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Promising breakthrough uses 'stuff of outer space' to protect crops from mold: 'An exciting step forward for food safety'

"Ultimately, that means farmers could use more of their grain, so there's less waste."

"Ultimately, that means farmers could use more of their grain, so there’s less waste."

Photo Credit: University of Alberta

Our food system could be greatly aided by the fourth state of matter

That's because researchers at the University of Alberta have found a way to use plasma to protect grain harvests from troubling mold. It turns out the material — which Princeton describes as not being a solid, liquid, or gas — is a good decontamination substance that can even boost seed germination.

Fascinatingly, the researchers in Alberta call plasma "stuff of outer space" that make up stars. It's also found in fusion reactors. The lower temperature variety is part of fluorescent lighting, electrical propulsion, and semiconductors, according to Princeton. 

Now plasma could play a crucial role in Earth-bound food production.  

"We've gained some foundational knowledge that represents an exciting step forward for food safety and for reducing agricultural product loss," Alberta Professor M.S. Roopesh said in a lab summary. 

The researchers used a "cold" plasma (it's usually superheated, they said) in gas and liquid form to treat wheat and barley infected with mold. The treatment lowered mold toxins by 54% in as little as a minute. Turning plasma to gas requires only air and electricity, making it sustainable, all per the University of Alberta team. 

Furthermore, they tested a liquid decontaminant and steeped barley in it. The process lowered toxin levels and boosted germination by up to 13%. The method also cleansed the water, the report notes

It's an important breakthrough, as the experts said mold results in financial hardship for farmers, and it can cause cancer, lung, kidney, and brain diseases in humans and cattle. 

"Ultimately, that means farmers could use more of their grain, so there's less waste, and from the health point of view, humans and animals can consume the grain and not be affected by mycotoxins," Roopesh said in the Alberta story. 

The research could be game-changing for our food system, as the Canadian government estimates that as much as a quarter of the world's grain is contaminated by mold toxins each year. 

What's more, human-worsened planet overheating is impacting farm production in unique ways. Labor productivity, droughts, and other weather-related problems are growing concerns, for example. 

Other food solutions already being worked on include seaweed production (yes, as a food source) and techniques that reduce the use of harmful chemical fertilizers. 

The mold-fighting method coming out of Canada is a novel concept, per the experts there. The university report states that there isn't an effective way to eliminate mold from grain, outside of roasting, baking, or frying. And those techniques only partially work. 

"We needed to find better methods of decontamination," research lead Ehsan Feizollahi said

Next up is more research with the goal of scaling the science for industrial use. The university said the technology is "open to licensing." The lab is also looking into cold plasma's ability to sterilize E. coli and salmonella from food and water. 

"Now we know what specific factors we need to focus on," Roopesh said in the report.

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