Green pickle of agriculture

Amidst climate change, oil crisis and the rest, I’ve been recently reading a lot on food and agriculture. Or may be it is just the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon wherein I’m unusually affected by issues in the agricultural sector and everybody else is talking about it too. Take it from the conferences that are held by Planet Forward. I’m going to talk about this conference a bit later in this post. I’m not going to mention the fuel vs food debate here but some of the issues which really caught my attention and they are:

Nitrogen dilemma:

Nitrifying soil bacteria  convert ammonium in the fertilizer to nitrate. This washes away to cause algal blooms. May be we need agricultural techniques that not only view the agricultural woes on a global scale but also locally. ‘Fertilizer trees’ Faidherbia albida, reintroduce nitrogen to the soil, have been shown to quadruple African maize yields in soils with no artificial fertilizer added.

Phosphorus crisis:

From my share of experiences, nitrogen has gained most of the attention, in a good or a bad way. This most definitely has changed for me when I watched a TED talk by Mohamed Hijri who explains how we are running out of phosphorus reserves, that our modern agriculture is thriving upon and offers a simple solution that includes phosphorus fixing mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms, not bacteria unlike the ones we’ve heard that fix nitrogen.

Water pollution in North India due to agriculture:

It’s saddening to see so many people sick and dying of water pollution from agricultural effluents that take the largest share of the wastewater effluents discharged into the Indus river, a whooping 90 percent. The Green revolution is not green anymore. A personal experience exemplifies the ignorance of common people who are not so affected by the contamination. While interacting with a gardening expert in a village, I learnt a few tips for gardening from him. While my dad contemplated on including him in it, I requested the expert to not use any pesticides or insecticides. As I expected, I wasn’t taken seriously. Luckily, we still haven’t started with our garden and I intend to keep it pesticide-free or incorporate natural alternatives like the one used in The Coop Forest. “Use of matka ghat, a very efficient bio-pesticide made from buttermilk and crushed neem, pongamia, and clatoporis leaves replaces chemical toxic pesticides and the cost is less than Rs. 30 rupees a litre,” says Piyush Manush of The Coop Forest in India.

Overdrafting:

Overdrafting is the excessive use of groundwater. Subsidence is caused due to overdrafting. It is when the floor beneath us can’t bear the weight on its surface. Due to removal of the water that makes the ground stable, it collapses and whatever is on it does as well. Subsidence may be avoided with careful mining, but that doesn’t free us from other consequences described in my blog, ‘Water mining and its consequences‘.

Greenhouse gas emissions:

One-third of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. How do we reduce the agricultural eco-footprint? Are GMO crops a solution? Arcadia Biosciences, based in Davis, California, has taken a gene for an enzyme called alanine amino­transferase from barley and incorporated it into other crops to encourage them to absorb nitrogen before microbes do. Even if it looks like a solution, scientists are worried about biodiversity. If such monocultures are planted on a large scale, an unexpected attack on these can vanish them in a jiffy. Take bananas for example. Nature reports, “A variant of a fungus that rots and kills the main variety of export banana has been found in plantations in Mozambique and Jordan, raising fears that it could spread to major producers and decimate supplies.” It has already affected the 2nd largest producer.

Did you know India is the 1st largest producer of bananas?

People at Peru can exactly tell you why diversity is important and what people can do about it. International Potato Centre in Lima, Peru is all up for saving potatoes, yes, you heard it. Its gene bank has 7,000 potato samples intact. More on this in my blog – ‘GM foods: What’s all the fuss about?

Organic farming:

From a LinkedIn discussion on the blog post on GM foods, I noticed that organic farming, although labor intensive has received greater acceptance than transgenic crops. The very point of it being labor intensive can cure the unemployment woes.

Organic farming is a form of agriculture that relies on techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost, and biological pest control.

Planet  Forward:

Planet Forward is where experts and engaged citizens come together to find solutions to our shared challenges, specifically in the areas of energy, climate and sustainability. Follow this hashtag for more updates: #foodFWD

Further reading:

Indian agriculture: Issues and Reforms

The Eco-Footprint of Agriculture:A Far-from-(Thermodynamic)-Equilibrium Interpretation

GM foods: What’s all the fuss about?

