Vertical Farming: Can Sunlight Be Sustainably Replaced?

by Natalie Knops

An emerging trend in agriculture, vertical farming, has been developing across the United States. Vertical farms, a new form of green urban architecture, are controlled, indoor environments that regulate lighting, nutrients and weather. These farms are typically set up in hydroponic towers that often inhabit urban buildings (Frazier, 2017). Many are optimistic about the benefits of this practice: fast production, minimization of land use, water conservation, minimization of fertilizer/agricultural run-off, and most significantly – the drastic reduction of transport emissions. Although the concept of vertical farming is increasing in popularity, some are skeptical about the drawbacks of this method due to the fact that retro-fitting buildings for indoor plant cultivation is capital-intensive and energy costs run high. Vertical farming requires specialized LED lights that generate photosynthesis. Continue reading

Food at what Energy Cost?

by Briton Lee

In a developed society such as in the U.S., there are many things that we take for granted; chief among them being food. The consumer is divorced from how the food reaches the shelves, as well as the labor/energy costs that go into the process. The food industry is heavily energy-consumptive, and while energy consumption per capita may have fallen by 1 percent from 2002 to 2007, food-related energy use increased about 8 percent as more energy-intensive technologies were developed to produce food for our increasing population (Schwartz 2011). In fact, about 80% of the increase in annual U.S. energy consumption is food-related. Some of the significant ways energy is consumed in food production include fossil fuels needed to power machines, synthesis of crop fertilizers, and supplying/transferring water (Biederman 2015). Continue reading

Climate-Smart Agriculture and Biophysical Consequences in the Midwest

by Ali Siddiqui

Climate-smart agricultural techniques are agronomical practices that help alleviate the consequences that climate change has on agriculture. Agronomical practices are related to soil management and production of field crops. Currently, in the Midwestern US different climate-smart techniques have been advocated in order to increase crop production. These include utilizing different crop cultivars in order to reap the benefits of earlier planting dates and a longer growing season and no-till agriculture in order to reduce soil emissions and maintain soil moisture. Bagley, Miller, and Bernacchi (2015) using observational data and an agroecosystem model that uses future temperature and CO2 concentrations determine the effectiveness of climate-smart techniques and their biophysical impacts. Continue reading

Dams and Agriculture in Idaho

by Adin Bonapart

Water storage and distribution infrastructure (dams) allow large areas of land that wouldn’t otherwise have access to water (i.e. away from riparian areas) to be farmed and settled. Furthermore, dams give farmers security against variations in climatic conditions and water supply (i.e. droughts), ­­­which, allows farmers to grow higher-valued, more water intensive crops. Hansen et al. (2014) find that the presence of dams has a “small, positive, but non-significant effect” on farmland values. For these reasons, the construction of dams tends to lead to improved crop yields and planted acreage. Continue reading

How to Find New Enzymes for Making Cellulosic Ethanol

by Emil Morhardt

Nonedible agricultural waste plant material is the most abundant ready source of biomass for making ethanol. But this “cellulosic” ethanol is expensive because breaking down the lignocellulose in plant waste so it can be fermented to ethanol requires either large amounts of energy, or specialized enzymes that are costly to manufacture. Furthermore, the enzymes discovered so far are not as resistant as they might be to the high temperature and high solids (low water) environments that work best for industrial processing.

One way to discover new candidate enzymes is to look for them where they are being produced naturally in an abundant source of agricultural waste; in this case, composting rice straw greenwaste. Genetic engineering technology makes it efficient to look not for the enzymes (proteins) directly, but for the messenger RNA that codes for them—the mRNA that is being actively transcribed from the various microbial genomes present. To distinguish the appropriate genes, a comparison can be made between the RNA products from room temperature (mesophilic) and heated (thermophilic) cultures degrading rice straw. The actual technique is to collect the mRNA, use it to create its complimentary DNA, then sequence the cDNA, looking for genes that code for protein families likely to be involved in degrading lignocellulose. Continue reading

Seasonal Energy Storage using Bioenergy Production from Abandoned Croplands

by Christina Whalen

Producing electricity from biomass could potentially provide a back-up storage source for the intermittency that accompanies wind and solar energy production. Biomass electricity also provides a carbon-negative and efficient method for bioenergy production, which is important because of mandated restrictions on carbon emissions. Furthermore, biomass electricity also provides an efficient method for providing renewable transportation energy that could replace current liquid fuel approaches. Although bioenergy may be important in producing electricity and developing energy storage mechanisms, the economic and environmental effects are unclear. Studies have been conducted on abandoned agricultural lands to try to find a path of producing bioenergy that has reduced land impact. Campbell et al. estimate at county level, the magnitude and distribution of abandoned agricultural lands in the United States and attempt to quantify how much potential energy storage could be produced by the provided bioenergy. Continue reading

Energy versus Food Security in India

by Chieh-Hsin Chen

Replacing imported fossil fuels with biofuel and other renewable energy sources has been one of the major research projects in developing countries like India with few fossil energy resources. Guntatilake et al. (2013) analyzed India’s biofuel production project with various scenarios and different perspectives, including India’s option for managing energy price risks in three ways: biofuel development, energy efficiency promotion, and food productivity improvements. The results suggest that introducing biodiesel, as transport fuel is a promising result in contrast to bioethanol. Combining biodiesel expansion with energy efficiency improvement and food productivity policies proved to be a more effective strategy to enhance both energy and food security. Continue reading

Topographic and Soil Influences on Root Productivity of Three Bioenergy Cropping Systems

by Christina Whalen

Root production in plants plays a vital role in ecosystem carbon, nutrient, and water cycling, but researchers have not made much progress in further understanding this issue. It’s important to understand the impacts of environmental conditions on root production because it aids in the development of a sustainable bioeconomy. However, scaling root productivity estimates for cropping systems beyond plot scales poses a great challenge to researchers. Whether the bioenergy plants are annual or perennial influences the biogeochemical cycling and the ecological benefit of the systems. The foundation of the study is based on previous research of the response of root growth to variations in soil properties at multiple spatial scales. Roots of plants generally respond to different soil types by growing into nutrient patches, but this depends on the species and nutrient demands or limitations. