Climate Change Conservation Water

2023 March World Water Day

In honour of World Water Day, which is today, I thought we’d review some recent articles about that most essential element for gardeners.

Major water-related events in 2022. Credit: Global Water Monitor 2022 Summary Report

Global water & climate change

A new report shows alarming changes in the entire global water cycle. Behind the changes expected under climate modelling scenarios, are troubling signs the entire global water cycle is changing. A research team led by Albert Van Dijk from Australian National University, analyses observations from more than 40, merged with data from thousands of weather and water monitoring stations on the ground. Drawing on those many terabytes of data, they paint a full picture of the water cycle over a year for the entire globe, as well as for individual countries. The findings are contained in a recently released report. The key conclusion? Earth’s water cycle is clearly changing. Globally, the air is getting hotter and drier, which means droughts and risky fire conditions are developing faster and more frequently.

A satellite image of Siberia Lena delta that flows in the Arctic Ocean. Credit: NASA

Why rivers matter for the global carbon cycle

Writing from École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Rebecca Mosimann notes that, until recently, our understanding of the global carbon cycle was largely limited to the world’s oceans and terrestrial ecosystems. Tom Battin, who heads EPFL’s River Ecosystems Laboratory (RIVER), has now shed new light on the key role that river networks play in our changing world. These findings are outlined in a review article commissioned by and published in Nature. Writing with a dozen experts and using the most recent data, this work demonstrates the critical importance of river ecosystems for global carbon fluxes—integrating land, atmosphere and the oceans.

Image courtesy of Farooq Khan on Pexels.

Pollution & Water Treatment

When I was running the Canadian Environment Industry Association* in the late 1990s, one persistent problem with water treatment was removing pharmaceutical residues from drinking water. This has remained an issue for some classes of drugs but he last couple of decades have seen impressive advances. Prof. Dr. Juergen Kolb, an expert in environmental technologies at the Leibniz Institute for Plasma Science and Technology (INP), explains the current state of research. “We combine classical physical processes for wastewater purification with new technologies such as ultrasound, pulsed electric fields and plasma technology. This allows us to break down chemical compounds such as drug residues but also other man-made contaminants and convert them into harmless substances.” These methods have already proven their potential in various INP research projects. Currently, the approaches are being transferred to practice-relevant environments. “Our approach is currently mobile plants that can be used in hospitals, for example, where water contamination with pharmaceutical residues is particularly high. Particularly in view of the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, we see an acute need for action here,” Kolb adds. The technologies are also suitable for municipal sewage treatment plants as a fourth purification stage. The full article is titled: Innovative technologies to remove pharmaceutical residues from wastewater.

(CEIA no longer exists, but its Ontario provincial counterpart does. See Ontario Environment Industry Association.)

Image of a stormwater pond from the website of Kanata-South councillor Allan Hubley.

Living alongside the Ottawa River, stormwater management is a neighbourhood issue. Following flooding events in 2017 and 2019, the National Capital Commission has been busy rebuilding the retaining wall between us and the river. Sadly “green infrastructure” is not part of their engineering solution, which started instead with clear-cutting almost every tree along the river side of the wall.

Trees felled by NCC for “flood control” along the Ottawa River. Photo courtesy of Andrew Scott.

Green stormwater infrastructure

Writing in Phys.Org, Leslie Lee of Texas A&M University discusses green stormwater solutions to the stormwater runoff issues caused by growing populations, more hard surfaces from expanding cities, and climate change-driven extreme weather events. To help cities grow their stormwater management strategy portfolios, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and AgriLife Extension staff at the center in Dallas are working on many stormwater-related projects. The idea behind green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) is to take downstream effects of water management into consideration and to promote more rainwater to infiltrate the soil and replenish aquifers, rather than simply running off into the nearest body of surface water.

Although many U.S. cities have been slow to adopt, a research review published in WIREs Water proposes strategies for municipalities and decision-makers to overcome barriers and use green stormwater infrastructure for long-term benefits.

Image from New Phytologist, Volume: 238, Issue: 1, Pages: 33-54, First published: 23 January 2023, DOI: (10.1111/nph.18762).

How plants are inspiring new ways to extract value from wastewater

Scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) are drawing inspiration from plants to develop new techniques to separate and extract valuable minerals, metals and nutrients from resource-rich wastewater. The ANU researchers are adapting plant ‘membrane separation mechanisms’ so they can be embedded in new wastewater recycling technologies. This approach offers a sustainable solution to help manage the resources required for the world’s food, energy and water security by providing a way to harvest, recycle and reuse valuable metal, mineral and nutrient resources from liquid wastes. The research is published in New Phytologist.

Rain barrel at the side of Rebecca’s home. Photo by Jon Last.

