The hidden beauty of the plants that feed the world
From the salad course to dessert, most of the foods on your plate can be traced back to carefully cultivated plants. Even the meat you eat likely comes from animals fed parts of crops, passing energy harvested from the sun up the global food chain.
But modern agriculture exacts a huge environmental cost. Crops such as corn and soy are often grown in large monoculture farms that are maintained with fertilizers and pesticides made using fossil fuels. Slash-and-burn practices can decimate carbon-capturing forests and pump excess carbon dioxide into the air. Heavily tilled soils destroy fungal networks that otherwise bind the dirt, wasting already drought-stressed water supplies and contributing to erosion. These are just a few of the ways that our food systems are tied to climate change. Recent estimates peg agriculture’s total share of greenhouse gas emissions at over 30 percent.
To help mitigate this problem, on September 23, the UN Food Systems Summit will highlight sustainable solutions for agriculture during the virtual event. The goal: “Everyone, everywhere must take action and work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes, and thinks about food.”
As part of a move toward more sustainable farming, an increasing number of food producers and investors are embracing advanced methods, as well as some used in the distant past, loosely described as regenerative agriculture. These practices—such as boosting plants’ genetic diversity and planting “cover crops” that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and add it to the soil—can help improve soil health and return more carbon to the earth.
As a teacher, photographer, and lifelong fan of nature writ small, I explore fascinating connections between the food plants we depend on and their climate threats or solutions. Using a scanning electron microscope to zoom in for the tiniest views, I seek awe and enchantment to help people better understand today’s ecological breakdown and perhaps encourage them to work to reverse it.
Spiked pollen covers a sunflower floret seen here at 700-times magnification. Researchers interested in exploring the virtues of the sunflower recently formed a worldwide team to examine the plant’s genetic library. They found that the sunflower genome is 20 percent larger than the human genome, with about twice the number of genes. This allows for a great diversity of genetic combinations, which have given rise to 70 species of sunflowers. Having a genome map is a key step in understanding how these remarkable plants thrive in stressful environments. Highly resistant to drought, increased heat, high salinity, and disease, sunflowers are second only to corn as a worldwide hybrid seed crop. Seed collectors are preserving wild varieties as a hedge against future climate stress. Farmers plant sunflowers as part of a mix of cover crops to improve soil, conserve water, and reduce pesticide use. At The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, scientists are attempting to breed perennial varieties that require less tillage, fertilizers, and pesticides.