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.

Conservation, Sustainability

Global Veganism Would Result in More Agricultural Land Use

A vegan diet may not necessarily be the best use of our agricultural lands.
Photo: Shutterstock

Among vegans, it’s common to hear the idea that eating vegan is better for everyone, including the planet itself. Discussions of greenhouse gas created by grazing animals are commonly a part of this. But according to a study published in Elementa, a purely vegan diet wouldn’t be the best way to make use of existing agricultural lands. Going vegan would feed fewer people and would result in having to convert more land over to agriculture.

The study is premised on the idea that there are three main kinds of agricultural land use. Grazing land is used to raise animals, perennial cropland for raising foods like grain and hay to feed animals and which are harvested multiple times per year, and cultivated cropland for raising foods such as vegetables and fruits. But vegan diets would eliminate the use of perennial cropland, which would waste a significant amount of land that could be used for growing food (directly or indirectly). It’s important to remember that these kinds of land are not all suited to one another. Grazing land tends to be bad for growing crops, for example.

This is also compared not to current land use based on diets, but on projections of land use, which included 10 different diets, including the “current diet” of Americans. Vegan diet-based land use would feed more people than the current model, but it wouldn’t feed as many people as either egg and dairy-friendly vegetarian (ovolacto vegetarian), dairy-friendly vegetarian (lacto vegetarian), or two different omnivorous models would. Less meat and more vegetables makes land use more efficient, but totally removing animals is not the most efficient.

While none of this means that vegan diets are meaningless, or that people who follow them are bad or a threat the world’s ecology, it does mean that veganism can’t save the world. But philosophical veganism isn’t usually about the environment anyway, it’s about animal rights, so whether this argument convinces any vegans remains to be seen.

Ultimately, though, the researchers write, “the findings of this study support the idea that dietary change towards plant-based diets has significant potential to reduce the agricultural land requirements of U.S. consumers and increase the carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural resources…Diet composition matters.”

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.”

Climate Change, Nature, Sustainability, Uncategorized

Danish Seagrass Sequesters Carbon at Record Rates

Danish seagrass sequesters carbon at record rates.
Tropical seagrass. Photo: Shutterstock

Seagrass, a type of underwater plant which flowers and grows quite like terrestrial grasses, is apparently a huge contributor to the world’s ability sequester carbon. Seagrass grows in “meadows,” large patches dominated by one or two species, which are home to many shallow-water and coastal creatures. It forms an integral part of their local ecosystems.

But seagrass also sequesters carbon dioxide at a very high rate, and in one Danish bay, it’s much better at it than anywhere else. Outside of Thurøbund, no meadow seems to hold more than 11,000 grams of carbon per square meter, but the Danish bay sequesters upwards of 27,000 grams per square meter.

Biologists think this might have something to do with the protected nature of the bay. Not protected in a legal sense, but by having less direct contact with the larger ocean. There, when the plants die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean and get buried in sediment, so the carbon they had been storing stays there. In other meadows, these plants are washed out to sea, after which nobody is sure what happens to them.

Seagrass is threatened, as are so many species on the planet. Since 1879, the Earth has lost about 29 percent of its seagrass meadows. Denmark itself has lost between 80 and 90 percent since the 1930s. But because these plants are so good at storing carbon, it’s certainly worth our time to not only find ways to preserve those meadows which still exist, but to find ways to shore them up. If we can get more seagrass to grow, returning to levels before 1879, that could be a huge help in reducing global warming.

While the Earth’s processes of naturally sequestering carbon aren’t likely to save the day, they do put in a lot of work, and finding ways to increase the effectiveness with which they do so could make quite a difference.

Sustainability

Threatened Freshwater Fisheries Are Crucial to Food Security

Freshwater fisheries are a crucial source of food for millions of people, and they're being threatened.
Photo: Shutterstock

Food security is an important human right that can be increasingly difficult to uphold in the 21st century. Between rampant income disparities around the world, gross waste of food in countries like the United States, political insecurity and war, and global climate change, finding ways to ensure that the most vulnerable people in the world have access to enough food is a serious concern.

But food security isn’t a simple cut-and-dried issue either. There’s much more to it than just how much food people have; there are questions about where that food comes from and what kind of food it is. There’s a difference between “enough food” and “enough nutritious food.”

Animal protein, for example, is increasingly difficult to come by for many of the poorest people in the world even as ever-growing sections of Africa and Latin America are given over to cattle, because that meat is largely intended for better paying markets, especially in cities.

A recent study has found that “freshwater fish provide protein for the nutritional equivalent of 158 million people,” meaning that fish provides most or all of their animal protein. That means freshwater fisheries must be considered when building dams or other large-scale projects. It also means that it must be considered when addressing global climate change and pollution, both of which are already starting to have an impact on the amount of fish that people are taking out of the rivers.

