Weather Tolerant Foods and Biofuels from Algae

by Dr. Mark Edwards

Industrial agriculture is highly sensitive to climate variability and weather extremes, such as droughts, floods, temperature spikes, and severe storms. Weather tolerant algae-based crops grown with abundance methods could provide an alternative to industrial crops without competing for resources.

Heat takes a huge toll on food crops. Farmers have hybridized food crops for over 11,000 years to produce within a relatively narrow temperature range. A temperature rise of 2.5 degrees F during the growing season imposes a 20% loss in yield. The extra 2.5 degrees F also reduces protein content in grains by 20% or more. A temperature rise of only 5 degrees F may produce a 30 to 60% yield loss.  Temperature spikes up or down can destroy a crop. A 2011 February freeze in Mexico destroyed over 80% of the food grains, vegetable and fruits – doubling produce prices in the US in one week.

Extreme weather events hit the U.S. in 2011 and will impact crops significantly. Heavy rains throughout the Midwest have washed out fields and flooded millions of acres of cropland. Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas experienced the worst heat and drought in a century, losing millions of acres of crop production. Those areas also were hit with wildfires that destroyed both crops and agricultural infrastructure. Extreme storms and tornadoes demolished crops and homes in Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. California experienced drought, temperature spikes that ruined crops and wildfires that destroyed millions of acres.

Global warming brings more violent storms and ruinous floods every decade. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that 100-year floods are likely to occur once a decade.

Floods Rising in Recent Decades

More extreme weather events occur because global warming has made the atmosphere and ocean surface hotter and more energetic. Warm air carries more moisture, which causes much higher rainfall than “normal.” Global warming makes extreme weather events the new normal. No one knows if the 2011 “hundred year flood” along the Mississippi is a unique weather event or a new normal weather pattern.

Hottest year – 2010

NOAA reported the global average temperature for 2010 set the mark as the hottest in the 130-year climate record, only slightly higher than the prior record set in 2005. The decade ending in 2010 is the warmest 10-year period since the beginning of weather records in 1850. The prior decade was the second warmest.

The summer 2010 heat waves spawned drought, wildfires and crop failures across western Russia, where more than 15,000 people died. Drought destroyed 25 million acres of crops across more than 25% of Russia’s arable land. Temperatures hovered 8 to 12 degrees F above average in Russia during June and July. On July 30, Moscow recorded its highest temperature ever – 102 degrees F – breaking the previous record of 99 degrees F, set just four days earlier. Prior to July 2010, the record had not been broken for 90 years. The worst drought conditions in Russia since 1972 destroyed 22 million acres. The heat destroyed 20% of Russia’s crops, prompting Russia to ban exports. Russia declared a state of emergency for 1,000 wild fires covering 64,000 acres burned across the country.

Wild fires in Russia

All-time high temperatures occurred in many cities and nations across the Northern Hemisphere. China experienced heat, drought and dry winds that destroyed millions of acres of crops and created mammoth dust storms. Locust swarms decimated large portions of China’s food and feed grains. The heat reached into Europe, too: on July 30, the temperature in Joensuu, Finland reached 99 degrees F, breaking Finland’s all-time maximum temperature, 95 degrees F, set in July 1914.

Monsoon rains fall in Pakistan every summer, but the rains in June and July 2010 were unusually heavy, bringing more than a foot of rain. By August, whole villages had washed away, more than 1,600 people had died, 6 million had lost their homes. Over 20 million people were impacted. Floods destroyed millions of acres of cropland along with the irrigation systems, roads, equipment and building. Estimates placed damages from the flooding at $15 billion.

Floods in Pakistan

Brazil’s north and west Amazonia experienced its worst drought in 40 years. The Rio Negro (Black River which feeds the Amazon, fell to its lowest level since record keeping began in 1902. Nearly half of Amazonia’s 62 municipalities declared a state of emergency. The combination of drought, followed by heavy rains in 2010 displaced farmers and millions of people in Vietnam, Bangladesh, India as well as several countries in Africa. When heavy rains follow drought, the soil has compacted and does not allow rain to percolate into the soil. Consequently, the water rushes off carrying massive amounts of topsoil and flooding downstream farms and cities.

