Tag Archives: agriculture

Smartphone AI spots sick plants with remarkable accuracy

With so many people worried about AI rebelling against mankind, it’s time to look at the positive — and sometimes unexpected — benefits it can bring. In a new advancement, scientists developed an algorithm that can identify sick plants based on sight alone.

The cassava plant. Credits: Franz Eugen Köhler, 1897.

Manihot esculenta, commonly known as the cassava plant, is the most widely grown root crop on Earth. It’s often dried into a powder called tapioca. Cassava is very important for many people, and seeing when it is and isn’t doing okay could make a huge difference for millions. This is where AI steps in. Researchers have developed a smartphone-based program that can tell when cassava is doing fine and when it isn’t. The best thing about it? The algorithm is so simple that it works on a smartphone.

I say simple, but really, I mean relatively simple. It’s simple enough to run on a regular smartphone, without any cloud computing or other fancy technology, but the algorithm is still complex. It’s built on Google’s open source machine learning library, TensorFlow.

“Some neural networks require hundreds of millions of parameters, and just the file size you would need to store those is beyond what you could include in an app,” says Google’s Pete Warden, tech lead on TensorFlow Mobile. “This network only has around 25 million.”

“It only requires—I say only—but it only requires about 11 billion floating point operations to actually calculate its result,” Warden adds, “and some other networks require hundreds of billions of operations to do a similar job.”

Whenever you have an algorithm like this, you have to input a lot of information — especially images. The straightforward method of doing this is by feeding millions and millions of diseased cassava leaves and teaching the program to identify them. The problem is that this takes a really long time, a lot of memory, and no one has that many photos of diseased cassavas. So researchers went for a different method, called transfer learning.

A cross section through cassava root. Credits: Amada44.

Transfer learning is an inductive technique in machine learning that focuses on storing knowledge gained while solving a different but related problem.

“Happily, it turns out that networks trained to recognize certain kinds of objects can actually be taught to recognize other things with a lot less data, and that’s really the idea behind transfer learning,” says Warden.

By using transfer learning, you can get away with a much smaller data input, but you need that data to be high-quality.

“It really comes down to the data, because garbage in, garbage out,” says Penn State agricultural engineer Amanda Ramcharan, lead author on the study. “So you want to have really clean, high-quality data sets.”

So through this approach, they used just 2,756 images of cassava leaves, teaching the program to recognize cassava brown streak disease and cassava mosaic disease, plus any damage done by mites. The resulting accuracy was impressive; the AI identified brown leaf spots with 98 percent accuracy and red mites at an accuracy of 96 percent.

In an age where agriculture is becoming more and more technology-intensive, this technique could enable farmers to detect plant problems faster and more accurately. Sure, an experienced farmer might be able to see the same thing, but then again he might not. He could miss it, or the cues may be too subtle for the human eye. The whole thing could be built into an app and be used even without internet access.

“With globalization, the spread of pests and pathogens is increasing rapidly,” says Ramcharan. “So having tools that you can deploy quickly can be really beneficial and really help with food security.”

Furthermore, the same technique could be applied to a larger variety of crops, and be tailored to use different AIs for different areas of the globe and thus help ensure food security in places where it’s direly needed. Cassava is the third largest source of carbohydrates for human food in the world, but is vulnerable to viral diseases, which threaten to destabilize food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

“In the same way we have personalized medicine, I think we can have personalized agriculture on scale for hundreds of millions of people in real time,” concludes study co-author David Hughes, a biologist at Penn State.

Journal Reference: Amanda Ramcharan, Kelsee Baranowski, Peter McClowsky, Babuali Ahmed, James Legg, David Hughes. Using Transfer Learning for Image-Based Cassava Disease Detection.

Lotus seeds.

German researchers release open-source tomato and wheat seeds to boost research

Breeders from the Göttingen University and Dottenfelderhof agricultural school in Bad Vilbel, Germany, have released new varieties of tomato and wheat seeds. The catch? They’re free for anyone to use, ever, as long as the products of their work remain free to use. In essence, these are open-source seeds.

Lotus seeds.

Image credits Nam Nguyen.

I think we’ve all, at one point or another, had to bump heads with the sprawling world of intelectual property and copyright licensing. That being said, I don’t think many of us imagined that licensing is a problem farmers and plant breeders also have to face — but they do. Feeling that this practice has gone beyond doing good and is actually stifling progress (both scientifically and morally in areas where food insecurity is still high,) German scientists have created new varieties of tomato and wheat plants, whose seeds are now freely available for use under an open-source license.

The move follows similar initiatives to share plant material in India and the United States, but it’s the first to actually extend the legal framework to all future descendants of the varieties.

So why would you make seeds open source? Well, the idea is that scientists and breeders can experiment with these seeds to improve the varieties or create new ones altogether without having to worry about the legal department suing them back into the stone age. And in that respect, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. According to Johannes Kotschi, an agricultural scientist who helped write the license last year, the license “says that you can use the seed in multiple ways but you are not allowed to put a plant variety protection or patent on this seed and all the successive developments of this seed.” Kotschi manages OpenSourceSeeds for the nonprofit Agrecol in Marburg, Germany, which announced the tomato and wheat licensing in Berlin back in April.

The open source seeds have had a very positive reception. Since their announcement, other universities, nonprofits, as well as organic breeders have expressed an interest in releasing open-source licenses for their hop, potato, and tomato varieties, and Kotschi’s tomato seeds have been in great demand.

Why open-source

For the majority of human history, seeds have, obviously, been open-source. Without any system in place to enforce copyright claim or to penalize copyright infringements in place, farmers could use and improve on any variety of plant to suit his needs. This freedom allowed for the crops we know today — those with ample yields, drought- and pest-resistance, better taste and growing times, so on. Or they just got lucky.

But in the 1930s the United States began applying patent law to plants and soon everyone was doing it — so farmers and breeders couldn’t claim a variety as their own, and even risked legal action for working with a claimed crop. The problem further deepened as a sleuth of additional measures including patents and a special intellectual property system for crops called “plant variety protection” made it into legislature. As companies merge, these patents and plant intellectual property become increasingly concentrated to an ever-smaller number of legal entities.

Some progress was done on plant variety protection, with international agreements allowing an exception from the intellectual property for research and breeding. But there’s no such system in place for patents, and scientists aren’t allowed to use patented plants for breeding or research purposes.

The Geman open-source seeds solve these problems by allowing anyone to use the varieties as long as any derivatives (offspring) remain in the common, public domain. However, there is some concern that a complete shift to an open-source system would harm innovation, as commercial breeders (who are the main source of new varieties) and universities wouldn’t be able to cash in royalties off their work. As with most areas of life, balance is key to solving the issue.

For now, governments will likely keep an eye on how the seeds impact existing systems.

Grain crop.

Early farmers probably didn’t really know how to select crops — but they were very lucky

It’s possible that early farmers didn’t actively select for better crops, and crop domestication simply ‘happened’ under their noses, a new paper reports.

Grain crop.

Ahh, agriculture. I’m a huge fan. It comes with some very harsh drawbacks, for the environment and our way of life both, but it also underpins pretty much everything about human society. Agriculture allows for some people to generate a food surplus, which means that other people don’t have to hunt or scavenge, so they can focus on more noble pursuits — such as writing for ZME Science. Again, a huge fan.

