings — and is run by artificial intelligence. These work together to check the tractor’s position at all times with a high level of accuracy (within an inch, according to the presentation) and keep an eye out for any obstacles. If an obstacle is met, the tractor stops and sends a warning signal to its user.

John Deere Chief Technology Officer Jahmy Hindman told AFP that the autonomous plowing tractor will be available in North America this year, although no price has yet been specified.

While the tractor, so far, can only plow by itself, the duo of companies plan to expand into more complicated processes — such as versions that can seed or fertilize fields — in the future. However, they add that combine harvesters are more difficult to automate, and there is no word yet on a release date for such vehicles.

However, with other farm equipment manufacturers (such as New Holland and Kubota) working on similar projects, they can’t be far off.

“The customers are probably more ready for autonomy in agriculture than just about anywhere else because they’ve been exposed to really sophisticated and high levels of automation for a very long time,” Hindman said.

Given their price and relative novelty, automated farming vehicles will most likely first be used for specialized, expensive, and labor-intensive crops. It may be a while before we see them working vast cereal crop fields, but they will definitely get there, eventually.

There is hope that, by automating the most labor-intensive and unpleasant jobs on the farm, such as weeding and crop monitoring, automation can help boost yields without increasing costs, while also reducing the need for mass use of pesticides or fungicides — which would reduce the environmental impact of the agricultural sector, while also making for healthier food on our tables.

Chickens pay the price for our large eggs: 85% of them suffer fractures

Every year, human-raised poultry produce over one trillion eggs — that’s over 80 million tons of eggs, just from chicken alone — and the figure keeps growing from year to year. Life for the egg-laying chicken is never easy, and it’s not very long either.

The problems start from their very first day of life when the males (considered unwanted surplus by the industry) are slaughtered either through a grinding machine or through asphyxiation. For the females, most will spend their life in cages, laying some 300 eggs a year (two or even three times more than they would in nature). After the first year, it’s common in the industry to slaughter the egg-laying hens, since their egg productivity tends to drop. But even in this one year which they spend alive they are not spared of pain.

According to a new study, hens selected to lay larger eggs are very prone to fractures. Based on an analysis carried out in Denmark, up to 85% of these hens suffer keel bone fractures.

Big eggs, big problems

According to Tom Vasey, chair of the British Free Range Producers’ Association, laying larger eggs is painful for the hen. Although some researchers have argued that the evidence is not conclusive, it’s not uncommon for large eggs to have bloodstains on them — a strong indicator of painful laying.

The new study looked at keel bone fractures — a major welfare problem that seems to be worsening.

“Depending on the housing system, fracture prevalences exceeding 80% have been reported from different countries. No specific causes have yet been identified and this has consequently hampered risk factor identification,” write the researchers led by Michael J.Toscano from Bern University.

The objective of the study was to investigate the prevalence of keel bone fractures in Danish layer hens and to identify risk factors in relation to this type of fracture. In total, the researchers investigated 4794 birds from 40 flocks. All flocks were 60 weeks old and had reached the so-called “end of lay” stage, where they were about to be slaughtered to prevent their egg production from declining.

The worst-off birds seemed to be the ones living in cages, although a majority of large-egg-laying birds from all setups seemed to suffer from this type of fracture.

“In flocks from non-caged systems, fracture prevalence in the range 53%-100% was observed whereas the prevalence in flocks from enriched cages ranged between 50–98%,” the researchers explain. The presence of multiple fractures was also not uncommon.

Although the study only analyzed Denmark, the prevalence of these fractures is likely very high in hens in other parts of the world as well — especially since Denmark is one of the countries with stricter animal welfare practices.

For consumers who care about animal welfare, this is another reminder that large eggs come at a cost, and in a greater sense, all eggs come at a cost.

The study was published in PLoS.

This natural chemical could keep fruits and vegetables fresh for longer

Roksolana Zasiadko.

Every year, over 1.3 million apples are discarded — but that’s nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of bananas discarded every year. Whatever fruit or vegetable you look at, we discard a lot of it. Food waste is a major global issue, and it’s happening at every level from farm to plate. Globally, up to 40% of all picked fruit is wasted, which is a huge environmental and economic problem.

Some retailers have attempted to solve this problem by packaging fruits in plastic, which keeps them fresh for longer, but created another problem in the form of plastic pollution. But according to some research, there could be another approach that works.

Researchers working at the University of Guelph in Canada have found that they can use hexanal (a compound naturally produced by fruits and veggies) to keep them fresh for a longer period of time. Plants produce hexanal to ward off pests and delay the onset of the enzyme phospholipase D, which makes fruits and veggies go bad.

The researchers used nine different methods of administering the hexanal to fruits, including a spray formulation, a wrap, stickers, and sachets.

“Fruit that is dipped in hexanal after harvest can stay fresh for between three and four weeks longer. This means that fruit can be tree-ripened, picked and shipped to its destinations, where it would arrive in better condition and would contribute to less fruit being discarded as unpalatable or marketable,” the researchers write in an accompanying article.

Mangoes were found to stay fresh for up to three weeks longer, while for nectarines (which are particularly prone to browning), the browning was delayed by nine days.

“We also found that there’s potential for using hexanal to improve the transportation of tastier fruit varieties that are currently too delicate to ship internationally,” write Jayasankar Subramanian and Elizabeth Finnis, two of the researchers involved in the study.

The researchers also emphasize that this could improve the livelihoods of farmers living in impoverished areas. Although they are at the very base of our modern food chain, they often make the least money, and have the least bargaining power. When food gets wasted, it’s often the farmers that end up losing the most.

Hexanal, in spite of its artificial-sounding name, is a natural compound, and it is also safe and approved for consumption. It’s also pretty cheap and production can be scaled easily.

Of course, it will take time (and probably, larger studies) before the use of hexanal can be actually implemented in the agricultural system. But having access to a method that can make produce last longer could end up making an important difference in the world.

Turning leaked methane into fishmeal would turn a profit while helping the environment

The issue of methane pollution might become an asset in the future, thanks to new technology that can transform this potent greenhouse gas into fish food.

Image credits Sirawich Rungsimanop.

Approaches to converting methane into fishmeal have already been developed, the authors note, but the economic uncertainty during the pandemic has prevented its use to promote food security on any meaningful scale. The new study analyzes the method’s economic viability today. The main takeaway of the research is that methane-to-fishmeal conversion is economically feasible for certain sources of the gas and that other sources can be made profitable with certain improvements.

The approach can also be of quite significant help against climate change, the team adds, and is capable of meeting all the global demand for fishmeal, further reducing the strain we’re placing on natural ecosystems.

Untapped resource

“Industrial sources in the U.S. are emitting a truly staggering amount of methane, which is uneconomical to capture and use with current applications,” said study lead author Sahar El Abbadia, a lecturer in the Civic, Liberal and Global Education program at Stanford.

“Our goal is to flip that paradigm, using biotechnology to create a high-value product.”

Carbon dioxide is the best-known greenhouse gas, and currently the most abundant one in the Earth’s atmosphere. That being said, methane is another important player in our current climate woes. Methane is estimated to have 85 times the global warming potential of CO2 over a 20-year period, and at least 25 times as great a potential over a 100-year period. Methane also represents a direct hazard to public health as concentrations of this gas are increasing in the troposphere (the lower layer of the atmosphere, where people live). An estimated 1 million premature deaths occur worldwide, per year, due to respiratory illnesses associated with methane exposure.

The problem posed by methane is also increasing over time: the relative concentration of this gas in the atmosphere has been increasing twice as fast as that of CO2 since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the team explains. Although there are natural sources of atmospheric methane, mostly through the decomposition of organic matter and from digestive processes, the lion’s share of that increase is owed to human-driven emissions.

