Methanol spraying holds out promise of agricultural revolution in arid regions

April 12, 1993|By Lee Dye | Lee Dye,Special to the Los Angeles Times

LITCHFIELD PARK, ARIZ. — An article in Monday's Sun on the spraying of methanol on plants in hot, dry areas incorrectly stated that methanol is not toxic. It should have stated that it is not toxic in the quantities used in the spraying.

The Sun regrets the error.

LITCHFIELD PARK, Ariz. -- Arthur Nonomura may not consider himself a savior. But because of his simple, serendipitous discovery, the world is beating a path to his doorstep.

What this scientist-turned-farmer has stumbled onto could revolutionize agriculture in scorched, arid regions of the world, many researchers believe.

In defiance of "conventional wisdom," Mr. Nonomura discovered several years ago if he simply sprayed methanol on his plants, they grew nearly twice as fast and required half as much water as untreated plants did. Methanol, widely available as wood alcohol, is thought to be toxic to plants.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Today, the 42-year-old botanist is so busy answering queries and attending conferences that he no longer has time to run the farm he had chosen over a promising career in research and education.

The methanol process works only in hot, dry areas, and it doesn't work on all types of plants. But research indicates that it could revolutionize the farming of such crops as wheat and cotton in much of the world, experts familiar with Mr. Nonomura's work say.

"I think it's going to save the world," said Andrew Benson of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Mr. Nonomura's collaborator and a leading researcher in plant growth. He predicts vastly expanded agricultural use of arid lands.

Mr. Benson believes the discovery will revolutionize farming in such countries as Mexico, Egypt, Israel, North Africa and Brazil, and in other hot regions where water is scarce.

The Environmental Protection Agency is slightly less effusive in its praise, but it recently changed its designation for methanol to "fertilizer," from pesticide or plant growth regulator, clearing the way for essentially unregulated use of methanol on farms.

Numerous countries are gearing up to test the technique for themselves this summer, and Arizona recently began exploring the use of methanol for crops.

How the process works is not well understood, leading to some skepticism on the part of other experts.

"I feel there's something there," said Richard Smiley, superintendent of Oregon State University's Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, where scientists were briefed by Mr. Nonomura this spring.

"We don't understand why it's working," Mr. Smiley said, "but I don't question the integrity of the work."

It all came about, Mr. Nonomura said, because he and his wife wanted to raise their family on a farm.

Mr. Nonomura was a researcher at Scripps in San Diego when he married a college professor. Carole Nonomura longed to return to her parents' farm west of Phoenix.

Mr. Nonomura, who had never worked on a farm, agreed, and the two abandoned their academic careers to take up farming. Within a year, he was running his own farm in the Arizona desert.

Soon after his first crops came up three years ago, he noticed that during the hottest time of the day, the plants wilted.

The sight took Mr. Nonomura back to the early days of his academic career, when he was doing research on a type of algae that produced hydrocarbons he thought could be used as a substitute for gasoline. Mr. Nonomura found that spraying the algae with methanol supplied enough carbon to double the algae's growth rate.

He remembered the algae when he saw his plants wilt under the hot sun, and he wondered whether the problem could be a lack of carbon. Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and break it down through photosynthesis into sugar and other nutrients. Mr. Nonomura thought the fierce sun might be causing photosynthesis to take place at such a rapid rate that the plants were exhausting their supply of carbon dioxide.

He began spraying a few rose bushes and cotton plants with highly diluted methanol, using a small squeeze bottle. No one else had tried it, he said, because laboratory experiments had shown methanol to be toxic to plants.

But the result, he said recently, was stunning. The plants he sprayed no longer wilted.

"They were standing up; they were crisp and very healthy as compared to any of the plants around them," he said.

Methanol is not toxic to humans, he said. So Mr. Nonomura

decided to experiment with edible plants. He found himself with watermelons twice the size of those on unsprayed plants, tomatoes that were huge and sweet and cabbages that defied the imagination.

Convinced that he had stumbled across "something significant," Nonomura called Mr. Benson, who had helped him in his early work on algae.

Working together, the two carried out additional experiments.

Some of the plants on his farm, Mr. Nonomura reasoned, were wilting during the heat of the day -- when photosynthesis is at its greatest -- because there was not enough carbon in the air to sustain their growth and they were discarding much of the energy they had absorbed.

Spraying them with methanol, he concluded, gave them a boost by supplying the carbon they lacked, thus inhibiting a process called photorespiration, in which plants reject some of the energy they have collected through photosynthesis.

"It gives a wake-up call to plants that are taking a siesta in the afternoon," Mr. Benson said.

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