Science & technology

#1122 Save the world, starting with bees

Pollinating the lupine in Rotary Marsh, Kelowna, British Columbia

Just when news of the day threatens to make optimism look like a fool’s errand, I learn about a 4-decade-old organization that connects scientists and citizens around an important goal: to protect invertebrates and their habitat. Since 1971 the Xerces…

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#1113 Lettuce in LED-lit tiers; food factory of the future grows in Japan today

The future is today; lettuce factory in Japan; photo from video below

The future is today; lettuce factory in Japan; photo from video below

Food waste accounts for somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of all the food produced around the world. That is a shocking number. That means land, seed, water, storage, manufacturing and everything else that contributes to the food on our table is wasted.

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a Sony factory abandoned in the wake of the 2011 tsunami is producing lettuce with only 3 percent waste. According to Truth Atlas (a good source of hope), one of the main reasons for that impressive percentage is water. It isn’t leaching through the soil, and it isn’t evaporating, at least not the way it would in a conventional lettuce-growing operation.

Shigeharu Shimamura, a plant physiologist, is CEO of Mirai Co. He explained that conventional farms can grow 26,000 plants on an acre of land. By stacking the plants and growing them under LED lights, the plant factory can harvest 10,000 heads a day in a much smaller space than an ordinary farm. In terms of feeding a burgeoning population, the ability to grow lettuce is a small start, but this factory is pioneering techniques that can be applied to other kinds of food plants.

Maybe it’s my age, but I have a hard time getting excited about food grown in tiers in a 2300 square metre factory. I think I’m lucky. I will go to my grave with the image of seed, soil, water and sun producing a miracle of food. Still, it appears we humans are reproducing like rabbits and using up the planet’s resources at shocking speed. A factory like this will stave off disaster while we figure out more rational ways of living in harmony with the beautiful earth.

With water and food in peril, a growing population to feed, and the future of my grandchildren at stake, I am encouraged by the creativity of people such as Shigeharu Shimamura. They are working hard to ensure a future for all of us.

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#1093 Proud to celebrate growing diversity

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Canada made same-sex marriage legal nationwide nine years ago. Not only did the country not fall apart, the family crumble, and morality fade away, that act in support of equality and social justice has had a healing effect. While we…

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#1081 Have you heard your vegetables scream? These scientists have

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Big fat green caterpillar; photo by Richard Wellis Sinyem, via Flickr Creative Commons

Years ago someone told me Joseph Campbell had said, “A vegetarian is someone who has never heard a vegetable scream.” I can’t verify the real author of the quote, but before anyone protests, let me just say he (or she or whoever said that) was on the right track.

Yet another study has confirmed plants have a far richer sensory life than we usually attribute to them. Heidi Appel and Rex Cocroft, both researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia, published their research in the July 2014 issue of Oecologia. They did not claim to have heard plants scream, but they did discover plants respond to sound.

The scientists sent some acoustic energy plantward. What that means is that they recorded the sounds of a caterpillar chewing a leaf and then played it to plants with no caterpillar in sight. The plants responded with defensive chemicals that warned the enemy to bug off. So when they put caterpillars on the plants, the greenies were ready, and the caterpillars turned up their mandibles in disgust. What’s more, the plants could tell the difference between the sounds of caterpillar vibrations and those of wind or non-attacking insects.

The findings conjure images of sound equipment in farm fields, maybe even replacing some of the chemicals used in agriculture. Appel told the university’s news bureau, “This research also opens the window of plant behavior a little wider, showing that plants have many of the same responses to outside influences that animals do, even though the responses look different.”

It opens a lot of windows for me. If we internalize the notion, supported by science, that every morsel of food we eat is capable of a far richer inner life than we ever dreamed, maybe we will be filled with gratitude for the gift. And if we are filled with gratitude, we will be better stewards of the earth.

This gives me hope.

The first video will introduce you to the researchers. The second is a satirical song from the Arrogant Worms. Be sure your sense of humour is intact before you watch it.

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