Climate explained: regenerative farming can help grow food with less impact



Returning nutrients, including animal feces, to the land is important to maintain the soil’s capacity to sequester carbon.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Troy Baisden, University of Waikato


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I would like to know to what extent regenerative agriculture practices could play a role in reducing carbon emissions and producing food, including meat, in the future. From what I have read it seems to offer much, but I am curious about how much difference it would make if all of our farmers moved to this kind of land management practice. Or even most of them. – a question from Virginia

To identify and quantify the potential of regenerative agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we first have to define what it means. If regenerative practices maintain or improve production, and reduce wasteful losses on the farm, then the answer tends to be yes. But to what degree is it better, and can we verify this yet?

Let’s first define how regenerative farming differs from other ways of farming. For example, North Americans listening to environmentally conscious media would be likely to define most of New Zealand pastoral agriculture systems as regenerative, when compared to the tilled fields of crops they see across most of their continent.

If milk and meat-producing animals are not farmed on pasture, farmers have to grow grains to feed them and transport the fodder to the animals, often over long distances. It’s hard to miss that the transport is inefficient, but easier to miss that nutrients excreted by the animals as manure or urine can’t go back to the land that fed them.

Healthy soils

Returning nutrients to the land really matters because these build up soil, and grow more plants. We can’t sequester carbon in soil without returning nutrients to the soil.

New Zealand’s style of pastoral agricultural does this well, and we’re still improving as we focus on reducing nutrient losses to water.




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New Zealand launches plan to revive the health of lakes and rivers


Our pastoral soils tend to have as much carbon as they once did under forest, but concerns have been raised about carbon losses in some regions. Yet, we do still have two big problems.

First, the animals that efficiently digest tough plants – including cows, sheep, and goats – all belch the greenhouse gas methane. This is a direct result of their special stomachs, and chewing their cud. Therefore, farms will continue to have high greenhouse gas emissions per unit of meat and milk they produce. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report emphasised this, noting that changing diets can reduce emissions.

The second problem is worst in dairying. When a cow lifts its tail to urinate, litres of urine saturate a small area. The nitrogen content in this patch exceeds what plants and soil can retain, and the excess is lost to water as nitrate and to the air, partly as the powerful, long-lived greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

Defining regenerative

Regenerative agriculture lacks a clear definition, but there is an opportunity for innovation around its core concept, which is a more circular economy. This means taking steps to reduce or recover losses, including those of nutrients and greenhouse gases.




Read more:
Regenerative agriculture can make farmers stewards of the land again


Organic agriculture, which prohibits the use of antibiotics and synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, could potentially include regenerative agriculture. Organics once had the same innovative status, but now has a clear business model and supply chain linked to a price premium achieved through certification.

The price premium and regulation linked to certification can limit the redesign of the organic agricultural systems to incremental improvements, limiting the inclusion of regenerative concepts. It also means that emission studies of organic agriculture may not reveal the potential benefits of regenerative agriculture.

Instead, the potential for a redesign of New Zealand’s style of pastoral dairy farming around regenerative principles provides a useful example of how progress might work. Pastures could shift from ryegrass and clover to a more diverse, more deeply rooted mix of alternate species such as chicory, plantains, lupins and other grasses. This system change would have three main benefits.

Win-win-win

The first big win in farming is always enhanced production, and this is possible by better matching the ideal diet for cows. High performance ryegrass-clover pastures contain too little energy and too much protein. Diverse pastures fix this, allowing potential increases in production.

A second benefit will result when protein content of pasture doesn’t exceed what cows need to produce milk, reducing or diluting the nitrogen concentrated in the urine patches that are a main source of nitrous oxide emissions and impacts on water.

A third set of gains can result if the new, more diverse pastures are better at capturing and storing nutrients in soil, usually through deeper and more vigorous root growth. These three gains interrelate and create options for redesign of the farm system. This is best done by farmers, although models may help put the three pieces together into a win-win-win.