Methanotrophs, bacteria that consume methane, have been explored as a potential solution in the past. If supplied with methane, oxygen, and certain nutrients, these bacteria produce a protein-rich sludge that can be used, among other things, to produce feedstock for fish farms. This process is already in commercial use by some companies; however, they are supplied by methane fed through gas distribution grids.

The authors note that capturing methane emissions — such as those from landfills, wastewater treatment plants, or leaked at oil and gas facilities — would be both cheaper and much more eco-friendly. Besides economic and environmental benefits, the shift from pumped to captured methane in the production of fishmeal would also help ensure humanity’s greater food security. The authors explain that seafood consumption has increased more than four times since the 1960s, with grave consequences for natural fish stocks.

Aquaculture (fish farms) now provide around half of the quantity of animal-sourced seafood consumed globally. Demand for seafood in the form of algae and animals is also estimated to double by 2050, the team adds, which will place increased strain on producers.

Against this backdrop, methane-sourced fish feed can represent an important asset towards food security in the future, and allow us to have the seafood we crave for minimal environmental impact.

Makes economic sense

Unused methane emissions in the U.S. from landfills, wastewater treatment plants and oil and gas facilities. Image credits El Abbadi, et al., (2021), Nature Sustainability.

In order to determine whether such efforts would also be economically-feasible, the team modeled several scenarios, each with a different source of methane used in the production of the fishmeal. These included natural gas purchased from commercial grids, as well as methane captured from relatively large wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and oil and gas facilities. For each scenario, they looked at a range of variables that would factor into a company’s bottom line, including the availability of trained labor and the cost of electricity used to keep the bioreactors running.

In the scenarios that involved methane capture from landfills and oil & gas facilities, the production cost for one ton of fishmeal would be $1,546 and $1,531, respectively. Both are lower than the 10-year average market price of such products, which sits at $1,600. In scenarios in which methane capture was performed at wastewater treatment plants, the cost per ton sat at $1,645, which is just slightly over the market average. However, the highest prices per ton were seen when methane was purchased directly from the commercial grid — $1,783 per ton.

Surprisingly enough, electricity was the single largest expense for all scenarios, representing around 45% of total costs on average. This means that areas with low electricity production costs could see significant decreases. The authors estimate that in states such as Mississippi and Texas, these costs would go down by around 20%, to an average of $1,214 per ton ($386 less than the 10-year average).

With certain improvements, such as bioreactors with more efficient heat transfer to reduce the need for cooling, production costs can be reduced even further. Even in the scenarios where wastewater treatment plants provided the methane, steps can be taken to reduce costs. For example, wastewater itself can be used as a source of nitrogen and phosphorus (key nutrients), as well as for cooling.

The team estimates that if manufacturers can bring the per ton production cost by 20%, there would be profits to be made even if all the supply of fishmeal today was covered using methane-produced materials with gas captured in the U.S. alone. With ever more reductions in cost per ton, such products could out-compete soybean and other crops for animal feed in general.

“Despite decades of trying, the energy industry has had trouble finding a good use for stranded natural gas,” said study co-author Evan David Sherwin, a postdoctoral researcher in energy resources engineering at Stanford. “Once we started looking at the energy and food systems together, it became clear that we could solve at least two long-standing problems at once.”

The paper “Displacing fishmeal with protein derived from stranded methane” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Sri Lanka abandons plan to be the world’s first fully organic farming country

Leaving behind pesticides and other agrochemical agricultural inputs, often associated with soil degradation and other environmental problems, sounded like a great idea. Sri Lanka would have become the first country in the world to do so, shifting to a fully organic-based agricultural production. But as it turns out, the time was not ripe yet. 

Tea production in Sri Lanka. Image credit: Flickr / Pavel Dobrovsky

On Sunday, the government abandoned its quest and lifted import bans on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, ahead of planned farmer protests in the country’s capital. Ministry secretary Udith Jayasinghe told local media that the decision was taken in order to “ensure food security and because pesticides were ‘urgently needed’.”

When enacted, the ban was justified as a way to promote healthier agricultural practices, making farming more sustainable. “The challenge is to use modern scientific techniques and practices to enhance agricultural production without causing environmental degradation,” Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said at COP26.

Nevertheless, the effort didn’t last long. In October, the government loosened its import ban last month, allowing imports of potassium chloride and liquid nano nitrogen bottles from India. These are used during the rice-growing season and were in high demand. With tea and rubber, rice is one of the main agricultural exports of Sri Lanka.

Rice farmers complained that they couldn’t cultivate Sri Lanka’s staple because of a lack of fertilizers, with some complaining that their harvest size declined due to pests and weed attacks. The same concerns were shared by rubber and tea farms. The country’s Tea Factory Owners Association even predicted massive unemployment in the sector. 

The actual reasons of the move

While the government framed the transition to organic agriculture as an environmentally-friendly policy, this came at the time Sri Lanka was facing big economic problems amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The country’s economy relies on tourism and foreign worker remittances, largely in decline because of the pandemic. 

Amid declining foreign currency reserves, the country has been facing a borrowing crisis. In July, it repaid a billion-dollar bond in foreign currency debt, but two more payments are due in 2022 and 2023. This has made authorities try to save foreign currencies last year, even shutting down an oil refinery due to a lack of crude imports. 

Nevertheless, the experience from Sri Lanka doesn’t mean that a transition to organic farming is necessarily a bad idea. It’s something worth exploring, but knowing in advance that it will take some time to make it happen. In fact, a survey in Sri Lanka showed farmers backed going organic, but asked for support to make the transition. 

Organic farming is usually associated with environmental benefits, such as greater biodiversity and better soil quality, and also health ones – with studies finding that organic crops have more antioxidants and fewer pesticide residues. But a shift from conventional crops isn’t really straightforward, as we have now seen in Sri Lanka. It remains to be seen if other countries can implement the shift with more success.

Astronauts make delicious hot tacos with peppers they grew on the ISS

Outer space just got a bit tastier.

Delicious, zero-G tacos. Credits: NASA.

For several weeks, a few peppers have been growing aboard the International Space Station. As NASA eyes longer space missions, it’s looking for ways to provide long-term food for astronauts — and there are few studies about growing plants in zero gravity.

Astronauts have grown other crops (such as radishes or lettuce) on the ISS, but peppers are more problematic, especially because they take longer to bear fruit. The project was meant to shed light on how peppers grow in microgravity and interact with microbes in this environment.

“An excellent source of Vitamin C, peppers are more difficult to cultivate than many possible space crops because they take longer to germinate, grow, and develop fruit,” a NASA statement explains. “The investigation includes microbial analysis to improve understanding of plant-microbe interactions in space and assessment of flavor and texture, which vary based on the growth environment and care such as amount of watering.”

The project started in July, and now, it was finally harvesting time. Although the project was complex (the plant growth facility on the space station has 180 sensors and controls for monitoring plant growth and the environment), everything went according to plan, which means hot peppers will be on the menu of astronauts.

The plants are a hybrid Hatch chile, with Hatch being a region in New Mexico famous for its peppers. The seeds come from a cultivar called Española Improved, which have a pretty gentle hotness level of around 2,000 SHU units

After the harvest was done and a few samples were set aside for further research, astronauts got a taste of their labor — with oceanographer and astronaut Megan McArthur making her “best space tacos yet”. The astronauts had to rate the peppers and complete a survey about them, data that NASA will also use for future space crop plans.

If we are to expand our manned exploration range, it’s crucial that we develop a system for growing food in these conditions.