But those hauls are almost universally smaller than they used to be. Freshwater fish are having a hard time keeping up with human needs, which will be bad for biodiversity and human rights if those fish populations aren’t more carefully managed.

Finding the fine line between ecological management and food security is easier said than done, and something that needs to be taken into consideration as we work to mitigate and undo the damage of human actions on the global environment.

Conservation, Environmentalist, Sustainability, Uncategorized

New Brazilian Laws Could Threaten Environment, Indigenous Rights

New Brazilians laws could threaten the environment and indigenous rights.
Indigenous Brazilians in their village. Photo: Shutterstock

New regulations currently being discussed by the Brazilian legislature could have catastrophic results for the country’s environment and indigenous groups. Two initiatives would roll back environmental licensing laws, while the third would allow the building of several new industrial waterways without requiring assessment of potential environmental or social impacts.

The alarm around these potential laws is largely due to the recently announced 29% increase in Amazon deforestation, which comes on the heels of a rocky start for Brazilian president Michel Temer after the impeachment of his predecessor.

According to Mauricio Guetta, a lawyer for the Socio-Environmental Institute, a Brazilian NGO, these new laws would represent “the most worrying regressions of [Brazil’s] recent history.

“If approved, they will certainly make it impossible for Brazil to meet its commitments under the Paris agreement,” Guetta added.

Brazil has agreed to cut 37 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and end illegal deforestation by 2030.

However, if these new laws go into effect, Brazil’s standard environmental licensing procedures would change dramatically. Not only would the overall process speed up, but some companies would be allowed to supply their own licenses—or forgo them entirely. This could be particularly problematic when it comes to greenhouse gas, since 52 percent of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and the way land and forests are used.

About 250 organizations, including NGOs and environmental prosecutors have signed a bill denouncing the potential laws, noting previous environmental disasters like the dam burst in Mariana, which flooded the countryside with millions of liters of mining waste.

The trouble is, in many ways, political. President Temer’s cabinet has shown a tendency to cater to a powerful bloc of pro-agribusiness lawmakers called the ruralista, who advocate legislature that serves local business, often without regard for potential environmental fallout.

The ruralista are also increasingly pushing for changes in how indigenous lands are used and protected—or made unprotected. Another drafted law would transfer control over demarcation of indigenous lands from the executive to the legislative branch. This law would only allow land occupied by indigenous groups from 1988 on to be held as reserves. That means land where indigenous peoples were expelled would now be available for economic development.

“This is a clear violation of Brazilian and international law, which could result in the destruction of whole peoples,” said indigenous activist group Survival International. The organization also warned against increased deforestation in these areas.

Then there are the bills known as Decretos Legislativos, or PDCs. Their passage through the legislature has been stalled, but by no means stopped entirely. These bills would authorize the construction of three industrial waterways in major river basins on the Tapajós River, the Amazon, the Tocantins and Araguaia Rivers, and the Paraguai River. While the waterways would help expedite shipments of soy and other products, they would be built without any environmental oversight beyond whatever is supplied by the companies themselves.

The fight between Brazilian environmental activists and a government hoping to improve the economy at the expense of oversight is set to continue in February 2017 after the parliamentary recess.

Environmental Hazards, Sustainability

Earth’s “Technosphere” is Terrifyingly Large

The technosphere is terrifyingly large.
Photo: Shutterstock

The Anthropocene Review is a journal that looks at the current epoch of the Earth’s history, the one in which humans have so impacted the planet as to mark it as unique from previous epochs. Although the Anthropocene concept is still rather new, it is gaining recognition, and as a byproduct comes a new term: the technosphere.

The technosphere can be compared to the biosphere, which is the system by which life on the planet interacts. The technosphere, in contrast, consists of all the stuff that humans have made: houses, airports, mines, smartphones, AOL free trial CDs, and all the garbage in landfills across the world.

While that may be an interesting concept in and of itself, it’s helpful in putting into context just how much stuff humans have made. Currently, estimates of the total weight of the technosphere come to about 30 million (metric) tons. That works out to about 50 kilos of stuff per square meter of the Earth’s surface.

That’s a lot of stuff.

The technosphere has been evolving for millennia now, but has taken on a life of its own in recent centuries. Frankly, it’s not all the good at being a thing. Where as the biosphere is incredibly efficient, with each living organism providing nutrients for other organisms at some point in its life or death, the technosphere is terrible at recycling, which is why it weighs so much. There’s no getting rid of a lot of this stuff.

The concept of the technosphere, and how terrifyingly huge it is, helps to put into context just how important it is that we get better at efficiently using the resources to which we have access. Eventually, we’re going to run out of raw materials with which to make more things, and at that point the technosphere will have crushed everything else under its weight.