Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Green, Nature

Weeds Could Improve Agriculture

A dragonfly on a milkweed leaf. Photo: Shutterstock

Some of the most significant impacts on the global ecosystem have come from human uses of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture. These chemicals make their way into soil and water, where they cause a number of problems, from killing off unintended plants and insects to increasing the resistance of unintended targets to these very same chemicals.

What’s more, developing such chemicals is basically an ever-escalating war against pests, which breed fast enough to develop immunity to them, resulting in more and newer chemicals constantly being introduced.

In order to reduce all of this, some researchers are now suggesting that allowing weeds, in controlled numbers, to grow amidst crops might be the best option.

“The benefits of weeds have been neglected,” says Kristine M. Averill, a weed research associate at Cornell. “They’re often seen as undesirable, unwanted. We’re now beginning to quantify their benefits.”

Milkweed, for example, can be allowed to grow among corn crops because it attracts aphids, which in turn attract beneficial wasps that lay their eggs inside European corn borer eggs, which kills them. The European corn borer is one of the species that corn farmers are most worried about.

The weeds can also help in a variety of other ways such as resisting erosion and giving homes to Monarch butterflies, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering protecting under the Endangered Species Act because their numbers have dropped dangerously low.

As we grow ever more conscious of how human activity affects the Earth, we need to begin searching in earnest for more options like this, which allow us to preserve crop yields and other production while being better for the environment.

Nothing in nature serves only one purpose, and by studying how organisms like weeds and pest insects function in the wild, we can develop a better grasp on how they might be used in agriculture. Between this and genetic engineering, we may be able to develop agricultural systems that don’t have such an adverse effect on the world around them.

Nature, Science

Viruses Trick Bees into Pollinating Infected Plants

The cucumber mosaic virus tricks bees into moving it from plant to plant.
A bee pollinates a cucumber flower. Photo: Shutterstock

Bees fly from plant to plant, taking pollen from one to another in the process. Of course, we’ve known this for a very long time, which is why we refer to them as pollinators. They also contribute greatly to about 75 percent of the crops we grow, which is why so many people are concerned about declining bee populations around the world.

It turns out that bees also move viruses from plant to plant, or at least the cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) which result in plants that have smaller, less tasty yields.

The bees are dupes in this process, though. The virus changes the chemical makeup of the volatiles, the particles that produce smells, so that the bees are more attracted to the infected plants. This works for the plants and the virus, as they both get to breed and spread. The bees don’t seem to be affected by the virus.

But, scientists think that if we can find a way to similarly trick bees by making them prefer modified crops, they might pollinate them more, which would result in larger crop yields. The trick is to not rely on the virus, but to find a way to either make the plants smell better, or get the bees to come to the plants in the first place.

Scientists have isolated the factor of the virus which reprograms the plant’s DNA, so with that information, we might be able to do the same without needing the virus. This could be a more ecologically friendly way to increase crop yields than relying on pesticides to keep out unwanted insects. In fact, plants use smell to both attract pollinators and to keep predators away, so maybe we could find a way to modify existing plants to attract more bees and fewer pests.

Climate Change, Nature, Science

Plants Move to Better Climates in Response to Global Warming

Wild cherry (Prunus verecunda) in full bloom in Okutama, Japan.
Wild cherry (Prunus verecunda) in full bloom in Okutama, Japan. Photo: Toshio Katsuki | EurekAlert!

As global temperatures continue to rise, with an expected overall increase of up to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, plants and animals will both need to find ways to either survive in warmer climates, or migrate to cooler places.

The easiest way to do this is by moving up mountains. Changing elevation results in a more significant temperature change than moving north or south, by as much as 100 to 1,000 times.

It’s for that exact reason that both Asiatic black bears and Japanese martens have been moving up in elevation in Japan recently. They’re seeking cooler temperatures, and in turn, they’re also moving cherry trees up there with them.

The animals eat or store cherries as the head up, and subsequently defecate seeds or forget about the cherries, allowing new cherry trees to take root in cooler climates.

