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, Nature, Science

River Dolphins and Amazonian Manatees Get New Protection

The pink river dolphin, gray river dolphin, and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law.
The pink river dolphin is one of the species, along with the gray river dolphin and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law. Photo: Shutterstock

Thanks to a newly developed plan, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees in Peru will finally receive protection.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in England worked with Peruvian officials for more than two years to develop that law.

“These species are only found in the Amazon,” said Dr. Joanna Alfaro, formerly of the University of Exeter. “Neighboring countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador already had legislation to protect them, but Peru did not. To bring about this legislation, we worked in lose collaboration with the Peruvian government, with support from [World Wildlife Fund] Peru, and held five workshops with local authorities.

Like other species of dolphins and manatees, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees face threats from climate change, fishing, and loss of habitat, not to mention pollution, noise, and boat traffic.

The new law, the National Action Plan for the Conservation of River Dolphins and the Amazonian Manatee, was approved by Peru’s Ministry of Production. It requires conservation and monitoring of habitats. It is also designed to bring about better management of the species’ habitats.

“We are delighted to have been a part in the development of this law, and we are excited to see the plan in full implementation,” said researcher Elizabeth Campbell. “It was a long process, but it showed how government agencies can work with non-governmental academics, private companies, and others.”

Professor Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter, who supervised the research, said, “We believe this action plan will aid conservation and reduce the threats that dolphins and manatees face in the Amazon today. It is a great example where research was used as a baseline for the legal framework to protect biodiversity.”

The University of Exeter project was funded by the Darwin Initiative, a UK-based grant program that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide. It provides funding to countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives in preserving that biodiversity.

Conservation, Nature, Science

Logging Threatens Leatherback Turtles

Leatherback turtles are under threat from fishing nets, marine debris like plastic, and now it seems that even distant logging activities are threatening the species.
Baby leatherback turtles like this one can become the victims of predators if their way from nest to ocean is impeded by logging debris. Photo: Shutterstock

Leatherback turtles face a number of difficulties, all of which threaten the species as a whole. They are often caught in fishing nets or eat marine debris like plastic. Many of their nesting sites are under pressure from tourism and other human activities. And now it turns out that even logging is a danger to them, despite the fact that it rarely happens near beaches.

The problem is that logging creates quite a lot of debris, which ends up washing ashore on the beaches where leatherback turtles make nests and lay eggs. These turtles have to lay their eggs far enough up the shore that they won’t be flooded by high tide. But that debris can get in the way of mothers building nests, who have to spend more time on that process and have to build their nests closer to the tideline.

Once they hatch, baby leatherback turtles make their way across the sand and down to the water, but that is becoming increasingly difficult in areas subjected to logging debris. The turtles have to navigate around the debris, which requires them to use up more energy and puts them at increased risk of predation. While not every turtle makes it to the water—where they can start eating to replenish the energy spent getting there—with increased obstacles, even fewer are doing so. Over time, this could result in an overall decrease in the leatherback turtle population, which is already struggling.

“Leatherback turtles are already under immense pressure, from fisheries bycatch, and are also one of the species prone to ingesting marine plastic litter,” said Prof. Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter. “Our research clearly indicates that logging presents another threat. It is now paramount that beach cleanup operations are built into logging activities to prevent further damage to the species.”

Luckily, leatherback turtles are a favorite of environmentalists, tourists, and other people with the social clout or budget to try and affect change on their behalf, so the odds are good that they will at least be supported with beach cleanup activities.

“Simple measures could make a real difference, such as repositioning organic waste areas, or salvaging the wood debris as an energy source,” said Dr. Adolfo Marco Llorente of the Doñana Biological Station. “It is also essential that logging practices [which] reduce the impact on the marine environment are implemented.”

Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Science

National Academy of Sciences Says EPA Pollutant Studies Are Necessary

EPA employees protest job cuts, March 2, 2017
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers and supporters protest job cuts during rally in Chicago, Illinois, March 2, 2017. Photo: John Gress Media Inc / Shutterstock.com

The EPA periodically performs controlled human inhalation exposure (CHIE) studies, in which people are exposed to air pollutants in order to study their short-term effects. The concentration and duration of such exposure is minimal, intended to not have any lasting harm on participants, and of 845 such participants in eight studies between 2009 and 2016, only one person had an unexpected complication.

