Tuesday, 8 July 2014

What is Guar gum? And why do oil companies want this plant product?

Guar Seeds (courtesy of wikimedia commons)
I’m sure you have all heard of fracking. Fracking is short for hydrolic fracturing and it is a process used in the oil industry to crack shale rock to get at the liquid gold found inside. In short, oil riggers drill a well in rock and then they shoot pressurized water into these holes to break down deep rock formations; as rocks break down natural gas and petroleum start filling the well. What you might not know about fracking is this process involves the use of many different chemicals and synthetic products. One synthetic product used is a gelling agent. A gelling agent is like a glue that is added to the cracks in the recently opened rocks so the rocks stay open. The gelling agent is extremely important because this allows the riggers to keep the rocks open while they extract oil. Gelling agents can be expensive and can be environmentally unfriendly. So are there any alternatives to chemical gelling agents? Sure there are, and oil companies have found one important one: a plant product called Guar Gum.

Photo taken by: Bubba Lamolinare, Guar emerging near Williston ND
Guar Gum comes from the Guar plant (Cyamopsis tetragonoloba), an annual legume native to India and Pakistan. The gum  companies want comes from guar seeds that are milled and husked and refined to produce a powder that is used as a natural glue. This natural glue acts just like chemical gelling agents because it is so thick it can hold open cracks in shale rock; in fact, Wikipedia tells us that guar gum has eight times the thickening potential of corn starch.

So where does the guar gum used in the oil and gas industry come from?

Currently 80% of world production of Guar occurs in India and Pakistan. But, this crop can be grown across the American Mid-West including North Dakota too. Growing Guar in the USA would be very economical considering the US oil and gas industry currently imports most of what they use from India and Pakistan. The main issue with growing Guar especially in North Dakota is the growing season length. The crop is very susceptible to frost and can be damaged or killed if there is unusually cold weather during the growing period.  

Are there other reasons US farmers would want to grow Guar?

Of course!

Guar is actually the Hindi for cow food which is one of its uses. Guar is an important additive in the human food industry. Guar gum, like its better-known cousin Xanthum gum, is a gluten-free thickening agent used in many foods. The Guar plant is also good for the soil. Because it is a legume it helps with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and is very valuable within a crop rotation cycle. In semi-arid regions of Rajasthan they use guar as a source to replenish the soil with essential fertilizers, before the next crop.

Currently the USA consumes 65-70% of all Guar produced in the world. Thus, there is a strong interest in developing Guar varieties for Mid-Western farmers. Having Guar that grows in the USA will help farmers in many ways. First, growing Guar will help farmers diversify their crop rotation. Second, it will help increase soil fertility. Thirdly, growing Guar will afford farmers access to a local source of Guar Gum, that can be used for the American food industry.

So, is Guar a win-win for the environment, the oil industry, and farmers?

After working with the Guar plant and living in the center of the North Dakotan oil boom over the past 3 months I feel alternative crops like Guar have many upsides for industry.
Still, I understand that growing green products for industrial use, especially the oil industry, may raise some eyebrows. However, in areas that are experiencing this energy boom Guar is a plant that can help satisfy the oil companies demand for raw materials; and, in addition, it can provide a stable income to local farmer’s in the area. This nitrogen fixing legume can also be added to a standard crop rotation and help fertilize the soil without any additional fertilizers. Soil is vital to virtually everything living on the earth’s surface; the less degradation done to it the better!

This post is a contribution from Michael Cardillo who graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Master's of Science. Currently he is working in Williston North Dakota for North Dakota State University. Michael enjoy sworking outside and learning about projects related to environmental process.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Edible Landscapes and Trees that Feed

There are thousands of species of edible fruit trees in the world yet too many people are still food insecure. So, why don’t we do our landscaping with edible fruit trees? I know two people that did exactly that! Mary and Mike McLaughlin, the founders of Trees that Feed, decided to tackle food insecurity by landscaping Caribbean islands with fruit producing trees, such as breadfruit. In the process, Mary and Mike have worked to provide people with the means to sell the fruits from these trees to a growing local market. 

Mike shared some alarming food security statistics: 

In Jamaica they are spending something of the order of four billion dollars a year. That’s a huge amount of money to spend on imported food when Jamaica has a natural climate, warm weather, a year round growing season, and good rainfall.

Breadfruit Tree
Trees that Feed is a project designed to cut down peoples’ need to import food on two levels. First, Mike and Mary have dedicated time to promoting cuisine made from locally available fruit trees. In this sense, they are promoting a local market for these fruits. Second, this couple works with famers to help them get more trees and to increase local production to provide fruits for local markets. 

In the long run the benefits of this process are invaluable because, as we all know, the costs of importing foods are on the rise. And, imported food is rarely of the same nutritional as food produced locally, and imported food does not have the same cultural value.

So, why did Mary and Mike choose to start planting breadfruit or other cultural trees, such as Akee, in the Caribbean?  

Mary answered, “both of us are from Jamaica and these are foods from trees that we are used to and we see the value of them”. But these are not just any trees, Mike added, they are culturally appropriate species that farmers want to have on their land.” 

And Mike further explained, “It is very important to us that these foods are culturally accepted; it takes a very long time for cultural acceptance of a new food.” 

Mike told me that breadfruit is not actually native to the West Indies, it was actually introduced there 200 years ago. That means that although Jamaican breadfruit has become a traditional food, it is a relative newcomer to the region. He also explained that it took a generation for people to start using it and to accept it. Mike and Mary explained they don’t want to wait 25 years before their efforts begin to increase food security. So, instead of supplying or importing new foods for people, they are planting foods that are already well-known.  

Mike and Mary’s efforts to increase food security are unique because trees are different than cash crops.  Cash crops require fertilizers, they can deplete the soil, and they can be hard to harvest. On the other hand, fruit trees do not require fertilizer and they only need a little care.

And, trees can be planted in urban areas. Mary explained that growing fruit-producing trees in urban areas is important because much of the food in cities is imported from rural areas. 

In addition to their potential in supporting the food insecure, fruit trees can have large benefits for the ecosystem. Fruit trees provide shade, habitat for wildlife, they purify the air, and sequester carbon. In Haiti, breadfruit trees prevent erosion and as a result these trees keep the streams and rivers clear. What’s good for the streams and rivers is good for the fish. So, the fishing industry in Haiti has started planting breadfruit too!

There is no doubt in my mind Trees that Feed is a great initiative, but will this idea catch on in the long term? 

Mike and Mary think so and they have planned to make this project last. They have encouraged the local people to start small and build up their capabilities, their resources, and local markets. They have encouraged people to sell locally because it is easier for farmers to make more profit when they avoid paying duty and other external taxes. 

But, farmers that work with Mary and Mike still face challenges. Mary and Mike have an initiative that helps farmers make gluten-free flour from their breadfruit. However, Mary told me that, “…in Haiti where local artisans are making breadfruit flour they can’t compete against heavily subsidized North American wheat they just don’t make it you know a farmer can’t compete against free”. 

I saw this same trend in Costa Rica where indigenous farmers do not stand a chance selling their local organic corn when the United States is flooding the market with extremely cheap, low quality corn. 

Despite the real obstacles farmers experience in our
industrial food era, Trees that Feed gives people options. 

So, here you have it, a new idea on how to make landscapes edible, using culturally-appropriate foods. But, Mary and Mike have much more than food in mind. They have increased the number of jobs, improved livelihoods, and restored degraded lands in the process.  

For more info check out Trees that Feed or follow them @TreesThatFeed

All photographs in this blog are courtesy of Mary and Mike McLaughlin.