“It is one of the most complex plant experiments on the station to date because of the long germination and growing times,” said Matt Romeyn, principal investigator for the project. “We have previously tested flowering to increase the chance for a successful harvest because astronauts will have to pollinate the peppers to grow fruit.”

For astronauts, growing plants can be about more than just food: it can be a way to ease some of the stress and pressure of outer space and improve mental and physical wellbeing.

“Growing colorful vegetables in space can have long-term benefits for physical and psychological health,” Romeyn said. “We are discovering that growing plants and vegetables with colors and smells helps to improve astronauts’ well-being.”

So far, the astronauts seem to be enjoying both the agricultural process and the end result. Space is about to get hot.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria could make farming possible even in Martian soils

New research is investigating the role bacteria could play in future efforts to grow food on planets such as Mars. While such an approach has been shown to boost the growth of clover plants, more work needs to be done to determine exactly how to proceed with off-world farming.

Image credits Kathleen Bergmann.

Nitrogen is a key nutrient for plant growth, one which typically acts as a bottleneck here on Earth. Nitrogen itself cannot be directly assimilated by plants or animals, despite it being available in the atmosphere. Nature has found a workaround to this issue through the formation of symbiotic relationships between the roots of plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These supply essential compounds to the roots that, in turn, feed the bacterial nodules.

Martian soil, or regolith, also lacks essential nutrients, including nitrogen compounds, which would severely limit our ability to grow food in space. In a bid to understand whether we could enrich alien dirt with the aid of Earth-born bacteria, a new study reports on efforts to grow clover in simulated regolith.

Clover for good luck

“Nodule forming bacteria Sinorhizobium meliloti has been shown to nodulate in Martian regolith, significantly enhancing the growth of clover (Melilotus officinalis) in a greenhouse assay. This work increases our understanding of how plant and microbe interactions will help aid efforts to terraform regolith on Mars,” the study reads.

For the study, the team planted clover plants in a man-made regolith substitute that closely resembles that found on Mars. Some of the plants were inoculated with nitrogen-fixing, nodule-forming bacteria, while the others were left to fend for themselves. Sinorhizobium meliloti is a common bacterium on Earth that naturally forms symbiotic relationships with clover plants. Previous research has shown that clover plants can grow in regolith substitutes, the authors explain, but didn’t explore the effects of nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their growth rate.

One of the key findings of the study was that inoculated plants experienced a significantly higher rate of growth than the controls. They recorded 75% more growth in the roots and shoots of these plants compared to clovers which didn’t have access to the bacteria.

Although the bacteria had a positive effect on the plants themselves, the team also reports not seeing any increase in ammonium (NH4) levels in the regolith. In other words, the soil itself did not become enriched in any meaningful way in key nitrogen compounds that other plants could tap into. Furthermore, the symbiotic relationship between bacteria and clovers planted in regolith showed some functional differences compared to those of clovers planted in potting soil.

This suggests that even with the benefit of nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their side, crops sown in alien soils might still develop at different rates to crops on Earth.

All in all, however, the research proves that there is a case to be made for growing crops on alien worlds. Although there are still many unknowns regarding this topic, and even considering a lower yield rate, it remains an attractive proposition. Shuttling materials to outer space remains extremely expensive. It’s also a very long trip to Mars. Both of these factors make it impractical to rely on food transports from Earth to feed a potential colony.

But we are making strides towards offering space explorers greater autonomy. For example, we’re exploring new ways to produce building materials from astronauts’ own bodies and waste. We’re also working on ways to obtain water from regolith.

We’re likely not ready to grow crops in space, however, and the authors note that more research is needed to understand exactly how such a process should be handled. Chief among these, they want to expand their research to other types of crops, and to address possible issues of plant toxicity in regolith.

The paper “Soil fertility interactions with Sinorhizobium-legume symbiosis in a simulated Martian regolith; effects on nitrogen content and plant health” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

African scientists used CRISPR to edit bananas and make them more resilient to disease

Bananas are under threat from disease and climate change. A genetic tool can help.

Bananas are one of the most important food crops in the world. They’re an essential source of food and income for illions of farmers in resource-poor countries, and the overall banana production worldwide surpasses 155 million tons a year. But bananas are under pressure.

All the cultivated banana varieties are susceptible to diseases — and Banana xanthomonas wilt (BXW) is particularly problematic. BXW is a bacterial disease that has emerged as one of the largest threats to bananas. Overall economic losses from the disease were estimated at US$ 2–8 billion over a decade.

While all crops have some pests, being pretty much clones doesn’t really help the case — bananas are commercially propagated through cuttings, which means that banana growers virtually clone the plants. This lack of genetic variety makes them doubly susceptible to pests and disease, and we’ve seen in the past that infections can wipe out entire cultivars of bananas (until the 1950s, the Gros Michel banana cultivar was dominant, and it was wiped out by an outbreak of the Panama disease; now, Cavendish bananas account for around half of the global production, but they too are vulnerable).

With this in mind, researchers from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) scientists in Kenya set out to use genetic modifications to produce more resilient bananas. They used CRISPR/Cas9, a precise but also relatively affordable gene-editing tool, a discovery that earned a Nobel Prize in 2020.

“Recent advances in CRISPR/Cas-based genome editing can accelerate banana improvement,” the researchers write in the study. “The availability of reference genome sequences and the CRISPR/Cas9-editing system has made it possible to develop disease-resistant banana by precisely editing the endogenous gene.”

They focused on a gene called downy mildew resistance 6 (DMR6), a gene that has previously been shown to be important for many plants in fighting disease. During pathogen infection, the expression of this gene works to reduce or suppress the plant’s immune function — so if the gene were to be switched off, the plant’s immune system could be turbocharged.

Rapid bioassay of the edited bananas. Image credits: Tripathi et al.

The plants edited with CRISPR showed increased resilience to the disease, in some cases by up to 66% more resilient. Other than the increased resilience, there seemed to be no differences.

“Growth trial of three replicates of the potted plants of all the edited events under the greenhouse conditions showed normal growth with no morphological differences,” the study reads.

However, the researchers note that the study needs to be replicated on a larger sample size and in more realistic soil conditions, as this study was carried out on potted plants.

With bananas under threat from multiple pathogens, approaches such as this one can make all the difference. It’s not just pathogens, either — climate change has also been shown to have a damaging effect on bananas.

The study was published in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

Sugar just got a bit CRISPR: precise gene edits can improve sugarcane resilience, reduce its environmental impact

Ayman Eid, CABBI Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Florida, displays gene-edited sugarcane with reduced chlorophyll content. Credit: Rajesh Yarra, UF/IFAS Agronomy.

Sugarcane is one of the most important plants on Earth — at least for us humans. Not only does it provide 80% of the sugar and 30% of the bioethanol consumed worldwide, but the oil in its leaves and stems is also used to make bioplastics.

But there are two big problems with sugarcane. The first is its environmental impact. It takes huge amounts of water to grow and refine sugar (around nine gallons for a single teaspoon), and the whole process produces a lot of waste. To make matters even worse, sugar takes up large portions of agricultural land, fueling deforestation in several parts of the world.

For researchers, this environmental impact is also an opportunity — an opportunity to change the plant and make it more sustainable. But there’s another, different problem with sugar: it has a complex and messy genome, which makes it very difficult to change and edit it. It often takes over a decade for a single sugarcane cultivar to be properly developed, and crossbreeding sugarcane is notoriously difficult.

But new genetic tools can finally enable researchers to edit sugarcane in desired ways, says Fredy Altpeter, Professor of Agronomy at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

“Now we have very effective tools to modify sugarcane into a crop with higher productivity or improved sustainability,” Altpeter said. “It’s important since sugarcane is the ideal crop to fuel the emerging bioeconomy.”

