2023 March Eye-Candy

Looking out at the slowly diminishing piles of grungy snow that characterize Ottawa in late winter, I think it’s time for some pretty pictures!

The overall winner: Charlie Page’s image of a red fox in Lee Valley Park, London. Photograph: Charlie Page/British Wildlife Photography awards

British Wildlife Photography awards 2023

The Guardian UK published the top winners in this year’s British Wildlife Photography awards – arguably one of the world’s most prestigious nature photo competitions. You can view the full list of winners, plus winner from past years on the BWPA website.

Our favourite positive environmental story from 2022: World’s oldest two-headed tortoise celebrates 25th birthday. Copyright  REUTERS/Pierre Albouy.

Positive environmental stories from 2023 so far

It may still be early in the year, but EuroNews has a round-up of positive environmental stories that will gladden your heart. Included are the birthday of a 2-headed tortoise, the rescue of a family of tigers that had spent 15 years living in a train carriage, and how it feels to own Britain’s ugliest dog.

Image from Plantings – World Sensorium/Conservancy article.

The Winter Garden at Wakehurst Place in England

Writing in World Sensorium/Conservancy, acclaimed interdisciplinary artist, scholar and conservationist Gayil Nalls treats us to some luscious images of winter gardens. These should inspire us to leave more plant material in place as we go into next winter.

End of Day Persian Pond (detail), 2022 by Chihuly.

Chihuly in the Garden 2023

The fabulous glass artist Chihuly will be on display at Missouri Botanical Gardens from May 13 through August 27, including Thursday–Sunday nights, 6–10 p.m. During Chihuly Nights, view Chihuly’s dramatically illuminated works of art with live music, cocktails, and pop-up offerings all summer long. Advance purchase recommended to guarantee admission; sellouts are expected.

Thanks to reader Michel Leblanc for highlighting this event.

From the Ware Collection of Blaschka glass models of plants, Harvard University Herbaria / Harvard Museum of Natural History © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Glass Menagerie, 1863–1936

The father-and-son duo Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka crafted thousands of scientifically accurate models of plants and sea creatures as teaching aids. This article includes a link to a slide show, which includes some rather gorgeous illustrations of their work. The illustration above of a golden bellapple (Passiflora laurifolia) from 1893 highlights the father-and-son duo’s careful attention to textures. In some cases, the natural look of leaves was recreated by assembling multiple layers of glass with different metal contents.

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 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!

Climate Change Food & Agriculture

Agriculture & Climate

According to Princeton Student Climate Initiative (PSCI), nearly one quarter of climate change is due to our food system. At the same time, conventional agriculture is uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including extreme weather, supply chain disruption, and new pests and diseases. Add to this, the puzzle of how higher temperatures and different weather patterns impact plant health and growth. The following articles explore these issues, starting with a peek at the fight between proponents of high-tech agriculture and agro-ecological or regenerative agriculture.

Image above is from a 2020 article by Audrey Watson on how our food system contributes to climate change and how we can eat more sustainably.

U.S.-led AIM for Climate Project Promotes “False Solutions”

Leading up to last year’s climate talks in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, an international coalition of climate and food sustainability leaders warned against “false solutions” being promoted at the COP27 climate conference by AIM for Climate—”a multi-billion dollar initiative by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to promote agritech (biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, AI) as a primary solution to the climate crisis.”

“Agritech and the industrial agribusiness model it furthers are not a solution to the climate crisis but rather a significant part of the problem,” said Andrew Kimbrell, co-founder of the International Coalition on Climate and Agriculture and executive director of Center for Food Safety. “Farmers around the world are already using innovative ecological farming techniques that sequester carbon, and these proven practices should be scaled up and shared instead of giving millions of dollars to chemical corporations to create false solutions that harm people and nature.”

Formed at COP26 in 2021, AIM for Climate now has more than 200 corporate partnerships, including with Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), BASF, Bayer, The Biotechnology Innovation Organization, CropLife International, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Syngenta, and the World Economic Forum.

“AIM’s attempt to make agritech the center of climate action subverts the growing awareness of agribusiness’ major culpability for the climate crisis, and it must be strongly opposed,” said Debbie Barker, ICCA International Coordinator. “The efforts of AIM and its partners to impose dangerous technologies on the world’s farming communities present an existential threat to what is really needed—transitioning away from industrial agriculture and toward ecological farming.”

In contrast to the corporate-led, tech-driven AIM for Climate project, the ICCA promotes a BROAD approach—Biodiverse, Regenerative, Organic, Appropriate Scale, and Democratic—that incorporates ecological farming including organic, agroecology, biodynamic and other proven sustainable practices that work with nature rather than destroying it.

Michigan State University researchers may have found a link between climate change and plant nutrition. Credit: Hermann Schachner via Wikimedia Commons (plant cells) / Mike Erskine via Unsplash (arid land)

Climate change & plant nutrition

A new study from researchers at Michigan State University underscores that we still have much to learn regarding how plants will function—and how nutritious they will be—as more carbon enters our atmosphere. That same influx of carbon is helping drive climate change, meaning this new work, published in the journal Nature Plants, may be revealing an unexpected way this global phenomenon is reshaping nature and our lives.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s a link between climate change and nutrition,” said Berkley Walker, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology whose research team authored the new report. “This is something we didn’t know we’d be looking into when we started.” Although elevated levels of carbon dioxide can be good for photosynthesis, Walker and his lab also showed that increasing CO2 levels can tinker with other metabolic processes in plants. These lesser-known processes could have implications for other functions like protein production.

It’s too early to say for certain whether plants face a low-protein future, Walker said. But the new research brings up surprising questions about how plants will make and metabolize amino acids—which are protein building blocks—with more carbon dioxide around.

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Higher levels of CO2 causing less nutritious crops

For years, scientists have seen enhanced photosynthesis as one of the only possible bright sides of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2)—since plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, it is anticipated that higher levels of the gas will lead to more productive plants. In a review published in Trends in Plant Science, scientists from Institute for Plant Science of Montpellier in France explain why this effect may be less than expected because elevated levels of CO2 make it difficult for plants to obtain minerals necessary to grow and provide nutritious food.

Maize is one major world crop affected by abiotic stresses including extreme heat and drought exacerbated by climate change. Credit: CABI

Heat and drought significant for food security

Heat and drought are the utmost limiting abiotic factors that pose a major threat to food security and agricultural production, and are exacerbated by “extreme and rapid” climate change, according to a new paper in CABI Reviews. The team of international scientists suggests that it is critical to understand the biochemical, ecological and physiological responses of plants to the stresses of heat and drought in order for more practical solutions and management. They state that plant responses to these challenges may be divided into three categories: phenological, physiological and biochemical.

The scientists, referring to a study examining data from research published between 1980 and 2015, state that drought has reduced wheat and maize yields by up to 40% around the world. They also highlight that projections suggest that for every degree Celsius rise in temperature, this would result in a 6% loss in global wheat yields.

From article by Hannah Ritchie in Our World in Data.

Global food system emissions could stop us reaching climate change targets

To have any hope of meeting the central goal of the Paris Agreement, which is to limit global warming to 2°C or less, our carbon emissions must be reduced considerably, including those coming from agriculture. Clark et al. show that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, emissions from the global food system alone would make it impossible to limit warming to 1.5°C and difficult even to realize the 2°C target. Thus, major changes in how food is produced are needed if we want to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Fruit and vegetable shelves at an Asda in east London. Photo from article in The Guardian UK. Photograph by Yui Mok/PA.

There has been a flurry of articles out of the UK recently about food rationing, especially of fresh vegetables. Growing up in Scotland in the 1960s, before the EU and before the widespread use of refrigerated trucks, our winter veggies consisted of potatoes, turnips and cabbage – lots and lots of cabbage.

Why UK supermarkets are rationing food

Calls for the government to provide better support to UK food producers have intensified recently as supermarkets have been forced to ration sales of some fresh produce. Weather-related disruption has caused supply shortages of vegetables from places including Spain and North Africa. Former Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King has partly blamed the government’s decision not to subsidise producers’ spiking energy costs this winter under its plan to help businesses affected by the cost of living crisis. The National Farmers’ Union has also called on the government to “back British food production in order to secure a homegrown supply of sustainable food or risk seeing more empty shelves in the nation’s supermarkets”.

Understanding the UK’s complex food supply chains can help explain why this is happening and also provides ideas about how to prevent such shortages in the future. These ideas include:

  • Diversifying sources of imported food
  • Increasing support for domestic food production
  • Improving food supply infrastructure and logistics (Just-in-time food delivery makes us particularly vulnerable to supply chain shocks.)
  • Preventing food waste

Other articles on this topic include:

According to the International Potato Center, based in Peru, there are more than 4,000 varieties of edible potato, most of them found in the South American Andes.

