Tag Archives: crop

World’s first genetically-engineered moths released in the wild

Could genetically-modified pests control themselves? New research aims to prove that yes, they can.

Image credits Mike Pennington.

The study, led by Anthony Shelton, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Entomology, describes the creation and successful release of gene-edited diamondback moths into an open field setting in collaboration with British biotechnology company Oxitech.

Engineered for failure

“The diamondback moth is a global pest that costs $4-5 billion annually and has developed resistance to most insecticides, making it very difficult to manage,” says Dr Neil Morrison of Oxitec, the study’s corresponding author.

Diamondback moths (Plutella xylostella) is one of the main pests for crops in the brassica family which includes cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, and canola. Certain populations of diamondback moths have shown very stubborn resistance to synthetic insecticides in many settings around the world (including Canada, Australia, the UK, the US, and China); under the right circumstances, their larvae can afflict entire crops, causing farmers to re-plow entire fields of (now-unmarketable) produce.

In order to address the threat, the team describes how they genetically-engineered the species to make it fail. They implanted two genes — a “self-limiting gene and a marker gene” according to Morrison — into the insect’s genome. These genes are meant to be handed down between generations creating “self-limiting moths [that] are non-toxic and non-allergenic.”

The idea behind this approach is for genetically-engineered male moths to make their way into the wide world and sow their wild oats with wild females. They’ll pass on the self-limiting genes, which prevent the female caterpillars from developing normally (so they die off).

But that’s just the theory — the team needed to test this approach in practice. Thus, they became the first group in the world to trial open-field releases of genetically-engineered moths, employing a “mark-release-recapture” method which has been long-used to study insect movements. Their findings suggest that their work is both effective and sustainable as a pest regulation strategy in the long term.

“Our research builds on the sterile insect technique for managing insects that was developed back in the 1950s and celebrated by Rachel Carson in her book, Silent Spring,” says Shelton. “Using genetic engineering is simply a more efficient method to get to the same end.”

“Professor Shelton’s team in Cornell conducted releases of self-limiting male moths alongside non-modified male moths, from the centre of the trial field planted with cabbage,” Morrison adds. “Traps throughout the field were set to recapture a proportion of released moths and, because they were marked with coloured powders, we were able to track their dispersal and lifespan in the field.”

After release, the gene-edited males behaved similarly to their unmodified counterparts in terms of distance traveled and survival. In a lab setting, the team adds, they were just as competent as unmodified males in competing for females. A mathematical model employed by the team further suggests that modified males would be sufficient to control the species’ population without the need for additional insecticides, making it sustainable and eco-friendly. Oxitec is currently evaluating where their technique can be used for the most benefit, in order to organize follow-up studies.

The use of self-limiting insects isn’t novel here — the approach is already in use on Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Brazil, Panama and the Caribbean in a bid to control the spread of malaria.

The paper “First Field Release of a Genetically Engineered, Self-Limiting Agricultural Pest Insect: Evaluating Its Potential for Future Crop Protection” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

Biodiversity is a linchpin of productive, resilient crops

Greater biodiversity supports greater agricultural output, a new study reports.

Image via Pixabay.

The study looks at data from roughly 1,500 agricultural fields across the world. From American corn crops to oilseed rape fields in southern Sweden, from coffee plantations in India to the mango groves of South Africa and cereal crops in the Alps, one factor always has a positive effect on the productivity and resilience of crops: biodiversity.

The more the merrier

“Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production,” explains Matteo Dainese, Ph.D., a biologist at Eurac Research and first author of the study.

“For example, a farmer can depend less on pesticides to get rid of harmful insects if natural biological controls are increased through higher agricultural biodiversity.”

The study focused on two ecosystem services (the natural processes that keep ecosystems running without the need for oversight or costs on our part): pollination services provided by wild insects, and biological pest control. In short, they looked at the natural processes that fertilize crops and those that keep ravenous insects at bay through predation.

Heterogeneous landscapes (those with greater biodiversity), the team reports, can support greater populations and varieties of wild pollinators and beneficial insects. This directly leads to greater biological control of pests and crop yields.

Monocultures, on the other hand, lead to simpler landscapes and adverse effects for crops: there are fewer pollinators, both in overall numbers and in the number of species. Monocultures, the team adds, are the cause of roughly one-third of the negative effects pollinators experience from landscape simplification. If human control of harmful insects is also present, the strain on pollinators is even higher (the team notes that the loss of ‘natural enemy richness’ can represent up to 50% of the total effect of landscape simplification on pollinators).

If you boil everything down, the findings basically say that greater farmland biodiversity leads to more productivity and greater crop resilience in the face of environmental stressors such as climate change. Given that we’re contending with a two-pronged issue — on the one hand, we’re disrupting natural patterns, which impairs agricultural productivity, while on the other we’re trying to produce more food to feed an ever-growing population — the team believes that fostering farmland productivity should be a key goal of the agricultural sector.

“Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important,” underlines animal ecologist Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter from the Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology at the University of Würzburg, the initiator of the study within the EU project ‘Liberation’.

“Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations.”

The researchers recommend that we work to protect environments for which health depends on diverse biological communities, and try to diversify crops and landscapes as much as possible to foster biodiversity in areas that lack it.

The paper has been published in the journal Science Advances.


Researchers identify gene that makes plants and fungi play nice — we’ll use it to make better crops

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are hacking the plant-fungi relationship to help us grow better, more productive, more resilient crops.


Image credits Gustavo Torres.

The team has identified a specific gene that controls the symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi in the soil and used it to facilitate symbiosis in a plant species that typically resists such fungi. The research paves the way towards the development of food and bioenergy crops that can withstand harsh growing conditions, resist pathogens and pests, require less chemical fertilizer, and produce more plentiful per acre.

Magic ‘shrooms

“If we can understand the molecular mechanism that controls the relationship between plants and beneficial fungi, then we can start using this symbiosis to acquire specific conditions in plants such as resistance to drought, pathogens, improving nitrogen and nutrition uptake and more,” said ORNL molecular geneticist Jessy Labbe, the paper’s first author.

“The resulting plants would grow larger and need less water and fertilizer, for instance.”

The fungi Labbe refers to are known as mycorrhizal fungi (a mycorrhiza is a symbiotic association between a fungus and a plant), and they form a sheath around plant roots that benefits both participants. An estimated 80% of plant species have mycorrhizal fungi associated with their roots.

The plant receives water and raw minerals, particularly phosphorus, and ‘trades’ carbon-rich compounds in return. The fungal structure extends much farther than the plant host’s roots, allowing it to tap into a larger volume of soils. There is also some evidence suggesting these fungi also communicate with neighboring plants to limit the spread of pathogens and pests.Their relationship is so close that these fungal helpers may have been what allowed the ancient colonization of land by plants.

Given the importance of this partnership, biologists have been really eager to find the genetic mechanisms which underpin it. The current discovery is the culmination of 10 years of research at the ORNL and partner institutions that focused on producing better bioenergy feedstock crops such as the poplar tree (Populus).

Together with improvements in genomic sequencing, quantitative genetics, and high-performance computing over the last decades, the team drew on the ORNL data to narrow down the search to a particular receptor protein, PtLecRLK1. Once they had identified the likely candidate gene, the researchers took to the lab to validate their findings. Lab testing later confirmed that they were onto the right gene.

The researchers chose Arabidopsis, a plant known to treat the mycorrhizal fungus L. bicolor as a threat for the experiments. They engineered a version of this plant to expresses the PtLecRLK1 protein and then inoculated the plants with L. bicolor. The fungus completely enveloped the plant’s root tips, they report, forming a fungal sheath indicative of symbiote formation.

“We showed that we can convert a non-host into a host of this symbiont,” said ORNL quantitative geneticist Wellington Muchero, a co-author of the paper. “If we can make Arabidopsis interact with this fungus, then we believe we can make other biofuel crops like switchgrass, or food crops like corn also interact and confer the exact same benefits. It opens up all sorts of opportunities in diverse plant systems. Surprisingly, one gene is all you need.”

Jerry Tuskan, the director of the DOE’s Center for Bioenergy Innovation (CBI), which supported this research, calls the results “remarkable”, saying it paves the way towards new bioenergy crops that can thrive “on marginal, non-agricultural lands.”

“We could target as much as 20-40 million acres of marginal land with hardy bioenergy crops that need less water, boosting the prospects for successful rural, biobased economies supplying sustainable alternatives for gasoline and industrial feedstocks,” he concludes.

The paper “Mediation of plant–mycorrhizal interaction by a lectin receptor-like kinase” has been published in the journal Nature Plants.

Corn Field.

Using land displaced by biofuels to grow trees is much better for climate, say researchers

One researcher from the University of Michigan (UE) says that growing and harvesting bioenergy crops is a poor way to fight climate change — instead, we should keep these areas wild and increase forest cover.

Corn Field.

Image via Pixabay.

Biofuels just aren’t very climate-friendly, a new opinion piece published by John DeCicco, a research professor at the UM Energy Institute. Instead of growing bioenergy crops, such as corn used to produce ethanol, which is a poor use of a limited and precious resource, we should instead nurture wild areas like forests or grassland to help naturally sequester CO2, he adds.

If it ain’t broken, don’t use it as cropland

Wild areas like forests and grasslands naturally capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — and they are one of our best tools for quickly scrubbing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, writes DeCicco. In a paper he published alongside William Schlesinger, president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies,  DeCicco urges policymakers, funding agencies, fellow academics, and industry leaders to shift the focus from bioenergy to terrestrial carbon management (TCM), and do it fast. TCM is a strategy that relies on wild area conservation and increasing tree cover to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

“The world needs to rethink its priorities about how to use the biosphere given the urgency of the climate problem and the risks to biodiversity,” DeCicco said. “Current policies advancing bioenergy contribute to the pressure to convert natural land into harvested forest or cropland,” he adds.

“But high quality land is a limited resource. For reducing atmospheric CO2, the most efficient use of ecologically productive land is to leave it alone, or reforest it. Let it act as a natural, long-term carbon sink.”

The opinion is based on DeCicco’s earlier work, which found that biofuels are not inherently carbon-neutral. It also draws roots from Schlesinger’s work in ecology and biochemistry.

The duo calls the assumption that biofuels recycle carbon a major ‘accounting error’. Because such fuels are assumed to be carbon-neutral, current assessment models (used energy policy as well as the protocols for international carbon accounting) do not accurately reflect reality, they explain. This view has also promoted major R&D investments in biofuels, which, in turn, have been assigned a key role in many climate stabilization scenarios.

The core (and wrong) assumption with biofuels is the idea that producing a biofuel and then burning it for energy moves a given amount of carbon from the biosphere to the atmosphere, and back again in an unending and stable cycle, the team writes. So, unlike fossil fuels — which only release CO2 as they burn, and not absorb it in their production process — the crops that biofuels are produced from are believed to absorb the same quantity of emissions the fuel generates while being burned.

Biofuel cycle.

However, the team writes, this assumption isn’t true. For biofuels to really be carbon neutral, the carbon flow from the atmosphere back into vegetation needs to be much faster than it actually is; in other words, the plants need to grow much faster than they do. Otherwise, it can take many decades before the “carbon debt” in the air is repaid by plant growth, they explain. A paper published by DeCicco in 2016 reported that just 37% of the CO2 released from burning biofuels was balanced out by carbon uptake in crops over the first eight years of the U.S. biofuel mandate.

In other words, biofuels acted as net carbon contributors to the atmosphere over these eight years, DeCicco claims. Whether or not this evens out over the long term isn’t important for us right now, the authors explain — because we don’t have ‘long-term’, we need to reduce greenhouse gas levels now.

“All currently commercial forms of bioenergy require land and risk carbon debts that last decades into the future. Given the urgency of the climate problem, it is puzzling why some parties find these excess near-term CO2 emissions acceptable,” the researchers write.

Increasing the rate at which trees and other plants remove CO2 from the air is a much better (and faster way) to use land, the duo writes. If no new breakthroughs are made in the field of carbon capture or bioenergy systems, protecting and nurturing carbon-rich natural ecosystems remains our best strategy for carbon dioxide reduction, they add.

“By avoiding deforestation and by reforesting harvested areas, up to one-third of current carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels could be sequestered in the biosphere,” the researchers write. “Terrestrial carbon management can keep carbon out of the atmosphere for many decades.”

However, many scientists disagree with DeCicco, whose 2016 paper claiming that biofuels aren’t carbon neutral was funded by the fossil fuel industry.

“This is the same study, same flawed methodology and same fallacious result that Professor DeCicco has churned out multiple times in the past,” said Geoff Cooper, the Renewable Fuels Association senior vice president, for the Detroit Free Press. “He has been making these arguments for years, and for years they have been rejected by climate scientists, regulatory bodies and governments around the world, and reputable life-cycle analysis experts.”

Argonne National Laboratory scientist Michael Wang, an expert in life cycle analyses, says the findings are questionable for a variety of different technical reasons, including the fact that DeCicco only took American farming into account. It’s thus unfair to look at CO2 released by biofuel combustion and biofuel crop carbon sequestration only, simply because CO2, being a gas, is dispersed all over the world. About 29% of San Francisco’s air pollution comes from China, for instance. All of this CO2 will be absorbed by all sorts of plants, such as trees, flowers, corn or sunflower crops, and so on — because plants don’t discriminate between differently sourced CO2. It’s the same chemistry for them.

“In the long run, there’s no question that biofuels displacing petroleum is a benefit,” said Daniel Schrag, a geology professor at Harvard who advises the EPA on bioenergy climate impacts. His views sharply oppose those of DeCicco. “It’s just a question of how long you have to wait.”

The paper “Reconsidering bioenergy given the urgency of climate protection” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Scientists engineer crop that uses 25% less water without compromising yield

In the face of a rising populace, agriculture has to adapt by increasing yield, on one hand, and using resources more efficiently, on the other. Concerning the latter, British researchers have made a huge leap by breeding tobacco that uses 25 percent less water without compromising yield. The gene that they altered is present in all plants, so the improvements should be transferable to food crops.


Credit: Pixabay.

Biotech research has been very successful at improving yield over the past 60 years but not that much effort has been put into resource management. As such, the amount of water required to produce one unit of grain, for instance, has remained unchanged. About 90 percent of global freshwater is soaked up by agriculture, which puts a huge strain on reservoirs, with many being depleted unsustainably. Water scarcity will only continue to grow around the world, especially as climate change ramps up, which is why the latest study published by the international research project Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, or RIPE for short, is so important.

The team led by RIPE Director Stephen Long targeted a photosynthetic protein called photosystem II subunit S (PsbS) in tobacco — a model crop often used in research because it’s easier to modify and faster to test than most crops. By increasing PsbS expression, a chloroplast-derived signal instructs the plant’s stomata to open less. Stomata are microscopic pores in the plant’s leaf which allow water to escape and gases (like CO2) to enter or exit. Essentially, PsbS is an important component of a signaling pathway that informs the plant how much sunlight is hitting its leaves. By increasing PsbS, the signal tells the plant that there is not enough light for the plant to trigger photosynthesis, causing stomata to close.

More resilient crops in the face of drought

Illustration of the mouth-like stomata which allows water and CO2 to exit and enter the plant. Credit: Jiayang Xie, Katarzyna Gowacka, Andrew D. B. Leakey.

Illustration of the mouth-like stomata which allows water and CO2 to exit and enter the plant. Credit: Jiayang Xie, Katarzyna Glowacka, Andrew D. B. Leakey.

