Chemicals Climate Change Food & Agriculture

Hi-Tech Farming

This is the first in a series of three posts examining how we might adapt our food supply to the twin threats of climate change and peak oil. As much as I like to dream of world fed by small-scale regenerative agriculture, the reality is the Green Revolution largely solved world hunger. While the debate rages on about the limitations of the Green Revolution, there is no doubt that most plants benefit from fertilization and our commodified mono-crop agriculture depends on it.

Chart from Our World in Data.

The problem is that these fertilizers can also cause pollution and a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Production of nitrogen-based fertilizers is a power-intensive process, and these fertilizers break down easily to produce nitrous oxide, which has roughly 300 times the warming potential of CO2.

Our agriculture depends on fertilizers. Image credits: James Baltz.

Can we make more sustainable fertilizers?

In an article by their CEO, Mihai Andrei, ZME Science recently explored whether we can make more sustainable fertilizers. Andrei explores the work of Paolo Gabrielli from ETH Zurich, who is looking at ways the chemical industry can achieve net-zero CO2 emissions. In a recent paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Gabrieilli quantifies the food and energy implications of transitioning nitrogen fertilizers to net-zero CO2 emissions. Together with colleague Lorenzo Rosa, Principal Investigator at Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, US, he set out to explore ways in which net-zero fertilizers could be produced. Among the strategies they suggest moving fertilizer production to countries with surplus renewable energy so as to reduce reliance on fossil fuels in the production stage. However, making fertilizer with electricity requires 25 times the amount of power that current techniques using natural gas require. A second pathway is to use carbon capture and sequestration technology to store carbon produced when making nitrogen-based fertilizers. However, this method requires a lot of new infrastructure and wouldn’t reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The third pathway would be synthesizing hydrogen from biomass. Biomass requires a lot of arable land and water, often competing with agriculture, but it makes sense if the feedstock is waste biomass (crop residues). The hydrogen could be used for energy to produce new fertilizers. While none of these pathways is perfect, all are possible using today’s technology.

Credit: Patrick Ziegler / shutterstock

New food tech could release farmland back to nature

Researchers at University of York, UK, define the basic problem for conservation at a global level: food production, biodiversity and carbon storage in ecosystems are competing for the same land. Their assessment, conservation efforts are doomed to fail unless they address the underlying issue of food security. They see hope in new technologies that could release up to 80% of farmland from agriculture in the next century. Around four-fifths of the land used for human food production is allocated to meat and dairy, including both range lands and crops specifically grown to feed livestock. Add up the whole of India, South Africa, France and Spain and you have the amount of land devoted to crops that are then fed to livestock.

Beef and lamb might contain plenty of protein but they use vast amounts of land. Our World In Data (data: Poore & Nemecek (2018)), CC BY-SA

They propose cellular agriculture as an alternative. Sometimes called “lab-grown food”, the process involves growing animal products from real animal cells, rather than growing actual animals. Animal cruelty would be eliminated and, with no need for cows wandering around in fields, the factory would take up far less space to produce the same amount of meat or milk. Other emerging technologies include microbial protein production, where bacteria use energy derived from solar panels to convert carbon dioxide and nitrogen and other nutrients into carbohydrates and proteins. This could generate as much protein as soybeans but in just 7% of the area. The liberated land might be used for nature preserves, or to grow sustainable building materials. And the animal cruelty inherent in current meat production would be eliminated.

Longhorn cattle on a rewilding project in England: if we got most of our protein and carbs through new technologies, this sort of compassionate and wildlife-friendly farming could be scaled up. Chris Thomas, Author provided.

Cyanobacteria can help detoxify the environment on Mars. (NASA/Adam Arkin)

The food systems that will feed Mars are set to transform food on Earth

In Dinner on Mars, two Canadian scientists explore the technologies that might feed humans on Mars and how these might transform food production here on Earth. The basis of food systems on Mars would involve water harvested from the soil and cyanobacteria, which can use the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and grow on the sandy inorganic and toxic regolith to produce the basic organic molecules on which the rest of the food system will rest. Cyanobacteria is capable of growing in Martian conditions, which has the very real added benefit of neutralizing extremely toxic chemicals called perchlorates. Perchlorates are laced throughout the Martian regolith and are toxic to humans in minute quantities, so having cyanobacteria provide a double duty of neutralizing the toxins while producing organic material will be a huge boon to any Martian community. Once bacteria are happily growing away under a Martian sky, they will provide nutrients needed to support luxurious crops of plants. Advanced greenhouse technologies — like vertical agriculture — that create a suitable controlled environment will provide abundant leafy greens, vegetables, fruits and specialty crops such as herbs, coffee and chocolate. Imagining what agriculture could be like on Mars is a fascinating project, but it’s when we think about how these technologies may affect life on Earth that this topic becomes extremely serious. The “waste” products of one part of the system need to be deliberately used as inputs into another part, such as using the dead cyanobacteria as a growth medium for later parts of the food system. But more than the technologies themselves, it may be the mindset of building a Martian food system that will change how things are done here on Earth, where one-third of all food is thrown away.

Across the globe, startups are testing robots to pollinate everything from blueberries to almonds. Illustration: Justin Metz. From the Wall Street Journal.

Robotic bees and roots

If you think Martian food systems are a stretch – think again! The EU is already funding research into Miniature robots that mimic living organisms are being developed to explore and support real-life ecosystems. (See also: ROBOtic Replicants for Optimizing the Yield by Augmenting Living Ecosystems).

Photo of roots that contain different dosages of a family of genes that affects root architecture, allowing wheat plants to grow longer roots and take in more water. Credit: Gilad Gabay / UC Davis

A key to drought-resistant wheat

Elsewhere intensive research aims to solve some of the challenges plants will face under a climate changed future. An international team of scientists found that the right number of copies of a specific group of genes can stimulate longer root growth, enabling wheat plants to pull water from deeper supplies. The resulting plants have more biomass and produce higher grain yield, according to a paper published in the journal Nature Communications.

This image shows the autonomous robot, with multiple tiers of PhenoStereo cameras, that are part of the AngleNet system. Credit: Lirong Xiang, NC State University.

Wheeled robots help breed better corn plants

All new technologies start with data collection. Researchers from North Carolina State University and Iowa State University have demonstrated an automated technology capable of accurately measuring the angle of leaves on corn plants in the field. This technology makes data collection on leaf angles significantly more efficient than conventional techniques, providing plant breeders with useful data more quickly. “The angle of a plant’s leaves, relative to its stem, is important because the leaf angle affects how efficient the plant is at performing photosynthesis,” says Lirong Xiang, first author of a paper on the work and an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering at NC State. “For example, in corn, you want leaves at the top that are relatively vertical, but leaves further down the stalk that are more horizontal. This allows the plant to harvest more sunlight. Researchers who focus on plant breeding monitor this sort of plant architecture, because it informs their work. The paper is published open access in the Journal of Field Robotics.

Concept of a decomposition sensor where the rate of erosion of a biodegradable conductive trace correlates with the microbial activity in the soil. Credit: Advanced Science (2022). DOI: 10.1002/advs.202205785

Biodegradable soil sensors

We end this post with a story about an elegant bit of research from the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering. Their biodegradable sensors may change the way farmers track, measure, and respond in real time to their soil’s microbial activity with big implications for addressing global greenhouse gas emissions. The work, recently published in Advanced Science, was led by Madhur Atreya and professors Greg Whiting and Jason Neff at CU Boulder. It describes how a cheap and easily printed sensor can measure soil health by tracking it’s own decomposition in real time—all with little to no impact on its outside environment and through the use of easily available electronics.

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