The simple application of a fungal cocktail to arid soils in Southern Africa has enabled small shrubs and trees to take root where no plants have grown for over 50 years. The fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with plant roots and attract the necessary nutrients and moisture towards the roots.
As the detritus from these scrubby plants decays and adds to the organic content of the surrounding ground, it further fertilizes the soil, enabling the growth of larger shrubs and trees, which in turn affect the area’s prevailing micro-climate, stimulating higher rainfall and reversing the desert forever.
This cocktail of fungi and enzymes has been bio-engineered by some of the smartest young college brains in a global ‘open-source innovation’ collaboration exercise, facilitated by Facebook.
Early results are so promising, that the potential exists for the Kalahari to be covered in trees within 30 years, and if similar programs can be sustained in northern Africa, the greening of the Sahara will be next.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), human activities are impacting the surface in drylands and in turn, they are influencing the local and regional climates. Most human-induced changes in climate have exacerbated the desertification processes. Numerical models of climate change predict significant warming in dryland areas for a doubling of the greenhouse gases; this predicted warming is predicted to increase evapotranspiration rates and cause a decline in soil moisture. Indeed, empirical evidence shows warming in drylands is greater than warming for the globe as a whole.
Mycorrhizal fungi could be the solution to this problem. Both research and actual implementation have shown that these fungi, commonly found in undisturbed soils, grow by means of fungal filaments, which are straw-like structures. The filaments grow both inside and outside of the roots and are able to extend the plant rooting system giving them the advantage of being able to exploit the soil environment for nutrients, particularly phosphorus, and water more effectively. These nutrients are carried to the plant and exchanged for sugars produced by the plant’s green leaves.
This relationship is a symbiosis in which two very different organisms co-exist and are of mutual benefit.
In addition, biotechnology can improve the effectiveness of planted trees. About one-third of the world’s commercial wood supply comes from planted forests, the other two-thirds from natural forests. By applying new technologies, it is estimated that all of the world’s timber production could potentially be produced and harvested on an area roughly five to ten percent of the total forest today. This means that more of the earth’s forests could remain in their natural state, maintaining native habitats and conserving biodiversity.
1998: Bringing back the rainforests
The first 8,000Ha of re-generated tropical rainforest are completed at Las Gaviotas in the Colombian Orinoco. By planting pine treelings dipped in a fungal solution, acidic savannah was converted into forest plantations. Nature did the rest.
“To everyone’s surprise, the symbiosis between the pine tree and the mycorrhizal fungus not only permitted the treelings to survive the harsh conditions of the savannah, as soon as the young pine offered shade, and the pH turned less acidic, a completely new forest emerged,” says Gunter Pauli of the ZERI project.
The planting of a monoculture, that is the Caribbean pine, quickly resulted in the arrival of over 250 tropical plant species. The arrival of the rainforest also increased annual rainfall by about 10%.
2007: Facebook opens up
Facebook, the most successful social network for connecting students on the internet, opens its doors to third-party applications. This paves the way for collaborative efforts on a global scale to piggy-back on Facebook’s networking and searching capabilities.
Climate change and global warming have become the hot topics of the day, and researchers at universities are quick to establish forums for open-source innovation that focus on renewable energy and conservation.
2009: Google highlights the desert
Google Earth provides updated satellite images of the world’s vegetation. There is a global uproar as it becomes self-evident that the Arctic ice-cap is melting, the tropical rainforests are disappearing, and the deserts are expanding visibly.
Has modern man’s preoccupation with economic growth finally brought us to the point of self-extinction?
2010: Soccer proceeds fund forests
The spectacularly successful Soccer World Cup in South Africa has united the world around sport and focused attention on the poorest continent. The FIFA president declares a ‘special dividend’ to fight global warming in southern Africa and ‘roll back the desert’.
2012: Fungus fertilizes future forests
A new cocktail of enzymes and mycorrhizal fungi emerges from the Facebook collaboration workspace. With funding available, large tracts of the Kalahari semi-desert are treated with crop-spraying planes and GM seedlings from Arborgen.
The results are dramatic. Within three years bushland has established itself and infant forests are creeping back into the harshest environments. The combination of symbiotic growth and soil re-generation is providing a man-made habitat of the best type – one that encourages natural reforestation.
2017: Great deserts set to shrink
With the science of reclaiming desert areas firmly established, international organizations set their sights on the next target – China. Vast areas of China are unsuitable for agriculture, yet are home to almost a billion people. If these regions can be converted to arable land, both food scarcity and unemployment would be addressed, providing solutions for two of the most pressing problems facing the fast-growing nation.
Indeed, improving plant growth and soil capacity alone would increase yields and allow China to continue to use labour-intensive, low-tech farming methods, while simultaneously increasing production.