When I was a graduate student working in the biology department at Florida State University I would take the left over samples of freshwater algae and protozoans and dump them in a holding tank just outside the school’s greenhouse. It rarely got below freezing in Tallahassee so most of the remaining specimens not only survived, but thrived to create a small enclosed ecosystem that was diverse and abundant. It was fun and interesting to occasionally take a sample from the tank and examine it under a microscope. This was a crude, but effective, means of growing and cultivating many algae species that we would study in our classes.
Today there are many attempts to grow algae in large concentrations for industrial and agricultural applications. Algae can be used as fertilizers and even biofuels. Extracting their important properties is commercially feasible and this field will undoubtedly grow as research continues. Some scientists envision large scale farming or aquacultural enterprises developing to provide food, commercial products, and energy alternatives in a world that increasingly needs these items. At one point it was suggested to grow large seaweed farms in the ocean as a way of reducing the effects of global warming or climate change. Some species of seaweed grow very fast and take up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. Unfortunately many of these same species have a short life span and would release the carbon back into the environment when dying. Still the idea of cultivating the algae into other uses while using it to absorb carbon dioxide may have some merit.
The whole field of hydroponics has had its ups and downs. There has been success with the growing of lettuce and beans, but not on a widespread scale. Hydroponically grown produce has many environmental benefits including the reduction of chemicals, the ability to grow practically anywhere, and the fact that it can be grown throughout the year. If conditions are suitable indoors, such as in a greenhouse, the crop is not limited to any season.
Throughout history new ways of developing and growing plants for food and other uses take time to become routine. These methods must be economically competitive to be accepted and widely used. But maybe we should try a new approach, one that doesn’t require a large corporate presence. Possibly these small scale farms are preferable. Again if they can be made to serve a local need and still be cost effective, then their future could be bright. I think back to that small bin behind the greenhouse at FSU that continued to provide us with many of the specimens needed for our classes. This self-contained, constantly growing “ecosystem” was a source of diverse organisms for many years.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.