Whether you’re interested in local beef in Virginia, or the future of New Zealand’s dairy industry, the principles that define regenerative agriculture look promising for redesigning farming to reduce emissions. They may prove simpler than agriculture’s wider search for new ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including genetically engineering ryegrass.The Conversation

Troy Baisden, Professor and Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia urgently needs real sustainable agriculture policy



Australia must invest in sustainable agriculture.
Author provided

Jacqueline Williams, University of New England

Australia has made a global commitment to “sustainable agriculture”, an endeavour seen as increasingly crucial to ending world poverty, halting biodiversity loss, and combating climate change. A recent report from the UN found land use – including food production – is responsible for around one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, Australia has something of a sustainable agriculture policy vacuum, after years of a fragmented, stop-start approach.




Read more:
UN climate change report: land clearing and farming contribute a third of the world’s greenhouse gases


To honour our international obligations and respond to growing sustainability markets, Australia urgently needs a contemporary definition of sustainable agriculture, including agreed on-farm metrics.

Good policy abandoned

Australia spent more than a decade developing promising policies that defined sustainable agriculture with broad indicators for measuring progress.

In 1997 Australia passed federal legislation defining “sustainable agriculture” as:

agricultural practices and systems that maintain or improve […] the economic viability of agricultural production; the social viability and well-being of rural communities; […] biodiversity; the natural resource base [and] ecosystems that are influenced by agricultural activities.

The following year, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management published a broad set indicators.

During the early 2000s a national framework of Environmental Management Systems was developed, and national pilots were conducted across Australia up until 2006.

Between 2004 and 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded farmers’ investment in natural resource management. However these surveys have not been replicated in more than a decade.

In 2005, the states and territories formed a joint working group to create a national approach to property management systems. This group met with industry representatives and regional land managers throughout 2006, and in 2007 the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry planned a pathway for a national policy. There was much hope and enthusiasm it would soon become a reality.

However, since 2008 there has been no progress and little, if any, explanation for why this important sustainable agriculture policy initiative was shelved.

Current policy vacuum

It is concerning that Australia’s first progress report on implementing the sustainable development goals contains the words “sustainable agriculture” only once in 130 pages, as part of the heading for the goal of ending hunger.

The definition arrived at in 1997 is far too broad and simplistic, and can’t be used at the farm level.

When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture reiterated their commitment to improving sustainable food production, and said:

Australia is involved in global discussions about how best to measure sustainable agriculture performance […] However a globally agreed methodology has not been set for [agricultural sustainability].

Australia’s only substantial sustainable agriculture policy mechanism at the moment appears to be grants available through the National Landcare Program. This is reiterated by searching through key Coalition policy documents and the recent budget.

The budget allocation to the overall National Landcare Program is around A$1 billion from 2017 to 2023. New programs announced in the 2019 budget that build on this commitment include:

  • A$100 million over four years for the environment restoration fund,
  • A$34 million over four years for a new biodiversity stewardship program,
  • A$28.3 million for a new communities environment program for 2019-20, and
  • A$2 billion over 15 years for the climate solutions fund.

These programs combined equate to some A$354 million per year. But a coherent sustainable agriculture policy cannot be delivered through grants alone.

And even though these grants are substantial, past ABS surveys found that farmers invest at least A$3 billion a year in natural resource management. The Indigenous on-country contribution is currently unknown, but likely to be substantial.

Caring for country fund

Around 10% of Australia’s population lives in rural or remote areas. These comparatively small communities – largely farmers and Indigenous land managers – currently steward most of the country.

A review released in late July on how conservation laws affect the agriculture sector has recommended the federal government create a A$1 billion fund for farmers who deliver environment benefits from their land.

This mirrors calls from farmers for an ecosystem services fund.

If our 13.9 million taxpayers contributed some A$60 each per year in a “caring for country” levy, urban and rural Australians could more fairly share the costs – as well as the advantages – of sustainable land management.

We could start with revisiting the good work undertaken more than a decade ago in developing a national framework for property management systems.

Underpinning such a system, we need an independent and trusted source of metrics for farmers, land managers and agricultural industries. To this end, the University of New England is establishing a research hub to help develop just such a harmonised approach.




Read more:
Vegan food’s sustainability claims need to give the full picture


There are many good news stories of sustainable agriculture around Australia, however our ongoing biodiversity crisis requires transformative policy change and federal leadership.

One bold first step would be addressing the current paradox of sustainable agriculture in Australia.The Conversation

Jacqueline Williams, Senior Research Fellow & Lecturer, School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why is everyone talking about natural sequence farming?


Ian Rutherfurd, University of Melbourne

On the eve of the recent National Drought Summit, prime minister Scott Morrison and deputy prime minister Michael McCormack visited Mulloon Creek near Canberra, shown recently on the ABC’s Australian Story. They were there to see a creek that was still flowing, and green with vegetation, despite seven months of drought.

Mulloon Creek was the legacy of a long collaboration between prominent agriculturalist Peter Andrews, and Tony Coote, the owner of the property who died in August. For decades they have implemented Andrews’ “natural sequence farming” system at Mulloon Creek.




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Central to the system is slowing flow in the creek with “leaky weirs”. These force water back into the bed and banks of the creek, which rehydrates the floodplain. This rehydrated floodplain is then said to be more productive and sustainable.

McCormack, who is also the minister for infrastructure, transport and regional development, was impressed and declared the success of Mulloon as a “model for everyone … this needs to be replicated right around our nation”. The ABC program suggested this form of farming could reduce the impact of drought across Australia. So, what is the evidence?

The promise of natural sequence farming

There are plenty of anecdotes but little published science around the effectiveness of natural sequence farming. What there is describes some modest floodplain rehydration, little change to stream flows, some trapping of sediment and some improvements in soil condition. These results are encouraging but not miraculous.

How much each of the different components of natural sequence farming contributes is not always clear, and the economic arguments for widespread adoption are modest. At present, there is not the standard of evidence to support this farming method as a panacea for drought relief, as proposed by the deputy prime minister.




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Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


But if the evidence does emerge, why wouldn’t farmers simply adopt the methods as part of a sensible business model? Don’t all farmers want to do better in drought?

In the ABC show, and elsewhere, supporters of natural sequence farming argue that it is hard for farmers to adopt the methods because government regulations restrict use of willows, blackberries and other weeds, that they claim, are particularly effective in restoring streams.

Governments are correct to be wary of this call to use weeds, and some research suggests that native plants can do a similar job. This restriction on use of weeds might be galling for proponents of natural sequence farming but it should not be a fundamental impediment to adoption.

A more important frustration for natural sequence farming practitioners is how widely the approach can be applied. In Australian Story, John Ryan, a rural journalist, says:

I am sick of politicians, farmers groups, and government departments telling me that Peter Andrews only works where you’ve got little creeks in a mountain valley … I’ve seen it work on flat-lands, steep lands, anywhere.

Natural sequence farming arose in the attempt to restore upland valleys and creeks in southern NSW that were once environmentally valuable chains of ponds or swampy meadows. But these waterways have become deeply incised, degraded, and disconnected from their floodplains. Not only does this incision produce a great deal of sediment pollution, but it produces many agricultural problems.




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Spring is coming, and there’s little drought relief in sight


In reality, small and medium-sized stream systems across much of Australia have deepened after European settlement. If the leaky weirs of natural sequence farming are effective, then they could be applied across many gullied and incised streams across the country.

We’ve already been doing it

The good news is that landholders and governments have already been using aspects of natural sequence farming in those very gullies for decades to control erosion.

Since the 1970s, across the world, one useful method for controlling erosion has been grade-control structures. They were once made of concrete but are now usually made of dumped rock (called rock-chutes), and also logs.

Rock chutes in Barwidgee Creek, 1992, Ovens River catchment, Victoria. Source: T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority.
T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority
The same creek in 2002. It is now heavily vegetated and has pools of water, just like Mulloon Park.
T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority

These structures reduce the speed of water flow, trap sediment, encourage vegetation, and stop gullies from deepening. These are all goals of natural sequence farming using leaky weirs.

There are thousands of such structures, supported by government initiatives, across the Australian landscape acting as an unrecognised experiment in rehydration and drought protection.




Read more:
We must strengthen, not weaken, environmental protections during drought – or face irreversible loss


Perhaps governments should already have evaluated these structures, but the rehydration potential of these works has not been recognised in the past. It is time that this public investment was scientifically evaluated.

We may find that natural sequence farming and the routine government construction of grade-control structures have similar effects on farmland and the environment.

But whatever the outcome, gully management is not likely to mark the end of drought in the Australian landscape.The Conversation

Ian Rutherfurd, Associate Professor in Geography, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Farmers’ climate denial begins to wane as reality bites


Sarah Ann Wheeler, University of Adelaide and Céline Nauges, Inra

Australia has been described as the “front line of the battle for climate change adaptation”, and our farmers are the ones who have to lead the charge. Farmers will have to cope, among other pressures, with longer droughts, more erratic rainfall, higher temperatures, and changes to the timing of seasons.

Yet, puzzlingly enough to many commentators, climate denial has been widespread among farmers and in the ranks of the National Party, which purports to represent their interests.




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Back in 2008, only one-third of farmers accepted the science of climate change. Our 2010-11 survey of 946 irrigators in the southern Murray-Darling Basin (published in 2013) found similar results: 32% accepted that climate change posed a risk to their region; half disagreed; and 18% did not know.

These numbers have consistently trailed behind the wider public, a clear majority of whom have consistently accepted the science. More Australians in 2018 accepted the reality of climate change than at almost any time, with 76% accepting climate change is occurring, 11% not believing in it and 13% being unsure.

Yet there are signs we may be on the brink of a wholesale shift in farmers’ attitudes towards climate change. For example, we have seen the creation of Young Carbon Farmers, Farmers for Climate Action, the first ever rally on climate change by farmers in Canberra, and national adverts by farmers on the need for climate action. Since 2016 the National Farmers Federation has strengthened its calls for action to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Our latest preliminary research results have also revealed evidence of this change. We surveyed 1,000 irrigators in 2015-16 in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, and found attitudes have shifted significantly since the 2010 survey.

Now, 43% of farmers accept climate change poses a risk to their region, compared with just 32% five years earlier. Those not accepting correspondingly fell to 36%, while the percentage who did not know slightly increased to 21%.

Why would farmers deny the science?

There are many factors that influence a person’s denial of climate change, with gender, race, education and age all playing a part. While this partly explains the attitudes that persist among farmers (who tend to be predominantly male, older, Caucasian, and have less formal education), it is not the full story.

The very fact that farmers are on the front line of climate change also drives their climate change denial. For a farmer, accepting the science means facing up to the prospect of a harsher, more uncertain future.

Yet as these changes move from future prospect to current reality, they can also have a galvanising effect. Our survey results suggest farmers who have seen their farm’s productivity decrease over time are more likely to accept the science of climate change.

Many farmers who have turned to regenerative, organic or biodynamic agriculture talk about the change of mindset they went through as they realised they could no longer manage a drying landscape without major changes to their farming practices.




Read more:
Farmers experiencing drought-related stress need targeted support


In addition, we have found another characteristic that is associated with climate change denial is whether farmers have identified a successor for their farm. Many farmers desire to turn their farm over to the next generation, hopefully in a better state than how they received the farm. This is where the psychological aspect of increased future uncertainty plays an important role – farmers don’t want to believe their children will face a worse future on the farm.

We all want our children to have better lives than our own, and for farmers in particular, accepting climate change makes that very challenging. But it can also prompt stronger advocacy for doing something about it before it’s too late.

