Floating Sea Farm Design Passes Proof of Concept

This was from Tuesday, while Freethoughtblogs was still down and I was posting on my patreon instead. I could use a bit of a cheat day for various reasons, so I’m taking advantage of the technical difficulties to use this post twice. This is very much in the vein of “sounds too good to be true, but it’s an interesting concept. A while back, I saw articles about a clever design for a desert greenhouse that used the evaporation of seawater to both maintain a cool enough temperature for crops, and to provide the water those crops needed. Now, a team at the University of South Australia has designed a floating version, that uses wicking and an evaporator to irrigate the crops:

Professor Haolan Xu and Dr Gary Owens from UniSA’s Future Industries Institute have developed the vertical floating sea farm which is made up of two  chambers: an upper layer similar to a glasshouse and a lower water  harvest chamber.
“The system works much like a wicking bed that household gardeners might be familiar with,” Dr Owen says.
“However, in this case, clean water is supplied by an array of solar  evaporators that soak up the seawater, trap the salts in the evaporator  body and, under the sun’s rays, release clean water vapour into the air  which is then condensed on water belts and transferred to the upper  plant growth chamber.”
In a field test, the researchers grew three common vegetable crops –  broccoli, lettuce, and pak choi – on seawater surfaces without  maintenance or additional clean water irrigation.
The system, which is powered only by solar light, has several  advantages over other solar sea farm designs currently being trialled,  according to Professor Xu.
“Other designs have installed evaporators inside the growth chamber  which takes up valuable space that could otherwise be used for plant  growth. Also, these systems are prone to overheating and crop death,”  Professor Xu says.
Floating farms, where traditional photovoltaic panels harvest  electricity to power conventional desalination units, have also been  proposed but these are energy intensive and costly to maintain.
“In our design, the vertical distribution of evaporator and growth  chambers decreases the device’s overall footprint, maximising the area  for food production. It is fully automated, low cost, and extremely easy  to operate, using only solar energy and seawater to produce clean water  and grow crops.”
Dr Owens says their design is only proof-of-concept at this stage,  but the next step is to scale it up, using a small array of individual  devices to increase plant production. Meeting larger food supply needs  will mean increasing both the size and number of devices.

I very much want to see this scaled up. When they say “fully automated”, I’m assuming that’s something of an exaggeration, since the crops will probably need at least some attention, beyond planting and harvesting, and the machinery will need maintenance, and to be cleaned of salt buildup and sea life.

In the paper itself, the authors say the field trials were done in pools with “artificial seawater”, which is great as a proof-of-concept, but it completely sidesteps the fact that sea life tends to glue itself to every possible surface. It would honestly surprise me if the water intakes didn’t start getting plugged or covered a lot faster than expected. On the plus side, the tests generated more fresh water than the plants could use, so operating at reduced efficiency may still provide enough water, especially if there’s a system for storing excess water at the beginning, and using it to supplement a shortage. If they have that, then they can also have the same sensors send out an automated maintenance request.

The other big concern, which I’m sure has occurred to you, is that the sea surface is a rather boisterous place. Even on a nice day, you get choppy water, knocking things around, and as we all know, there are days that are not nice!

The planet’s warming fast, and hot seas tend to produce big storms. I don’t know if farms like this are more vulnerable to a hurricane or typhoon than crops in coastal areas hit by those storms, but it sure seems like a problem that’ll need to be accounted for. The researchers say this is best suited for places with mild weather conditions, but I have to ask: Do such places exist, anymore?

Despite my concerns, I think this is really neat, and I feel like there’s likely to be at least some application for it, even if that consists of creating sheltered lagoons or something. In the meantime, the only way to find out what problems lie in wait for this technology, is to start using it, and seeing what it takes.

Adaptation and Mitigation: Food Production in a Rapidly Warming World

So I’ve been advocating a move to indoor food production for a while, and I often get pushback on it, some of which… seems to miss the point. Someone linked me an article from 2018 over on Bluesky (follow me @abedrayton.bsky.social), as a reason why vertical farming “won’t save the world”. It’s an interesting article, for what it is, but it crucially does not address the main reason why I believe what I believe. Before I get into that, however, I want to address one other issue, because whenever this subject comes up, and I mention indoor farming and microbial food production, people ignore that latter part, to focus on the former. My guess is that this is because most people don’t know much about microbial food production, and so don’t have much to say about it, in which case, I should probably do more to talk about it. I’ll give an overview here, but I’ll also just try to post more about it going forward.