Potential Contaminants in Residential Rain Barrel Water

In a new paper on ResearchGate, Linda Chalker Scott notes residential gardeners often use rain barrels to collect rainwater from roofs as a supplement to summer irrigation. Rainwater is a natural and unchlorinated water source for aquatic plants and animals. However, rooftop runoff can be contaminated by chemical and biological pollutants from atmospheric deposition, bird droppings, and the roofing material itself. This publication examines the state of knowledge on residential rain barrel water safety in North America over the last 20 years. Among the simple, research-based practices gardeners can use to take advantage of collected rainwater, while also reducing the risks of contamination exposure are:

  • Knowing your local pollution issues
  • Avoid collecting rainwater: when air quality is low (smoggy, temperature inversions, low wind speeds); if you have recently used a moss removal product on the roof; or if pesticides have been recently applied nearby.
  • Use good garden hygiene, including: keeping your barrels well sealed, and using mosquito netting on the top of them; not drinking rainwater or touching your wet hands to your mouth or eyes; washing your hands after handling rainwater; and cleaning the barrels regularly.
  • Wash garden produce before eating it.
  • Install a diverter for the first flush of rain to capture the worst of the contaminants.

Closer to Home

Photo from Ontario Parks website.

Ontario wetlands under threat

Angelica Marie Sanchez from University of Waterloo, quotes Dr. Rebecca Rooney, a wetland ecologist and professor in the Department of Biology. “Wetlands are a portfolio of ecosystem services: including flood prevention, breaking down pesticides, storing large amounts of carbon, and provide habitat for more than 32% of Ontario species at risk who rely on these wetlands to mitigate climate change.” Canada is home to 25% of the world’s wetlands. But according to Rooney, Canada has lost more than 60% of its wetlands over the years. In agricultural areas, wetlands have been drained to make space for farming. While in urban and suburban areas, Canada has lost the majority of its wetlands due to them being drained for housing development. Stormwater ponds are engineered solutions created to effectively replace wetlands across Ontario. However, these ponds only address some of the problems including flood prevention, but they need to provide the full portfolio of ecosystem services that wetlands provide.

While the More Homes Built Faster Act, formerly known as Bill 23, aims to address the housing crisis in Ontario, it will be devastating for the province’s wetlands. The proposals posted to the Environmental Registry of Ontario included changes to the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System, which is the instrument the provinces uses to determine whether a wetland gets classified as provincially significant. “… Unfortunately, the changes that are being proposed to the Ontario wetland evaluation system will dramatically undermine its efficacy and endanger wetlands across Ontario,” says Rooney. “There is a huge amount of scientific evidence that connects these pockets of wetlands into a whole integrated network,” says Rooney. “If you start chipping away at the wetlands and you destroy one piece of it, the whole network is going to suffer under the current proposals.”

Rooney encourages people to act by learning more about the act and its impact on Canada’s wetlands.

Aerial view of the Dezadeash River, Yukon, meandering through vegetated permafrost. (Photo credit: Alessandro Ielpi). Image from Stanford Earth Matters magazine.

Arctic river channels changing

A team of international researchers monitoring the impact of climate change on large rivers in Arctic Canada and Alaska determined that, as the region is sharply warming up, its rivers are not moving as scientists have expected. Dr. Alessandro Ielpi, an Assistant Professor with UBC Okanagan’s Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science, is a landscape scientist and lead author of a paper published in Nature Climate Change. Dr. Ielpi says the assumption of faster river channel migration owing to climate change has dominated the scientific community for decades. “But the assumption had never been verified against field observations,” he adds. To test this assumption, Dr. Ielpi and his team analyzed a collection of time-lapsed satellite images—stretching back more than 50 years. They compared more than a thousand kilometers of riverbanks from 10 Arctic rivers. “We found that large sinuous rivers with various degrees of permafrost distribution in their floodplains and catchments, display instead a peculiar range in migration rates,” says Dr. Ielpi. “Surprisingly, these rivers migrate at slower rates under warming temperatures.” One reason why is that warmer temperatures mean more vegetation, which helps to stabilize river banks.

Good News Stories

In 2004, frontyard lawns were prohibited for new subdivisions in the Las Vegas area. Above, the suburban community of Mountain’s Edge. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

How Las Vegas declared war on thirsty grass

Writing in the LA Times, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Ian James report on how Las Vegas has emerged as a leader in water conservation, and some of its initiatives have spread to other cities and states that rely on the shrinking river. Its drive to get rid of grass in particular could reshape the look of landscapes in public and private spaces throughout the Southwest. In 2002, as the reservoir level dropped, the Southern Nevada Water Authority used more than its allocation of Colorado River water. At that point, the agency’s leaders decided to pivot quickly toward conservation. Cash rebates to encouraged residents to rip out lawns and put in landscaping with desert plants. In 2003, the Las Vegas area’s consumption of Colorado River water shrank more than 16%. Those conservation gains continued as the area’s water suppliers strengthened their rules, targeting grass. As the article details, not everyone is happy with the restrictions, but they are helping to conserve valuable water resources.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.

