Iron-rich rock helps oceans sink atmospheric carbon

First published in Chemistry World, 05.04.18

Adding crushed rocks containing magnesium and iron minerals to seawater allows it to sequester more carbon from the atmosphere, geoscientists have shown.

Oceans are the world’s most efficient carbon store. Around a quarter of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are sequestered into the sea, and oceans could take in up to 80% of manmade carbon if the process, which usually takes centuries, could be sped up.

A team led by Eric Oelkers from University College London, UK, spread finely milled peridotite – an ultramafic rock that is rich in iron – in tanks of seawater with simulated wave activity. As the powdered rock dissolved it raised the pH of the water, enabling it to react with more atmospheric CO2. The sequestered carbon mineralised into aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate, which sank to the bottom of the tanks.

If powdered peridotite was added to actual oceans, the researchers say, the aragonite would sink to the ocean floor and become sediment, storing carbon permanently. And in nature, aragonite is important for the calcification of corals, so it may even have the added bonus of supporting coral growth.

So far, the approach has only been tried in laboratory simulations. Oelkers says the method needs further scrutiny before it could be seen as a viable way to reduce atmospheric CO2.

‘With upscaling, there are many, many things to consider, some of them unexpected,’ he tells Chemistry World. For example, the extra iron in peridotite rocks could cause plankton blooms. The rocks also contain materials that are harmful to marine life, such as nickel, and it is not clear what impacts these would have on a large scale.

The energy and money required to mine and mill the peridotite also needs to be considered. The researchers propose that the method should be limited to coastal areas where peridotite is common, in order to limit carbon emissions from transport.

Juerg Matter, a geoengineer at the University of Southampton who was not involved in the research, says further refinement of the method could help lower the energy costs of peridotite powder production and save on emissions.

‘The question is really what the acceptable grain size could be,’ he says. ‘Is it really necessary to produce ultrafine particles, or could we tune the process [so] less milling time is required?’

London soil pollution worst on former Blitz bomb sites

First published on Chemistry World, 15.01.18

Study links heavy metal enrichment to destruction of housing in 1940s


The UK capital’s soil bears a poisonous legacy from the Blitz bombing campaign – with calcium, lead and zinc pollution highest in the most heavily damaged areas.

Researchers from the British Geological Survey found that anomalous high calcium, lead and zinc levels in some parts of London were caused by the distribution of building dust and debris following the large-scale destruction of historic housing stock. These elements were widely used in paints, piping and mortar during the construction boom of the 19th century.

The presence of large quantities of calcium, the main ingredient of lime, in central London soil had been previously observed. Don Appleton, a geochemist at the British Geological Survey in Nottingham, and his colleague Mark Cave, were determined to find out why.

‘Traditional mortar contains a lot of lime, so if a building would be destroyed then the dust would spread in the surrounding area,’ Appleton explains. ‘We were thinking, was [the calcium enrichment] related to bomb sites?’

The team compared data on soil pollution with a map of the 31,373 sites bombed by the Luftwaffe – Nazi Germany’s air force – between October 1940 and June 1941. Areas bombarded in the 1940s had levels of calcium, lead and zinc that were up to 1.75 times higher than in areas built-up after the war or those that escaped the bombing.

(a) Number of bomb sites, (b) GM Pb (mg kg−1) 1km grid squares for sectors of the GLA with both soil chemistry and bomb site data underlain by Brickearth, River Terrace deposits or Thames Group clays

Source: © University of Portsmouth licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-ShareAlike

The bomb sites from the Blitz (left) correlate with the pollution of London’s soil with the poisonous metal lead (right)


Other built-up areas of London, however, also showed elevated heavy metal levels, if not quite as high as those bombarded during the Blitz. Appleton says that some of these metals, especially lead, are distributed by exhaust fumes from cars. The researchers found that lead enrichment in London soil increases with proximity to roads as well as bomb sites, hinting at a more complex pattern of pollution. ‘If you get closer to roads, that’s where the buildings are,’ Appleton says. ‘That makes it sometimes difficult to work out what exactly is the major cause.’

