Stories tagged farming

Sep
16
2011

Here on good ol' Planet Earth, the human population is growing and boy are folks hungry. By 2050, there should be 9 billion of us running around, but Earth isn't getting any bigger and we probably don't want to try farming on the moon. On the Buzz, we've read about some plants that have been modified to resist drought and tough climates, but what about the wisdom of the ancient Andeans?

The Andes: Just in case you didn't know what they look like. Kinda gorgeous, eh?
The Andes: Just in case you didn't know what they look like. Kinda gorgeous, eh?Courtesy David Almeida

No, no, not that wisdom, delicious as it is. I'm talking about Andean farmers. These guys are reviving tough heirloom potatoes, clever terraces, and Incan irrigation systems. The species and systems had been used for thousands of years, and were probably adapted to the uncertainties of agriculture in the high mountains.

But when Spaniards showed up a few centuries ago with their own methods, traditional ways slowly fell out of use even though they were better suited to the region's need. Now that farmers are rediscovering the benefits of these ancient traditions, they're hoping these methods can help hungry folks in other parts of the world, too. Now that's a wisdom I can sink my teeth into!

May
18
2011

Boom!
Boom!Courtesy sfllaw
Word on the street is that the world may be ending on Saturday. Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly when—I’m not keyed into the ins and outs of religious fear mongering enough to make an exact calculation—so I can’t tell you if you should cancel your lunch date, or if you’ve got until midnight to continue doing whatever it is you do. Jigsaw puzzles? Hard drugs? Far be it from me to judge.

And, you know, normally I’d dismiss this as an organization’s or individual’s effort to gain attention through a frightening claim that has no basis in reality, but … watermelons are freaking exploding in China!

Whatever holy scripture this May 21st thing was extrapolated from, I guarantee there’s a passage in there along the lines of, “And in the east, melons shall burst on the vine. Their shells will rupture, and tiny seeds shall fly forth. Juice will be everywhere.” I mean, it would fit, right? This is the sort of thing that always happens before the end of the world! How am I going to explain this to my cat?!

Now, some folks—I’ll call them unbelievers—insist that the exploding melons actually aren’t bursting from anxiety over the imminent end of everything they care about. Instead, they say that they’re bursting because of a lazy farming technique, where a chemical called forchlorfenuron has been over applied. Forchlorfer… whatever, causes increased cell division in fruit, and is sprayed on watermelons and their ilk to get bigger, faster growing fruit. The resulting watermelons can be oddly shaped, and don’t taste all that great, but they’re supposed to be harmless to humans. And, apparently, they can explode.

Now, generally we keep an open mind regarding fertilizers and high-yield farming techniques around here, but this is a good example of the hazards of wily-nily application of chemicals to farms. (Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this isn’t a symptom of the apocalypse.) If there’s no significant nutritional gain, it seems kind of crazy. And if this chemical is causing explosion in the crop it’s supposed to help, it makes one wonder what its effect will be when it’s absorbed in the soil or washed off the fields (and into other vegetation). And there’s the question of whether farmers should be allowed to do this. And what the market conditions are that make them want to/need to use chemicals like forchlorfenuron. And if there’s a benefit to using it in any situations.

But that’s all probably very complicated, and should only be considered by people who don’t believe that the world is on its way out. Me? I’m not even going to brush my teeth before Saturday.

Jul
13
2010

Brown gold!: This is actually the solid byproduct of a manure-to-methane operation. As you can see, it holds no fear for the owner of this bare hand.
Brown gold!: This is actually the solid byproduct of a manure-to-methane operation. As you can see, it holds no fear for the owner of this bare hand.Courtesy kqedquest
We’ve talked about the delights of cow feces before on Science Buzz, but mid-July always puts me in the mind of “brown gold” (coincidentally, the last occasion it came up was exactly four years ago today), and any time there’s talk of turning an animal into a fuel source, I get excited. (Remember that fuel cell that ran on the tears of lab monkeys? Like that.) Why not take another look?

So here you are: another wonderful story of cows trying their best to please us, before they make the ultimate gift of allowing their bodies to be processed into hamburgers and gelatin and cool jackets.

