Vegan Mayonnaise: The Future of Food?

By Stephan Kamrad

Our diet, even today in the globalised age, is made up of surprisingly few plant species: Wheat, rice, potatoes and maize are the major carbohydrate sources for almost the entire planet. When it comes to livestock fodder, fruit and veg, the range is a bit broader but still limited to maybe a few hundred plant species and that although there are estimated to be over 400,000 plant species living on this planet!

So why is that? The reason for this is historical or at least traditional. Since the beginning of agricultural farming (~12,000 years ago) plants have been selected for productivity, palatability and resistance to pests, disease and environmental stresses. The plants we eat today are a reflection of our history, culture and tradition: the exploration of America marked a turning point in world history as well as European diets since it was the Spanish conquistadores who brought the potato plant back from their travels. Today in our globalised world, exotic fruits are flown around the planet so that we can enjoy kiwi, peaches, and strawberries, all year around. Still, rice and wheat remain the main food crops in Asia and Europe respectively as they have been for millennia.

Credit Jennifer Barry

Credit Jennifer Barry

But are we not missing out on the other 99.9% of plant species? Who can imagine what delicacies remain forever out in the wild because they have not been traditionally bred as crop plants or are simply unusual and scary to us? (Would you just eat a random berry you find in the wild?)

A company that has picked up on that is Hampton Creek, a food company based in San Francisco. They have developed a vegan mayonnaise substitute called Just Mayo. The key in developing this product was finding a substitute for the egg (yolk) traditionally used in mayonnaise. Just Mayo instead uses “Pea Proteins” as they declare it on their ingredients list. The company has screened, according to their press releases and adverts, many thousand plants for their properties and potential to replace eggs and continue to do so. “Pea” usually refers to the seeds of the Fabaceae family but what species and variety is actually used and how the protein is being extracted from the pea remains the companies secret. Known is that the product has only 65% of the saturated fatty acids of conventional mayonnaise and is cholesterol free.

“So what?” may you ask. After all organic food stores and supermarkets have been stocking plant-based alternatives for a long time, especially soy-based dairy substitutes and tofu. But the general conception is that vegan food is for hippies and leads to vitamin and protein deficiencies although it is in principle a lot more sustainable and more or just as healthy (with animal welfare being a whole other issue in our intensive meat industry). So in a way, Hampton Creek took and old idea and turned it into something more: looking at their ads and website, Just Mayo almost appears to be a superior lifestyle product with supreme nutritional value. In a funding campaign in February, the company raised 23 million USD, they were in Bill Gates’ The Future of Food feature and recruited Chris Jones (contestant of an American cooking reality show), Joshua Klein (CalTech graduate who previously worked on HIV treatment discovery), and Dan Zigmond (formerly Lead Data Scientist at Google Maps). Up to now, Just Mayo was mostly sold at up-town organic food stores, but their products are now available in Walmart (the world’s largest retailer) which will surely bring production volumes up and prices down.

Hampton Creek’s success has shown that there is a growing market for vegan products. Will this be the future of food? Are we learning to use the plants around us so that our diet becomes healthier and more sustainable without actually losing variety, money or taste?

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Eyes in the Sky: Agriculture and the Rise of Satellite Technology

By Sophie Harrington

When you think of farming, satellites probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind. Yet in the coming years, farming may be more and more tied to the information gathered by satellites orbiting the globe. New technologies are being developed to integrate precision satellite data with farming practices around the world. These techniques hold the potential for not only increasing the efficiency and yields of farms, but also to reduce the environmental impact of intensive farming.

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The future of agriculture? (credit NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

In the United Kingdom, a group of companies known as the Courtyard Partnership are hoping to revolutionize farming by providing in depth data from satellite imaging and soil analysis. By providing farmers with information on soil variation across their fields the group hopes to facilitate increases in yield while at the same time allowing the use of more environmentally friendly farming practices.

Soil brightness scanning by satellites provides information on soil texture, moisture, and organic composition which enable farmers to make distinctions between different soil types. This in turn allows soil inputs to be calibrated based on the specific soil “zone” determined through the combination of satellite imaging and soil sampling on the ground. Initially this could allow farmers to reduce wasted fertiliser by applying the optimum amount for each soil zone..

Later on, satellite images can also be used to provide data on chlorophyll cover, the pigment in plants which gives them their green colour. This acts as a proxy for plant nitrogen levels, which influence chlorophyll content. If the chlorophyll is lower than ideal, this can be compensated for by increasing fertilizer input. At the same time, the satellite images also provide data on the “Normalised Difference Vegetation Index” (NVDI). This provides a measure of crop growth (or “thickness” on the ground).