The agricultural revolution was a defining point in human history, and yet we don’t know very much about it. One aspect, in particular, piqued the interest of researchers from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield — crop domestication.

Why does this matter

If I’d ask you to imagine a hunter-gatherer plying his trade you’ll probably imagine a guy like you and me, dressed in furs, picking let’s say apples from a tree. Big, juicy, shiny apples. Which is oh so, so wrong. That’s the image we associate with apples because it’s how we’ve seen them in stores and on the internet and wherever our whole lives.


Pictured: not a wild apple.

But that’s not at all how they looked back then. The fruits (and probably prey) hunter-gatherers had access to were wild, less tasty, tiny, and most importantly less energy dense.

The stuff we eat today would blow our stone-age ancestors’ fur socks away, and it’s all due to crop domestication. Through constant artificial selection, farmers have coaxed their crops into producing more ‘food’ and less of anything else — for example, the grains we plant today have lost their wild seed dispersal capacity, and rely completely on humans to spread. This dependency allowed farmers to create better crops over time — and better crops provided an exponential increase in crop yield compared to wild crops.

The transition from wild to domesticated crops happened during the early days of farming in the Stone Age, some 10,000 years ago, and there’s still a lot of questions about the issue we just don’t have an answer to. Professor Colin Osborne from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield and his team set out to answer one particularly interesting one: did early farmers know they were breeding certain characteristics into their crops or did these domesticated traits take root under their noses as the plants adapted to being taken care of?

My wild days are over

The team looked at seed sizes for a range of crops believed to have been domesticated in antiquity to find evidence of domestication. For seed crops, they looked at a range of cereals and pulses domesticated in different parts of the world. For vegetable crops, they analyzed both species that are typically grown from seed, and species that are vegetatively propagated (from cuttings/roots, such as potatoes). Fruit crops were not included in these comparisons.

The theory is that if people selected for better crops, the effects would be seen in leaves, stems, roots, or fruit, which are eaten as food. Vegetables are propagated by planting seeds, cuttings, or tubers but harvested for the parts I listed above, so seed size is not a direct determinant of yield. As such, domestication should not have had any effect on the seeds, as they had no particular nutritional use.

Changes in vegetable seed sizes instead must have stemmed from natural selection processes acting on cultivated crops, or from genetic links between them and other characteristics of the crops, such as plant or organ size — i.e. if the size of seeds is directly tied to the size of the plant and farmers select for larger plants, seed size would also unintentionally increase.

The researchers found strong evidence in support of a general enlargement of seeds alongside domestication. Domesticated maize seeds are 15 times larger than their wild counterparts, soybeans are seven times larger, while barley, wheat and other grain crops showed a more modest increase (by 60% and 15% respectively), they report. The team notes that “domestication had a significantly larger overall effect in grain than vegetable crops.”

“We found strong evidence for a general enlargement of seeds due to domestication across seven vegetable species,” said Professor Osborne.

“This is especially stunning in a crop like a sweet potato, where people don’t even plant seeds, let alone harvest them. The size of this domestication effect falls completely within the range seen in cereals and pulse grains like lentils and beans, raising the possibility that at least part of the seed enlargement in these crops also evolved during domestication without deliberate foresight from early farmers.”

The findings suggests that some, if not the majority of changes that took place in our staple crops during the early days of agriculture took place without deliberate selection from farmers. So overall, it’s likely that unintended selection was the main driver of crop evolution and crop yield increase in early farms. Understanding how crops evolved will help us better guide selection efforts in the future.

The full paper “Unconscious selection drove seed enlargement in vegetable crops” has been published in the journal Evolution Letters.

Barley’s full genome sequenced after decade-long research effort

After more than a decade of work, an international team consisting of over 70 researchers is poised to make your beer fuller and your Scotch neater — they have successfully sequenced the complete genome of barley, a major crop and key ingredient in the two brews.


Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

We’ve got a long and alcohol-imbibed history with barley. It has been a staple crop for us and animal feed as well as underpinned breweries ever since the agricultural revolution. Today, barley is a major component in all-purpose flour for bread and pastries, graces breakfast tables as an ingredient in cereals, is the prime ingredient in single malt Scotch, lends beer its color, body, the protein to form a good head, and the natural sugars needed for its fermentation.

Selective breeding has allowed farmers to develop tastier, more nutritious barley with a greater yield over that time – but there’s still room for improvement, as the crop’s genome was barley known, limiting the effectiveness of breeding efforts.

Now, the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium (IBSC) a team of 77 researchers from around the world report that they’ve successfully sequenced the full genome of barley families heavily relied on for malting processes. This allowed them to pinpoint the bits of code that formed “genetic bottlenecks” during domestication, and further breeding efforts focus on increasing diversity in these areas and make the crops even better. It should also help scientists working with other crops in the grass family such as rice, wheat, or oats.

It may not sound like a huge accomplishment until you consider that barley’s genome is almost double the size of a human’s, and large swathes of it (around 80%) is composed of highly repetitive sequences, which made it incredibly hard for the team to focus on specific locations in the genome. The team had to make major advances in and sequencing technology, algorithmic design, and computing for the task at hand. Their findings provide knowledge of more than 39,000 barley genes.

“This takes the level of completeness of the barley genome up a huge notch,” said Timothy Close, a professor of genetics at UC Riverside and co-author of the paper.

“It makes it much easier for researchers working with barley to be focused on attainable objectives, ranging from new variety development through breeding to mechanistic studies of genes.”

One finding, in particular, surprised the scientists, and it has to do with the malting process. This involves germinating and then crushing the grains and is a key step in brewing. During germination, seeds produce amylase, a protein which breaks down their store of starch into simple sugars – which will ferment into alcohol. The team’s sequencing efforts revealed there was much more variability than expected in the genes encoding the amylase.

The full paper “A chromosome conformation capture ordered sequence of the barley genome” has been published in the journal Nature.

Farms could slash pesticide use without losing any yield or money, new study finds

Virtually all types of farms could cut pesticide use while still producing just as much food, and potentially even save money, a surprising new study found.

Image via Wikipedia.

The pesticide industry has grown side by side global agriculture, with most farmers today not even imagining farming without pesticides. A recent report released by the UN cast a big shadow on the necessity of pesticide usage, calling it ‘a myth’ supported by ‘aggressive and unethical marketing.’ Then, the UN reported that pesticides do a great deal of harm to the planet and ‘using pesticides has nothing to do with getting rid of hunger.’ That idea seems to be backed by a new research, whose authors analyzed the pesticide use, productivity, and profitability of almost 1,000 farms of all types across France.

Their conclusions are stunning: 78% of farms would be just as profitable or even more profitable if they reduced pesticide consumption. When it comes to insecticides, it gets even better: 94% of farms would lose no production if they cut insecticides, while 40% would actually produce more.

“It is striking,” said Nicolas Munier-Jolain, at France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research, and one of the team who conducted the new study. He said the results show that pesticide reduction is possible today for most arable farmers, without losing money: “Our results are quite consistent with the UN report.”

Munier-Jolain says that many farmers want to reduce or replace pesticides, but they don’t have much information available — in fact, most of the information they have comes from pesticide producers or distributors, who obviously have no interest in downplaying their products.

However, this doesn’t mean that pesticides should simply be eliminated and everything will be fine, no one is saying that. What the team suggests is employing other measures such as rotating crops, mechanical weeding, using resistant varieties, and carefully managing sowing dates and fertilizer use. He believes that only when the farmers will be truly informed about their options will we be able to truly make a difference.

“If you want real reduction in pesticide use, give the farmers the information about how to replace them,” said Munier-Jolain. “This is absolutely not the case at the moment. A large proportion of advice is provided by organisations that are both selling the pesticides and collecting the crops. I am not sure the main concern of these organisations is to reduce the amount of pesticide used.”

So far, that’s not really happening. Take France for example, where a 50% reduction in national pesticide use was scheduled for 2018 and was delayed for 2025. Right now, usage is increasing instead of decreasing. In the US, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt refused to ban one of the most dangerous pesticides (chlorpyrifos), a measure that had been set in motion for years. Globally, it seems that the world is using more pesticides instead of less, and that’s a highly worrying trend. The good news is that the study concluded that farms which were using more pesticides had more potential for reducing their usage without any negative consequences.

The results of the study seem backed by some practical evidence as well. Sweden, for instance, has reduced much of its pesticide consumption with yields remaining constant, as have many rice farmers in Indonesia, with similar results. We also know that pests are developing more and more pesticide resistance, an issue which is causing more and more losses every year.

If this study stands true, it could make a big difference. The reduction of pesticide use is one of the critical drivers to preserve the environment and human health. Many of the chemicals used in pesticides are persistent soil contaminants, whose impact may endure for decades and adversely affect the entire ecosystem from the bottom-up: the soil, the plants which live in the soil, the animals which eat the plants, and so on. For humans, pesticides can cause both acute and long-lasting health issues. Direct exposure to pesticides is extremely dangerous, while pesticide runoff can create long-lasting environmental problems.

Journal Reference: Martin Lechenet, Fabrice Dessaint, Guillaume Py, David Makowski and Nicolas Munier-Jolain — Reducing pesticide use while preserving crop productivity and profitability on arable farms.

UN scientists denounce ‘myth’ that we need pesticides to feed the world

Image credits: jetsandzeppelins.

A surprising report from the UN warns of the catastrophic consequences pesticides can have (and are already having) on the world. The report claims that due to ‘systematic denial of harms’ and ‘unethical marketing tactics’ pesticide usage is doing more harm than good and the idea that we need pesticides to feed the world is a myth.

“Defined as any substance or mixture of substances of chemical and biological ingredients intended to repel, destroy or control any pest or regulate plant growth, pesticides are responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, 99 per cent of which occur in developing countries, where health, safety and environmental regulations are weaker and less strictly applied,” the report starts out. “Despite the harms associated with excessive and unsafe pesticide practices, it is commonly argued that intensive industrial agriculture, which is heavily reliant on pesticide inputs, is necessary to increase yields to feed a growing world population, particularly in the light of negative climate change impacts and global scarcity of farmlands.”

Feeding the world

The world’s population is set to reach 9 billion in 2050 and over 11 billion by 2100. Add in water scarcity in many parts of the world and continuous stress exerted by climate change and you end up with a recipe for disaster. Indeed, we’re struggling to feed the world as it is, any growing pressure could lead to a catastrophic cascading effect.

The new report, which is co-authored by Baskut Tuncak, a UN special rapporteur, seriously bashes the use of pesticide and pesticide companies. Tuncak comments:

“While scientific research confirms the adverse effects of pesticides, proving a definitive link between exposure and human diseases or conditions or harm to the ecosystem presents a considerable challenge. This challenge has been exacerbated by a systematic denial, fuelled by the pesticide and agro-industry, of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by these chemicals, and aggressive, unethical marketing tactics.”

However, we can’t really give up on pesticides — and no one’s saying we should throw them out the window — but there are other aspects to consider, just as vital to our global food security. For starters, Hilal Elver, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, says that much of the world’s crops are not being used to feed the people, but rather to support cheaper products in the developed world. Commodity products such as soy (often used to feed animals) and palm oil (used in everything from pastry to pre-cooked meals) are taking the place of other plants, which could be used to feed local communities. This, says Elver, is the main blame of the corporations:

“The corporations are not dealing with world hunger, they are dealing with more agricultural activity on large scales.”

Pesticide application for chemical control of nematodes in a sunflower planted field. Karaisalı,, Turkey. Image credits: Zeynel Cebeci.

A myth, or a necessary evil?

Elver says that we don’t need pesticides to feed the world, we can do jus as fine without them. The main problems to tackle, she adds, are inequality and a lack of proper food distribution.

“Using more pesticides is nothing to do with getting rid of hunger. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we are able to feed 9 billion people today. Production is definitely increasing, but the problem is poverty, inequality and distribution.”

But not everyone agrees. There’s a reason why virtually the entire world uses pesticides, and that’s a very pragmatic reason: whether we like it or not, pesticides get a lot of work done.

“The claim that it is a myth that farmers need pesticides to meet the challenge of feeding 7 billion people simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” said a spokesman for the Crop Protection Association, which represents pesticide manufacturers in the UK. “The UN FAO is clear on this – without crop protection tools, farmers could lose as much as 80% of their harvests to damaging insects, weeds and plant disease.”

The spokesperson did agree that there’s a lot of work to be done but emphasized that pesticides are still required for global food security.

“The plant science industry strongly agrees with the UN special rapporteurs that the right to food must extend to every global citizen, and that all citizens have a right to food that has been produced in a way that is safe for human health and for the environment,” said the spokesman. “Pesticides play a key role in ensuring we have access to a healthy, safe, affordable and reliable food supply.”

What we need

At the end of the day, the UN raised a big red flag, but is this really going to make a difference? I’m not sure. It is indeed a myth that pesticides in their current form are required to feed the world but in that case, we do need to invest in alternative forms of pest control — and since most people are not too fond of GMOs, it’s not clear what that alternative is. However, I do hope this report puts a lot of heat on both companies working with pesticides and states. The EU, for example, has much stricter laws on pesticides than most of the world, and is generally able to enforce them — and they’re reaping the rewards. I think the report’s more moderate conclusion is on point:

“It is time to create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”


Harvest in the US to suffer from climate change

As the newly elected president Trump starts his crusade of bashing environmentalism, a new study shows that climate change will affect US agriculture — whether we admit it or not.

California has suffered massive from drought in recent years. With the changing climate, things are expected to get even worse. Image credits: Skeeze / Pixabay

The thing I like most about science is that it just is. It doesn’t matter who you are and what you think, the Earth still revolves around the Sun, organisms do evolve, and climate change is happening. We know that climate change is already affecting crops around the world and the US is no exception but now, an international team of researchers may paint a better picture of how drastic the effects will be.

The team ran computer simulations on an unprecedentedly comprehensive dataset, analyzing wheat, maize, and soybean. First, the models were calibrated to satisfy existing data and then they were projected onto the future. Researchers showed that the effects will be severe and combating them (to an extent) will only be possible where enough water exists for extra irrigation.

