Green, Sustainability

Texas A&M Student Designs Educational Tool to Teach Kids About Agriculture

A Texas A&M student has designed a product that uses hydroponics and engineering to teach kids about agriculture.
Hydroponic greenhouse. Photo via Pixabay

Alfredo Costilla had a vision: He wanted to provide an educational tool for teachers and parents to educate kids about the world of agriculture.

The Texas A&M Ph.D. candidate developed BitGrange, a process that uses hydroponics and technology to connect elementary school students with the science of agriculture.

Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil, generally by adding nutrients to the water they grow in, according to the BitGrange team.

Costilla grew up in a family of farmers and volunteered with elementary school students, which is how he came up with the idea for BitGrange.

These kids represent a new generation of farmers and entrepreneurs, Costilla said. “We are a new generation of food consumers that can also be food producers,” he added.

Costilla’s BitGrange team is composed of students in a variety of majors, ranging from computer science and engineering, to electrical engineering. He says he thinks that the best ideas come from assembling a diverse team to work on a project.

“Most of your group projects, they’re mainly in your class,” said team member Brandon Neff, a computer engineering major. “Those people are in the same major as you. So this is like the first big project I’ve worked on with a lot more diversity and background.”

Electrical engineering major Marco Farias says he hopes BitGrange will go beyond its interaction with elementary school students. “It’s seeing beyond that and thinking that we’re also able to help future problems like lack of food and scarce resources to feed humankind,” he said.

Costilla said his long-term goal is “to see the largest farm that doesn’t own a single square inch of land.” He wants a user-generated way to produce plants, a concept he says is similar to that of Facebook or Uber.

“It could work. It could not. But definitely I believe that great achievements happen at the edge of uncertainty,” Farias said. “So this is a bet. I’m in with Alfredo and this team to make it work.”

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

New Reef Discovered at Amazon River Mouth

The RV Atlantis carries sampling equipment about to be lowered into the Amazon River plume.
The RV Atlantis carries sampling equipment about to be lowered into the Amazon River plume. Photo: University of Georgia | Lance Willis.

Large rivers empty into oceans and create plumes, a swirling mass of fresh and salt water that signal breaks in coral reefs, which can’t live in fresh water. The Amazon River typifies this, and its plume creates a huge break in Atlantic reefs. At least, that’s what we thought.

A new study in Science Advances details a coral reef system discovered in the Amazon River plume, which is home to a wide variety of life and has some fascinating interconnected ecosystems as well. In the southern part of the plume, most of the reef is made of typical corals, which photosynthesize for food, because they have access to light.

But as you move north, the plume reduces the amount of available light underwater, and so there they reef consists largely of sponges and other creatures, which feed off nutrients washed out into the ocean by the river.

The study is pretty amazing and contributes a lot to our understanding of coral reefs. The variations in ecology based on access to light were particularly interesting. It reveals that microorganisms in the darker waters help to connect the river and reef environments.

But of course, it’s not all happy news. Like any other coral reef, this one is threatened by human activity. Increasing ocean acidity threatens the reefs, and there are also plans for offshore oil drilling in the area. Those plans can hopefully be stopped since it wasn’t apparent that there was a coral reef there, so maybe this discovery can forestall oil exploration there.

Ocean acidification and warming both have a devastating impact on coral reefs, as has been seen in other parts of the Atlantic especially, and this reef is no different. Maybe this discovery, and more research here, will help to spur more active attempts to reduce those impacts.

Green, Science, Sustainability

New Technology Allows Crops to Grow in a Desert

Sundrop Farms’ new facility in Port Augusta, Australia measures 20 hectares and enables the production of high-quality produce in harsh climates with degraded land.
Sundrop Farms’ new facility in Port Augusta, Australia measures 20 hectares and enables the production of high-quality produce in harsh climates with degraded land. Photo: Sundrop Farms.

A new kind of farming technology is making a tomato farm flourish in one of earth’s most arid places: the South Australian desert, a place with little usable land and no sources of freshwater at all. However, a new, super solar-powered boiler has been installed at a farm belonging to Sundrop Farms, receiving energy from the sun through a whopping 23,000 mirrors. The plant can process 2.8 million liters of seawater every day, using the steam to clean the air, and the water to raise some happy tomatoes.

The farm, made possible by a $100 million donation from Henry Kravis and KKR, is intended to help boost tomato production in the desert area north of Port Augusta in Australia. The funding comes with a new 10-year contract with Coles, a supermarket, which has agreed to buy the tomatoes, ensuring that the investment remains solid and productive.

KKR’s investment joins others from the South Australian government. Because of these investments, Sundrop Farms believes it will be able to expand and create 300 new jobs.

Greenhouses associated with the farm will grow more than 15,000 tons of sustainably-grown tomatoes a year, and the demand for that kind of produce is expected to grow by 15-25 percent over the next year. The amount of produce the desert farm generates would significantly ease the added pressure on the market and, hopefully, keep the costs of tomatoes low for consumers.

When construction is finished on the farm later this year, it will span about 50 acres. It will also boast a fancy refrigeration system that can chill steam from 35 Celsius to 18 Celsius quickly, using an environmentally-friendly form of ammonia that has “zero global warming potential,” according to Cold Logic, the firm that created it.

The new crop system “opens up new ways of producing crops out of very arid lands,” said Eddie Lane, a partner at Cold Logic. “It’s groundbreaking technology, and there’s been a lot of international interest from places like the Middle East.”

The solar farm does represent a lot of possible new opportunities in farming and food production. If land that could not ordinarily produce crops can be made to do so, we could come a long way in the fight against food scarcity, poor nutrition, and starvation around the world.

Business, Conservation, Sustainability

Study Unveils Roots of Mangrove Deforestation

Tall-stilt Mangroves (Rhizophora apiculata) in Batang Salak Estuary North of Kuching, Sarawak, MALAYSIA.
Tall-stilt Mangroves (Rhizophora apiculata) in Batang Salak Estuary North of Kuching, Sarawak, MALAYSIA. Photo: Bernard Dupont | FlickrCC.

Mangrove forests provide a number of ecological services to animals and people. They provide excellent cover for young fish to hide both from predators and from storms, which benefit other animals as well. They also store much higher levels of carbon than most other ecosystems, which make them valuable globally in the fight to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change.

Unfortunately, in Southeast Asia, which is home to the greatest variety of mangrove species on the planet, deforestation is having a huge impact on these ecosystems. Between 2002 and 2012, two percent of the mangrove forests in Southeast Asia were removed so that the land could be used for other purposes.

While these numbers are actually smaller than expected, they are still too high. This is still a substantial loss and one destined to affect Southeast Asia and the world for decades to come. Most of the forests were cut down to provide additional land for rice or palm oil cultivation. Myanmar considers rice production crucial for food security, while Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand promote palm oil production for economic and energy security.

As demand for these items is expected to increase in the near future, due to a growing global population and increasing global affluence, the problems caused by mangrove deforestation will continue to persist and worsen.

With this information in mind, scientists are trying to make the case of mangrove conservation. With a better understanding of what mangrove deforestation does to local ecosystems and the world at large, it will be easier to make arguments for that conservation. And, with a greater understanding of policies causing deforestation and the rates at which that deforestation happens, it will be easier to formulate plans to halt, if not reverse, those damages.

Business, Conservation, Nature, Uncategorized

Relocating Feral Beehives May Save Our Ecosystem

Feral bees are removed from homes and transplanted to hives in order to protect the endangered bee population and local ecosystems.
Feral bees are removed from homes and transplanted to hives in order to protect the endangered bee population and local ecosystems. Photo: American Honey Bee Protection Agency.

Bees are what are known as a keystone species in many ecosystems. They help pollinate plants that wouldn’t be able to breed without their help. No bees means no flowers, means no fruit, and so on down the line.

Basically, without bees, whole ecosystems struggle or die. So, despite the fact that they can be annoying or even a danger to people, we need to keep the bees around.

And, lately, things have been difficult for bees globally. In addition to huge die offs in recent years thanks to colony collapse disorder, changing climates have resulted in smaller hives in places like Texas.

So when bees build a hive in somebody’s house or on their property and become a potential danger to people or pets, it’s important that those bees are removed but not killed. Most people would turn to an exterminator, but in parts of Texas, they have another option.

The American Honey Bee Protection Agency is a small non-profit run by Walter Schumacher, who started the group back in 2008 in order to change the world. He has five removal teams that visit homes and other locations in order to remove dangerous hives and relocate them to controlled environments, which are safer both of people and bees.

The group also works for donations, like when they removed a huge hive in Pleasant Grove, Texas for $150, where for-profit removal services might charge as much as $1,000 for the same job. They also sell honey produced by the bees they’ve relocated to help generate income.

Not only are Schumacher and company helping the bees and the people who need them removed, they’re doing valuable ecological work. Bees are essential to the ecosystems they live in, and they’re also very fragile insects. While scientists continue to study what is causing massive die offs of bees around the world, the American Honey Bee Protection Agency is on the group helping out.

Eco-friendly, Environmental Hazards, Health, Sustainability

USDA’s MyPlate to Include Environmental Elements in Nutrition Suggestions?

MyPlate diagram from the USDA
The USDA’s nutrition suggestions for 2015 could include elements of environmental sustainability.

Every five years, the USDA releases its guidelines for healthy eating. This year, the drafted proposal could go beyond simple nutrition suggestions to include suggestions for which foods are not only nutritious but also environmentally-friendly in their production.

According to an AP report, the advisory panel to the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments has suggested the new guidelines include sustainability in their nutrition recommendations.

Once the final draft of the guidelines has been organized, it will be reflected in the USDA’s MyPlate icon, which replaced the food pyramid in 2011.

Meat production can take a serious toll on the environment. Research published by Climactic Change found that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock increased 51% between 1961 and 2010. Another study mentioned in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that beef production requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water, and results in five times more greenhouse gas per calorie.

“Eat meat, but less often–make it special,” suggested Professor Mark Sutton, lead author of a U.N. Environment Programme 2013 study on meat consumption. “Portion size is key.”

There are health benefits from eating less meat as well. Studies have found that eating more fruits and vegetables increases your fiber intake, and consuming less meat can lower your overall intake of saturated fat.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has already begun to express its concern about a USDA-promoted move away from meat, particularly beef. In a statement from Texas doctor and cattle producer Richard Thorpe, the association asserted that there is “a large body of strong and consistent evidence supporting lean beef’s role in healthy diets.”

In addition, the year-end spending bill enacted last month urged Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack to “only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors” in the USDA’s guidelines.

If the USDA does ultimately decide to include environmental factors in their nutritional recommendations, they are likely to encounter stiff opposition from both the beef industry and members of Congress.