Italy to run on 0.6% biofuel by 2018

October 16, 2014

From 2018, 0.6% of petrol and diesel used in Italy will be made up of advanced biofuels, the BBC reports. This is set to increase to 1% by 2022.

The Italian government is the first in Europe to take a stand on biofuels. The ministerial decree is in line with the European Parliament target for 2.5% of energy used within the transportation sector to consist of advanced biofuels (made of seaweed and waste) by 2020.

The European Council then downgraded this to a non-binding target of 0.5% advanced biofuels by 2020.
The measures are part of the EU energy directive, which requires renewable energy sources to provide 10% of transportation fuel by 2020.

The use of fuels made from crops has been a source of controversy within the EU for some years. Many claim the growing of crops used for first generation biofuel production, including sugar, cereals and oilseed, take up land space needed to grow food. In addition, there are worries surrounding the volume of carbon emissions generated by biofuels. Despite this, a number of new second generation biofuels plants have recently opened.

The biofuel industry has also been lobbying hard to promote the use of biofuels within the EU.
A commercial scale advanced biofuels plant was opened in Crescentino near Turin, in Italy last year. The plant produces approximately 75 million litres of biofuel from waste and energy crops, grown on marginal land.

Plans to open three further plants in the south of the country are also in motion.

Chris Malins from the the International Council on Clean Transportation commented on the Italian decree: “This is quite an exciting time, things are finally starting to happen,”

“This shows Italy taking a real leadership role in Europe. It will be an example and a signal to other countries that are interested in this.”

Sources: BBC; The Green Optimistic

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Scientists map wheat genome

July 17, 2014

Bread is a staple food for one third of the world’s population, and accounts for a huge 20 per cent of the world’s calorie intake.

In terms of science however, wheat has been rather overlooked. Until now that is.

Since 2011, scientists and members of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, have worked to find out what exactly the humble grain is made of. On Tuesday, they published the first draft genome sequence of “common” or “bread wheat”: an accomplishment which they believe could help farmers meet the ever-increasing demand for a high-quality crop – something which is particularly important in the context of climate change and an ever-growing population.

The research, published in the journal Science on Tuesday, reveals the result of what has been nearly 3 years work and around USD 68 million. The team of scientists, including researchers from Germany, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Canada has so far succeeded in deciphering the blueprint for nearly all the genes of bread wheat and roughly 60 percent of the whole genome.

The unusual size and form of the genome made the sequencing especially difficult for the team, the article said. Indeed, that of wheat contains a staggering 100,000 or so genes, 5 times more than the human genome, which contains roughly 20,000.

The largely repetitive nature of the wheat genome also made its untangling more difficult.

The advantages of the project are manifold. “Wheat improvement is crucial to ensure food security and the development of sustainable agriculture in a context of climate change and growing population,” said Frederic Choulet, plant genomicist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), and one of the lead researchers on the project.

The new draft genome is also expected to significantly decrease the time it will take to identify and isolate genes of interest to plant breeders, such as those which express resistance to heat, stress, insects, or disease.

The consortium plans to finish the full genome within three years. “We have a clear path forward for completing high quality sequences of all bread wheat chromosomes,” said Kellye Eversole, the consortium’s executive director.

Source: The Japan Times; National Geographic

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Blooming bouquets! Japanese scientists discover flower aging cure

July 4, 2014

morning-glory-173440_640Japanese Scientists at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, claim to have found a way to delay the aging process in flowers by up to half, keeping bouquets fresh for longer.

Discovery of the gene believed to be responsible for the short shelf-life of flowers in one Japanese variety of morning glory is responsible for the breakthrough. By suppressing this gene — named “EPHEMERAL1″ — scientists found the life span of each flower was almost doubled.

“Morning glory” is the name for a large group of flowering plants whose petals unfurl early in the day and begin to fade and curl by nightfall. So far, the scientists have managed to isolate the aging gene in just one variety of Japanese morning glory but believe these methods could be applied to other flower species.

“Unmodified flowers started withering 13 hours after they opened, but flowers that had been genetically modified stayed open for 24 hours,” said Kenichi Shibuya, one of the lead researchers in the study carried out jointly with Kagoshima University.

This means the plant has fresh purple flowers alongside the paler blooms from the previous day, he said.

This gene is linked to petal aging, the researchers discovered. Although the scientists have only modified the genes of living flowers in the study, their discovery could lead to  the development of methods to extend the life of cut flowers.

“It would be unrealistic to modify genes of all kinds of flowers, but we can look for other ways to suppress the (target) gene . . . such as making cut flowers absorb a solution that prevents the gene from becoming active,” said Shibuya.

Some florists currently use chemicals to inhibit ethylene, a plant hormone which sometimes causes blooms to ripen, in the preparation of some cut flowers. This does not always help as ethylene is not present in the aging process of some very popular flowers, such as lilies, tulips and irises.

A gene similar to EPHEMERAL1 could be responsible for petal aging in these plants, Shibuya said, meaning the ability to suppress it would extend their life.

Source: The Japan Times

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Nitrous oxide the biggest threat to the ozone layer, claims UN

November 25, 2013

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has called for action against overuse of nitrous oxide, as it issued a warning against the dangers of the gas commonly used in agriculture and industry.

Nitrous oxide, perhaps more commonly known as laughing gas, has long been recognised as a toxic greenhouse gas, but has in recent years passed largely unnoticed in climate negotiations as their contribution to global warming is difficult to measure.

Now, however, UNEP is calling for a reduction in nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, claiming that excessive use of the gas in industry, agriculture and coal plants has allowed it to silently grow into a huge threat to the environment, and rising high into the ranks of the greenhouse gases which are currently causing the most damage to the ozone layer.

UNEP’s report, Drawing Down N2O, claims that excessive use of the gas in farming and human activities could cause levels of N2O to double within the next 35 years, which would potentially reverse all progress made to slow the destruction of the ozone layer, as well as exacerbating global warming.

Whilst the gas exists naturally in the Earth’s atmosphere, this accounts for less than one third of its use. The majority of N2O is produced through human activity; through agriculture and in coal plants, as well as being used as a painkiller in dentistry and surgery, and as a recreational drug. The report published by UNEP states that one tonne of nitrous oxide has an impact equal to 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and that man-made emissions alone have caused its presence in the atmosphere to increase by 20 per cent in the last century. Unless action is taken to reverse the damage it causes to the ozone layer, another 5.3 million tonnes will be released into the atmosphere by 2050.

The gas is doubly damaging for the ozone layer, as it remains in the air for over a century, where it travels upwards into the atmosphere, undoing the work done to reduce the size of the ‘ozone hole’.

The executive director of UNEP, Achim Steiner, said that from the viewpoint of the climate negotiations, tackling N2O emissions could be crucial in slowing the rise in the world’s temperature and keeping it below the danger level set by governments, which is a two degree increase.

“UNEP’s role is to draw the attention of this conference to the science so that politicians can act”, he said. “Although this is known as laughing gas, it is far from a laughing matter as far as its effect on the ozone layer and the climate is concerned. It has a disproportionate impact on global warming because of its warming properties and long lifetime in the atmosphere.”

The UNEP report pointed to ways in which industries could change their habits to reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, whilst improving agricultural yields and save billions of dollars in fertiliser costs, such as wastewater treatment that recycles nutrients as fertiliser.

Sources include BBC News, Eco Business

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Japanese food chain to grow rice and vegetables in Fukushima prefecture

October 9, 2013

The Japanese fast food chain Yoshinoya has announced that it is to grow rice and vegetables in Shirakawa, just 80 kilometres from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was crippled by the 2011 nuclear disaster.

Yoshinoya is a popular Japanese fast food chain, which owns a major chain of ‘gyudon’, or ‘beef bowl’ restaurants across the nation. The company’s operator, Yoshinoya Holdings, is to launch a joint agricultural project with local farmers, called Yoshinoya Farm Fukushima, in which rice, onions and cabbages will be cultivated across a 4.3 hectare field, for use in Yoshinoya’s 1000-strong chain of gyudon establishments.

Whislt many Yoshinoya customers have expressed concern at the crop farm’s proximity to the nuclear plant and the potential danger of radiation exposure, the fast food chain was keen to highlight their plans to routinely and stringently screen and monitor the crops for radiation.

In a statement, a Yoshinoya representative said: “We believe this will lead to support for reconstruction.” The chain also hopes that the creation of a more local agricultural site would lead to a lowering of ingredients prices, and thus prices within the gyudon restaurants themselves.

The March 2011 tsunami and consequent nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant led to crop prices plummeting not only within the direct radiation zone, but across the entirety of the Fukushima prefecture, despite having been formerly famed for its agricultural produce. Ventures such as Yoshinoya Farm Fukushima are an endeavour to repair the prefecture’s damaged reputation.

Despite these actions, however, many consumers continue to avoid produce carrying the Fukushima tag, amidst continuing fears of radiation exposure.

Sources include: Japan Today, The Telegraph

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The future looks bright for Fukushima farmers

June 27, 2013

Farmers in Fukushima are turning to “solar sharing,” a process by which they can generate solar power on the same land as they already grow crops. This process will allow them to sell solar power for use on the national grid, via utility companies.

