Posts about plants

Norman E. Borlaug 1914-2009

The Father Of the Green Revolution

Norman E. Borlaug, 95, an American plant pathologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for starting the “Green Revolution” that dramatically increased food production in developing nations and saved countless people from starvation, died Saturday at his home in Dallas.

“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,” the Nobel committee said in honoring him. “Dr. Borlaug has introduced a dynamic factor into our assessment of the future and its potential.”

In his lecture accepting the Nobel Prize, he said an adequate supply of food is “the first component of social justice. . . . Otherwise there will be no peace.”

In 1977, Dr. Borlaug received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the U.S. government.

Billions Served: Norman Borlaug interviewed by Ronald Bailey

As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera–that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man. Today’s modern red wheat variety is made up of three groups of seven chromosomes, and each of those three groups of seven chromosomes came from a different wild grass. First, Mother Nature crossed two of the grasses, and this cross became the durum wheats, which were the commercial grains of the first civilizations spanning from Sumeria until well into the Roman period. Then Mother Nature crossed that 14-chromosome durum wheat with another wild wheat grass to create what was essentially modern wheat at the time of the Roman Empire.

Durum wheat was OK for making flat Arab bread, but it didn’t have elastic gluten. The thing that makes modern wheat different from all of the other cereals is that it has two proteins that give it the doughy quality when it’s mixed with water. Durum wheats don’t have gluten, and that’s why we use them to make spaghetti today. The second cross of durum wheat with the other wild wheat produced a wheat whose dough could be fermented with yeast to produce a big loaf. So modern bread wheat is the result of crossing three species barriers, a kind of natural genetic engineering.

I see no difference between the varieties carrying a BT gene or a herbicide resistance gene, or other genes that will come to be incorporated, and the varieties created by conventional plant breeding. I think the activists have blown the health risks of biotech all out of proportion.

the data that’s put out by the World Health Organization and [the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization], there are probably 800 million people who are undernourished in the world. So there’s still a lot of work to do.

I am a bit more cautious about supporting genetic engineering in our food supply but I agree with him that we need to remain focused on the lives of hundreds of millions of hungry people (which is far too often ignored). I am worried about the risks to the environment and human health. I am also worried about the concentration of food plants in a greatly reduced genetic varieties that are more productive in general but increase the risks of massive food failures (due to limited genetic varieties).

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Agricultural Irrigation with Salt Water

Irrigation system can grow crops with salt water

A British company has created an irrigation system that can grow crops using salt water. The dRHS (Dutyion Root Hydration System) irrigation system consists of a network of sub-surface pipes, which can be filled with almost any water, whether pure, brackish, salted or polluted. The system can even take most industrial waste-water and use it without the need for a purification process.

The pipes are made from a plastic that retains virtually all contaminants while letting clean water through to the plants’ roots.

The dRHS system, which has been in development for ten years, was initially trialled in the UK using tomato plants, and has since been tried out in the US. The next trials will take place in Chile, Libya, Tanzania, Mauritius and Spain. Tonkin says 20,000 metres of pipe are on their way to the Middle East, where it will be tested with water that’s more saline than sea water.

It has also won international recognition for its work, most recently at the international Water Technology Idol event in Switzerland, organised by Global Water Intelligence magazine and the International Desalination Association.

Christopher Gasson from Global Water Intelligence magazine says that the competition was a three-way tie last year but this year, the winner stood out. “The dRHS irrigation system addressed a bigger problem than the other technology that it was competing against,” he said. “Agriculture water is where 70 per cent of water goes. By 2025 two thirds of the world’s population will experience water shortages and so farming will be badly hit.

This is good news. I am still skeptical that this is as good as the article makes it sound. Just as simple as “flushing out the pipes.” But I am hopeful we will find desalination-type solutions. Clean water is a huge problem facing the world now, basically I just figure with enough engineers focused on finding workable solutions we will find several that have a huge impact. If not, we are in real trouble.

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Cactus Eating Bull Saving Kenyan Drylands

Cactus eating bull saves Kenyan drylands

Cows are playing an important role in land restoration in Baringo by eating up the invasive prickly pear cactus a nasty invasive plant that is destroying the drylands. It’s not obvious at all for cows to eat this thorny cactus, but Murry Roberts and his wife Elizabeth Meyerhoff told me about an amazing project that their organization, RAE (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments) has been working on. A few years ago they discovered that a local farmer had a bull that not only ate the nasty exotic thorny ugly, plant, but also taught other cows to go for it too.

During the drought of 1999 – 2000 grassy fields were reduced to bare earth and cows had nothing left to eat were dying of starvation leading to widespread famine. The story goes that one farmer persuaded his bull to eat the leaves after he had burned off the thorns. Opuntia are 80% water and if one can get past the thorns, the plant is quite nutritious . The other starving cows watched the bull and then followed suit thus saving the herd and the farmer who has never looked back. The thorns are burnt off using wood from another nasty invasive species, Prosopis juliflora – making this an eco-friendly project all round.