“We know from observations that high temperatures can harm crops, but now we have a much better understanding of the processes,” says Bernhard Schauberger from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, lead author of the study.

For instance, they showed that for every day above 30°C (86F) maize and soybean plants can lose about 5 percent of their harvest. These losses don’t even consider temperatures over 36°C (97F), which have a much more severe impact. As such temperatures become more and more common, so too will crop losses.

It almost seems too pessimistic to be true, but there’s a strong biological reason why this happens. When temperatures rise, water becomes scarce. With water scarce, the small openings in the leaves gradually close to prevent water loss. They thereby preclude the diffusion of CO2 into the cells, which is an essential building material for the plants. Furthermore, plants respond to water stress by sacrificing biomass and extending their roots. This leads to smaller plants and lower yields. If the plant does receive some water (through irrigation), that doesn’t happen — or it happens to a much lesser extent — but many agricultural regions in the US already tackle water scarcity.

“The losses got substantially reduced when we increased irrigation of fields in the simulation, so water stress resulting from temperature increase seems to be a bigger factor than the heat itself,” says co-author Joshua Elliott from the University of Chicago.

Of course, any model has its limitations, but the line is drawn. You can discuss the details and finesse of the end figures but it’s clear that the effects of climate change are immediate, drastic, and far-reaching. While some countries are more vulnerable than others, no one is safe from global warming and we will all feel the effects together.

“The computer simulations that we do are based on robust knowledge from physics, chemistry, biology; on a lot of data and elaborate algorithms. But they of course cannot represent the entire complexity of the crop system, hence we call them models. In our study they have passed a critical test.”

Journal Reference: Bernhard Schauberger, Sotirios Archontoulis, Almut Arneth, Juraj Balkovic, Philippe Ciais, Delphine Deryng, Joshua Elliott, Christian Folberth, Nikolay Khabarov, Christoph Müller, Thomas A. M. Pugh, Susanne Rolinski, Sibyll Schaphoff, Erwin Schmid, Xuhui Wang, Wolfram Schlenker, Katja Frieler (2017): Consistent negative response of US crops to high temperatures in observations and crop models. Nature Communications [DOI:10.1038/NCOMMS13931]

New robot picks peppers like a human

Peppers are a pretty big deal, mostly because they’re delicious. Globally, over 26 million metric tonnes of peppers are produced every year, with Europe’s crops alone amounting to $400 million. However, although picking the fruits is a simple job for a human, it remains highly labor-intensive. Now, researchers have invented a robot which can do all the hard work for us.

While numerous agricultural tasks have already been automated, the vast majority of harvesting in greenhouses is still done by hand. Image: CROPS project

The robot pepper picker runs on a rail system across the plants and features a snake-like arm and pincers which it users to harvest and store the peppers. Now, for you or me, this would be a simple task, but for robots, it’s an entirely different ballgame. The robot has to navigate the garden or greenhouse, identify the pepper, cut it and put it somewhere safely — easy for man, difficult for an artificial intelligence.

‘A human is very intelligent, and it is very difficult to replace a human being by a robot,’ explained Dr Jan Bontsema, from Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture in the Netherlands. ‘If you look at the crop, you’ll see it’s a jungle – so many leaves, and here and there are fruits. And that is the problem,’ said Dr Bontsema.

Identifying the fruits (and most importantly, only the ripe fruits) is extremely challenging. Developing this type of robots for agriculture has raised great interest in recent years, but because it’s so difficult, it left most engineers stumped. This is why this project is so significant — because it represents a breakthrough. It’s not particularly elegant or efficient, but it works and it can get way better.

The robot is controlled by a central processing unit which monitors the position, orientation, speed, and status and directs them in real-time. The development of global positioning system, remote sensing, and proximity sensors has made this development possible. So far, three models have been developed a fire-breathing weeding robot directed by keen-sighted drones, a robot for spraying chemicals on rows of crops, and one for spraying trees.

Similar algorithms and technology could also be applied in other fields of agriculture, for harvesting other vegetables or fruits. Bontsema says that a harvesting robot fleet is only a couple of years away from being available to the public. Dr Angela Ribeiro at the Spanish National Research Council hopes that these robots will significantly reduce our reliance on pesticides and improve food security.

‘Most of the technology developed within the RHEA project could be ready in a few years,’ Dr Ribeiro said. ‘Although the market penetration may take longer, mainly due to the technical skills that farmers need.’

Source: Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

Mixed legume and cereal crops don’t need fertilizer to yield a lot of food

Planting legumes alongside cereals could improve crop yields and reduce the environmental impact of farms, researchers have found.

Image credits Hans Braxmeier / Pixabay.

Following the Green Revolution and the wide-scale implementation of intensive farming, nitrogen fertilizers became vital for the way we grow crops. It has become essential to maintain high crop yields, with cereal crops usually getting around 110 kg of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare. But this nitrogen is usually derived from fossil fuels and it has a huge carbon footprint. The work of Dr Pietro Iannetta of the James Hutton Institute on intercropping could drastically reduce or remove our need for such fertilizers altogether. The findings were presented at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting in Liverpool last week.

Intercropping is the practice of growing two or more types of crops on the same soil at the same time, as opposed to the intensive farming practice of planting a singe crop per field at a time.Dr Iannetta’s work shows that adopting this method of farming could cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for fertilizers, while boosting biodiversity, food security, and widening markets for local food and drinks at the same time.

A peas of cake

Dr Iannetta grew trial crops of peas and barley together at a 50-50% rate and found that despite using not nitrogen fertilizer, he could produce a total yield in excess of what barley alone would produce. This happens because peas and other legumes fix their own nitrogen — when grown with other crops such as barley, the peas supply the cereal’s nitrogen requirement.

Related story: Make your own compost.

Not only cheaper and more efficient, but this approach is also cleaner. Dr Iannetta estimates that emissions could be reduced by 420,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent if the UK planted its spring barley alongside legumes and used no fertilizer. That’s the equivalent CO2 that over 420,000 trees process in a year. And, since agriculture makes up around 15% of global greenhouse emissions, this approach could make a huge difference.

Western agriculture currently relies on a narrow range of crops — it’s wheat, barley, and potato heavy. By growing more legumes alongside these staples, intercropping would boost diversity and help make farming more resilient to environmental factors, crop diseases, and pests. It would also help diversify farmers’ produce, and the wider range of locally-available crops would stimulate new markets for sustainable foodstuffs. To this end, Dr Iannetta is also working on developing new ways to brew peas and beans into alcohol. With the help of Professor Graeme Walker of Abertay University working on the enzymes involved in fermentation, Barney’s Beer in Edinburgh, and Arbikie Distillery in Arbroath, he’s working on developing a beer made from 40% whole faba beans.

“Beans are notoriously difficult to ferment, but we have discovered a way of doing this by neutralising the fermentation inhibitors,” he explains.

“Tundra [the beer] is a wonderful, heavily hopped American IPA. By turning pulse starch into fermentable sugars and alcohol from 40% beans intercropped with 60% barley — we have produced a beer using 40% less artificial fertiliser.”

Such research is particularity relevant in countries with little arable soil, those who can’t afford fertilizers, or countries with a heavy tradition in brewing. Scotland, for example, uses 60% of all non-grazing arable land to grow barley, around half of which is for malting and distilling.