By carefully tweaking PsbS expression, researchers were able to improve the ratio of carbon dioxide entering the plant to water escaping (water use efficiency) by 25 percent. The improvement demonstrated in field trials was achieved without sacrificing photosynthesis performance or yield. This was partly made possible by the fact that humans have increased the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 25 percent in just the past 70 years. The higher CO2 content allows plants to absorb enough of the gas without fully opening their stomata.

“The effects of the PsbS protein on the efficiency of photosynthetic CO2 uptake has been somewhat of an enigma in previous studies. We knew that PsbS improves protection against high light. Thus, what we expected to find is that overexpressing PsbS would help plants cope with too much light. Therefore, when we measured the decrease in water loss through the leaves, it was certainly somewhat unexpected, since no one had previously linked PsbS to water loss. But further exploration showed that it helps to explain several previous findings, in particular how leaf water loss through microscopic pores called stomata is coordinated with leaf CO2 uptake through these same pores,” Long told ZME Science in an e-mail.

“As far as we know, all higher plants contain this PsbS protein, which may suggest that this strategy (i.e. increased expression of PsbS) may be used to improve water use efficiency across a wide range of crops,” he added.

Stephen Long, a professor of crop sciences and of plant biology (center), with postdoctoral researchers Johannes Kromdijk, (left) and Katarzyna Glowacka, Credit: Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois.

Stephen Long, a professor of crop sciences and of plant biology (center), with postdoctoral researchers Johannes Kromdijk, (left) and Katarzyna Glowacka, Credit: Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois.

This is the first time that scientists have reported ‘hacking’ stomatal response to the quantity of light. Besides the quantity of light, stomata open and close in response to the quality of light (described in terms of shadow or contrast), humidity, and CO2 levels.

Long and colleagues built upon previous research, which showed that increasing PsbS and two other proteins can improve yield by as much as 20 percent. Combined with the present findings, the researchers hope to tweak crops for the perfect balance of yield and water management.

“We are further exploring how we can generate crops with increased photosynthetic CO2 uptake and reduced water loss. Using our results, we are also going to test how well our results in tobacco translate into different crop species,” Long told me.

“Water availability for agriculture is a strong limitation to food production world-wide. Reducing the freshwater demands for the production of our food production will be one of the biggest challenges to keep feeding the growing human population. Novel strategies like we describe in our paper are therefore encouraging, and also very much needed, especially since crop improvement is a slow process, with many tests and bottlenecks to pass before new innovations end up in farmers fields,” he concluded.

RISE is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and the U.K. Department for International Development. The findings appeared in the journal Nature Communications. 


One tiny mutation could triple the world’s production of grain

A relatively minor genetic modification can triple the number of grains produced by sorghum (family Poaceae), a drought-tolerant plant widely used as a source of food, animal feed, and source of biofuel. The team is now working to apply the same system to other cereal crops.


Image credits Bruce McLennan.

Researchers from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have managed to hack sorghum: by lowering the level of a key hormone, they’ve coaxed the cereal into producing more flowers, and more seeds.

The study, led by Doreen Ware, Ph.D. and an adjunct Associate Professor at the CSHL, focused on high-yield strains of sorghum developed a few years ago at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). These strains were created using chemical mutagenesis, a method used by breeders and scientists for several decades now to induce genetic variation in plants. The mutations induced by the process led to an increase in the number of grains produced by each plant — but we didn’t know why.

Ware and her team wanted to get to the bottom of things, so they started by sequencing the genomes of these modified plants. They found several mutations, but note that a ‘key mutation’ affects a gene which regulates hormone production. The plants that carried this version of the gene produced abnormally low levels of jasmonic acid, a development-regulating hormone, particularly during flower development.

Similar to many other cereal crops, sorghum seeds mature from clusters of flower. These flowers develop from a branched structure at the top of the plant, the panicle. Each panicle can produce hundreds of flowers, which come in two types — sessile spikelets (SS), which are fertile, and pedicellate spikelets (PS), which don’t produce any seeds. In the ARS-modified sorghum, however, both sessile and pedicellate spikelets produced seeds, tripling each plant’s grain number.

Lab tests showed that jasmonic acid prevents PSs from producing seeds — so low levels of the hormone allow them to become fertile.

“When the plant hormone is low, we get seeds set on every single one of the flowers. But when the plant hormone is high, we have a reduced number of fertile flowers, ending up in a reduced number of seeds,” explains Dr. Yinping Jiao, co-first author on the new paper.

In effect, these changes triple the productivity of sorghum — not bad for a tiny mutation. After uncovering the biological systems at work, the team hopes to apply a similar approach to other crops related to sorghum such as rice, corn, and wheat.

The paper “MSD1 regulates pedicellate spikelet fertility in sorghum through the jasmonic acid pathway,” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

10 Amazing Sights Discovered Over Google Earth

I’ve really loved the Google Earth/Maps technology ever since it’s first rolled out of the Silicon Valley giant many years back. The prospect of having my own digital satellite at my fingertips has been simply mind-blowing, keeping me constantly fascinated by how easy it is for me to reach far away places. Thanks to Google Earth I can now physically see where I need to go, what routes to take or even my cousin’s car in front of her flat in The Village. The possibilities are incredibly wide, as well as the privacy issues…but that’s a story for another time.

Along the years Google Earth hasn’t just been a source of geographical information, but also a valuable tool in spotting remote places and making surprising findings. It helped find a forest packed with undiscovered species, early mammal fossils or even a huge cannabis plantation (sure beats finding crop circles), and much, much more. Bellow, I’ve listed a few truly amazing sights captured with Google Earth, that are either fun, odd or simply mind blowing captured by people with waaay too much time on their hands.

