Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Stopping Fruit Mould - Without Pesticides

How many times have you purchased a package of beautiful, red, ripe strawberries from the grocery store only to have them spoiled by grey fuzz a day or two after you get them home?

That unappetizing fuzz is called grey mould, and it’s caused by the fungal pathogen Botrytis cinerea. Other common fungal diseases of strawberry include powdery mildew and anthracnose. These diseases pose big problems for growers, who traditionally apply fungicides to control them. And many fungicides are not even an option for organic producers.

Fortunately, USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are on the case, looking for ways to keep strawberries mould free without fungicides.

Ultraviolet-C (UV-C) irradiation has been studied as a way of killing microbes by damaging their DNA, but at effective doses, it damages leaves and fruit. ARS scientists Wojciech Janisiewicz and Fumiomi Takeda discovered a way to sidestep this problem. They demonstrated that UV-C irradiation of strawberry plants—followed by a period of darkness—resulted in drastic kill of the Botrytis pathogen, the powdery mildew fungus, and anthracnose. In fact, the technique increased UV-C’s killing power 6- to 10-fold, depending on the pathogen, with no damage to the leaves, flowers, or fruit.

A bonus? The treatment also reduced spider mite infestations, and that could mean less pesticide use, too.

The scientists think the dark period following the UV-C treatment deprives the pathogens of the light needed to activate their DNA-repair mechanisms. They’ve filed a patent application on the technology, which is now called PhylloLux and includes applications of two beneficial yeasts. They have also automated the technology for large-scale applications. The scientists are working with an industry partner to develop a robot that can treat a field of strawberry plants at night on commercial farms.

Janisiewicz and Takeda work at the ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, West Virginia. Their method for controlling fungal plant pathogens, and even spider mites, would greatly reduce product loss to strawberry growers and processors and reduce pesticide use. It will also benefit consumers who lose strawberries to mould before they can consume the entire package.—By Sue Kendall, ARS Office of Communications.

Another smart example of the role of precision horticulture now expanding around the globe.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Detecting Citrus Greening Disease with Dogs

The article below is demonstrating a very smart plant disease detection methodology.  While this disease is not in Australia it is still showing a very smart new and relevant option and maybe could be applied to other diseases as well.

Trained Dogs Are the Most Efficient Way to Hunt Citrus Industry's Biggest Threat

By Kim Kaplan
February 3, 2020
FORT PIERCE, Florida, Feb. 3, 2020—Dogs specially trained by Agriculture Research Service (ARS) scientists have proven to be the most efficient way to detect huanglongbing—also known as citrus greening—according to a paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Currently, the only solid hope of curtailing the spread of citrus greening is to eliminate trees with the disease as quickly as possible to prevent further spread. Early detection of the citrus greening pathogen is crucial because trees can be infected and act as a source to spread the disease months or years before showing symptoms that are detectable by the naked eye.
ARS plant epidemiologist Timothy R. Gottwald with the U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory in Fort Pierce, Florida, discovered that dogs can be trained to sniff out the presence of Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, the bacteria that causes citrus greening, with greater than 99 percent accuracy. 
"We found that, once trained, these dogs were able to identify infected trees within two weeks of the trees being inoculated," Gottwald said. "The dogs also were able to distinguish the citrus greening pathogen from a variety of other citrus bacterial, viral, fungal, and spiroplasma pathogens, including closely related Liberibacter species.
During testing, the citrus greening detector dogs had total of 4 to 15 false negatives and false positives on 950 to 1,000 trees per dog. Occasionally, the dogs alerted on clean trees that were in the same spot where an inoculated tree had been placed in previous tests due to residual scent.
In contrast, the only currently USDA-approved method for confirming the presence of the citrus greening pathogen—a DNA-based assay called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test detected less than 3 percent of infections at 2 months, 16 of 30 inoculated trees at 16 months, and 20 out of 30 in 17 months.
PCR tests also require considerable time, financial and human resources for sampling, processing and laboratory work. They are very expensive to use as a general surveillance tool.
The training is similar to that of explosives sniffing dogs, in which the dogs are taught to recognize a particular odor and to sit down next to the source once found. The dogs are rewarded with play time with a toy.  However training is more extensive and specific because the dogs are trained to detect a bacteria infecting a plant, and the two cannot be separated.
So far, Gottwald's program has trained 19 dogs obtained from European breeders of detection canines because of their keen abilities and drive. (Watch a video)
"When we ran epidemiological models, we found canine detection combined with infected tree removal would allow the citrus industry to remain economically sustainable over a 10-year period, compared to using molecular assays or visual inspection combined with tree removal, which failed to suppress the spread of infection," Gottwald explained.
Citrus green sniffing dogs have been deployed for 9 months in California and northern Florida.
In the past decade, huanglongbing has caused more than 70 percent decline in the production of oranges for juice and the fresh fruit market in Florida and threatens other states, making it the largest economic threat to the $3.35 billion U.S. citrus industry. It was first found in the United States in 2005, citrus greening has spread to Florida, Texas, California, Georgia, and Louisiana.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Genetic Fix to Manage Bee Colony Collapse Disorder