Fertiliser spreading on field

The Courtyard Partnership hopes to reduce the use of fertilizers through a better understanding of soil properties. (credit kitching71)

With this data, farmers are more able to monitor the total health and growth of their crops on a large scale. Indeed, the digital files containing the satellite data, and thus the corresponding chlorophyll and NVDI levels, can be tied to the farm machinery, allowing automatic changes in inputs ranging from seeds to fertiliser. This type of high precision data has the potential to dramatically decrease pollution and fertiliser waste. According to the Courtyard Partnership, use of such techniques could lead to savings of 45 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, as well as significant decreases in fertilizer use.

Considering the serious environmental consequences that have stemmed in part from the industrialization of farming, such techniques seem promising. The extensive application of fertilizers since the Green Revolution of the 50s and 60s have indeed led to increases in agricultural production, but at serious costs. Fertilizer runoff into rivers and streams has been implicated in significant algal blooms. The dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico arises from the nitrogen and potassium fertilizer runoff polluting the Mississippi river. The resulting algal blooms cause hypoxia, or low oxygen levels, killing off much of the marine life in the area.

The concept of using satellites in agriculture may seem alien for now, but if we want to solve our problems on the ground we may be best off looking to the sky.

Who said organic farming was for hippies?

By Joanna Wolstenholme

Organic farming seems to have earned itself a reputation amongst some in the scientific community for being unscientific and misguided. However, researchers at Rothamsted Research, in conjunction with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the Kenya Ministry of Agriculturehave been doing their best to combat this image, and inject some innovation into the field.

In principle, there is not much to dislike about organic farminga reduction in chemicals used to grow our foods can only really be a good thing; even if there is no link between eating organic and having better health (a recent study showed that those who ate non-organic foods were no more likely to contract cancer). For instance, a reduction in the energy required to produce and spray pesticides and herbicides would go a long way to making agriculture more sustainable. In poor subsistence farming communities, such chemicals are far too expensive to even dream of buying, so a cheap and effective alternative has the potential to radically improve yields.

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All Organic– Food for Thought (Album Cover)

Researchers at Rothamsted harnessed the power of compounds already produced by plants in their scheme for ‘Push-Pull’ companion planting, which has been implemented in West Africa, and produced great yield improvements. In this scheme, maize is protected from both the Stemborer moth ( considered the most important insect pest of maize at altitudes of 500m above sea level in sub-Saharan Africa)and the parasitic weed Striga, by the addition of a legume called Desmodium and a fodder plant,Napier grass, to the fields.

Desmodium is planted between the rows of maize, and produces volatile compounds to repel the Stemborer moth (the ‘push’ part of the system). It also produces compounds that induce Striga to germinate too early, before the maize has roots that are sufficiently developed for parasitism, and so the Striga dies off before it is able to establish itself. Additionally,as if this twin pest prevention wasn’t enough, Desmodium fixes much needed nitrogen into the soil and so also acts as a fertiliser. Napier grass (the ‘pull’ component), on the other hand, is planted at the edge of the crop, where is attracts the Stemborer moths to lay their eggs, yet prevents the Stemborer larvae from growing to adulthood. Furthermore, both Desmodium and Napier grass have value as fodder crops.

Napier Grass (Image Credit Forest & Kim Starr)

Napier Grass (Image Credit: Forest & Kim Starr)

This system has already proved effective in the field, with one family even saying that it increased their yields from just 5 bags of maize to 35! This means they are no longer reliant upon charity handouts, and have been able to use their profits to re-roof their house and send their son to school.

What is brilliant this about this effective system is its simplicity. Once a few families have been shown the benefits of such a system and seen the effect on their own yields, it is easy for them to teach others.In short, the movement becomes self-sustaining. Yet it is not only subsistence farmers that can benefit from such systems. We should be trying to integrate techniques such as these into our energy intensive Western farming techniques, in a bid to make them more sustainable. Organic farming may have been invented by hippies, but we all need it now.

For more information, and success stories: http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/Content/index-Section=ForThePublic&Page=GoodCompanions.html

And for more information on the Stem Borer: http://maizedoctor.cimmyt.org/en/component/content/310?task=view

 

 

 

 

Christianity and GMOs: An Interview with CICCU (2)

Nick Dinan talks to James Roberts from the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union about the role of Genetically Modified Organisms in a Christian world view.

Read Part 1 of the interview here.