Heavy metal pollution is dangerous to human health, especially children who might ingest lead or zinc while playing on polluted land. Vegetables grown on such soil, for example in urban gardens, can also have enriched levels of toxic metals.

However, the chemical make-up of London’s soil provides some protection. London was built on large chalk deposits, which increases the pH of the soil and locks up heavy metals, says Mike Fullen, a soil technology professor at the University of Wolverhampton. ‘Even though these metals are there, it is not easy for them to get into the biological system.’

Many British cities are built on the most fertile land, as this is where ancient farming communities settled. The Thames terrace, for example, has some of the richest soil in England, but is now mostly covered by Heathrow Airport. As a result, even if land is subsequently freed, it loses much of its fertility due to urban pollution.

While the removal or chemical cleaning of soil is expensive, Fullen’s team are working on developing cheaper and environmentally friendly methods to remove heavy metals. In China, students from the University of Wolverhampton are planting carnations on soil polluted with cadmium. The plants act as so-called hyper-accumulators by drawing toxic materials into their roots.

Fullen says this method could be used on London’s brownfield sites, and even in parks created on former bomb sites. ‘If you are not looking to reuse the land straight away, the cheapest option is to plant something that will soak up the toxins, and that can then be burned in a safe place,’ he says.


Shipping pollution hotspots mapped with real-time data

First published on SciDev.Net, 30.08.17

Coastal areas around South East Asia suffer the most from pollution caused by ship traffic, according to a global study that estimates shipping emissions based on real-time, local activity for the first time.

The study, published this month (19 August) in Atmospheric Environment, sheds light on forces at play in a region where shipping pollution is believed to cause up to 24,000 deaths a year. The researchers put together a detailed picture of the emissions of around 300,000 commercial vessels for the year 2015. They found  that three of the six most polluted harbours – Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai – are in South East Asia.

The Malacca Strait, the Eastern China Sea and the Yellow Sea have the world’s highest concentration of shipping emissions, the authors said.

“In some harbour areas shipping can cause severe health effects and premature deaths.”

Lasse Johansson

They used data from the global Automatic Identification System (AIS), which requires all ships larger than 300 tonnes to regularly report their position. This is significant because it records where ships have been and when, allowing a more precise estimate of shipping pollution compared to previous studies.

The team from the Finnish Meteorological Institute joined around 8 billion AIS data points to cover more than a billion kilometres travelled by commercial ships worldwide in 2015. By combining this data with information on vessel size, engine type and fuel used, they managed to draw a high-resolution image of shipping pollution, particularly highly dangerous small-particle pollution less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter.

The consequences of inhaling these pollutants are serious, says lead author Lasse Johansson, a research scientist at the institute. “In some harbour areas shipping can cause severe health effects and premature deaths.” A 2007 study showed that small-particle emissions from ships lead to an estimated 60,000 premature deaths globally each year.

The situation in South East Asia is compounded by the large number of unregistered local vessels, according to Johansson, which were not included in the study. Globally, the researchers identified  76,000 vessels for which no technical data, such as the ship’s size or type of fuel used, could be obtained.

Together, these vessels travelled a distance that accounts for only 3.5 per cent of all recorded shipping kilometres, but Johansson says their local impact should not be underestimated. “Near coastal cities the [emission] contribution of these vessels can still be larger than the overall contribution might suggest,” he says.

Registered ships were responsible for 93 per cent of small-particle emissions and 91 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions covered by the study.

Part of the large concentration of shipping emissions in the region is explained by the rapid economic growth of countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN),which is fuelled by  export of consumer goods. The ASEAN nations’ GDP grows by an average 6 per cent annually, according to the OECD, with 74 per cent of the region’s exports travelling by sea  to non-ASEAN countries.

South East Asia also suffers from high shipping emissions because its location exposes it to the densest and most frequent shipping traffic in the world.

Aretha Aprilia, a civil engineer from Indonesia and former coordinator at the UN Environment Programme, tells SciDev.Net that regional efforts to curtail shipping emissions have been “a huge challenge”.

“To date, not much attention has been given to the issues regarding emissions from shipping, and this needs to shift,” says Aprilia. “It is a prerequisite to have more legally binding regulations that are enforced from the countries.”

The study suggests that pollution control areas, where carbon dioxide and fine particle emissions from ships are subject to strict rules, can work if enforced. “Yet these can be costly for ship owners,” says Johansson. He suggests that poorer nations should look at alternatives, like re-routing large ships and planning their infrastructural development in order to mitigate pollution. “For instance in Helsinki, where I live, the cargo terminals were relocated well outside of the city.”

Mud bricks best for cool, green houses, says study

This article was first published on SciDev.Net, 28.06.17

Simple mud concrete bricks provide the most affordable and sustainable houses in the tropics, a Sri-Lankan study suggests.

Comparisons of four different types of walling materials revealed that mud concrete bricks have the lowest environmental impact and keep houses cool. They are also the cheapest, and easiest to dispose of once a house is knocked down.

Researchers compared mud concrete bricks with red bricks (modern fired clay bricks), hollow cement blocks and Cabook, the Sri Lankan name for bricks made from laterite soil, which are common in the tropics. The goal of the study was to find out which types of walling material are the most suitable for constructing affordable houses in the tropics, where population density and poverty are generally high.

“The sustainability of buildings and housing construction is essential to save lives and prevent inadequate living conditions.”

Christophe Lalande

“Why spend more money and destroy the environment more?” asks Rangika Halwatura, a civil engineer at the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka, and one of the authors of the paper.

Mud concrete bricks are made from soil in the same way as traditional mud bricks, but contain gravel and sand to improve their strength. The researchers looked at the carbon footprint of all four walling materials, and found that mud concrete bricks were the most environmentally friendly to produce and dispose of.

To check on thermal conductivity the researchers built one-square-metre model houses of the different walling types. Here, they found that red brick kept a house coolest, but mud concrete bricks performed almost as well.

Mud concrete bricks were also found to be the cheapest, at less than US$1,000 in Sri Lanka for an average-sized house, whereas red bricks cost nearly US$3,500.

Mud concrete bricks are widely used in other tropical countries but novel in Sri Lanka. They are popular because they are easy to make and therefore cheap, says Hurryson Moshi, a civil engineer in Tanzania. However, Moshi points out that as people grow wealthier they prefer the red bricks and cement blocks, as these are associated with higher socio-economic status.Walling material graph (FINAL)

Red Brick (modern fired brick), Cement (Hollow Cement Blocks), Cabook (laterite soil brick), Mud (mud concrete brick). Adapted from a graphic ©Udawattha and Halwatura, with permission. 


Moshi agrees with the study’s findings but says that other considerations, such as aesthetics, and symbols of modernity or social status, influence people’s choice of materials. Future studies should also take into account other sources of environmental damage such as deforestation (to produce timber to fire the bricks) or excavation of soil, he added.

In 2015, the government of Sri Lanka launched a programme to build 150,000 houses for the poor. This triggered the researchers’ idea to compare the different types of brick.

According to the United Nations, more than 850 million people around the world live in inadequate slum housing.

According to Christophe Lalande, leader of the UN-Habitat’s Housing Unit, poor neighbourhoods in developing countries are often the most affected by climate change and natural hazards such as storms and rising temperatures.

“The sustainability of buildings and housing construction, being adapted to the local environment, is essential to save lives or prevent inadequate living conditions,” he says.

Living near noisy roads could make it harder to get pregnant

This article first appeared in New Scientist, 26.06.2017

Living near noisy roads could make it harder to get pregnant

Living near a noisy road seems to affect couples who are trying get pregnant, increasing the likelihood that it will take them between six to 12 months.