1. Arizona <3 Oprah

Oprah Crop Circle

Throughout this list you’ll see a lot of crop circle ‘art,’ but this one can be considered by far one of the weirdest, not because it foretells of the arrival of an alien master race to enslave us all, but rather because it’s a really clear example of how far obsession and cult-like personality can go. Above captioned is the portrait of famous talk-show host Oprah Winfrey carved in a 10-acre crop by an Arizona farmer. Now that’s a fan! [see it on Google Maps | Coordinates: +33° 13′ 33.18″, -111° 35′ 48.32″]

2. The Jet Plane Inside a Parking Lot


Talk about a smooth ride! We’re used to using jet planes either on air stripes or in the sky, where they belong, not in a residential parking lot in a Parisian suburb as is the case in the above photo. Weird as heck! [see it on Google Maps | Coordinates: 48.825183,2.1985795]

3. A Farmer Who Hates Internet Explorer


Back in 2006, the Oregon State University Linux Users made this huge Mozilla Firefox logo in a corn field to celebrate the world’s most favorite web browser’s 50 millionth downloads. I can really say I get the man… as can anyone who’s used Internet Explorer lately. (See on Google Maps | Coordinates: +45° 7′ 25.39″, -123° 6′ 49.08″ ).

4. The Huge Bunny In The Woods


Built by a group of artists from Vienna, this huge 200 feet bunny rabbit thingy was built in Prata Nevoso, Italy a few years back. Quite cute. (See on Google Maps | Coordinates: +44° 14′ 39.38″, +7° 46′ 11.05″)

5. The Bloody Iraqi Lake


This lake’s colour, located outside of Baghdad, Iraq, has been puzzling people for a lot of time now. Most likely, the reddish colour is a product of pollution or a water treatment facility (which might explain the corrosive colour). Then again, this might as well had been the dumping pool for Saddam’s enemies. (See on Google Maps | Coordinates: 33.39845000,44.48416800 )

6. Building A Brand, Can By Can


What’s quite possibly the largest logo on Earth (if not, it’s definitely the biggest Coke logo), this is what advertising enthusiasts drool about. This huge Coke ad, 50m tall and 120m wide, was built using 70,000 empty coke bottles in northern Chile near Arica desert. This veritable Coke monument was meant to mark the anniversary of 100 years since the brand’s inception, as one can see in the photo (“100 años” – 100 years). Don’t worry, tree huggers, the Aniro desert is one of the most barren places on Earth. (See on Google Maps | Coordinates: -18° 31′ 45.21″, -70° 15′ 0.07″)

7. The Noble Clay Indian


This is one of the most famous Google Earth photos to have circulated on the web. Dubbed the Badlands Guardian, this eroded valley very much resembles the face of a man, and if you take a closer look at the tip of the head, you might notice something like the feather head-piece decoration native Americans used to wear. NOW, if you take an even closer look, you might notice what may seem like a pair of iPod headsets. Pretty funky, right? Unfortunately, it’s just a road with an oil rig at its end. (See on Google Maps | Coordinates: +50° 0′ 37.76″, -110° 7′ 0.86″ )

8. African Zoom


Google Earth is great, but it’s hard to tell a lot of things apart at low res, this wonderful piece of African life, however, depicting a herd of elephants on the move, is one sweet exception. You can even see details in the grass! Simply wonderful. (See on Google Maps – be sure to zoom… a lot! | Coordinates: +50° 0′ 37.76″, -110° 7′ 0.86″)

9. The Highest Place … In Your Living Room


Peeking at 8,848 meters  or 29,029 ft, Mount Everest is the highest place on Earth. Let’s face it, neither of us will ever get to climb it, but thanks to Google Earth, we now have an incredible view of the mountain from the high-up. When I first found it, I was simply stunned by its beauty. Be sure to scroll around it when viewing it – the perspective of it all will undoubtedly send a few shivers up your spine. So serene, yet to deadly! (See on Google Maps | Coordinates: +27° 59′ 9.12″, +86° 55′ 42.38″)

10. Stunning Victoria Falls


One of the tallest and, at the same time, most spectacular waterfall in the world, Victoria Falls never ceases to amaze people. This true spectacle of nature should be on everybody’s must-see/go-to list, but until you book a flight to Zimbabwe, Google Earth should do the trick. (See on Google Maps | Coordinates: -17° 55′ 31.84″, +25° 51′ 29.60″)

Note: Use the coordinates for inputting into Google Earth. If you’d have the software installed, you can use Google Maps as an alternative. It’s not even half as fun, but still pretty incredible.


Is the impact of climate change on agriculture underestimated?

A new study looking into the dynamics between climate change and agricultural output found that only a third of production loss seen in Mato Grosso, Brazil over the last few years can be attributed to lower crop yields. The paper, written by Brown and Tufts university researchers suggests that we’ve been overlooking how two key human responses to climate — the total area farmed and the number of crops planted — will impact food production in the future.