Drought and frost batter vital potato crops in Bolivia

(This article originally appeared in Agence France-Presse)

Dozens of furrows lie barren in a dusty field on the Bolivian highlands. It should be replete with potato plants ready for harvest, but a deadly combination of drought and frost proved too much for the crop. Cristobal Pongo, one of many peasants of the Aymara Indigenous group who devote their lives to potato farming in this region highly susceptible to climate change, looks dejectedly upon the dismal scene. “The potato is our life. We harvest, we sell… It is our livelihood… (it pays) for our children’s education,” the 64-year-old told AFP as he knelt in his field about 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) above sea level. This year, Pongo will have nothing to sell at the market in Calamarca, some 70 kilometers south of the capital La Paz. He does not know what he will do.

Pongo’s crop is not the only one affected by bad weather during the growth season. And the resulting shortage has seen the price of potatoes shoot up sevenfold to almost $2 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) in some markets. Experts say seasonal rains that came too late and untimely frost are likely the outcome of a changing climate. “The highlands, and… the whole region of Bolivia, are vulnerable to (climate) change,” said Luis Blacutt, an atmospheric physics expert at the Higher University of San Andres in La Paz. “These changes are manifesting now. There is a very, very acute rain deficit,” he told AFP.

Pongo now has to wait until the end of October to replant his crop, having given up on having any useful harvest this time around. If no rain has fallen by then, he will have to wait even longer as the soil needs to be moist for potatoes to germinate. But if he waits too long, the winter frosts that come ever earlier could once again destroy the fruits of his labor.

In the face of such uncertainty, Pongo and some neighbors have started using greenhouses erected with the support of a local NGO, Cipca, which comes to the aid of peasant farmers. Greenhouse production is limited to much smaller areas, meaning growers might produce enough for their own use, but not enough to sell.



Photo by Guido Blokker on Unsplash.

OK, so they’re not plants but every good gardener knows that mycorrhizae, the thread-like fungi that lace our soil, are of our best friends for soil health and plant growth. With that in mind, here are a few recent stories about fungi and mushrooms.

Renato Tomassetti and Bella after she found a truffle. “Black gold,” Mr. Tomassetti said. Photo credit: Stephanie Gengotti for The New York Times

The Perils of Hunting for Truffles

Jason Horowitz, the New York Times’ Rome bureau chief writes about the highly competitive business of truffle-hunting in Italy. Competition is so cut-throat that some have taken to poisoning the dogs of known truffle hunters. Horowitz’s article focuses on 80-year-old Renato Tomassetti and his dog Bella, an energetic Lagotto Romagnolo, a stocky, curly-haired breed also known as  Italy’s “Truffle Dog”. The article is lushly illustrated with photos by Stepanie Gengotti.

Mushrooms can live without us, but we can’t live without them. (Photo: Zahra via Unsplash.

No fungi? No forests, no food, no future!

David Suzuki with contributions from senior editor and writer Ian Hanington writes about the importance of fungi to humans. Cheese, bread, wine, beer, kombucha and chocolate would not exist without fungi. It makes all these tasty items possible. In fact, almost all food production relies on fungi. Most plants need it to obtain nutrients and water. Trees and other plants in a forest connect through intricate fungal, or mycorrhizal, networks of tiny mycelium threads that transfer nutrients, water and information between them, and that facilitate decomposition, without which life couldn’t go on. All fermented foods — including beer, wine, chocolate, cheese, bread, soy sauce and tofu — require yeasts, a single-celled fungus. Fungi have also been indispensable in preserving foods. And cows and other ruminants need gut fungi to break down grass. This Guardian article reports that fungi are also responsible for many important medical breakthroughs and for a lot of carbon sequestration.

For such an important group of organisms, we know almost nothing about fungi. Until the 1970s, fungi were classified as plants. We now know they are closer to animals. “They’re really weird organisms with the most bizarre life cycle. And yet when you understand their role in the Earth’s ecosystem, you realise that they underpin life on Earth,” said Kathy Willis, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which leads “State of the World’s Plants and Fungi” assessments.

Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.

