How to free up around a fifth of agricultural land globally

via Environmental News Network

Making minor changes to how food is produced, supplied and consumed around the world could free up around a fifth of agricultural land, research suggests.

Scientists have applied the British cycling team’s strategy of marginal gains – the idea that making multiple small changes can lead to significant effects overall – to the global food system.

Reducing impact

They found that small steps – such as reducing food waste, tweaking diets and improving the efficiency of food production – could together reduce the amount of land required to feed the planet by at least 21 per cent.

Altering diets in developed nations was also found to have the greatest potential to reduce the impact of food production.

Changes are needed to continue to provide nutritional food without damaging the environment, experts say. Freeing up areas currently used to grow crops and keep livestock could also aid conservation efforts and improve biodiversity

Proposed changes

The report – by scientists from the University of Edinburgh and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology – suggests small changes such as eating slightly less meat, switching to chicken or pork over beef and lamb, and reducing transport and processing losses.

Other proposals include increasing agricultural yields, as well as less conventional shifts such as greater consumption of insects, plant-based imitation meat and lab-grown meat.

Marginal gains

The team calculated the combined effects of their proposed changes using the latest data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Previous research has focused on a few large changes that are difficult to achieve, researchers say. They argue that the marginal gains approach, which has made British cycling among the best in the world, is more likely to be attainable.

The current system is failing to deliver the food we need to be healthy and is doing so in a way that is causing a crisis for biodiversity and contributing to climate change. While a transformational change is required, we need an approach that is achievable in practice. A vegan or vegetarian diet isn’t likely to be adopted by everyone and we think a set of small steps in the right directions will be more likely to be adopted and ultimately successful, and will go a substantial way to reducing the negative outcomes.

Dr Peter AlexanderSchool of GeoSciences

Recent reports have suggested a single global diet as healthy and environmentally sustainable, ignoring important differences between countries and regions, including, for example, the need to increase protein consumption in some developing countries. Our results show that in places like Europe and the US, consumers can play the biggest role in reducing environmental harm through dietary change, while in less developed countries increasing production efficiency is more important.

Professor Mark RounsevellKarlsruhe Institute of Technology and University of Edinburgh

A key step in improving agricultural efficiency and yield in corn

Coralie Salesse, left, and David Stern examine corn stalks in a BTI greenhouse, as part of their research on enzymes and boosting photosynthesis.

Scientists from the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) and Cornell have boosted a carbon-craving enzyme called RuBisCO to turbocharge photosynthesis in corn. The discovery promises to be a key step in improving agricultural efficiency and yield, according to new research in Nature Plants, Oct. 1.

Increased RuBisCO assists corn’s biological machinery used during photosynthesis to incorporate atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbohydrates.

“Every metabolic process – like photosynthesis – has the equivalent of traffic lights or speed bumps,” said plant biologist David Stern, president of the Cornell-affiliated BTI. “RuBisCO is often the limiting factor in photosynthesis. With increased RuBisCO, though, this well-known speed bump is lowered, leading to improved photosynthetic efficiency.”

RuBisCO does have a formal, scientific name. It’s Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase, an enzyme that helps convert carbon dioxide into sugar. It’s generally accepted, said Stern, that it’s the Earth’s most abundant enzyme.

But for the world of commercial agriculture and corn’s C4 (four-carbon compound) photosynthesis system, RuBisCO works slowly.

BTI researchers found a way to overexpress a key chaperone enzyme called RuBisCO Assembly Factor 1, or RAF1, to help make more RuBisCO.

“It needs help from other proteins to assemble itself,” said lead author Coralie Salesse, a Cornell doctoral candidate in the field of plant biology.

With the chaperone enzyme, the scientists in effect lowered a different speed bump – one that limits the rate at which RuBisCO can attain the right biological architecture – leading the plants to accumulate more of it.

The exact mechanism of how RuBisCO was assembled had been a mystery for many years, until the RAF1 and RAF2 proteins were discovered, said Salesse.

Salesse conducted research at the laboratories of Robert Sharwood and Florian Busch at the Australian National University and at the laboratory of Steven Long, University of Illinois. Salesse found that increasing RuBisCO causes greenhouse-grown plants to flower sooner, grow taller and produce more biomass.

“Corn is an important but land and energy-intensive crop, and reducing its environmental footprint is important. Just in this country, corn is grown on some 90 million acres, and nearly 15 billion bushels were produced in recent years,” said Stern, Cornell adjunct professor of plant biology. He explained there are different approaches to increasing biomass per acre, including boosting photosynthesis, which could increase the weight of each ear of corn and thus yield per acre.

Stern noted – with this finding – that the same approach may have promise to improve yields in other C4 crops, such as sorghum and sugarcane.

“As we move from the greenhouse and into the fields, we hope to eventually observe improved growth and yield in production varieties,” he said. “Turbocharging RuBisCO has the potential to provide a foundation for profound effects on the corn plant’s ability to mature and produce biomass, especially when combined with other approaches.”