That’s according to an analysis of 65,000 women living in Denmark. Jeppe Schultz Christensen of the Danish Cancer Society Research Center in Copenhagen and his team made this discovery by analysing data from the Danish National Birth Cohort, a project that ran from 1996 to 2002. They selected women who had tried to get pregnant during the project if traffic noise data was available for where they lived.

Previous research has suggested that 80 per cent of women who are actively trying to get pregnant usually do so within six menstrual cycles. But Christensen’s team found that for every 10 decibels of extra traffic noise around a woman’s home, there was a 5 to 8 per cent increased chance of it taking six months or longer.

This link persisted even when factors like poverty levels and nitrogen oxide pollution were taken into account. However, their statistical analysis showed that this association did not hold for women who took more than 12 months – perhaps because these couples may have had other factors affecting their fertility. “Road traffic noise may affect reproductive health,” says Christensen.

Him or her?

It is unclear whether traffic noise may be affecting women or their partners. Previous research has found a link between sleep disturbance and decreased fertility in women, as well as lower quality of semen in men. A 2013 study showed that consistent exposure to aircraft traffic noise activates a system in the brain that is known to disrupt the rhythm of ovulation.

Rachel Smith of Imperial College London says the link between traffic noise and health is worrying. Because traffic noise is common, even a small effect on health could feasibly have a large impact across a population, she says.

Europe’s roads are getting noisier. In the UK alone, an extra 2 million cars hit the road between 2011 and 2015. Christensen says traffic noise and fertility need to be investigated further before drawing up any recommendations for couples hoping to get pregnant, but Smith suggests that anyone who is worried could try to choose bedrooms away from the road, and close windows at night.

Marie Pedersen at the University of Copenhagen says traffic issues should be tackled by society as a whole, through better town planning and alternative transport. “It is a matter for urban planners and politicians,” she says.

Journal reference: Environment International, DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2017.05.011

Read more: Dying for some quiet: The truth about noise pollution; Noise kills and blights lives in Europe

Trump’s budget jettisons ‘irreplaceable’ marine mammals agency

This article first appeared in New Scientist on 25 May, 2017

The US Marine Mammal Commission, an organisation charged with restoring mammal populations in the world’s oceans, is set for the chop in president Donald Trump’s latest budget proposal.

The budget, released on 23 May, includes a 16 per cent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s bodies and agencies. This would close down the MMC, an independent federal agency, which costs around US$3.41 million a year, or around one penny per American.

The Maryland-based commission sees itself as a “one-stop shop” for marine mammal science and policies, says its chairman Daryl Boness. The commission reviews human activities in the ocean -including shipping, military drills and fossil fuel extraction – and uses the latest science to ascertain the impact of such activities on marine mammals.

“The commission’s role as an oversight agency on all issues related to marine mammals is unique; no one else in the world meets this mandate,” Boness told the New Scientist. “This service to the public, marine mammals and their ecosystem would end.”

The MMC was established in 1972. Its own small-scale science projects cover topics such developing fishing nets that catch fewer mammals, and Whale Alert app to help sailors avoid whales and to alert authorities to injured or distressed whales.

The commission looks after the stocks of many threatened American sea mammals, including such iconic species as the Hawaiian monk seal, Florida manatees, beluga whales, orcas and polar bears. For example, in April it hosted a summit with researchers, industry representatives and politicians to reduce the entanglement of North Atlantic right whales in fishing gear.

Uproar over irreplaceable agency

News of the commission’s possible demise has caused uproar among conservationists around the world. Ingrid Biedron, a marine scientist at international ocean protection group Oceana, says no other organisation can fill the MMC’s footsteps.

“By law, the commission has access to all federal studies and data related to marine mammals, and by law, other federal agencies are required to consider and respond to the commission’s recommendations,” Biedron explains. “This is not the case for academic experts on marine mammals.”

Other marine agencies are also at risk under the 2018 budget proposal. The National Marine Fisheries Service would lose $22m off its Fisheries Research and Management Program, while its protected species programme would lose $7m and, according to Oceana, become effectively unable to carry out its responsibilities.