But that does mean that there is some potential risk to participants who, while they are provided with information about the potential risks of such studies, are given that information through highly technical consent forms. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently finished a study that found that the value of the CHIE studies outweighs their risk, with some caveats.

Primarily, they suggest that the EPA develop clearer language for participant consent forms, in order to prevent further dangers. “While communicating with potential participants, it’s particularly important to appropriately characterize the risks,” said Robert Hiatt, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. “EPA needs to make every effort to ensure that these descriptions are accurate, scientifically grounded, and comprehensible to people.”

But overall, the studies have been found to benefit society far more than they endanger participants, which is exactly what one might want from such studies. By looking at how pollutants interact with human biology on their own, we can learn more about those pollutants in particular, which informs laws about air quality. It also helps us to determine what might be to blame when pollutants mix in the atmosphere and cause otherwise unforeseen problems.

The findings by the National Academy come at a time when the EPA is under considerable scrutiny by Congress and the President. Anything that can help the EPA prove that they’re helping the American people will be welcome in keeping that agency funded and active, which is necessary if we’re to do anything about climate change and other human activities which damage the planet.

Nature, Science

Researchers Test Climate Model Against Data From Holocene Period

Scientists have recently compared data from a climate model with evidence from the Holocene Period and found some interesting differences.

When it comes to studying climate change, researchers can only go back about 150 years before they run out of temperature and meteorological recordings to explore. For any time before that, they need to use a number of techniques to figure out what the climate was like in a given area for a given time period.

One such way of doing this is to study trees that were alive at the time, and see how their rings grew. Another is to study pollen embedded at the bottom of lakes, which can imply what plants were in an area and can help up understand what the climate was like.

Still another form is a climate model, which is based on simulating important climate drivers and how they interact. Recently, researchers applied such a model to the northern Mediterranean in the mid-Holocene period (between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago). The climate model found that the period was warmer than expected, especially because pollen-based studies had determined that the period was colder there than it has been since.

The difference between the climate model and the paleoecological evidence is due in part the pollen used for the measurements. The previous measurements were based on the existence of silver fir pollen, which would imply colder temperatures. However, other could be other factors at work there, which can be take into account by the climate model method.

At first, the model was rejected because it seemed too contradictory, but interdisciplinary research bore out that the model is right and the pollen is wrong, or at least incomplete.

“It is only discussions between researchers from differing disciplines which enabled the new hypothesis to be developed and examined in detail,” said study co-author Oliver Heiri of the University of Bern.

What all of this does say, though, is that researchers need to keep working to improve our methods for studying the history of the Earth’s climate. While it may seem more pressing to study the current changing climate of the planet, it’s hard to track change when you have nothing with which to compare it. Furthermore, looking at climate changes in the past can provide insight into how the world can adapt to current changes, and might even help scientists to find ways to reduce the effects of climate change.

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.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards

Carbon Released from Soil Could Exacerbate Global Warming

Carbon stored in arctic and sub-arctic soil could be released if warming in the region continues, thus intensifying climate change.
Photo: Shutterstock

One of the many threats of global climate change is that, on a warming Earth, carbon trapped in soil will be released, which would make the entire problem even worse. Until recently, studies of this possibility have been mixed. According to a new study, it seems that the difference is caused largely by where the study is done.

In colder regions, soil has been slowly collecting carbon for some time, as microbes in that soil are much more sluggish than they are in temperate regions.

“But as you start to warm, the activities of these microbes increase, and that’s when the losses start to happen,” says Thomas Crowther, the study’s lead author. “The scary thing is, these cold regions are the places that are expected to warm the most under climate change.”

The study, led by researchers from Yale, found that warming soil could produce a 17-percent increase in emissions by the middle of the 21st century, effectively adding another United States’ worth of emissions to the already severe problem of excessive carbon emissions from industry.

The more the global temperature rises, the worse the problem will get, with the expected two degree Celsius increase by mid-century being more than we can actually afford if we are to avoid runaway global climate change.

The Arctic and sub-Arctic, which have the largest soil-based carbon stores, area already expected to warm faster than many other parts of the world, meaning this extra carbon could be released sooner rather than later.

The plus side of this study, and there is one, is that now we know this, which means we can focus more research efforts on the issue and hopefully figure out a way to slow down this release. Even if we can’t find a way to directly address the issue of increased carbon release from these soil stores, it is more evidence for the importance of reducing emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere.