This week’s discussion article focuses on increasing agricultural output without significantly increasing the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Currently, modern agriculture needs to increase its output by 70% to meet the nutritional demands of the growing earth population, which will become 10 billion by 2050, from 7 billion people we have currently in 2016.
This week’s speaker, Lydia Dyson, proposes using hydrogenotroph bacteria in a process developed in the 60s for deep space travel to recycle our carbon dioxide output.
The theory was that the astronauts breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, which are then captured by these bacteria in the soil capture the carbon dioxide and feed it to the crops.
From the point of view of the carbon cycle, humans are machines that consume carbon chain molecules (like carbohydrates, proteins and nucleic acids, ie nutrients), oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants are machines that breathe in carbon dioxide and make carbon chain molecules and breathe out oxygen. Using bacteria, the cycle can be made more efficient, capturing more carbon dioxide and putting them to use towards making nutrients.
While the idea was originally conceived to provide a close carbon recycling system in a small enclosed system like a space ship, the idea can be applied to Earth. The Earth is large, but it is still an enclosed system with limited space and resources. On earth, most of the exhaled carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas and causing climate change. Currently in the world, landmass the greater than the combined areas of Africa and South America has been devoted to agriculture and animal husbandry, which produces more greenhouse gases than all of our cars, trucks, planes and trains combined. In Indonesia, rainforest area the size of Ireland has been cleared to produce palm trees, whose oils are used in a variety of industrial, consumer and food products like ice cream, cookies, cooking oils, detergents, lotions and soaps.
Using these microbes, naturally found in hydrothermal vents, in a closed systems instead of in open fields confers several advantages:
1. Speed: proteins, carbohydrates, palm and citrus oils (fats) can be produced in matter of hours because microbes originate from nutrient poor environments where they have evolved to be very efficient. These oils can be used to produce more industrial products as well.
2. Any season: microbes do not require sunlight to produce these nutrients from carbon dioxide, and they are able to produce any season.
3. Efficiency: 10,000 times more output can be produced per area this way than traditional agriculture, removing the need to clear any more rainforests.
Please click below to view the TED talk.