Image via pexels.com

The paper, published in Nature Climate Change, focused on the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, an emerging agricultural region that produced 10% of the global supply of soybeans as of 2013. By analyzing temperature and precipitation data from this area over an eight-year time period, the team calculated how sensitive the agricultural industry of the region is to climate change. Basing on these estimates, they projected that an increase of 1 degree Celsius will cause a 9 to 13 percent reduction in soy and corn output in Mato Grosso.

“This is worrisome given that the temperature in the study region is predicted to rise by as much as 2 degrees by midcentury under the range of plausible greenhouse gas emissions scenarios,” said Avery Cohn, aassistant professor of environment and resource policy at Tufts, who led the work while he was a visiting researcher at Brown.

The accuracy of these figures hinges of course on the assumption that patterns observed in the past will hold true in the future. But study’s most alarming find however doesn’t come from crop yields alone, but from the mechanisms that drive changes in agricultural output.

Most similar studies only look at how changes in a region’s climate influence crop yield, i.e. how much food is harvested from a unit of agricultural land. But if you only focus on this single variable you’ll miss the critical dynamics that affect overall output says Leah VanWey, professor of sociology at Brown and senior deputy director of the Institute at Brown for the Study of Environment and Society (IBES).

“If you look at yields alone, you’re not looking at all of the information because there are economic and social changes going on as well,” VanWay, one of the study’s senior authors, said.

“You’re not taking into account farmers’ reactions to climate shocks.”

If yields decrease, farmers may be less inclined to farm the same area as it’s just not profitable anymore — a decrease in production per square meter means lower profits at harvest, but the farmer’s cost while growing the crop stays the same.

Another factor that plays a part in decreasing overall production is be the reduction of number of crops per season. The planting of two successive crops on the same land in a growing season — known as double-cropping — is a common practice in Mato Grosso. If climate takes a shift for the worse and crops don’t grow, farmers may be inclined to save their money and effort for better times by not planting a second crop.

For this study the team analyzed not only crop yield figures in the region, but also the yearly variation in field area and double cropping. Cohn and VanWey worked with Brown University Professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences Jack Mustard and graduate student Stephanie Spera, who gathered satellite images of the Mato Grosso region from NASA’s MODIS satellite — which is used to monitor land cover and use around the world. They were able to identify cropland on these images as they turn green during the growing season but then quickly become brown as the plants are harvested. Two green stages in the same growing season was indicative of double-cropping.

“The changes in cropping that we quantified with remotely sensed data were stunning,” Mustard said.

“We can use those satellite data to better understand what’s happening from a climate, economic, and sociological standpoint.”

Satellite map showing variations in crop area and incidence of double cropping.
Image credits NASA/Brown University.

The team found that an increase of 1 degree Celsius led to substantial decreases in total farmed area and in double cropping incidence. In fact, more than 70 percent of the overall loss in production can be attributed to these two factors, the paper concludes. Only the remaining 30 percent is attributable to lower crop yields.

“Had we looked at yield alone, as most studies do, we would have missed the production losses associated with these other variables,” VanWey said.

Cohn believes that the results suggest more traditional studies “may be underestimating the magnitude of the link between climate and agricultural production.”

This hold true especially in countries that invest little in agricultural subsidies, such as Brazil. Here farmers are more dependent on the profitability of their crops and if yields drop, they just don’t have the money to farm the same area of land.

“This is an agricultural frontier in the tropics in a middle-income country,” VanWey said. “This is where the vast majority of agricultural development is going to happen in the next 30 to 50 years. So understanding how people respond in this kind of environment is going to be really important.”

VanWey said the next step might be to repeat this study it in the U.S. to see if increased subsidies or insurance help to guard against climate shocks. If so, it might inform policy decisions in emerging agricultural regions like Mato Grosso.

“We may need to figure out a way to create incentives — credit products or insurance — that can reduce farmers’ responses to climate shocks,” VanWey said.

Air pollution much more dangerous than climate change for global agriculture

Scientists have long known that climate change has a major negative impact on global agriculture, potentially even threatening global food security. But a new research shows that air pollution is actually much more threatening. Anthropogenic climate change caused 3.5% decrease in potential wheat yield on a country level in India; air pollution caused more than 32% decrease in potential yield.

Ozone and soot

Relative wheat yield changes, India, 1980-2010. Burney & Ramanathan

Air pollution and soot are the main culprits for crops, with some states in India suffering from a 50% reduction in yields, and the odds are the same is happening in many parts of the world (at the same or at a smaller scale). Jennifer Burney and Veerabhadran Ramanathan from the University of California, San Diego systematically investigated the impact of air pollution and anthropogenic climate change on crops in India and found that on average, air pollution has caused a third of loss in wheat yield and one fifth of loss in rice yield in India in 2010, compared to a baseline from 1980.

Many previous papers have studied the impact of climate change in agriculture, and for good reason. A change as slight as one degree Celsius can spell disaster for cultures across the world. But according to this research, ozone and soot causes much more crop loss than climate change. From 1980 to 2010, the increase in temperature and change in precipitation as a result of anthropogenic climate change has caused a 3.5% decrease in wheat yield, while the above mentioned elements had a negative contribution of 32%.

Air pollution is harming India’s wheat farmers. EPA

Ozone is a powerful oxidant (far more so than dioxygen) and has many industrial and consumer applications related to oxidation. However, it’s this exact property which also makes it a pollutant, damaging not only human tissues, but also plant tissues. Soot is emitted mainly from burning plants and fossil fuels. It directly absorbs sunlight, reducing the amount of light available for crops to photosynthesise. Each of these two factors alone has caused more damage to crops than global warming.

