Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability – Space-grown lettuce could block bone loss on Mars

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Today is Tuesday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here.  

As NASA prepares to launch its first human missions to Mars sometime in the 2030s, the agency is wrestling with how to keep astronaut bones strong during a three-year journey through microgravity, according to the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Scientists from the University of California, Davis have devised a method that could help protect these trailblazers from the impacts of weightlessness — and all it takes is consuming a bowl of space-grown salad. 

The researchers, who presented their findings at an ACS meeting on Tuesday, reported that astronauts could stave off osteoporosis by growing genetically modified lettuce that generates a bone-stimulating hormone.   

While astronauts aboard the International Space Station engage in specific exercises to maintain bone mass, they are typically only on board for about six months, the scientists explained. A Mars mission, however, would involve 10 months of travel, a year of study on the Red Planet and then the return trip to Earth.  

The researchers have yet to taste the lettuce they’ve been working on, saying they  first intend to evaluate its safety in both animal models and human clinical trials. 

Today we’ll return to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the increased risk of rising global hunger associated with the conflict. Then we’ll mark World Water Day by exploring how several years of drought conditions have crippled the western U.S.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or feedback to selbein@thehill.com and sudasin@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.  


Concerns grow Ukraine war could exacerbate hunger

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — known as “the breadbasket of Europe” — as well as resulting sanctions and embargoes have led to a global spike in wheat prices that is unlikely to settle down anytime soon, The Associated Press reported.   

Normally, rising prices would cause farmers to plant more wheat, which would drive prices down. But that’s unlikely to happen here, particularly since much of the necessary fertilizer is also locked up behind sanctions.

The context: About a third of the global wheat and barley harvest comes from Russia and Ukraine, according to the AP.  

Much of that supply is now bottled up behind Black Sea blockades, stymied by Western sanctions, or in areas located in the middle of an active war zone. 

The war is also playing out at a time when farmers would usually be getting ready for spring planting. 

A growing food crisis: The war has driven up wheat prices by 21 percent and barley by 33 percent, while also cutting off a critical source of supplies to food relief charity World Food Program (WFP), The New York Times reported. 

“There is no precedent even close to this since World War II,” WFP executive director David Beasley told the Times. 

Global disruption: With a poor wheat harvest in China last year, soaring demand and limited supply are pricing poor people around the world out of wheat and other grain derivatives like cooking oil, the Times reported. 

“The United States thinks it has only sanctioned Russia and its banks,” Afghan grain importer Nooruddin Zaker Ahmadi told the newspaper. “But the United States has sanctioned the whole world.” 

Governments are scrambling: Egypt, which receives 80 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, has found itself in a particularly frustrating bind. 

The country heavily subsidizes grains in order to prevent the type of price-driven political unrest that helped spark the Arab Spring, according to Washington, D.C.-based Middle East news site Al-Monitor.  

With the cost of wheat now skyrocketing, the Egyptian government set price controls of $.60 per kilogram on bread on Tuesday, Al-Monitor reported. 



Farmers around the world are reluctant to counter high wheat prices spurred by the war with a new wave of planting due to three main factors: 

  1. Some don’t trust the price to hold: “I have never planted additional acres just to chase a price,” North Dakota farmer Tom Bernhardt told the AP.
  2. Some can’t offload what they have: The surge in wheat futures prices has generated panic among middlemen, many of whom have stopped buying up future supply until prices settle, Reuters reported.
  3. Fertilizer costs are up too: Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of fertilizer. While prices jumped 17 percent last year, they are expected to go up another 12 percent this year, according to Reuters.

“We’ve gotten into uncharted territory,” Texas farmer Matt Huie told the Times, noting that he decided to leave the fields where his cattle grazes unfertilized.   

With less grass to consume, the cows will be skinnier, and therefore less lucrative, when he sells them for slaughter, Huie added.  

The bottom line: “With cheaper fertilizers, it could have been possible to grow our way out of a global food security problem — possibly — but nutrients are anything but affordable or even accessible right now,” Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Canada, told the AP. 


Western US wrestles drought on World Water Day

Just in time for World Water Day, California regulators have warned farmers and cities across the state that they should prepare for mandatory water cutbacks 

The State Resources Control Board announced on Monday that it would be sending letters to about 20,000 water right holders warning they should expect to stop withdrawing water in the coming weeks, The Sacramento Bee reported.

As the state grapples with the third consecutive year of drought, the order is likely to come far earlier than it did last year, the Bee reported. Thousands of users were required to cut usage from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers in August 2021.  

Record drought: “We are experiencing historic dry conditions: February is usually California’s wettest month, but January and February 2022 were the driest we’ve seen in recorded history,” the letter to water rights holders reads, the Bee reported.

“Statewide, precipitation is less than half the yearly average, and dry conditions are forecast to continue through spring,” the letter adds.  

What are water rights again? Water rights date back to the mid-1800s, with western water rights enabling a downstream user to secure higher-priority consumption status than a user at the river’s headwaters.

Under a riparian system of water rights that dominates the rest of the country, all landowners bordering a waterway have equal access to that resource. 

Who is receiving letters in California? Many of the rights holders who will need to stop withdrawing water typically pull their supplies from waterways that feed into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Bee reported.  

California’s farms are already suffering: While the San Joaquin Valley was one of the most productive agricultural zones in the world a century ago, water in this Central California region “is disappearing,” according to The Washington Post. 



Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced $22.8 million to respond to “an immediate drought emergency,” following declarations earlier this year that the state would provide just 15 percent of scheduled water deliveries, the Post reported.   

On Monday, California’s Department of Water resources also announced a $180 million phase to provide more financial aid to 62 statewide projects involving water conservation, groundwater recharge, water quality and habitat restoration.  

How’s the rest of the West faring? Not well. Lake Powell, a key reservoir in the Colorado River Basin on the Utah-Arizona border, has lost 4 percent of its storage capacity since 1986, according to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The loss is largely due to a buildup of sediments that the Colorado and San Juan rivers have continually transported into the reservoir, the report stated. Monday’s storage capacity update follows previous such evaluations from 1986 and 1963, representing a 6.79 percent loss since the earliest survey.  

Provider of water, food and power: The Colorado River system provides water to approximately 40 million people, irrigates 5.5 million acres of agriculture and has the capacity to produce more than 4,200 megawatts of electricity from hydropower. 

“The Colorado River system faces multiple challenges, including the effects of a 22-year-long drought and the increased impacts of climate change,” Assistant Interior Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a statement


Tech Tuesday 

Bitcoin, batteries and a plant-based battle against microplastics. 

Bitcoin miners are trying to change view of their industry as environmental hazard 

  • A new West Texas Bitcoin-facility — which founders say will be “fueled mostly by wind and solar energy” — is part of a broader attempt by the crypto mining industry to challenge the narrative that crypto is environmentally destructive, The New York Times reported. 

Conservative stalwart Koch Industries is a big spender on batteries 

  • Oil giant Koch Industries — a longtime opponent of environmental regulation and funder of groups denying climate change — is now one of the biggest backers of the U.S. battery industry, The Wall Street Journal reported. “The speed of the energy transition is directly correlated with companies like Koch participating in it,” said Norwegian battery CEO Tom Jensen.

Using okra, aloe to remove microplastics from wastewater

  • Scientists from Tarleton State University in Texas are harnessing the gooey gifts of okra, fenugreek and aloe plant extracts to remove microplastics from wastewater — by using them as a non-toxic alternative to sticky chemicals used to attract the tiny plastics during the wastewater treatment process, the American Chemical Society reported.


Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Wednesday.

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