All About Potato: From a Rocky Start to Everyone’s Heart

All About Potato: From a Rocky Start to Everyone’s Heart

Once again, the basket of french-fired potatoes was sent back to the kitchen, the customer arguing they were still too thick. With great frustration, he again began by slicing fresh potatoes, but this time as thin as he could before frying them and ordering them to be sent back to the waiting guest.

So goes the legend of George Crum, the chef who in 1853 invented perhaps the worlds most favourite snack – the chip/crisp. As a staple crop with 55 million metric tonnes produced in Europe alone, it may be difficult to imagine the scepticism first held by Europeans towards the potato. 

Native to South America, potatoes were first grown in the Peruvian-Bolivian Andes mountain range. The earliest cultivators of this crop are believed to have been the Incas about 1800 years ago. From its first cultivation, the potato became an everyday staple food for the tribe and was believed to hold other properties. Using the extreme cold temperatures possible in the Andes mountains, the Incas would freeze-dry their potatoes by leaving them out in the cold. Once frozen, they could be crushed into a powder called ‘chuñu’. Chuñu could be applied as a treatment for almost everything from stomach ulcers to a type of Andean wart and even syphilis. From South America, the potato made its way to Europe in the 1600 century via the Spanish invasion. Here this new crop met with great scepticism for several reasons.

The environmental conditions that the potatoes were used to in the Andes were much different from their new home in Europe. In the regions around the equator, the length of daylight is relatively consistent throughout the year, and the potato varieties the Spaniards brought were used to 12 hours of light per day. Southern European summery days offered the potatoes more light than that which student their growth. Instead, the plants preferred the light intensity in the autumn. The plants could not survive with their growing period too close to when early winter frost sets in. However, the cultivation of potatoes in northern Europe, more specifically Ireland, was more successful. The Irish autumn brought about much more favourable growing conditions for the new crop without the early onset of frost that would kill the plants. Sir Walter Raleigh was the explorer that first brought the potato to Ireland and is said to have gifted it to Queen Elizabeth I, ruler of Great Britain at the time. She, in turn, ordered a potato banquet where each meal should contain this new wonderful crop. Unfortunately, due to their inexperience with preparing potatoes, the royal kitchen included the leaves and stems in their dishes. These, however, contain a potent toxin called solanine, making them poisonous, causing symptoms such as vomiting and abdominal pain. With the dinner attendants becoming incredibly ill, Queen Elizabeth I banned the crop. 

At the beginning of the 1800 hundreds, it had been established that the tubers (which we refer to as potato) are perfectly safe to eat, and the Irish had taken a particular liking to them. Under British rule, much of the good and nutrient-rich land was owned by England. Left with poor soil and having to pay fees for renting their lands, growing potatoes improved their lives, at least for a while. Compared to other crops available to them, potatoes grow well in relatively poor soil and contain higher nutrition levels. They are a great source of Vitamin C and protein. However, the potatoes grown by the Irish were only propagated vegetatively (asexually). With only one strain of potato available, all potatoes grown were identical copies of each other. The potatoes’ lack of genetic variation became the underlying cause of the 15 year Irish Potato Famine between 1845 and 1860. The summer of 1845 turned out to be much cooler and wetter than what is usually the case, the perfect conditions for Potato Late Blight Fungus. Still considered among the most threatening pathogens of potato today, it has a devastating impact on yield. The exact combination of symptoms shown by infected plants vary, but leaves begin by showing small irregular green or grey spots on them. These spots quickly turn into lesions, now black in colour. From there, the fungus spread into the stem of the plant and down to the potato. Depending on the growth stage of the potato tuber, generally giving the skin a brown to purple colour. In young potatoes, the site of infection may appear to be dark brown to red. Due to a better understanding of plants, diseases and their prevention of famines like this can more easily be avoided. As mentioned in previous posts, time is of the essence when it comes to disease management and prevention, and the Irish famine is a great example of this. Once the virus had set in, it did not take much longer than 1-week before creating irreversible damage to the livelihood of the Irish. Similarly, for farmers that cultivate traditionally nutrient-deficient soil, proper fertilisation helps increase yield and the quality of the crops and their ability to withstand pathogens. Precision farming is the perfect aid for determining how much and what kind of fertilizer the plants require. Similarly, if a pathogen attack was to threaten the yields of a field, precision farming is able to detect it much earlier than the human eye. Thus, farmers knowing their plants and their needs are the cornerstone to preventing and mitigating the devastating impact of famines.

How are potatoes grown?

Potatoes can be grown from two different kinds of “seeds”. The most common method that usually first comes to mind is growing a new potato plant from ‘seed potatoes’. For example, this is the method used by the Irish back in 1800-hundreds and develops a new plant identical to the original one that produced the potato tuber used. Since these “old” potatoes are the foundation for the new plant and crops, the tubers health is essential. Seed potatoes should ideally weigh between 30-40 grams each, be disease-free and already have begun sprouting. Though they come at higher costs, commercially available seeds can increase a farmers yield between 30-50% compared to using their own seeds. Correct irrigation is important to be maintained even in potato plants, but specific periods have a more significant impact. For example, it has been found that drought early on in crop development does not have as big of an impact as in the middle, where it causes substantial yield loss. Potatoes can also be grown from traditional seeds. Potatoes are flowering plants with rich greenery growing above the ground where also the small green looking berries containing the seeds can be found.

At the time of plantation, the seed potatoes are placed between 5-10cm deep into the soil. It is common to see the rows of potato fields with hills stretching over where the seeds have been placed. In areas where drought is common, and rain is the primary source of irrigation, it is recommended to plant the crop on flat soil. This allows greater water retention, which in turn improves crop growth and yield. The so-called plant canopy (above-ground part of the plant) develops for about four weeks after plantation. During this period, farmers must take extra care to remove all weeds, which otherwise would steal the nutrition from the growing potato. A common method to help reduce the growth of weeds and discourage pests from making their way to the plant is ridging. Using a tractor with plough like attachments, the soil between the rows is carved and pushed towards the plants, loosening it. In addition to manually removing weeds or applying pesticides, farmers can use ridging on several occasions during the growing period. The earliest time is when the plants are between 15-20cm high. Later on, in the season, this method can also be used to cover the growing tubers. When potatoes are exposed to sunlight, they begin to turn green in colour. These spots have a bitter taste and also contain the toxin solanine. Potato plants can produce from a handful to over 20 potatoes each, weighing between 300g-1.5kg. The heaviest potato as recorded by Guinness World Records was a staggering 4.95 kg.

How are potatoes harvested?

Irrespective of the variety of potato grown, a good indicator of the tubers ripeness can be seen on the now wilted plant above the ground. When the plant has turned yellow, and the stem is easily removed, the farmers can begin harvesting. For easier harvesting, the wilted above-ground part of the potato plant should be removed ca 2 weeks prior. When it comes to harvesting equipment, farmers have 3 varieties to chose between. First, the spading fork, given by its name looks like a giant fork that can be used for manual harvesting. Here farmers dig into the soil and sieve out the potatoes from the soil. Second, farmers can also use a tractor with a plough attachment to dig the potatoes out of the ground. The third and most convenient alternative is using a potato harvester. This tractor lifts the potatoes and some of the soil out of the ground. The potato and soil are then transferred via a conveyor belt, where they  are separated from one another. The potatoes are then passed on to a truck or other container driving next to the harvester.

If the farmers know that the potatoes will be stored for an extended period before further processing or consumption, they can leave the potatoes in the soil for a while longer. This makes the potatoes grow thicker skin which acts as a protective barrier. This makes them less vulnerable to diseases while contained in storage but also limits water loss which otherwise causes them to shrink. The ideal storage conditions for potatoes are a room temperature between 6-8°C with 85-90% air moisture and complete darkness.

Sweet potatoes are not true potatoes.