Learn more: ‘Turbocharging’ photosynthesis increases plant biomass



The Latest on: Agricultural productivity

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Creating fertilizer out of thin air with engineered bacteria

Himadri Pakrasi (left), led a team of researchers that has created a bacteria that uses photosynthesis to create oxygen during the day, and at night, uses nitrogen to create chlorophyll for photosynthesis. The team included Michelle Liberton (second from left), Deng Liu and Maitrayee Bhattacharyya-Pakrasi. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)
From left:
Himadri Pakrasi, Myron and Sonya Glassberg/Albert and Blanche Greensfelder Distinguished University Professor;
Michelle Liberton, Research Scientist;
Deng Liu, Postdoctoral Research Associate;
Maitrayee Bhattacharyya, Senior Research Scientist.
Liu is holding cyanobacterium synechocystis sp. PCC 6803.
Photos by Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos

Next step could be ‘nitrogen-fixing’ plants that can do the same, reducing need for fertilizer

In the future, plants will be able to create their own fertilizer. Farmers will no longer need to buy and spread fertilizer for their crops, and increased food production will benefit billions of people around the world, who might otherwise go hungry.

These statements may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but new research by Washington University in St. Louis scientists show that it might soon be possible to engineer plants to develop their own fertilizer. This discovery could have a revolutionary effect on agriculture and the health of the planet.

The research, led by Himadri Pakrasi, the Glassberg-Greensfelder Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences and director of the International Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability (InCEES); and Maitrayee Bhattacharyya-Pakrasi, senior research associate in biology, was published in the May/June issue of mBio.

Creating fertilizer is energy intensive, and the process produces greenhouse gases that are a major driver of climate change. And it’s inefficient. Fertilizing is a delivery system for nitrogen, which plants use to create chlorophyll for photosynthesis, but less than 40 percent of the nitrogen in commercial fertilizer makes it to the plant.

After a plant has been fertilized, there is another problem: runoff. Fertilizer washed away by rain winds up in streams, rivers, bays and lakes, feeding algae that can grow out of control, blocking sunlight and killing plant and animal life below.

However, there is another abundant source of nitrogen all around us. The Earth’s atmosphere is about 78 percent nitrogen, and the Pakrasi lab in the Department of Biology just engineered a bacterium that can make use of that atmospheric gas — a process known as “fixing” nitrogen — in a significant step toward engineering plants that can do the same.

The research was rooted in the fact that, although there are no plants that can fix nitrogen from the air, there is a subset of cyanobacteria (bacteria that photosynthesize like plants) that is able to do so. Cyanobacteria can do this even though oxygen, a byproduct of photosynthesis, interferes with the process of nitrogen fixation.

The bacteria used in this research, Cyanothece, is able to fix nitrogen because of something it has in common with people.

“Cyanobacteria are the only bacteria that have a circadian rhythm,” Pakrasi said. Interestingly, Cyanothece photosynthesize during the day, converting sunlight to the chemical energy they use as fuel, and fix nitrogen at night, after removing most of the oxygen created during photosynthesis through respiration.

The research team wanted to take the genes from Cyanothece, responsible for this day-night mechanism, and put them into another type of cyanobacteria, Synechocystis, to coax this bug into fixing nitrogen from the air, too.

To find the right sequence of genes, the team looked for the telltale circadian rhythm. “We saw a contiguous set of 35 genes that were doing things only at night,” Pakrasi said, “and they were basically silent during the day.”

The team, which also included research associate Michelle Liberton, former research associate Jingjie Yu, and Deng Liu manually removed the oxygen from Synechocystis and added the genes from Cyanothece. Researchers found Synechocystis was able to fix nitrogen at 2 percent of Cyanothece. Things got really interesting, however, when Liu, a postdoctoral researcher who has been the mainstay of the project, began to remove some of those genes; with just 24 of the Cyanothece genes, Synechocystis was able to fix nitrogen at a rate of more than 30 percent of Cyanothece.

Nitrogen fixation rates dropped markedly with the addition of a little oxygen (up to 1 percent), but rose again with the addition of a different group of genes from Cyanothece, although it did not reach rates as high as without the presence of oxygen.

“This means that the engineering plan is feasible,” Pakrasi said. “I must say, this achievement was beyond my expectation.”

The next steps for the team are to dig deeper into the details of the process, perhaps narrow down even further the subset of genes necessary for nitrogen fixation, and collaborate with other plant scientists to apply the lessons learned from this study to the next level: nitrogen-fixing plants.

Crops that can make use of nitrogen from the air will be most effective for subsistence farmers — about 800 million people worldwide, according to the World Bank — raising yields on a scale that is beneficial to a family or a town and freeing up time that was once spent manually spreading fertilizer.

“If it’s a success,” Bhattacharyya-Pakrasi said, “it will be a significant change in agriculture.”

Learn more: Researchers engineer bacteria that create fertilizer out of thin air



The Latest on: Engineered bacteria

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Can dogs help to sniff out agricultural diseases earlier?