“Minimising the amount of artificial nitrogen used to grow barley would save carbon, save money and deliver Scottish whisky — the UK’s greatest export and tax revenue resource — in a more sustainable way.”

“The public wants healthier food that is grown more sustainably. It’s great that shops are now selling grain legume-based crisps and bread, but I wish they used more home-grown legumes. There is a huge opportunity for small growers to diversify and shorten their supply chains by developing their own high-quality legume-based products.”

The by-product of the fermentation is also high in proteins, which can be used as feed in fisheries. Dr Iannetta hopes to have commercially available green beers and neutral spirits by the end of 2017.

“These will have been produced using no human-made fertilisers, and give co-products that provide sustainable and profitable protein production for the food chain,” he concludes.

Credit: Pixabay.

Crop spray boosts wheat yield by 20% without the use of GMOs

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

British researchers from the University of Oxford demonstrated a crop spray that which improves the efficiency with which wheat can generate sugar during photosynthesis. As a result, the wheat makes bigger grains resulting in improved yields as great as a fifth.

According to a meta-study, genetically modified crops increased crop yields by 22 percent, reduced pesticide use by 37 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent. Despite their success, GMO crops are controversial and the public is generally against them.

However, as a world’s population swells and becomes wealthier, demand for protein-rich food is set to skyrocket making GMOs a necessity, unless there are better alternatives. It’s estimated yields have to increase by 70% until 2050 to meet this demand.

One such alternative might be the new molecular spray described in the journal Nature

“The tests we conducted show real promise for a technique that, in the future, could radically alter how we farm not just wheat but many different crops,” said Professor Ben Davis, of the Department of Chemistry at Oxford. “The Green Revolution in the 20th century was a period where more resilient, high-yield wheat varieties were created, an innovation that has been claimed to have helped save one billion lives. By now developing new chemical methods based on an understanding of biology, we can secure our food sources and add to this legacy,” he added.

The spray contains a molecule called trehalose 6-phosphate (T6P) that controls how sucrose is generated and used by the wheat crop. When the spray comes in contact with the crop, more sucrose was drawn into the grain to make starch.

Harvest from untreated and treated wheat, respectively. Credit: OXFORD UNIVERSTY/ROTHAMSTED RESEARCH.

Harvest from untreated and treated wheat, respectively. Credit: OXFORD UNIVERSTY/ROTHAMSTED RESEARCH.

The same study suggests the spray also enhances the plant’s ability to recover from drought. No adverse effects have been reported thus far. If these results can be replicated in the field, then farmers might have an immensely powerful tool at their disposal. Hopefully, the same solution might work with other crops as well, particularly the grainy variety.

“The next stage of work is to replicate this experiment as much as possible in the field in different environments, for which we’ll need to understand how to scale up production of the T6P precursor and determine the effect that more variable conditions may have on results,” said Dr Matthew Paul, Senior Scientist – Plant Biology and Crop Science, Rothamsted Research.

New farm in the middle of the desert will use only sunlight and seawater – no pesticides, fossil fuels, or even soil

A new farm will produce 17,000 tonnes of tomatoes every year, in the Australian desert, using only water from the ocean and sunlight.

No fossil fuels, no pesticides, no soil – just seawater and sun. Image via Sundrop

If you want to build a farm, you first need two things: good soil and good water. The Australian desert has neither – but it does have a lot of sun and it’s close to the ocean. An international team of scientists wanted to take advantage of this scenario and spent the last six years designing a system which would thrive under these conditions.

It all started with a small greenhouse in 2010. Then in 2014, they started building the full-scale farm and now the whole thing’s up and running. They pipe draws seawater from two kilometers away without using any fossil fuels, to a 20-hectare site in the arid Port Augusta region. There, a solar-powered desalination plant removes the salt, creating enough freshwater to irrigate the 180,000 tomato plants inside the greenhouse. The farm already has contracts with supermarkets in Australia to sell tomatoes.

As if not having water and soil wasn’t enough, the climate is also unfavorable for tomatoes. The summer is too hot and the winter is too cold for the plants to thrive. Yet with technology and careful planning, this can also be overcome. During the summer, seawater-soaked cardboard keeps the greenhouse cool and during the winter, solar energy heats it up. There is also no need for any pesticides or soil, as the plants grow in coconut husks instead of soil. Seawater cleans the air and kills off unwanted germs and pests.

All of this is powered by 23,000 mirrors reflecting sunlight to a 115-metre high receiver tower. The system produces 39 megawatts of energy on a good day, more than enough for the farm.

“These closed production systems are very clever,” says Robert Park at the University of Sydney, Australia. “I believe that systems using renewable energy sources will become better and better and increase in the future, contributing even more of some of our foods.”

Without a doubt, this is an innovative system, but is it truly needed? Paul Kristiansen at the University of New England, Australia, questions this need.

“It’s a bit like crushing a garlic clove with a sledgehammer,” he says. “We don’t have problems growing tomatoes in Australia.”

But he does add that in the future, under the huge stress created by climate change, farms like this might become extremely useful in some parts of the world. “Then it will be good to have back-up plans,” he concludes.

Crops employ “austerity measures” to conserve water in drought conditions

A new study of plant roots found that grasses employ a type of “economic austerity” when confronted with drought conditions: the plants limit their root systems’ growth to preserve water in the soil. The discovery could potentially be used to improve crop yields.

Image credits Chris Devaraj

The world’s population has been growing rapidly over the past few decades, and this trend is not going to stop any time soon (see this and this.) The last thing you would want in this scenario is a shortage of food — which is exactly what scientist expect will happen. Seeing this, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University published a paper aiming to understand how agriculturally valuable plants react to drought.

Plants draw most of their water from soil, through their roots. However, not all plants have the same kinds of roots — the study examined grasses, a family which include key species of plants including maize, sorghum and sugarcane. Grasses rely on crown roots to extract water, a type of root unique to this family, which grow down from the regions of the shoot at soil surface (an area known as the crown, hence the name.) The root system starts to form after sprouting and continues to develop throughout the plant’s life.

Maize seedling with crown roots beginning to grow from the base of the shoot (red arrow).
Image credits Jose Sebastian

“Crown roots are like the lanes of a highway connecting the suburbs to the city. As the plant grows, new lanes are added to this highway to increase the flux of water and nutrients from the soil to the shoot,” explains Jose Sebastian, post-doctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science, and lead author of the study.

The effect of drought on crown root development was poorly documented up to now, so researchers had no way of estimating how the plants would react to a hotter and drier climate. The team, led by José Dinneny, was able to prove that water shortages causes the grasses to suppress crown root growth.

Their results show that the crown is crucial for sensing water availability in the topsoil. If water is scarce, the development of crown roots is suppressed and the grass plant maintains a more limited root system, the team found.

“We normally think about roots as providing access to water, thus it was initially unclear why a plant would shut down root growth under drought,” Dinneny explained.

“We discovered, however, that this response allows the plant to slow the extraction of water from soil and bank these reserves for the future; sort of like the plant version of economic austerity.”