And true potatoes are not root fruits. There are hundreds of varieties of potato differing in flavour, colour and shape. Their use cases are equally many, from making the perfect Italian Gnocci to comforting potato mash. Yet, the perhaps most loved potato is an impostor of the most delicious kind. True potatoes belong to the family called Nightshade, while sweet potato belongs to the family Morning Glory. Though they, at first glance, may appear to be very similar their functions are different. Potatoes/tubers are a kind of extra thick stem extended underground. They store much of the plant’s nutrition for safekeeping and be used in the next year’s growing season where a new plant can emerge. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand (though they also grow in soil) are modified roots, not stems. 

Though they were off to a difficult start, potatoes are a fantastic crop with use-cases across cultures and cuisines that makes the long journey from the New World to our hearts worth it.

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All About Cotton: A Small Step for Mankind, a Giant Leap for Cotton

All About Cotton: A Small Step for Mankind, a Giant Leap for Cotton

On 2 January 2019, after orbiting for several days, the Chinese lunar lander Chang’e-4 finally landed on the moon. More impressively, Chang’e-4 landed on the moon’s far side, which had never been achieved before. Onboard, the lander carried a variety of things, including seeds. Carefully contained in a tank the cotton seeds began to germinate. This was the first time that seeds were successfully germinated and grown into tiny sprouts in space. 

Cotton was first grown around 3000 BC in what is today the Indus valley of India. Other ancient civilisations in China and Egypt too grew cotton. During the Middle Ages, the Arabs themselves had imported the cotton crops from Spain and India. As skilled farmers and traders, they soon became great producers of cotton. Specifically, the city Mosul which lies in today’s Iraq was a centre point for cotton production. By 1100 CE, the Arabic trade brought both the crop and its name to Europe. The word ‘cotton’ comes from the Arabic ‘qutun’, which is still used today. However, it was not only the people in Asia and Europe who liked the softness and versatility of cotton. When the first Europeans arrived in South America, the Aztecs and Incas had already mastered cotton cultivation and processing, producing intricate and colourful textiles. Fasting forward to 1600, the first cotton plantations in North America were established and in 1793 the cotton industry was revolutionised through the invention of the Cotton Gin. The Cotton Gin was a machine that automated the process of separating the soft cotton fibres from the seeds. With more cotton available its use cases increased and diversified. Between 1878-1880 Thomas Edison and his team worked on the invention of the so-called incandescent light bulb. Light bulbs as such work by using electricity to heat up a thin filament within the glass bulb until it begins to glow. A strong contender for this filament was cotton. Edison and his team took a thin strand of cotton, carbonised it and used it within the bulb. When turned on, the filament began to glow in an orange tone for 15 hours straight before it burned out. Though we may no longer try to use cotton in our lightbulbs, we continue to find it everywhere from our clothes, furniture, sails on boats and even currencies such as the American dollar. 

Today cotton remains one of the most important agricultural resources. The world’s biggest producers are India, China and the United States. The production forecast estimates that the United States will produce 17.5 million bales of cotton. China and India are both expected to produce much more, 29.0 million bales each. The yield of cotton for China is expected to be record high with ca 1,943 kg/hectare. India and the United States are expected to produce 475 kg/hectare and 925 kg/hectare respectively. 

How is Cotton Grown?

The soft white material, which we refer to as cotton, are fibres grown in the bud around the seeds after the flower has withered. They are between 87- 90% made out of cellulose, the same material that makes up the cell walls in plants. Different kinds of cotton flowers produce fibres with varying qualities. Varieties such as Egyptian and Sea Island cotton are known for producing thin and shiny fibres ranging between 2.5-6.5 cm. Cotton made from these plants is considered more exclusive due to their relatively low yields and are more cumbersome to grow. The American Upland produces cotton of medium quality. For this category of plants, the fibres tend to be shorter, between 1.3-3.3 cm. Lower quality cotton is known to be rather coarse in texture and has even shorter fibres that range between 1.0-2.5 cm. Depending on the quality and length of the threads, cotton is used for different purposes. The highest quality tends to be found in products such as hosiers, whilst the lowest is more suitable to make blankets or even mixed with other fabrics. 

Cotton grows best in hot, sunny and subtropical climates. Compared to many of the other major crops grown, cotton is especially susceptible to changes in its environmental conditions. For example, if the temperature falls below 15 degrees celsius, the crops may not grow or develop. When cotton seeds have been planted, it takes between 4-6 days for them to germinate. If the weather conditions remain good, the first root starts to develop within 2-3 days. The root grows fast during the early growth stage and can increase as much as 1.27-5 cm per day. After 50 days of growth, the roots can reach 91cm long. Between 80-100 days after the cotton has been planted, the first flowers start to emerge. At first, the flowers are white but later change to red. After fertilisation, the flowers wither, fall off and are replaced by co-called bolls. Bolls tend to be triangular in shape and contain the developing seeds and cotton fibres. It takes between 55-80 days for the bolls to mature and grow in size. 

Besides requiring hot heat to grow, humidity also plays an essential role in plant development and the quality of the fibres. Cotton plants that grow in regions where the air humidity is high produce better quality cotton. Unfortunately, not all areas in which cotton is cultivated is naturally subtropical. In areas where dry heat is the standard, farmers need to take extra care to irrigate the crops sufficiently. However, even if irrigation is on par with the plant’s needs, it is not the only factor impacting yield. 

There are thousands of insects that find cotton equally appealing as us humans. Among these are a variety of worms, spiders, mites and the notorious Boll Weevil. With evil in its name, this tiny beetle was one of the most significant losses of crops for American farmers for almost 90 years. Introduced from Mexico 1890s, it had the capability of destroying 30-50% of crops. This pest has largely been overcome through targeted pesticide programmes and is no longer considered a great threat. Fungi, bacteria and viruses are also a major concern for cotton growers. One virus that cotton growers still have to monitor is a cotton leafroll virus that causes Cotton Blue Disease (CBD) and is especially devastating during the early growth stages of cotton. Infected areas can lose up to 80% of their yields. The disease causes the growth of infected plants to halt the growth and development of plants. It is characteristically noticed on the topmost leaves of the plant, which look to have small, thick leaves. The leaves themselves can look to have yellow veins, while the rest of the leaves have a blue hue. After some time, the leaves will begin to curl down towards themselves. Ultimately due to stunted development and poor growth, the quality and size of the yield are greatly reduced. Threats to yield and crop quality of any kind need to be monitored and acted upon, especially early-onset viruses like CBD. Early detection and monitoring are utmost necessary to avoid losing up to 80% of the yield but are not always easily done. Precision farming and monitoring through satellite data can help farmers do this easily and efficiently before too much damage is done. Healthy plants maintained by correct nutrition and irrigation are also more resistant to threats, and precision farming can help with that too.

How is Cotton Harvested?

Once mature, the bolls will burst, revealing the soft fibre; they need to be harvested as soon as possible. Cotton is unfortunately not known to mature all at once, with large variations possible in one field. This causes the risk of losing valuable yield. To help overcome this problem, farmers can spread so-called defoliant over the plants. Defoliant is a mixture that makes the crops shed their leaves and helps the maturation of crops occur more evenly across the field. Once ready for harvesting, a cotton harvester is easily used to get the job done, and farmers have two varieties to choose from. Stripper Harvesters rip all foliage of the plant, including leaves, ripe bolls and unripe bolls. Even pieces of the stem may be included in the mix. The harvested mixture is then filtered through and separated according to desire in a Cotton Gin. Stripper harvesters are a helpful go-to for frostbitten plants that have died. The Picker Harvester is more precise in its cotton-picking approach. Instead of completely stripping the plant, it carefully plucks the soft fibres directly from the boll. This precise harvesting is achieved by carefully lowering rotating spindles into the centre of the boll. The fibres then attach themselves to the spindles and twist around them. The threads are then removed from the spindles through a doffer that collects and places the fibre balls in a collector attached to the harvester. 

 

To the moon and back, the use of cotton is seemingly endless. As one of the major field crops producing cotton sustainably and reliably is important for both the environment and farmers economic stability. From detecting threats optimising out precision farming can help increase production for an increasing population. 