Colony Collapse Disorder caused the loss of an estimated 40 per cent of honey bee colonies in the US last year. Now researchers have genetically engineered a bacterium that lives in the gut of honey bees, to boost their ability to fight off pathogens that are often responsible for colony collapse. 

The researchers from the University of Texas first identified that honey bees carry a particular beneficial gut bacterium called Snodgrassella alvi, and then genetically engineered that bacterium to produce RNAi — RNA interference — in the gut of the bee. 

That RNAi is then able to suppress the expression of the deformed wing virus, and also kills the parasitic Varroa mite.

RNA interference [RNAi]  is a biological process in which RNA molecules inhibit gene expression or translation, by neutralizing targeted mRNA molecules. Historically, RNAi was known by other names, including co-suppression, post-transcriptional gene silencing (PTGS), and quelling. 

 appeared originally as Scientists modify honey bee gut bacterium to fight colony collapse-causing Varroa mite and deformed-wing virus in  ABC News (Science) - 31 January 2020

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Late Monsoon Season for Australia

Mid January 2020 and still no monsoon arrival.  Getting quite late but not yet the latest date recorded.

However, it could be some time away  with a few of the global weather drivers looking decidedly dodgy ie not especially positive for a monsoon burst anytime soon.

Read the current Tropical Climate Note from earlier this week  [http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/tropical-note/ ] and note the eastwards movement of the MJO away from our region, usually negative for rain across N Australia.

Today's weather reports refer to hot and drier conditions across the north over the next few days, although there may be storms.

Please continue to wait.......and wait...........and wait.

3 February 2020 - UPDATE - now coming .........the monsoon onset!!   Latest ever for Darwin and even now it is still not quite here YET.  Maybe in a few days still.  While a monsoonal low is moving west several hundred kms  SW of Darwin, officially not yet for Darwin! 

Eyes in the Sky - Drones for Post Fire Hydrologic Assessment

A very topical article appeared in the recent edition of Stormwater Magazine based on US usage but would seem highly relevant for use in Australia right now.

A post grad student used drone flights and various software programs to assess the landscape following fire, in California but this seems highly useful for eastern and south eastern Australia right now in early 2020 to assess our burnt landscapes.

The emphasis was on how the landscape patterns have been changed and how this has influenced how the hydrology of the area has been impacted. 

The link is below and should be readily available.

Seems a very timely application, now that some rain seems to be arriving which may quench a number of the fires.

Link is:


Thursday, December 19, 2019

Year of Plant Health - 2020

2019 has come to a close with the recent announcement that 2020 will be the International Year of Plant Health.
Protecting the health of our agriculture and environment is the core of our biosecurity efforts in Australia, for both plant and animal  systems.
Many in the Darwin region will be aware of recent plant biosecurity issues covering bananas and citrus over the past few years, and bananas continue to be at the frontline worldwide over Panama disease development and spread especially in South America and Africa and with some issues even in Queensland in Australia over the past few years too.
While there are some very serious biosecurity issues facing Australia and indeed much of the world, in our region the incurable and highly deadly animal disease African Swine Fever is probably front and centre as we approach the end of 2019.
While Australia does remain free of this monumentally serious problem [as at mid-December 2019], other neighbours are no longer free - with Sumatra in Indonesia as well as Timor Leste designated as having the disease.
Recent detections of pork contaminated items at Australian border locations heightens risk for Australia, with an aggressive program of visa cancellations for offenders now the usual penalty for  these people.
This does not lower any need for plant biosecurity awareness, with wooden items a common issue with holiday makers.  There have been some high profile plant quarantine matters dealt with by Australian courts in 2019.
It is not just about the court cases and offenders - it is what can be done by stupidity or sometimes wanton offending here in Australia, and the long term costs of possible clean up, which sometimes may not be feasible.
Think biosecurity - with heightened awareness for plants in 2020.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Recycling PV Panels - An Emerging Issue

Using PV panels is relatively new and with an expected life of 25 years or more you could be expected to think how to handle disposal is far into the future.