Altpeter and Postdoctoral Research Associate Ayman Eid used the so-called “genetic scissors” CRISPR. CRISPR is a family of DNA sequences found in the genomes of some bacteria and archaea and can be used to edit parts of the genome of both plants and animals, eliminating some sequences and replacing them with more desirable ones. This approach can be used to treat diseases in humans or animals, but also for improving crops.

In two studies, the two researchers and their colleagues did just that: edited the gene of sugarcane using the CRISPR. In the first study, they changed a few genes to change the appearance of the plant. This was more of a proof of concept, to know if it worked or not. They also turned off several copies of a gene that helps sugarcane produce chlorophyll, making the plants turn light green or even yellow. The light green ones seemed to require less fertilizers to grow while producing the same biomass and no detectable side effects, the researchers note.

In the second study, researchers replaced individual nucleotides (the individual building blocks of both RNA and DNA) with better versions that they hoped would give sugarcane more resistance to herbicides. Essentially, this meant editing the plant’s own DNA repair process and making it more resilient to herbicides.

The fact that both attempts worked offers great hope for breeding useful new varieties of sugarcane that can help reduce its dreadful environmental impact.

With conventional breeding, two different types of sugarcane would have been cross-bred to reshuffle the genetic information, hoping that the desirable trait (such as needing less fertilizer) is enhanced. The problem is that it’s not always possible to fully control this, and genes are transferred from parents to offspring in blocks, which means that the desired gene is linked to other, superfluous genes. Researchers often have to do multiple rounds of breeding, and screen the plant to see exactly what changed in the offspring. Genetic tools offer a much more elegant, cheaper, and quicker way to accomplish the same thing.

Of course, whether or not consumers will accept CRISPR-edited plants on the plates remains to be seen. Consumers are almost always wary of modifying the genes of plants, even when the scientific process has been shown to be safe.

Journal Reference: Ayman Eid et al, Multiallelic, Targeted Mutagenesis of Magnesium Chelatase With CRISPR/Cas9 Provides a Rapidly Scorable Phenotype in Highly Polyploid Sugarcane, Frontiers in Genome Editing (2021). DOI: 10.3389/fgeed.2021.654996

Mehmet Tufan Oz et al, CRISPR/Cas9-Mediated Multi-Allelic Gene Targeting in Sugarcane Confers Herbicide Tolerance, Frontiers in Genome Editing (2021). DOI: 10.3389/fgeed.2021.673566

Humans started growing cannabis 12,000 years ago — for food, fibers, and probably to get high

A new study traced back the origin of cannabis agriculture to nearly 12,000 years ago in East Asia. During this time cannabis was likely a multipurpose crop — it was only 4,000 years ago that farmers started growing different strains for either fiber or drug production.

Cannabis landraces in Qinghai province, central China. Credit: Guangpeng Ren.

Although it’s largely understudied due to legal reasons, cannabis is one of the first plants to be domesticated by humans. Archaeological studies have found traces of cannabis in various different cultures across the centuries, but when and where exactly was cannabis domesticated was still unclear.

Many botanists believed the plant emerged in central Asia, but a new study shows that east Asia (including parts of China) is the origin of domesticated cannabis.

A research team was led by Luca Fumagalli of the University of Lausanne and involved scientists from Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Qatar, and Switzerland. The researchers compared and analyzed 110 whole genomes of different plants, ranging from wild-growing feral plants and landraces to historical cultivars and modern hybrids.

They concluded that the ancestral domestication of cannabis plants occurred some 12,000 years ago, during a period called the Neolithic, and that the plants likely had multiple uses.

“We show that cannabis sativa was first domesticated in early Neolithic times in East Asia and that all current hemp and drug cultivars diverged from an ancestral gene pool currently represented by feral plants and landraces in China,” the study reads.

“Our genomic dating suggests that early domesticated ancestors of hemp and drug types diverged from Basal cannabis [around 12,000 years ago] indicating that the species had already been domesticated by early Neolithic times”, the study adds. The results go against a popular theory regarding the plant’s origin, the researchers add.

“Contrary to a widely-accepted view, which associates cannabis with a Central Asian center of crop domestication, our results are consistent with a single domestication origin of cannabis sativa in East Asia, in line with early archaeological evidence.”

When a study can land you in jail

Cannabis grown for drugs. Image credits: Esteban Lopez.

It’s hard to study cannabis, regardless of what your reasons are. You can’t just go around picking or buying plants because the odds are that’ll get you in trouble. To make matters even more difficult, if you want to see where a domesticated plant originated from, you have to collect samples from different parts of the world — which is even more likely to get you in trouble.

So for decades, researchers looked at indirect evidence. Most cannabis strains appear to be from Central Asia, and several cultures of that region have used cannabis for thousands of years, so that seems like a likely place of origin. It’s a good guess, but not exactly true.

Cannabis grows pretty much everywhere — that’s why it’s called “weed” — and just because people in Central Asia were quick to adopt the plant doesn’t necessarily mean they were the first ones to grow it.

After crossing legal and logistic hurdles, Fumagalli was able to gather around 80 different types of cannabis plants, either cultivated by farmers or growing in the wild. They also included 30 previously sequenced genomes in the analysis.

With this, they found that the likely ancestor of modern cannabis (the initial wild plant that was domesticated) is likely extinct. However, its closest relatives survive in parts of northwestern China. This fits very well with existing archaeological evidence, which shows evidence of hemp cord markings some 12,000 years ago. In particular, it seems to fit with a 2016 study by other scientists that said that the earliest cannabis records were mostly from China and Japan.

The early domestication of cannabis in the Neolithic could be a big deal. Cannabis isn’t exactly a food crop. You can indeed use it to get oil, and the seeds can be consumed but its main use is for fibers and for intoxication. Usually, when archaeologists look at a population domesticating a crop, they naturally think of food as a priority — but this would suggest that Neolithic folk also had, uhm, other priorities. Or simply, cannabis was a multi-purpose crop.

Diversifying crops

The team also identified the genetic changes that farmers brought over the centuries through selective breeding. They found that some 4,000 years ago, farmers started to focus on either plants that would produce fibers, or on those better suited for producing drugs.

For instance, hemp strains bred for fiber production have mutations that inhibit branching, which makes them grow taller and produce more fibers. Meanwhile, strains bred for drug production, have mutations that encourage branching and reduce vertical growth. This results in shorter plants that produce more flowers. In addition, plants grown for drug productions also have mutations that boost the production of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

For millennia, hemp (the cannabis grown for fibers) has been an important crop. Clothes, ropes, and various other products used hemp fibers, but the emergence of modern metalworking and modern synthetic fibers (such as nylon) led to its downfall, and the once-popular plant became all but forgotten. Until recently.

A modern cannabis greenhouse. Image credits: Richard T.

Recently, we’ve seen a resurgence in the interest in cannabis, for sustainable fiber production as well as medicinal and recreational purposes. With more and more countries decriminalizing the possession and growth of cannabis, the plant may be making a comeback — and for researchers looking to study its origin, that’s great news.

While this study offers an unprecedented view into the evolutionary history of cannabis, it’s still a relatively small sample size. Finding wild samples is hard — and feral samples you find today aren’t really wild, they’re just grown varieties that escaped and are now feral. Furthermore, even gaining access to cultivars can be difficult.

Maybe, as society becomes more inclined to consider cannabis, researchers can gain access to more resources about it as well. By studying its genomic history, scientists can also provide valuable insights into the desired functional properties of plants, helping growers develop better varieties both for medicine and for other uses.

The study has been published in Science Advances.