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Fertilizer Practices: What a Plant Needs and Why

Fertilizer Practices: What a Plant Needs and Why

Nutrition and weather are perhaps the two most essential influencers on plant growth and development. However, the weather conditions are close to impossible for farmers to control in their outdoor fields. Hence nutrition remains the most significant factor in farmers control to ensure that their crops can develop to their fullest potential. However, meeting the nutritional requirements of crops is not an easy task. How much of what nutrient is required depends on a plethora of factors that even vary throughout the growing season, such as:

  • Soil moisture
  • Temperature
  • Growth stage 
  • The crop grown the previous season (crop rotation) 
  • Nutrition already available in the soil (soil nitrogen supply)
  • The actual nitrogen demand of the crop

The success of plant nutrition is also dependent on the nutrients themselves. This can be best illustrated and explained through the Law of the Minimum. Justus von Liebig, an organic chemist in the 1800-hundreds, took a particular interest in plant and soil nutrition. He found that the development of plants and their yields are proportional to the lowest nutrient value. Example:

If a crop has the optimal nitrogen and phosphorous levels but lacks potassium, its development will still be stunted. Crop development is only as successful as the lowest nutrient allows it to be. That is why farmers need to take extra care and monitor all the required nutrients.

What is the most important plant nutrient? As mentioned in our introduction post, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are the three essential nutrients that plants cannot be without. So let’s take a look at each in more detail and what happens when plants don’t get enough.

Nitrogen

All living things on our planet need nitrogen to live, and as we have established, this includes plants. Nitrogen is a versatile nutrient and molecule found throughout the plant, for example, in proteins. There are many types of proteins that all carry out different functions in the plant cells they belong to. The role and impact of these proteins depend on their make-up. Proteins are large molecules that are made up of chains of amino acids. The amino acids, in turn, are made out of different atoms. One of these atoms that can bind to form the long amino chains that become proteins is nitrogen. If the order of amino acids in a chain is altered or an, e.g. nitrogen atom is missing altogether, the protein can no longer function and fulfil its purpose. This can lead to all functions that require the protein in question to shut down. However, nitrogen not only helps to make up protein but other important molecule structures. Let’s look at an example.

Photosynthesis is how plants make the energy that becomes their food and is essentially a continuous chemical reaction. When plants photosynthesise, they combine molecules from water and carbon dioxide through the help of sunlight to create the plant sugar glucose (and oxygen as a by-product). This process takes place in the plant leaves, more specifically in the tiny pigment molecules called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is what gives the plant its green appearance. Hence if a plant starts to look less green, e.g. contains brown patches on the leaves, we know that those areas lack chlorophyll. This means that the plant produces less food in that location, and if it loses too much chlorophyll, it cannot sustain itself for long before dying. One cause that leads to the decrease of chlorophyll and photosynthesis is nitrogen. More specifically, a lack of it. Like all other organisms, plants need to produce and replace their cells, including those in the leaves. This means that the plant has to create new chlorophyll molecules continuously, and this requires nitrogen. Each chlorophyll is made out of several small molecules, and in a ring around the centre of its structure are four nitrogen atoms. Without the nitrogen atoms, the plant cannot build the chlorophyll molecules. That is why farmers take extra care to fertilise with nitrogen during periods where they know rapid plant growth occurs. As a plant grows, it essentially adds more and more cells to its body, e.g. by adding leaves. So in order to build the internal structures of the leaves, it needs nitrogen. 

In other words, nitrogen to plants is like protein to humans. When we try to grow and build muscle, we need protein to do so.

Phosphorus

Phosphorus is another building block required for all life and is a fundamental component of cellular energy in all organisms. This cellular energy is stored in the format of the molecule called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). ATP in plants is the point created when plants photosynthesise, and it is impossible to be made without phosphorus. When ATP is produced, three phosphate molecules attach themselves to other molecules of the so-called adenosine structure. Alike with the chlorophyll molecules, plants can’t create ATP molecules without the three phosphate atoms. The plant can then hold on to the ATP until the cells need it to perform its function, e.g. when the plant absorbs water through its roots. However, ATP in its stored format is not directly useful on its own but has to be converted to create energy that the cells can use. When a plant needs more energy, one of the phosphate groups of the ATP molecule is separated from the other two. Due to the very strong so-called bond between the phosphate molecules, the separation of the atom releases a lot of energy. Hence phosphorus is detrimental for the plant to have enough energy to perform all the processes it needs.

However, phosphorus also has another structural importance in plants. Plant cells contain many different parts, from organelles, proteins and lipids. To function correctly, the cells need to restrict what substances move in and out of the cell. To help protect itself, the out layer of plant cells have a cell wall. The cell wall allows the plant to withstand physical damages, e.g. osmotic pressure from too high water intake.

Underneath the cell wall is the cell membrane, and it is the gatekeeper of what substances are allowed in and out of the cell (through the help of built-in protein channels and carriers). The cell membrane is made up of two layers of lipid molecules. Each lipid molecule contains one circular phospholipid head (which contains phosphorus) and a hydrophobic tail—as with any plant growth and cell formation, building a cell membrane is essential. However, without enough phosphate molecules available for the plant to absorb, it cannot successfully make new cells. 

To summarise, phosphorus is the foundation of cell formation and energy usage in plants. 

Potassium

Potassium is the third in the trinity of essential plant nutrients. Similarly for nitrogen and phosphorus, its use-cases are many, including transpiration. Transpiration is the loss or evaporation of water through small tiny openings in the plants. These tiny openings are called stomata and are essentially the lungs of the plant. When the stomata open, they allow the exchange of carbon dioxide (taken into the plant) and oxygen (transpired out of the plant). For example, when the sun shines onto the leaf of a plant, photosynthesis begins, and as mentioned above, this requires carbon dioxide. To take in the carbon dioxide, the plant has to open its stomata, which is controlled through water intake. To open the stomata, the cells (vacuoles in the cells) around the opening fill up with water and expand. As they expand and separate, the tiny opening becomes unblocked. When the transpiration should stop, the water exits the cells, which become small again. Transpiration in plants serves an important function, and the nutrient that allows it to occur is potassium. How? Osmosis!

Osmosis is the movement of molecules from one side of the membrane to another, for example, water into and out of a cell. When the values of the cells around the stomata are to fill with water, the first to enter are the potassium molecules, and after that, the water molecules follow. 

Implications

Each nutrition serves a critical function in the cell, which would not be possible without it. If we return to the Law of the Minimum, the interaction and implication of nutrition according to this law become reasonably clear. When a plant has sufficient nitrogen, it can undergo photosynthesis. However, if there is a lack of phosphorous or potassium, this would not be possible after all. The missing values of the other nutrients hold it back. Without the influx of carbon dioxide for which potassium is needed or the energy in the form of ATP thanks to phosphorous, it doesn’t matter how much nitrogen the plant has. However, if the plant has the correct nutrition levels, its well-being goes beyond fulfilling the utmost needed processes. For example, research shows that plants have been found to become more resilient to both biotic (e.g. pest and fungi) and abiotic stressors (weather and environment ). More specifically, it has been found that the correct levels of potassium help crops survive better in the case of drought through the relationship of potassium and water ions. 

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All About Rapeseed: Liquid Gold

All About Rapeseed: Liquid Gold

A piercing odour and delicate yellow flowers turn the landscape into a golden wonderland. Blooming rapeseed fields truly are a beautiful sight. 

The journey from its domestication to becoming one of the world most important oilseed crops started ca 2000 B.C.E in India. By ca 35 B.C.E, it had made its way to China and Japan. Not too late after that, in 13 C.E European farmers too started cultivating rapeseed and with great success. Compared to other oilseed crops, rapeseed can grow in rather cold temperatures making it a go-to crop for farmers living in the northern hemisphere. However, during the Middle Ages in Europe, the use of the crop was quite limited. Rapeseed, which was grown for its oil, was mainly used for cooking and improved upon light sources. Especially in the early middle ages, candles were generally made out of rendered animal fat. Though the candles served their purpose, they produced a dark smoke and foul smell since they were made out of fat. On the other hand, rapeseed oil produced a bright white light and could illuminate a larger area than tallow candles. However, the most significant benefit may have been that rapeseed oil does not produce dark smoke when burned and spares the consumer of rancid animal smells. Finally, In 17 C.E, the use of rapeseed and its oil expanded into the industrial sector, making it a highly sought after product to this day. 

Between 1698 and 1765, the Steam Engine was invented and improved upon independently by several engineers. As given by its name, a steam engine is dependent on steam to produce power through which a vehicle, e.g. an old locomotive, can move forward. This steam is created by boiling water which is stored in a so-called boiler compartment. Old locomotives, for example, burn coal underneath the boiler to vaporise the water. Once the steam has been created, it travels to the so-called piston engine. Piston engines convert chemical energy into mechanical energy. In the case of a locomotive, the engine moves the wheels by pressuring a driving rod that is connected to the wheels themselves. As the pressure in the motor enters and exits, the rod is moved backwards and forward, turning the wheels. But where does rapeseed some in? Water and oil are known not to mix well and but in the case of rapeseed oil, it had some valuable properties. A motor has many moving parts that need to remain lubricated to property function, precisely what rapeseed oil was used for. Compared to other alternatives at the time, rapeseed oil can coat and adhere to the metal surfaces of the engine parts much longer, even as they got washed by hot steam. A few years after the engine was invented, engineers began incorporating it into other machinery to improve everyday life, specifically within transportation. Locomotives, as exemplified above, were one such use case. Steam-driven boats also became popular both for the transport of goods and people. In 1903 the use of rapeseed oil was taken to a new level and quite literary so. 

The Wright brothers were the first to construct a functioning aeroplane successfully, and a steam engine powered it. As the use cases of rapeseed oil diversified and the general demand for the oil, e.g. for vehicles, increased, so did its cultivation. Today, the world’s biggest cultivator of rapeseed is Canada, with over 19 million metric tons produced between 2019 and 2020. The second-largest producer is China, metric tons who between the same years produced 13 million tonnes. What made Canada the largest cultivator of rapeseed? During World War 2, the production of aeroplanes but also naval ships increased heavily, and all of the motors required rapeseed oil. The leading producer and supplier of the oil were Canada, and they had to rapidly increase their cultivation which before the war was virtually non-existent. 

Cultivation and Harvest

Rapeseed is a member of the mustard family and has, through various breeding programmes, produced many different cultivars with the selected properties such as producing extra high levels of oil. 

The cultivation of rapeseed can begin in both autumn or springtime, with specialised seeds available for both. As mentioned earlier, one reason why rapeseed has gained wide popularity, especially in regions with a colder climate, is its ability to germinate and grow regardless. Rapeseed seeds can germinate in temperatures as low as 5 degrees celsius. Other reports documented crop growth continuing even at 0 degrees celsius. Soil conditions for rapeseed don’t need to be too specific, and the plants grow well even if they are very saline. For optimal growth, the soil should be well-drained and requires between 40-45 cm of water during the entire growing season. 

Once the seeds have been spread, it takes between 4-10 days for sprouting to occur. However, variation between fields and seasons can be expected. Factors such as the depth at which the seeds have been planted, temperature and moisture level all impact the growth speed. During the early stages of the seedlings and young plants, extra care has to be taken as they are more vulnerable to the attacks of diseases and other best such as the flea beetle that likes to snack on the young plants. Flea beetles can also become a problem and feast on the crops later on in the season and are especially destructive during dry and sunny weather. The Diamondback moth larvae is another self-invited dinner guest on rapeseed fields. This moth takes a particular liking to the flowers and pods during the early stages of their development. Another major threat to the harvest of rapeseed is white mould that affects the stem. Infestations generally occur right after flowering, and the weather has become cold and wet. As the petals of the flowers are no longer required, they fall to the ground but bring the spores of the white mould with them. On the way down, petals may brush against the steam and leave spores of the mould behind. An infected stem will have white lesions across it. The mould continues to grow both inside and outside the stem. Ultimately the plant starts withering. So how can farmers minimise crop damage? Canadian farmers, for example, prepare for potential fungus infections by preventatively applying fungicides in spring rapeseed. However, with many pests and diseases, a cautious eye has to be kept on the fields. Precision agriculture can be a big help. Whether farmers want to optimise the application of their outputs or just monitor the health of their plants, precision farming instantly sends all the information to farmers devices of choice. 

After several weeks of growing, a more extensive leaf area index and warmer weather, the buds and flowers of the crops begin to form. Earth rapeseed plant is adorned by many flowers, which each have four petals. After blooming, which lasts between 14-21 days, the flowers turn into a pod containing several tiny black seeds (much like a miniature version of peas). It takes between 35 to 45 days for the pods to fill. At this point, the plants have reached their maxim height with is bout 30 cm above the ground. When between 30-40% of the crops seeds have turned from green to black, and the stem is brown to red, the crop is ready for so-called swathing. Like many other crops, rapeseed needs to achieve a specific moisture level before being harvested. This is important to ensure that the crops can be handled and store without distorting, e.g. by rotting. Swathing is a way to speed up and even the drying crops to achieve the desired moisture level. Swathing is achieved by cutting the crop and dividing them into rows, and leaving them to dry. Once the harvest is completed, the rapeseed seeds can be processed and become many different products, such as frying oil in kitchens worldwide. Rapeseed is approximately 40% oil and has a high protein content of around 23% protein. Due to its high protein content, rapeseed is also widely used as animal feed. 

 

Frequent questions about rapeseed

Q: Are rapeseed and canola the same plant?

A: Yes! The term canola is mainly used in the United States.

 

Q: Is canola a vegetable oil?

A: Yes! Vegetable oils is an umbrella term that includes all plant-based oils. Since canola is a plant, it falls under that category. 

 

Q: Where does the word rapeseed come from?

A: The name rapeseed is derived from the Latin species name it belongs to Brassica rapa. Rapa means turnip.

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Fertilizer Practices: Natural vs Chemical Fertilizers

Fertilizer Practices: Natural vs Chemical Fertilizers

As we discussed in our introduction post, all fertilisation aims to provide plants with nutrients. We also walked through how farmers can apply fertiliser to their fields. You may recall that the application method depends on the kind of fertiliser used (granular, liquid and gas). However, fertilisers can additionally be divided into four different categories: natural, human-made, organic and inorganic. Understanding their differences is equally important to keep in mind when planning the annual fertilisation strategy. Let’s take a look at why. 

Natural Fertilizers

When discussing fertiliser, the correct terminology is key as different terms may describe similar characteristics. In this blog post, we will be defining plant -and/or animal-based fertilisers as ‘natural fertilisers’. Another term that is commonly used to describe fertilisers from a natural process is ‘organic’. However, the term ‘organic’ is also often used to describe that something is ecological, being free from additives such as pesticides. Though things that are ‘organic’ tend to be ‘natural’ inherently, the reverse is not always the case (as we discuss later on in the post). 

So what are natural fertilisers?

As mentioned above, natural fertilisers can be based on plant or animal products that contain the specific nutrients that the farmer or grower wishes to add to their crops. A key characteristic that sets natural fertilisers apart from synthetic fertilisers is the process by which they are made. As given by their name, natural fertilisers come about naturally. They are predominantly the result of an independent process. Manure is an excellent example of such as animals produce their droppings autonomously. Leaves collected in the autumn time or food compost are other examples. 

The process that defines natural fertilisers also impacts the levels of nutrients they contain. Virtually all nutrients that a plant needs can be derived from natural fertilisers, but a farmer may need greater quantities. Comparatively, natural fertilisers contain lower levels of nutrients than synthetic ones. Additionally, the levels of nutrients also have a greater variation in natural fertilisers than in synthetic. For example, the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in raw bone meal can vary between 2-6% and 15-27%, respectively. There are numerous causes for such a variation, including how and when the fertiliser has been applied, how old it was at the time of application, even its internal moisture level or exposure to the sun has an impact. 