Where there is food, there is population. Thanks to  Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, US is the largest wheat exporter in the world. Also thanks to  M.S. Swaminathan, one of India’s top most exported commodities is cotton. Both these men are accredited as ‘Father of Green Revolution’ and ‘Father of Green Revolution in India’ respectively. Countries now export food and are not just talking about subsistence anymore. Where there is population, one needs food and hence by many GM foods are considered much needed in agriculture.

gm foodWhile a country like India is capable of exporting certain crops, it feels the heat of the shortage of certain grains. Marie Haga, the current head of Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) said “Food production needs to increase by 15 percent in the next 10 years.” Mark Lindley, a member of Humanist Association of Boston, US, said shortage is due to post-harvest mismanagement, while he raised concerns over rapid consumption of resources in populated countries like India and China.

Changing the traits of plants played an important role in the rise of agricultural produce. While plant breeding is as old as the first civilized colonies of humans, the first genetically modified food was commercialized only in the 1990s. So why the fuss now? Each of these techniques is a way to get better yields even in intolerable climatic conditions, better taste, better color, better life span and may be better size too. Yet there is no consensus on the use of the latter technique. The difference between the two is that science of molecular biology began only recently, that is in the 1930s.

With the knowledge of molecular genetics, scientists are now able to breed two different kinds of plant species. “You can now build a cell the same way you might build an app for your iPhone,” said Newman, chief science officer of Amyris, in the Guardian. As easy as it sounds, it is the hard work of scientists that has led to such technologies. Molecular genetics is an open group to play on. Plant breeding only allowed closely related species to be bred and that is where GM foods came in.

If you find yourself thinking why would people criticize genetically modified crops, one of the many reasons is ‘allergies’ and ‘toxicity’. No negative effects have been so far documented. The other reasons include the intellectual property fight and the effect of pesticide resistance. Through conventional wisdom, you probably know what a normal apple can do to you but how would you know what a GM apple will do? Concern over allergies called for GM labelling.

GM labelling in India was made mandatory in the month of January this year. Greenpeace, WWF and the Nature Conservancy are in the forefront of the debate, the first two concerned over regulation over the use of GM foods. Having done that, the process of GM labelling is not standardized and will be the next big hurdle for nations if they are to receive public acceptance of GM food.

Do you have questions for the FDA? Click here.

E. coli, the green celebrity!

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Geralt

Escherichia coli or more commonly known as E. coli, according to me, happens to be the celebrity of the green world when it comes to biology in green chemistry. These are the friendly bacteria that live in our guts and help digest our food. Although, some of its strain do cause problems to us. It’s time to give it some positive attention. Scientists genetically engineer E. coli and greenify a chemical reaction.

Here are a few examples of how they did it:

  1. Reduction of GO: Microbial reduction of graphene oxide by Escherichia coli: A green chemistry approach
  2. Cleaner chemistry: Transplanting metabolic pathways into E. coli
  3. Biofuels: Turning bacteria into butanol biofuel factories
  4. Turning waste into fatty acids: Genetically Modified E. coli Bacteria Turn Waste Into Fat For Fuel!
  5. Sugars into biofuels

The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award Recipients included individuals/organizations who used E. coli. Here are some entries:

2012 Codexis, Inc.; Professor Yi Tang, University of California, Los Angeles LovD, an acyltransferase from E. coli engineered by directed evolution, now performs regioselective acylation in the sysnthesis of the drug simvastatin (summary)
2011 BioAmber, Inc. Genetically engineered E. coli strain licensed from the Department of Energy produces succinic acid from wheat-derived glucose on a commercial scale (summary)
2011 Genomatica Genetically engineered E. coli strain produces 1,4-butanediol by fermentation of readily available sugars (summary)
2011 BioAmber,Inc. Glucose is fermented on a commercial scale by a genetically engineered E. coli strain to make succinic acid, traditionally produced from petroleum (summary)
2011 Genomatica Readily available sugars fermented by a genetically engineered E. colistrain produce 1,4-butanediol, a large-volume chemical usually made from petroleum (summary)

The world outside our guts is far harsher for these bacteria, especially in our reaction flasks. So what are scientists doing about it? They are making hospitable environments for these little celebrities. Making safer solvents for them is one way. But is E. coli losing its shine? Time will tell.

Read more:

How yeast replaced E. coli: BioAmber phases out E.coli use