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.

 

Advances in avian culinary technology open new front in The Toad Wars

One of my favorite “tropes” in modern environmentalism is the idea of solving human problems by improving, amplifying, or adjusting ecosystem services. This covers all sorts of things, but I think the first example I ever heard of was using predatory insects – ladybugs – to control agricultural pests. That was my first example, but not my favorite. My favorite, as I mentioned recently, is the story of cane toads in Australia. It’s an example of an almost-clever idea that has had horrible, and sometimes hilarious results. If nothing else, it has given us this gem of a nature documentary, which you can watch with your family while you eat Thanksgiving dinner!

That’s high art, if ever there was such a thing. Truly a masterpiece of cinema.

Now, why do I bring this up, other than the fact that it lets me write about something easy while my mind is elsewhere? Well, a new front has been opened in the Cane Toad Wars, and it comes to us thanks to the very latest in avian innovation. May I present to you, the Ibis-devised “stress-and-wash” technique for cane toad cuisine?

Ibis are often seen feeding on food dumped by humans, but citizen scientists are increasingly reporting the native species is dining out on toxic cane toads.

Gold Coast coordinator of Watergum’s Cane Toads program Emily Vincent said the “stress and wash” method had been viewed numerous times by citizen scientists.

“It’s quite amusing to watch and it’s quite different from other native species and their methods of eating them,” she said.

“The ibis will pick up cane toads and they will flick them about and stress out the toads.

“What this does is it makes the cane toads release toxins from the parotoid gland at the back of their neck, which is their defence mechanism when they’re faced with predators.

“Then they’ll take them down to the creek and wash them.”
Ms Vincent said it was encouraging to see the ibis capitalising on the food source, which was first introduced into Australia in 1935 to control cane beetles in Queensland’s sugarcane crops.

The cane toad has since spread into New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

“We have lots and lots of ibis in Australia,” she said.

“This is a learned behaviour and it’s been observed in multiple different regions.

“I think it will have an impact, especially as more species tag along and copy the behaviour.”

The article has some other useful information, including the fact that while the toad’s poison is apparently unpleasant for birds, it doesn’t actually do a whole lot to them. They mainly avoid it because of the flavor. I do feel bad for the toads (as I feel bad for some shown in the video above), but Australia’s ecosystem could really use a break, so it’s nice to see this.

Maybe this will finally bring peace between the Australians and the Ibis. I certainly hope so, given that country’s record when it comes to fighting birds, but it’s hard to say. In the meantime, here’s the current state of things as I understand it:

Soggy Sunday: There can be no climate action without fresh water.

There are a lot of reasons why I keep stressing the need for ecosystem management as the core of our climate action. We have, throughout our history, been utterly dependent on the natural world, even as we have been destroying it in the name of endless “growth”. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the medicines that keep us alive, the materials we use to shelter ourselves from the elements – all of it ties back to so-called “nature”, because we are a part of it.

That means that as we work to end greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to the changes we’ve already caused, we must also change how we do business in other areas. Ending our direct contribution to warming will mean little if we increase other forms of pollution as we do it. It’s not as simple as swapping out what kind of fuel powers our society, and if we pretend that the climate is our only existential environmental threat, then we will continue driving ourselves toward extinction through other means.

A holistic approach is going to mean a lot of things, but when it comes down to it, none of that is possible without continual access to fresh water. That may seem obvious, but it’s cause for real concern, as this report made for COP27 discusses:

The report titled: “The essential drop to reach Net-Zero: Unpacking Freshwater’s Role in Climate Change Mitigation,” released November 9 2022 at COP27 in harm El-Sheikh, is the first-ever summary of current research on the role of water in climate mitigation. A key message is the need to better understand global water shortages and scarcity in order to plan climate targets that do not backfire in future. If not planned carefully, negative impacts of climate action on freshwater resources might threaten water security and even increase future adaptation and mitigation burdens.

“Most of the measures needed to reach net-zero carbon targets can have a big impact on already dwindling freshwater resources around the world,” said Dr Lan Wang Erlandsson from Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. “With better planning, such risks can be reduced or avoided.”

The report describes why, where, and how freshwater should be integrated into climate change mitigation plans to avoid unexpected consequences and costly policy mistakes. Even efforts usually associated with positive climate action – such as forest restoration or bioenergy – can have negative impacts if water supplies are not considered.

Done right, however, water-related and nature-based solutions can instead address both the climate crisis and other challenges, said Dr Malin Lundberg Ingemarsson from Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

“We have identified water risks, but also win-win solutions that are currently not used to their full potential. One example is restoration of forests and wetlands which bring social, ecological, and climate benefits all at once. Another example is that better wastewater treatment can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from untreated wastewater, while improving surface water and groundwater quality, and even provide renewable energy through biogas.”

