Saving Smoked Grapes: Vodka and Climate Change

Saving Smoked Grapes: Vodka and Climate Change

We at DFC HQ are looking forward to New Year’s Eve – spent in the cozy comfort of home yet again, trying to stay out of the way of the latest COVID wave. If we can’t put a positive spin on that apocalypse, we can certainly raise a midnight glass to another one:  A beverage that turns the fallout of climate change into the flavour.

Napa vintner Nicolas Quille is no stranger to “smoke taint:” a fault in wines pressed from grapes grown too close to wildfires. California has had a rough couple of years in that regard, and after Quille tried, and failed, to save his 2020 vintage by harvesting his merlot and malbec grapes early, he didn’t want to just pour his spoiled wine down the drain. So he partnered with local distillery Hangar 1, and they turned the sooty-flavoured liquid into something eminently more drinkable: vodka.

“‘The texture is very nice. It’s smooth. You get almost like the taste of a barbecue from far away, you know someone’s using coals,’ said Michael Kudra, principal bartender at Quince in San Francisco [… ]

Quille said they took a financial hit with the lost product but concedes having the vodka option could be a way to salvage smoke-tainted grapes during fire seasons to come.

Scientists have said the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires are largely attributable to prolonged drought and increasing bouts of excessive heat from climate change.

‘If things turn for the worse and those fires become more violent and more frequent, it’s definitely an option that needs to be on the table,’ [Quille] said.

This beverage seems a bizarro version of Torched Earth Ale, the repulsive tasting beer of our climate-challenged future. But I can see how vodka, with its intensive distilling process, can tame the nasty flavours of out-of-control wildfires. And I suppose “acceptance” follows naturally after the “denial” and “bargaining” steps of grief. In this miserable future (2023??), we’ll at least have a little something to take the edge off.

Marz Ketchup Features Tomatoez From the Future

Heinz has leapt aboard the same extraterrestrial (chuck) wagon as Chateau Pétrus wine and NASA’s homegrown Hatch chilies, with the debut of its “Marz edition” ketchup – a condiment made to its exacting corporate recipe with tomatoes grown under Mars-identical soil conditions here on Earth.

The company enthuses that future travelers to (and settlers on) the Red Planet will have a little taste of home to enjoy on humanity’s remotest picnic ever. But, though corporate money funded it, this ketchup is more than just a publicity stunt. Its tomato harvest was overseen by the Aldrin Space Institute at the Florida Institute of Technology, and the team there added a heaping cup of science to the recipe.

“‘Before now, most efforts around discovering ways to grow in Martian-simulated conditions are short term plant growth studies,’ said [team leader Dr. Andrew] Palmer at Florida Tech. ‘What this project has done is look at long-term food harvesting.’ […]

To demonstrate that the tomatoes could be harvested on Mars, the plants were grown in Martian simulant –  Earth-based soil chemically matched to the Red Planet’s regolith – under the same temperature and water conditions as found on Mars. Heinz and Aldrin Space Institute experts analyzed soil conditions, selected seeds and implemented agricultural techniques to ensure the end result was the recognizable taste of Heinz ketchup.”

Heinz has packaged the ketchup in special “Marz edition” bottles, which made the rounds on social media last month. Though not available for public sale, these bottles signify the high corporate standards the “Martian” ketchup cleared.

While it’s great we have a proven ability to grow tomatoes on Mars, the reality is, with our current social stratifications, the vast majority of we earthlings will never make it there. (You’re going to be lonely up there, Elon.) I much prefer keeping the focus on the Earth-side benefits of this experiment: how it pushes the limits of food plant habitats and challenges our understanding of what grows well here –  whether it’s tomatoes, or rice, or wheat, or chickpeas. Food is a human right. And while we humans stay earthbound, we need to eat here.

Pig Plan May Prevent Plane Pickle

pig patrol

This is a sentence I never thought I’d write: An experimental herd of pigs may save Schiphol airport’s bacon by controlling the population of overeager geese. What sounds like a setup for a Babe sequel is actually a six-week-long pilot, underway right now, that aims to ensure safety at one of Europe’s most significant air travel hubs.

Unlike pigs, birds are the kind of animal that blends into the background of modern daily life – until they get in the way of a moving airplane. A “bird strike” – the term for when a plane hits one or more birds in the air – can seriously compromise the safety of a flight. (The famous “miracle on the Hudson” ditching of an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River was the result of a collision with a flock of Canada geese that were drawn into both of the plane’s engines, blowing them out.) Schiphol’s surroundings are a type of grassy marshland, called polder; that, and the sugar beet farm next door, attract large numbers of the dreaded geese looking to snack on greens. So the airport’s management turned to a local pig farmer, Stan Gloudemans, to try an innovative, two-pronged approach to flight safety. Said Mr. Gloudemans to the Guardian during an on-site interview:

“‘Geese like beet, and when it’s left on the fields, they flock to eat it,Over there are 30 geese enjoying the beet, but those geese are a danger to aircraft. Here, the pigs have eaten up the beet so the geese stay away.

All of our pigs are outdoors, we have around 300 a year, and they eat things like nettles, Japanese knotweed for municipalities, and other plants in nature reserves: they like everything. Schiphol asked if they might be able to eat beets and chase away geese.

Geese are dangerous, but they are animals, and you need to deal with them in the right way. The pig is a double enemy: he tries to catch the geese and he also eats their food. It’s a dual attack.’”

The trial, on two hectares of land similar to that around the airport, seems to be going well; the pigs are eating and patrolling, and the number of geese is significantly reduced. Data will be fully analyzed in the coming months, which will be used to determine if Operation Pig Patrol will be rolled out fully. I can’t wait until the Other White Meat menaces the Original across these Dutch fields, all in the name of human safety. (And I would watch the heck out of that sequel to Babe!)

Overclocking the Humble Chickpea

The (in my opinion) world’s most perfect legume is on track towards even greater perfection, thanks to some dedicated international scientists and a hardworking AI.

A huge recent project, led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), has assessed more than 3000 wild and domesticated varieties of chickpea, nailing down 1582 novel genes and mapping out the entire species’ pan-genome. A sub-team made up of University of Queensland researchers then processed this data with FastStack AI technology, and modelled what they call the “ultimate” chickpea. This uber-garbanzo features, in particular, perfect genetic traits for seed weight – a solid predictor for yield.

“Germplasm sequencing efforts in some crop plants have provided insights into the global distribution of genetic variation, how this diversity has been shaped by the genetic bottlenecks associated with domestication and by the effects of selective breeding, and, finally, how we can link this genetic variation to phenotypic diversity for breeding applications. Haplotype maps developed using whole-genome sequencing (WGS) data have helped to determine the percentage of the constrained genome and detect deleterious mutations that can be purged for accelerated breeding. Furthermore, sequencing and genotyping of a germplasm collection allows better conservation and management in genebanks.

On the basis of WGS of 3,366 chickpea germplasm accessions, we report here a rich map of the genetic variation in chickpea. We provide a chickpea pan-genome and offer insights into species divergence, the migration of the cultigen (C. arietinum), rare allele burden and fitness loss in chickpea. We propose three genomic breeding approaches – haplotype-based breeding, genomic prediction and OCS – for developing tailor-made high-yielding and climate-resilient chickpea varieties.”

Aside from the first world problem of developing a better-tasting hummus, unlocking the genetic secrets of this protein-packed pulse can mean more accessible and bountiful crops for different populations worldwide. To paraphrase Herbert Hoover, a “chickpea in every pot” – or the opportunity of it for anyone who needs it – sounds like a delicious nugget of heaven to me!