The effects of ozone on soybeans. NASA

Bad news and good news

This is, of course, bad news, especially as things aren’t going to get any better anytime soon. William Bloss, an expert in atmospheric chemistry, points out that background ozone levels have more than tripled since they were first monitored in the 1870s.

“Looking to the future”, he says, “models predict that ground level ozone will continue to rise in many areas of the world”. Ozone pollution will continue to be a major challenge for food security.

The good news is that if there is a desire to change things, the effects will be immediate. Air pollution (soot and ground level ozone) is short lived and immediate benefits can be seen as soon as action is taken – as opposed to carbon dioxide, which has much longer effects. This also means that there is a very strong incentive to address this type of pollution, and hopefully, policymakers will not turn a blind eye towards this.

Another noteworthy thing is that there were significant variations in the damage caused by soot. Some areas in India had a yield loss of over 50% which raises some important questions: Could the air pollution in China be causing the major increase in recent global food demand? Personally, I’d really love to see the same type of study conducted in China and other areas of the world.

Journal Reference: Jennifer Burneya and V. Ramanathanb. Recent climate and air pollution impacts on Indian agriculture. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1317275111

Rising CO2 poses significant threat to human nutrition

Image via Harvard University.

If current trends continue, by 2050, the elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will cause many crops around the world to produce a reduced amount of nutrients, especially zinc and iron. Considering that about almost 1 in 3 people in the world (2 billion people) suffer from iron or zinc deficiencies resulting in a loss of 63 million life years annually from malnutrition, the reduction of these nutrients is one of the biggest threats associated with climate change.

“This study is the first to resolve the question of whether rising CO2concentrations — which have been increasing steadily since the Industrial Revolution — threaten human nutrition,” said Samuel Myers, research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health at HSPH and the study’s lead author.

The study appeared yesterday, 7 May, in Nature.

Some studies have already shown, in greenhouses or controlled conditions, that an increase in CO2 leads to a decrease in nutrients in the plants, but those studies were criticized for using artificial conditions, and some claimed that in reality, the situation would be different.  Experiments using free air carbon dioxide enrichment (FACE) technology became the gold standard recently, as it allowed scientists to juggle with CO2 levels and observe the changes in a natural environment.

The researchers analyzed 41 different types (genotypes) of rains and legumes from seven different FACE locations in Japan, Australia, and the United States. The level of CO2 across all seven sites was in the range of 546 to 586 parts per million (ppm) – more or less the projected values for 2050. The results showed a significant decrease in the concentrations of zinc, iron, and protein in the grains. In the grains, zinc concentrations went down, on average by 9.3 percent, iron by 5.1 percent and protein by 6.3 percent. The results for zinc and iron were similar for the legumes, but protein levels remained similar.

The problems this could cause are huge! Some 3 billion people of the world get 70 percent of their dietary zinc and iron from grains, especially in the developing world – where iron and zinc deficiencies are already major problems. The raise in CO2 will almost certainly have devastating effects.

While the reduction of CO2 levels in the atmosphere is almost a utopia at this stage, there are still things we can do to protect ourselves from this incoming disaster – breeding cultivars with reduced sensitivity to CO2, biofortification of crops with iron and zinc, and nutritional supplementation for populations most affected could all play a role in reducing the human health impacts of these changes. However, these are all temporary solutions – the true long term goal is to reach sustainable levels of CO2 emissions.

“Humanity is conducting a global experiment by rapidly altering the environmental conditions on the only habitable planet we know. As this experiment unfolds, there will undoubtedly be many surprises. Finding out that rising CO2 threatens human nutrition is one such surprise,” said Myers.

Scientific Reference: Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition. Nature  doi:10.1038/nature13179

Biotech Crops Farming Countries 2011

Genetically engineered crops reach 11.5% of the total arable land

The first genetically engineered or biotech food products were released on the market for the first time in 1994. Consumers received them fairly well, and since then more production intensified, such that between 1997 and 2010, the total surface area of land cultivated with GMOs had increased by a factor of 87. In 2011, biotech crops reached 160 million hectares, up 12 million hectares on 8% growth, from 2010.

Last year, on October 31st the global population reached the historical milestone of 7 billion, spurring great concern to governments and common folk alike. The problem is there isn’t currently enough food to feed the whole world. It is believed more than one billion people around the world live in poverty and suffer from hunger, and that by 2050 the world would need 70% more food.

A lot of criticism has been circulating around biotech crops, citing ecological issues, health hazards and even economic concern, since it disrupts markets where conventional crops are dealt. I’m not the keenest supporter myself, but when faced with the numbers and harsh reality, the truth is biotech crops might be the only solution we have to the global hunger crisis.

Genetically engineered food have specific treats or changes introduces that provide a series of improvements in crops, like substantial increase in productivity, protection from pests, weeds, diseases, as well as quality in many cases (a few examples: enhanced Vitamin A in rice, soybean free of trans-fat and reduced saturated fat, omega-3 rich soybean).

Between 1996 and 2010, the environment had a lot to benefit from biotech crops as 443 million kilograms (kgs) of pesticide active ingredient were saved, translating in a 9.1% reduction in worldwide pesticide use in this time frame. In 2010 alone CO2 emissions have been reduced by 19 billion kgs – the equivalent of taking ~9 million cars off the road. Some 16.7 million farmers are currently employed in the production of GE crops, up 1.3 million from 2010. The total industry is currently valued at US$78 billion.