Growing Mushrooms without Pesticides

Ali Jones reports in Horizon, the EU research and innovation magazine, on how La Rioja in northern Spain is both a centre for mushroom growing and research into greener growing strategies. Growing mushrooms commercially requires managing humidity, temperature and light to produce a regular, quality crop while contending with pest control. For now, pest control means relying on pesticides, which are becoming expensive and, of course, have environmental risks. Pablo Martínez, an agronomist, was drawn to the specialist mushroom sector after a chance conversation with a former colleague. Based at the Mushroom Technological Research Centre of La Rioja (CTICH), Martínez manages a Europe-wide project to tackle the environmental challenges faced by the industry.

Mushrooms are grown on a substrate, or base layer, made of straw and animal manure, then covered with a thick blanket of peat known as the casing. Made up of partially decayed vegetation, peat perfectly mimics nature’s forest floors that so readily yield mushrooms. The depletion of precious finite peatlands is a global concern. These wetlands store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined and their conservation is ever more important for countering climate change. “Mounting restrictions on peat extraction in European countries threaten the long-term continuity of peat supplies,” said Martínez. “We’re looking to develop a new product for growing mushrooms that could cut pesticide use by 90% while reducing the industry’s reliance on peat.” EU-funded research aims to to create a low-peat sustainable casing for cultivated mushrooms made from renewable materials sourced close to existing mushroom production. While the exact details are under wraps, it will combine with a substance known as a biostimulant to enhance the natural growing processes and strengthen the mushroom mycelium in their early phase, protecting them against disease without the need for chemical pesticides.

Meanwhile, in Norway, two mushroom enthusiasts have pioneered a project to explore whether the crop could be cultivated in food waste. The EU-funded initiative is called VegWaMus CirCrop.

The death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides), a small, green-tinged mushroom, sprouting from a forest floor. (Image credit: Pierre/Alamy Stock Photo)

How the world’s deadliest mushroom conquered California

Writing in Live Science, Ben Turner reports on the spread of the aptly-named death cap mushroom. The poisonous “death cap” mushroom (Amanita phalloides) is an invasive fungus whose fatal amatoxin accounts for more than 90% of deaths from mushrooms worldwide, but how it spread from its European origins to colonize every continent except Antarctica has long been a mystery. Now, a study published to the preprint server biorXiv, has found a reason why: the California version of the death cap can fertilize itself and produce perfect copies, sidestepping the need to mate before wafting its spores over an unconquered region.

“The diverse reproductive strategies of invasive death caps are likely facilitating its rapid spread, revealing a profound similarity between plant, animal and fungal invasions,” the researchers wrote in the preprint.

Photo credit: Tim Sandall

Adding fungi makes rosemary tastier

Finally, research from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), Vitacress Herbs and Royal Holloway has shown that the addition of mycorrhizal fungi to soil leads to increased production of essential oils in rosemary, making the plants more aromatic and flavorsome. Adding mycorrhizal fungi did not affect the shape or structure of the plant, just the production of the compounds that enhance the flavor and taste of rosemary. This means that home gardeners and trade growers will be able to produce rosemary plants with a consistent appearance but with the potential for extra flavor. The research was published in Life.

Food & Agriculture

2023 February Farming

Credit: Shutterstock

Better nitrogen management yields more than it costs

Better management on agricultural lands to reduce nitrogen losses to the environment costs only a fraction of what it provides. This could yield nearly $500 billion in societal benefits globally for both food supply and human health, ecosystems and the climate. And this at a net cost of nearly $20 billion. That’s according to a study published in the scientific journal Nature.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis), at the grassy edge of a small field. Cornwall, England. June. Credit: RSPB

Farmland bird populations rise with nature-friendly farming

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, researchers from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) say a more strategic approach to wildlife-friendly farming schemes is required to recover England’s farmland bird populations after monitoring their responses to different agri-environment scheme implementation levels. The U.K. government has recently introduced a legally binding target to halt species abundance declines in England by 2030. However, tiered environmental management schemes have been in place on UK farms sometime. Higher tiered schemes devote an average of 11% of the farmland to bird-friendly measures, while lower-tiered schemes set aside an average of less than 4% of their land. This 10-year study measured changes in the abundance of farmland birds on land managed under bird-focused lower- and higher-tier agri-environment schemes, as well as land no bird-friendly farming initiatives. The results showed that when approximately 10% of a farm was devoted to bird-friendly farming practices under the higher-tier scheme, this benefitted over half of the farmland bird species in two of the three study regions. Although lower-tier provision generally failed to increase bird numbers, it helped to sustain populations of some species, which continued to decline in the absence of agri-environment support elsewhere. The second part of the study asked what proportion of the farmed landscape would need to be placed into higher-tier agreements to recover farmland birds by 10% over ten years. The answer was similar in the two regions—26% in the pastoral West Midlands and 31% in arable East Anglia. However, by targeting higher-tier agreements to farms that already hold higher numbers of priority farmland birds, this requirement drops to 17% and 21% respectively, which represents a significant cost saving. This is the first study to shed light on the amount of nature friendly farming that might be required to recover farmland birds at a landscape scale.