What can we do?

Whether farmers do or do not accept climate change, they all have to deal with the uncertainty of weather – and indeed they have been doing so for a very long time. The question is, can we help them to do it better? Given the term “climate change” can be polarising, explicit climate information campaigns will not necessarily deliver the desired results.




Read more:
To help drought-affected farmers, we need to support them in good times as well as bad


What farmers need are policies to help them manage risk and improve their decision-making. This can be done by focusing on how adaptation to weather variability can increase profitability and strengthen the farm’s long-term viability.

Farming policy should be more strategic and forward-thinking; subsidies should be removed for unsustainable practices; and farmers should be rewarded for good land management – both before and during droughts. The quest remains to minimise the pain suffered by all in times of drought.The Conversation

Sarah Ann Wheeler, Professor in Water Economics, University of Adelaide and Céline Nauges, Research Director, Inra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change will reshape the world’s agricultural trade



File 20180905 45172 1x5qj2a.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Australia’s grain exports will suffer under climate change.
Alpha/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Luciana Porfirio, CSIRO; David Newth, CSIRO, and John Finnigan, CSIRO

Ending world hunger is a central aspiration of modern society. To address this challenge – along with expanding agricultural land and intensifying crop yields – we rely on global agricultural trade to meet the nutritional demands of a growing world population.




Read more:
How many people can Australia feed?


But standing in the way of this aspiration is human-induced climate change. It will continue to affect the issue of where in the world crops can be grown and, therefore, food supply and global markets.

In a paper published today in Nature Palgrave, we show that climate change will affect global markets by reshaping agricultural trading patterns.

Some regions may not be able to battle climate impacts on agriculture, in which case production of key commodities will decline or shift to new regions.

The challenge

The negative impacts of climate change on agricultural production are of great concern to farmers and decision-makers. The concern is increasingly shared by governments including those most hostile to the advancement of climate change mitigation.

Even the United States, which has opted out of the Paris Agreement, acknowledged at last year’s G7 summit that climate change was one of a number of threats to “our capacity to feed a growing population and need[ed] to be taken into serious consideration”.

The UN median population projection suggests that the world population will reach some 10 billion in 2050. Between 2000 and 2010, roughly 66% of the daily energy intake per person, about 7,322 kilojoules, was derived from four key commodities: wheat, rice, coarse grains and oilseeds. However, the most recent UN report on food security and nutrition shows that world hunger is on the rise again and scientists believe this is due to climate change.




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World hunger is increasing thanks to wars and climate change


We must ask: what is the cost of adapting to climate change versus the cost of mitigating carbon emissions? And assuming that changes in climate and crop yields are here to stay, are we prepared for permanent agricultural shifts?

Disruptions and opportunities

Agricultural production is significantly affected by climate change. Our results suggest that global trade patterns of agricultural commodities may be significantly different from today’s reality – with or without carbon mitigation. This is because climate change and the implementation of a carbon mitigation policy have different effects on a regions’ agricultural production and economy.

Take the US, which in 2015 had 30% of the global market share of coarse grains, paddy rice, soybeans and wheat. We modelled production between 2050-59 under two scenarios: in a world 2℃ average temperature rise, and with a 1.5℃ increase. In both cases, the US market share would shrink to about 10%.




Read more:
As global food demand rises, climate change is hitting our staple crops


China is currently a net importer of these commodities. If temperature increases by 1.5℃, we expect to see an increase in exports of some products, like rice to the rest of Asia.

(However, it’s worth bearing in mind that limiting warming would be very expensive for China, as it would need to absorb a costly technological transition to a low carbon economy.)

China’s story is different in the 2℃ scenario. Our projections suggest that climate change will make China, as well as other regions in Asia, more suitable to produce different commodities.

China’s economy will keep expanding, whilst the new climatic conditions create opportunities to produce other food commodities at a greater scale and export to new regions.

Our results also suggest that, regardless of the carbon policy scenarios, Sub-Saharan Africa will become the greatest importer of coarse grains, rice, soybeans and wheat by 2050. This significant change in Sub-Saharan Africa imports is driven by the fact that the largest increase in human population by 2050 will occur in this region, with a significant increase in food demand.

In our research Australia was aggregated in “Oceania” with New Zealand. The exports from Oceania to the rest of the world comprised about 1.6% of the total in 2015, which is dominated by wheat exports from Australia.

Our projections suggest that carbon mitigation policies would favour the wheat industry in this region. The opposite occurs without carbon mitigation: the production and exports of wheat are projected to decline due to climate change impacts on agriculture.

The benefits of mitigation

A recent report published by the European Commission about the challenges of global agriculture in a climate change context by 2050 highlights that

…emission mitigation measures (i.e. carbon pricing) have a negative impact on primary agricultural production […] across all models.

However, the report does not mention the technological costs to buffer (or adapt to) the effect of climate change on agriculture.

Our results suggest that the cost paid by the agricultural sector to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is offset by the higher food prices projected in the non-mitigation scenario, where agricultural production is significantly affected by climate change. We found that there is a net economic benefit in transitioning to a low carbon economy. This is because agricultural systems are more productive under the mitigation scenario, and able to meet the demand for food imposed by a growing population.




Read more:
Australian farmers are adapting to climate change


Mitigating CO₂ emissions has the side benefit of creating a more stable agricultural trade system that may be better able to reduce food insecurity and increase welfare.

Changes in the agricultural system due to climate are inevitable. It is time to create a sense of urgency about our agricultural vulnerabilities to climate change, and begin seriously minimising risk.The Conversation

Luciana Porfirio, Research Scientist, Agriculture & Food, CSIRO | Visiting fellow at the Fenner School of Enviroment & Society, CSIRO; David Newth, Team Leader, Australian And Global Carbon Assessments, CSIRO, and John Finnigan, Leader, Complex Systems Science, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to grow crops on Mars if we are to live on the red planet



File 20180726 106502 1nt78ux.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
We can create the right kind of food plants to survive on Mars.
Shutterstock/SergeyDV

Briardo Llorente, Macquarie University

Preparations are already underway for missions that will land humans on Mars in a decade or so. But what would people eat if these missions eventually lead to the permanent colonisation of the red planet?

Once (if) humans do make it to Mars, a major challenge for any colony will be to generate a stable supply of food. The enormous costs of launching and resupplying resources from Earth will make that impractical.

Humans on Mars will need to move away from complete reliance on shipped cargo, and achieve a high level of self-sufficient and sustainable agriculture.




Read more:
Discovered: a huge liquid water lake beneath the southern pole of Mars


The recent discovery of liquid water on Mars – which adds new information to the question of whether we will find life on the planet – does raise the possibility of using such supplies to help grow food.

But water is only one of many things we will need if we’re to grow enough food on Mars.

What sort of food?

Previous work has suggested the use of microbes as a source of food on Mars. The use of hydroponic greenhouses and controlled environmental systems, similar to one being tested onboard the International Space Station to grow crops, is another option.

This month, in the journal Genes, we provide a new perspective based on the use of advanced synthetic biology to improve the potential performance of plant life on Mars.

Synthetic biology is a fast-growing field. It combines principles from engineering, DNA science, and computer science (among many other disciplines) to impart new and improved functions to living organisms.

Not only can we read DNA, but we can also design biological systems, test them, and even engineer whole organisms. Yeast is just one example of an industrial workhorse microbe whose whole genome is currently being re-engineered by an international consortium.

The technology has progressed so far that precision genetic engineering and automation can now be merged into automated robotic facilities, known as biofoundries.

These biofoundries can test millions of DNA designs in parallel to find the organisms with the qualities that we are looking for.

Mars: Earth-like but not Earth

Although Mars is the most Earth-like of our neighbouring planets, Mars and Earth differ in many ways.




