Friday, August 30, 2013

Getting Your Food from a Firehose

"If we want to stop global warming, we need to hold more carbon in soil organisms and the residues of those organisms for the longest possible time."

We have been delving into the dirty secret behind our food, which is that it comes from bacteria, primarily, with considerable assistance from a social network of fungi, nematodes, micro-arthropods and soil-dwelling microbes of various descriptions, many of which make the Star Wars café scene characters seem tame. Most people, asked what plants eat, answer something like, “sunlight, water and dirt.” Water and sunlight play an important role, for sure. Using the energy of photons from the sun, sugars and carbohydrates are constructed from carbon dioxide and water, discarding oxygen. But the real denizens of the deep are bacteria.

Thanks to O2-generating bacteria at work for a billion years, Earth is now habitable for oxygen-loving creatures such as ourselves.

In general terms, the strategy for solar energy utilization in all organisms that contain chlorophyll or bacteriochlorophyll is the same. Here is how some of our ancestors, the purple bacteria, do it:

  1. Light energy is captured by pigment molecules in the light harvesting or "antenna" region of the photosystem, and is stored temporarily as an excited electronic state of the pigment.
  2. Excited state energy is channeled to the reaction center region of the photosystem, a pigment-protein complex embedded in a charge-impermeable lipid bilayer membrane.
  3. Arrival of the excited state energy at a particular bacteriochorophyll (BChl), or pair of BChls in the reaction center triggers a photochemical reaction that separates a positive and negative charge across the width of the membrane.
  4. Charge separation initiates a series of electron transfer reactions that are coupled to the translocation of protons across the membrane, generating an electrochemical proton gradient [protonmotive force (pmf)] that can be used to power reactions such as the synthesis of ATP.

If your eyes glazed over at that explanation, don’t worry. Much of photosynthesis still remains a mystery. Over the past several decades scientists examining oxygenic bacteria known as prochlorophytes (or oxychlorobacteria) have discovered a light harvesting protein complex. The intriguing thought arises, given how much of the bodies of plants are actually made up of bacteria (as also are our own), of whether photosynthesis is actually dependent on bacteria at one or more of the steps in the process.

Recently Drs. Jianshu Cao, Robert Sibley and three MIT graduate students studied purple bacteria, one of the planet’s oldest species, and discovered a special symmetry. Ring-shaped molecules are arranged in a peculiarly faceted pattern on the spherical photosynthetic membrane of the bacterium. Dr. Cao says, “We believe that nature found the most robust structures in terms of energy transfer." Only a lattice made up of nine-fold symmetric complexes can tolerate an error in either direction.

Spinning Photon Nets

Another discovery (by Sabbert et al. in 1996) is that in order to optimize sunlight, the nine-fold symmetric lattice has to spin. Moreover, it has to spin quite fast — nearly 100 rpm. We know of some bacterial flagella that spin at high rpm.  Might spinning flagella propel the photon-capturing process? Too soon to say, but its an intriguing idea, and yet more evidence for quantum entanglement of all life, big and small.

The Encyclopedia of Applied Physics (1995) says:
The amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere each year by oxygenic photosynthetic organisms is massive. It is estimated that photosynthetic organisms remove 100 x 1015 grams of carbon (C)/year. This is equivalent to 4 x 1018 kJ of free energy stored in reduced carbon, which is roughly 0.1% of the incident visible radiant energy incident on the earth/year. Each year the photosynthetically reduced carbon is oxidized, either by living organisms for their survival, or by combustion. The result is that more CO2 is released into the atmosphere from the biota than is taken up by photosynthesis. The amount of carbon released by the biota is estimated to be 1-2 x 1015 grams of carbon/year. Added to this is carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels, which amounts to 5 x 1015 grams of carbon/year. The oceans mitigate this increase by acting as a sink for atmospheric CO2. It is estimated that the oceans remove about 2 x 1015 grams of carbon/year from the atmosphere. This carbon is eventually stored on the ocean floor. Although these estimates of sources and sinks are uncertain, the net global CO2 concentration is increasing. Direct measurements show that each year the atmospheric carbon content is currently increasing by about 3 x 1015 grams. … Based on predicted fossil fuel use and land management, it is estimated that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will reach 700 ppm within [this] century. (references omitted)
What needs to happen, quickly, to reverse our rush to a climate from which there can be no near-term recovery, and to avoid Earth becoming as uninhabitable as Venus, is to accelerate photosynthesis while decelerating carbon emissions. Our allies in this are bacteria and fungi, as they were billions of years ago. They will do the heavy lifting if we just give them a little support. They need good growth conditions (like heat and moisture, which we should have in increasing abundance this century), nutrients, and space to breathe. Lose the antibacterial soaps and sprays, please.