That was when I decided I actually wanted to write about this a bit. “Nature-based solutions” are exactly what we need. As dangerous as heat waves and storms may be, one of the biggest dangers to our species is the breakdown of ecosystem services, of which most people seem to be largely unaware. I couldn’t say the exact numbers, but for all we must spend trillions on ending fossil fuel use, I think we should also spend trillions on ecosystem restoration and support. Even if we weren’t depleting both ground and surface water, and even if we weren’t poisoning what remains with reckless abandon, the melting of mountain glaciers around the world means that before long, billions could lose their primary water source. We need to be actively working to build up ecosystems, because they aren’t just affected by the weather, they affect the weather. Deforestation means less rainfall. That’s going to vary from ecosystem to ecosystem, but it’s not hard to understand.

Plants don’t just absorb rainwater, they also transfer it from the ground to the air. Trees in particular act as giant vaporizers, humidifying the air around their crowns. That, in turn, helps create rain downwind, or even sometimes right over the same forest. That movement of water, as I’ve discussed before, also moves heat around, which can help mitigate extreme heat, which affects everyone’s need for water. My insistence on viewing ourselves as a part of nature isn’t some spiritual feeling of connection, it’s a simple fact, supported by overwhelming evidence.

The report highlights five key messages on the interlinkage between water and mitigation:

• Climate mitigation measures depend on freshwater resources. Climate mitigation planning and action need to account for current and future freshwater availability.
•  Freshwater impacts – both positive and negative – need to be evaluated and included in climate mitigation planning and action.
•  Water and sanitation management can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More efficient drinking water and sanitation services save precious freshwater resources and reduce emissions.
•  Nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change can deliver multiple benefits for people and the environment. Measures safeguarding freshwater resources, protecting biodiversity, and ensuring resilient livelihoods are crucial.
•  Joint water and climate governance need to be coordinated and strengthened. Mainstreaming freshwater in all climate mitigation planning and action requires polycentric and inclusive governance.

“Climate change mitigation efforts will not succeed if failing to consider water needs,” said Marianne Kjellén, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “Water must be part of powerful solutions for enhancing ecosystem resilience, preserving biodiversity and regenerative food and energy production systems. In short, water security needs to be factored in to climate action,” she adds.

There’s a part of me that simply cannot believe that that last thought needs to be spelled out. How could anybody possibly think that we could respond to the threat of climate change without factoring in water? Hasn’t everyone been talking about “the coming water wars” for years? But, of course, action on that end of things has been woefully inadequate, just as it has been in every other area. Not only that, but the system we’re trying to change uses war not just to control people, but also to generate profit. Those of us still connected to our humanity hear “water wars” and think of the horrors of war, and perhaps the horrors of water scarcity. The rich and powerful, particularly in the United States, think of all the money they’ll make by converting raw resources into dead bodies, ravaged landscapes, and fat paychecks. There’s also a rather large portion of the population that is ideologically committed to the belief that a magical being put this entire cosmos here for “us” (which means the rich and powerful) to do with as we see fit. So yeah – it needs to be spelled out. For a lot of people, I’m afraid we’ll have to change the world around them, and hope their minds change afterwards, but in the meantime, it’s good to figure out what we should be doing about the water problem.

While I hope to go through the report more thoroughly, and write about its contents, I’ve had such intentions in the past. I’m approaching a year of daily posting (not counting the time I took off for Raksha’s death), which is a strange new experience for me, so hopefully I’ll actually be able to follow through this time. Still, maintaining work on my current novel is a more important right now, so in the meantime, here’s a link to the report, all nicely laid out by section. If you want me make this project (or any other) more of a priority, I’ll take that into consideration once you sign up at patreon.com/oceanoxia and send me a message about it.

It is a simple fact that on this planet, water is life. It’s also a fact that when we have tried to, we’ve been able to clean up polluted bodies of water, restore ecosystems, and bring species back from the brink of extinction. We do have the resources and understanding to make the world better, all we lack is a political an economic system that values doing so.


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The wrong fruit fly, in the wrong place, at the wrong time: A tale of rot and ruin

I’ve written before about the problems caused by invasive species. I don’t know how they compare to other forms of habitat destruction for which we are responsible, but I think it’s safe to say that they’re often underrated as a problem. It’s true that the damage caused by the earthworm invasion of North America doesn’t seem as big of a deal as clear-cutting or climate change, but as I’ve said before, wearing away the diversity of an ecosystem wears away at its resilience. It’s like pulling blocks out of a Jenga tower – the ecosystem may be able to retain its basic structure for a long time, but after a certain point, it will be unstable enough that it can collapse at the smallest touch.

And keep in mind that the undermining of our biosphere is happening from multiple directions at once.