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The gravity on Mars is around a third of that on Earth. Mars receives about half of the sunlight we get on Earth, but much higher levels of harmful ultraviolet (UV) and cosmic rays. The surface temperature of Mars is about -60℃ and it has a thin atmosphere primarily made of carbon dioxide.

Unlike Earth’s soil, which is humid and rich in nutrients and microorganisms that support plant growth, Mars is covered with regolith. This is an arid material that contains perchlorate chemicals that are toxic to humans.

Also – despite the latest sub-surface lake find – water on Mars mostly exists in the form of ice, and the low atmospheric pressure of the planet makes liquid water boil at around 5℃.

Plants on Earth have evolved for hundreds of millions of years and are adapted to terrestrial conditions, but they will not grow well on Mars.

This means that substantial resources that would be scarce and priceless for humans on Mars, like liquid water and energy, would need to be allocated to achieve efficient farming by artificially creating optimal plant growth conditions.

Adapting plants to Mars

A more rational alternative is to use synthetic biology to develop crops specifically for Mars. This formidable challenge can be tackled and fast-tracked by building a plant-focused Mars biofoundry.

Such an automated facility would be capable of expediting the engineering of biological designs and testing of their performance under simulated Martian conditions.

With adequate funding and active international collaboration, such an advanced facility could improve many of the traits required for making crops thrive on Mars within a decade.

This includes improving photosynthesis and photoprotection (to help protect plants from sunlight and UV rays), as well as drought and cold tolerance in plants, and engineering high-yield functional crops. We also need to modify microbes to detoxify and improve the Martian soil quality.

These are all challenges that are within the capability of modern synthetic biology.

Benefits for Earth

Developing the next generation of crops required for sustaining humans on Mars would also have great benefits for people on Earth.




Read more:
Before we colonise Mars, let’s look to our problems on Earth


The growing global population is increasing the demand for food. To meet this demand we must increase agricultural productivity, but we have to do so without negatively impacting our environment.

The best way to achieve these goals would be to improve the crops that are already widely used. Setting up facilities such as the proposed Mars Biofoundry would bring immense benefit to the turnaround time of plant research with implications for food security and environmental protection.

The ConversationSo ultimately, the main beneficiary of efforts to develop crops for Mars would be Earth.

Briardo Llorente, CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Fellow, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The secret agents protecting our crops and gardens


File 20180420 75104 1u2pbpt.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Lacewings are fantastic predators and are easy to rear and release.
Dan Papacek & Tony Meredith (Bugs for Bugs), Author provided

Lizzy Lowe, Macquarie University and Manu Saunders, University of New England

Insect pests cause a huge amount of damage to crops globally. In Australia alone, pests are responsible for around A$360 million of crop losses a year. Controlling pest outbreaks is crucial for food security and human health. Since the 1940s, our primary defence against crop pests has been synthetic pesticides. But using pesticides comes at a huge cost.

Not all bugs are bad!

Bees, flies and butterflies help to pollinate our plants. Decomposers like beetles and worms help break down wastes and return nutrients to the soil. Meanwhile, predators and parasites help control the species that are pests. One of the biggest environmental problems with pesticides is that they can affect these beneficial species as well as the pests they’re targeting.

Predatory insects and spiders control pests with none of the health and environmental risks of chemicals. So when we kill these species with insecticides, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.




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The real cost of pesticides in Australia’s food boom


Losing insects also has flow-on effects for larger animals that rely on them for food. Because invertebrates have such important roles to play in our environment, losing them to insecticides can completely change how ecosystems function.

An alternative to insecticides

Biological control (or biocontrol) relies on “secret agents” – the natural enemies (predators and parasitoids) of pests that live freely in the ecosystems around us.

There is a huge range of predatory invertebrates that eat pests. They include dragonflies, preying mantids, beetles (including ladybugs), lacewings, spiders, mites, wasps, and even some flies.