Poop jokes aside (j/k—that’s impossible), it is a pretty interesting story. The smell you detect coming from cattle farms is, of course, largely from the tens of thousands of gallons of poop the cattle produce every day. The decomposing feces release lots of stinky methane. (Or, to be more precise, the methane itself isn’t smelly. The bad smell comes from other chemicals, like methanethiol, produced by poop-eating bacteria along with the methane.)

Aside from being, you know, gross, all of that poop is pretty bad for the environment. The methane is released into the atmosphere, where it traps heat and contributes to global warming (methane is 20 to 50 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas), and the poop itself is spread onto fields as fertilizer. Re-using the poop as fertilizer is mostly a good idea, but not all of it gets absorbed into the soil, and lots of it ends up getting washed away into rivers, lakes, and streams, where it pollutes the water.

Some farms have managed to address all of these problems, and make money while doing it.

Instead of spreading the manure onto fields right away, the farms funnel all the poop into swimming pool-sized holding tanks, where it is mixed around and just sort of stewed for a few weeks. All of the methane gas produced by bacteria as it breaks down the manure is captured in tanks. What’s left is a fluffy, more or less sterile, solid that can be used as bedding for the animals, or mixed in with soil, and a liquid fertilizer that can be spread onto fields.

The methane can then be used on-site to generate electricity, either by burning it in a generator, or using it in a fuel cell. (The methane is broken apart and combined with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, water, and carbon dioxide.) A large farm will produce enough electricity to power itself and several hundred other houses. (The extra electricity is just put back into the power grid and sold to the power company.)

Whether the methane is burned or used in a fuel cell, the process still creates carbon dioxide. However, CO2 isn’t nearly as bad as methane when it comes to trapping heat, and because the original source of the carbon was from plant-based feed, the process can be considered “carbon-neutral.” (Although one might argue that the fossil fuels involved in other steps of the cattle farming process could offset this. But let’s leave that be for now. It’s complicated.)

The downside is that setting up an operation to capture and process manure, and to generate power by burning it is expensive—it took about 2.2 million dollars to do it at the farm covered in the article, with about a third of that coming from grants. Still, the byproducts (electricity, fertilizer, soil/bedding) are profitable enough that the system could pay for itself over the course of a few years.

It’s amazing, eh? Out of a cow’s butt we get soft, clean bedding, liquid fertilizer, and electricity, all without the bad smell. What a world.

Jun
25
2010

Agriculture is widely understood to be one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which is unfortunate for two reasons: 1) greenhouse gases are a driving force of climate change, and 2) last time I checked, people still need to eat.

Literally Green Skyscrapers: In a near-future world with 9 billion people, land will be even more valuable than it is today.  Researchers have been asking themselves how we are going to feed all those new people...  What if we built high rise greenhouses?
Literally Green Skyscrapers: In a near-future world with 9 billion people, land will be even more valuable than it is today. Researchers have been asking themselves how we are going to feed all those new people... What if we built high rise greenhouses?Courtesy Curbed SF

Specifically, farming is one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – all greenhouse gases – in our atmosphere. The four major sources of these emissions include fossil fuel consumption, fertilizer usage, animal farts and poop (no kidding!), as well as land use change (mainly, deforestation). As serious a problem as climate change is, one of the most important truths for environmentalists to remember is that people have needs that necessarily affect the health of the environment. For example, the world’s population is currently well over six billion people who need roughly 2,000 calories from food each day. That’s a lot of food that we depend upon farmers to raise and grow for us every day! And with predictions of nine billion people occupying the Earth in a mere forty years, our global population’s appetite is growing.

However, a June 2010 study published in Scientific American says that farming’s bad rap is undeserved, and actually modern high-yield crop farming has a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Say what??

Here’s how it works: What sustainability-minded scientists from many disciplines strive to do is find ways to limit (better!) or eliminate (best!!) peoples’ negative impact on the environment.

