Lyndal Hugo has a background in agroscience, a Sydney Uni Ph.D. in environmental chemistry, and a post-doctoral fellowship on pesticide residues in South-East Asian food chains. It made her, she says, “a nerdy scientist – way over-educated and practically useless.” Except for three things – an idea, luck, and a dream.
The luck was that, when working on environmental accounting for big mining and agriculture companies in Australia and China, she had encountered a particular rock - exactly what rock remains a closely guarded secret. The idea was that this rock, treated in particular ways - also secret - had extraordinary potential, not in mining but as “a home for microbes”. And the dream? It was to change the world.
Specifically, it involved growing fresh leafy vegetables that were safe, sustainable, nutritious, affordable, and ethically produced. Now it seems she, via her company Orlar, is almost there.
So, what’s the system? It’s not indoor agriculture, Hugo is clear about that. The difference is that indoor agriculture normally requires huge energy inputs for temperature control and lighting. It requires a strictly controlled environment – workers in hazmat suits – to limit disease, which is virtually impossible in a developing country. Furthermore, it either has high carbon emissions or, if solar-powered, the solar panels occupy large areas of land, with concomitant biodiversity impact.
Orlar’s system – now a business that supplies restaurants and most middle-class supermarkets – uses greenhouses, with light and warmth provided gratis by the sun. The key, though, is in the secret rock. It has three seemingly magical properties: enormous thermal mass, the ability to retain water against the pull of gravity, and an affinity for microbes.
It starts with the rock’s pH and its liking for long-chain anionic molecules. Just as important, though, is how it is treated. Ground into the right mix of sizes to optimize hydraulic conductivity, transpiration, and gas exchange, it is infused with trillions of microbes, from 81 different species, which are encouraged to form a biofilm.
Critically, the thermal qualities of the rock allow temperate vegetables to be grown in 'hostile' climates such as the Mekong, providing massive climate adaptation and jobs with minimal water and land. Plus, as a company led by women, and 89% staffed by women, it transforms lives and families.
Read the complete article at www.smh.com.au.