Boness says the cuts are a blow to America’s “strong environmental ethic”. He worries that, without the MMC, marine exploitation will continue “without the necessary checks and balances that help to ensure that those activities are done in the most environmentally conscientious way possible”.

Changing climate to wreak havoc on Mediterranean soils

This article first appeared in Chemistry World, 15.05.17.

Climate change could reduce the amount of carbon stored in soil in the Mediterranean region by a third over the next 60 years, according to research undertaken at the University of Cordoba. This in turn could drive up food prices and endanger crop production in the region as soils become poorer and more and more fertiliser is needed to keep yields up.

A study of 600 soil samples from the Sierra Morena region in Spain found that local soils contain between 2 and 7% organic carbon matter. However, when scientists modelled the relationship between the soil and 24 variables affected by climate change, such as rainfall and temperature, they found that organic carbon content could decrease by an average of 35.4% in the region’s topsoil.

The Spanish researchers reveal that, while each soil type is different, a carbon content of less than 2% generally means soil is unsuitable for agriculture. They found that soil organic carbon was most likely to decrease in lowlands and on southward-facing slopes, which are also the most suitable for growing food.

A map showing the study area: Sierra Morena - Spain

Source: © Elsevier – from Science of the Total Environment 592 (2017) 134–143

Over 600 soil samples were taken from across the Sierra Morena region in Spain. The results show cause for concern on food production in the region over the next 60 years

To cope with a decrease in soil organic carbon, local farmers would have to increase fertiliser use, which could exacerbate related problems, such as water pollution, says co-author Alfonso Olaya Abril. ‘The price of foods will increase due to the increase in production costs directly related to this,’ he explains. ‘In some cases, traditional crops will have to be changed for others more adjusted with the new needs. Consumers and farmers will suffer the consequences.’

In many Mediterranean countries, food consumption already outstrips production, with only France and Spain exporting significant amounts of cereals and vegetables. The Spanish study should be an early warning to policymakers, who need to adapt local agricultural practices to the realities of climate change, says Miriam Muñoz-Rojas, a biologist at the University of Western Australia, who has extensively researched Mediterranean soils. ‘Sustainable land use in Mediterranean areas could reduce the negative effects of predicted climate change impacts by sequestering atmospheric carbon into the soil,’ she says. ‘[This] could bring additional environmental and economic benefits, such as improvement of soil quality and enhancement of crop productivity.’

However, Abril is cautious about advocating specific policies, as only 50% of the soil organic carbon content in their study can be traced to specific contributors. He says more research is needed to understand how other factors, such as microorganisms in the soil, affect the presence of carbon, and how these will develop as the climate changes.

Hawaii seeks to ban ‘reef-unfriendly’ sunscreen

A proposed Hawaiian bill aims to stop the sale of lotions containing certain UV-filters, but their effects on coral are disputed.

Nature, 03.02.2017

Legislators in Hawaii are trying to ban the sale of sunscreens that contain two UV-filtering chemicals, after studies suggested that they harm coral reefs.

On 20 January, Hawaii state senator Will Espero introduced a bill which would ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in Hawaii (except under medical prescription) to the state Congress. Espero argues that a ban is important to preserve the state’s tourism industry, because Hawaii relies heavily on tourists attracted by its coral reefs.

The bill is already attracting attention from other regions with economies reliant on reefs, including Palau and the British Virgin Islands, Espero says. But manufacturers argue that more evidence is needed to warrant a ban.

A bar in the state of Hawaii would be the strongest political measure yet taken against the chemicals – although some manufacturers already sell “reef-friendly” sunscreens without them, produced in response to scientific and consumer concerns. “Since there are eco-friendly sunscreens on the market now, a total ban hurts no one,” Espero argues.

In November 2015, a group of European Parliament members proposed a motion to ban oxybenzone in cosmetic products throughout the European Union, but that legislation has stalled.