Mass production of microbial food is, as I understand it, a fairly new field. It focuses mostly on yeasts, edible bacteria, and microaglae, all of which can be grown in more of a factory than a farm. In both cases, the focus usually seems to be on growing them as a source of protein, to replace animal agriculture and soy beans. Because of that focus, a lot of discussion around this stuff seems to focus on the inefficiency and cost of animal agriculture as a source of emissions, rather than about the fact that food grown in a factory setting is less vulnerable to weather and pests than food grown in fields.

The main concern I have at this point in time – something I’m emailing scientists about – is how well it could replace grains. There’s no question that finding better sources of protein is important, because while I didn’t mention it in my recent post about simultaneous crop failure, one of the likely effects of that is the mass culling or starvation of livestock, because that’s what we do with 77% of the soy we grow. People in the US, at least, could stand to eat considerably less protein, but I don’t believe that forcing that through crop failure is a good way to go about it. That said, humans do actually need carbohydrates, so if microbes can’t produce enough of that, then we may need to think about other options.

I think microbes are still a part of those other options, too. If we do actually need to continue relying on outdoor grain farms, then we should probably not be using that land for things that we don’t need, like mass production of beef. In that way, even if we can only rely on algae and bacteria for protein, we’ll be able to grow and store more grain to guard against famine, so it still seems worth major investment to me.

With all of that dealt with, let’s go back to this article about vertical farms, that was presented as a rebuttal to my belief that we should be moving food production indoors, to guard against global crop failures. My problem is that it in no way addresses my concern, but rather discusses vertical farming’s expenses, and vertical farming as a way to reduce carbon emissions:

First, these systems are really expensive to build. The shipping container systems developed by Freight Farms, for example, cost between $82,000 and $85,000 per container — an astonishing sum for a box that just grows greens and herbs. Just one container costs as much as 10 entire acres of prime American farmland — which is a far better investment, both in terms of food production and future economic value. Just remember: farmland has the benefit of generally appreciating in value over time, whereas a big metal box is likely to only decrease in value.

Second, food produced this way is very expensive. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that mini-lettuces grown by Green Line Growers costs more than twice as much as organic lettuce available in most stores. And this is typical for other indoor growers around the country: it’s very, very expensive, even compared to organic food. Instead of making food moreavailable, especially to poorer families on limited budgets, these indoor crops are only available to the affluent. It might be fine for gourmet lettuce, or fancy greens for expensive restaurants, but regular folks may find it out of reach.

Finally, indoor farms use a lot of energy and materials to operate. The container farms from Freight Farms, for example, use about 80 kilowatt-hours of electricity a day to power the lights and pumps. That’s nearly 2–3 times as much electricity as a typical (and still very inefficient) American home, or about 8 times the electricity used by an average San Francisco apartment. And on the average American electrical grid, this translates to emitting 44,000 pounds of CO2 per container per year, from electricity alone, not counting any additional heating costs. This is vastly more than the emissions it would take to ship the food from someplace else.


Proponents of indoor techno-farms often say that they can offset the enormous sums of electricity they use, by powering them with renewable energy — especially solar panels — to make the whole thing carbon neutral.

But just stop and think about this for a second.

These indoor “farms” would use solar panels to harvest naturally occurring sunlight, and convert it into electricity, so that they can power…artificial sunlight? In other words, they’re trying to use the sun to replace the sun.

But we don’t need to replace the sun. Of all of the things we should worry about in agriculture, the availability of free sunlight is not one of them. Any system that seeks to replace the sun to grow food is probably a bad idea.


Sometimes we hear that vertical farms help the environment by reducing “food miles” — the distance food items travel from farm to table — and thereby reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

This sounds logical, but it turns out to be a red herring.

Strange as it might seem, local food typically uses about the same amount of energy — per pound — to transport as food grown far away. Why? Short answer: volume and method of transport. A larger food operator can ship food more efficiently — even if it travels longer distances — because of the gigantic volumes they work in. Plus, ships, trains, and even large trucks driving on Interstate highways use less fuel, per pound per mile, than small trucks driving around town.

Plus it turns out that “food miles” aren’t a very big source of CO2 emissions anyway, whether they’re local or not. In fact, they pale in comparison to emissions from deforestation, methane from cattle and rice fields, and nitrous oxide from over-fertilized fields. And local food systems — especially organic farms that use fewer fertilizers, and grass fed beef that sequesters carbon in the soil — can reduce these more critical emissions. At the end of the day, local food systems are generally better for the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions. Just don’t worry about emissions from food miles too much.

No shame to the author of this article, of course. He didn’t set out to discuss the merits of vertical farming as a guard against crop failure, so he didn’t do that. My problem is with the person who linked this article, because it doesn’t even acknowledge the main reason I want to move food production indoors, as much as we can. The article makes good points – building and operating something like a vertical farm absolutely is very resource-intensive, and the recommendations made at the end – that we focus on better farming practices – are 100% on-point. We need to do that.

But the question – for me – is not whether vertical farms are the most efficient way to grow food, compared to existing, more conventional methods, or whether they’re as profitable (accounting for subsidies). It’s whether they’re a more reliable way to grow food, in a rapidly warming climate. I don’t have a clear answer to that, in part because the focus in this sort of discourse is still mostly about reducing emissions and preventing the warming. That’s all important stuff to take into consideration, but I think we’ve reached a point where we also have to consider what it will take to keep people alive, because we haven’t actually made all of those changes to agriculture that everyone’s been talking about for the last few decades. The clear answer I do feel I have, is that the odds of global crop failure are increasing, and if we don’t plan for that eventuality, a lot of people are going to die needlessly.

The other point made on Bluesky, and I think it’s a good one, is the concern that a shift in food production would hurt people who are currently farmers. My answer to that is twofold. First, as with fossil fuel workers, we as a society have a responsibility to make sure that farm workers are not left destitute because of a societal change over which they had no control. I think nobody should be left destitute in a world with abundant resources, but we should also have dedicated programs to making sure farmers are taken care of.

Second, and I think this is more important, investing in indoor food production should not come at the expense of outdoor food production, at this stage. The reason I want to do it now, is that we don’t need it now, but everything I’ve seen about the rate of warming and the effects of warming suggests that we will need it in the not-so-distant future. I expect that if we make this investment, and shift away from animal agriculture, that will free up farmland, which can then be put to different use, but the first priority is feeding humanity, which means that at this stage, we still need normal farms, operated more responsibly as the article above suggests. We have the resources to do both, while also working to end fossil fuel use, and one of the downsides of so many decades of inaction is that we now also have a growing need to do both, as the temperature continues to rise.

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Indigenous Knowledge Leads to Likely Treatment for Episodic Ataxia

I was hanging out with some neighbors the other night, and the subject of gaming came up, along with the fact that the first guild I was in, playing WoW in my college years, was called “Ataxia”; my neighbors, being doctors, did a bit of a double-take. For those who don’t know, ataxia is basically a set of neuromuscular symptoms associated with a few different neurological conditions. I don’t remember why the guild’s founder had chosen that name. The term covers balance issues, coordination issues, sensory problems, and more. It’s pretty broad, and from what I can tell, even if the underlying condition isn’t especially dangerous, those symptoms that are called ataxia are a problem all by themselves. That means that being able to make them go away can be a huge victory – it lets the patient regain control of their body.

I mention all of that, because researchers from the University of California – Irvine have found that plant extracts used by the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations in the Pacific Northwest are a viable treatment, specifically for type 1 episodic ataxia. This is something that could help people all around the world, and it’s a good reminder of the importance of biodiversity, Indigenous knowledge, and Indigenous rights. I’ll get into that stuff a little, but first, let’s hear from the researchers:

“Episodic Ataxia 1 (EA1) is a movement disorder caused by inherited mutations in the human KCNA1 gene, which encodes Kv1.1, a voltage-gated potassium channel essential for normal function of the human nervous system,” said Geoffrey W. Abbott, PhD, vice dean of basic science research and professor in the Department of Physiology & Biophysics at the UCI School of Medicine. “We found that extracts of stinging nettle, bladderwrack kelp and Pacific ninebark can all correct function of the mutation-carrying proteins causing a specific form of ataxia.”

Abbott’s research team also found that two compounds contained in these plants, tannic acid and gallic acid, are each able to rescue activity of the EA1-linked mutation-carrying ion channel proteins.

“The plant compounds are the first known compounds to rescue the activity of Kv1.1 carrying EA1-linked loss-of-function sequence variants,” said Abbott. “Gallic acid in particular is of therapeutic interest because it is already available over the counter as a nutritional supplement and is very well tolerated in toxicity studies.”

Individuals with ataxia exhibit abnormal gait, slurring, eye movement abnormalities, difficulties with balance and walking, tremors, and disruption of fine motor skills.

“These mutations can cause other disorders, including epilepsy, and so there is therapeutic potential for those conditions as well,” said Abbott. “We have discovered that where modern synthetic drug development techniques have failed to produce a drug that directly rescues EA1-linked mutant channel function, traditional botanical medicine developed by North American First Nation peoples has succeeded.”