Planting gardens and tree crops is a start. Ecological restoration, where damage can be slowly unwound by greenery, is another step. Living roofs, tree-lined hardscapes, earth-sheltered homes: all of these are both adaptive and mitigating strategies for a recovering climate stasis. But there is something even more powerful.

Tea from a Firehose

This week we asked Joey “Mr Tea” Thomas to come dose the Ecovillage Training Center with his eclectic brew of liquid compost. Mr Tea’s recipe is as good as any batch of Biodynamic Preps or EM (Effective Micro-organisms) you might already be using. It is inestimably superior to MiracleGrow® or other commercial, bagged soil amendments.

In a large stainless steel tank retrofitted with aerating pipes, Mr Tea combines de-chlorinated warm water and…

  • Kelp
  • Humates
  • Folic Acid
  • Fish Oil Emulsion
  • Bat Guano
  • Feather Meal
  • Virgin Forest Soil
  • Deep Pasture Topsoil
  • Composted Animal Manure
  • Composted Kitchen Scraps
  • Composted Poultry Litter
  • Worm Castings & Liquor, and
  • Biochar

The kelp, fish oil, and most of the composts provide rich food for the microbes while they brew. The humates are million-year old deposits with diverse paleobacteria. The bat guano is drawn from distant caves rich in trace minerals and packed with still more varieties of exotic bacteria. The two kinds of soil contain a complex of two discrete living microbiomes, one the fungally-rich virgin forest and the other a bacterially dominated grasslands. The fine biochar particulates provide enough soil structure to retain water – about 10 times the volume of the biochar itself — and aerobic conditions, while providing a coral reef-like microbial habitat. The animal manures, worm castings, feather meal and compostables all contribute to the biodiversity of available microfauna.

In the world of bacterial epigenetics, dictated by the particular demands of diverse members of the web in different seasons and weather conditions, this is a supermarket of genotypes that allow the bacteria to switch up and morph into whatever might be needed for soil health and fertility, capturing passing genes and unlocking regions of their DNA and RNA to provide new or ancient solutions to current conditions.

Bandwidth permitting, you can watch this video that's so sexy it should be x-rated. This is a revolution disguised as organic gardening. The sex is going on right in front of the camera, you’d just need a microscope to see  it. Use your imagination.

If we want to stop global climate change while still surviving unpredictable and changing weather patterns, we’ll need to hold more water, nutrients and carbon in the soil. We can do that with a good diversity of healthy microorganisms and their byproducts. 

We're trying to increase the retention time of carbon in its solid form in the land for as long as possible, as opposed to allowing it to become gaseous, because that's when it becomes dangerous to our future.

That is what climate farming, or what my friend Darren Doherty calls regrarianism, is all about. Its about improving the soil to heal the atmosphere.

As we say in the clip, this is agriculture that builds rather than mines the soil and can transform our beloved home back into a garden planet.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

While I sip my tea I stop the nuke

Passing through an airport lounge en route back from teaching a Permaculture Design Course in Europe, we were captivated by CNN reporting, along with Atlantic dolphins’ worst beaching year by a factor of 7 and the discovery of a giant, horned sea creature resembling Cecil the Sea Dragon washed up on a Spanish beach, that Fukushima had just surpassed Chernobyl in radiation severity. In fact, if the smell of rotting dolphins and sea dragons is keeping you away from the beaches, you can now get the kind of suntan that would end nuclear workers’ careers in just 1 hour by visiting the Japanese Riviera. What CNN omitted to say, among many significant points of public interest, is that the radiation will only keep going up.

What seems amazing is that anyone still assumes the 2011 accident, like the present economic malaise, is over, or ever will be. Both of these unnatural phenomena are still in their earliest stages, will soon become progressively worse, and are paradigm-shifting events. Fuke threatens the entire Pacific fishing industry, not the least Japan’s, will rival Falujah for birth defects in that Prefecture, and is rendering a vast land area unsafe for habitation, including a huge chunk of Tokyo’s already precarious breadbasket.

It is game over for nuclear power. As Arnie Gundersen, nuclear engineer for Fairewinds, told Dr. Helen Caldicott in a June interview Fukushima was for the nuclear industry forty good years and one bad day. But it was one day they could not afford to have. Gunderson said they kept saying, “’As long as there’s no earthquake, it’ll be okay.’ But that’s a big if where you’re sort of counting on an earthquake not occurring is a country that’s prone to earthquakes.”

