Will Your Next Competition Be In The Laboratory?

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“You shouldn’t see that as a competition if you are a meat producer, you should just recognize that it’s there.”

The good news? Scientists have developed technology that can help regrow skin on burn victims. The bad news – at least if you’re a hog producer – is that a similar process can be used to grow artificial pork.

That was one of the potential new technologies outlined by Axel Meisen, foresight chairman with Technology Futures of Alberta Innovates (formerly Alberta Research Council) during the annual meeting of the Wild Rose Agricultural Producers Association. He referred to research by Dutch scientists, who have taken cells from a pig and used it to grow a pork roast inside a broth of nutrients. Apparently the roast did not have a good flavour or texture, but was recognizable as pork. “The ability to grow tissue, muscle and other elements that make up an animal in vitro is a very rapidly developing element of science and technology,” Meisen said.

“Artificial organs and artificial meat will come into the forefront in the years to come. You shouldn’t see that as a competition if you are a meat producer, you should just recognize that it’s there. In fact, the cells from the animals that you raise may be a lot more valuable than if the animal is sold for meat,” he said.

Scientists have also been working to develop artificial photosynthesis, which will reduce the volume of water needed to grow plants.

“It takes 1,500 litres of water to grow one kilogram of wheat,” said Meisen. Artificial photosynthesis requires some elements of the plant, carbon dioxide and water as well as sunlight or electrical energy. One litre of water is needed to grow one kilogram of wheat using artificial photosynthesis. However, initial research in this field has produced a bland starch which is inferior to a kernel of wheat.

STABILIZING SOIL CARBON

Meisen also described “biochar,” a concept which would increase soil fertility and build carbon content. Biochar is a carboneous material created by pyrolysis, or heating biomass such as straw in the absence of oxygen. It breaks down and creates a carbon-like material, similar to charcoal made from wood. “You can make biochar not just from wood but also from agricultural biomass,” said Meisen.

He said farmers in the Amazon basin thousands of years ago deliberately burnt biomass in order to improve the quality of the soil for agricultural production. Biochar adds to the productivity of the soil and helps improve its soil stability. The material is porous and supports bacteria in the soil which gives the soil better nutrient values, retains fertilizer and helps them from being washed out.

Meisen said the material might also be of interest to Albertans as it might help regulate solonetzic (known as gumbo) soils, provide passages into deeper regions of the soil and make it more productive.

Very little work has been done on this process or on the impact that biochar can have in Alberta conditions, Meisen said. Most of the research has been conducted in the U.S. or Australia. Since biochar is produced from carbon in the plants, which the plants have taken from the atmosphere, biochar is a good way of storing fossil carbon.

“Think about biochar not only for soil enhancement but also for carbon storage. If you make the assumption that you can apply about five tonnes of biochar per hectare, there’s about 50 million hectares of arable land in Canada, you can potentially put 250 million tonnes of biochar into the soil,” said Meisen.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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