It seems that an invasive species of fruit fly is working away at one of those Jenga blocks:

The invasive spotted wing drosophila (SWD), introduced from South-East Asia, is a well-known fruit crop pest. It lays its eggs by destroying the mechanical protection of the fruit’s skin, providing an entry point for further infestation. Egg deposition and inoculated microbes then accelerate decay, and as a result the fruit rots and becomes inedible. While this small fly is known to cause massive economic damage in agriculture, little is known about its ecological impact on more natural ecosystems such as forests.

A recent study by Swiss scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL and the Ökobüro Biotopia, published in the scientific journal NeoBiota, concluded that the SWD competes strongly with other fruit-eating species and that its presence could have far-reaching consequences for ecosystems.

The research team assessed the use of potential host plants at 64 sites in forests from mid-June to mid-October 2020 by checking a total of 12,000 fruits for SWD egg deposits. To determine if SWD attacks trigger fruit decay, they also recorded symptoms of fruit decay after egg deposition. In addition, they monitored the fruit fly (drosophilid) fauna in the area, assuming that the SWD would outnumber and possibly outcompete other fruit-eating insects.

The authors found egg deposits on the fruits of 31 of the 39 fruit-bearing forest plant species they studied, with 18 species showing an attack rate of more than 50%. Furthermore, more than 50% of the affected plant species showed severe symptoms of decay after egg deposition. The egg depositions may alter the attractiveness of fruits, because they change their chemical composition and visual cues, such as colour, shape and reflective patterns, which in turn might lead seed dispersers such as birds to consume less fruits.

Given the large number of infested fruits, significant ecological impacts can be expected. “Rapid decay of fruits attacked by the spotted wing drosophila results in a loss of fruit available for other species competing for this resource, and may disrupt seed-dispersal mutualisms due to reduced consumption of fruit by dispersers such as birds,” says Prof. Martin M. Gossner, entomologist at the WSL. “If the fly reproduces in large numbers, both seed dispersers and plants could suffer.”

This, of course, is on top of the fact that the invasive species is outcompeting, and crowding out those fruit fly species that aren’t able to get an early start on a fruit by penetrating its outer skin. On a long enough timeline, the crises caused by invasive species would probably resolve themselves, if that was the only problem facing those ecosystems.

If only…

When I say that we need to make ecosystem management a priority, this is part of what I’m talking about. We don’t need to return to some imagined pre-industrial “perfect state”, but we do need to have an understanding of what is happening in our ecosystems. In case it hasn’t been clear, this could create many millions of jobs all over the world, and unlike so many jobs that exist today, these ones would be focused on actively making the world a better place for those that come after us. Fewer hedge fund managers, and more hedgerow managers!

This is also another reason why we should move as much of our food production indoors as possible. It may be that with a population as large as ours, there’s still value in monoculture farming for the sake of efficiency. The problem is that that’s an ecologically devastating practice. Completely aside from the damage done to the soil, pollution and runoff, and the land cleared, big farms that grow one crop pull in pests and diseases that can then spread to other crops. They act as an endlessly renewing fountain of pestilence that surrounding ecosystems are forced to absorb. Doing that in a closed system, indoors, would not just protect the crops from the weather and from pests, it would also protect the ecosystem around the farm from being inundated with fertilizers, pesticides, pests, and pathogens.


If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

 

Air pollution is bad, whether you’re a WASP, or a wasp.

When people discuss the decline in insect populations, the biggest culprit, unsurprisingly, is the over-use of insecticides. Agriculture isn’t the only area where that’s a problem, but it’s probably the biggest. Farmers around the world have developed alternative methods of pest control, including the nurturing of predators and parasitoids. Probably the most infamous failure of this method has been the Australian cane toad debacle, but I think my favorite version comes from cranberry bogs:

https://unauthorizedrhapsody.tumblr.com/post/630276104230518784/why-do-they-always-show-cranberries-in-thos-big

I’m sure PZ has been tempted to take up cranberry farming, but I dunno how well I’d fare with wolf spiders on my face. This post really gets at the essence of the technique – the spiders are fellow workers. That attitude is very much how I think we should be viewing most of the rest of life on this planet, so while it needs to be done carefully (see the cane toad documentary I linked above, if you haven’t), I think it’s a brilliant technique.

The problem (you knew there was going to be a problem, didn’t you?) is that unless we actually take a systemic approach to change, those people trying to do better in the context of our current, destructive system, are being undermined by that system. I’ve talked before about how air pollution is bad for humans, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s bad for other critters. Specifically, diesel exhaust and ozone cause problems for parasitoid wasps used to protect plants grown for vegetable oil (apologies in advance for this article being about the worst-named plant in existence):

The team, led by scientists from the University of Reading, used special equipment to deliver controlled amounts of diesel exhaust and ozone to oilseed rape plants. They also added aphids to the plants and measured the reproductive success of parasitic wasps that habitually lay their eggs inside a freshly stung aphid.