Space rice feeds new space race: China is getting serious

With two swift strokes, China showed it’s taking its space agriculture projects very seriously. After harvesting its first batch of “space rice” that went to the moon, China is also distributing lunar soil samples to research institutes to assess lunar habitability.

The return capsule of China’s Chang’e-5 probe lands in Siziwang Banner, north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on Dec. 17, 2020. Photo: Xinhua.

Rice from the heavens

China is doing much more than dipping its toes into space exploration. After setting up its own space station, sending a rover on Mars, and reporting breakthroughs in quantum space communication, China now has its eyes on a different prize: space agriculture.

Food security has long been a concern for China, and as the country strives to feed its 1.4 billion inhabitants while also raising the standard of life, the challenge won’t be easy. Apparently, in the long run, China also sees space exploration as an avenue worth exploring. Recently, the country harvested the first “moon rice” from seeds that returned from the moon last year. Researchers hope that the experience can help them create new, more resilient plant varieties.

China’s fascination with space breeding crops has been a surprisingly prolific endeavor. Since 1987, the country has been carrying seeds of rice, cotton, and other crops into outer space. The reasoning is that after being exposed to cosmic radiation, seeds can undergo useful mutations that make them produce higher yields and make them more resistant to pests.

“It was a breakthrough of mutation rice breeding experiments in deep space,” said Chen Zhiqiang, director of the lab center in an interview with Xinhua News Agency.

“The seeds have experienced special environments including microgravity and sunspot eruption in the process of space travel, which affects the genetic variation of rice seeds.”

Overall, 1,500 rice seeds weighing 40 grams traveled with the spacecraft. They were then grown in a greenhouse and planted in the field in the South China Agricultural University campus.

Of course, it takes a lot of research to ensure that this is indeed the case, but over 200 of these space crops have been approved for planting in China. It normally takes a few years before these varieties enter the market.

After taking a trip around the Moon, the rice was grown back on Earth.

With the Chang’e-5 lunar probe, rice seeds have traveled deeper into space than ever before, and the impact of cosmic rays and microgravity is stronger. As a result, Chinese researchers expect to see more genetic effects on the seeds — though whether or not these effects are actually useful remains to be seen.

Moon crops

China also wants to establish a research station and base on the moon, and may even look at using a lunar greenhouse for growing crops. Having access to non-terrestrial crops will also be helpful for future manned spaceflights (especially longer missions).

To this end, China distributed batches of 17 grams of lunar soils to 13 research institutes, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China University of Geosciences, and Sun Yat-Sen University. The goal is to use the samples to understand more about the moon’s geology and evolution, but also to peer into its potential habitability. In its lunar mission, China was already able to grow crops on the lunar surface, after cotton seeds successfully sprouted inside a special mini-biosphere container.

For China, this is also an opportunity to boost its standing as a space power — not just among other countries, but among its inhabitants as well. Lunar soil was also exhibited in Hong Kong, which the state-owned Global Times noted as a boost to “patriotic sentiment.” Chan Wai-keung, a lecturer at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, reportedly told the Global Times that it would be beneficial for people in Hong Kong to “arouse their patriotic sentiment through China’s achievements in aerospace”.

Slowly but surely, a new space race seems to be heating up.

Emissions from food production are vastly underestimated, a new study claims

A new global analysis concludes that about a third of our emissions can be traced to food production. The report, developed jointly by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, NASA, New York University, and experts at Columbia University, finds that food is a significant contributor to climate change due to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions emissions generated within the farm and on agricultural land. Around a third (and potentially even more) of our emissions come from agriculture.

Image credits: Dan Meyers.

The more researchers look into food production, the more they realize that it’s actually a more integral part of our greenhouse gas emissions than we thought. It’s not uncommon for agriculture to be discarded as an afterthought in the climate debate, but in the past few years, studies have shown agriculture to be a far bigger player than we tend to give it credit for.

Global emissions from agriculture and associated land-use account for about one-fifth of all emissions — already a hefty amount. But that’s just food production — when we also consider all the other aspects involving agriculture (manufacturing, processing, storage, transport, waste disposal, and environmental impacts), the figure can get closer to 40%. In developing countries, they can amount to half of all emissions.

Based on this new analysis, previous reports (such as the one from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC) missed many important food-related emissions.

“Our new comparative mapping of food system categories and activities and improved data have shown that significant emissions are also contributed by non-IPCC agricultural and land sectors, such as on-farm energy use, domestic food transport and food waste disposal. Taken together, the global food system represents a larger GHG mitigation opportunity than previously estimated,” the researchers write in the study.

The lead author of the analysis, Francesco Tubiello, heads the environment statistics unit at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Tubiello explains that when countries report their emissions from food systems, they often underestimate their contribution to climate change. The study provides detailed, country-level datasets, considering all emissions associated with agriculture; the datasets will be discussed at the UN’s Food Systems Summit, to be held in July.

In a companion piece, researchers also discussed the importance of analyzing food emissions in more detail. This paper’s first author is Cynthia Rosenzweig, an American agronomist and climatologist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

“Beyond calculating the emissions from fertilizer decomposition in the soil, from converting forests to pastures , from diesel combustion in tractors and fishing boats , and from cows and other ruminants , we need to cast a broader yet tighter net to better identify the myriad ways in which the food system generates emissions. For example, much of the work to address the impact of the food system on climate change globally has focused on crops and livestock, with less attention paid to aquaculture and fisheries and associated value chains,” the paper reads.

“The food system and the climate system are deeply intertwined,” said coauthor David Sandalow, a fellow at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “Better data can help lead to better policies for cutting emissions and protecting the food system from a changing climate.”

An opportunity to cut emissions

The study also comes with some good news. Although total food emissions rose from 1990 to 2018, per capita emissions actually decreased, from the equivalent of 2.9 metric tons to 2.2 metric tons per person. This decrease is largely owed to changing technologies. But in developed countries, the per capita food emissions (3.6 metric tons per person) are almost twice as much as those from developing countries.

The study is also encouraging because it suggests that by changing our food consumption patterns, we could reduce a hefty amount of our emissions.

For instance, meat consumption is one of the main culprits on our plate, with researchers increasingly calling for a climate tax on meat in developed countries.

“Reduction in meat consumption, especially beef, can deliver health benefits, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production, and augment the potential to sequester carbon on land not used for grazing or for growing livestock feed,” the researchers argue.

It’s also important to note that as agriculture produces emissions that exacerbate climate change, this can create a feedback loop, with climate change putting more pressure on agriculture systems. It’s typically the world’s poorest that are most vulnerable to this, the researchers emphasize.

Ultimately, it will take an integrated approach to address our food production systems, focusing on activities both before and after farm production, and taking into consideration all the aspects around food production, from deforestation and land use to transport and refrigeration.

“Agriculture in developed countries emits large quantities of greenhouse gases, but their share can be obscured by large emissions from other sectors like electricity, transportation and buildings,” said Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor in environmental studies at New York University and coauthor of both pieces. “Looking at the entire food system can not only illuminate opportunities to reduce emissions from agriculture, but also improve efficiency across the whole supply chain with technologies such as refrigeration and storage.”

Cattle Could Produce More Methane Than Thought, But Manure Could Be The Answer

A new review of eight existing studies published in the journal Environmental Research Letters has found that livestock farms and feedlots in North America may be emitting far more methane than previously assumed. The researchers from New York University and Johns Hopkins University found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — which estimates methane from livestock as part of a greenhouse gas inventory — does not verify its estimates by measuring concentrations of the gas in the air.

They say this omission is significant.