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Promoting Bio-Literacy

Wisconsin State Herbarium tries to ‘counteract bio-illiteracy’

“In a past century people could go outside and name the flowers or trees,” said Ken Cameron, the herbarium’s director. “Now you take a kid outside and the most they can say is, ‘It’s a tree.’ If we can get students in and get them excited, then I think we’ve helped to counteract bio-illiteracy.”

Herbaria are becoming more of a rarity. And the UW-Madison has the third largest collection of any public university in the country, behind the universities of California and Michigan. At many universities, botany has been absorbed into large biology departments, and collections put into storage. That has not happened at UW-Madison.

“The combination of having a botany department and a big herbarium is getting pretty rare,” said David Baum, botany department chairman. “And more and more herbaria are closing or making the decision to move off campus into storage, which has a real negative effect on research.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Herbarium, founded in 1849 (the year the University was founded), is a museum collection of dried, labeled plants of state, national and international importance, which is used extensively for taxonomic and ecological research, as well as for teaching and public service. It contains the world’s largest collection of Wisconsin plants, about one-third of its 1,000,000 specimens having been collected within the state. Most of the world’s floras are well represented, and the holdings from certain areas, such as the Upper Midwest, eastern North America and western Mexico, are widely recognized as resources of global significance.

Related: Plants can Signal Microbial Friends for Helpposts on plantsRainforestsThe Avocado

Rethinking the Food Production System

wineberriesphoto by John Hunter of wine-berries from his Garden.

Food needs ‘fundamental rethink’

The new approach needed to address key fundamentals like biodiversity, energy, water and urbanisation, he added.

Water scarcity: “One of the key things that I have been pushing is to get the UK government to start auditing food by water,” Professor Lang said, adding that 50% of the UK’s vegetables are imported, many from water-stressed nations.
Biodiversity: “Biodiversity must not just be protected, it must be replaced and enhanced; but that is going to require a very different way growing food and using the land.”

“In Europe, 30% of the food grown did not appear on the shelves of the retailers because it was a funny shape or odd colour.

“The way that seeds are selected is about immunity to any known disease; they have also got to grow big and fast, and have a fantastic shelf life. “Never mind taste, texture or nutrition, it is all about how it looks.

I agree. The food system is broken. We have moved to mono-culture food production. We have changed our diets to eat food like concoctions. We need to return to healthier and sustainable food production.

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The Science of Gardening

Photo of a bee by Justin Hunter

The Science of Gardening

Linda Chalker-Scott, an associate professor at Washington State University, is the author of The Informed Gardener and producer of the column “Horticultural Myths.” In The Truth About Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why, Jeff Gillman, associate professor at the University of Minnesota, is just as rational and informative

Do go ahead and dig in soil improvements, Chalker-Scott advises, for vegetable gardens or annual flowerbeds, in which nutrients need replacing yearly. But there’s really no need to dig organic amendments—manure and peat moss, etc.—into landscapes that are permanent. Treat those plantings of trees and shrubs as if they were forest ecosystems, not agricultural fields—wood chips and decaying leaves on top, no tilling-in of fertilizer.

It must drive both authors nuts to hear people say, “I’m an organic gardener. I never use chemicals.” Everything on earth is composed of chemicals.

The last line calls to mind the recent Royal Society of Chemistry attempt to reclaim the word chemical from the advertising and marketing industries: £1,000,000 for 100% chemical free material. A good example for our scientific literacy posts.

Photo by Justin Hunter.

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Plants can Signal Microbial Friends for Help

When under attack, plants can signal microbial friends for help

Researchers at the University of Delaware have discovered that when the leaf of a plant is under attack by a pathogen, it can send out an S.O.S. to the roots for help, and the roots will respond by secreting an acid that brings beneficial bacteria to the rescue.

In a series of laboratory experiments, the scientists infected the leaves of the small flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana with a pathogenic bacterium, Pseudomonas syringae. Within a few days, the leaves of the infected plants began yellowing and showing other symptoms of disease.

However, the infected plants whose roots had been inoculated with the beneficial microbe Bacillus subtilis were perfectly healthy. Farmers often add B. subtilis to the soil to boost plant immunity. It forms a protective biofilm around plant roots and also has antimicrobial properties, according to Bais.

Using molecular biological tools, the scientists detected the transmission of a long-distance signal, a “call for help,” from the leaves to the roots in the plants that had Bacillus in the soil. The roots responded by secreting a carbon-rich chemical–malic acid.

All plants biosynthesize malic acid, Bais explains, but only under specific conditions and for a specific purpose–in this case, the chemical was actively secreted to attract Bacillus. Magnified images of the roots and leaves showed the ratcheted-up defense response provided by the beneficial microorganisms.