A plant that is nourished with natural fertiliser also needs to wait longer until they reach its cells. This is because plants are not able to directly and independently absorb the nutrition in, e.g. manure. Instead, they rely on bacteria and fungi in the soil to break down the natural anatomy of the fertiliser into a chemical one. Only then can the plants freely take it up from the soil. Therefore natural fertilisers can also be referred to as ‘slow-release’ fertilisers. Depending on other organisms to chew your food takes time. Thus farmers that use natural fertilisers need to be aware of their impact on the timeline of the fertilisation strategy. The weather may also slow down nutrition release. Bacteria and fungi operate best in a warm and moist environment while cold weather slows them down. If a farmer fertilises too early or late, it may take even longer for the fertiliser to be broken down. However, this can be considered an advantage. With slow-release fertilisers, farmers can better avoid so-called nutrient leaching. This is because plants absorb and/or hold all the fertiliser spread. Another advantage of natural fertilisers is that they can improve soil structure by providing an environment for bacteria and fungi to grow, though this process may take a long time. Compared to synthetic fertilisers, the natural ones tend to be more expensive and contain high salts. Manure that has not gone through a composting process may contain too much salt, harming the crops. 

Synthetic Fertilizers

Synthetic plant nutrition, especially in a granular format, may be the first to mind when thinking about fertilisers. Similar to natural fertilisers, synthetic ones are readily available for private consumers and farmers alike. However, these kinds of fertilisers are not inherently created through a natural process. Instead, they are made through targeted human effort and according to specific criteria based on their final use case. Therefore, being able to develop and tailor nutrition based on particular requirements gives some key advantages. 

Alike the natural ones, any kind of nutrition can be manually synthesised but with greater precision. Synthetic fertilisers not only contain much higher levels of nutrients but also don’t degrade as quickly. Hence, farmers don’t need to worry whether their fertilisers actually contain the required % of nutrition and can buy lower quantities. Another advantage of such fertilisers is their absorption rate. Natural fertilisers depend on the metabolic process of bacteria and fungi to break down the nutrients into chemical components that the plants can absorb. Synthetic fertilisers have been designed to already be in this format and can also be referred to as ‘chemical fertilisers’. This means that as soon the fertiliser is spread, the nutrients it contains are readily available for the plants to consume. This fertilisation process can be a tremendous advantage for farmers who can precisely time when they need specific nutrients to be available in the soil. However, as synthetic fertilisers contain higher levels of nutrition, farmers need to be cautious not to over fertilise which would damage both the crops and the environment. How much fertiliser needs to be applied can be difficult to determine, but this becomes much easier using precision farming technologies. Through, e.g. soil health analysis and prescription files, farmers know exactly how much fertiliser each part of the field requires. Combining this with synthetic fertilisers makes this a precise and rapid process. 

Can synthesised fertilisers be natural?

Though natural and synthetic fertilisers are different from one another due to the process in which they are made, they can overlap. As we have established, the nutrients plants need are naturally occurring in the soil and as plants grow, absorbing these nutrients, their levels in the soil decrease. However, over time and with the proper environmental conditions, large deposits of these nutrients can form. These are generally referred to as ‘mineral deposits’ and even include our everyday table salt source. Many fertiliser producers use these naturally occurring mineral deposits as the origin for the components of their fertilisers. Once the minerals have been derived from the deposit, they are processed into the desired format and can even be mixed with other naturally occurring nutrients. To the plant, synthetic fertiliser in the soil is like table salt on our pasta, it may not be derived from manure, but the result is the same. 

Organic Fertilizers

Organic fertilisers are natural, but the origin and creation process has additional regulations. The regulations vary depending on whether the fertiliser is based on plant or animal products and the state or country in which they will be used. The general goal of these regulations is to keep the fertiliser as ecological as possible. For example: in Oregon in the United States, fertiliser based on plant products such as meals made from cottonseed may not contain any pesticides. This means that the farmer who produces cotton and intends to produce organic fertiliser from the seeds may not spray any pesticides over the cotton plants. Similar rules cover manure. If cattle farmers in Oregon want to use the manure by-product from their animals, it needs to remain raw. That means the manure cannot undergo a composition process, whether it is broken down. Hence, just because the fertiliser in question is natural doesn’t mean it is considered organic. 

Organomineral Fertilizers

Innovative solutions and optimising practices is a cornerstone of successful agricultural production. Yet, combining natural and synthetic fertilisers may come as a surprise. The so-called ‘organomineral fertilisers’ have the potential to bring farmers the best of both worlds. 

But why combine them in the first place?

Natural and synthetic fertilizers have many pros and cons. One reason why using natural fertilizers is preferred is its active contribution to the wellbeing of microbes in the soil. Synthetic fertilizers generally do not have such abilities. Yet, in some ways, they can be considered more reliable. As mentioned before synthetic fertilizers have a much lower variation in their nutritional levels. They are also cheaper and easier to apply. By combining aspects of both natural and synthetic fertilizers we have the potential to create even better fertilizers. Fertilizers which directly tend to the well-being of plants and soil. Organomineral fertilizers can contain any variation and combination of nutrition needed and are commonly available in a solid format such as pellets. The core of the pellet is made up of the natural aspect of this fertilizer. This core can also be referred to as ‘biosolid’ which is a naturally derived material from plant and/or animal products. The pellet is covered in an outer layer in the synthetic material of choice, for example, a urea and potash mixture. 

Determining the correct fertilisation strategy is enormous work. Not only do farmers have a plethora of kinds of fertilisers to choose from, but different crops also have different needs. These needs can, in turn, be affected by current weather conditions to what crop was grown on the field the previous year. Therefore, making it easier for farmers to fertilise and do so correctly is vital. Precision farming makes plant nutrition easier on the farmer and planet.

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All About Soybeans: From Your Tofu to the Statue of Liberty

All About Soybeans: From Your Tofu to the Statue of Liberty

In the 28th century BCE, the great emperor Shennong (ENG: Divine Farmer) was born. According to this Chinese mythology, Shennong paved the foundation for the agricultural society that China was to become. He shared many things with his people, including an extensive list of beneficial and poisonous herbs. Shennong also named five sacred crops which we remain dependent upon today. Among these, the soybean has a special mention and understandably so. Today no other bean in the world has a more significant economic impact than the soybean. 

Though their exact country of origin still carries some uncertainty, it is believed to have already been cultivated around 7000 BCE in today’s China. Similarly, Korea and Japan have a long history of growing this crop. However, after residing in Asia for thousands of years, it was destined overseas to America and arrived in 1804. By the 1950s, the United States became the largest grower of soybeans in the entire world, a title they carried until 2020 when Brazil overtook them. Though its consumption was not instantly widespread among the American population, its popularity increased as a coffee substitute during the American Civil War (1861- 1865). Among the soldiers, the soy substitute was commonly referred to as “coffee berries”. By World War 1 (1914-1918), other use cases for the crop were investigated. Here the goal was for it to replace rare commodities such as meat. However, soybeans were not only of interest to the food and agricultural sector. Henry Ford, the founder of Ford’s automotive company, envisioned a bright future for the little bean. In his vision of “from farm to Ford”, future car parts would be produced our of plastics made from soy. Unfortunately, this development was ended at the beginning of World War 2. During the Great Depression (1929-1933), soybeans were processed to oil which was used to enrich food. Soybean oil can still be found in a wide variety of products today. 

 

How are soybeans grown?

Soybeans are a part of the pea family and are an annual crop that can be over 2 meters long, depending on its variety. Its flowers are self-pollinating, and the beans it produces can have a large variety of colours from yellow to black and even multicoloured. Typically one soybean pod contains between one and four beans. Though it generally is not as picky compared to others crops, its ideal growing conditions are on the warmer side of the spectrum. Hence the majority of soybean cultivations in the United States are found in the south. The United States produced ca. 113.5 million metric tonnes of soybeans in 2020. Brazil and Argentina have a similar climate and are the other most prominent producers with 133 and 50 million metric tons. In addition to enjoying warmer weather, soybeans grow best in well-drained soil (so-called sandy loam) that is made up of a mixture of sand, clay and slit. Soybeans need a lot of nitrogen, yet in soils where these beans grow, finding nitrogen deficiencies is not as common as other crops. Smal bacteria live in the root nodules of the soybean plants and are brilliant nitrogen fixators. They help take nitrogen from the air and convert it so that the bean plant can use it. 