Further research is now needed to explore the efficacy of the plant-derived compounds in preclinical and clinical studies.

“We have made a mouse model of a relatively severe form of human EA1 so that we can test the efficacy and safety of gallic acid and also whole plant extracts,” said Abbott. “If the preclinical studies go well, our goal is to move to clinical trials. Concurrently, we are synthesizing and testing other plant compounds and derivatives to discover other compounds with potential for treating EA1 and related disorders.”

This is really neat, and I hope clinical trials go smoothly and quickly, for the sake of everyone this could help. I also hope, if this bears out, that the researchers get due credit.

That said, I have a couple thoughts. The first is that, as I said earlier, this underscores one of the many reasons why biodiversity is important to us, as humans. There are lots of those reasons, but the fact that we keep discovering new medicines in our fellow organisms is nothing to sneeze at. That is also why Indigenous rights and Indigenous land management practices are so important. As with biodiversity, this isn’t the only reason those things are important. It shouldn’t need to be said, but these days, it feels like it’s better to be explicit, so: Indigenous people deserve rights and autonomy because they are people. Beyond that, Indigenous land management practices tend to shape ecosystems to be beneficial to humans, while actively maintaining and promoting ecosystem health and biodiversity.

This is also why it is absolutely fucked that this discovery will probably end up being the private property of some pharmaceutical corporation, for the prescription version, and some big supplement corporation for the herbal version. I feel like I should apologize for always coming back to capitalism, but it’s hard to talk about big problems in this world without mentioning the economic system that dominates most of the planet.

And so, in addition to biodiversity and Indigenous rights, this is also a good reason to end capitalism. This knowledge comes, in part, from people who were nearly erased in support of capitalism, and the medicine comes from wild plants, and the ecosystems they inhabit. I have no problem with the notion of some sort of socially born price for the work that goes into turning plant into medicine, but that should never be a barrier to access for those who need it. Likewise, capitalism has proven to be disastrous for biodiversity and ecosystem health. We will never know exactly what we’ve lost, in the wanton, profit-driven destruction of so many ecosystems, but looking at discoveries like this, it seems certain that it’s not nothing. This world has so much to offer us, and we can enjoy its bounty, as well as marvels of our own invention, without destroying everything in the process. The path we’re on will lead us to lose everything, but if we have the courage to take a new, and different path, we stand to gain everything despite how close we stand to oblivion.

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Nitrogen pollution causing soil to lose carbon

As I recently covered, sulfuric air pollution once acted as free fertilizer for farms. As efforts to clean the air succeeded, farmers had to increase their use of sulfur fertilizers to compensate. With that knowledge, it seems entirely reasonable to assume that nitrogen, another element often put in fertilizer, would behave in a similar manner. Apparently not.

Instead, the team found that under certain conditions, extra nitrogen causes dryland soil to acidify and leach calcium. Calcium binds to carbon, and the two elements then leave the soil together. This finding is detailed in the journal Global Change Biology.

To obtain their results, the research team sampled soil from ecological reserves near San Diego and Irvine that have been fertilized with nitrogen in long-term experiments. This allowed them to know precisely how much nitrogen was being added, and account for any effects they observed.

In many cases, nitrogen can affect biological processes that in turn influence how soil stores carbon. Such processes include the fueling of plant growth, as well as slowing down the microbes that help decompose dead things in the soil.

What the researchers did not expect was a big effect on carbon storage through abiotic, or non-biological means.

The pH scale measures how acidic or alkaline — basic — something is. In general, soils resist dramatic changes in pH by releasing elements like calcium in exchange for acidity. As nitrogen acidified soils at some of the sites in this study, the soil attempted to resist this acidity by releasing calcium. As it did so, some of the carbon stabilized by association with the calcium was lost.

“It is a surprising result because the main effect seems to be abiotic,” said Johann Püspök, UCR environmental sciences graduate student and first author of the study. “That means bare patches of soil with no plant cover and low microbial activity, which I always thought of as areas where not much is going on, appear to be affected by nitrogen pollution too.”

Dryland soil, characterized by limited ability to retain moisture and low levels of organic matter, covers roughly 45% of Earth’s land area. It is responsible for storing a large amount of the world’s carbon.

Future studies may shed more light on how much dryland soil is being affected by nitrogen pollution in the way the study plots were. “We need more information as to how widespread such acidification effects are, and how they work under non-experimental conditions of nitrogen deposition,” Püspök said.

However, since there is no quick fix for this phenomenon, and no clear way to reverse the process once it has begun, researchers recommend reducing emissions as much as possible to help soil retain its carbon stores.