In the 1960s, farmers and researchers began to develop new methods of farming to feed the rapidly expanding population. This has been called the “Green Revolution.” The results of their studies produced modern high-yield farming, which has allowed farmers to produce more food in less space. According to the Stanford researchers, though high-yield farming is possible largely because of fertilizer use – one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms – it prevents land use change in the form of deforestation – another one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms. The key point is that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by fertilizer use is less than the greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation, which yields a net reduction. That is, if we had continued with pre-Green Revolution farming techniques, in order to feed today’s population, we’d be using less fertilizer, deforesting more land, and emitting considerably more greenhouse gases than we currently are.

Today, at the Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscapes Initiative continues to focus on seeking ways to secure a healthy land use future for both people and the environment. This includes researching innovative agricultural practices.

Hydroponics: Hydoponics is a method of growing plants without soil.  Weird, but true!  Instead, plants are raised in a mineral water bath.  Could this be the future of farming?
Hydroponics: Hydoponics is a method of growing plants without soil. Weird, but true! Instead, plants are raised in a mineral water bath. Could this be the future of farming?Courtesy pchic

Another Scientific American article has it’s own ideas about how to provide food to our growing population: build vertical farms. These futuristic, skyscraping greenhouses are based upon existing hydroponic greenhouses and could reduce fossil-fuel use while simultaneously recycling city wastewater. Hydroponic greenhouses grow plants without soil! Instead, they use mineral nutrients dissolved in water, allowing plants to be grown just about anywhere… including on the 34th floor. According to the article,

“A one-square-block farm 30 stories high could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres…”

That’s a lot of food. A lot. Really? Is it possible? The paper’s author claims it is and that architects, engineers, designers, and “mainstream organizations” are taking note of his vertical farm concept.

Mar
17
2010

Nom nom nom!
Nom nom nom!Courtesy Alaina B. (Flickr)

Cheeseburgers. Watermelon. Grilled corn-on-the-cob. As the promise of warmer weather inches increasingly closer, I’m already dreaming of my favorite summer foods. (I mean, really, aren’t you?? Bet you are now…)

The world’s population is reaching 9 BILLION people, and we all have to eat! (I know, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”) In the United States, almost everyone eats incredibly well by world standards. Globally, many families are lucky to share a bowl of rice for dinner. Meanwhile, crop yields aren’t keep up with increasing demand, so world food prices are rising everyday. The developing world already experiences a food shortage, but even in the developed West, we are not completely insulated against the effects of an escalating population on global food supply. Science confirms what our guts and pocket books are already telling us – we can’t keep biggering our population without seriously thinking about how we grow and eat our food.

So what are we going to do?? Don’t despair. Thankfully, great minds are thinking about the global food crisis and considering how to ensure food security throughout the world. Many of these ideas are published in Science magazine’s recent food security issue. Scientists play an important role in boosting crop yields by researching crops and farming methods that: 1) use little water, 2) don’t deplete the soil of nutrients, and 3) increase how much food is grown per seed. Engineers and technicians are also aiding the process: plant breeders are now using robots to streamline breeding programs, which allows researchers to introduce cool new traits that allow crops to fight fungi, weeds, and viruses that threaten to wipe out entire crops (in honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2010, remember the Irish Potato Famine?).

Fertilizer: Good or Bad?: Turns out the answer is neither all good or all bad!  Plants need some nutrients, but humans often overdose crops, causing soil quality (and agriculture production) to degrade.
Fertilizer: Good or Bad?: Turns out the answer is neither all good or all bad! Plants need some nutrients, but humans often overdose crops, causing soil quality (and agriculture production) to degrade.Courtesy FreeFoto.com

Caution! Myth-busting ahead: Fertilizer is the often-suggested solution to the global food crisis, but scientists say we only need to look as far as China to see why that’s not a solution, but rather part of the problem. China consumes 36% of the world’s manmade fertilizer, making it the world’s largest user. Nitrogen is a major component of fertilizer. Nitrogen is what scientists call a “limiting nutrient” meaning “the nutrient is rare, but plants need a minimum amount to live.” Research in China has shown that sometimes there is too much of a good thing; too much fertilizer actually causes healthy soil to get sick from a nitrogen overdose.