Sheep grazing at the Arnprior Solar Project. Photo by Chris Moore

Solar panels and sheep get along just fine

Pippa Norman writes in The National Observer about how farming and clean energy production can work together. Like many farmers, Chris Moore once doubted the practicality of solar panels and agriculture co-existing on the same land. He couldn’t quite believe the land would be productive while shaded by these large, metallic shields. About 12 years ago, a 200-acre solar farm sprung up in Arnprior and he passed it by on his daily commute. The more he looked at the grass growing beside and beneath the solar panels, the more it started to seem an ideal spot for a sheep pasture. His skepticism began to fade. The Arnprior Solar Project is one of the largest solar electricity sites in Canada, generating enough energy to supply about 7,000 homes. And for the past five years, it has also doubled as a summer home for hundreds of the couples’ ewes. It took Moore a long time to picture his sheep grazing in the shade of those solar panels. Ontario environmental regulations, farmers associations and farmers have, historically, been resistant to allowing land to be used for both agricultural and solar power. But Joshua Pearce, Western University’s John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation, was convinced that without a crop or animals, the shade of those solar panels was a missed opportunity. Pearce is an advocate and expert in the field of agrivoltaics — the dual use of land for solar electricity and agriculture. Allowing animals to graze is the most basic version. More sophisticated versions tailor the solar panel installations to the crop that grows underneath. “You shade the plant that you’re growing with a partially transparent solar cell. It provides a little microclimate underneath it, so it conserves water, and then you get more growth,” Pearce explained. Vertical or movable solar panel options allow for plants like corn or wheat to grow high or for tractors to manoeuvre around crops, Pearce added. Outside of fields, solar panels can also be attached to greenhouses roofs or potentially even floated on bodies of water.

(Thanks to Erwin Dressler for sharing the link to this story.)

Guy Singh-Watson Riverford, pictured at Riverford organic farm in Devon, began experimenting with hazelnut and walnuts trees after feeling guilty about how much he ploughed his fields for vegetable crops. Photograph: Joanna Furniss/Riverford

English farmers turning to cultivating nuts as climate heats

Helena Horton writes in The Guardian UK about one way farmers are adapting to warmer temperatures. Nuts are being grown more than ever by English farmers as the climate heats, making the products more economically viable, growers have said. Nut trees are also helpful for biodiversity on farms, improving soil health as their roots improve the ability and capacity of soil to absorb water, reducing the risk of wind erosion. Guy Singh-Watson has enjoyed his recent foray into growing nuts on his 150-acre Devon farm. He said they were easy to grow: “You don’t have to do anything, I spent 40 years trying to coax vegetables into life and they just die all the time, but hazels grow so well. There doesn’t seem to be any problem growing walnuts in our climate.” He has had success grazing cattle in the orchards, and now plans to grow kale among some of his hazel trees. England’s climate is heating up, with last year the hottest on record, with a long, dry summer. This is making many crops difficult to grow, and many farmers reported crop failures during the drought. Though they sometimes need irrigation when first planted, nut trees do well in warm weather and can survive dry summers. Singh-Watson said he had recently visited Piedmont in Italy, where hazelnuts are a major crop – it is home to Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella. Despite the hot, dry summer in Italy, the nuts were flourishing. The article also reports on the promising nut-growing experiences of a couple of other English farmers.

A row of field maples (Acer campestre) trellis grape vines, and are pollarded to harvest ‘tree hay’ fodder for livestock. Maize grows beside the row. The grapes are harvested to make wine. Source. Found on Shelterwood Forest Farm website.

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

The EU is increasingly promoting mixed farming as a hedge against climate change and food insecurity. In just over a minute, this video explains what that means.