Sunscreen research

Espero’s bill draws largely upon research done by US scientists led by Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Clifford, Virginia. In 2016, his team reported that oxybenzone and octinoxate could stunt the growth of baby corals, and that oxybenzone was toxic to seven coral species in lab tests1.

A 2008 study from a different group had found that oxybenzone is likely to cause coral bleaching both in the lab and in the wild in several tropical regions2. Other studies have suggested that oxybenzone also acts as an endocrine disruptor among marine creatures such as shrimps and clams3.

In ongoing follow-up work – which has not yet been published – Downs’ team detected oxybenzone contamination of up to 4,000 parts per trillion (ppt) in the waters off the most popular beaches of the Hawaiian island of Maui. An oxybenzone concentration of around 400 ppt over several days is enough to induce coral bleaching in warm waters, they say. The team suggests that when people snorkel or swim, sunscreen washes off their skin and out into the reefs.

“In many geographic locations, oxybenzone and sunscreen pollution poses a serious environmental hazard,” says Downs.

But other reef scientists are more circumspect about the role of sun-screen chemicals in coral-reef destruction. Many factors damage coral reefs, says Jörg Wiedenmann, head of the Coral Reef Laboratory at the University of Southampton, UK, but he agrees that sunscreen pollution might be detrimental in areas with lots of tourists.

“Banning sunscreen will not solve other problems: for example, temperature anomalies, overfishing, coral predators and the big issue of coastal runoffs that pollute and destroy reefs,” he says. “But if you have places with a high load of tourists going in, it is not unreasonable to stay cautious and say, ‘Yes, there may be additive effects.”

Disputed effects

But sunscreen manufacturers such as L’Oréal disagree that a ban is needed. “Regulatory decisions have to be made on sound scientific evidence and multiple studies,” says Marc Leonard, head of L’Oréal’s Research & Innovation, Environmental Research department in Aulnay-sous-Bois, France. “They have to be completed by different teams to provide a significant bundle of evidence. We are very far from it in this case.” Despite this, says Leonard, L’Oréal are working on making sunscreen products without oxybenzone, in anticipation of a possible ban.

L’Oréal has not itself reported any tests on the effects of oxybenzone or octinoxate on coral reefs. In June 2016, the manufacturer presented work done with researchers at the Scientific Centre of Monaco, on a different UV filter chemical in its sunscreen, called avobenzone. The scientists reported an adverse effect on corals at the high concentrations of 5 milligrams per litre (5 parts per million) – but that has little relevance to normal levels of exposure.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a national trade association for manufacturers based in Washington DC, says that it will oppose a ban until there is more evidence. “We sympathize with the desire to preserve Hawaii’s coral reef, but there is no scientific evidence that under naturally occurring conditions, sunscreen ingredients are contributing to coral-reef declines,” says a spokeswoman for the group.

Downs says that his team has seen a clear effect in Maui – and that he feels there is already enough evidence to justify a ban there. Some Hawaiian politicians have tried to push for more funding to support research into the issue. But a bill to the US Congress, asking for funds for the University of Hawaii to further investigate the effect of sunscreens on reefs, stalled in February last year.

“We have advocates and science on our side,” Espero says. “Fishermen, boat owners, sailors, ocean-sports enthusiasts, ocean-tour operators and environmentalists rely on the ocean for recreation and jobs. Opponents will be out there, but supporters as well.”


Against the grain

01.12.2016 – Original story on

Mark Holderness, executive secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, tells Inga Vesper about efforts to bring scientists and farmers closer together.

Europe’s farmers have a difficult relationship with those beyond their community. The consumers of their products, the 500 million Europeans who need a daily splash of milk in their coffee, tend to perceive farmers as swimming in subsidies, while EU politicians prefer to keep a safe distance from the demonstrations staged regularly by agricultural unions in Brussels.

Farmers themselves remain fragmented, with their own small businesses tied to a particular place. Farming practices are deeply rooted in tradition, and the language of cross-border collaboration and pan-European investments does not usually apply to farmers’ lives.

