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.”

Conservation, Eco-friendly, Green, Sustainability

Xeriscaping Makes Beautiful Landscapes Even In Droughts

Xeriscaping is the key to having a beautiful landscape even in drought conditions.
Succulents are great to use for xeriscaping because they are drought-tolerant and beautiful. Image via Pixabay

A recent study showed than in 2010, Los Angeles was losing about 100 gallons of water per person per day. Lawns accounted for 70 percent of that water loss.

While that loss was probably mitigated by mandatory water use restrictions that were imposed in 2014 in response to the severe drought in the area, the restrictions were lifted in 2017 after an abundantly wet spring. Will the loss of restrictions inspire Angelenos to keep dumping water into their lawns, or have the majority of them come to see that it’s important to plant native, drought-tolerant species?

It’s hard to know as of now, but since Southern California is primarily desert, we hope that more Los Angeles residents have gotten in the habit of xeriscaping—landscaping with drought-tolerant, native species.

The fundamental principles of xeriscaping revolve around water conservation. Landscape designers look for ways to reduce the amount of irrigation and maximize the use of what natural precipitation there is.

Soil improvement is a key in xeriscaping. The ideal soil in a water-conserving landscape drains quickly and stores water at the same time. This may seem contradictory, but for many species, increasing the amount of organic material in the soil and keeping it aerated serves this purpose. However, if your xeriscape includes a lot of cacti or succulents, don’t do the soil amendments; those species are designed to survive in the untreated native soils of the region.

Using drought-resistant native plants is important in any xeriscape. Most of these plants have small, thick, glossy, silver-gray or fuzzy leaves; the way these leaves are made helps them to save water. Also, if you must have a lawn, make it a small one to minimize water use. And don’t put plants with high and low water needs in the same area, so don’t plant your succulents next to your lawn or fruit trees.

By covering the soil around plants with mulch, you’ll help the soil retain water, prevent erosion, and block out weeds that compete with the plants you want. Mulch needs to be several inches thick in order to be effective, and it will need more applied (a practice called “top dressing”) as the existing mulch blends with the soil.

When it comes to irrigation, soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems work the best because they help you avoid overwatering and deliver the water right to the base of the plant. They also deliver water at a slow rate, which is ideal for the deep and infrequent watering needed for a xeriscape.

The best thing about a xeriscaped yard is that it’s low-maintenance. You don’t need to seed or mow the lawn, or use massive amounts of fertilizer or weed killer. In fact, the only thing you’ll really need to do is ensure that weeds aren’t growing through your mulch (if they are, thicken the mulch layer) and that if you are using grasses, you keep them taller so that they become a natural mulch that shades roots and helps retain water.

Do you xeriscape? What are your thoughts on the benefits and burdens of xeriscaping? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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.”


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.

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.

Climate Change, Science, Sustainability

We Need Transparency to Make the Paris Agreement Work

We need transparency to make the Paris Agreement work.
Photo: Shutterstock

The Paris Agreement is an international plan to reduce carbon emissions in order to help keep the average global temperature at a reasonable level. That temperature is going to rise, but the hope is to keep it from rising too much over the rest of the century, buying us time to figure out better, more environmental practices for agriculture and production. It is predicated on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), wherein countries pledged to reduce their carbon output by a certain amount based on their current output, with the total being enough to, hopefully, restrain temperature increase.

Reducing output is one thing, but measuring it is another. European scientists are warning that if we don’t take special care to develop workable transparency processes, we might not actual reach our goals. They argue that each country involved in the Paris Agreement needs to develop clear, transparent systems by which to measure and report their carbon output, so that other nations can hold them accountable for keeping up their end of the bargain.

There is a strong political element to this as well, which goes beyond the technical. There are important obstacles including concerns about the cost of reporting, control, and the perceived usefulness of the information produced by the reporting.

“An important part of the implementation of the Paris Agreement will hinge on whether political actors can muster the leadership in order to successfully navigate monitoring challenges at the international level,” says study lead author Jonas Schoenefeld. “The EU’s experience shows that incorporating policies into NDCs should be seen as one step in a long journey to better knowledge of climate policies.”

But they also warn that it’s important we don’t allow such measurements to simply be an opportunity to point the blame at countries that didn’t hold up their part of the bargain. This is why we need to put in the work to build this system fairly and across the board, making sure that everyone is one the same page as far as recording and reporting carbon outputs and climate data in general.

This process will take years, but it will be worth the effort. By creating a uniform system, one that ideally does not put undue stress on less developed countries, we can ensure that we have the most current data and able to adapt to it in the future in order to fill in gaps and make sure we meet our goals.