Frycook posted this fascinating video from the Apollo era on the BoingBoing Submitterator. The basic gist: Back in the day, NASA scientists tried exposing various crops—corn, lettuce, tobacco ... you know, the essentials—to moon dust. The plants weren't grown in the dust, exactly. Instead, it was scattered in their pots or rubbed on some of their leaves. In this study, the plants that were exposed seemed to grow faster than unexposed plants.
That's pretty interesting, so I dug around a little to find out more about these studies. Turns out, growing plants in lunar soil isn't quite as promising as the video makes it sound, but it's not a ridonculous idea, either. In 2010, scientists at the University of Florida published a review of all the Apollo-era research on this subject, which amounted to exactly three published studies. From that data, we can say that the plants weren't obviously affected in any seriously negative ways by their exposure to lunar soils—which is good—but we can't really say the plants grew better their terrestrial-only cousins, either.
In the end, and as recorded in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, there were only three published primary studies of seeds, seedlings, and plants grown in contact with lunar materials. In those three cases, small amounts of lunar material were used, and the plants were relatively large. In general, the dusting of plants or the mixing of lunar fines with other support media makes plant interaction with the lunar material a small part of the plant experience. At no point were plants actually grown in lunar samples in the way that one might imagine, with the entire root structure growing through and in constant association with a lunar soil. It is no accident that the wording of most of the titles of the studies, as well as the careful discussion within the papers, refers to growth “in contact with” lunar samples—not “in” lunar samples. With only a small portion of the roots, for example, interacting with the lunar materials, it is likely that plant responses to the lunar materials were, therefore, quite attenuated due to the lack of an extensive plant/lunar soil interface. Biophysical issues, such as root penetration of dry and variously hydrated lunar sample types, were completely unaddressed. Thus, the effects of actual growth within lunar soils were simply not a part of the plant studies of the Apollo era.
On the other hand, in 2008 scientists with the European Space Agency tried growing marigolds in a medium of crushed rock—basically the much-cheaper equivalent of growing plants in moon "soil". There's no indication that the marigolds did better than those grown in real dirt, but they did grow and they did survive (even without any added fertilizer), which could be indirect evidence in support of the Moon gardeners of the future.
Participants in a rocket competition cheer after their rocket was successfully launched during the rocket festival known as "Bun Bangfai" in Yasothon, northeast of Bangkok, May 13, 2012. The festival marks the start of the rainy season when farmers are about to plant rice.
Over the weekend, I stumbled over a great Damn Interesting post about the history and future of the banana. Some of you already know the basic story here: Bananas, as we know them, cannot reproduce. The ones we eat are sterile hybrids. Like mules. The only way that there are more bananas is that humans take offshoots from the stems of existing banana trees, transplant them, and allow them to grow into a tree of their own. It's basically a cheap, low-tech version of cloning, and it has a long history in agriculture. (Note: This would be why Christian evangelist Ray Comfort's video on bananas has become a classic Internet LOL. In the video, Comfort presents the banana—particularly its seedless flesh, handy shape, and easy-access peel&mash;as a testament to the perfection of supernatural design ... completely ignoring the fact that all those things are the result of human-directed agricultural selection.)
The downside to this is that clones are, shall we say, not terribly genetically diverse. Turns out, a lack of genetic diversity is a great way to make yourself vulnerable to disease. Back in the 1950s, a fungus all but wiped out a variety of banana called the Gros Michael. Up until then, the Gros Michel had been the top-selling banana in the world. It was the banana your grandparents ate. You eat the Cavendish, a different variety that replaced Gros Michael largely on the strength of its resistance to the killer fungus.
Forty percent of the Earth's surface is devoted to agriculture. The Colorado River, tapped for irrigation, no longer flows into the ocean. Agriculture also makes up 30% of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions—more than electricity, more than transportation.
Agriculture matters. And it's not an option, but a necessity.