“Air pollution generated by fossil fuel combustion has an impact on many things, including human health by causing asthma,” Homyak said. “It can also impact the amount of carbon these dryland systems can store for us. For many reasons, we have to get a handle on air pollution.”

Oh, joy.

Given that we already knew that high temperatures cause soil to release carbon, that was already a source of concern for me. Now it turns out that the air pollution I’m always raving about is doing that as well.

On the plus side, this means that as we end fossil fuel use, this particular effect should reverse, which could make a reduction in greenhouse gas levels happen more quickly. We’ll still get that temperature spike from decreasing particle pollution, but anything that causes levels to drop faster is a win for us, I think.

So while this is bad news in our current situation, I’ll take it as good news by looking to the future. .


Diversity is our strength: Planting a mixture of crops can benefit the surrounding ecosystem

Insects are in trouble. That doesn’t make them special, or anything (they were always special to me), but they play a vast number of important roles in our various ecosystems, including the pollination of certain plants. Knowing the people who read this blog, I’m sure you find this information to be shocking and new, especially as I’ve never written about it before.

Jokes aside, though, this is an issue that has had a lot of people worried for a long time now. A lot of blame has been placed on the heavy use of pesticides required to keep our current monoculture farming regime from completely collapsing, plus those used in more residential and recreational settings. I think that’s certainly a reasonable thing to look at, but it’s also reasonable to look at habitat destruction, as well as the just-mentioned use of monoculture farming. Poison obviously affects one’s ability to live and thrive, but so to does having one’s ecosystem fall apart (something to which we should probably pay attention).

A German research team has now provided us with yet another reason to change how we do agriculture, because it turns out that the lack of diversity that characterizes modern food production is bad for bees and other insects.

There are often too few flowering plants in agricultural landscapes, which is one reason for the decline of pollinating insects. Researchers at the University of Göttingen have now investigated how a mixture of crops of faba beans (broad beans) and wheat affects the number of pollinating insects. 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.

The researchers observed and counted foraging honeybees and wild bees in mixtures of wheat and faba bean and in pure cultures that only contained faba beans. “We had expected that the mixed crops with fewer flowers would be visited less frequently by bees for foraging than single crops,” says PhD student Felix Kirsch from the Functional Agrobiodiversity research group, University of Göttingen. “To our surprise, this was not the case.”

This could be due to several reasons. “Our mixed cultures were less dense than pure cultures, which possibly increased the visibility of the flowers. This might have attracted the similarly large number of bees to the mixed cultures,” suggests Dr Annika Haß, postdoctoral researcher in the Functional Agrobiodiversity research group. “In addition, reduced competition between the faba bean plants in mixed cultures could mean that they can invest more resources in the production of nectar and pollen to increase their attractiveness to bees,” adds Professor Wolfgang Link, head of the group for Breeding Research Faba Bean.

“Mixed cultivation of wheat and faba 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.

Truly, it is one of the great burdens of our time that in order to save ourselves, we must make the world a better place to live in. We hear over and over again about the “Insect Apocalypse”, and now it turns out that part of changing course, means making the landscape more interesting? What’s next, cleaner air? No danger of being unhoused? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I’m kinda worn out from working on a much less pleasant post, so I’ll just leave you with my regular reminder: Our problem is not a lack of solutions, it’s a political and economic hierarchy that actively hates the solutions that we do have. Obviously if you have the means to directly change or improve the landscape around you, then I heartily recommend doing so, but that will never be enough without real, dramatic political change.

Video: Positive Leftist News from December (and late November), 2022

Obviously I’m a bit behind in posting this, but better late than never. The December edition of Positive Leftist News covers “massive” turnout for late November’s National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, MA to honor the Native people whose genocide was whitewashed by the Thanksgiving myth. On the other side of the continent, a similar demonstration drew 400 people to call for the protection of California’s shell mounds, burial sites from a number of Indigenous nations that are threatened by capitalist developers.

In labor news, PLN highlights the international organization and solidarity shown by the “Make Amazon Pay” demonstrations that took place on November 25th in over 30 countries across five continents. I very much hope to see this kind of international action more in the future. A few days  before, a new cross-sector service union was formed in the United States, called the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), and they are demanding, of course, better pay and working conditions. There had been a niggling worry in my mind about how well people would be able to organize in the atomized modern workplace, but it seems like the answer to that is “pretty well”. This union represents people in retail, gas station, fast food, and care work across the Southern U.S., and frankly I find it uplifting to see all of these people finding solidarity in their fight for their rights.

In South Korea, truckers defied their government’s order to end their strike. In Zimbabwe food industry workers are fighting for better treatment as well. Specifically, it’s brewery and sugar workers. It seems that among other things, they’re dealing with wage theft like workers in the U.S. Small-scale farmers in the socialist republic of Tanzania have been working together for decades to fight back against the economic forces that have been pushing them down, and the plans they put together this year focus on acroecology, food sovereignty, fighting against evictions by developers – sometimes whole villages have been evicted – and economic justice. Apparently they’ve been working to build up something that sounds like credit unions. It’s encouraging to see that work continue, and I fully support their work for not just Pan-African solidarity, but a recognition of the need for global solidarity.

In Montreal, London, and Dublin, demonstrators marched for tenants rights and housing for all. I’m ashamed to admit that I did hear about the Dublin demonstration, but couldn’t muster the energy to go. I intend to be more active in that regard in 2023.

Greece saw great turnout for their annual demonstrations to honor the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising against a U.S.-backed military junta.

Columbia announced the release of prisoners from its 2021 national strike, and Columbia’s new president declared them to be “guardians of peace”.

Elon Musk’s incompetent flailing at Twitter led to a bunch of big corporations, including Lockheed Martin and Eli Lilly, collectively losing billions on the stock market. I doubt it did them any real harm, because consequences are only for the peasantry, but it was fun to watch them freak out a little because an impersonator pretended they could be anything other than evil.

A Dutch court ordered compensation for victims of an illegal Dutch military airstrike in Afghanistan. Don’t hold your breath for the U.S. to follow that example.

Barbados seems to be having a winning streak. They ditched the British Monarchy, demanded reparations from British aristocrats involved in colonialism, and now their courts have struck down two laws that discriminated against LGBTQ+ people.

France seems to be on track to make abortion a constitutional right.

The governor of Oregon, US, commuted the sentences of all 17 death row inmates in that state, calling the death penalty immoral.

The students of the University of Stirling, in Scotland, have voted to make the university’s menu 100% plant-based, as part of their commitment to reduce carbon emissions, calling out all the universities that produce research pointing to emissions from animal agriculture, while doing little to nothing in response to that research.

  And last but very much not least, a new museum and clinic is to be opened in Montgomery, Alabama, to honor the “Mothers of Gynecology – enslaved women whose torture at the hands of white doctors built the foundations of modern gynecology. I’m not a fan of the way the article describes this as “sacrifice”, which seems to minimize the horror of what happened, but I think that this museum, clinic, and training facility seem like a good way to honor their memories, provide for people in need of care, and help work to prevent such atrocities from being committed in the future. Amidst everything that’s been happening in the U.S., I find it uplifting to see this kind of work continuing.

The video and linked articles have quite a few more details, but I figured I’d try to give a summary for those who won’t be watching the video for whatever reason.

As ever, all we have is us, and it’s when we work together for the good of all, that we are at our strongest.

When the sulfur in the air just isn’t cutting it anymore…

Back in 2020, I wrote a post about why we should expect a short-term temperature increase as a direct result of phasing out fossil fuel use. The TL:DR is that it would reduce air pollution that currently makes our atmosphere more reflective. The long-term effect will be cooling, but that’s about a gradual decrease in insulation, vs a sudden decrease in shade. Well, it turns out there’s been another “downside” to the successes in reducing air pollution over the last few decades, this time in the field of agriculture. I have to say, would not have guessed this, but seeing it all laid out makes sense: farmers had to increase their use of sulfur fertilizer as air quality improved.

Sulfur, an essential nutrient for plants, was as free as air back in the 1980s, drifting down onto farmer’s fields from the polluted sky. The nutrient also caused acid rain, however, and it triggered chemistry that meant more mercury in fish. Regulations led to less sulfur in the air, but in the Midwest, where sulfur-hungry corn and soybean fields were proliferating, crops still needed the nutrient.

“We find a clear increase in sulfur fertilizer use commensurate with a decline in atmospheric deposition,” said Eve-Lyn Hinckley, a CIRES Fellow, CU Boulder ecologist, and lead author of a new assessment of sulfur fertilizer use. “We have compiled the first time-series of sulfur fertilizer data spanning decades, from 1985-2015.”

As sulfur stopped dropping from the sky, farmers began applying it directly, Hinckley and her colleague,  Charles Driscoll from Syracuse University, reported in late December in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. Moreover, sulfur fertilization accelerated quickly, they found, far outpacing the growth in use of other nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

I’m a big advocate of moving our farming indoors, but most of that is also pretty fertilizer-dependent. I don’t know a lot about the mechanics of hydroponic and aeroponic agriculture, but I believe they’re generally more dependent on fertilizers, because they don’t have the support of a soil ecosystem. For that farming which remains outdoors, for for efforts to do soil-based indoor farming, it seems as though this is yet another reason for us to move away from the current monoculture model. Our farms do still get a lot of benefits from the ecosystems around them, but in a lot of ways they’re sort of like ecosystem parasites, giving little in return beyond pollution and vulnerability to disease.

