Business, Eco-friendly, Sustainability

The Future of Farming May Be Sky High

Vertical farming may be the future of urban agriculture.
Vertical farming may be the future of urban agriculture. Photo: Shutterstock

With a lack of horizontal space for farming in urban environments, vertical farming could be the only plausible solution to food scarcity. As Lauren Hepler of GreenBiz notes, “with more reports sounding alarms about looming food scarcity issues, the urban agriculture sector is increasingly melding with the boom in agriculture tech, breeding companies offering everything from unorthodox growing setups to soil sensors, hydroponics and all manner of crop data analytics.”

The question of “how do we feed a growing global population?” has billion-dollar potential.

Unlike the dot-com boom, “the problem is so huge and broken in so many places that there are many billion-dollar markets you could just jump into,” Brad McNamara, co-founder of Boston container farming startup Freight Farms, told GreenBiz. “There are connections being formed and local food systems and food markets that people are hungry for.”

On a small scale, technology like hydroponic grocery stores can be seen as an opportunity for local retailers to grow indoors, on site, more efficiently. This could allow business owners to tap directly into local consumer demands, customize their shopping experiences, dramatically reduce the cost of shipping, and capitalize on buzz about food miles.

On a large scale, vertical farmscapers could profit from the consumer demand for multifunctional urban space. Some believe farmscapers might be able to produce enough food to feed greater and greater future populations.

Modular technology, built for moving the farms, is a consistent theme in both approaches. Not only can the farms be relocated easily, but also modular technology allows the farms to scale up or scale down efficiently to meet specific needs. Modular design can be seen throughout the commercial real estate, residential properties, and, most recently, tiny home designs. Modular designs in factories have allowed owners with unlimited flexibility to respond quickly and cost-effectively to changing business needs. It’s possible that this same flexibility could provide much needed adaptability to the farming industry.

Business, Eco-friendly, Environmentalist

Environmentalists: It’s Time to Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

With the repeal of environmental regulations, environmentalists are going to need to do their own green investing to ensure the future of sustainable energy.

On Tuesday, March 28, President Trump signed an executive order that rescinded Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The president lifted carbon emissions regulations in order to resume coal-mining operations.

“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump asserted. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy to reverse government intrusions and to cancel job killing regulations.”

Environmentalists saw this coming from a mile away. They tried to voice their concerns in the form of protests, but their collective cries fell on deaf ears. That’s because money appears to be the only language that the current administration understands. In other words, the time for talking about sustainability is over. It’s time to take action by investing in clean energy alternatives.

Some companies, such as private equity firm KKR, are already leading the way in this regard. KKR has invested an astounding $5 billion into ESG (environment, social, and governance) driven companies.

“Investors can play a central role in resolving some of the global challenges in a way that civil society or government organizations cannot do alone,” writes Ken Mehlman, Member and Global Head of Public Affairs at KKR. “Our portfolio company Afriflora is a good example. Located in Ethiopia, Afriflora cultivates and produces Fair Trade Certified, sustainably-grown roses.”

It’s like the old saying goes: money talks. And while the average citizen certainly can’t afford to shell out the kind of dough that KKR does, they can still make an impact by purchasing small shares of green companies.

So which companies should environmentalists invest in? According to Investopedia, the top four alternative energy stocks for 2017 are:

  • NRG Yield Inc.
  • MagneGas Corp.
  • Atlantica Yield PLC
  • Covanta Holding Corp.

If there’s anything that the current administration has taught us, it’s that climate change facts and statistics aren’t enough. Environmentalists will have to reach deep into their pockets if they want to influence the future of energy.

Conservation, Eco-friendly, Nature, Sustainability

Balancing Conservation, Logging, and Indigenous Populations in Africa

Businesses and conservationists work together in Africa, but sometimes they leave out the people being affected by their work.
A woman from a Baka tribe, Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve, Central African Republic. Photo: Sergey Uryadnikov / Shutterstock, Inc.