Dr James Ryalls, University of Reading said: “Even at the levels we used, which were lower than safe maximums set by environmental regulators, the overall numbers of parasitic insects still fell. This is a worrying result as many sustainable farming practices rely on natural pest control to keep aphids and other unwelcome creatures away from valuable crops.

“Diesel and ozone appear to make it more difficult for the wasps to find aphids to prey upon and so the wasp population would drop over time.”

Fortunately, this study has two bits of good news. The first, which is more an implication, is that efforts to decrease air pollution – which are already necessary for other reasons – will increase the effectiveness of wasp-based pest control. The other is that this doesn’t seem to be a problem for all of the wasps:

While the majority of parasitic wasp species decreased in polluted environments, one species of parasitic wasp appeared to do better when both diesel and ozone were present. However, the researchers found that this combination of pollutants also correlated with changes in the plants that might explain the finding.

With both pollutants present, oilseed rape plants produced more of the compounds that give brassica family crops, including mustards and cabbages, their distinctive bitter, hot and peppery flavour notes. These usually repel insects but in the case of Diaretiella rapae wasps, there was greater abundance and reproductive success associated with diesel exhaust and ozone together.

Dr Ryalls said: “Diaretiella rapae particularly likes to prey on cabbage aphids, which love to eat brassica crops.

“We know that some of the flavour and smell compounds in oilseed rape are converted into substances that do attract D.rapae. So, we could speculate that the stronger smell attracts the wasps and they are more successful in finding and preying upon aphids, that way. It could be that D.rapae is a good choice for pest control in diesel and ozone polluted areas.

“This really goes to show that the only way to predict and mitigate the impacts of air pollutants is to study whole systems.”

As transport shifts away from diesel and towards electric motors, air pollution will change. Knowing how pest-regulation service providers, such as parasitic wasps, respond to these progressive changes, will be essential to planning mitigation strategies to ensure sustainable food security now, and in the future. This research shows that we also must consider the impact of pollution on the plants, wasps, and prey insects, and the interactions between all three.

I think this last point is an important one to end on. In building a better society, we’re not looking to abandon technology. That means, as I’ve said before, that we will keep engaging in resource extraction that is destructive to the environment, and we will keep creating poisonous industrial byproducts. Our project, at this stage, is one of changing which pollutants we create most, and how we manage them. Creating an economic system that does not require infinite growth will help reduce all pollutants, but we will still have to contend with that which is unavoidable. That means that, unlike the present arrangement, we will need to actually clean up the messes we make through industry, just as we do with human waste. In that case, the time and energy put into sewage treatment helps everyone by making the world more pleasant to live in, and by reducing disease outbreaks. Getting a better handle on industrial pollution will yield similar results.

Healthy ecosystems that are beneficial to humans, like food forests and other “edible ecosystems”, is a goal worth working towards, but it’s not something that’s likely to work if don’t actually commit to it. Rising temperatures, pollution, and direct habitat destruction currently keep that future out of reach, which is why it’s so important to maintain a holistic perspective on the situation.


If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

More CO2 can lead to less nutritious crops

One of the oldest “arguments” against mainstream climate science is the claim that because plants “eat” carbon dioxide, a rise in atmospheric CO2 would be good for plants, and therefor good for us. As with all good misinformation, there’s a grain of truth here. All things being equal, a plant will grow better with higher CO2 levels. The main problem with this argument is that it ignores the other factors that help plants grow. Drought, flooding, and heatwaves all harm plant growth, and this was pretty well demonstrable a decade ago:

And in case all that wasn’t bad enough, it seems that a higher concentration of CO2 is particularly good for poison ivy, both in terms of its growth, and its toxicity. It’s just one of the many irritating things about the current situation. There’s more to it than that, though. Even if we can protect our crops from heat and drought, it seems that higher CO2 levels can result in less nutritious food for us plant-eaters:

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 publishing in Trends in Plant Science on November 3, 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.

“There are many reports in the literature showing that the CO2 levels expected at the end of the twenty-first century will lead to a lower concentration of nitrogen in most plants, mainly affecting the protein content in plant products,” says first author Alain Gojon, research director of France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment. “It is very important to understand why growing plants at elevated CO2 has such a negative effect on the protein content of most staple crops and the future of food.”

Plants use photosynthesis to incorporate CO2 into sugars that they derive their energy from. However, photosynthesis does not provide plants with the key minerals they need to grow. For most plants, these minerals, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron, are picked up from the soil through their root systems. Nitrogen is particularly important as it is a key building block for the amino acids that plants use to make proteins.