Drought detection on the cheap

Meanwhile researchers at University of Barcelona recently published a study in the journal Trends in Plant Science that presents a set of techniques that enable researchers to detect and monitor drought stress in plants in a cheap, easy and quick way. The study responds to the need to establish effective and low-cost protocols to easily detect and study how droughts affect plants. Specifically, the authors present a battery of very accessible techniques that can be applied with basic laboratory equipment: precision balance, microscope, centrifuge, spectrophotometer, oven, camera and computer.

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

In other good news Everglades restoration moves closer to reality with a crucial groundbreaking. Elsewhere Albania’s ‘wild river’ now a national park.

Climate Change Food & Agriculture

Changing Diets

This is the third and final post in my series on how we are responding to those twin threats to our food supply – climate change and peak oil. My own experience, from several decades of trying to grow my own food, is that self-sufficiency is not possible without both more land that I have in my tiny suburban garden, and a much more concerted effort than I’ve been able to muster. However, the biggest successes in my edible garden have been from perennial plants. They take much less work and produce far more food than most of the annual veggies I grow.

Serviceberry in bloom in Rebecca’s front garden. Photo by R. Last.

In the early 2000s, I started studying and implementing permaculture practices. I planted my garden with edible woody plants such as currants (Ribes spp.), hazelnuts (Corylus americana), a Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) and a serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis).

Cover art on Stephen Barstow’s book, which is still my bible for learning about edimental plants.

About a decade later, I attended a talk by an amazing, if slightly mad, Englishman called Stephen Barstow. Barstow introduced me to the concept of “edimentals” – a term he uses to describe ornamental plants that are also edible. I loved the idea and bought a copy of his book. His Edimentals website contains hundreds of postings describing how he uses the many plants that grow in his garden. By the way, Bartstow’s garden is in northern Sweden, not far from the Arctic Circle. If he can grow it, then I can too, here in Ottawa. The big difference between edimentals and permaculture is the the former focuses much more on herbaceous, rather than woody, plants, and it introduced me to the idea of eating plants that I’m already growing for their looks. A couple of years ago, I even gave a short talk on this topic, which you can still find on YouTube. So let’s dive into how changing our diets might help save the planet, and how the twin threats of climate change and peak oil might force us to change our eating patterns anyway.

 Two recent global events – COVID 19 and the war in Ukraine, serve to highlight the fragility of our globalized food system. More recently, a flurry of stories out of the UK highlight the perils of nationalism. Brexit has not worked out well for anyone in the UK interested in eating fresh food! See for example:

Photo from The Guardian UK. Empty fruit and vegetable shelves in a north London supermarket. Photograph: James Veysey/REX/Shutterstock.

Empty supermarket shelves symptomatic of a dysfunctional system

Writing in The Guardian UK, Jay Rayner puts current UK food shortages into the larger context of a food system where the retail sector is dominated by just a dozen companies and where food challenges are exacerbated by a government that prioritizes cheap food over healthy food from sustainable sources. He describes how local growers are being pushed off land so it can be used to build houses. He notes the idiocy of post-Brexit seasonal work visas that aren’t long enough for farmers to bring in workers for the full growing season. Then came the energy crisis. The government chose not to subsidise the energy costs of growers. Last week APS Group, one of the largest tomato growers in the country, admitted it had left some of its glasshouses unplanted for the first time in almost 75 years. Rayner argues that cheap food is not the answer. He writes, if we structure our food system so that those in poverty can access it, we will only further damage our agricultural base. We need on the one hand to deal with the functioning of our food system and on the other with poverty, with a chronically unequal distribution of wealth. We need to stop talking about food poverty and just call it poverty.

Graphical abstract. Credit: One Earth (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.oneear.2023.01.005

Can we produce all our own food?

One logical response to both climate change and peak oil is to shorten supply chains. Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands asked if nations could produce all their own food. According to the study published in One Earth (2023), for half of the world population the answer would be yes. For the other half: maybe? Leiden environmental researcher and head author Nicolas Navarre explains, “With improvements to crop yields, reductions in food waste, and changes in consumption patterns, 90% of people could live in countries that don’t need to trade for food.”

From Smithsonian Magazine “Five Ways to Start Eating Insects” by Emily Matchar. Photo caption and credit: Fried insects, anyone? © Steven Vidler/Corbis.