Landscape-based conservation aims to balance the needs of protecting wildlife with economic needs. So conservation groups deal with poachers or illegal logging, while logging companies work sustainably and provide jobs. In a perfect world, everybody wins.

But this isn’t a perfect world, and in these situations, some local people get left out. Take the Baka people, a group of hunters and gatherers who rely upon the forests for their livelihood. They aren’t getting jobs in conservation or logging, and their way of life is being threatened as they are cut out of access to the forest or forced to take up farming. However, farming is new to them, and is therefore not meeting their needs. As a result, they’re finding themselves more and more in poor farming regions without access to schools, meaning that they can’t even “better themselves” within the context of the societies that are telling them how to live in the forest.

According to Nathan Clay, who recently finished a study on how landscape-based conservation efforts are impacting local people in Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic, there are some 100,000 people left behind by changing conservation methods. They’ve been dealing with loggers or conservationists for years, but recently, they’ve had to deal with both, and increasingly complex legal developments to make that system work, which is leaving them behind.

Clay argues that what is needed is a concerted effort by conservation and logging interests, as well as the governments which pass laws to build these systems, to work with local peoples. He proposes that tribes like the Baka be included in anti-hunting and anti-logging patrols, which would make them part of the process and allow conservation efforts to work with, rather than against, them.

“To me, the people who are best positioned to understand and effectively manage these changing socio-ecological conditions are the people who live there,” said Clay. “The people who are living there should be more involved in the management of these places because they’re the ones who best know the region.”

Eco-friendly, Green, Science

Converting Carbon Dioxide into Ethanol is Actually Pretty Easy

Scientists discovered a way to produce ethanol from carbon dioxide.
An ethanol refinery in the American midwest. Photo: Shutterstock

The goal of developing alternative energy is twofold: to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels because we will run out of them eventually, and to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that we dump into the air.

CO2 acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat against the Earth. It is one of the major culprits in global climate change. However, even as we turn to alternative energy sources like wind or solar, we still have a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere, and we need to get rid of it to turn back the damage we’ve already done.

A team at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory was working on a way to convert CO2 into something useful when they did exactly that. They developed a system using copper and carbon, easily obtained materials, which converts CO2 into ethanol, an alternative, renewable fuel. Best of all, the process works at room temperature, which makes it easy to start and stop, and reasonably cheap.

The team is exploring the technology further in the hopes of making it efficient enough for industrial use. This could be a huge step in the right direction. By converting CO2 into ethanol, either in the atmosphere or while it’s being created, we get more fuel out of the process. This, in turn, reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and reduces pollution, which slows the effects of climate change. It’s a win-win.

The carbon and copper method the researchers discovered would allow us to create ethanol without using as much arable land (it’s usually made from corn) and without affecting food prices. Plus, burning ethanol produces CO2, which could subsequently be turned into more ethanol. This process may not be exactly carbon neutral, but it’s a huge step toward that goal and an excellent way to make up for shortfalls from solar or wind energy production.

Eco-friendly, Environmental Hazards

There May Be Toxic Chemicals In Your Household Dust

Young children and pets are particularly at risk for exposure to toxic chemicals in dust.
Photo: Shutterstock

The dust in your house could be exposing you and your family to many toxic chemicals.

A team of researchers at George Washington University examined data from household dust samples from around the U.S. and put together a report detailing the top 10 toxic materials found in that dust.

How do toxins get into dust? Many products ranging from vinyl flooring to furniture to cleaners and building materials have these chemicals in them. Young children and pets have a disproportionate risk of exposure because they are closest to the floor and clean themselves or put their hands in their mouths.

TCEP, a flame retardant added to couches, baby products, electronic, and other products, had the highest estimated intake.

Next on the intake list were four phthalates. These chemicals are thought to interfere with hormones in the body and are linked to an array of health issues including respiratory problems and decreased IQ.

Highly fluorinated chemicals are found in cell phones, pizza boxes, and many non-stick products. Exposure to these substances has been linked to health problems of the immune, digestive, developmental, and endocrine systems.