“North American meat and dairy producers often tout improvements in their efficiency, claiming that concentrated feeds and confinement have reduced greenhouse gas emissions greatly over the past few decades,” observes Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor in NYU’s Environmental Studies Department and a co-author of the paper. “Our findings throw those claims into doubt. Individual cows may be belching and emitting less, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to entire herds and warehouses of confined animals, and their stockpiles of manure, emitting less.”

The scientists note that other countries may have cause for concern in the future, too. For instance, throughout Asia, meat and dairy consumption is on the uptick, and this production is becoming increasingly industrialized, a 2020 investigative report shows. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization previously predicted that East and Southeast Asia’s animal emissions will peak around 2030 because U.S.-style technological efficiency in Asia could reduce emissions afterward. 

However, another study released the same week found that changes in farming practices could help reduce emissions.

A paper by Dr. Gidon Eshel, a research professor of environmental physics at Bard College, in the open-access journal PLOS Biology, found that small-scale mixed-use agriculture which avoids synthetic fertilizers in favor of manure could eliminate agricultural greenhouse gas emissions if established across the United States’ 100 million hectares cropland.

“While small-scale regenerative farming has been promoted for many years, nobody quite knew whether it can feed the populace,” he says. “Without taking sides in this raging debate, I set out to agnostically test whether such practices can or cannot produce enough food. I developed a mathematical model of such farms dotting the contiguous U.S. landscape, but only where precipitation is bountiful and the soil of high quality, and found that such farms can in fact handily feed the U.S., including delivering four fifths of today’s beef consumption and quite dramatically improve nutrition and by extension public health.”

However, to create this impact, says Eshel, American beef consumption would have to decrease by 20%. According to the EPA, agriculture is responsible for 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The professor states that beef is the most resource-intensive food item that we eat. For every gram of protein, beef uses seven times more cropland and 20 times as much water and emits 11 times the greenhouse gases. At the same time, cattle manure is a valuable source of natural fertilizer. Nitrogen-sparing agriculture avoids external inputs of nitrogen, such as synthetic fertilizers, instead relying on cattle manure and nitrogen-fixing crops to replenish soil nutrients.

With almost 200 parties in the Paris Agreement trying to cut global warming to below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the authors of the NYU / Johns Hopkins study say that cutting emissions is essential.

“This evidence suggests that the banks and government agencies who are funding intensive animal facilities’ expansion might be accepting more climate risk than they realize,” says Hayek. “Policymakers should consider methane emissions along with a gamut of other major environmental issues stemming from concentrated meat and dairy production, including water pollution and infectious animal-borne disease breakouts, to inform policies that guide food systems toward a better direction.”

No green thumb required: Open-source robots can now grow a small farm for you

Image credits: FarmBot.

If you’ve always wanted to grow your own fruits and veggies but could never quite make the time for it — technology is here to rescue you.

At first glance, technology and farming don’t go hand in hand, but that’s old school thinking. In this day and age, technology and farming are a perfect match. With cheap sensors, simple phone apps, and available equipment, you can build your very own farming robot. 

FarmBot, enter the stage

Give it power, water, and WiFi, and it will take care of the rest. FarmBot can plant, water, weed, and monitor the soil and plants with an array of sensors. All you need to do is harvest the produce once it’s done.

Soil moisture sensor and watering heads are shown here. Image credits: FarmBot.

FarmBot is an open-source robot developed by the eponymous company. It runs on custom, extensible tracks, and uses game-like open-source software.

Everything is customizable and adaptable. You design your patch and drop plants onto a virtual map of your plot. The seeds are spaced automatically, and you can apply different growing plans. It can be controlled a phone, tablet, or computer.

Image credits: FarmBot.

FarmBot is an example of precision farming — a series of tools and techniques that enables farmers to optimize their resources and increase yield, while also being more sustainable. For instance, a soil humidity sensor that lets you know when it’s time to water the plants, or a nutrient detector that lets you know which areas (if any) need any more nutrients.

Back in the day, precision farming would require heavy and expensive machinery. But recently, the miniaturization of sensors, coupled with the advent of smartphones, internet, and apps, has made it much more accessible. FarmBot is taking that idea and applying it — no green thumb required.

The best part about it is that it’s open-source, which means that everyone from the community can customize it, adapting it for various setups and equipment.

The catch

I like the FarmBot idea. I really do — it’s great! But boy, it’s expensive! After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the design is sold for over $3,000 — which for a patch this size, likely means the patch won’t repay the cost for years (if ever).

Image credits: FarmBot.

If you’re buying something like this though, you’re probably not doing it to earn a buck. There’s a distinct pleasure in eating food that you’ve grown, and the pleasure is arguably even greater when the robot does most of the work for you.

Still, at this price, the likely target audience is restricted to well-off urbanites. However…

The counter catch

As previously mentioned — what’s really great about it is that it’s open-source. The folks at FarmBot have published detailed documentation on how to assemble and get the FarmBot working and augment or customize it to your needs.

“This opens up a world of opportunities for students to explore fields like coding, makers to modify their FarmBot with 3D printing, and scientists to take full advantage of the platform,” the website reads.

In other words, for someone with some maker experience (or simply who’s willing to dive into this world), you can build your own robot. In fact, there are plenty of resources online instructing you how to build a smart farming system. Here are just a few examples. The FarmBot itself uses Arduino and Raspberry Pi — two favorites of DIY makers.

Ultimately, this could be useful for a number of different communities, whether it’s students who would like to learn a practical application for coding or electronics, people who are really into growing their own produce, or those who just want to add a little pizzazz to their farming — to give just a few examples. Even for those whose livelihoods depend on farming, systems like this one can make a big difference, helping them manage their land a bit more effectively.

So, if you like FarmBot and can afford one, that’s great, go for it! If you can’t, you can still get into the world of maker precision farming with a far smaller investment. You can probably get started for around $100, and then decide if you want to explore it further.

Climate change is coming for our bananas

While global warming has increased banana yields in the past few decades, the trend is bound to reverse. Rising temperatures will severely affect bananas, making them more prone to disease.

Bananas are one of the most important crops worldwide, but they’re more vulnerable than we think. Despite numerous varieties and cultivars, only a few of them are commonly exported. The Cavendish cultivar, by far the most common one today, only came into existence in the 19th century and was still fairly rare just 60 years ago.

Cavendish bananas took over from the Gros Michel cultivar. Although Gros Michel was reportedly tastier, it was more vulnerable to something called the Panama Disease.  Panama disease, a wilt caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense, wiped out vast tracts of Gros Michel plantations in Central America, essentially forcing growers to switch to the Cavendish we have today, which was more resilient to this disease.

But Cavendish bananas are vulnerable to other types of diseases — and climate change is making it worse.

According to a 2019 study, changes in moisture and temperature are increasing the risk of the Black Sigatoka disease by almost 50%.

“Black Sigatoka is caused by a fungus (Pseudocercospora fijiensis) whose lifecycle is strongly determined by weather and microclimate,” says Dr. Daniel Bebber, of the University of Exeter. “This research shows that climate change has made temperatures better for spore germination and growth, and made crop canopies wetter, raising the risk of Black Sigatoka infection in many banana-growing areas of Latin America.

Black Sigatoka was first reported in Honduras in 1972 which is virulent against a wide range of banana plants, was first reported in Honduras in 1972, reaching Brazil in 1998 and the Caribbean islands of Martinique, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines in the late 2000s. As temperatures continued to rise, the disease also spread north, and is now as far north as Florida.

Ironically, banana growers were one of the few categories who were actually helped by climate change, with higher temperatures sometimes increasing yields. But now, this will allow diseases like the Black Sigatoka to spread farther than ever before. The recent arrival of a deadly fungus in Latin America (Tropical Race 4 — essentially a strain of the Panama disease that also affects Cavendish bananas) is another pressing risk. India, the world’s largest banana producer, and Latin America can be particularly affected, researchers say, and many fear we may be in for a repeat of the Gros Michel situation.