A nitrogen deficiency not only means that a plant will have difficulty building its tissues, but also that it will provide less nutrition to humans. “What is clear is that the nutrient composition of the main crops used worldwide, such as rice and wheat, is negatively impacted by the elevation of CO2. This will have a strong impact on food quality and global food security,” says corresponding author Antoine Martin, researcher of the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

“Two main nutrients that are essential for human nutrition may be affected by this phenomenon,” adds Gojon. “The first one is proteins built from nitrogen. In developing countries this can be a big issue, because many diets in these countries aren’t rich in proteins and plants grown at elevated CO2 can have twenty to thirty percent less protein. The second one is iron. Iron deficiency already affects an estimated 2 billion people worldwide.”

Beyond global food systems, lowered mineral status of plants at increased atmospheric CO2 levels may lead to a negative feedback loop for mitigating climate change. “The terrestrial carbon sink associated with enhanced photosynthesis may be limited if most of the vegetation is deficient in nitrogen and other minerals, which may prevent any additional increase of CO2 capture from the atmosphere” says Gojon.

“We would like to really understand the mechanisms that are responsible for the negative effects of elevated CO2 on the mineral composition of plants,” says Martin. “For example, we are currently exploring the natural genetic variation behind these negative effects, that could be used afterwards to improve crops nutritional value under future COatmosphere.”

This seems like something that could be mitigated with different farming practices, but it serves once again to demonstrate that carbon dioxide is not the only thing that can limit a plant’s wellbeing. Even if they didn’t result in ocean acidification and temperature rise, our emissions wouldn’t magically increase all other nutrients that plants need, and that has always been pretty obvious.

As ever, these arguments don’t exist to make a compelling case. They exist as weapons in a propaganda war, to be re-used for as long as possible, facts be damned. It’s good to keep doing this kind of research, but most of the climate denial we see in the world is not caused by a lack of information. Ideology and greed are doing far more harm than simple ignorance ever could.

“Agricultural rewilding” should be a part of our response to climate change.

In general, I believe that we should be investing heavily in various modes of indoor food production. There are a lot of different forms this could and should take – I’ve talked before about diversity as the foundation of resilience – but central to the case for all of them is the same. The vast majority of food production depends on predictable seasonal weather patterns; weather patterns that become less predictable by the year. Another part of the reason for that is that it would free up current farmland to be used either for carbon capture, or rewilded.

Here at Oceanoxia, we view humanity as being a part of the various ecosystems in which we exist. That means that when those ecosystems are threatened, it puts us in danger too. We’re accustomed to thinking of ourselves as apart from the so-called “natural world”, but that was always a fantasy rooted in supremacist ideologies. Rewilding land, if done right helps increase the resilience of those ecosystems, which benefits us in turn.

So what does it mean to “do it right” when it comes to rewilding? Well, there are a lot of answers to that, and maybe I’ll dig into it more in the future (let me know in the comments, I guess?), but for those article there are two things I want to focus on. The first is that it’s going to be different in different places. With invasive species, pollution, climate change, and a hundred other factors, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to this.

The second is that we should not necessarily be trying to recreate some ideal of an “unspoiled wilderness”. I’ve talked before about how Native Americans, and many other groups around the world, practiced agriculture as ecosystem management. This means cultivating the wildlife to create an ecosystem where edible and medicinal plants are abundant and easy to find. It also means cultivating your society so that everyone knows to care for this common resource. I think it’s also important to note that with the rising temperature, trying to recreate past ecosystems may be a literally fruitless endeavor.

Regardless, I think that we should be cultivating “edible ecosystems” as one part of the work we’re doing, and the science says I’m right!

‘Agricultural rewilding’ can also help to overcome concerns about the impact of rewilding on livelihoods and produce “win-win” environmental and human benefits, according to the researchers.

Agricultural rewilding involves restoring ecosystems via the introduction, management, and production of livestock with domestic species (typically hardy, native breeds) acting as analogues for their wild counterparts.

Researchers say combining rewilding and agriculture in this way helps to address some of the key concerns related to rewilding – the exclusion of people and agricultural work from the land, and reduction in food self-sufficiency.

It can also support the production of high-quality, high-welfare, high-value meat that is environmentally, ethically, and financially sustainable.

Conventionally, rewilding seeks to remove or reduce human intervention in a landscape in order to restore damaged ecosystems. Researchers argue that agricultural rewilding can achieve ecological benefits such as habitat restoration, tree planting, and natural flood management while still allowing for human management of land.

The paper was first presented at the conference of the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics and is now published in Transforming food systems: ethics, innovation and responsibility. The work was a collaboration between Virginia Thomas from the University of Exeter, England, and Aymeric Mondière, Michael Corson, and Hayo van der Werf from the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment.