“The number and levels of toxic and untested chemicals that are likely in every one of our living rooms was shocking to me,” says Veena Singla, Ph.D., staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-author of the study. “Harmful chemicals used in everyday products and building materials result in widespread contamination of our homes.”

The problem is that these studies, while alarming, may actually underestimate the exposure faced by young children and pets.

So what’s a person to do if they want to reduce their family’s exposure to these toxic chemicals?

The study’s authors recommend using a strong vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter in order to keep household dust levels low. They also recommend washing hands frequently and searching out personal care and household products that don’t contain these chemicals.

What do you do to minimize your and your family’s exposure to toxic chemicals? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Conservation, Eco-friendly, Green, Science

California Academy of Sciences Installs “Living Roof”

The California Academy of Sciences has installed a living roof.
A living roof. Photo: Shutterstock

The California Academy of Sciences is dedicated to combining research and education like no other museum. This is true even with the roof. The Academy has a living roof—a 2.5-acre field sitting 35 feet above the ground. It is covered with a variety of indigenous Californian species and almost 2 million individual plants. The Bernard Osher Foundation made a $20 million donation specifically for this project, which began in 2005 and was finished by September 2008.

Several architecture groups worked together to create this never-been-done-before roof. The roof includes several hills, or steeply sloped domes. One of them has an incline of 60 degrees. The roof was structured using 50,000 modular porous trays made from tree sap and coconut husks. These held the plants in place while the roots grew together and interlocked, similar to sewing the pieces on a patchwork quilt.

In addition to being the densest concentration of wildflowers in San Francisco, this roof provides a habitat for birds, bees and other important animals. The plants also provide immense benefits to the building below. The plants absorb 98 percent of all storm water, meaning runoff with pollutants is not further entering the ecosystem

The plants keep the interior 10 degrees cooler than the average San Francisco roof. In addition the solar panels that are laid out with the plants provide up to 10 percent of the electricity needed for the Academy.

Among the more technical features of the roof is its automated skylight system. In addition to collecting basic weather data, the system monitors the inside of the Academy and the inside of the jungle exhibit. Using this data, it opens and shuts the skylights to regulate temperatures as necessary.

While most people don’t come to the Academy for the roof, it is certainly an impressive feat and is a great example for more projects to come.

Climate Change, Eco-friendly, Green, Science, Uncategorized

Plants Show Us How To Reduce Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere

A greenhouse full of plants. Scientists have found a way to turn carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.
Photo: Shutterstock

Carbon dioxide is one of the major contributors to global climate change. The good news is that plants use it for energy, converting it into oxygen, which animals need to breathe. The bad news is that using fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas creates more carbon dioxide than plants can keep up with.

However, plants can also teach us how to deal with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A team at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Chicago have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.

You may be alarmed by the production of carbon monoxide, as it is a known poison that can lead to suffocation and death. However, it’s much more reactive than carbon dioxide, which means it can be more easily converted into usable fuel sources.

“Making fuel from carbon monoxide means traveling ‘downhill’ energetically, while trying to create it directly from carbon dioxide means needing to go ‘uphill,’” said Argonne physicist Peter Zapol, one of the authors of the study.

The system by which the scientists did this took inspiration from plants, using many of the same ingredients, like light and water, that plants use to convert carbon dioxide into sugars. They even created an artificial leaf through which they processed the carbon dioxide. The process is very efficient, which is important because the more efficient a process, the cheaper it is and the more likely it is to catch on.

Carbon dioxide pollution is an important issue that scientists have been trying to address for decades now. While many plans going forward call for a reduction in carbon dioxide production, and that will certainly help, it won’t be enough to undo the damage caused by what is already in the atmosphere.

Other plans involve sequestering carbon dioxide by storing it underground, but that can be difficult and expensive, and it doesn’t get rid of the carbon dioxide.

Turning carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and subsequently into methanol could be a huge boon, as it would reduce greenhouse gases and provide renewable fuel sources.