In the worst-case scenario, it’s not out of the question for growers to be forced to switch to different cultivars, which will be extremely costly and could drive many out of business. Ultimately though, it may even get too hot for bananas to be grown safely in today’s most productive areas.

Every 100 billion bananas are eaten every year in the world, making them the fourth most popular agricultural product in the world. Out of these, the Cavendish banana accounts for almost half.

Farming algae could surprisingly help stave off deadly algae blooms

One possible solution to nutrient pollution and dangerous algal blooms could be seaweed farms, a new paper reports.

Image credits NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory / Flickr.

We don’t tend to think of “too much food” as a real problem, but for ecosystems around the world, it very much can be. Marine ecosystems especially suffer from nutrient pollution, as most of our waste tends to get dumped in the sea. This kind of pollution can become very deadly, as high levels of nutrients foster algal blooms which destroy water quality and deplete its oxygen — in short, they kill everything else around them.

New research at the University of California Santa Barbara suggests that aquaculture could help prevent such issues in the future.

Farmwater

“A key goal of conservation ecology is to understand and maintain the natural balance of ecosystems because human activity tends to tip things out of balance,” said co-author Darcy Bradley, co-director of the Ocean and Fisheries Program at the university’s Environmental Markets Lab.

Today’s reliance on industrial-scale farming on dry land is the main cause of nutrient pollution. Runoff from croplands contains huge levels of all kinds of nutrients (huge relative to their natural abundances) that plant life needs, including critical bottleneck nutrients such as nitrogen (a key ingredient in fertilizers). This input means that areas of the ocean can accumulate much higher quantities of nutrients than they would naturally.

A new study proposes seaweed farms as a possible solution, especially for nitrogen and phosphorus. Such farms would be able to scrub large amounts of nutrients even after they’ve made their way into the ocean at relatively low costs. The team identified over 63,000 square kilometers suitable for seaweed aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico alone.

Algal blooms are dangerous primarily because of how fast they develop, and the huge amount of dead biomass they eventually produce. Algal blooms are, boiled down, communities of opportunistic algae and bacteria that rapidly expand in size when given the proper conditions. While they do produce oxygen while alive, the sheer volume of individuals dying in such a bloom at any one time consumes all the oxygen around them as they decay, which produces large hypoxic “dead zones” in which nothing else can live.

Seaweed farming could draw out at least part of these excess nutrients, which would limit the unchecked growth of algae and microbes. The oxygen output from these farms would also help prevent the appearance of dead zones.

The team looked at data regarding nutrient pollution in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. It was selected as it’s the end-point for many waterways in the US — more than 800 watersheds across 32 states deliver nutrients to the gulf. A growing hypoxic dead zone has also been documented in the gulf, which was estimated to be just over 18,000 square kilometers back in 2019.

The authors analyzed data from the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, which they say exemplifies the challenges associated with nutrient pollution. More than 800 watersheds across 32 states deliver nutrients to the Gulf, which has led to a growing low-oxygen dead zone. In 2019, this dead zone stretched just over 18,000 square kilometers, slightly smaller than the area of New Jersey.

Using open-source oceanographic and human-use data, the authors pinpointed which areas would benefit from seaweed farming. Around 9% of the US exclusive economic zone in the gulf qualified, particularly areas off the west coast of Florida. But not all of that has to be farmed for us to see a positive impact.

“Cultivating seaweed in less than 1% of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico could potentially reach the country’s pollution reduction goals that, for decades, have been difficult to achieve,” said lead author Phoebe Racine, a Ph.D. candidate at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.

Research such as this is important as countries around the world (the US included) already spend a lot of money trying to deal with nutrient pollution. Seaweed farming would complement such efforts at a very low cost, the team explains. Even better, seaweeds grown this way would have practical applications for industries ranging from fertilizers to biofuels, and agriculture.

The paper “A case for seaweed aquaculture inclusion in U.S. nutrient pollution management” has been published in the journal Marine Policy.

Many plants have been “naturally GMO’d” by bacteria

Much of the controversy around genetically modified (GM) plants is that they aren’t “natural”, and somehow dangerous. But we may want to reconsider exactly what “natural” is.

Genetic modification is a process that sometimes happens naturally at the hands of bacteria, a new study concludes. Dozens of plants, including bananas, peanuts, hops, cranberries, and tea were found to contain the Agrobacterium microbe — the exact bacterium that scientists use to create GM crops.

“Horizontal gene transfer from Agrobacterium to dicots is remarkably widespread,” the study reads, reporting that around 1 in 20 plants are naturally transgenic.

Transgenic means that one or more DNA sequences from another species have been introduced by artificial means — in other words, an organism that has been modified genetically. In unicellular prokaryotes, this is a fairly common process, but it is less understood (and less common) in macroscopic, complex organisms.

The ability of Agrobacterium to transfer genes to plants and fungi, however, is well known. Researchers have known it for a while, as they are using this exact type of bacteria to produce desired genetic changes in plants. But before researchers thought of this, the method emerged naturally.

In 2015, an impactful study found that sweet potatoes are naturally transgenic — they’ve been GM’d by Agrobacterium. This came as a surprise for many consumers, but many biologists suspected that sweet potatoes weren’t that unique, and several other plants went through a similar process. Tatiana Matveeva and Léon Otten studied the genomes of some 356 dicot species and found 15 naturally occurring transgenic species.

It’s still a rare occurrence, but 1 in 20 is too much to just chalk it up to a freak accident. “This particular type of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) could play a role in plant evolution,” the researchers say.

It’s unclear if humans may have had something to do with this. It’s possible that the horticultural process of grafting plants could have accelerated this phenomenon, leading to the exchange of genes — which would mean that humans have been GM-ing plants for millennia. It could also have nothing to do with human activity.

“We are only at the start of this,” says Léon Otten at the Institute of Molecular Biology of Plants in Strasbourg, France, for NewScientist.

At any rate, this goes to show that in the biological world, GMOs may not be as freak an occurrence as many believe. It could also have practical implications: the European Union recently mandated that its GMO regulations exclude organisms modified through “natural” processes — so if a plant could be GMO’s through “natural” processes, it would technically not be a GMO. Whether consumers will accept this or not, however, remains a completely different problem.

The study was published in Plant Molecular Biology.

How much of our emissions come from agriculture?

Between a quarter and a third of all the emissions mankind is producing comes from agriculture. Despite a range of estimates, the ultimate figure seems to always be around the 25%-35% figure, but a ten percent difference in global emissions is a huge deal. So where does this difference come from, and what can we do to reduce these emissions?

Reducing red meat is one of the most eco-friendly things you can do. It’s also healthy, and it’s not like we all need to go vegetarian: even small reductions can help.

Why so much greenhouse gas?

Although people are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact their food has, it can come as quite a shock to see just how much of our emissions are caused by our food. How is it that so much of the global emissions, with everything that’s involved, comes from agriculture? Meat alone is responsible for more emissions than all the cars and planes in the world put together, where does all that come from?

From planting a seed to having something served on a plate, our food undergoes quite the journey, and we don’t often think about everything it involves. Our food’s emissions can roughly be split into four categories:

  • Land use: even before a single calorie has been consumed, deforestation and land clearing can produce emissions. The drainage and burning of soils, and the degradation of peatlands and other carbon-rich soils also contribute.
  • Agricultural production: everything from fertilizer to fuel used for machines, methane from cows, burning of agricultural waste, etc.
  • Packaging and distribution: food processing, packaging, transport, and retail also produces a hefty chunk of emissions.
  • Cooking and waste: this part sometimes gets left out of studies, but cooking food and throwing it away can also produce substantial emissions.