These “austerity measures” are only employed when water is scarce. If moisture is reintroduced into the soil, crown root growth is quickly resumed, so the plant can take advantage of all available water. The team also determined that this suppression is much less pronounced in domesticated grasses such as maize and millet than in wild varieties.

“This suggests to us that plant breeding has unintentionally affected these crop plants’ abilities to cope with drought,” Dinneny said.

Artificial selection or agricultural plants such as maize or other grassy crops aimed at tailoring crown roots’ response to drought could improve these plants’ productivity and preserve ground-water resources.

The full paper, titled “Grasses suppress shoot-borne roots to conserve water during drought” has been published online in the journal PNAS.

Vegetables grown on Mars could be healthier than their Earth-grown counterparts

The plants grown by Wageningen University researchers in martial soil back in March have been analyzed and the results are scrumptious: at least four of the crops do not contain harmful heavy metal levels and are perfectly safe to eat, the University researcher’s report.

Image via inhabitat

If you’ve seen The Martian, you can remember how much Matt Damon got done living off of his poo-powered crop of potatoes. It just goes to show how important it is for a long-term colony to be able to grow their own food locally. We’ve taken one step closer to that goal in March, when Netherlands’ Wageningen University reported that they’ve managed to grow ten different crops in Mars-like soil.

However, growing food doesn’t do us much good if eating it kills us, and researchers were worried that these crops contained dangerous heavy metals like lead or cadmium, leached out from the soil stimulant. But future colonists rejoice, as lab analysis of the crops determined that at least four of them are safe to eat.

Led by ecologist Wieger Wamelink, the team tested radishes, tomatoes, rye, and peas. They looked at cadmium, lead, aluminium, nickel, copper, chrome, iron, arsenic, manganese, and zinc contents in the plants, and didn’t find any in dangerous levels. In fact, some of these veggies have lower levels of heavy metals than those cultivated in regular potting soil. The plants were also tested for vitamins, alkaloids, and flavonoids, with good results. While there are six more crops to test, Wamelink himself said that the results up to now are “very promising.”

NASA and Mars One are competing to be the first on Mars but both groups support the research.

“Growing food locally is especially important to our mission of permanent settlement, as we have to ensure sustainable food production on Mars. The results of Dr. Wamelink and his team at Wageningen University & Research are significant progress towards that goal,” said Mars One co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp in a press release.

A crowdfunding campaign is underway (and will be until the end of August) to allow the team to test the remaining crops, potatoes included. If all the crops test out safe, with concentrations of heavy metal lower than those stipulated by the FDA and the Dutch Food Agency as safe, Wamelink’s team will host a “Martian dinner” at the Wageningen greenhouse.

But I’ve seen the movie. Stay clear of the potatoes.

Our best bet at stopping food waste is to be more responsible, not more efficient

Humans are throwing away an insane quantity of food, both in the developed and in developing countries. While in the latter case this can be attributed to economic and technological constrains, the former is primarily consumer-driven. And the sum of individual choices adds up to major impacts on a global scale, a new study finds.

Consumer behavior is the main driver of food waste in developed countries. Image credits U.S. Department of Agriculture / flickr

Consumer behavior is the main driver of food waste in developed countries.
Image credits U.S. Department of Agriculture / flickr

The study shows that roughly one third of the food we produce is lost or gets thrown away. That means one third of the resources and effort we put into growing food is also wasted, with severe environmental implications and a direct contribution to global warming. Even worse, the food we don’t consume gets disposed of and decomposes in landfills causing additional problems for the environment. That’s like taking a third of your salary each month, rolling it up into a cigar and smoking it — you’ll only end up poorer and with medical bills to boot.

So why do we do it? Well there are several reasons. Relatively poor countries see losses propagating upstream, with the bulk of the waste taking place in the production phase. This comes down to constraints such as problematic methods of harvesting, transportation and storage. These areas quite simply need more money invested in them to be efficient — things like better roads and infrastructure, a better technological base and higher educated workers.

In developed countries however, downstream waste is the most important factor. These countries have the means and know-how to produce a large surplus of food, and here consumers are the main driver behind waste — anywhere between 30 to 50 percent of foodstuffs bought by households get thrown away. Cultural norms, such as huge holiday meals that largely end up in the bin, misleading food safety labels or simple disgust for items all factor in. There is a widespread feeling that throwing away food is wrong, however, which may underpin efforts to reduce food waste in the future.

“The fact that consumers and stakeholders alike perceive food waste as obviously unethical makes it a good starting point for individual consumers to become engaged in sustainability,” said Aschemann-Witzel at Aarhus BSS’ MAPP Centre, which conducts research on value creation in the food sector.

Because the cause of waste here is so disseminated, there’s no single overarching solution that will solve food waste in the developed world. You can’t put a legal frame on what people do and don’t eat, what they cook and what they throw away, in their own homes — even if you could, enforcing such a system would be downright impossible. Instead, the best way to lower waste comes down to a variety of small changes at an individual or community level; something as simple as checking the fridge before going to the shop can have a large impact in the long run.

“A broad range of efforts are needed to move towards sustainable food security for all,” Aschemann-Witzel writes, “and each individual consumer contributes both to the problem and the solution.”

Beyond this, governments can pitch in by changing overly restrictive food safety laws and regulations that promote waste, or downright outlawing it (such as France did); producers can introduce new types of packaging that keep the stored food fresh even as you remove small amounts. And retailers should remove policies that encourage consumers to buy products they don’t need, such as “2 for the price of 1” offers, the study reads.

Changes designed for the developed world are likely to have an even bigger impact in future, as countries such as Brazil, India and China become more urbanized and dietary preferences change. Here, food waste is likely to increasingly shift towards consumers, the author argues.

“We know more or less the extent of the problem, and what are the causes of food waste — the next step is action, and here research is needed to help identify what is most effective, so that policy makers know what to focus on,” Aschemann-Witzel argues in her article for Science.

The full paper, titled “Waste not, want not, emit less” has been published online in the journal Science and can be read here.



How feeding pigs with leftovers can save the rainforest

In 2001 a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom was traced back to a farmer that illegally fed uncooked waste to his pigs. It left the country’s agricultural industry in tatters — over 10 million sheep and cattle were killed in an effort to contain the disease. Later that year EU legislators banned the use of human food waste (or swill) as pig feed, a decision that is now coming under a lot of fire from disgruntled livestock farmers and the scientific community.

Image via wikimedia

Following the ban, EU pig farmers had to turn to grain and soybean-based feedstock for their animals, a costly and land-consuming swift; a new study, looking into the effects this decision has had on the industry, estimates that lifting the ban would not only provide a use for the estimated 100 million tonnes of food wasted in the EU each year, but also save 1.8 million hectares of global agricultural land – an area roughly half the size of Germany. These areas include hundreds of thousands of acres of uniquely biodiverse land in developing countries, such as South America’s forests and savannah.

Hot leftovers, hotter debate

The main concern of legislators that decided upon the ban was preventing a similar outbreak from hitting what was at that time a struggling industry. But while the EU took this drastic decision other countries, most notably Japan, responded by (very successfully) regulating the heat-treatment system that turns food waste to animal feed. Japan is currently reusing over 35% of its food waste as feedstock, and its swill-fed “Eco-pork” makes a pretty profit in Europe as a premium product.

