Newsletter: April 24, 2018

Researched and written weekly by the editorial team of Food Technology magazine, the IFTNEXT Newsletter explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food through original reporting of scientific breakthroughs, leading-edge technology, novel food components, and transdisciplinary R&D.

Annie's soil mattersWill regenerative agriculture be the next ‘organic’ for consumers?
Many consumers see “organic” on a food/beverage product and know that it was produced without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But even among organic enthusiasts, most are probably not familiar with the term “regenerative agriculture.” A group of nonprofit associations and food manufacturers—including Danone, Ben & Jerry’s, and Annie’s—are working to change that.  

Last year, The Carbon Underground organization, California State University–Chico, and the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative—which includes more than 150 companies, organizations, and scientists as signatories—created the Regenerative Agriculture Definition. As they define it, regenerative agriculture “describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity—resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”

Through its Annie’s brand, General Mills has taken a step to not only begin the process of implementing regenerative agriculture practices but also help educate the public as to what that means and how important it is to the sustainability of soil health. Just recently, Annie’s released two limited-edition products that tout on-pack that the ingredients were “grown on a farm advancing regenerative practices.” The packaging for the Honey Bunny Grahams and Elbow Pasta & Cheddar depicts a cross section of soil and crops with a “Soil Matters!” sign staked in the ground.  

“We hope that these products enable a conversation about why food choices matter,” said Shauna Sadowski, senior sustainability manager at Annie’s. “We want to empower people to make a positive impact by choosing foods grown in ways that restore and regenerate natural resources and communities. Beyond sparking dialogue through information included on-pack, we also engage with and educate consumers through our #soilmatters social media campaign, which includes quizzes, giveaways, and even a short film featuring the farmers who grew the ingredients for our limited-edition products.”

The next goal for The Carbon Underground and its partners is to develop a global verification standard for food grown in a regenerative manner. “The goal of this new standard is not simply to restore soil, but to do it quickly,” said Larry Kopald, president and co-founder of The Carbon Underground. “The windows for avoiding catastrophic climate change and complete top soil loss are projected to close in decades, not centuries.”

But in order to get farmers on board with changing their agricultural practices, they need incentive from the industry, and the industry needs consumer buy in. Ultimately, it’s about increasing awareness among consumers and on-pack labeling could very well be the way to do that.  

“We plan to scale our support of regenerative agriculture across our business—at the same time as we connect consumers to the people and places that grow their food,” said Sadowski. “Our limited-edition products are proofs of concept for a new way of partnering directly with farmers advancing regenerative agriculture.”  

Sadowski notes, however, that it will take time to scale. Given that organic food makes up only 5% of the United States’ total food sales, the question that remains is whether it’s possible to scale up at the rate needed to change soil health before it’s too late.



Rice PaddyRice genome research may lead to more sustainable rice varieties
Billions of people around the world consume rice as a main source of food, making rice production critical to food security. Researchers recently published a genetic resource based on rice genome research that will help to speed up the development of new rice varieties and provide plant breeders with information about key attributes of the varieties.  

“The long-term goal of this project is to understand the genome biology and evolution of the wild relatives of rice, and to use this information to breed new varieties of rice that are higher yielding, more nutritious, and sustainable, i.e., require less water, fertilizer and pesticides, can grow on marginal lands, and have reduced greenhouse gas emissions,” says Rod A. Wing, Bud Antle Endowed Chair of Excellence in Agriculture, School of Plant Sciences and Dept. of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and director of the Arizona Genomics Institute, University of Arizona. “The Chinese call such new varieties ‘green super rice’, the Indian’s ‘designer rice’, and the International Rice Research Institute ‘climate ready rice’.”

Wing and his research collaborators sequenced nine new Oryza genomes that he says represent 15 million years of Oryza genome evolution and combined them with four previously sequenced Oryza genomes. “A major goal of the rice community is to understand the natural variation that already exists in cultivated rice (over 750,000 different varieties exist and are stored in gene banks across the globe) and its wild relatives and use that natural variation to breed new verities of green super rice,” says Wing. “Our work opens the door for rapid gene/trait discovery and puts such discoveries in an evolutionary context.” While they made several findings, one that deals with the genetic component of disease resistance may lead to the discovery of long-lasting disease resistance genes in rice, he says. “Analysis of thousands of candidate disease resistance genes shows an overabundance of heterogeneous gene pairs organized in head-to-head fashion and with atypical domains, extending support for the integrated decoy model of disease resistance function.”

Now, researchers can use the information from the study to work with rice breeders to develop the next generation of super crops. Wing also says that there are still 10 more wild rice species’ genomes to sequence. “One in particular is very interesting—that of Oryza coarctata. O. coarctata can grow in extremely brackish water and has a species range along the coast from Myanmar to Pakistan. We have already sequenced this genome and are searching for genes that confer salt tolerance. One direction is to breed the salt-loving genes into cultivated rice to make cultivated rice more salt tolerant. The second is to domesticate O. coarctata itself and plant O. coarctata across its species range for rice production.”  



Leaf PesticidesA sticky strategy for reducing pesticide use
A 27-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student has developed an innovative agricultural spray that has the potential to dramatically increase the effectiveness of pesticides on a broad range of crops.  

Maher Damak, a PhD candidate in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, created a biodegradable additive made up of electrically charged polymers derived from brown seaweed and crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp. When the additive is mixed with existing pesticides, the resulting spray adheres to plants far better than traditionally formulated pesticides. That’s because most plants are hydrophobic (water-repellant), which means that when they are sprayed with pesticides, only about 2% of the chemicals stick to the target. The other 98% rolls off, dispersing into the soil or water supply, creating an environmental contaminant and an economic burden for farmers. In fact, Damak says, more than $100 billion is spent on pesticides annually.  

The negatively and positively charged polymers in the additive Damak developed interact with one another to create hydrophilic (water-attracting) spots that are 100 times thinner than a strand of hair, allowing for full coverage of a plant’s surface. Currently, farmers typically rely on the addition of surfactants to pesticides in order to reduce surface tension of the sprayed fluid, but this approach is often ineffective.  

“This method can theoretically work on any crop,” Damak reports. “For our initial testing, we are working with citrus trees and grapevines,” he continues. “We are also targeting vegetables, rice, and wheat for the next stages of testing.”  

Damak’s ingenuity was recognized earlier this month when he was among the recipients of a 2018 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. The prizes are awarded annually by The Lemelson Foundation to students whose inventions provide solutions to real-world problems in a variety of different areas.

In this photo, the way in which the sticky agricultural spray adheres to a plant can be seen on the right side of the leaf in contrast to traditionally applied pesticide on the left.  

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Published every Tuesday, this newsletter explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food.