Using insects as food for humans and livestock

Giving a whole new twist to the term “grub’s up”, wo pairs of academics are making the case for using insects as a food source in Perspectives pieces published in the journal Science. The first pair, Arup Kumar Hazarika and Unmilan Kalita, with Cotton University and Barnagar College, respectively, both in India, argue that a strong case can be made for using insects to meet the growing need for food around the world in the coming years. Arnold van Huis with Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands and Laura Gasco with the University of Torino in Italy argue that there is a strong case to be made for using insects as feed for livestock.

In the first paper, the authors note that humans eating insects is not novel. People have been eating them for as long as there have been people. And many people in the world today still eat them; however, most do not. In the second paper, the authors note that currently, most livestock feed is made from fishmeal and soybean meal. They also note that the production of meat worldwide uses between 70% and 80% of all agricultural land and yet produces about 25% of the protein consumed by humans. They suggest that replacing conventional feed with feed made from insects would free up large parcels of land now used to grow food for livestock. It would also be a healthier food source for the animals. Also, farming insects is likely to become more feasible as the planet continues to warm.

Credit: pbd Studio/shutterstock

Cool things to know about pulses

Writing in The Conversation, researcher Nadia Radzman explores the food potential of an under-used category of plants. If insects aren’t to your taste, consider pulses. Each year on February 10, the United Nations commemorates what probably sounds to many like a strange occasion: World Pulses Day. But, as a researcher focused on forgotten and underutilised legumes, I think the initiative is an important step towards food security. Getting people to eat more pulses can ultimately help achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger. Pulses are the dried seeds of legumes. Among the promising aspects of pulses:

  • The legumes that grow pulses thrive in poor soil and don’t require nitrogen-based fertilizers. In fact, most legumes fix their own nitrogen by forming symbiotic relationships with friendly bacteria known as rhizobia.
  • Thanks to their nitrogen-fixing ability, pulses are nutritional powerhouses: high in protein and fibre, and low in fat.
  • The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) comes in many varieties around the world. It’s able to fix nitrogen in different environments, making it a resilient legume species.
  • Among the oldest domesticated plant, the pea (Pisum sativum) inspired Gregor Mendel’s pioneering work in plant genetics. The rich genetic diversity of the pea is also a valuable resource for important crop traits that can withstand various weather conditions due to climate change.
  • Many pulses are drought tolerant and use less water for production than animal-sourced proteins, especially beef. Chickpea (Cicer arietinum) is known to be highly drought tolerant. Scientists are looking for beneficial traits that can reduce the yield loss in chickpeas during drought. This may contribute to a more secure food source in the midst of climate change.
  • White lupins (Lupinus albus), yellow lupins (Lupinus luteus) and pearl lupins (Lupinus mutabilis) can form special roots to get more nutrients without the need for additional fertilisers. These plants have unique root modifications called cluster roots that can liberate phosphorus from soil particles when the nutrient is low. These cluster roots exude negatively charged compound called carboxylate that can liberate phosphorus from the soil and make it available for the plant to use. So lupins do not have to rely on phosphate fertilisers and can even help neighbouring plants by increasing the phosphorus level in the soil.
Microscopy image of PulseON® flour showing starch, stained blue, inside intact chickpea cells. Credit: Cathrina Edwards, the Quadram Institute

Bread made from a new type of flour keeps you fuller for longer

As an example of how useful pulses can be, consider this new types of bread made from whole cell pulse flour. It an can lower blood glucose (sugar) levels and keep you fuller for longer. A study published recently in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by researchers from King’s College London and the Quadram Institute looked at the effects of replacing regular wheat flour with ‘cellular chickpea flour’ on feelings of fullness, fullness-regulating hormones, insulin and blood sugar levels in people who ate it. The study is the first of its kind and is based on the design of a new pulse ingredient that is now being commercialized for food industry use as PulseON by Pulseon Foods Ltd. Eating healthy pulses including chickpeas, lentils and beans is known to help support healthy weight maintenance and decrease the risk of heart disease. A lot of the benefits seen from these foods are due to the fiber structure of the pulses themselves, with normal flour milling generally considered to reduce the beneficial effects of fiber structure. However, new methods in food technology developed by the scientists have allowed them to make whole cell flours that preserve the dietary fiber structure of the whole pulses, providing a new way to enrich flour-based food with beneficial nutritional qualities for improved health.

From a 2014 advertising poster by Intermarché, a French grocery chain that aimed to reduce food waste by charging less for “ugly” produce.

