What I talk about when I talk about sequestering carbon, growing veggies in moon soil and the old but new magic of cream of tartar.
There’s a lot of chatter about how we might get to net-zero carbon emissions. On a recent episode of “This American Life,” a 7th grader from the Sierra Foothills who evacuated during the Camp Fire blaze in 2018, repeated a lesson from his science teacher: “The carbon in the atmosphere is going up and up, and we need to do something about it,” he chirped to the radio producer. (I’ll save the other bad guy, methane, for another time.)
The kid is so right. Where once it was only scientists and academics, now it’s concerned 7th graders. The solutions are coming at a clip, but will they scale, are they affordable, can they be widely adopted? Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book Under A White Sky covers climate doom and the hopeful groups trying to un-doom our future. I included a few high-tech startups in my book including Air Protein and Solar Foods that are using carbon capture to convert carbon in the atmosphere to usable ingredients that could potentially feed us, or feed fish or animals. One intrepid company is using carbon capture to create vodka.
Our planet is warming (see: fires and droughts). A quick primer from the EPA: “Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities. In 2020, CO2 accounted for about 79% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.” How can we undo our decades of damage? Animals grazing on land can sequester carbon in the land by moving around on the earth. Plants absorb carbon through photosynthesis and move it down to their roots as a part of their biological cycle. We need to work harder to capture carbon faster.
Those out there ideas, like vodka distilled from carbon captured from the air, still rely on using energy to collect the carbon, which means some CO2 that’s removed is merely put back into the atmosphere. And well, vodka will never be truly life-saving and pales in comparison to more impactful suggestions like this Maine startup growing kelp in the ocean and using it as a carbon sink, or (and this one is new to me) using ground up rock sprinkled on crop land as a form of carbon capture. Aka fairy dust.
The concept, called “rock weathering,” goes like this: soil is amended with crushed silicate rocks, such as basalt, which draws down the carbon (into the Earth) and also replenishes the health of soil.
But to get to fairy dust, first let’s talk rocks. CO2 capture in rocks is called “chemical weathering”—CO2 is dissolved in raindrops, forms carbonic acid that reacts with minerals in the rocks, causes them to break down and ‘weather’. The carbon, which has changed form, is locked into the sediment as bicarbonate, it’s stripped from the atmosphere, and can finally be used in soil and ocean applications.
But rocks take forever to break down.
So they’re ground up, and scattered on the land. Rock weathering, a decidely low-tech remedy, and how it might help the climate is discussed in this study. While it looked solely at application in the UK, the authors found that this type of farming shift could result in removing up to 45% of the atmospheric carbon by 2050.
Additional benefits of rock weathering include increased reduction of nitrous oxide, the third most important greenhouse gas, soil acidification reversal and lowered fertilizer usage. It’s a win-win-win.
However, like vodka there are pros and cons. Rocks need to be mined and applied to fields. We’ll need farmers to get on board and consumers will need to be okay with this fairy dust, which comes from mines. So much of what’s happening today—from plant-based to cultured protein to fermented fungi—will take huge shifts in our minds and our definition of tradition.
What’s unique about rock weathering is that it’s taking traditional farming and applying a layer of ingenuity and innovation. More of this please.
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Speaking of fairy dust, astronauts who traveled to the moon on the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions brought back a lunar surface material called regolith. After decades of waiting and wondering, scientists used it to grow Arabidopsis thaliana—a relative of mustard greens. The collaboration between NASA and the University of Florida was a success, or at least shows promise. While the seedlings planted in the regolith didn’t grow as well as the control group, which was planted with volcanic ash, the scientists are excited by the possiblity.
Did you know cream of tartar comes from wine crystals leftover in a wine barrel? Another upcycling superstar. Eventually, it was formulated into baking powder. It’s the OG of how we came to make cakes in a few hours instead of a day. This great primer on cream of tartar and why it needs to make a comeback is by Nadia Berenstein, a food historian who also appears in my book.
Meal-kit delivery service Blue Apron is doing…breakfast? How is it possible that they didn’t think of doing BRUNCH. Come on people!
Where you can find me:
I’ll be in Austin next week, and Chicago next weekend. All food reccos welcome.
Bubbling up this great epsiode of Food Tank with Dani Nierenberg. She’s a wonderful host.
Are you going to the NRA show next week? Please send me tips from it!
What I’m reading:
From my library, a book about the Iditarod. I don’t know how I found the book, or why I requested it from the library, but I couldn’t put it down. It’s that good. Please track it down: Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen, and then drop me a line to tell me you loved it, too.
On my Kindle, I'm reading Real Life by Brandon Taylor. It’s intense and at times uncomfortable. The narrator, Wallace, is a gay black man working towards his PhD in biology. The novel is driven by a rich inner dialogue from Wallace. It’s good.
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