In this talk for TEDxTwinCities, University of Minnesota scientist Jon Foley talks about the challenges facing the future of food. How do we produce more food without consuming more land, water, and fossil fuels? The only solution, according to Foley, is a combination of things. Not just "go organic". Instead, he's advocating combining some organic practices with industrial efficiency, changed diets, new varieties of food crops, and more.
Just as one seed can produce many seeds, one idea can change many lives. Free public libraries were revolutionary in their time because they provided access to books and knowledge that had not previously been available to a large segment of the population. A free seed lending library can also provide people with a chance to transform their lives and communities by providing access to fresh, healthy food that may not otherwise be available.
CBC's long-form/big think radio program Ideas recently featured a lecture called "Feeding Ten Billion" from Raj Patel, an Africa development scholar formerly with the World Bank, and author of The Value of Nothing. Patel's perspective on global agriculture and social justice is incisive and contrarian. I've never heard anyone talk about the demerits of the "Green Revolution" in agriculture like this, and it was an eye-opener. A perfect hour-long listen for the weekend's chores. MP3 link— Cory
You see that whitish stuff in the petri dish? That, my dears, is lab-grown meat. Meat made without all the physical, environmental, and ethical mess that goes along with raising actual animals for food.
The little tabs on either end of each piece of meat are Velcro, used to stretch and "exercise" the muscle cells that make up this lab meat. (Some earlier attempts at growing meat in the lab failed because, without exercise, muscle tissue isn't something that's particularly palatable.) It's white because there's no blood running through it. And, to create food, you'd have to combine this single layer of muscle tissue with thousands of other layers of muscle and lab-grown fat.
Dutch biologist Mark Post, the man behind the meat, thinks that he can build the world's first lab-grown burger within a year for a cost of $345,000.
EcoFlight is a group that photographs ecological threats in western states from the vantage point of small airplanes. The idea is to give people a clear picture of the contrast between wilderness and the industrial sites that threaten the ecological health of that wilderness. It's an interesting idea, and certainly results in some amazing photos, such as this shot of evaporation ponds at a potash mining facility near Moab, Utah.
Potash is, essentially, a generic name for several different potassium-laden salts. It's most commonly used as an ingredient in fertilizer, as potassium (along with nitrogen and phosphorous) is one of the three key nutrients plants need to grow. The main environmental threat: How mining potash in the quantities required by the modern agricultural industry could threaten water quality and supplies, and soil quality. It's worth checking out the rest of the photos in the set, which give you a better perspective on where the evaporation ponds sit in context with the local landscape and the Colorado River.
This Potash mine is located 20 miles west of Moab. The mine began underground excavation in 1964 and was converted in 1970 to a solar evaporation system. This mine produces between 700 and 1,000 tons of potash per day.
Water is used from the nearby Colorado River in the production of Potash by a company called Intrepid Potash®. Water is pumped through injection wells into the underground mine which dissolves layers of potash more than 3,000 feet below the surface. The resulting "brine" is then brought to the surface and piped to 400 acres of shallow evaporation ponds. A blue dye is added to the ponds to assist in the evaporation process. These ponds are lined with vinyl to keep the brine from spilling back into the Colorado River. A major by-product of this process is salt. The salt is used for water softening, animal feed and oil drilling fluids as well as many other applications.
There's more to this than just a freaky looking plant dreadlock. That root system represents something far bigger than itself: Soil health. Perennial plants build soil and protect against erosion in ways annual plants and their skimpy root structures simply cannot. It's why, since large-scale corn farming replaced perennial prairie, Iowa has lost some 8 vertical inches of precious topsoil. Glover's argument: To protect our farming resources for future generations we need to pay more attention to the potential benefits of perennial crops.
Lakelady sends us, "a complete online text for how and why farming with dynamite is a good idea written by E.I. Du Pont de Nemours Powder Company. Published in 1910. Note the lovely art nouveau embellishments on some of the pages."