This is not how it has to be. Biodynamic farming, for example, puts soil health front and center, and while I certainly have my philosophical disagreements with Rudolph Steiner, it seems to be a much more sustainable approach to food production. I was lucky enough to be part of a biodynamic CSA in New Hampshire growing up, and while the farmers put a lot of work in, they got reliable results, and we had in-season vegetables, fresh milk and eggs, and a number of other food items year round. It’s doubly impressive when you consider how rocky and uneven the land is in NH. I think one of the changes we may need to make is to go back to farming based on what the land can reliably support, rather than depending on the endless importing of additives, at least where we’re not shifting to more of a managed/edible ecosystem model. See, sulfur has some unfortunate downstream effects:

[…] sulfur’s impacts can be serious: the chemical can essentially make heavy metals, including toxic mercury, more “mobile” and more likely to make their way into fish, for example.

Hinckley said it’s not yet clear how extensively sulfur fertilization impacts the mercury cycle. “It’s the same form of sulfur as was going on with acid rain. However, that was diffuse, widespread atmospheric deposition, and this is intense, targeted applications in much larger amounts.” She and her colleagues are already digging into the connection, “looking at the potential interaction between agricultural sulfur runoff and stimulation of methylmercury formation downstream.”

  I feel like every time there’s news like this, there’s a part of me that just has to note that this is a description of the world as it exists. There are ways in which it has improved – I think reducing air pollution was an unquestionable good, but we’ve still got a very long way to go. That’s part of why, as much as I harp on about systemic change, I’m glad that there are people looking at how things could be improved without that. See, these folks aren’t the only ones looking at sulfur in agriculture, and a team at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has been working on ways to differentiate and track agricultural vs. atmospheric sulfur:

To pull apart the atmospheric and human-applied sulfur, the researchers worked like forensic detectives. All over the Napa Valley, throughout its beautiful hills and valleys, they took samples to measure the concentrations of sulfur from its path through soil to surface water. As they went, they analyzed the chemistry of the sulfur and found a unique chemical signature of the agricultural sulfur, identifiable at the atomic level.

Even as the agricultural sulfur undergoes several chemical transformations, from interactions with microbes and other chemicals in the environment, a unique signature stays with the applied sulfur that allows it to be traced, said Hinckley.

“It’s very different from the signature that we see in atmospheric deposition or geologic weathering, which are the other background sources of sulfur,” said Hinckley.

Yet the objective of her work is not to shut down the use of sulfur in agriculture—which has been used since the time of the Egyptians—but to strategically fine-tune its use and application to both sustain the wine industry and minimize unintended environmental impacts.

“This work could help inform the development of technologies that help farmers to choose when and how much they apply, rather than just applying the same amount preventatively all the time,” said Hinckley.

That team’s focus was on sulfur used as an antifungal treatment for grape vines, so maybe there’s some way in which this approach wouldn’t work for sulfur spread as a fertilizer, but to my layman’s eyes it seems like progress is already being made on tracking the stuff. Heck, given that both of the articles I’ve quoted today come from UC Boulder, and the lead author of the first paper also worked on the second, I’m honestly expecting more on this topic from this particular group of authors before too long.

This is not one of those things that demands immediate action. I think it demands action, and it’s certainly a part of the larger problem of chemical pollution, but as the second article points out, we’ve been using sulfur in farming for literally thousands of years. I suppose it might be possible that changes to farming practices would eliminate the need for stuff like sulfur, but that seems unlikely to me, and far less important than the numerous other reasons for plotting a new course. I find this interesting mainly because I hadn’t thought of air pollution as a fertilizer before, and because coupled with the tracking project, it seems like we might be on the verge of a much more detailed understanding of how our use of sulfur affects the world around us.

Thank you for reading! If you found this post enjoyable or interesting, please share it around! Due to my immigration status, my writing is my only source of income right now, which is why I like to “pass around the hat” now and then for people’s spare change. Supporting me on Patreon can cost as little as three or four cents per day, and when enough people join in, even those $1/month pledges add up. There’s not currently much in the way of patron-only content, but my $5 patrons do have the option to name a character in the fantasy novel I’m currently working on, so if you like my fiction and want to immortalize yourself, or someone you know, then giving me money may just be your best option!