Maybe so, but there are places where PV use is much older and some are now close to end of life.

A recent article in Scientific American explores some issue for the effective recycling of materials in PV panels and we should also be planning for this in Australia.  It is now not adequate to just dump the panels - they contain valuable metals and other resources including glass suitable for reuse.

Read the article here - https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-downside-of-solar-energy/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=weekly-review&utm_content=link&utm_term=2019-12-04_featured-this-week

What are your thoughts?  

Surely we can learn from existing failures to plan for disposal of products, and there are a monster number of PV panels going to require recycling over time and more thoughtful manufacturing might also be a useful advance, ensuring recycling is easier than now.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Darwin Weather Web Available

The Living Water Smart program now has available a collection of weather stations for Darwin and Katherine, displaying up to date weather data suitable for adjusting the irrigation controller on your premises to minimise water use for irrigation of gardens.

Go to the www.livingwatersmart.com.au web site and search for the Darwin weather web.  A bit convoluted to find, but if in Darwin your suburb will be covered by the system, if not now, coming very soon. Some areas may offer a choice of a site nearer than your suburb name, as the system is based on school locations.

They recommend 30mm of rain or irrigation per week as adequate.  Others might suggest more or less, but a definite improvement over the often stupid option of letting the system run as it wants.

Save water, save money and improve your garden by using a suitable amount of water - often by adding no irrigation for the wet season period of November to April, but caution that for 2019/20 with a late wet season likely, you might need to keep up irrigation for a while longer, except for periods after storms.

Find the site and use it........save water and $$!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Hot in the NT !

October and November are normally the hottest months in the north, but this year it seems to be that little bit hotter.  It is certainly drier, and the BOM is predicting only about a 20% chance of recording the median rainfall through the end of December [ even for Darwin], lower for Katherine [see BOM data for Tindal].

With Katherine having now had the longest "over 40C days run" ever recorded, and still counting, there is a move to curtail outdoor rural work particularly.  

Katherine has recorded 14 days in a row with daily maximum temperature over 40C!

Frankly, it is HOT!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Processed Coal Ash Waste Used to Cure Concrete

Rising from coal ash waste to cure concrete

Rising from coal ash waste to cure concrete
A by-product of coal-fired power plants is the tens of millions of tons of coal ash that ends up in landfills each year. Now researchers from Drexel University, the National Institute of Standards  and Technology [UK] and the University of Antwerp have developed a way to turn this waste ash into a lightweight aggregate that can speed up the curing process for concrete and make it more durable and crack-free. Their discovery was recently reported in the journal Cement and Concrete Composites.
Concrete is made from a mixture of fine powder and coarse rock particles, called aggregates, bonded by a mineral glue called a ‘cementing matrix’ made of cement and water. The aggregates form the strong internal structure of the concrete as the cementing matrix hardens to bind the ingredients together in a process called curing. For concrete to reach its maximum durability, the cement must mix thoroughly with water during the curing process so it all dries — and cures — at the same time.
“This is a very important part of the process because if the concrete dries too quickly during its curing, due to added water shortage, it can form cracks and other flaws. These drying shrinkage cracks cause the surface to be susceptible to aggressive fluid ingress, creating concrete durability problems such as corrosion, salt damage or freeze-thaw damage,” said Yaghoob Farnam, PhD, an assistant professor in Drexel’s College of Engineering and principal investigator of the research.
To ensure even curing there are a number of things concrete contractors might have to do, including constantly spraying the concrete, covering it with a membrane to keep it moist, submerging it in water or creating pools of water on its surface. All of these strategies consume time and resources and are complex enough that flaws could creep into the process. To help prevent this, in the last decade researchers have developed an internal curing concept that uses porous lightweight aggregate to aid the curing process. The aggregate can maintain a consistent level of moisture inside the concrete to help it cure evenly from the inside out.
“The solution we came up with involved recycling this waste product, coal ash, into a porous, lightweight aggregate with excellent performance characteristics that could be produced at a lower cost than current natural and synthetic options,” Farnam said. “This material and process would not only benefit the concrete industry by improving the quality of their products, but it could also help keep coal ash out of landfills.”
The material the researchers came up with is called ‘spherical porous reactive aggregate’ — SPoRA for short. It is made by combining the ash with chemicals that facilitate aggregate sintering and bonding, forming them into tiny spheres and then baking them at 1160°C for a few minutes.
The end product is an aggregate pellet that can hold almost half its weight in water, which is better than traditional lightweight aggregates. And, as importantly, it can release that water at a regular rate from inside to the cementing matrix as it cures.
In the paper they report that two types of SPoRA perform better than some traditional lightweight aggregate materials — shale, clay and slate, and foamed glass — on measurements of shape, porousness, relative weight, and ability to absorb and release water. These are all key metrics related to its ability to integrate with the cement mixture and release its moisture at the right time and in the right part of the structure as it forms.
“As the concrete begins to cure on the outside, the aggregate pellets are also releasing their moisture to help it cure from the inside out as well,” said Mohammad Balapour, a doctoral researcher in Farnam’s lab and lead author of the paper. “This approach can help to maximise the durability of the concrete. And the SPoRA-making process is simple enough to produce aggregates of any size and water capacity, so we believe it could be used for a number of applications in the construction industry.”
Recycling a waste product like coal ash not only reduces the cost of making lightweight aggregate, it also ensures that concrete producers will have access to it.
Image credit: Drexel University.