‘Ugly’ fruit and vegetables could tackle food waste

The world is facing a significant food waste problem, with up to half of all fruit and vegetables lost somewhere along the agricultural food chain. Globally, around 14% of food produced is lost after harvesting but before it reaches shops and supermarkets. The authors go on to elaborate the how consumers’ desire for perfect-looking food contributes to food waste. (If you thought women have difficulty living up to unreasonable expectations about our appearance, try being a vegetable!) When imperfect fruit and vegetables don’t make it to supermarket shelves, it can be due to cosmetic standards. Supermarkets and consumers often prefer produce of a fairly standard size that’s free of blemishes, scars and other imperfections. This means fruit and vegetables that are misshapen, discoloured, or even too small or too large, are rejected before they make it to supermarket shelves. A growing trend of selling such “ugly” fruit and vegetables, both by major supermarket chains, as well as speciality retailers appeals to some customers, but not others. So how can producers and retailers boost the amount of non-standard fruit and veg that not only reaches our shelves, but also our plates? Our recent research suggests a separate channel for selling ugly produce would increase profits for growers, lower prices for consumers and boost overall demand for produce. The researchers propose six strategies:

  • Educating consumers
  • Reducing supermarkets’ cosmetic standards
  • Direct sales from farmers
  • Encouraging supermarkets to donate ugly food instead of wasting it
  • Using the ugly produce to create value-added food (e.g, for soups, casseroles, etc.)
  • Composting anything that cannot be salvaged
‘Ugly’ produce might be just as delicious but still gets rejected based on looks. Rosie2/Shutterstock
Climate Change Conservation Food & Agriculture Pollinators, Molluscs and Other Invertebrates

Ecological Agriculture

This is the second in a series of three blog posts where I explore the implications of two threats to our food supply – climate change and peak oil. Sometimes called ecological agriculture, eco-agriculture or regenerative agriculture, the idea is to grow food by working with, not against, nature. This type of agriculture typically uses more human resources and less technology while also sequestering more carbon in the soil.

Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial

Perhaps one of the most significant studies on organic farming techniques was published over a decade ago by the Rodale Institute. The Farming Systems Trial was launched in 1981 with a clear goal: Address the barriers to the adoption of organic farming by farmers. For more than 40 years, the Farming Systems Trial (FST) at Rodale Institute has applied real-world practices and rigorous scientific analysis to document the different impacts of organic and conventional grain cropping systems. The scientific data gathered from this research has established that organic management matches or outperforms conventional agriculture in ways that benefit farmers and lays a strong foundation for designing and refining agricultural systems that can improve the health of people and the planet.

A bumblebee feeding from the flower of a faba bean. Credit: Nicole Beyer

Mixed crops provide ecological benefits

A recent experiment by researchers at the University of Göttingen investigated how a mixture of crops of fava beans (broad beans) and wheat would affect the number of pollinating insects. Somewhat surprisingly, they found that areas of mixed crops compared with areas of single crops are visited equally often by foraging bees. Their results were published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. This could be due to several reasons. However, the researchers noted, “Mixed cultivation of wheat and fava bean has also other advantages for crop production,” says Professor Catrin Westphal, Head of Functional Agrobiodiversity. For instance, yields per bean plant were higher in mixed crops than in pure cultures. “Cereal crops can be ecologically enhanced by adding legumes such as beans or lentils. This can make a valuable contribution to increasing the abundance of flowers on the arable land and thus counteracting pollinator decline,” concludes Haß.

The researchers mapped the geographical distribution of Berlin’s potential areas for urban gardening. Credit: Marion De Simone, Prajal Pradhan, Jürgen P. Kropp & Diego Rybski.

Berlin could produce more than 80% of its fresh vegetables locally

Berlin has enough space for urban gardening, and up to 82% of Berlin’s vegetable consumption could be produced locally, a new study finds. “The amount of vegetables represents a significant share of the annual consumption,” highlights Diego Rybski, an external faculty member from the Complexity Science Hub and a co-author of the paper that will appear in the April issue of Sustainable Cities and Society journal.

Image from USDA “Agriculture and Forestry: 5 Ways Agroforestry Can Work for You and Your Land” by Jocelyn Benjamin, USDA.

European farms mix things up to guard against food-supply shocks

An article by Ethan Bilby in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine, reports that researchers are discovering the benefits of combining forestry and agricultural activities. The COVID-19 pandemic led to bare shelves in supermarkets as shipping routes were cut off. The war in Ukraine has affected the supply of essential grains. But increased climate change stands to cause even greater disruption. Researchers say part of the solution to mitigating that risk is for farms to become more mixed through some combination of crop cultivation, livestock production and forestry, a move that would also make agriculture more sustainable. For Dr Sara Burbi, assistant professor at Coventry University in the UK until December 2022 and now an independent researcher, COVID-19 was a wake-up call.