When the field has been prepared and time for seeding has come (May-June), the farmer will plant the seeds in ca 18 cm wide rows. Here farmers can use larger planters or tractors that can reach over several rows at once. Between four and seven days after the seeds have been planted, the first seedlings emerge from the soil. On their way to becoming large crops, farmers must watch out for many threats that may damage the fragile seedlings, including worms, insects and diseases. When the farmer has evaluated that the infestation threatens the plans wellbeing substantially, action must be taken. The process of evaluating damage or predicting its severity is complicated, and getting it wrong can lead to great economic losses. Using precision farming technologies, farmers can easily survey their fields and receive concrete evaluations of their plant health. Whether it relates to waterstress, pest infestations or a nutrient deficiency, precision technology help farmers detect problem areas on time. Whether the harvest is threatened should not be difficult to determine but done fast and accurately. 

In June-September (depending on the temperature and field location), the soybeans begin to flower. During this period, the fields look especially beautiful and are covered by hundreds of thousands of flowers. This is because the soybean plant produces many more flowers than what, in the end, grow pods. Around the end of September, the beans are ready for harvest. The number of matured pods determines this. How can the farmer tell? When the soybean pod has matured, it changes colour from golden to gray depending on the variety. When about 95% of the pods have such a colour, the leaves have fallen of the plants, and the moisture content of the pods is around 13%, it is time to prepare machinery. If there is a sudden shift in weather conditions that prevent the farmers from going to the field, the moisture levels may fall below 13%. Too little moisture in the plant leads to increased risk in crop losses, e.g. through shattering:

1. Pre-harvest shatter = When the pods open up and the bean contents fall onto the ground before the farmers have had the chance to harvest them. It is impossible to retrieve them from the ground.

2. Sickle-bar shatter = When the weakened pods open up during harvest. Before the harvester has the chance to gather the beans, they are scattered cross the field by merely touching the pods.

Additionally, low moisture levels decrease the weight of the beans. Farmers sell soybeans based on weight hence if conditions become too dry they loose valuable income. 

The easiest way to harvest soybeans is using a Combine Harvester, and as we learned in the previous posts, it makes the lives of farmers a whole lot easier. Upon harvest the soybeans can either be stored, or directly shipped to factories that process it further. What can a soybean be processed into? Anything imaginable, truly. 

Soybean Products

Soybeans are one of the best sources of protein at a much lower price. About 77% of all soybeans end up as animal feed, and the remaining majority is made into oil and fuel. A mere 7% is used directly in human consumption.

Roughly 17% of the bean is made up of oil. 63% is made up of so-called meal and 50% of it is made out of protein. The beans also don’t contain any starch making them a perfect component of meals for diabetic people. It is even possible to bake bread using ground soybeans. The three most common soy products that come to mind are usually soymilk, soy sauce and tofu. Other favourites include edamame (young soybeans – boiled for safety), tempeh and miso. Soybean oil is commonly used in producing vegetarian cheeses and even margarine. However its use cases go beyond the world of food. Its oil can also be used in paints, fertiliser and clothes. Henry Ford used to wear a suit out of soybean fibres. It is even possible to produce fire-extinguishers that contain soybean. In the United States, one of the most famous landmarks takes soybeans to a whole different level, literally. The elevators of the Statue of Liberty are lubricated using soybean oil! 

The soybean truly is a crop that can do it all. Soy while you may not like the taste of tempeh, chances are your favourite product still contains a bit of soy. 

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Fertilizer Practices: What Kind of Fertilizers are There?

Fertilizer Practices: What Kind of Fertilizers are There?

What are fertilisers?

Fertilizers are the plants’ food and are usually derived from the soil they grow in. Hence, the overarching goal of fertilizers is to restore or add the required nutrients needed for plants to continue their development. As the plants grow and nutrients are absorbed from the soil, their levels in the ground need to be monitored and restored to avoid depletion. Nutrients can be made out of organic or artificial materials and contain one or several different kinds, depending on their use case. Fertilizers and the corresponding nutrients they provide the plant with are fundamental for maintaining and enabling its physiological properties. 

Besides their nutrient component, fertilizers can come in liquid, granular or even gaseous form. Each has its perks and specific use cases. Manure is an example of liquid fertilizer. After it has been collected from livestock, it is spread into the field via a specialised liquid fertilizer distribution machine or an irrigation system using sprinklers. In the case of manure, it can also be applied when in a more solid format. Using a solid-manure spreader, it is distributed on the field by shredding it. Compared to other fertilizers and application methods, solid manure is limiting as it rarely can be done during the growing season. 

Granular or pellet fertilizers vary in size and can be applied more freely at any time during the growing season. This is especially helpful when a farmer chooses to fertilize in combination with seeding and can do so without damaging the seeds. Furthermore, using granular fertilizer brings about additional flexibility. With different equipment available and based on the crop’s needs, farmers can choose to spread over the crops but in specific rows next to it, e.g. for potatoes. 

Anhydrous ammonia, a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen, is an example of both a liquid and gaseous fertilizer. When pressurised, it is a liquid and also stored as such. However, when the pressure is released and under atmospheric pressure, it turns into a gas. Therefore, anhydrous ammonia is applied to the field in a gas form by injecting into the soil 13-15 cm deep using a pipe. 

 

What are the most critical nutrients?

1. Nitrogen

Nitrogen is of the three essential nutrients and required for the crops metabolic functions. It plays a vital role in almost all processes in the plant, from building protein to facilitating chlorophyll. How? Nitrogen helps the plant to build important structures such as nucleic acids and proteins. The quality and amount of protein found in the crop is a key metric farmers need to measure. Depending on the crops end use (e.g. human consumption, processed for alcohol) certain standars need to be met. Farmers get paid more for better quality crops.

2. Phosphorus

Phosphorous is the second of the three most critical nutrients. Therefore, maintaining the correct phosphorous levels is a primary concern of farmers at the beginning of the growing season as it promotes root development. Later in the growing season Throughout the plants life phosphorous is key in allowing the plant to store energy and its transfer across cell membranes. Phosphorous also helps to maintain the plants membrane structure. 

3. Potassium

Potassium is the final of the essential nutrients. It, too, serves many functions especially in successful enzyme activation. It also plays an important role in photosynthesis for example through transpiration. Potassium also allows plants to store water during warm weather conditions such as drought. With the correct amounts of potassium, plants also become increasingly resilient to pests.  among which are water retention and increased resilience to pests.

4. Boron

Boron enables the vital function of cell wall synthesis which allows plan cells to expand. Without the correct levels of boron plant growth is stunned. Root development and pollen production are also reduced. Such a deficiency is also visible on the leaves which become deformed. Ultimately a lack of boron leads to a lower quality harvest.

5. Sulfur

Sulfur too helps plants effectively fight diseases. It also aids in the process of photosynthesis by helping to produce the amino acids chlorophyll production. 

6. Calcium

Calcium helps to maintain the plant’s membranes and survive environmental extremes such as drought. 

7. Magnesium

Magnesium enables plants to continue their growth and development even in high temperatures, which otherwise would have slowed it down.

 

What about other micronutrients?

Plants contain many other elements such as sodium, iodine and silicon. These have, however, not been found to contribute essentially or significantly to the plant’s health. 