This is why researchers and farmers have come to describe the EU’s ban as a “knee-jerk reaction,” a panicked hit on the big red “NO” button that just doesn’t make sense anymore.

The authors looked at the current land use of EU’s pork industry, availability of food waste and quality and quantity of the meat from feed trials that compares pigswill to grain-based diets to estimate how much land could be saved if the ban was lifted. The models in the paper show that pigswill reintroduction would not only decrease the amount of land the EU pork industry requires by 21.5%.

Where there’s swill there’s a way

Lead researcher of the study, Erasmus zu Ermgassen from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology said in the paper:

“Following the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, different countries looked at the same situation, the same evidence, and came to opposite conclusions for policy. In many countries in East Asia we have a working model for the safe use of food waste as pig feed. It is a highly regulated and closely monitored system that recycles food waste and produces low-cost pig feed with a low environmental impact.”

The meat industry is a big part of the global agricultural sector — some 75% of farmland worldwide is used to feed and rear our livestock. The European Union reports that around 34kg of pork are produced domestically per capita each year, a huge 21 and a half million tonnes of meat in total. And much of the industry’s environmental burden can be attributed to the farms that grow their feed — dedicated farming of cereal and soybean meal uses up in excess of 1.2 million hectares of land across South American countries.

But swill is readily available, doesn’t require any new farmland to be cleared and is much cheaper than soybean-based feed. Reintroducing swill feeding would reduce operating costs of EU pig farmers by 50%, the researchers report. So why are legislators reticent in changing current policy? Zu Ermgassen argues that those concerns are largely based on incorrect assumptions that feeding pigs our leftovers is unnatural.

“Pigs are omnivorous animals; in the wild they would eat anything they could forage for, from vegetable matter to other animal carcasses, and they have been fed food waste since they were domesticated by humans 10,000 years ago. Swill actually provides a more traditional diet for pigs than the grain-based feed currently used in modern EU systems,” he said.

“A recent survey found that 25% of smallholder farmers in the UK admit to illegally feeding uncooked food waste to their pigs, so the fact is that the current ban is not particularly safe from a disease-outbreak perspective. Feeding uncooked food waste is dangerous because pigs can catch diseases from raw meat, but a system supporting the regulated use of heat-treated swill does not have the same risks,” he added.

As demand for meat and dairy products is believed to increase by 60% till 2050, reducing the environmental footprint of our livestock farms will become increasingly critical. Zu Ermgassen points out that economic and environmental concern is driving a reassessment of EU animal feed bans that were put in place in the 2000s, as well as attempts to recycle food waste more effectively. The EU is currently looking into repealing bans on using waste pig and poultry products as fish feed and reintroducing insects as pig and poultry feed.

“The reintroduction of swill feeding in the EU would require backing from pig producers, the public, and policy makers, but it has substantial potential to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of EU pork production. It is time to reassess whether the EU’s blanket ban on the use of food waste as feed is the right thing for the pig industry,” he said.

Six initiatives for sustainable agriculture announced at COP21

Climate change and agriculture are so strongly intertwined that you basically can’t talk about addressing climate change without bringing agriculture into the mix. At COP21, the climate summit in Paris, governments, NGOs and private entities joined hands to announce several initiatives focusing on some of the most pressing issues in agriculture: soils, the livestock sector, food losses, waste, sustainable production methods and resilience of farmers.

Image via Pexels.

Agriculture is responsible for 24 % of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which cause climate change, but that doesn’t even begin to describe how interconnected the two are; one of the main causes for deforestation in the world is agriculture, which brings additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Synthetic pesticides, the most common method of dealing with pests can leach through the soil and enter the groundwater, as well as linger in food products, and soil degradation from agriculture brings with it problems we are only now beginning to understand. The initiatives proposed at COP won’t revolutionize sustainable agriculture, but they are definitely steps in the right direction.

Here are the six:

The “4/1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate”

We rarely give soils enough credit, but they are at the base of our food and climate security. In the 4/1000 initiative, a hundred partners (developed and developing states, international organizations, private foundations, international funds, NGOs and farmers’ organization) will work together to protect and increase carbon stocks in soils.

Soils can store massive quantities of carbon, preventing it from going into the atmosphere and contributing to rising temperatures. The initiative will show that even a small increase of 4/1000 parts per year in the soil carbon stocks (most notably in agricultural soils, but also in forest soils), will not only store significant amounts of carbon, but also improve soil quality and therefore improve the life quality and resilience of farmers, contributing to the long term of sustainable agriculture on more than one front.

BigAg, a provider of current agriculture news, have also reported increased focus on advanced seed, fertilizer, and bioagriculture tech to help push sustainable farming.

Life Beef Carbon

Meat is one of the foods with the largest carbon footprints – beef especially. This European alliance will include France, Ireland, Italy and Spain, having the declared goal of reducing the beef carbon footprint by 15% over 10 years.

“Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme” (ASAP) 

This builds on an already existing initiative consisting of 44 developing countries; 12 additional countries have joined,  increasing the total amount of committed ASAP funds up to US$ 285 million. By 2034, this additional funding will avoid or sequester 80 million tons of GHG emissions (CO2e) and will strengthen the resilience of 8 million smallholders. Small farmers are among the best places to invest to fight climate change locally.

15 West-African Countries Transitioning to Agro-ecology

West African countries are among the poorest in the world, and if this initiative is successful, 25 million households will implement agro-ecological practices.

To be perfectly honest, I wish this initiative was clearer, both in terms of what these practices will actually be, and in terms of implementation.

The Blue Growth Initiative (BGI)

This will focus on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions caused by fisheries. The actions aim at a 10% reduction in 10 target countries within 5 years (building to 25% within 10 years), and if successful, there are plans to further expand it to other countries and companies.

The SAVE FOOD Initiative – (the Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction)

In the European Union, around half of all the produced food is wasted – and there are similar trends throughout most of the developed world. This initiative plans to drive innovations, promote interdisciplinary dialogue and spark debates to generate solutions across the entire value chain, “from field to fork”.

Study finds most people would support a “meat tax”

Agriculture is a big driver of climate change, with the meat industry standing out among the rest as a source of CO2 emissions and environmental damage; lowering demand for meat or ensuring that farms have as little environmental impact is possible, but costly. Would you be willing to eat less, if it was for the good of the planet? Pay more for your meat? A new study suggests that the idea isn’t as controversial as you may believe on first glance.

Image via freestockphotos

Researchers from the UK policy institute Chatham House surveyed people from 12 countries and focus groups in Brazil, China, the UK, and the US, to get a feel for the public opinion on this issue. Their findings show growing public support for a “meat tax,” as well as other solutions such as more vegetarian options in school cafeterias or lowering subsidies given to livestock farmers.

On the whole, participants believed that the government should lead the effort to address unsustainable consumption of meat, but how feasible is that? Livestock farming is responsible for between 10 to 15 percent of the global emissions of greenhouse gases. Currently, an average person in industrialized countries consumes around twice as much meat as experts deem to be healthy, and the average American almost four times as much (250g per person per day), the study reports. But while consumption is plateaued in these areas, as population increases and more countries develop strong economies demand is only going to increase, making this industry an even bigger emitter — global meat consumption is estimated to increase by 75% by 2050.