“Suddenly, we experienced first-hand what happens when value chains are not resilient to shocks and what happens when globalisation, with all its intricacies, does not work anymore,” she said. “We saw highly specialised farming systems fail when they over-relied on external inputs that they had no access to.”

Pilot farms across Europe are experimenting with combining crop and livestock production in one farm (mixed farming) and with pairing farming and forestry activities (agroforestry). Poultry grazing in orchards is an example of a mixed-farming approach. The results reveal interesting synergies and promising effects, including improvements in soil health. A combined system can increase the cycling of nutrients needed in the soil for crops to grow. It can also help to regulate air and water quality, prevent land degradation and even provide biomass and food on-site for livestock.

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Veganism may not save the planet

Vegans and vegetarians have long argued their approach to eating is the kindest—to animals and to our planet but new research from the University of Georgia suggests that might not actually be the case. The paper published in the Journal of Political Ecology (2022) found that a diet of mostly plants with local and humanely raised meat is likely the most ethical way to eat if we want to save the environment and protect human rights. “There’s nothing sustainable about this plant-based model,” said Amy Trauger, author of the study and a professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. For example, soybeans used in U.S. tofu and tempeh products aren’t grown in the U.S. They were largely imported from India, where soybean production contributes to widespread deforestation and habitat loss. Soybean plantations also take up valuable land space that could be used to ease food insecurity in the country instead. Then there’s the pollution and environmental impact from transporting soybeans all the way from India to the U.S. Similarly, palm oil, which is a vegan substitute for butter or lard, is mostly imported from countries where local ecosystems aren devastated by deforestation and loss of biodiversity as millions of hectares of forests are razed for palm oil production.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

In contrast, animals raised in humane and natural systems can contribute to climate change mitigation. For instance, one pig can produce over 150 pounds of meat and 20 pounds of bacon. Raised on a pasture, outside in a forest with a diet of tree nuts, surplus milk and vegetable waste from nearby farms, that pig can also contribute to soil, forest and ecosystem health. When the time comes to harvest the animal, a small-scale processing plant that avoids plastics and employs well paid staff could be used to keep the supply chain short and transparent. That one pig could feed a family for months, Trauger argues.

A queen bee enjoys an agricultural pollinator habitat. Credit: Hannah Levenson.

Effort to help pollinators shows successes, limitations

Although not quite the bee’s knees, a three-year effort to conserve bee populations by introducing pollinator habitat in North Carolina agricultural areas showed some positive effects, as bee abundance and diversity increased in the studied areas. But results of a study examining the program’s effectiveness also showed that the quality of the habitat played a key role in these positive effects, and that habitat quality could be impacted by the way the areas are maintained over time. The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Researchers visited 16 sites four times each year and caught bees in nets and in cups—called bee bowls—that were painted to mimic the UV reflection of flowers. In all, the researchers collected more than 16,000 bees from 128 different bee species. Results showed bee abundance increased over time, with more bees collected in 2018 than in 2016. Meanwhile, the diversity of species increased in 2017 and then dropped slightly in 2018, although both years showed large improvement over 2016. The study also showed, though, that the quality of flowers was a key driver of bee abundance and diversity, with areas of higher flower quality attracting more bees and more bee species. Poorly maintained areas with degraded flowers, weeds and grasses lagged behind in bee collection.

Male Bombus pensylvanicus on Rough blazingstar. Ellison Creek Sand Prairie Natural Area, Illinois USA. Photo by Angella Moorehouse.

The study turned up a few surprises. Although there were no squash plants, the areas attracted squash bees – an important specialist pollinator. “We also found a particular bumble bee—Bombus pensylvanicus—that is under review for potential addition to the endangered species list,” she added. “We found a high abundance of them, so it’s possible that they’re attracted to agricultural areas more than other areas. We submitted the data to Fish and Wildlife so it can be used to help make the decision on whether it should be listed as endangered or not.”

The researchers hope that further studies like this one can be performed in different types of habitats, like forests or urban areas, to capture a wider sense of bee populations in North Carolina.

Companies are eager to improve their measurement of carbon emissions captured in soil ahead of coming mandatory climate disclosure rules as they still largely rely on imperfect estimates. Photo: Phill Magakoe/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.

Big food companies encourage regenerative agriculture

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dieter Holger notes that soil holds the promise of capturing greenhouse-gas emissions to help slow global warming. Companies are now working to measure how soil stores carbon as they encourage farming techniques that reduce emissions across their sprawling supply chains. Improving soil health is a goal of so-called regenerative agriculture, which typically involves tilling less, growing more than one crop on the same land and using less synthetic fertilizer. Many farmers are hesitant to shift from established farming methods, but companies and governments are investing to educate them on the benefits. Regenerative practices can increase soil nutrients and yields while also absorbing carbon dioxide from the airscientific studies say. Healthier soil could offset up to 15% of global fossil-fuel emissions, according to a 2004 study published in the journal Science. 