But more involvement of science is needed to bring farmers together on issues that affect them, says Mark Holderness, executive secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research. It is also needed to tackle the huge problems around food production and climate change.

“One thing we have lost track of is the link between agricultural science and its clients,” says Holderness. “Research judges itself against quality standards that are external to the farmer, such as scientific papers. But for science to deliver something useful to farmers, we need to give farmers a direct say in what is researched.”

Based in Rome, GFAR was founded in 1996 to promote conversations between farmers, politicians and research funders. Its aim is to make agricultural and food research driven “by the needs and demands of societies”.

Over its 20-year history, the forum has made progress in giving farmers a voice in research projects, Holderness says. For example, its Foundation for South-North Mediterranean Dialogue worked with farmers, local universities, chambers of commerce and even chefs to analyse which innovations would be most useful to agricultural regions around the Mediterranean Sea.

It has also turned its attention to improving farming metrics used in policy decisions, in line with the approach of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Governments like to boast about yields and tonnages for farming outputs, but gather little data on other areas, Holderness says—even though pressures such as climate change, poverty and increasing food waste demand better monitoring of agricultural impact.

“We are stuck in this paradigm that says ‘Let’s measure productivity’, but that is a perverse driver,” he says. “We need to measure much broader criteria, such as nutrition, waste and emissions. At present we are not aware of the full associated costs of farming.”

The forum’s efforts appear to be gaining traction. In July, the European Commission published a strategy on agricultural R&D that focused on bringing farmers and scientists closer together, by using online technologies.

And in October, a Slovakian EU presidency conference on the bioeconomy concluded that farmers must be involved in innovation and technological roll-outs from the start.

But the impact of any political strategies will be limited without big changes in funding capacity, Holderness says. The paradox is that the EU member states most reliant on agriculture are also the lowest spenders on research and among the least influential on EU priorities. Only 5 per cent of Horizon 2020 money goes to agricultural research and innovation, despite the fact that in member states such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria agriculture provides employment for nearly 40 per cent of the workforce.

Holderness says this demands an urgent rethink of priorities. “To make research spending fair, we need to look at the demand within countries and the political imperative for countries to be self-sustaining,” he says. “Rather than starting from a technology, we should look at future demand in Europe and work back to what research and innovations we need to get to that future. That would reframe the entire debate.”

Alternatively, European farmers could follow the lead of other regions, Holderness suggests, and set up joint investment funds. The Australian government has initiated a project on grain research under which the government matches the amount that farmers pay into a common research pot with additional public funds. “It’s industry investing in its own research and having a direct say in what is done,” Holderness says. “And it keeps the scientists on track to deliver something useful for the farmers.”

Holderness says he is optimistic that the forum’s work to bring farmers’ local viewpoints into agricultural science will ultimately help the field to compete for funding with trendier subjects such as digital technologies or space. “Agriculture ministers would like more science investment, but they do not have the evidence,” he says. “As it stands, science is prone to seeing agriculture as a last-resort industry, not as the most important industry on Earth.”

Alien fungus blights Hawaii’s native trees

21.10.2016 – Original article in Science (subscribers only)

An ecological disaster is unfolding on Hawaii’s largest island. Rapid ‘Ōhi’a Death, caused by an imported fungus, is causing Hawaii’s iconic native ‘ōhi’a tree to perish in droves. Some 20,000 hectares are now affected, according to a recent survey. Abundant across the archipelago, ‘ōhi’a are the only native tree in Hawaii that colonizes lava flows, and they provide habitat for several rare species of native birds and insects. The outbreak exploded in 2014, in dense ‘ōhi’a groves in Hilo Forest Reserve on Big Island, and has worsened ever since. Characterizing the fungus, Ceratocystis fimbriata, might help researchers mount a defense for ‘ōhi’a, as well as determine whether other native plants or crops are vulnerable. Scientists are also trying to unravel precisely how the fungus spreads.

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