Ensuring the world’s food security poses cultural, economic, and psychological challenges as well as scientific ones. Solutions discussed in Science’s special issue include promoting traditional mixed crop-livestock systems, local development of relevant technologies, and eating less meat. One alternative suggested that’s going to (literally) be hard to swallow: substituting African caterpillars instead of steak and other meaty favorites. (I think that’s going to be a tough sell…)

You don’t have to go too far to find people tackling the problem of food security. Right here in Minnesota, at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscape Initiative (GLI) program has a focus on agriculture and food systems. By studying how people use land for farming and other practices, GLI is seeking to understand how we might make better use of land to create a brighter future for humankind and the environment. Recently they made a sweet YouTube video to pose the BIG Question: Feast or Famine? I highly recommend you check it out:

Apr
22
2009

Big wheel keep on turnin': Modern agriculture produces more food on less space than traditional forms.
Big wheel keep on turnin': Modern agriculture produces more food on less space than traditional forms.Courtesy Andrew Stawarz

Continuing our string of counter-intuitive ecological findings, today we read an article which argues that factory farms are good for the environment. It turns out that people need food. And the 6-billion-plus people on the planet today need a LOT of food. So much so, that 38% of the Earth’s land surface is dedicated to farming. That’s a lot. But, thanks to innovations like pest-resistant foods, artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and expanding irrigation, it’s less than half the area that would be necessary under more traditional farming methods.

(Genetically modified crops are particularly beneficial, as they require fewer chemicals, less fertilizer and help reduce erosion.)

This is not to say that big farms are not without their environmental impact. But that impact is a lot less than it would have been without these innovations. So, on this Earth Day, let us give thanks to the farmers for feeding us, and for doing it so efficiently.

Farm animals often carry germs that can get into our food supply. And pumping the animals full of antibiotics can cause other problems, such as breeding super bugs that are immune to the drugs. But researchers in South Carolina are taking a new approach. They are adding nanoparticles to chicken feed. The particles imitate chicken cells and attract the germs. The germs get stuck to the particles, and then get expelled harmlessly the next time the chicken poops.

(If scientists don’t blow it up first.)

Farmers in Brazil have traditionally cut down large swaths of rain forest to plant cacao trees – the source of chocolate. But these high-yield plantations ravaged the rain forest, depleted the land, and suffered numerous outbreaks of disease. A new method of planting, called cabruca, plants cacao trees right inside the rain forest itself. Only a few rain forest tress are cut down – the forest itself remains intact. The forest nourishes the cacao trees and protects them from plantation diseases. And while the amount of chocolate grown in this manner is smaller than can be grown on a plantation, the farmers can make up the difference by charging a higher price for “environmentally friendly chocolate.”

Sep
12
2007

The family farm is home to fewer and fewer families: Photo by chefranden at Flickr.com
The family farm is home to fewer and fewer families: Photo by chefranden at Flickr.com

Almost lost in a lengthy report by the International Labor Organization was this astonishing tidbit: for the first time ever in the history of civilization, agriculture is not the world's dominant industry.

Farming developed about 10,000 years ago, as early hunter-gatherer societies discovered ways to grow crops and ensure a steady food supply. This allowed societies to support larger populations, and before you know it, you've got civilizations popping up all over the place. Surplus food allows civilizations to support new classes of workers not directly involved in food production: rulers, priests, artists, soldiers, chartered accountants, bicycle repairmen, telephone sanitizers.

But they were always in the minority, until now. The explosive growth of the service sector in recent years has catapulted it to first place, ahead of agriculture and manufacturing.

This may seem like old news to Americans. According to various websites I have not read thoroughly, about 75% of Americans were farmers in 1800. That percentage had dropped to 40% by 1900; was down to 15% in 1950; and had sunk to a mere 2% or so by 2000. In much of the rest of the world, however, farming was still by far the #1 occupation.

No more. The rapid growth of cities worldwide in recent decades has tilted the balance. Farmers, while still vitally important, are no longer the majority or even a plurality.