 

Human Nutrition

Proper human nutrition is not only dependent on yield alone. Healthy and well-developed crops are needed. Hence, maintaining the correct levels of nutrients in the soil, which gets absorbed by the plants, directly impacts us. By keeping healthy crops through fertilization, we get our daily calories, vitamins, proteins, fibre and minerals. Though we have become increasingly better at producing more better quality crops through fertilization, we need to become better at scaling. The worlds agricultural outputs need to grow by 60% to meet the demands of the global population in 2050. In our fight for a greener future and freedom from hunger, fertilizers are the key. Sustainably applying fertilizers allows us to grow more food at a better quality for an increasing population without requiring more land.

In our upcoming blog series Fertilizer Practices, we will deep-dive into the world of fertilizers and how they enable the lives of over 3 billion people today. 

 

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All About Maize: A Divine Crop and Alternative to Petroleum

All About Maize: A Divine Crop and Alternative to Petroleum

Corn or more frequently referred to as Maize, is the third most important cereal crop behind rice and wheat. However, for what it lacks in agricultural production compared to the other cereals today, it makes up for in cultural importance. Alike wheat and rice, maize started out as a crucial staple food for the early farmers that began to cultivate and make use of this wild grass. For the ancient Mayas and Aztecs, however, the importance of maize goes beyond its nourishment.

Humans began cultivating maize around 10 000 years ago in today’s Mexico, and since then it has been introduced to farms across the world. From the northernmost points of the globe (Canada and Russia) back to the South American continent it originated from, consumers have a plethora of maize kinds to choose from. Dent corn, flint corn, sweet corn and heirloom corn are some of the most common examples.

The ancient Mayas were an impressive people that we today remember for their innovative minds, stone temples and curious artefacts they left behind such as their famous calendar. Their empire ruled a vast geographical area stretching from the Yucatan Peninsula, today’s Guatemala, Belize and regions in Mexico. Their empire lasted for a whopping 2700 years and wherever they went, they brought along their faith and maize. According to the Mayan Origin Story, (their explanation of how life on earth came to be) corn is the most important component. According to their ancient faith, the gods called Grandfather Xpiyacoc and Grandmother Xmucane created humans out of maize. Similarly, the ancient Aztecs too believed that humans came from a maize mixture that their gods shaped and moulded. Though we today may no longer consider maize a godly crop it is still appreciated, largely due to its versatility. 

Yellow, white, red, blue, pink and striped

Today there are many different kinds of maize and used in all areas of life such as animal feed, raw material, biofuel and human food. What future purpose the cultivated maize is going to fulfil depends on its makeup, especially texture. As given by its name, Dent Corn can be recognized by a little imprint or dent on top of each kernel caused by an uneven drying of its starch components. Flour Corn on the other hand contains high levels of soft starch giving it a mealy texture. In contrast, Flint Corn has very low levels of soft starch, creating very hard kernels. Popcorn is an example of very hard Flint Corn with small hard kernels. Sweet Corn, which the most common variety eaten by humans contains high levels of sugar. This is due to that its sugar is not converted into starch. Compared to other cereals, maize contains rather low nutritional and protein levels. Hence it is not suitable to use for baking leavened goods. However, due to its texture and even sweetness, it can still be used to make delicious treats. In traditional Latin American cuisine Masa, a maize dough made from Dent Corn is used to make e.g. tortillas and tamales. In the United States, maize is also used in a variety of dishes. Whole cobs can be roasted, eaten as corn on the cob, turned into flour to make bread, pudding, and other confections.

Maize can also be used to make biofuel which is based on ethanol. The ethanol can then be mixed with gasoline to produce gasohol, which can be used as fuel for cars. Though it was initially believed that using maize to make fuel is more environmentally friendly than petroleum, for example, this is still heavily debated. The resources and land area required to produce maize could be used as food may not be the most efficient way to fuel. Today the biggest producers of maize are the United States (346.0 million metric tons/year), China (260.8 million metric tons/year) and Brazil (102 million metric tons/year). 

What are the optimal conditions for corn to grow?

Though maize crops have been modified to better adapt to different weather conditions, this crop generally does not do well in cold weather. For optimal seed germination, the soil temperature should be at least 10 degrees celsius. As with the other cereals, maize needs a fair share of water to grow. However, young maize plants are sensitive to high water levels. In waterlogged fields, they generally only survive between 48 hours to four days. This kind of water stress in maize causes restrictions on the plant’s oxygen uptake. Wet and cold weather conditions also bring about other issues. Such conditions are the ideal environment for Northern Corn Leaf Blight (NCLB). NCLB is a kind of fungal infections maize plants can suffer from and are at first usually noticed on lower leaves. At first, the site of infection have a green-grey colour and is between 3-15 cm long. Over time the lesions turn to a brown colour that also indicates the area of the plant has died. Though this fungus can impact the plant’s wellbeing and harvest outcomes, the actual maize cobs are unaffected. 

Once the little maize sprouts have emerged, the growing season is underway. Generally, maize requires between 60 to 100 days to mature and be ready for harvest. The length of the increasing period heavily depends on the weather. As mentioned, maize does not do well in cold conditions. Hence unexpected frost may extend the growing period or even kill the plants altogether. When the crops are fully grown and their moisture levels between 23-25%, the cobs are ready to be harvested. In the past, like all other crops, maize was harvested manually and later developed to include the use of animals such as horses for a horse-drawn sled cutter. The stalks of the maize were cut using the sled. However, the binding of the stalks for drying, picking the cobs and husking them still remained a completely human dependent process. The first mechanical machines were invented in the 1850s. Though maize can still be harvested manually if other equipment is unavailable, a specialised corn harvester is generally used. Among the newly invented machinery was the mechanical picker. This machine, whose much improved open versions are still around today, allows the farmer to directly and automatically pick the maize cobs from the stalks. 

Maize and remote sensing

Like other crops, maize needs to be protected from various diseases that affect its development and yield. As mentioned above, one common illness that farmers need to watch out for is Northern Corn Leaf Blight. Another fungal disease that farmers battle is the so-called Corn Smut. However, in Mexico, this infection is not always considered harmful. Here the infected but not yet fully developed galls of the maize are considered a delicacy and can be enjoyed as a taco filling. Unlike the Northern Corn Leaf Blight, Corn Smut also attacks the actual maize cobs. Corn Smut prefers warmer climates and causes significant economic losses for the farmers. Early signs of this fungal infection are white coloured galls. This later burst and release fungal spores that infect other plants. The spores can even overwinter in the soil and attack plants in the spring. Unfortunately, there are no chemical means to kill or control Corn Smut. Early detection and removing infected plants is the only way of keeping the fungus in check. However, detecting infected cobs in fast fields and doing so before the galls rupture and further the fungus’ spread is rather challenging. Using remote sensing, even maize farmers can receive a lot of help, for instance with detecting pests and infections before they have the chance to make considerable damages to the crop and yield. Early detection of infestations, even before they are visible to the human eye, are essential especially for infections that cannot be managed using chemical assistance. Monitoring maize health is not the only assistance farmers can get from remote sensing. Remote sensing can even help farmers to optimise their sowing strategies by suggesting the best sowing dates. 

Once considered a gift from the gods and the matter of which humans were created, maize in all its shapes and flavours remains an important part of many cultures cousins. With several million tonnes of corn produced and consumed each year, we may after all still be a few % maize. 

 

Popcorn Facts

1. Why do kernels pop?

As the kernels are heated, the water inside them expands and breaks through the hard surface and exposing the soft starchy inside. 

 

2. Why do some kernels not pop?

Their water content is too low. 

 

3. How long have humans consumed popcorn?

With the earliest evidence found in Peru, humans have enjoyed popcorn since ca 4000 BC. The kernels were tossed in hot sand until they popped. 

 

4. What country eats the most popcorn?

The United States.

 

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All About Barley: An Underdog to be Reckoned With

All About Barley: An Underdog to be Reckoned With

Beer, Bread, Soup and a Unit of Measurement

Alike wheat and rice, barley started out as a grass that has nourished humans for over 7000 years. Some of the earliest findings to the cultivation of this barley grass take us back to ancient Egyptian farmers who mastered this crop turning it into both bread and beer (a complete meal one may argue). The ancient Egyptians were, however, not the only people that took a liking to this nutty flavoured crop. Barley played an important role in cultures across the globe as an iconic ingredient in traditional Hebrew, Greek and Roman food. Even in northern Europe, the dependence on barley cannot go unnoticed. 