Nick Dinan: With regard to ‘not rushing things’, would it be right to frame your opinion as one that believes global issues such as global hunger are important, but if we want solutions we should take the slow route despite the urgency of these problems?

James Roberts: We could do a whole load of things other than GM crops to solve world hunger, such as better distributing the food we’ve got. There are perfectly adequate stopgap measures while we think about GM crops and evaluate them – whilst we make 100% sure that they’re all right. Doing that is a much better option than simply going ‘oh, GM crops are the answer here’ – it might not be.

ND: In May 2013 Monsanto sued, and won $85,000 from, a 75-year-old farmer for sowing the next generation seeds of the seeds that they had sold. Do you think there’s a major concern with the exploitation of GM crops by larger companies?

JR: You have situations where whole groups of people are dependent on the seeds of a genetically modified crop. Seeds are marked up in price and aren’t affordable, and the farmers end up in a worse position than before. We need to consider how to ensure that this technology isn’t manipulated simply for profit by big business. We need to think about how to regulate that.

ND: I assume that most people in the Christian community would agree with this?

JR: The Christian community I can say generally agrees on this, and I think this applies to a wider range of issues than GM crops as well; the issue of justice is one that hopefully would be close to home.

ND: So the ‘Christian value’ would be to help people, but in a way that conforms to what you’re taught in the Bible?

JR: I would say that the Christian moral standpoint should come from the Bible. That has to be our first authority on everything. So how we think through these issues should ultimately derive its reasoning back from the Bible.

ND: And finally – you said that your opinion came from studying biology in school, so it obviously was the result of some educational exposure. Do you think that members of the Christian community could do a lot more in educating themselves on the biology of GM crops before making an opinion?

JR: We need to make decisions based on the facts, based on what we’re presented with through the education system. I don’t think that’s our responsibility; the government has to give us the facts. Then, what we do with them has to conform with our reading of scripture. If someone’s honest view is that tampering with God’s creation is morally wrong, then I think no matter the biology that’s the conclusion they have to come to. However, if someone from scripture like myself has come to the conclusion that tampering with God’s work is not the problem, then the next step down in your reasoning has to be whether or not the biology says it’s the right thing to be doing. Have we got a full enough grasp of how it works to be able to do it in a way that isn’t going to cause damage? Can we do it as responsible stewards? If it’s yes to that, then I think the conclusion that we should come to is ‘yes, it’s fine’.

Holding up half the sky: The importance of women in agricultural development.

by Sophie Harrington

As the world’s population continues to edge skyward, concerns regarding our ability to feed all these new mouths gain more and more credence. Yet what if I were to tell you that we could reduce the number of those suffering from malnutrition by up to 150 million people? If women farmers were provided with the same resources as men, their own crop yields could improve by up to 20%, increasing total agricultural yield around the globe by up to 4%.

But why aren’t women already producing the same crop yield as men? It’s not because they’re simply worse at farming—studies have shown that when provided with the same resources as men, women at least equal their yield. Instead, the pervasive inequality women face preventing their full recognition as independent farmers serves to hinder their productivity.WomanRiceAttrib

A key issue throughout much of the developing world is the lack of land titles available to women. Often, women are involved in farming land solely tied to their male family members, or indeed are farming “unclaimed” land. Whilst there have been some legislative reforms to enable women to inherit land and jointly hold land titles with other family members, their implementation can be patchy at best. In order to ensure the effectiveness of any legislation, it’s crucial to engage elders of the community in encouraging awareness and support for women’s land rights.

At the same time, women farmers are often less able to obtain credit and financing, and what little they do obtain is often out of their control, instead in the hands of male family members who are less in touch with the requirements of the tasks carried out by women. While there have been improvements in the microfinancing available, it continues to be difficult for women to obtain more substantial financing and gain a foothold on the traditional credit ladder.

Many enrichment programs for small-scale farmers in the developing world have been focused on being “gender-blind” in their mandates and missions. However, such attempts have almost inevitably resulted in their primary benefits aiding male heads of households. Increasingly, focus is being placed on “gender-equitable” programs, which take into account social and cultural baggage surrounding women farmers. For example, women are often prevented by social expectation from being involved in the ploughing of their crop fields, leading those women who head their own households to be dependent on helpful male friends or extended family members to plough her field, in addition to their own. Unsurprisingly, such arrangements can serve to drastically reduce the yields women obtain.

