Tag Archives: agriculture

Is chocolate disappearing?

It looks like the cacao plant used for chocolate production is at risk of being wiped out. Grrlscientist at the Guardian science blogs featured the story in her Jan. 11, 2012 posting.

… despite chocolate’s popularity in the United States and Europe, the cacao plant is in trouble. …

The most common way of growing cacao is in a monoculture, the same way that corn is grown, which makes plants much more susceptible to a plethora of diseases and pest infestations, says Dr Almeda [botanist Frank Almeda, senior curator at the California Academy of Sciences]. Making things worse, cacao farmers make less than one dollar a day, so cultivating cacao isn’t even economically feasible, so farmers are abandoning their cacao plantations.

Here’s a video from the California Academy of Sciences about chocolate,

Grrlscientist mentions corn as another food which is monoculture-cultivated and I’m going add banana as another one of these monoculture food plants and that, too, is in danger, not for the first time. (I’m not sure about whether corn is in immediate danger or not.) There’s a type of banana that we no longer eat, Gros Michel. Our grandparents did and, by all accounts, it was a better tasting banana than the one we have now but it was wiped out by disease.

Agribusiness interests found an alternative, the Cavendish banana, which is now in danger of being wiped out. (What is that saying about repeating the practices that you got into trouble in the first place and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity?) There’s  lots of information about the banana situation on the web and I found this US National Public Radio (NPR) interview from July 22, 2011 with Dan Koeppel, science writer and author of “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World,” which features a transcript of the interview, as well as, the audio file.

I know I don’t usually write about this kind of thing but 20 years ago when I was completing my undergraduate degree, I took a course where we discussed the issue of monoculture and the danger of relying on one species of food plant , and just couldn’t resist writing about this any longer.

Personalized agriculture

They talk a lot about personalized medicine (drugs and procedures specifically formulated for individuals) but this is the first time I’ve come across ‘personalized’ agriculture. According to the article (not dated for some reason, I did find it last week [Oct. 31 – Nov. 4, 2011]) by Christopher Mims for Fast Company,

For centuries, farmers have been trying to tweak their practices to get plants to grow well. But what if the plants could tell you exactly what they needed, and you could engineer one that was perfect for your farm?

Agriculture has a problem. Its one-size-fits-all model requires outsize amounts of pesticide, fertilizer, and water to create a homogenous environment for a homogenized product. Monocropping means covering as much area as possible with a single, often genetically identical crop, and commercial genetic modification techniques only exacerbate the problem by self-destructing after a single generation, preventing seed-saving and the development of new varieties by farmers themselves.

Nature long ago solve this problem through the process of mass customization we know as natural selection. Now the challenge for agricultural scientists is to reintroduce biodiversity in the one place it’s been most thoroughly eradicated–the industrialized farm.

Mims notes this is at the idea stage only.

“Plants sense their environment and exhibit sophisticated responses–the idea is to engineer that,” says Reid Williams, a PhD candidate at UCSF [University of California at San Francisco] who also worked on the project.

We already know that plants can sense gravity, touch, and probably dozens of other environmental factors. Regardless of their innate responses, all living things also encode information about their environment through a process called DNA methylation. When DNA is methylated, it changes its expression during the life of an organism, and there are ways to determine precisely which genes have been altered in this way.

Add some “big data” to this equation–massive, automated studies that statistically match DNA changes to the conditions in which a plant is grown–and you could begin to build a system that can examine the genetic code of a particular plant and spit out a record of the conditions in which it developed. Something along these lines has already been developed, namely a plant that turns red in the presence of land mines.

The endpoint for this new thinking about agriculture would be ‘personalized’ seeds.

The ultimate result would be “personalized seeds” (think of it in terms of personalized medicine) that are tailored to the environment in which they’ll grow. This application of synthetic biology turns the usual sequence of events in agriculture on its head.  …

… the name of this field, synthetic biology, which implies that humans are at the stage that we are in a position to directly influence the substance of evolution itself, and not just in the accidental ways we have in the past. [emphases mine]

Or perhaps we’ve found a new way to further our delusion that we can control life.

Canada’s Vive Nano and its Technology Innovation Award from Frost & Sullivan

Located in Toronto, Ontario (Canada) Vive Nano, a nanotechnology company acknowledged for its leadership in nanomaterial encapsulation technology, received Frost & Sullivan’s 2010 North American award for Technology Innovation earlier this year in April. (I only found out about this last week when Frost & Sullivan distributed a news release to Nanowerk. Did I miss Vive Nano’s announcement or did they just put up a news release and hoped someone would find it?) From Vive Nano’s website press release,

Vive Nano is proud to announce that it has been selected to receive Frost & Sullivan’s 2010 North American Technology Innovation of the Year Award for its unique encapsulation technology to synthesize nanoparticles. After evaluating the field of competing technologies, Frost & Sullivan was impressed by Vive Nano’s flexible process based on the principle of polymer collapse, using basic, benign, water-based inputs. Our process is green, scalable, and inexpensive – critical characteristics for addressing big challenges in global problems like food, water, and energy efficiency.

Frost & Sullivan is a global research organization of 1,800 analysts and consultants who monitor more than 300 industries and 250,000 companies.

The news item on Nanowerk offers a little more insight into Vive Nano’s current initiatives,

Vive Nano’s current industry focus is on crop protection, with subsequent applications identified in cosmetics, consumer products, pharmaceuticals, and other industrial markets. …

Pesticide formulation is a core issue in the agri-food industry. Pesticide active ingredients for crop protection need to be uniformly spread in small amounts over a large area. Towards this end, it is ideally desired that pesticide particles should not agglomerate. Furthermore, formulations of pesticides should effectively address some key industry concerns such as higher manufacturing costs, harmful environment effects, and help deliver an active ingredient which has higher initial and residual efficacy. Among the various formulation techniques, encapsulation, in which the active ingredient is encapsulated by a synthetic or biological polymer to allow for prolonged release of the pesticide over a period of time, has gained prominence in recent years due to the long term advantages it offers.

You can view a silent and text-free animation of Vive Nano’s encapsulation technology here.

I found this description from the news item helpful in understanding the technology that the animation demonstrates,

One of the key attributes of Vive Nano’s technology is that the charged polymer surrounding the core repels other “like charged” polymers thereby preventing agglomeration and helps maintain the nano size of the particle. “Vive Nano’s technology offers some key advantages such as its ability to create nano particles for most chemicals on the periodic table and high scalability in manufacturing that allow it to scale to thousands of tons,” says Frost & Sullivan Research Analyst Avinash Bhaskar. “Further, the technology does not need a dedicated plant and is easy and cost-effective to implement.”

Vive Nano’s initial testing has successfully demonstrated that its nano technology-based formulated active ingredient is highly effective for killing weeds while avoiding the problematic chemical additives that are leading to product bans in a growing number of major markets. Vive Nano’s nanoparticles have the potential to result in improved crop yield and reduced environmental impact.

Congratulations Vive Nano!

Nanotechnology and biocompatibility; carbon nanotubes in agriculture; venture capital for nanotechnology

One of the big nanotechnology toxicity issues centers around the question of its biocompatibility i.e. what effect do the particles have on cells in human bodies, plants, and other biological organisms? Right now, the results are mixed. Two studies have recently been published which suggest that there are neutral or even positive responses to nanoparticles.

Researchers at Lund University (Sweden) have conducted tests of nanowires, which they are hoping could be used as electrodes in the future, showing that microglial cells break down the nanowires and almost completely clean them away over a period of weeks. You can read more about the work here on Nanowerk. I would expect they’ll need to do more studies confirming these results as well more tests establishing what happens to the nanowire debris over longer periods of time and what problems, if any, emerge when electrodes are introduced in succession (i.e. how many times can you implant nanowires and have them ‘mostly’ cleaned away?).

The other biocompatibility story centers on food stuffs. Apparently carbon nanotubes can have a positive effect on crops. According to researchers in Arkansaa, Mariya Khodakovskaya, Alexandru Biris, and their colleagues, the treated seeds (tomato) sprouted twice as fast and grew more than twice as much as their untreated neighbours. The news item is here on Nanowerk and there is a more in-depth article about agriculture and nanotechnology here in Nanowerk Spotlight. (Note: I have checked and both of the papers have been published although I believe they’re both behind paywalls.)

It seems be to a Nanowerk day as I’m featuring the site again for this item. They have made a guide to finding venture capital for startup nanotechnology companies available on their site. From the item,

To help potential nanotechnology start-up founders with shaping their plans, Nanowerk, the leading nanotechnology information service, and Nanostart, the world’s leading nanotechnology venture capital company, have teamed up to provide this useful guide which particularly addresses the funding aspects of nanotechnology start-ups, along with answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.

You can read more here.

More on memristors and a little bit on food packaging and nano

The folks at HP Labs have figured out a  way to control memristors and the information is being published in the July issue of Nature Nanotechnology (article will be behind a paywall). Memristors first came up in May this year when scientists at HP Labs confirmed that they existed. (Take a look at my June 19 posting and May 9 postings for more about memristors.) Briefly, a memristor retains information (memory of value) about current that passes through it. They’ve now created a memristor switch (50nm x 50nm) which the can be set to ‘1’ or ‘0’ or something in between. That’s right it can be used in a  binary (digital) fashion or an analogue fashion. One of the potential applications (noted in the earlier postings) is for saving energy and another is a computer that learns. There’s more info. here at HP Labs.

A friend told me about a report from Friends of the Earth called ‘Out of the Laboratory and Onto Our Plates’. It’s about nanotechnology being used in food packaging and agriculture. I find their approach a bit strident especially when taking into account their acronym, foe. Still, the report itself is well written, except for the strident bits, has a substantive set of references and can be downloaded from their website. There’s also a March 2008 article  in Scientific American here which discusses the report and includes some commentary from other interested parties to provide some journalistic balance.