About one third of all plants rely on animals to move their seeds to new locations, allowing those plants to spread out and improve their chances for survival. But so far, we don’t understand the complexities of this process all that well. That’s because it’s an incredibly complex process built upon multiple, interacting ecosystems.

On the face of it, animals eat fruit and the seeds pass through their digestive tract unharmed, which sounds pretty simple. But that doesn’t actually tell us what animals eat what fruit, how well those seeds survive, where they can take root, and so forth.

Different plant species in different regions, and even one species from region to region, can have wildly varying levels of success with this method, depending on the types of animals which are native tot eh region, or which happen to be passing through.

More studies that focus on these movements will be necessary in order to build a better understanding of how such plants will mange to survive increasing temperatures in the future.

Conservation, Nature, Science

A Neighborhood With Lots of Trees Is Good for Your Health

Research has shown that living in a neighborhood with trees, parks, and lots of greenness is good for your health.
Research has shown that living in a neighborhood with trees, parks, and lots of greenness is good for your health. Photo: La Citta Vita| FlickrCC.

According to a new study from the University of Miami, more green space can be linked to a reduction in chronic illness in low-to-middle income neighborhoods. The study looked at health data from 2010-2011 for 250,000 Miami-Dade county Medicare beneficiaries over 65 as well as vegetation measurements based on NASA satellite imagery. The researchers found that blocks with higher levels of greenness saw 14% less risk of diabetes, 13% less hypertension, and 10% less lipid disorders. It’s the first study of its kind.

This is really interesting news, but it’s not that big of a surprise. Trees and other plants have a lot of benefits, and neighborhoods with more green spaces are generally perceived as safer, lead to more time spent outdoors, and have greater community cohesion. It’s almost as if people like being around greenery.

The specifics of how green spaces help health are complicated, but broadly speaking, they help to reduce air pollution, stress, and humidity, while also encouraging physical activity, and reducing heat island impacts by providing shade.

These benefits were seen proportionally across all racial and ethnic groups, meaning that increasing the level of greenness in a neighborhood can help bring health levels in line across those groups. It’s no secret that lower income communities tend to be less white and less healthy. Improving the greenness of those neighborhoods is not only a health concern but a social justice concern as well.

As with any study, additional research will be required, and the benefits may not be as broad in places other than Florida. Michigan residents, for example, might not help as much during the winter, but careful planning could mitigate that. Seattle is in a temperate zone as well, but there are an enormous number of coniferous trees, which are still pleasant to walk past even in winter, and applying a similar logic to other regions could help.

Green, Science, Sustainability

New Technology Allows Crops to Grow in a Desert

Sundrop Farms’ new facility in Port Augusta, Australia measures 20 hectares and enables the production of high-quality produce in harsh climates with degraded land.
Sundrop Farms’ new facility in Port Augusta, Australia measures 20 hectares and enables the production of high-quality produce in harsh climates with degraded land. Photo: Sundrop Farms.

A new kind of farming technology is making a tomato farm flourish in one of earth’s most arid places: the South Australian desert, a place with little usable land and no sources of freshwater at all. However, a new, super solar-powered boiler has been installed at a farm belonging to Sundrop Farms, receiving energy from the sun through a whopping 23,000 mirrors. The plant can process 2.8 million liters of seawater every day, using the steam to clean the air, and the water to raise some happy tomatoes.

The farm, made possible by a $100 million donation from Henry Kravis and KKR, is intended to help boost tomato production in the desert area north of Port Augusta in Australia. The funding comes with a new 10-year contract with Coles, a supermarket, which has agreed to buy the tomatoes, ensuring that the investment remains solid and productive.

KKR’s investment joins others from the South Australian government. Because of these investments, Sundrop Farms believes it will be able to expand and create 300 new jobs.

Greenhouses associated with the farm will grow more than 15,000 tons of sustainably-grown tomatoes a year, and the demand for that kind of produce is expected to grow by 15-25 percent over the next year. The amount of produce the desert farm generates would significantly ease the added pressure on the market and, hopefully, keep the costs of tomatoes low for consumers.