Many of the world’s biggest food companies, including General Mills Inc. and Nestlé SA, are working with farmers to promote the practices. However, determining the emissions captured in the soil still largely relies on imperfect estimates. Companies are eager to improve the measurement ahead of coming mandatory climate disclosure rules that are expected to require them to publish reliable information about their emissions and climate plans. The entire food-and-agriculture value chain—including processing, packaging, transport, waste and household cooking and refrigeration—contributed 31% of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020, according to the United Nations.

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.

Climate Change Food & Agriculture

Two threats to food – Three responses

A 1956 world oil production distribution, showing historical data and future production, proposed by M. King Hubbert – it had a peak of 12.5 billion barrels per year in about the year 2000. As of 2016, the world’s oil production was 29.4 billion barrels per year (80.6 Mbbl/day),[1] with an oil glut between 2014 and 2018.

A big part of my motivation for becoming a Master Gardener came from concern over how climate change and peak oil will affect our food supply. By most estimates, peak conventional oil (the stuff that easy to get at and easy to process) occurred about 2007. According to Wikipedia, peak oil is the hypothetical point in time when the maximum rate of global oil production is reached, after which it is argued that production will begin an irreversible decline. Oil production has continued to meet growing global demand because we are now increasingly exploiting oil that is harder to get at and harder to process. This includes sources like shale oil and Canada’s tar sands.

Image from Machine Vision For Agriculture Solutions.

Why does oil production matter for our food supply? It matters because conventional agriculture uses about 10 Kcals of energy for every single kilocalorie of food we consume. (See, for example, this Icelanic study, which only examines conventional on-farm growing.) We use energy to produce the fertilizers and pesticides that are necessary to grow huge fields of the same crop. We use energy to power the equipment used to plant and harvest grains, which supply the majority of our calories. (According to IDRC, wheat, rice, and maize provide just over 50% of the world’s plant-derived food energy, while sorghum, millet, potatoes, sweet potatoes, soybean and sugar provide another 25%.) We use more oil to process foods, package them and ship them to the places where we buy them. It is estimated that the average American meal travels 1,500 miles (over 2,400 km) to its final destination. About one third of this food will be wasted and wind up in landfills, which requires more fuel to transport the garbage from our driveways.

Oil prices follow the same economic rules as other commodities. When supply is scarce, the price goes up. The higher fuel prices we’ve been paying lately are an important factor in the higher food prices we’ve seen in grocery stores.

Drought. Since early 2020, the U.S. Southwest has been experiencing one of the most severe long-term droughts of the past 1,200 years. Multiple seasons of record low precipitation and near-record high temperatures were the main triggers of the drought. Source: EPA “Climate Change Impacts on Agriculture and Food Supply”.

Then there’s climate change. There are numerous – increasingly numerous – reports recently about how extreme weather events, driven by climate change have impacted our food supply. According to the EPA, the main types of stressors are: wildfires; higher temperatures; heat stress on animals, such as dairy cows; flooding and resulting soil erosion; and drought. Even when none of these comes into play, there is a growing body of evidence that higher atmospheric CO2 result in food with fewer nutrients.

My observation is that food production is broadly heading in two opposite directions. One stream, represented by most developed governments, international finance and “big ag” is dedicated to ever more intensive industrial food production, heavily reliant on science and technology, genetically-engineered seeds, and high inputs. The second stream is represented by the work of groups such as FAO, CGIAR, the Rodale Institute in the US, and the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada. These groups, which receive a tiny fraction of the funding dedicated to conventional agriculture, recognize the reality that a great deal of the world’s food is still produced by small-scale farmers using traditional organic growing. According to the World Economic Forum, 600 million smallholder farmers around the world working on less than two hectares of land, are estimated to produce 28-31% of total crop production and 30-34% of food supply on 24% of gross agricultural area.

From The Guardian UK “If we want to save the planet, the future of food is insects”. Grub’s up: two billion people regularly eat insects – and the number is rising. Photograph: Hans Gissinger/Trunk

Whichever mode of production we chose, there is little doubt that our eating habits will have to change. Many environmentalists embrace the idea that a low- or no-meat diet is the answer. Others argue insects can supply much of our future protein. When Googling “sources of human caloric intake” for this piece, I was amused and slightly horrified to see a lot of results referring to the number of calories to be obtained from eating parts of human beings. Perhaps soylent green will be part of our food future!