Current levels of meat consumption.
Image via wikipedia

Governments understandably fear a backlash from voters over interference in such a personal choice as diet. As public awareness of the link between diet and climate change is so low, there is very little pressure on ruling bodies to do anything about it, so they don’t — only 21 of the 120 national plans submitted to the upcoming Paris climate conference include commitments to reduce emissions from the livestock industry.

This “cycle of inertia” means that dietary change continues to be a low policy priority despite its importance. The report however does advocate for governmental action in this issue, and while it does not put a hard figure on how much people would be willing to bear in extra taxes for their meat products, the authors do note that any “backlash to unpopular policies would likely be short-lived.”

By raising awareness of the negative impact of excess meat consumption on the planet — and our health — more people would be inclined for the government to act, researchers say.




Start-up develops new robot that identifies and removes weeds

Start-up company Deepfield Robotics has developed a field vehicle that can distinguish weeds from useful crops and eliminate them. The technology, called Bonirob, can not only make farming more efficient, but it can also reduce some of its environmental impact.

Image via FWI.

About the size of a small car, Bonirob can do a host of things to make farmers’ life easier, by monitoring how well new crop varieties grow, if there is any pest damage, and how much fertilizer and water they need. Currently, samples need to be taken and brought back to the lab for analysis.

[ALSO SEE] The farmers of the future will all be robots

But perhaps even more impressive, the robot can distinguish between crops and weeds according to the shape of their leaves and destroy the weeds mechanically by slamming them into the ground, rather than chemically. Unwanted plants are simply slammed into the ground with a rod.

Several pictures are uploaded in the robot’s memory, which then uses machine learning to accurately identify them, even in difficult conditions or when they are partially covered by other plants. The robot then gets better and better at identifying them.

Professor Amos Albert, general manager of Deepfield Robotics, explains:

“Over time, based on parameters such as leaf colour, shape, and size, Bonirob learns how to differentiate more and more accurately between the plants we want and the plants we don’t want.”

Bonirob is the result of a public joint project funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, in collaboration with Bosch and the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences.

Orphan gene boosts the protein levels of crops

A recent study from Iowa State University shows how a gene, found in a single plant species so far, can increase protein content when grafted into the DNA of staple crops. Their findings could help improve a huge variety of crops and improve nutrition in developing parts of the world, where available sources of protein are sometimes limited.

“We’ve found that introducing this gene to plants such as corn, rice and soybean increases protein without affecting yields,” said Ling Li, an adjunct assistant professor of genetics, development and cell biology.

Eve Syrkin Wurtele, left, and Ling Li, right, have spent years studying the potential of a gene found only in a single plant species that governs protein content.
Image via phys

Dr. Ling Li has a long work history with professor of genetics, development and cell biology Eve Syrkin Wurtele on the gene QQS they discovered in 2004 in a small flowering plant named Arabidopsis. Their discovery has already had spectacular results — several publications in peer-reviewed academic journals, a U.S. patent and multiple pending ones can all trace their roots to QQS.

Now, the duo has discovered another use for the “orphan gene” (called so because it’s not present in the genetic code of any other known organism) QQS that could help feed millions if not billions.

Li and Wurtele found that the QQS gene regulates the unusually high protein content in Arabidopsis’ seeds and leaves, and wondered if they could increase the level of protein in other plants if they transfer the gene over to their DNA.

It seems they can.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team shows that the orphan gene works much the same way in rice, corn and soybeans. That’s good news for parts of the world where protein-rich foods are scarce, Li said.

“Most of the world relies on plants as a major protein resource,” Li said. “And protein that comes from animal sources requires more water, energy and resources to produce, so a diet that relies more on protein-heavy plants is more sustainable.”

But getting these transgenic crops on the global market will require years of research, safety testing and that means millions of dollars in expenses. This is why the team is also investigating non-transgenic methods of producing similar results, Wurtele said.

And their best bet right now seems to be the protein that the orphan gene binds to, known as NF-YC4 (scientists are terrible at naming things.)

This protein is present in all plants and animals, so it doesn’t require any genetic meddling to alter, Li said. If staple crops can be made to overexpress, meaning to produce more of, the NY gene , they can easily increase the levels of protein in these plants without using transgenes, saving time and costs in the regulatory process, she concluded.

Work on the QQS shows just how valuable orphan genes can be, and though research into this field is limited right now, Wurtele expects that the success they enjoyed will cause more scientists to “adopt” orphan genes in the future — and see what they’re capable of.

“This is one orphan gene that we’ve shown has big potential,” Wurtele said. “And we believe there will be many more discoveries related to other orphan genes in the future.”

Agricultural behaviors recorded in bees for the first time

Cristiano Menezes of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation has discovered farming behaviors in bees, adding them to the list of social insects that practice agriculture.

Up to now, these black-and-gold balls of fluff were believed to rely solely on pollen and nectar for sustenance. However, a particular species, Scaptotrigona depilis — the Brazilian stingless bee — has been observed growing fungus to be fed to their larvae. Menezes says that if other species that rely on fungi for survival are found, there will be some serious concerns about using fungicides in agriculture.

He was studying the bees in the lab, when he found what the believed to be fungus contamination in their hives. But, looking at all 30 hives he had collected as specimens, he found it in each and every one. Even more suspiciously, it was growing inside brood cells — the structures that house a hive’s developing larvae. Hmm.

Stingless bee brood chambers.
Image via newsweek

Taking a closer look at the presumed contaminant, Menezes began intuiting that maybe it wasn’t the fungi living off the bees, but the other way around. And indeed, it’s a keystone element of the hive — it permeates the cerumen, the waxy material bees build their stuff out off. After the bees lay an egg in each cell, and regurgitate food for the larva, the fungus starts growing from the cerumen into the cell. When the egg hatches, the larva feeds on the fungus, and it can’t feed on anything else. When the team tried to grow bees on a fungus-free diet, the survival rate of larvae dropped immensely, from 72 to only 8 percent.

“The survival difference may be either due to some nutrients provided by the fungus, or due to the fungus protecting the regurgitated food from spoiling,” the team reports.

When the bees leave their hive to start a new colony, they take some cerumen with them, so “seed” their new brood cells, proving that the bees understand and utilize the fungal agent.

“It is clear that the fungus profits from dispersal with the bees, both to new colonies and within the nest, and is offered a protected environment,” says Duur Aanen of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Menezes calls it “proto-farming” — the bees show some agricultural behaviours, such as “planting” the fungus, and providing stable conditions and nutrients for it to grow, then harvest it, but don’t actively tend to it. These behaviors are seen in other social insects as well, such as ants or termites — one species of ants was reported to even farm animals for meat.

“It is an exciting example of the complex connections between insects and microscopic life,” says Cameron Currie of the University of Wisconsin. “And it illustrates the important roles for beneficial symbionts in insects.”

Both Menezes and Currie think there are more farming bees to be found.

“Given the substantial diversity of bees, many of which are poorly studied, it is likely that other bees engage in similar associations,” Currie says.

This raises concern about the use of fungicides, which while not directly harmful to bees, may be affecting them by killing off their symbiotic fungi, Menezes’s team concludes.