Dr Thomas said: “Agricultural rewilding offers the potential for win-win scenarios in which biodiversity is increased and ecosystems are restored along with active human intervention in landscapes and the provision of livelihoods which are financially and environmentally sustainable.”

“Agricultural rewilding can potentially have biodiversity benefits over those of conventional rewilding since it can create and maintain habitats which may be lost in “hands-off” rewilding practices and whose loss would pose a threat to habitat-specialist species.”

“Furthermore, extensive farming as part of agricultural rewilding offers an advantage over more intensive agriculture in that animals can be kept in naturalistic conditions and in accordance with high welfare standards.”

“Domestic livestock can be present in the landscape, restoring biodiversity and regenerating ecosystem function, while still contributing to agricultural production where their lives are lived to high welfare and environmental standards and their deaths provide high-quality meat, thus contributing to food self-sufficiency and reducing the outsourcing of food production to systems with higher environmental impacts. Meanwhile, management of livestock allows for continued active human intervention in the landscape, thereby supporting rural livelihoods and communities.”

Yes, please. I want that.

For all I think that we should be planning for a world where people can’t go outside without serious heat protection during growing parts of the year, I also think that we should be reshaping our cultures to make our connection to the rest of the biosphere harder to ignore. Some of that means bringing the outside in, and having more plant and animal life within places like cities (which may need to be enclosed at some times? I feel like people don’t think enough about how hot things are likely to get), but it also means having a different relationship with the outdoors. Yes to recreation, yes to having the time to be outside, but also as a part of maintaining and governing our communities.

As much as capitalists and their supporters may hate to hear it, the biosphere is a common resource. All of our fates are tied to it, and efforts to privatize it have proven disastrous. We can have a better world, than this one, but we should expect it to be radically different from what we’re used to.


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Breadfruit to the rescue!

When it comes to adapting to/preparing for global warming, resilience is key. It’s absolutely worth finding ways to increase our resistance to climate disasters, but being able to recover quickly will matter much more.  There’s no roadmap for how the next few decades are going to go – we’ve got good general guesses, but those don’t allow us to predict what’s going to happen where. We can prepare for some things – ensure access to air conditioning and reliable potable water during heatwaves, for one example – but the ability to take an unexpected hit without collapsing is key.

Resilience, in my view, is best achieved through diversity. Diversity of strengths, diversity of thought, diversity of experience, diversity of species – I make no secret of my interest in ecology, or of my belief that we should see ourselves as part of the ecosystems around us. In ecosystems, biodiversity is key to resilience. The more species you have living in a given area, the less damage will be done by removing any one of those species. There are a lot of ways in which I think this concept applies fractally. At the level of a local community, a diversity of people makes it more likely that whatever problem arises, someone will have some idea of what to do about it. A diversity in diet – in types and sources of food – means that if one kind of crop fails, there are other kinds of food available. Zoom out to the national or global scale, and the same remains true.

That’s why it’s such a problem that so much of our population depends on so few species. Even leaving aside the disease and pest risks of monoculture farming, relying on a small number of crops means depending on a narrow range of growing conditions. At risk of stating the obvious, growing conditions are changing worldwide. I maintain that our first priority should be investing heavily in indoor food production, but in the interest of diversity and resilience, I think there’s real value in exploring other options.

Enter the breadfruit.

While researchers predict that climate change will have an adverse effect on most staple crops, including rice, corn and soybeans, a new Northwestern University study finds that breadfruit — a starchy tree fruit native to the Pacific islands — will be relatively unaffected.

Because breadfruit is resilient to predicted climate change and particularly well-suited to growing in areas that experience high levels of food insecurity, the Northwestern team believes breadfruit could be part of the solution to the worsening global hunger crisis.

The study was published today (Aug. 17) in the journal PLOS Climate.

“Breadfruit is a neglected and underutilized species that happens to be relatively resilient in our climate change projections,” said Northwestern’s Daniel Horton, a senior author on the study. “This is good news because several other staples that we rely on are not so resilient. In really hot conditions, some of those staple crops struggle and yields decrease. As we implement strategies to adapt to climate change, breadfruit should be considered in food security adaptation strategies.”

[…]

Despite having “fruit” in its name, breadfruit is starchy and seedless, playing a culinary role more like a potato. Closely related to jackfruit, the nutrient-rich food is high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. In tropical parts of the world, people have been eating breadfruit for thousands of years — whether steamed, roasted, fried or fermented. Breadfruit also can be turned into flour, in order to lengthen its shelf life and be exported.

“Breadfruit trees can live for decades and provide a large amount of fruits each year,” said Zerega, a conservation scientist with the Negaunee Institute for Plant Conservation Science and Action at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “In some cultures, there is a tradition to plant a breadfruit tree when a child is born to ensure the child will have food for the rest of their life.”