Over the next three posts, I’ll explore these three streams of thinking – high-tech agriculture, lower-tech agro-ecological or regenerative farming, and the idea of changing diets. Grab a snack and enjoy!

Biodiversity Climate Change Trees & Forests

Forest Regeneration

This post explores new research on the critters, including humans, who help shape forests.

White pine and maple at Britannia Beach, Ottawa. Photo by R. Last.

Meet the Mice Who Make the Forest

A deer mouse, temporarily captured for a behavioral test before being rereleased to the grounds of a study site at the University of Maine in late October. Photograph by Tristan Spinski.

Brandon Keim wrote a fascinating article in the New York Times about research that is exploring the role of small mammals in tree seed dispersal. Ivy Yen, a biologist at the University of Maine, uses fluorescent markers on seeds to study how deer mice and voles move these seeds across landscapes. Her focus is specifically on the role that the animals’ personalities play in their willingness to move seeds. If one is interested in the future of a forest — which tree species will thrive and which will diminish, or whether those threatened by a fast-changing climate will successfully migrate to newly hospitable lands — one should look to these seed-dispersing animals. “The only way they’re (trees) going to move with the shifting temperatures is with the animals,” Ms. Yen said of the trees. “Will personality affect that? Will there be individuals who are more likely to help?”

Ms. Yen is a doctoral student in the lab of Alessio Mortelliti, a wildlife ecologist with a peculiar interest: how seed dispersal intersected with the emerging study of animal personality. Each summer for the past seven years, Dr. Mortelliti’s students trap deer mice and southern red-backed voles in their study plots — about 2,000 animals in all — and test them to measure where they fall on a spectrum between bold and shy. Before being released, each is tagged with a microchip like those used to identify lost pets.

Over the years, Mortelliti’s teams have developed intricate protocols for tracking the small mammals and determining what they do with different species of tree seed. Acorns are especially useful because they can be easily marked and discovered from wherever the animals hide them. Many seeds will be eaten, of course, but some will stay hidden, eventually growing into new trees.

The work has produced numerous papers, but one published in Ecology Letters, Dr. Mortelliti describes as a “proof of concept”. The researchers showed that the personalities of small mammals influence their choice of seeds. Earlier this year the team described how some deer mice, depending on their personality, were more likely than others to cache red oak, white pine and American beech nuts in ways that promoted germination.

This fascinating article is lushly illustrated by Tristan Spinski’s gorgeous photographs.

Carmela Buono, a PhD candidate in biological sciences, photographed at the Nature Preserve, Thursday, March 31, 2022. Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

The role of ants in forest regeneration

Walk through an old-growth forest in early spring, and you’ll be dazzled by wildflowers, their jewel-like tones shining from the forest floor. But in newer forests, spring ephemerals such as trillium, wild ginger, violets and bloodroot are in shorter supply. The reason may lie with some less-flashy forest residents: Aphaenogaster sp., or the woodland ant. “Not a lot of people have heard of them, but they are the powerhouse of moving seeds and called ‘keystone dispersers,'” explained Carmela Buono, a Binghamton University doctoral candidate in biological sciences. Buono is the lead author of a paper recently published in Ecology that measured understory plants and seed dispersal by ants in 20 New York state forests, half old-growth and half-regenerated. More than 95% of New York state forests—including the Binghamton University Nature Preserve—are secondary forests, which have sprung up on land once cleared for agriculture. While parts of these regenerated forests, such as the overstory, have recovered well, they are missing other aspects of biodiversity—particularly when it comes to understory plants such as native wildflowers. Many plant species rely on a mutual relationship with ants to disperse their seeds. In fact, northeastern North America is one of the major hotspots of ant-plant mutualism. “These plants evolved with seeds that have an appendage rich in fats attached to them, and that’s very attractive to woodland ants,” she said. “Ants need fats just as much as protein and sugar, and it’s hard to find foods rich in fats in the forest. Ants are beneficial. They’re not as charismatic as butterflies or bees that help pollinate flowers, but they are just as important,” Buono said.

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

How humans shape global forests

Climate change and human activities strongly influence forests, but researchers have not fully understood the pervasiveness of these stressors and how they will shape future forest structure. Forests are expected to be mostly intact in protected areas (PAs) and so-called intact forest landscapes (IFLs). However, human impacts are expanding and intensifying to affect even these areas, and the global importance of such effects remains poorly understood. Now, researchers led by Dr. Li Wang from the Aerospace Information Research Institute (AIR) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have provided, for the first time, a panoramic view of global patterns in the multidimensional structure of forests. As part of their work, the researchers have discerned the relative importance of climate and human impacts as well as other environmental factors in shaping global forest structure, particularly that of PAs and IFLs. The study was published in Nature Sustainability.