What do you get when you line up three grains of barley? 

This may sound like the beginning of a bad joke to our modern ears but in the 14th century England this was serious business. Alike many of the historic units of measurement, they were based on actual things and barely was a prime candidate. In 1324 King Edward II of England set a new standard for the length of one inch, which is the exact distance that 3 grains of barley span when lined up lengthwise. If this seems like an uncertain measurement that is all but an exact unit, you are not alone. The English businessmen at the time were of a similar opinion and demanded the king be more clear. This lead to the king issuing an official decree that defines the exact units which are used in England to this day. The decree stated that 3 corns of barley make one inch, twelve inches make one foot and 3 feet make up one yard. 

Properties

There are two main varieties of barley which are distinguished by the number of rows the plant has. The six-row barley has six grains per row and contains more protein which makes it especially suitable for producing animal feed. According to estimations by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) ca 70% of barley produced ends its journey as animal feed. The two-row barley only contains three grains per row and contains higher levels of sugar making it ideal for malt production used in alcoholic beverages. Malting barley gives beer, whiskey and even barley wine. When barley is used in baking such as making bread, a smaller less poofed loaf can generally be expected. Compared to wheat barley contains less gluten making it more compact and tough. Barley also has many other use cases. During the first and second world war, roasted barley was used as a substitute for coffee. Roasted barley coffee is still a popular caffeine-free alternative to traditional coffee beans today. 

Cultivation and Harvest

Much like other grains, barley is an annual crop. However, unlike the other cereals, it is especially hardy. Barley is incredibly adaptable to its environment and temperatures. For example, though the ideal temperature for barley germination ranges between 12°–25°C, any range between 4°–37°C is good enough for the crop. Barleys growing period is equally impressive. Though it ideally needs 90 days, it is able to both grow and ripen in much less time than any other cereal. During its growth, the crop also shows exceptional resistance to heat. Farmers in regions around North Africa tend to battle with near-desert conditions. However, when sowing barley in the autumn time even these conditions are no match for barley. As soon as it has ripened and the crops moisture content is below 12% it is ready for harvesting. The cultivation process of barley including sowing and harvesting is the same as that of other cereal crops. 

Disease Management 

Barley may be as close to a super crop as cereals may come, but even it has its weaknesses. A portion of the diseases that barley plants are prone to develop are shared with wheat such as brown rust, yellow rust and mildew. Ramularia is a fungal infection unique to barley and is mainly caused by infected seeds. Symptoms of this disease are characterised by small brown spots across the leave that cause it to die. What can be done about it?

With precision farming tools barley growers can receive much of the same help as wheat farmers get. Using various vegetational indices to measure the crops wellbeing and early detecting threats such as pests and diseases makes a significant difference. Similarly, correctly addressing the varying need for nutrition in a barley field too is crucial. Barley may be the most resilient cereal, but all plants need water. Using remote sensing to optimize the irrigation of barley is especially important for farmers in hotter climates. 

Barley is an impressive crop that can withstand almost anything for being a cereal. With optimized nutrition, irrigation and pest management it truly has the potential to become one of the most important crops.

 

Quiz Answers

Across:

1. B-vitamin

3. Coffee

Down:

2. Egypt

4. Animal feed



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All About Rice: Delicious, Versatile and World Heritage

All About Rice: Delicious, Versatile and World Heritage

Delicious, versatile and world heritage

Did you know the rice plantations called the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras has been crowned a UNESCO World Heritage?

The earliest archaeological discoveries around the cultivation of rice date back to 7000–5000 BCE in China. Like other major crops today, such as wheat, rice started as a simple wild grass favoured by early farmers. Through the millennia and selective breeding, we have more than 40,000 different types of rice to choose between.

Today ca. 496 million metric tons of rice are produced each year globally. Though rice paddies can be found in most corners of the world, including Europe, most rice (90%) is still grown in Asia. China is in the lead among all rice-producing countries, producing ca 209 million metric tons in 2019, ca 41% of the global production. In Africa, rice is the fastest-growing source of food. This global rice production is essential. Ca. 50% of the world’s population is dependent on rice for their daily food leading to 95% of all rice produced being consumed by humans.

Cultivation 

Though their use cases and flavour profiles vary, each of the thousands of rice kinds can be divided into two categories: the Japonica and Indica varieties. Japonica rice grains are much shorter, rounder and stickier. These are ideal for foods where such textures are preferable and important to the dish, such as sushi. The Indica varieties are long-grain rice, and an example of this is the Basmati rice. 

All rice (except for upland rice) is grown using water, lots of it. Two examples of common locations suitable for rice plantations are tidal deltas and rivers. From seed to a delicious side to a homemade curry, its lifecycle starts in a rice bed. Here the little seedlings are left to grow for 25 to 50 days. After that, they are moved to large rice paddies where the water is between 5 to 10 cm deep. Early farmers transplanted the tiny plants manually, which remains a viable option for farmers today that don’t have access to modern machinery. For farmers who do, the so-called Rice Transplanter is a helpful hand. The rice transplanter can plant multiple rows simultaneously by taking the seedling and pushing them into the soft waterlogged ground. For the remainder of the growing season, the plants are partially submerged under the water. Keeping the correct water levels is critical, and farmers often manually adjust this irrigation system using dams. Another factor of a successful rice harvest is sunshine, long continuous periods of it. Though sun and water may seem like basic requirements for any crop to grow, it has a much more considerable impact on yields. Rice yields are known to have a substantial variation from 700 to 4,000 kg/hectare.

Harvest

For the growth of the rice plants, water is essential, but during harvest, it is detrimental. Before the harvest can occur, the rice fields must be completely drained of all water that the farmer took such care to keep at exact levels. If the farmer wants to use a harvester or a thresher, the grains cannot contain more than 14% moisture to prevent them from degrading when stored. After the grains have been harvested from the field, further processing steps have to be taken. Each grain of rice has a husk that needs to be removed. Removing the husk is commonly done using a mortar and pestle manually or in a more automated fashion. Under the husk is the so-called bran layer. This layer is darker in colour. Rice that still has this layer when sold is commonly referred to as brown rice. The bran is made up of ca. 8% protein and contains other trace elements such as iron and calcium. When the bran has been removed, we are left with the white rice most of us are familiar with. However, the stems, husks, and bran left after the rice has been processed are not wasted. These stems, for example, can become animal feed, and the bran can be used to create an oil that can be used in anything from cosmetics to frying food.

Disease Management

Like other crops, rice is vulnerable to disease. Bacterial Leaf Blight and Brown Leaf Spot are two examples of these. Bacterial Leaf Bight as given by its name, is a bacterial infection that is believed to prefer conditions of heavy rainfall and wind. This disease has been found to have an enormous impact on yield loss, especially in Asian countries. Brown Leaf Spot is a fungal disease spread from one seed to another and can affect the rice plant as early as its seedling stage. It has been found that damage from Brown Leaf Spot is especially prevalent in nutrient-deficient soil and can be an indicator of soil fertility. 

How can rice cultivations be easier to manage? 

Precision farming can offer practical solutions that give rice farmers greater economic profitability. Seeding and applying fertilizer more precisely has an impact on the quality and size of the yield but are not the only advantages that precision farming has to offer. Correct irrigation is a cornerstone of yield success. To save water waste during irrigation and prevent excessive nutrition loss from too high irrigation levels, fields must be properly levelled. This entails moving soil from one area of the field to another until it is even. Besides optimising irrigation, precision farming can also accurately measure soil fertility. This not only benefits yield outcomes by ensuring the plant’s growth but, as mentioned earlier, has direct ties with the spread of diseases such as Brown Leaf Spot.

From an everyday meal to a prized cultural heritage, rice is a versatile crop that nourishes and sustains billions of people across the globe. 

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