This sounds like something worth looking into, doesn’t it? As ever, this needs to come with systemic economic and political change – there’s no point to  increasing consumption of breadfruit if it’s just rich countries buying it from the people who currently rely on it, and forcing those people to then buy food on the international market. Fortunately, it seems likely that the number of places capable of growing breadfruit will go up as the temperature rises, particularly compared to current staples like wheat.

To conduct the study, the researchers first determined the climate conditions required to cultivate breadfruit. Then, they looked at how these conditions are predicted to change in the future (between the years 2060 and 2080). For future climate projections, they looked at two scenarios: an unlikely scenario that reflects high greenhouse-gas emissions and a more likely scenario in which emissions stabilize.

I love the optimism of their likely/unlikely labeling. I hope history proves them right about that.

In both scenarios, areas suitable for breadfruit cultivation remained mostly unaffected. In the tropics and subtropics, the suitable area for growing breadfruit decreased by a modest 4.4 to 4.5%. The researchers also found suitable territory where growing breadfruit trees could expand — particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where breadfruit trees are not traditionally grown but could provide an important and stable source of food.

“Despite the fact that climate will drastically change in the tropics, climate is not projected to move outside the window where breadfruit is comfortable,” Yang said. “From a climate perspective, we can already grow breadfruit in sub-Saharan Africa. There is a huge swath of Africa, where breadfruit can grow to various degrees. It just has not been broadly introduced there yet. And, luckily enough, most varieties of breadfruit are seedless and have little-to-no likelihood of becoming invasive.”

According to Zerega, once established, a breadfruit tree can withstand heat and drought much longer than other staple crops. But the benefits don’t end there. Because it’s a perennial crop, it also requires less energy input (including water and fertilizer) than crops that need to be replanted every year, and, like other trees, it sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the tree’s lifetime.

“A lot of places where breadfruit can grow have high levels of food insecurity,” Yang said. “Oftentimes, they combat food insecurity by importing staple crops like wheat or rice, and that comes with a high environmental cost and carbon footprint. With breadfruit, however, these communities can produce food more locally.”

This brings us back to the need for systemic change. There’s a long history of rich nations using their wealth and power to undermine efforts at self-sufficiency in poor nations. Forcing a country to remain dependent on imports means that they have to put all their resources into generating cash crops to sell on the international market. That benefits capitalists, but it’s terrible for the kind of resilience we need. This is yet another example where we have what looks to be a good solution to part of the climate problem, but it’s unlikely to be implemented in any useful capacity without revolutionary political change.

It’s also worth underlining that there’s very little chance of the plant becoming invasive if grown in new locations. I’ve talked before about the damage that invasive species can do, and now is not the time to be adding more burdens to already-crumbling ecosystems.

The scale of change that we need is daunting, to say the least. I don’t think humanity has ever undertaken a task of this size and complexity. The upside is that “humanity” is also big and complex, and we’ve learned how break down big problems into more manageable parts. For climate change, one of those parts is changing our food system. Some of that change will just be differences in proportion – maybe we’ll have less wheat and corn, and more rice breadfruit, for example. I find it helps to remember that there are thousands of teams like the one behind this breadfruit research. More than that, there are millions of people not just doing research, but also taking direct action, and working out how to do more.

I no longer think climate change is just the result of all of us being collectively irresponsible – that would ignore how power works, and how our system is designed. That said, we are collectively living through it. You are not alone, and even if it’s not your day, your week, your month, or even your year, there are countless others out there working.

To grow breadfruit.

The image shows two breadfruits close to the camera. They’re green, oblong, and seem to be covered in small scales. The leaves behind them are very big, and toothed. Other breadfruits can be seen out of focus in the background.


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Video: Can Capitalism Solve World Hunger?

In writing about yesterday’s good news, I mentioned the fact that we currently produce more food than is needed to end world hunger. As usual, Second Thought provides a nice, approachable overview of the scale of the problem, why capitalism cannot solve world hunger (and why, as I’ve explained, that means capitalism also can’t solve the coming famines caused by global warming).

There’s one point I wanted to add that’s often left out of conversations about this topic. As I briefly discussed in this post, there’s a big portion of farmland that could grow food for people, but is instead dedicated to growing food for livestock. While some of that is hay, a lot of it is various grains fed to livestock like cattle. That means that actually feeding everyone with our current system would require a shift away from animal agriculture. Basically, we need to start growing more food for us, and less food for our food. I can imagine a variety of reasons why this is left out so often, but that speculation on that matters less to me than just correcting the deficiency.

What the video DOES cover well is the role that the IMF and World Bank has played in the unequal distribution of food, for the sake of profits for the upper class of wealth countries. With all of that said, I hope you enjoy the video!