Cobra, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, is trained to detect laurel wilt-diseased trees before the visible symptoms are seen. She and two other Dutch Shepherd canines detect asymptomatic, but infected trees. Once a diseased tree is identified, these “agri-dogs” will sit, indicating a positive alert.

Study shows dogs can sniff out laurel wilt-infected avocado trees well in advance.

A study out of Florida International University evaluates the use of scent-discriminating canines for the detection of laurel wilt-affected wood from avocado trees. Julian Mendel, Kenneth G. Furton, and DeEtta Mills have ferreted out a possible solution to a serious issue in one corner of the horticultural industry, and then ascertained the extent to which this solution is effective.

The results of this study are presented in their article “An Evaluation of Scent-discriminating Canines for Rapid Response to Agricultural Diseases” published in the latest issue of HortTechnology.

Laurel wilt disease has resulted in the death of more than 300 million laurel trees in the United States alone. One affected plant is the commercially important avocado tree, the second-largest tree crop in Florida behind citrus. This disease has had a devastating effect on the industry in South Florida in past harvest seasons, and two larger avocado industries in Mexico and California are naturally worried that this disease, if it hits their crops, could spread fast enough to destroy their seasons.

Once affected by laurel wilt disease, trees succumb soon after infection. Once external symptoms are evident, this disease is very difficult to control and contain as the pathogen can spread to adjacent trees via root grafting. Until now, there has been no viable, cost-effective method of early diagnosis and treatment.

Laurel wilt is the consequence of an invasive species—the redbay ambrosia beetle—originally from Asia, which was inadvertently introduced into the United States in untreated wooden packing material.

But as with so many ailments, early detection can be instrumental in deterring a widespread infection. The use of scent-discriminating dogs has shown to offer the avocado industry legitimate signs of hope in their fight against the spread of such a profit-crusher throughout their groves.

Three dogs were trained and studied for their ability to detect the early presence of laurel wilt by scent. At present, canines are extensively used in law enforcement and forensics in the location of missing persons, explosives, drugs, weapons, and ammunition. More directly applicable, dogs have demonstrated the ability to detect invasive species of spotted knapweed, brown tree snakes, desert tortoises, and various cancers.

The highly sensitive canine olfactory system is capable of detecting odor concentrations at exceedingly minute 1 to 2 parts per trillion. The authors believe it likely, with properly directed training, that these dogs could use their natural talents to service the protective needs of the potentially ailing avocado industry.

During the course of the study, 229 trials were performed, and only 12 of those yielded false alerts. It was observed that dogs are indeed capable of high levels of relevant performance, even in harsh weather conditions such as high heat and humidity. The study provided proof that dogs can detect agricultural diseases such as laurel wilt and can be a powerful management tool if the disease is caught in its earliest stages.

About the valuable service provided by these dogs, Mills adds, “It is the best ‘technology’ so far that can detect a diseased tree before external symptoms are visible. The old saying that ‘dogs are man’s best friend’ reaches far beyond a personal bond with their handler and trainer. It is depicted in their excitement every day as they deploy to the groves. Man’s best friend may even help save an industry.”

Learn more: Dogs can detect agricultural diseases early



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Precision agriculture



Unused TV spectrum and drones could help make smart farms a reality

ON THE Dancing Crow farm in Washington, sunflowers and squashes soak up the rich autumn sunshine beside a row of solar panels. This bucolic smallholding provides organic vegetables to the farmers’ markets of Seattle. But it is also home to an experiment by Microsoft, a big computing firm, that it hopes will transform agriculture further afield. For the past year, the firm’s engineers have been developing a suite of technologies there to slash the cost of “precision agriculture”, which aims to use sensors and clever algorithms to deliver water, fertilisers and pesticides only to crops that actually need them.

Precision agriculture is one of the technologies that could help to feed a world whose population is forecast to hit almost 10 billion by 2050. If farmers can irrigate only when necessary, and avoid excessive pesticide use, they should be able to save money and boost their output.

But existing systems work out at $1,000 a sensor. That is too pricey for most rich-world farmers, let alone those in poor countries where productivity gains are most needed. The sensors themselves, which probe things like moisture, temperature and acidity in the soil, and which are scattered all over the farm, are fairly cheap, and can be powered with inexpensive solar panels. The cost comes in getting data from sensor to farmer. Few rural farms enjoy perfect mobile-phone coverage, and Wi-Fi networks do not have the range to cover entire fields. So most precision-agriculture systems rely on sensors that connect to custom cellular base stations, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, or to satellites, which require pricey antennas and data plans.

In contrast, the sensors at Dancing Crow employ unoccupied slices of the UHF and VHF radio frequencies used for TV broadcasts, slotting data between channels. Many countries are experimenting with this so-called “white space”; to unlock extra bandwidth for mobile phones. In cities, tiny slices of the white-space spectrum sell for millions of dollars. But in the sparsely populated countryside, says Ranveer Chandra, a Microsoft researcher, there is unlicensed space galore.

Learn more: Precision agriculture



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