If this really is a new concept that works it promises a lot, both in better materials and environmental benefits.  A lot of coal ash is produced each year!

Friday, November 08, 2019

Can We Double Sorghum Yield?

Doubling sorghum yields may now seem a pipe dream, but recent genetic research may make that goal a reality.  And reasonably soon as well.

This is especially relevant in tropical regions where achieving high sorghum yields is constrained by less suitable varieties as well as weather conditions.

See below for a recent USDA publicity announcement.

Certainly seems promising.

If combined with genetic work that prolongs production and grain fill during senesence it seems sorghum could get a big yield boost.
sorghum crop

USDA-ARS and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Research Probe Ways to Increase Yields of Sorghum—and Other Crops

By Dennis O'Brien November 6, 2019
Scientists with USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) are working on field trials and genetic studies that could one day double the yields of sorghum, which is one of the world's most important sources of food, animal feed and biofuel.
 The efforts follow recent discoveries by ARS scientist Zhanguo Xin, who is based in Lubbock, Texas, and Doreen Ware, who is also with ARS and is an adjunct professor at CSHL, showing how a basic genetic change in sorghum can double its yield of grain.
Their findings, spelled out in a series of papers, are based on years of research by scientists with ARS and CSHL that initially focused on a search for the genetic underpinnings of high yielding strains of sorghum that were first developed by Xin at the ARS Cropping Systems Research Laboratory in Lubbock. They also lay out a potential strategy for increasing the yields not only of sorghum but of other grain crops, such as corn, wheat and rice.
Sorghum is drought tolerant, is an important crop for farmers worldwide and increasing production is considered a key to addressing the threat of food shortages in the years ahead with changing climates, growing populations overseas and the loss of arable land in many parts of the world.
Sorghum grain is produced in clusters of flowers and the plant has two types of flowers, one type that produces grain and another that does not. The researchers have shown in a series of published reports that mutating a key gene in sorghum inhibits production of a hormone, known as jasmonic acid, and that plants with reduced levels generate more of the fertile type of flowers -- and more grain.
Their results show that the gene, known as MSD1, is a major regulator of a cascading series of events along a genetic pathway that controls the production of jasmonic acid, particularly during flower development. They identified the role of MSD1 in a paper published last year in Nature Communications. Their subsequent papers in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences show that genes they have identified as MSD2 and MSD3 also play important roles further along in the genetic pathway and that mutating of any one of the three genes causes a similar increase in grain yield. Their most recent paper can be found here.
Xin and his colleagues are conducting field trials to see if the genes they have found could be used by breeders to improve yields in commercial varieties of sorghum.
The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Zoysia Seed to be Available in Australia Again - Soon

USA suppliers have been unable to supply zoysia seed to Australia for some time, due to supply and availability issues in the USA as well as cleaning difficulties to meet Australian biosecurity requirements.

Recent information is trending positively and fresh quality seed may be available shortly.

At this time dates and pricing not confirmed, but there are hopes it will be later in November 2019.

There is some seed on offer but it is at least a year old and due to pretreatment that is applied to zoysia seed, germination has declined to a level we think is unsuitable for tropical warm /hot conditions , that is..... vigour is lower, which may be an issue in tough conditions.  We prefer to offer more suitable seed to users / clients.

More information as details firm up.

zoysia used in centre median - low maintenance

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

GM Can Do Wonders with Food Crops

Some recent information provides even more success stories in yield increases in major crops using modern options in genetic modification.

Example 1

New genetically modified corn produces up to 10% more than similar types
Science - 04 November 2019
Researchers have for the first time conclusively shown they can increase corn yields up to 10% by changing a gene that increases plant growth—regardless of whether growing conditions are poor or optimal. …researchers at Corteva Agriscience, a chemical and seed company based in Wilmington, Delaware, decided to look at genes that function like master switches for growth and yield. They picked MADS-box genes, a group common in many plants, before settling on one (zmm28) to alter in corn plants. The researchers tested the enhanced gene’s performance in 48 commercial types of corn, known as hybrids, that are commonly used to feed livestock and found yield increases ranging from 3-10% with the findings published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Example 2.

Researchers Use Gene Modification to Defeat Rice-Killing Disease
Karma Impact - 31 October 2019
Researchers successfully edited the genome of strains of rice grown in Southeast Asia and West Africa to block a pathogen [bacterial blight] that ravages yields of the staple crop, the latest example of gene modification that may reduce hunger throughout the world.Scientists at Manila’s International Rice Research Institute used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to prevent rice from expressing genes that serve as Xoo’s point of entry to hijack the plant’s nutrients, according to Nature. The team found that rice plants with these engineered genes were resistant to at least 95 Xoo strains.

Both crops are major food sources world wide, and using GM techniques can add big increases in yield quite quickly.

Another "biggie" is Vitamin A enhanced rice - and Bangladesh seems likely to approve its use very soon.

Example 3

Bangladesh close to releasing Golden Rice
Dhaka Tribune – 28 October 2019
Bangladesh will soon make a decision on the release of Golden Rice. According to the WHO one in every five pre-school children and 23.7% of pregnant women suffer from vitamin A deficiency in Bangladesh. 

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Potential Antidote for Box Jelly Fish Stings Discovered

Each box jellyfish carries enough venom to kill more than 60 humans.
A single sting to a human will cause necrosis of the skin, excruciating pain and, if the dose of venom is large enough, cardiac arrest and death within minutes.

Photo of Associate Professor Greg Neely
Associate Professor Greg Neely.

Associate Professor Greg Neely and Dr Raymond (Man-Tat) Lau and their team of pain researchers at the Charles Perkins Centre were studying how the box jellyfish venom works when they made the discovery.
They uncovered a medicine that blocks the symptoms of a box jellyfish sting if administered to the skin within 15 minutes after contact.
The antidote was shown to work on human cells outside the body and then tested effectively on live mice. Researchers now hope to develop a topical application for humans.
“We were looking at how the venom works, to try to better understand how it causes pain. Using new CRISPR genome editing techniques we could quickly identify how this venom kills human cells. Luckily, there was already a drug that could act on the pathway the venom uses to kill cells, and when we tried this drug as a venom antidote on mice, we found it could block the tissue scarring and pain related to jellyfish stings,” said Associate Professor Neely. “It is super exciting.”
Published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, the study used CRISPR whole genome editing to identify how the venom works. Genome editing is a technology that allows scientists to add, remove or alter genetic material in an organism’s DNA.
In the study, the researchers took a vat of millions of human cells and knocked out a different human gene in each one. Then they added the box jellyfish venom - which kills cells at high doses - and looked for cells that survived. From the whole genome screening, the researchers identified human factors that are required for the venom to work.
“The jellyfish venom pathway we identified in this study requires cholesterol, and since there are lots of drugs available that target cholesterol, we could try to block this pathway to see how this impacted venom activity. We took one of those drugs, which we know is safe for human use, and we used it against the venom, and it worked,” said Dr Lau, who is the lead author on the paper. “It’s a molecular antidote.”
“It’s the first molecular dissection of how this type of venom works, and possible how any venom works,” Dr Lau said. “I haven’t seen a study like this for any other venom.”
“We know the drug will stop the necrosis, skin scarring and the pain completely when applied to the skin,” said Associate Professor Neely, who is the senior author on the paper. “We don’t know yet if it will stop a heart attack. That will need more research and we are applying for funding to continue this work.”
While it will be some time yet before this is actually available it is enormously useful progress.  I know - as have been stung and it is not nice, and loss of life is possible, especially in children.

Many people are stung each year in north Australia, including a lot in the marine industries as well as recreational water users.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

New Type of Milk Treatment for Disease Prevention

This link will take you to the article published on 1 May 2019.  It is a major new development in milk processing and now patented.


A new method of ensuring milk is disease free has been developed and is touted as the biggest development in milk processing since pasteurisation.

Pasteurisation is if you think about it, the gold standard to ensure disease free milk is available for users.  Heated to around 72C for a short time the milk is then bottled / packaged and sealed, and delivered to customers in a cold chain for use.  Shelf life maybe is 2 weeks, if kept well refrigerated.

Or go for UHT milk - refrigeration not needed but shelf life is quite long, although does have a slightly different taste.

This new process is equal to or better than pasteurizing, and while requiring some cold storage gives a shelf life of 60 days.  An enormous improvement.

AND an Australian development at that.

Opens up some major new opportunities in various areas including milk processing for speciality non pasteurised cheese manufacture using sea or road transport for the milk to make the downstream value added product.  Especially relevant for export of fresh milk and cheese.   

Suitable for most if not all milk - cow, sheep, goat, camel, buffalo all included.

Read the article - a massive step into some new industries over time. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Yara Australia to Support Sustainable Management of Packaging Waste

Fertiliser manufacturer Yara Australia has partnered with the Farm Waste Recovery program in a bid to sustainably manage their disposable packaging waste.

Now in its fourth year, the program works in partnership with manufacturers, associated industry and local councils to facilitate the collection, recycling or disposal of plastic waste generated on farms in Australia each year.

It is estimated that more than 80,000 tones of polypropylene and polyethylene bags are delivered to Australian farms each year. These include 10 million bulk bags and 200 million sacks used in the fertiliser and stockfeed sectors. The majority of these bags are illegally burned on-farm or end up in landfill.

Working in partnership with manufacturers, industry associations and local councils, Farm Waste Recovery aims to recover as much of this waste as possible. This year’s target is 600,000 bulk bags, which is the equivalent of 2,000 tonnes of plastic and 5,000 cubic metres of landfill space.

This represents a potential saving of $1.25 million in landfill costs, which has flow-on benefits for local government, the community and the environment.

Rhaleigh Cereno, Yara Australia supply-chain manager, said the company is delighted to support this important initiative. “Yara is a leading supplier of fertiliser to the horticulture and broadacre sectors and a large portion of this is sold in bags,” Cereno said.  “Our overriding concern is to ensure these bags are removed from the environment and ideally, to have them recycled. This is an opportunity to demonstrate our genuine commitment to environmental sustainability.”

This is a early April press release on this topic from Yara.  It is unclear where and how it will operate, and doubt it will in the NT.

But be aware - and ask if your Yara packaging will be collected!  The numbers on fertiliser bag waste are certainly staggering!!

Friday, March 29, 2019

Can Soil Microbes Slow Climate Change?

One scientist has tantalizing results, but others are not convinced.

This article was in Scientific American online but is worthy of being more widely dispersed into the wider agricultural and soil science community.  Worth a read!

By John J. Berger on March 26, 2019
Can Soil Microbes Slow Climate Change?

With global carbon emissions hitting an all-time high in 2018, the world is on a trajectory that climate experts believe will lead to catastrophic warming by 2100 or before. Some of those experts say that to combat the threat, it is now imperative for society to use carbon farming techniques that extract carbon dioxide from the air and store it in soils. Because so much exposed soil across the planet is used for farming, the critical question is whether scientists can find ways to store more carbon while also increasing agricultural yields.

David Johnson of New Mexico State University thinks they can. The recipe, he says, is to tip the soil’s fungal-to-bacterial ratio strongly toward the fungi. He has shown how that can be done. Yet it is not clear if techniques can be scaled up economically on large commercial farms everywhere.

Johnson, a trim 67-year-old microbiologist who is as comfortable using the latest metagenomics technology as he is shovelling cow manure into a composter, thinks society can only maximize carbon storage, increase soil’s water-holding capacity and grow plentiful crops if it restores the soil microbiome. “We currently have very degraded soils physically, chemically, but mostly biologically,” he says. “Microbes restore this balance.”

Johnson conducts precise soil-biology experiments into how to increase the capacity of agricultural systems to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. In a recently completed four-and-a-half-year field trial, Johnson planted fast-growing cover crops and applied a microbe-rich solution derived from a vermiculture (worm) compost produced in a low-tech composter of his own design. The bacteria, fungi and protozoa fed a soil food web of nematodes, microarthropods and other beneficial organisms.

Through photosynthesis, the cover crops pulled CO2 from the air, sank roots deep into the earth, and towered over the land. The results were unusual—and highly controversial. Johnson reported a net annual increase of almost 11 metric tons of soil carbon per hectare on his cropland. That’s equivalent to removing about 16 metric tons of carbon dioxide per acre from the atmosphere annually—roughly 10 times the increase that other scientists have reported in many different soils and climates.

Johnson ascribes these improvements, along with large increases in crop yields, to improved soil health stemming from the application of the microbes from his vermiculture, leading to an increase in the soil’s fungal-to-bacterial ratio.

Professor Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, widely regarded as a leading authority on soil carbon sequestration, says he was “intrigued” by Johnson’s outcome. “I want to understand why he’s getting such exceptional results.” Lal thinks that further, larger-scale trials are needed to validate Johnson’s work, of course.

Johnson is also conducting meticulous laboratory studies. They focus on the correlations among fungal-to-bacterial ratios and soil health, fertility and crop productivity. He reports finding increases in fungal-to-bacterial ratio, plus large increases in soil carbon and other nutrients as a result of his management practices.

In all this work, Johnson maintains that as the ratio of fungi to bacteria increases, the soil biome becomes more efficient in utilizing carbon and other nutrients and that the soil therefore releases less CO2 to the atmosphere. The jury is still out, however. Although peer-reviewed soil science literature contains some confirmation, other findings in submerged, forested and subarctic soils—admittedly different circumstances—failed to confirm the relation.

Keith Paustian, a professor of soil and crop sciences at Colorado State University, says he has seen some “quite high rates of carbon accrual” in degraded croplands that were converted to productive perennial grass systems. But he has not seen strong evidence that the same outcome can be produced by adding microbes.

Johnson asserts that if his approach were used across agriculture internationally, the entire world’s carbon output from 2016 could be stored on just 22 percent of the globe’s arable land. He says that would provide net benefits of $500 to $600 per acre rather than net costs, if credits are provided for carbon capture and related benefits are counted, such as reduced irrigation and increased soil fertility.

To arrive at his global carbon-capture numbers, Johnson projected results from cropland plots of three to 75 acres of various soil types in five states. That is still a fairly limited sample. Henry Janzen, a research scientist at Lethbridge Research and Development Center in Alberta and a professor at the University of Manitoba, cautions that such a projection is risky. “Every ecosystem is unique,” he says. “A practice that elicits soil carbon gain at one site may not be effective at another. And always, the rate of carbon gain will depend on a host of interactive factors, including soil properties, previous management practices, climatic conditions and the vagaries of human whims.”

Janzen also points out that soils do not absorb carbon indefinitely. After some years or decades, they inevitably approach a new steady state. For that reason, he says, soil carbon sequestration is rarely seen as a long-term solution to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

Johnson acknowledges those factors but says managing soil to improve the health of its microbial life can provide strong carbon gains before the soil’s capacity levels off. He is in the process of scaling up his experiments to try to replicate his results on even larger plots in different geographies with a variety of cover and commodity crops, “to assess the impact for the rest of the world.”

Johnson’s work is based on a somewhat different paradigm from that of most conventional soil scientists. They often seek to boost agricultural productivity in traditional ways by adding fertilizer and using pesticides and herbicides as needed. This approach is anathema to Johnson. He decries almost every conventional farming practice—ploughing, bare fallowing, and the application of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. All these, he says, “assault soil microbiota.” He claims that glyphosate (sold in commercial products such as Roundup) will kill Aspergillus fungal species in soil. Aspergillus is often regarded as a marker of fungal presence and is important in carbon and nitrogen cycling.

As for fertilizer, Johnson believes he has demonstrated that microbially inoculated soil enriched with tilled cover crops naturally accumulates more than enough nitrogen for vigorous plant growth. (Nitrogen is the limiting nutrient in most agricultural situations.) In one of his plots where he reports having increased net primary productivity five times, the soil accumulated 770 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year.

Much of this fixation is done by free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Because a normal crop only requires about 180 pounds of nitrogen per acre, Johnson says it would be unnecessary to add artificial fertilizer to a system like this.

As with all of Johnson’s work to date, this result has appeared only in the form of reports and other “grey literature.” Harold van Es, professor of soil and water management at Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science, is one of Johnson’s severest critics.

“In science, we strongly believe that research should be subjected to peer evaluation,” van Es says. “His ideas should not be at all presented as scientific facts.”

The fungal-to-bacterial ratio is indeed important, van Es says. “But there are many ways to increase that ratio,” not just Johnson’s approach. “Reducing tillage has similar effects and this has been much more widely documented.”

Although Johnson has irked some soil scientists and even aroused some ire, as climate change intensifies in speed and fury, many scientists believe it is important to leave no stone unturned in the search for ways to limit carbon emissions quickly. Perhaps the soil’s microbiome can be a powerful tool.

Rights & Permissions
John J. Berger
John J. Berger is an environmental science and policy specialist who has written numerous articles and books about the environment and climate change. He is the author of Climate Peril, The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to the Climate Crisis.

Recent Articles
Crisis in the Cryosphere, Part 2
Crisis in the Cryosphere, Part 1

Published online here on Blogger with acknowledgments to the author and Scientific American online

Friday, March 08, 2019

Future Farming in Singapore. Can it Be Done in Darwin Too?

SINGAPORE - With global warming heralding new threats, resource scarcity will be the new normal.
So the Government is throwing its weight behind efforts to protect and provide for the country's survival - in the areas of water, making the most of waste, food and climate change research - Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said on Thursday (March 7).
"Climate change is bringing new and wicked problems," he said in Parliament.
And just like the country's water success story, the same can be done in other areas, through long-term planning decades before a problem surfaces, he said, pointing out that Newater was more than two decades in the making.
"Faced with a challenge, we start small, learn from others, harness technology, invest in R&D. Keep on trying, until we get it right.
"Then we take our solutions and scale up to benefit the whole nation."
In terms of food, this means decreasing the dependence on the global food market, which accounts for over 90 per cent of Singapore's current food supply.
Announcing an ambitious target of producing 30 per cent of the country's food needs by 2030 - or 30 by 30 - Mr Masagos said that this would call for new paradigms in the sector, with a focus on state-of-the-art indoor farms.
They would incorporate climate control and automation, for instance, and in terms of fish - closed containment systems that keep algae blooms and oil spills at bay.
"Farmers of the future will operate computerised control systems in a pleasant environment."
It was time to break away from the "take, make, use and toss" mentality and embrace the circular economy instead, Mr Masagos added.
Promising technologies dealing with waste include Singapore Polytechnic's green chemistry technology to recover precious metals in e-waste, and Nanyang Technological University's method of turning food waste into high-grade fertilisers.
In addition, the National Environment Agency is working on turning incineration ash into construction material, called NEWSand, and has developed draft standards for using treated ash for building roads, for example.
When it comes to climate change, science will be key in guiding policies, he added, with the opportunity for Singapore to be a leader in the tropics, since there is limited knowledge on its effects there.
To this end, there will be more investment to build capability in the Centre for Climate Research Singapore, set up in 2013, and the local scientific community. This year, the centre will embark on the National Sea Level Programme to better understand sea levels around Singapore, so that robust projections and plans can be made for the long term.
Solar power will be stepped up. It could be harnessed at reservoirs, coastal areas and building facades to potentially power 40,000 four-room flats each year, an area half the size of Tampines.
At the same time, the water story is also not over.
The Research Innovation and Enterprise Council has allocated $200 million to national water agency PUB for research, and the Government has posed "Big Hairy Audacious Goals" to the scientists, he said, such as producing desalinated water with much less energy than currently needed.
Already, new technology which could potentially halve the energy required for desalination is set to be scaled up and deployed in the Tuas Desalination plant from 2020.
At the same time, people are saving more water, with domestic consumption falling from 148 litres per person per day in 2016 to 141 litres in 2018, with a target of further shaving it to 130 litres by 2030.
In all, the Government will spend almost $400 million on research and innovation in water, the circular economy, climate change and food, under the Research, Innovation, Enterprise Plan 2020 (RIE2020).
The challenges also bring with them opportunities, Mr Masagos stressed.
Pointing to Singapore's thriving water industry - with over 200 companies and more than 25 R&D centres, he said that investments in the sector in the past decade had created 14,400 good jobs and economic value-add of over $2.2 billion annually.
And plans for the water, food and environmental sectors would open up a variety of exciting opportunities for enterprises and jobs.
"We must do as our forefathers did, stay alert and nimble, and continue to plan and prepare for the long term," he said.
"We have ambitious plans for our water, waste and food sectors, but the road ahead is long and winding. We will persevere, for we are not done building a sustainable Singapore."