Biotech Crops Farming Countries 2011

In total, today 11.5% of the total arable land (1.38 billion hectares) or 3.3% of all agricultural land (4.88 billion hectares) is used for biotech crops – this translated in a huge potential for even further development.The leading biotech crops producer is the US with 69 million hectares. Developing countries grew close to 50% (49.875%) of global biotech crops in 2011 and for the first time are expected to exceed industrial countries hectarage in 2012. Of these, the five lead developing countries in biotech crops are China and India in Asia, Brazil and Argentina in Latin America, and South Africa on the continent of Africa, which collectively grew 71.4 million hectares (44% of global) and together represent ~40% of the global population of 7 billion.

In 2001, the world society gathered and made a pledged, now known as the Millennium Development Goal (MDG), to cut down poverty by 50% until 2015. Poverty in the developing country was at 46% of the population in 1990, while in 2005 it decreased to 27%. Substantial improvements might come once with the introduction of the new generation of biotech crops like drought tolerant maize planned for release in North America in 2013, biotech maize in China, Golden Rice (biotech genetically-modified rice that contains enhanced levels of beta carotene) in the Philippines in 2013/2014, a new biotech potato named “Fortuna” resistant to late blight (responsible for production losses of $7.5 billon worldwide).

Much more in in depth information can be found at the ISAA.

Wheat field

Food demand to double by 2050, new study says

Wheat field

According to a new report released online by researchers of University of Minnesota, the world’s food demand is expected to double by 2050. To fill this need, the researchers argue that if one was to use inferior agricultural practices present in developing countries, then a land mass of  2.5 billion acres (1 billion hectares) would have to be cleared -roughly the size of the United States.

Because of these ever expanding clearings, greenhouse emissions are expected to grow at a directly proportional rate, especially when rainforest clearing is involved. In fact, it’s been shown that global agriculture is responsible for a third of the carbon emissions, according to David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology in the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations recently projected a 70 percent increase in demand. According to Tilman, either projection shows that the world faces major environmental problems unless agricultural practices change.

Besides the intake increase of carbon dioxide and nitrogen released into the atmosphere, habitat clearing means extinction for more and more species in the future, as well. The researchers’ solutions? Well, they suggest to improve crops yield through technology, which by their computations might limit the need to 500 million acres. Their second outlook is that developed countries should help the poor countries of the world feed themselves. Preferably a combination of the two would be ideal, however these don’t seem like very creative solutions at all.

Rich countries helping poor countries with food? This has been going for years and years, as foreign food aid has been delivered to poor countries in Africa and Asia, with little results. You can’t help a country feed itself, when its government doesn’t care about its people, which is sadly the case with most regimes in Africa for instance. I’ve heard countless reports of U.N. food supplies, actually, getting ransacked and then sold on the streets; see Somalia. It’s hard to teach someone how to fish when you don’t even have a rod. It’s a serious matter, with enormous deeply rooted social problems.

What about superimposed cultures? In the same manner you see parking lots save space by thinking altitude, instead of longitude, why not implement a similar system for crops? Sure, it won’t work for wheat or corn, but it will suffice for tomatoes or potatoes and so on. Inhabitat actually suggests the concept of urban agriculture, which implies building farm land on top of empty urban lots, on city rooftops and in community spaces. Heck, if a crisis situation should ensue I’d be glad to eat lab burgers.

The research was  published Nov. 21 online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

photo credit (c) Bloomberg.

The man who farms the sea



A few miles inland from the Sea of Cortez, cracked earth contrasts with the clear, cloudless sky to create a beautiful yet cruel and unforgiving landscape. Here, resources are scarce and people are even fewer. Still, one man fights agains all these adversities; amid mosquitos, cactus, and an almost unbearable heat Carl Hodges manages to create fluorishing crops.

He is the founding director of the University of Arizona’s highly regarded Environmental Research Lab and his amazing work has attracted quite a few workers, both qualified and not. Hodges spent most of his 71 years figuring out how humans could gather enough resources to live in places where usable water and good soil are almost inexistant.

The crop is salicornia and Hodges and his team have flooded the plots with saltwater from the Sea of Cortez, located nearby. The crop which relies on ocean water has the potential to feed and fuel millions. Flowing from a man made canal, this kind of water is accessible in many places where otherwise, the possibility of a good crop wouldn’t exist. With his trademark had contrasting with his iPhone, Hodges has seen a fantastic opportunity to use salt water and direct it inland and create wealth and healthy food instead of disasters. The atmospheric physicist, far from the crowd and media, seems to have found a key that many have been looking for but failed to find.

Analyzing recent projections of ice melt occurring in the Antarctic and Greenland he calculated that diverting 3 times the water Mississipi has would be just enough to achieve the goals he has set. He wants to channel and use ocean into some artificial rivers to “feed” commercial aquaculture operations, mangrove forests and crops that produce food and fuel. This could mean an increase of millions of acres of productive farmland.

“The only way we can stop [sea-level rise] is if people believe we can,” said Hodges, whose outsize intellect is exceeded only by his self-assurance. “This is the big idea” that humanity has been waiting for, he believes.