Brazilian Drought

Hotter yet

Nearly every extreme weather report states the obvious; global warming is occurring faster than predicted. Journalists reporting extreme weather miss two factors – consensus and timing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, creates reports based on consensus. When a group examines risk, some panel members are more conservative than others. Hence, the consensus yields a conservative prediction. Current weather events make the IPCC appear conservative.

The other missed factor is that neither the IPCC nor other predictors of climate change report future events by individual years. The SERS climate model, for example shows how average temperatures are likely to be in 2050. During the period between now and 2050, temperature spikes are likely to cause more extreme weather in some years.

IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios – SRES

Weather tolerant GE crops?

Industrial agriculture has promised genetically engineered, (GE) seeds that are heat and drought tolerant. Unfortunately, no one has any idea how much tolerance these new seeds will provide. Tolerance to average temperatures, for example, may not provide protection against temperature spikes. Weather extremes include freezes during the growing season heavy rains and dry winds. GE seeds may not provide protection for these predictable events.

We need an alternative food supply that produces reliably in spite of whether events.

Weather tolerant food crops

Corn produces one crop a year and produces its first gram of protein in about 120 days, a full growing season. If a weather event causes crop failure, farmers must wait another 365 days for the next harvest to produce the next gram of protein. Unfortunately, crop failure may cause bankruptcy, putting the farmer out of business.

Algae can produce 70 times more protein per acre per year than food grains like corn. Algae growers produce the first gram of protein in a few weeks, and then harvest additional protein every few days, all year round. Some growers harvest half the biomass daily. In covered or closed cultivated algae production systems CAPS, growers can produce high-protein or high lipid algae biomass nearly independent of weather.

Growers can produce algae in freedom microfarms. Microfarmers train indigenous, local algae to produce proteins, oils, carbohydrates and other valuable coproducts rapidly. Microfarms grow food, nutrients, feed, fodder, fertilizer, biofuels, nutraceuticals, medicines and advanced compounds in CAPS scaled to any size. A microfarm may serve a family or community and operate in a backyard, rooftop, balcony, vacant lot, barn, barren field or on other non-crop land.

Microfarms are geography and weather independent and grow colorful and tasty foods with superior nutritional profiles far more productively than modern agriculture. Microforms are non-pollutive and can regenerate degraded air, water and soil.

If a storm causes cloudy skies, the algae slow or stop growing until the sun reappears. A prolonged storm may require the grower to re-inoculate the culture, but the lost production is only for several days or a few weeks. Growers have been producing algae in Thailand and India for decades and many simply halt production during the monsoon season.

Most algae species like heat and adapt very quickly to hotter temperatures. Growers in hot areas such as Arizona may use cool water from underground cisterns for algae cultivation. The Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology at Arizona State University, directed by Professors Hu and Sommerfeld, use the Israeli-developed micro-misting technology to cool cultures in the summer heat.

Most algae species are more productive during specific growing seasons. Therefore, growers may cultivate three different species during the year, one for summer, a second for fall and spring, and another for winter. Algae grow productively in the most extreme climates on Earth, including deserts, both the North Pole and Antarctica, and in and under high mountain glaciers. Species adapted to those climate extremes are available from algae cultivar libraries such as the University of Texas at Austin, directed by Jerry Brand.

Path forward

As extreme weather events take continuously higher tolls on industrial crop production, societies will need an alternative food supply that produces reliably independent of whether. GE crops may provide some insulation from whether events, but the degree of GE crop effectiveness remains unknown.

Traditional crops can be grown independent of whether in greenhouses or vertical farms. However, the capital cost for greenhouses in vertical farms is substantial and the productivity per acre per year is only modestly higher than traditional field crops. If food producers decide to invest in covered growing systems, the productivity advantage from algae will provide a much higher return on investment than traditional crops.

The most practical solution for weather tolerant food crops may be algae. Algae growers using freedom microfarms can produce algae-based foods locally, in nearly any climate or geography.

Adapted from: Abundance: Sustainable Fossil-free Foods with superior Nutrition and Taste; less Pollution and Waste, Tempe: CreateSpace, Mark Edwards, 2010.