Good news: Bioengineered photosynthesis hack promises to dramatically increase yields in a variety of crops

Norman Borlaug is widely credited for saving a billion people from starvation. This comes from his development of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties, which play a real role in the over-abundance of food we currently produce. It remains the fact that, despite hunger still being a big problem in the world, we produce enough food to feed billions more people than are currently alive. Nobody starves because we can’t feed them – they starve because their miserable deaths are more profitable than their lives. That said, I fully expect climate change to cause ever-increasing difficulties for the conventional farming practices on which we rely. This means that even if we do manage to build a society that values life, we may be hard-pressed to grow enough food to keep people alive on a rapidly warming planet. No matter what the future holds, Borlaug’s work will continue saving lives in to the future. It now appears that there may be another similar advance in another staple crop – soybeans:

Photosynthesis, the natural process all plants use to convert sunlight into energy and yield, is a surprisingly inefficient 100+ step process that RIPE researchers have been working to improve for more than a decade. In this first-of-its-kind work, recently published in Science, the group improved the VPZ construct within the soybean plant to improve photosynthesis and then conducted field trials to see if yield would be improved as a result.

The VPZ construct contains three genes that code for proteins of the xanthophyll cycle, which is a pigment cycle that helps in the photoprotection of the plants. Once in full sunlight, this cycle is activated in the leaves to protect them from damage, allowing leaves to dissipate the excess energy. However, when the leaves are shaded (by other leaves, clouds, or the sun moving in the sky) this photoprotection needs to switch off so the leaves can continue the photosynthesis process with a reserve of sunlight. It takes several minutes for the plant to switch off the protective mechanism, costing plants valuable time that could have been used for photosynthesis.

The overexpression of the three genes from the VPZ construct accelerates the process, so every time a leaf transitions from light to shade the photoprotection switches off faster. Leaves gain extra minutes of photosynthesis which, when added up throughout the entire growing season, increases the total photosynthetic rate. This research has shown that despite achieving a more than 20% increase in yield, seed quality was not impacted.

“Despite higher yield, seed protein content was unchanged. This suggests some of the extra energy gained from improved photosynthesis was likely diverted to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the plant’s nodules,” said RIPE Director Stephen Long (CABBI/BSD/GEGC), Ikenberry Endowed University Chair of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology.

This is very, very, very good news. As a species, we currently get about 17% of our protein from the oceans, and that is devastating oceanic ecosystems. While many of us really need to decrease our protein intake, the fact remains that we need to stop commercial fishing. That means that we’re going to need alternate sources of protein – doubly so because we really ought to get rid of most animal agriculture (though we need to keep some for those with dietary restrictions, and we need to guarantee access to good food, so the decrease in animal agriculture doesn’t suddenly make it astronomically expensive to exist if you require meat to survive). As with most innovations, this one by itself isn’t going to solve all our problems. That said, this could solve a lot of problems, and make it much easier to feed people despite the decline in good farming conditions around the world.

What’s more, this innovation is not limited to soybeans – it seems like it could be used for a wide variety of crops:

The researchers first tested their idea in tobacco plants because of the ease of transforming the crop’s genetics and the amount of seeds that can be produced from a single plant. These factors allow researchers to go from genetic transformation to a field trial within months. Once the concept was proven in tobacco, they moved into the more complicated task of putting the genetics into a food crop, soybeans.

“Having now shown very substantial yield increases in both tobacco and soybean, two very different crops, suggests this has universal applicability,” said Long. “Our study shows that realizing yield improvements is strongly affected by the environment. It is critical to determine the repeatability of this result across environments and further improvements to ensure the environmental stability of the gain.”

Additional field tests of these transgenic soybean plants are being conducted this year, with results expected in early 2023.

“The major impact of this work is to open the roads for showing that we can bioengineer photosynthesis and improve yields to increase food production in major crops,” said De Souza. “It is the beginning of the confirmation that the ideas ingrained by the RIPE project are a successful means to improve yield in major food crops.”

The RIPE project and its sponsors are committed to ensuring Global Access and making the project’s technologies available to the farmers who need them the most.

“This has been a road of more than a quarter century for me personally,” said Long. “Starting first with a theoretical analysis of theoretical efficiency of crop photosynthesis, simulation of the complete process by high-performance computation, followed by application of optimization routines that indicated several bottlenecks in the process in our crops. Funding support over the past ten years has now allowed us to engineer alleviation of some of these indicated bottlenecks and test the products at field scale. After years of trial and tribulation, it is wonderfully rewarding to see such a spectacular result for the team.”

Combined with changes in farming practices, an increase in indoor farming, and increased reliance on things like microalgae and edible bacteria, this could save billions of lives, if we can build a society that sees that as a thing worth doing.


If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!