WomanFarmAttrib New initiatives spearheaded by groups including the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are increasingly focused on raising awareness of the unique difficulties faced by women farmers and working to reshape societal constraints. This new focus on “gender-transformative” programs aims to engage key members of communities, such as village elders and community leaders, to give their support for reforms in legislation that, for example, would increase the ability of women to hold on to their own land titles.

The key policy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in this area can be summed up as “Know Her, Design for Her, Be Accountable to Her.” Increasing our focus on helping women farmers gain greater access to economic and societal platforms that would increase their autonomy and ownership would bring clear and tangible benefits in terms of crop production. We have the potential to reduce worldwide undernourishment by up to 17% by championing the ability of women to run their own farm’s economic, social, and physical tools tailored to their needs. It seems like too good of a deal to pass up.

If you’re interested in reading more about the programs involved in helping women increase their agricultural output, take a look at this FAO report.

The little alga that could: Algal photosynthesis and its potential for incorporation into crops

By Charlie Whittaker

Algae are pretty cool. And when I say pretty cool, I mean ridiculously cool. They’re involved in everything from potential biofuel synthesis to novel metabolic pathway generation, but they’re also pretty special because of the unique way in which they fix carbon and generate new biomass.

Algae

Image of the algae Scenedesmus quadricauda. The pyrenoid is visible in the middle of each of the cells as the distinct circular object.

The main site of carbon fixation (the way plants and most other photosynthetic organisms, including algae, incorporate carbon dioxide to produce molecules that will eventually become new biomass) is at an enzyme called Ribulose Bisphosphate Carboxylase Oxygenase, or Rubisco for short. Rubisco catalyses the addition of CO2 to Ribulose Bisphosphate, producing a precursor that will eventually go on to generate glucose, sucrose, cellulose, and other sugars. These in turn can be respired to generate chemical energy for the cell or be polymerised to make the macromolecules constituting new algal biomass. However, as well as having the capability to interact with CO2, Rubisco can also catalyse another pathway, by which O2 is added instead. Known as the oxygenation reaction, this results in a net loss of carbon, which is highly problematic for the plant.

Algae tend to be aquatic, and this presents a number of challenges with regards to getting sufficient CO2 to supply and meet the cell’s demand. Diffusion is very slow in water, and thus it takes a long time for CO2 to enter the cell. As well as this, CO2 equilibrates with water to form bicarbonate   (HCO3) on a pH dependent basis. The pH of seawater is such that CO2 is mainly available in the form of bicarbonate, potentially representing another barrier to CO2 uptake.

In response to the challenges associated with living in an aqueous environment, algae employ what is known as a biophysical carbon concentrating mechanism to ensure CO2 supply to Rubisco, and hence carbon fixation, is not compromised. They possess a cellular microcompartment within their chloroplast called the pyrenoid, where all of the Rubisco contained within the cell is stored. In most photosynthetic organisms, plants included, Rubisco is spread throughout the entire chloroplast. By localising Rubisco to this single area, CO2 extracted from the surrounding environment can be concentrated in a single, small area.

Chlamydomonas

Stylised cross section of a Chlamydomonas reinhardtii cell showing the pyrenoid and other subcellular components.

As well as this dense aggregation of Rubisco, the carbon concentrating mechanism involves a number of other proteins. CO2 is taken up from the extracellular environment into the algal cell in the form of bicarbonate (HCO3). From there it is shuttled via a series of transporters into the chloroplast, whereupon it gets converted back to CO2 in the thylakoids by an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase, and is then subsequently delivered to the pyrenoid. The idea behind this is that in doing so, the algal cell is able to effectively exclude O2 from the pyrenoid, due to the specific nature of this CO2 delivery, and also ensure a continuous supply of CO2 to Rubisco, given the ubiquity of HCO3 in seawater. This increases the efficiency of photosynthesis, and maximises CO2 fixation.

At the moment, efforts are being made to engineer some aspects of this system into higher plants. The idea behind this is if something resembling a pyrenoid was developed in crop plants, they would be able to better exclude oxygen from the site of carbon fixation (i.e. Rubisco) and increase photosynthetic efficiency. This would translate to substantially increased yields, which is important for food security the world over, particularly in the face of increasing climactic variability and increasing global temperatures, as well as a rapidly increasing population. With more mouths to feed globally, and no concomitant increase in farmable land (if anything, a decrease due to changing weather patterns) increasing yields of key crop species such as rice, maize, cassava and millet represents an important objective for ensuring supply can meet demand globally, as well as making sure that small scale farmholders have the necessary tolerance built into their yields to allow for extreme climactic fluctuations, something that will become increasingly common in the face of climate change and global warming.