Biofuels might not be that bad after all

By Joanna Wolstenholme

You have heard of the need to find new sources of energy that do not involve fossil fuels. And you have also probably heard of bioethanol from maize and sugar cane, and the scepticism surrounding their green credentials. This scepticism comes with good reason – these sources of biofuels often divert valuable food from the food chain into fuel production, raising the cost of living. This was vividly illustrated by the food crisis in 2007/8, partly caused by America and the EU incentivising the production of bioethanol. So should we write off biofuels altogether?

Simply put – no – not all biofuels. Second generation biofuels are what you should really be talking about. Write off those inefficient first generation biofuels with their ‘food vs fuel’ baggage, but don’t write off biofuels altogether. Lignocellulosic biofuels are the next big thing – the same green pros, but less of the cons. These biofuels can be made from waste products like straw, maize cobs and bagasse (sugar cane straw), and, excitingly, these technologies are just starting to become commercially viable.

Is straw like this the future of biofuels? (Credit Richard Walker)

Is straw like this the future of biofuels? (Credit Richard Walker)

Lignocellulose is found in the plant cell wall, and is the main component in plant biomass. Unlike sugars (which whilst easily accessible for use in first generation biofuels, are only a small portion of the overall biomass), cellulose is generally an unwanted by-product that goes to waste, thanks to how hard it is to break down. However, researchers are finding new enzymes and treatment methods that are able to attack the cellulose in ever more efficient ways. The first commercial plants have already been built in Brazil and Italy, using biofuel crops like Miscanthus that can be grown on marginal or contaminated land (rather than prime agricultural land), or waste products like straw. These take advantage of government subsidies on renewable electricity to help cover the cost of generating the biofuels whilst scientists work to bring these costs down.

In the 1970s Brazil got worried about its oil supply, so started to move the country to bioethanol. The system was heavily subsidised- but now is self-sufficient, and yields have doubled. Lignocellulosic biofuels could easily go the same way, if only governments are forward-thinking enough to see the potential and invest.

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

 

 

 

 

Maize 1507: The crop of European fear and indecision

By Nick Dinan

Most of us know that maize is one of the four staple crops for human nutrition, rice, wheat and potatoes being the others. Considering global food insecurity, in what ways could we make this crop better? Perhaps the more urgent question is how have betterments to the crop been restricted, particularly within the ever-skeptical European Union.

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Credit: Australian Aid

1507 maize is a genetically modified version of maize produced by Pioneer DuPont with the aim of being cultivated within the EU. This variety of transgenic maize has the ability to produce an insecticide (Bt-toxin), derived from genes of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. 1507 maize is protected from pests such as the European corn borer – caterpillars of this species chew tunnels that compromise the structural integrity of Maize, destroying it in the process.

The crop was first presented in Spain in 2001. However, a chain of bureaucratic constraints, with repeated drafts of proposals for the crop being delayed due to the indecision of the European Commission, has delayed 1507 maize’s entry into the European market for 12 years. Ever most concerning is that 1507 maize meets all of the European Union’s regulatory requirements for genetically modified crops, such as safety compared to the original crop.

Reservations about 1507 maize are clear – can we ingest a toxin that has the capacity to kill insects? Maize is one of our staple crops; won’t the over-consumption of such a toxin have long-term adverse effects on our health? Who would want to feed their child toxic corn? Copious amounts of research refute these reservations.

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Credit: Les Haines

The proteins expressed in 1507 maize (Cry1F & Pat) that produce the Bt toxin are not toxic or allergenic to humans and animals. You might say we’re unsure of the long-term effects of the Bt toxin – how do we not know that there isn’t a network of dangerous pathways the toxin may ignite? Quite simply, there isn’t – creation of 1507 maize is not intertwined with the application of the Bt toxin. In fact, Bt sprays have had a history of controlling insect pests by spraying since the 1920s, where it is universally understood to be safe due to the specificity of the chemical for pests. Furthermore, 1507 maize and maize have nutritional equivalency, as well as identical risks of hybridization with wild populations (very low) and levels of environmental impact. It did not take 12 years to discover these facts; in 2005 the GMO Scientific Panel of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded 1507 Maize to be just as safe as ordinary maize.

Only on the 6th of November did the European Commission approve cultivation of the crop. The concerns of a GM-conservative government and populace was embodied in protests from environmental groups about safety, despite frustratingly manifest evidence that should have silenced their qualms.

This is the third GM crop to be approved for cultivation in the European Union. We could perceive this as a victory, but ultimately this huge delay represents the unwarranted skepticism of the developed world towards GM crops. Perhaps we don’t have the same degree of urgency, eradicated by the luxury of huge choice in what we eat. The organic, “gene-less” tide may be okay for now, but we’re at the risk of creating a culture not based on efficient cultivation that will be required in the future.