When construction is finished on the farm later this year, it will span about 50 acres. It will also boast a fancy refrigeration system that can chill steam from 35 Celsius to 18 Celsius quickly, using an environmentally-friendly form of ammonia that has “zero global warming potential,” according to Cold Logic, the firm that created it.

The new crop system “opens up new ways of producing crops out of very arid lands,” said Eddie Lane, a partner at Cold Logic. “It’s groundbreaking technology, and there’s been a lot of international interest from places like the Middle East.”

The solar farm does represent a lot of possible new opportunities in farming and food production. If land that could not ordinarily produce crops can be made to do so, we could come a long way in the fight against food scarcity, poor nutrition, and starvation around the world.

Nature, Science, United States

The Science Behind the Death Valley Super Bloom

Wildflowers filled Death Valley for about two months during the recent super bloom event. It was the best bloom in several years.
Wildflowers filled Death Valley for about two months during the recent super bloom event. It was the best bloom in several years. Photo: National Park Service.

You may have heard about the Death Valley super bloom earlier this March from the abundance of photo essays on the Internet. In case you missed it, the super bloom is a period of rapid flower growth in Death Valley, one of the hottest, driest deserts in the world, where plant life is normally sparse.

During super blooms, there are flowers everywhere. Although by mid-March many of the plants are already fading away in the lower parts of the valley the can still be found at higher elevations.

Super blooms are rare, the last one was in 2005, and they’re caused by the El Niño effect. During these periods Death Valley gets far more water than normal. All deserts get some rain, and Death Valley is no different, usually netting about around 2 inches each year. But in late 2015, huge amounts of rain fell in the valley, causing flash floods that put several roads out of commission.

Much of that water seeped into the ground, where it allowed dormant seeds to grow, resulting in massive wildflower blooms. The flowers rest in the dry soil of Death Valley for years at a time, waiting for events like these rainstorms.

Combined with the subsequent mild weather of winter, these seeds were able to sprout and quickly grow. They then produce seeds before the temperatures get to high again, allowing those seeds to lie dormant until the next heavy rain season.

Twenty species of wildflower were on display in Death Valley for about two months, including the Desert Gold, with bright yellow, daisy like flowers that, this year at least, reached waist height in some places.

It’s a pretty potent reminder that nature is generally far more varied and resourceful than we give it credit for, and even in a place like Death Valley, life finds a way.

Conservation, Eco-friendly, Green, Uncategorized

All The Dirt You Need To Know About The International Year Of Soils

USDA Soil Science Deputy Dave Smith listens to Under Secretary Robert Bonnie speaks at the International Year of Soils 1st World Soil Day celebration held at the United Nations.
USDA Soil Science Deputy Dave Smith listens to Under Secretary Robert Bonnie speaks at the International Year of Soils 1st World Soil Day celebration held at the United Nations. Photo: USDA | FlickrCC.

In case you missed it, the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. That ended on December 5th, but the importance of soil and soil conservation didn’t.

Soil isn’t something that a lot of people give much thought, but soil health is important to human health, and understanding the best ways to conserve it is a necessary part of modern science.

Obviously, plants grow in soil, like the crops we eat or feed to livestock, or the trees that help produce oxygen and store carbon dioxide. As it turns out, soil also helps store carbon, and of course properly maintained soil is more resistant to being washed away or otherwise eroded as climate change impacts the world.

There are a lot of concerns scientists have about the state of the world’s soil, things like desertification, biodiversity loss, erosion, contamination, and a host of other issues, which can impact the world in a variety of ways. Luckily, there are researchers around the world who are investigating these issues, such as RECARE, a European Union funded project that is continuing its work well past the International Year of Soils.

RECARE, headed in part by Professor Coen Ritsema of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and including a team of Norwegian scientists, is working on projects around Europe to develop soil solutions and figure out how to put them into practice. They are currently running 17 case studies in which they are working with locals to develop simple yet scientifically informed practices to address soil issues.

The goal is to find efficient, simple, and relatively cheap ways to address problems that farmers and other people face around the world. Things like mulching or terracing to prevent erosion, or using plants, which can pull contaminants out of the soil around them.