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A High-Protein Solution to Global Warming and Agricultural Pollution

By Griffin Klement

Some 49 million years ago, large blooms of azolla, a tiny aquatic plant, covered a majority of the Antarctic Ocean. It is believed that these plants acted as a carbon sink, reducing global levels of carbon dioxide and putting an end to an out-of-control greenhouse effect. It was azolla’s incredible ability to absorb carbon dioxide that reversed the global warming trend and led paleontologists to dub this the “Azolla Event.”

Vía Orgánica, with the aid of its sister organization, the Organic Consumers Association, is starting experimental production of both Azolla (Helecho Mosquito in Spanish) and Duckweed (Lentejas de Agua in Spanish) at the Vía Orgánica Eco-Ranch. The goal is to better understand the benefits these plants can offer farmers looking to reduce animal feed and energy costs, while sequestering carbon dioxide and mitigating the damage caused by agricultural runoff.

One of the secrets to the success of these plants is their incredible growth rate. In fact, they are two of the fastest growing plants on the planet, capable of doubling in weight every 24 hours under ideal conditions.

In addition to their incredible productivity, they have an unmatched ability to transform nutrients accumulated in wastewater and agricultural runoff,into a high-protein, easily digestible animal feed. Scientists have determined that duckweed and azolla grown on wastewater can produce two to three times more starch per hectare than corn,while maintaining 30-35 percent protein on a dry weight basis, making it very appetizing to a range of livestock including, but not limited to, chickens, ducks, pigs, tilapia, and cows. These same characteristics  make azolla and duckweed such interesting alternatives to corn and soy-based fuels in the biofuel industry.

Although azolla and duckweed offer incredible benefits to small farmers as both a sustainable feed and energy source, it must be noted that due to the plants’ aggressive growth, they are considered a pest in many areas. If not kept in check, azolla and duckweed with sufficient nutrients can create a thick mat of vegetation, effectively cutting off oxygen and stifling the growth of other organisms, negatively impacting biodiversity. Therefore, care should be taken before introducing these plants to a body of water.

When grown strategically, however, the two species make an incredible team and provide countless benefits to both waterways and farmers alike. Duckweed works to absorb excess nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in agricultural runoff that can lead to biologically devastating algae blooms in both lakes and oceans. Azolla is able to fix nitrogen directly from the atmosphere with the help of blue-green algae called Anabaena azollae, making it an excellent “green” alternative to chemical fertilizers. These two unassuming plants, when harvested regularly, can rejuvenate biologically dead bodies of water and reduce the need to purchase expensive and unsustainable petroleum-based fertilizers.

Although both duckweed and azolla have been used to purify waste water and have been cultivated as a living fertilizer and high-protein animal feed in Asia for hundreds of years, their use in the Americas is a relatively new phenomena. Via Oganica looks forward to sharing the results of its research at the Vía Orgánica Ranch in the years to come.

Griffin Klement is North American Project Director for the OCA.


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