By Neelam Ferrari
If you are reading this article, it is likely that you are aware of the benefits of reducing food waste and utilizing resources efficiently, towards feeding a growing global population. When it comes to agriculture, this is even more important as farmers need to be aware of costs around water, fertilizer, labor and other items. Once a plant is harvested, much of that plant is not needed for its primary purpose, which is consumption. For example, take a look at corn. A corn plant on the typical US farm grows anywhere between 6 and 12 feet high, and the roots can add another 6 feet. Also consider that on a typical corn plant there are only 1-2 ears of corn per stalk. So for two ears to be harvested, there is a lot of extra biomass that goes along with it, which is not edible. Instead of discarding this excess material as waste, it makes good environmental sense and good business sense to find some value for this material. This is a great opportunity for the circular economy (CE).
The World Economic Forum recently wrote an article stating that farmers produce more than enough food for the global population, so people really should not go hungry. This is a perfect justification for CE applications, which blend technology with business in an attempt to use everything in an industrial process. Moreover, the waste of one industry can be the fuel for another, so that all of the component fit together like a puzzle. Connecting these pieces of this puzzle can be a challenge, but as technological advances in fields like biotechnology and material science become more widespread, more industries are learning of the benefits. So in the example above, does the remaining biomass from a corn stalk have no value? It is probably the opposite. Even though the stalk can not be eaten, it does have value as it can be burned for fuel, or ground and reused as an organic fertilizer. Also, there is still nutritional value, so the remaining biomass can be blended into feedstock for other livestock. By reusing the stalk, growers can also sell to other industries, instead of just discarding or burning as trash.
In addition to finding new uses for what was once ‘wasted’ can applying CE principles lead to new ways to grow crops so that waste is not generated in the first place? This could be where we look more closely at the innovative work taking place at the MIT Media Lab’s OpenAG Initiative. OpenAG has built a prototype food computer where the goal is to create specific climates that are compatible with commercial crops in order to optimize phenotypic characteristics. For example, if growers wanted a particular type of tomato with a targeted color, taste, and texture, a “climate recipe” can be created and shared resulting in the desired tomato. By optimizing food production in this manner we can also save water, energy, and money. This will be a topic explored in future posts.
The CE holds tremendous promise for the agriculture sector and we really can now start to think seriously about making significant changes in the global food production system.
By Ben Laufer, in partnership with Joanne Spigonardo of IGEL
Urban agriculture and urban farming, historically often referred to as “community gardens,” have reemerged in recent years due to growing interest in environmental sustainability and local self-reliance. Proponents of the concept have vouched for urban farming’s ability to repurpose land in an effort to spur economic development, provide educational opportunities, reduce current environmental impacts, and strengthen public health. However, few studies have been conducted that create metrics to thoroughly evaluate the impacts of urban agriculture in different sectors. As a result, a lack of data and conclusions have followed, creating a growing landscape of farms without many necessary tools and appropriate information to yield consistent and effective results. Due to the local characteristics of urban farms, there has been little uniformity between organizations’ efforts, leading cities even within states to have differing models and reasons for implementation. The foundation of this report will be constructed from an analysis of US urban agriculture trends and impacts. This report aims to look at case studies from three of Connecticut’s most populated, culturally diverse, and food insecure cities (New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport) the role of urban agriculture in each and the impacts and setbacks they’ve experienced. In the concluding remarks, propositions of how to best create effective, innovative, and adaptable solutions will be discussed, as well as the potential for urban agriculture’s role in future sustainable development.
For the complete report, click here: Urban Farming Report Draft IGEL-3
By Neelam Ferrari
Moravian Academy Student
Hi, my name is Neelam Ferrari. I am a rising high school senior at Moravian Academy and I have been working as a summer intern at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My work is focused on a project which is part of the Open Agriculture Initiative at the Laboratory. The OpenAg Lab is focusing on building a ‘Food Computer’ which involves an open source approach to the global food production and distribution system, through a combination of collaborative genetics, computer science and robotics, and web based public outreach. With an increasing global population over the next 30-50 years, and more anticipated weather driven food shortages as a result of climate change, the lab is hoping to develop technologies that can help feed the world in the future.
My contribution to the project involves working with laboratory instrumentation, independent research, and public outreach. I am using a hand-held spectrometer to take readings from different varieties of test plants in the lab, analyzing data, and identifying which characteristics are most important in understanding the plant’s phenotype. The spectrometer measures the color characteristics, which can be related to physical appearance and flavor and this data goes into the ‘open phenotype’ library for other researchers to use. In addition, I am researching in more detail about the pigment characteristics related to anthocyanin, brix and carotenoids. These pigments recorded by the spectrometer are related to characteristics such as color, ripeness, flavor and sugar content. This information here can be used to guide future experiments in the lab. Finally, I have created a thread on the OpenAg’s public forum “OpenAg for High Schoolers”, where I keep high school students informed about the events occurring at the lab and discuss any new discoveries that are made. It is also a place for students to communicate with me and start projects, like those at OpenAg, in their own schools.
The projects at OpenAg are heavily involved with several components of sustainability: economic, ecological, and social. Economic issues include providing new jobs, providing an adequate amount of food for the population, and trade between countries. Some ecological issues include soil and water degradation. Finally some social issues include utilizing these technologies for low income families as well as creating a community based on the technologies. These issues are closely related to the daily challenges faced by many of the companies involved with the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL). How these goals are achieved, in my opinion, will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century.