This is certainly a novel enterprise. Fukushima’s farming industry was badly affected by last year’s nuclear accident. The regions farmers are hoping to sell the power to help cover the losses they have suffered due to the nuclear accident at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima nuclear plant. It is believed that most of the farmers will invest the money generated from the sale of the electric power into improving their existing arable land. The ‘solar sharing’ process is in principle really rather simple: solar panels are erected on poles over existing arable land. In order to ensure a sufficient volume of light reaches the crops underneath, the amount of light that reaches the soil is carefully controlled by tilting the position of the solar panels according to the position of the daytime sun. It is, to put it simply, a sort of mechanical ‘sunflower effect.’

Solar sharing was first used in 2004, in Chiba prefecture, and then spread to other prefectures, including Aichi, Mie and Ibaraki. Due to a government scheme introduced last July, electric power companies are now obliged to buy power generated by renewable energy sources at fixed prices. However, the government have set conditions for farmers wanting to participate in the scheme. Importantly, they must continue to cultivate the land itself, and the annual crop yield of the arable land must not fall below 80% of the regional average. This is to prevent farmers from abandoning farming and using the government scheme as their primary source of income instead. Rather the scheme is intended as a ‘stop-gap’ for farmers affected by the Fukushima nuclear accident. Ichiro Hirata, a farmer, whose land is being used for the project, said: “Even if shipments from this area resume someday, my crops will not sell for the time being due to groundless rumours of contamination. Until prices recover, I can now cover the loss by selling electric power.”

However, a local government official did counsel caution: “While solar sharing could help our farmers, damage caused by rumours relating to the nuclear accident could drive them out of business before they even get a chance to try it.”

Yet the notion of solar sharing is gaining ground in Japan. The town government of Aizubange is also considering introducing solar sharing. Moreover, farmers in Sendai have also proposed introducing a block solar sharing scheme. Even in Iwate, a local government official said that they had received numerous inquiries from farmers and local agricultural committees enquiring about how to introduce solar sharing.

Michio Sakemoto, Director of Solar Sharing Kyokai, said: “If the projects in Fukushima prefecture prove successful, we want to encourage farmers in all of the disaster-hit areas to introduce the solar sharing method as a way to keep using their farmland in the most effective and productive way.”

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Sources used include: The Japan News and Japan Times

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Carbon Dioxide’s Green Effect

June 7, 2013

Recent satellite studies have shown an overall increase in vegetation across the planet. Dramatic evidence of this can be seen in a recent analysis of NASA’s satellite data collected since 1982. This reveals a vigorous increase in vegetation growth between the 45th parallel north (the mid point between the North Pole and the equator) and the Arctic Ocean over the past 30 years.

Pinning down the cause of the increase has been difficult. A variety of factors related to climate change such as higher temperatures, extra rainfall, and an increase in atmospheric CO2, which helps plants use water more efficiently, could all be boosting vegetation. However, new research suggests that it is the increased levels of CO2 effect on photosynthesis that is responsible for making our planet increasingly lush.

The research suggests that the key factor in the greening of the planet is due to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide generated by human activity. Higher levels of CO2 stimulate photosynthesis and therefore cause a beneficial greening of the Earth’s surface. Scientists now claim green foliage cover across warm, arid environments has increased by up to 11% while there has been a 14% increase in CO2 over the past 28 years.

To home in on the effect of CO2, Randall Donohue of Australia’s national research institute, the CSIRO in Canberra, selected regions where there is ample warmth and sunlight, but only just enough rainfall for vegetation to grow, so any change in plant cover must be the result of a change in rainfall patterns or CO2 levels, or both. He monitored vegetation at the edges of deserts in Australia, southern Africa, the US Southwest, North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia.

If CO2 levels were constant, then the amount of vegetation per unit of rainfall ought to be constant, too. However, the team found that this figure rose by 11 per cent in these areas between 1982 and 2010, mirroring the rise in CO2 (Geophysical Research Letters, doi.org/mqx). Donohue says this lends “strong support” to the idea that CO2 fertilisation drove the greening.

Climate change studies have long predicted that many dry areas will get drier and that some deserts will expand. Donohue’s findings make this less certain. However, the greening effect may not apply to the world’s driest regions. Beth Newingham of the University of Idaho, states that “You cannot assume that all these deserts respond the same,” she says. “Enough water needs to be present for the plants to respond at all.”

The extra plant growth could have positive knock-on effects on climate, Donohue says, by increasing rainfall, affecting river flows and changing the likelihood of wildfires. It will also absorb more CO2 from the air, potentially damping down global warming but also limiting the CO2 fertilisation effect itself.

It remains unclear whether the “CO2 fertilisation effect” will be able to counter the negative consequences of global warming, such as the spread of deserts. Donohue cannot yet predict to what extent CO2 fertilisation will affect vegetation in the coming decades. But if it proves to be significant, the future may be much greener and more benevolent than many climate modellers predict.

Sources include : The New Scientist, CSIRO

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