Overall, this is what a breakdown of our food’s emissions would look like:

Why estimates differ

The chart above, compiled by the folks from Our World in Data, is based on a 2021 study by Crippa et al. Overall, the study found that a third of our total emissions comes from agriculture. It was a landmark study that clearly highlighted just how big of a role agriculture plays in the ongoing climate crisis, and how if we want to truly address the crisis, we need to look at more than just electric cars and renewable energy.

This was, at a basic level, not surprising at all. Previous studies have also warned that agriculture is a major contributor to emissions, and in general terms, the main takeaway message is the same. But beneath the takeaway message, why are the estimates different?

For instance, a 2018 study by Poore and Nemecek claimed that about a quarter of our emissions comes from agriculture, as opposed to a third, as per Crippa et al.

The difference between ‘a third of our emissions’ and ‘a quarter of our emissions’ may not seem like much, but it is a huge difference. That gap is four times largerthan the entire aviation industry, and about as much as India’s entire emissions. Going into the nuts and bolts of this difference may be unglamorous, but it’s what can help us better understand how to address this problem. So where do the differences come from?

For starters, Poore and Nemecek don’t always include cooking and post-consumer emissions. That alone is a big difference between the numbers, but not the only one. Poore and Nemecek only looked at food agriculture, whereas the other study also looked at non-edible agricultural products, like cotton and leather. Other differences also come from different estimates used, like for instance how much deforestation each study attributes to agriculture.

A comparison between the two studies would look like this:

So which is it? How much emissions actually come from agriculture? Well, if you include all agriculture, with not just food, it probably produces around a third of our emissions. If you don’t and only look at food, then the figure is probably somewhere over 25% — because the 26% figure of Poore and Nemecek doesn’t include post-retailer emissions. Hannah Ritchie, Head of Research at Our World In Data, sums it up thusly:

“The amount of uncertainty in these estimates means it’s helpful to understand where the differences come from, and that they all fall within a reasonably narrow range. If someone asks me, my response is usually “around 25% to 30% from food. Around one-third if we include all agricultural products.””

Meat is a problem, eating local doesn’t help much

Being aware of the problem is important, but it can only do so much. At the end of the day, we also need solutions. When it comes to reducing agriculture emissions, meat seems like the first place to strike.

An important finding of the Poore and Nemecek study is that meat’s emissions are more than just direct emissions. For instance, crops grown for animal feed amount for 6% of total food emissions, and land use for livestock amounts to 16% of total food emissions. In other words, that’s 22% of food emissions that were camouflaged under other categories. When you add it all up together, livestock and fisheries make up more than half our food’s emissions.

No matter how you look at this, this is a lot. A kilogram of beef emits 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases (CO2-equivalents) while peas, for instance, emits just 1 kilogram of gas per kg. Sure, meat can be very calorie-rich and has a lot of proteins, but it’s still disproportionate. Some meat is worse than others but, alas, alternatives fare much better environmentally.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The world has pledged to do its best and keep the planet from heating more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Virtually all the countries on the planet have pledged to this. The bad news is that we’re really not on course to do this. If current trends continue, we’re headed for a disastrous warming.

By now, hopefully, it’s become clear that agriculture is a big part of this problem. To put it this way: we have an emissions budget, and a third of that budget goes to food and such. If we’re trying to cut expenses, it would make a lot of sense to look for cheaper food (read: less carbon-intensive food).

This is the good news: we know what needs to be done, and it’s already starting to happen. According to one recent report, Europe and the US are on track to reach “peak meat” by 2025, thanks especially to plant-based alternatives. It seems that as people pass a threshold of income and awareness, they start to shift to more plant foods — that’s great.

The ugly problem is that only a small part of the world seems to have reached that threshold, and before they do reach it, meat consumption actually grows. Simply put, the highly developed countries are starting to eat less meat; the other countries are eating more and more as they become more developed, and meat consumption grows as they become richer.

Overall, meat consumption is growing worldwide, especially in Asia.

There are, of course, other things that can be done. Reducing deforestation is one way, using fertilizers more sustainably is another. Having on-farm renewable energy and electric tractors will also help, as will paying more attention to crop rotation and sustainable agricultural practices that keep the soil healthy and prevent erosion. As consumers though, we have little control over that, other than choosing from producers who implement sustainable practices.

As consumers, the only real power we’ve got is what we choose to eat. Sometimes, carbon-intensive food is cheaper, more accessible, or takes less time to cook. Understandably, it can be easier to simply not look at this side of things. But if we want to truly address the climate crisis, this is the type of thing we need to look at.

Timelapse reveals the hidden dance of roots — and how mutant plants do it differently

A group of Stanford researchers has an unusual pastime: they watch plants grow. Not in real-time, mind you: they speed it up, compressing 100 hours of growth in less than a minute. With this approach and a special robot, they’ve uncovered some surprising things about how roots grow.

Wiggling roots find their way through rough soils.

Compared to the other parts of plants, we know surprisingly little about roots. The reason is simple, but hard to overcome: they grow underground, as opposed to above it. To overcome this obstacle, several research groups have grown plants in clear gel that allows plant observations.

The Stanford group in biologist Philip Benfey’s lab set up a system where they took a picture every 15 minutes for several days after the plant had germinated, obtaining a time-lapse video of roots growing.

A lot of the time, roots grew in winding, corkscrew-ike movements. This phenomenon reportedly “fascinated Charles Darwin”, says Benfey, and it’s not really clear why it happens.

In the case of shoots, it’s clear why: twining and circling make it easier to latch onto things. But for roots, it’s not clear why it happens. Maybe it makes it easier to burrow into the ground or figure out where “down” is, but there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding this phenomenon. The new study helps shed a bit more light on it.

For starters, researchers found that some plants don’t do the corkscrew movements. When they investigated the cause, they found it in a mutation of a gene called HK1. Plants with a mutant HK1 grow straight down instead of meandering. They also grow down twice as deep, which raises even more questions about roots’ normal winding growth — what do they have to gain in such an inefficient pattern?

New time-lapse videos capture something that’s too slow for our eyes to see: the growing tips of rice roots make corkscrew-like motions, waggling and winding in a helical path as they burrow into the soil. Footage courtesy of Benfey/Goldman labs. Produced by Veronique Koch.

The answer could come from Daniel Goldman’s lab at Georgia Tech. Goldman and colleagues carried observations of mutant rice roots that grew over a perforated plastic plate, finding that spiraling roots were three times more likely to find a hole and grow through the other side. So if plant roots encounter an obstacle in their natural environment, straight-line growth would make it much harder to grow through.

The idea was further explored through a soft-pliable robot. The robot unfurls from its tip like a root and served as a root model. Researchers set it loose in an obstacle course with unevenly spaced pegs, without any sensors or any way to sense the pegs.

All the robot had were two inflatable plastic tubes nested inside each other. The inside tube would grow and push from the inside out, making the root elongate from the top, while a pair of contracting “muscles” also made the robot bend from side to side as it grew. With this alone, the robot was able to make its way around the pegs as it grew. But when the bending movement was stopped, it would quickly get stuck in the pegs.

The idea was further tested in a dirt mix used for baseball fields, to mimic obstacles the root would encounter in soil. It confirmed their idea: mutant seeds struggled growing adequately, while the normal seeds had no real trouble. While questions still remain about this process, the theory seems to add up: roots grow in a corkscrew movement because it helps them establish a foothold in unpleasant soils.

Journal References: Isaiah Taylor et al, Mechanism and function of root circumnutation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2018940118