Parasitoids, meanwhile, are insects that lay their eggs in the bodies of other invertebrates. Their larvae extract nutrients from the host during their development, which ultimately kills the host. Wasps are best known for this strategy but there are also parasitoid flies and beetles.

Lady birds are voracious predators ready to eat pests in crops and gardens.
Manu Saunders

Predators and parasitoids are useful because they use pest insects, like caterpillars and aphids, as food to reproduce and grow their populations. We walk past many of these hard working agents every day without knowing it.

One biocontrol method that gardeners and land managers use is called augmentation. This simply means raising lots of live individuals of particular natural enemies, like ladybirds or wasps, and releasing them into an area to control pests.

Alternatively, gardeners might change the local environment to encourage these natural enemies to move in on their own. They might include natural insectariums or planting different types of vegetation to encourage diverse invertebrate communities. There is increasing evidence of the success of these strategies in organic farming so we should be thinking about using them more broadly.

Selecting your insects

If you want to release biocontrol agents, you need to choose them carefully, just like human special agents. Like any introduced plant or animal, there is a risk that good bugs could become pests (if they feed on the wrong insects, for example).

Selecting biological control agents requires close collaboration between managers, skilled entomologists and other scientists. For each new species, they identify the pest and some potential predators. They look at the predator’s life cycle and resource needs, and consider how it interacts not just with pests, but with other insects too. If agents are coming in from overseas, they also need to be cleared by government biosecurity.

Parasiotid wasps, lacewings, predatory mites, ladybird beetles, and nematodes are all common biocontrol agents. These species are relatively easy to raise in large numbers and work well when released into the field. Spiders are also a really important predator of many pest insects, but they’re often overlooked in the biocontrol game because they are harder to breed – and for some reason people don’t always like releasing large numbers of spiders.

Many biocontrol agents are enemies of pests in general, preying on aphids, caterpillars and fruit flies alike. It’s important to have generalists around for every day pest control, but sometimes a more targeted approach is needed. This is when specialised predators or parasitoids come in. These are species that only target specific pests like leaf miners, beetles, scale insects or spider mites. This way the target pest can be managed with no risk of the parasitoids accidentally attacking other beneficial invertebrates.

Raising good bugs

It’s very exciting to get live insects in the mail!
Lizzy Lowe

Once a biocontrol agent has been selected, greenhouses or lab facilities start raising a large population. This is an emerging market in Australia, but there are already a number of companies in Australia who specialise in rearing biological control agents.

This is a tricky job because demand for the product is variable and is not easy to predict. Warmer seasons are the peak time for most pests, but problems can arise at any time of the year. In most cases the biocontrol company will maintain breeding colonies throughout the year and will be ready to ramp up production at a moment’s notice when a farmer identifies a pest problem. Each company usually provides 10-20 different biocontrol agents and are always looking for new species that might be useful.




Read more:
Birds, bees and bugs: your garden is an ecosystem, and it needs looking after


When it comes to getting the agents to the farmers, the bugs can be shipped as eggs (ready to hatch on arrival), or as live adults ready to disperse and lay their own eggs. The packages are express posted in boxes designed to keep the insects cool and safe.

Once the farmer or natural resource manager receives the bugs, applying them is quite simple. The secret agents are released among the crops, usually by hand, but in some special cases they may be airlifted in via specialised drones!

Drones can be used to deploy biological control agents.
Nathan Roy (Aerobugs)

It’s important to monitor the pests and the biological control agents after release to check that the agents are working. Some farmers are happy to do this themselves but most biological control companies have experts to visit the farms and keep an eye on all parties.

Can I use good bugs in my garden?

The ConversationIf you have a problem with a pest like aphids it is possible to buy predators such as ladybirds or lacewings to quickly deal with the problem. But for long term pest control, there are probably already some natural enemies living in your garden! The easiest and cheapest way to help them is to put the insecticides away and ensure your garden is a friendly environment for secret agents.

Lizzy Lowe, Postdoctoral researcher, Macquarie University and Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.