Fuke’s problem de jour has to do with its shifting foundations. That entire Pacific side of Japan dropped 3 feet seaward during the March 11, 2011 event. Seawater is now pouring into the reactor buildings at the rate of 400 tons per day. Says Gunderson, “The net effect is we’ve got pieces of nuclear fuel, small powdery nuclear fuel, mixing in on the floors of these buildings that are now getting large quantities of radioactive water. So you have two choices: you can either stop the water from going in; or you can stop the [water] from going out.” TEPCO, after long procrastination, opted to do the latter and has filled 1000 steel tanks with corrosive radioactive seawater. None of the tanks is seismically qualified and leaks are now in evidence. Water in puddles outside steel and sandbag barriers surrounding the tank farm 5 football fields up from the shore cherps 100 milliSieverts per hour – enough to give a repair worker her year’s allowed dose every 20 minutes and retire her from permanent employment in about an hour.

TEPCO acknowledges that 75% of the seawater flowing into the plant — 300 tons per day — flows back into the Pacific. They’ve set Fuke on the wash cycle. This past week, South Korea asked Japanese officials to explain how the leaks will affect Pacific ecosystems, especially theirs. Asiana Airlines, South Korea's second-biggest carrier, announced it is suspending flights between Seoul and Fukushima. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a (literally) entrenched supporter of nuclear energy, says he has lost confidence in TEPCO’s ability to deal with the crisis and promised more government money to prop up the stock value of the company, and to pay more human fodder to jump in and stanch the leaking dikes and build trenches. Finally, it comes back to discount rates, doesn’t it? They are discounting the genetic heritage of Japanese children expected to be born centuries from now in order to salvage a Disneyesque science fiction fantasy of the 1950s: power too cheap to meter.

The response of the Obama Administration in this regard is predictably spineless. The President, afraid of offending the dumber and dumberer US Congress, sitting like Humpty-Dumpty on the wall of Big Nuke, acceded to presidential heir-apparent Hillary Clinton’s pressure, while Secretary of State, to order suspension of monitoring of radiation along the West Coast, six weeks post-accident and shortly after EPA stations confirmed the detection of Fuke fallout in precipitation, drinking water and milk.

Following a meeting between Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, Clinton agreed to fight “rumors and reputation damage” that might harm Japan’s place in the international seafood industry. Shortly thereafter, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced they were suspending tests of seafood, saying, “FDA and NOAA do not anticipate contamination of living marine resources in U.S. waters at this time. For this reason, sampling of U.S. harvested seafood is not currently planned.”

The agencies went on to explain:

“During that time needed for a fish contaminated by radiation in Japan to migrate, be caught and reach the market, the level of short‐lived radionuclides such as I‐131 would drop significantly through natural radioactive decay.”
... which neatly finesses the point that ongoing seawater releases, coming from destroyed reactor cores, contain much greater proportions of long-lived radionuclides, such as U-238 and transuranics, than short-lived, largely airborne contaminants seemingly lifted from emergency evacuation planning manuals. 

So what is the anti-Obama Congress busy doing about this choice nugget of scandal? Opposing health care and immigration. What is the President doing? Jawboning about lowering student loan interest rates. It is what has been described as the A-frame of two party politics — each side props up the other by agreeing to argue on inconsequential matters while starving important matters of any media oxygen.

Joseph Mangano, executive director of the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project, said "a cocktail of more than 100 radioactive chemicals" from the Fukushima reactors presents hazards when the material is ingested into the body through the food chain or by breathing tainted air. Potential health risks include birth defects and thyroid cancer, he said. In March, 2013, the organization published a report indicating that the number of West Coast babies born with a condition called hypothyroidism — underactive thyroid glands — rose by 28 percent within nine months of the Fukushima disaster compared with the previous year. The thyroid is especially sensitive to radioiodine. Mangano said that the American Medical Association has already called for the testing of all fish sold in the U.S. for radiation contamination, but that the FDA has so far resisted. The USDA has also resisted testing imported Japanese foods, despite citizen monitoring showing high gamma counts (5x background) in organic matcha green tea, among other products.

If the suppression of testing was intended to save the Japanese economy, it is a dismal failure. There is a cancer on that economy, just as there is on the Eurozone and the Fed. It will not respond to radiation therapy.

And while we are passing through airports, the subject of these ridiculous security whole-body scanners comes back. Why are so many people still sending their innocent children through these death rays? These devices are now banned in Europe where the dangers have been thoroughly scientifically documented, and they were supposed to have been removed in the US, but for the court order being flouted by the Obama TSA. They remain in service at many US airports. If enough people simply opted for pat-down, these child-killers would be gone tomorrow. How about going to and ordering little stickies you can wear on your lapel — “To Avoid Cancer I OPTED OUT. Did you?”

And now, deep sigh, it also seems like we have to opt out of Japanese green tea.   




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