Video: We Need A Library Economy

I’ve heard it said many times that people have trouble imagining what a post-capitalist society might look like. After all, all we have to go on is what came before capitalism, plus the few attempts at something different that we’ve seen over the last century or so. It’s hard to imagine something that doesn’t exist yet, right? Even those parts of the world that operate differently within their own borders, do so within a world controlled by capitalism, and operating under those rules.

So what do we have to compare? Is there anything in existence now, that most people know about, that we could expand use as an example of how things could work differently? Honestly, there are probably a few examples, but one of the best, brought to us by Andrewism, is that of the library. His videos are always pretty chill, and I find this description of what a “library economy” might look like to be inspiring:

No wonder conservatives hate them.

Miraculous Mushrooms Mitigate Mercury Menace

I never hear people proposing policies for cleaning up chemical pollution. I don’t know whether that’s because the ways to do it are less widely known, or because the issue is just less urgent and less in-vogue than climate change, or a secret third thing. Regardless, it’s an issue that I think is important, and (to the great shock of nobody), a problem that I think is best addressed using the abilities of organisms like plants, fungi, and bacteria.

That’s why I was happy to see this research, showing that not only can a particular fungus clean up mercury, in soil and in water, but we can apparently enhance its ability to do so:

“This project, led by Dr. Fang, found that Metarhizium stops plants from taking up mercury,” said St. Leger. “Despite being planted in polluted soil, the plant grows normally and is edible. What’s more, the fungus alone can quickly clear mercury from both fresh and saltwater.”

Metarhizium is a nearly ubiquitous fungi, and previous work by the St. Leger laboratory had shown that it colonizes plant roots and protects them from herbivorous insects. Scientists have known that Metarhizium is often one of the only living things found in soils from toxic sites like mercury mines. But no one had previously determined how the fungus survived in mercury polluted soils, or if that had implications for the plants the fungus normally lives with.

St. Leger and other colleagues had previously sequenced the genome of Metarhizium, and Fang noticed that it contains two genes that are very similar to genes present in a bacterium known to detoxify, or bioremediate, mercury.

For the current study, the researchers ran a variety of laboratory experiments and found that corn infected with Metarhizium grew just as well whether it was planted in clean soil or mercury-laden soil. What’s more, no mercury was found in the plant tissues of corn grown in polluted soil.

The researchers then genetically modified the fungi, removing the two genes that were similar to those in mercury remediating bacteria. When they replicated their experiments, modified Metarhizium no longer protected corn plants from mercury-laden soil, and the corn died.

To verify that the genes were providing the detoxifying qualities, the researchers inserted them into another fungus that does not normally protect corn from mercury. The newly modified fungus performed like the Metarhizium, protecting the plants from mercury-laden soil.

Microbiological analyses revealed that the genes in question expressed enzymes that break down highly toxic organic forms of mercury into less toxic, inorganic mercury molecules. Lastly, the researchers genetically engineered Metarhizium to express more of the detoxifying genes and increase its production of the detoxifying enzymes.

In their final experiment, the researchers found they could clear mercury from both fresh and salt water in 48 hours by mixing in Metarhizium.

The next step will be to conduct experiments in the field in China to see if Metarhizium can turn toxic environments into productive fields for growing corn and other crops. Current methods of remediating polluted soils require toxins to be removed or neutralized from entire fields before anything can be planted. That can be very expensive and take a long time. But Metarhizium simply detoxifies the soil immediately surrounding the plant roots and prevents the plants from taking up the toxin.

“Allowing plants to grow in mercury-rich environments is one of the ways this fungus protects its plant home,” St. Leger explained. “It’s the only microbe we know of with the potential to be used like this, because the bacteria with the same genetic capabilities to detoxify mercury don’t grow on plants. But you can imagine simply dipping seeds in Metarhizium, and planting crops that are now protected from mercury-rich soils.”

In addition to its potential as a cost-effective tool for reclaiming polluted lands for agriculture, Metarhizium may help clear mercury from wetlands and polluted waterways that are increasingly threatened by mercury pollution as climate change and melting permafrost accelerates the release of the toxic metal into soils and oceans.

This seems like great news! What’s more, if the claims made here are born out in future research, then it means that with the right preparation, even toxic soil could grow food that’s safe to eat. I honestly never would have thought of that, and the implications are fascinating, both as an activist, and as a science fiction writer. This is one of those times where I feel like I could see really amazing biotech innovations in my lifetime, that could help in pretty unambiguous ways, like rendering pollution harmless.