Imagine a plant with almost magical qualities, one of the fastest growing on the planet, a plant that needs no soil to grow, providing an unlimited supply of food and livestock feed, as well as biofertilizer to grow other crops, anywhere in the world.
If there were such a plant, would you like to see it used to stop the repeated cycles of starvation in regions like East Africa, rejuvenating the impoverished and dried-out soils, helping to feed the people and their livestock, so that their children can look to a future without fear?
. . . or in the expanding slums around the world, now home to millions of people who could use this remarkable plant to purify their water and make it safe to drink, improving their lives and transforming the slums into vibrant communities with a shared sense of purpose.
Would you like to see it help nature return to our farms, as chemical fertilizers are replaced by biofertilizers, reducing the need for pesticides, so that crops are naturally healthy and safe to eat?
Would you like to see nature become part of our towns and cities, with urban agriculture growing local food, resulting in better health, more employment and a shared sense of community? Would you like to see green areas spread across our towns and cities, natural corridors filled with wildlife and waterways teeming with fish and birds, living arteries that re-connect us with nature and our roots?
Imagine a plant that can be converted into biofuel, providing renewable energy anywhere in the world – a plant that does not use land needed to grow food crops, or threaten natural ecosystems like rainforests.
Now imagine the same plant grown on space missions, removing carbon dioxide that astronauts exhale and replacing it with oxygen to breathe, a plant that purifies wastewater for them to drink – an ally that can help us discover new worlds, amazing planets that we may one day colonize.
And imagine that all of these things can be done now.
Well, you don’t need to imagine any more, because this wonder plant exists. It is called azolla and there is no other plant like it in the world.
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Azolla is unique because it is not one, but two very different organisms living together in harmony, sharing their resources and talents, each giving something to the other in a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship. It is a relationship that has evolved for millions of years, two organisms that are now so closely connected that they even share many of their genes, joined together genetically by that most basic fabric of life.
After 80 million years of co-evolution, they are now so closely interconnected that they were officially designated as a single Superorganism by the University of Lisbon’s Dr Francisco Carrapiço in 2010. During that immense length of time they evolved an incredibly efficient biology, so that azolla is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet free-floating on fresh water, drawing down the nitrogen that it needs to grow so rapidly directly from the atmosphere.
Azolla has been used for thousands of years in the Far East as a biofertilizer in rice paddies, but it can be grown anywhere in the world using the Azolla Biosystem, described in this book, reducing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) and the threat of climate change, but it can do more. It can produce many of the essentials that we need as our population grows by another million people every three days: an abundant supply of local, renewable livestock feed, food, biofertilizer and biofuel, plus a range of other products including pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals.
So, nature has done the hard work for us through Azolla’s evolution, generation after generation for million of years.
Can we compete with that? Can we replicate 80 million years of evolution?
We cannot, but we don’t need to compete with azolla, because we can let it help us. All we need to do is recognize this amazing plant’s potential and work with nature instead of against it.
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Mankind is now facing a Perfect Storm as our population grows by a billion people every twelve years. This mass of people is stretching our planet’s natural resources to their limits, leading to acute shortages of land and fresh water, of food and energy, as well as the threat of man-made climate change.
The Storm is not only affecting humans. It is also having a devastating effect on many other species that share our planet. Entire ecosystems and their inhabitants are now threatened with extinction for the first time in millions of years. Rainforests, the treasure of our planet with their diversity of life and potential wealth of biomedical products, may soon be gone forever, burned and cleared to provide land for food and biofuel crops – an irreversible crime against the Earth.
Azolla can help us weather the Perfect Storm and reconnect with nature as we build a twenty-first century global society of communities that have independent resources – moving us away from the outdated twentieth century structure of long-distance transportation of oil and gas, of food and chemical fertilizers – to become the caretakers of our world instead of plundering its resources and those of other species.
And it can also aid our journey to other worlds, for we are the first species to leave the Earth since it formed four and a half billion years ago. Azolla can help us build colonies in space and terraform other planets and their moons, providing air to breathe, food to eat and water to drink – a unique ally on our voyage of exploration.
This wonder plant can do so many things and it can do them all right now, showing us the value of living in harmony with nature instead of destroying it.
So here is the story of a unique plant, a Superorganism called azolla. It begins with a remarkable event 49 million years ago when azolla had an enormous impact on the Earth’s climate as it repeatedly covered the Arctic Ocean for more than a million years.
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All images credited to: Victor Leshyk
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