“Plants can’t move from where they are, so the only way they can accrue good neighbors is through chemistry,” Bais notes.

Related: Researchers Learn What Sparks Plant GrowthSecret Life of MicrobesSymbiotic relationship between ants and bacteriaBacterium Living with High Level Radiation

Keeping Invassive Plants Out of Your Garden

Tending the Garden, Sparing the Ecosystem

The plants and animals that naturally exist in a place evolved together, adapted together and coexist for mutual benefit. Birds, insects and other animals help pollinate plants and distribute seeds. Plants provide food and shelter for the animals.

When you start adding exotic or nonnative species, or subtracting native species, you disrupt the balance. Native creatures may not be able to get nourishment from nonnative plants, and indigenous plants may not be able to compete with invasive alien plants.

The native plant society strongly recommends physical methods for getting rid of plants, as opposed to using herbicides. But where plant stands are large or hard to control by clipping or pulling, chemicals may well be the last resort.

Related: Invasive Plants: Tamariskarticles on invasive plantsInvasive Species BlogBallast-free Ships (to block invasive aquatic species)

Computer Chips to Catch Cactus Thieves

Feds to use computer chips to foil cactus thieves

Anyone thinking of swiping a stately saguaro cactus from the desert could soon be hauling off more than just a giant plant. National Park Service officials plan to imbed microchips in Arizona’s signature plant to protect them from thieves who rip them from the desert to sell them to landscapers, nurseries and homeowners.

The primary objective is deterrence, but the chips also will aid in tracking down and identifying stolen saguaros, said Bob Love, chief ranger at southern Arizona’s Saguaro National Park.

Saguaros are unique to the Sonoran Desert, 120,000 square miles covering portions of Arizona, California and the northern Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora. They’re majestic giants that can grow to heights of 50 feet, sprout gaggles of arms and weigh several tons. They can take 50 years to flower and 70 years before sprouting an arm.

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Pesticide Laced Fertiliser Ruins Gardens

Home-grown veg ruined by toxic fertiliser

Aminopyralid, which is found in several Dow products, the most popular being Forefront, a herbicide, is not licensed to be used on food crops and carries a label warning farmers using it not to sell manure that might contain residue to gardeners. The Pesticides Safety Directorate, which has issued a regulatory update on the weedkiller, is taking samples from affected plants for testing.

Problems with the herbicide emerged late last year, when some commercial potato growers reported damaged crops. In response, Dow launched a campaign within the agriculture industry to ensure that farmers were aware of how the products should be used. Nevertheless, the herbicide has now entered the food chain. Those affected are demanding an investigation and a ban on the product. They say they have been given no definitive answer as to whether other produce on their gardens and allotments is safe to eat.

It appears that the contamination came from grass treated 12 months ago. Experts say the grass was probably made into silage, then fed to cattle during the winter months. The herbicide remained present in the silage, passed through the animal and into manure that was later sold. Horses fed on hay that had been treated could also be a channel.

Related: Effect of People on Other SpeciesPigs Instead of PesticidesPeak SoilFlushed Drugs Pollute Water

Bananas Going

photo of a baboon eating bananas and holding a kitten

I posted on the threat of extinction for bananas. Dan Koeppel has written an excellent book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. He also has a great Banana blog with serious and fun posts:

Urgent threat to Africa’s Bananas:

In Uganda, meanwhile, the disease has become so widespread that yields on banana farms have reached dangerously low levels. Acres and acres of crops have been lost, creating a cascade of economic losses in a trading system that spreads from the tiniest villages to Uganda’s cities, all based on the transport and trade of bananas.

The urgency of this cannot be overstated. Uganda and the nations surrounding it absolutely depend on bananas as a staple foodstuff. Millions rely on bananas for survival. And the spread of BXW into Kenya is yet another indicator that this deadly disease is on the march. As with Panama Disease – the wilting fungus that threatens our banana, the Cavendish – BXW (a bacterial malady) is incurable. The difference between the two is that BXW moves faster and threatens, right now, food supplies in nations with fragile governments.

First, banana diversity. In order to mitigate the spread of disease, the number of kinds of bananas being grown needs to be increased.

Second, genetic engineering: It is time for the general public to recognize that working at the DNA level is not always a corporate trojan horse into destroying local agriculture and contaminating the environment. This isn’t all about Monsanto. While consumers in the suburbs and Whole Foods stores protest against all GMO foods – while barely knowing what GMO is – they bluntly prevent out legitimate public research that might stop hunger. Time learn that everything has nuance, the disease that are killing the bananas: they work in just two modes: off – and on.

The photos is from a fun post: Baboon Prefers Bananas over Kittens. Thank Goodness.

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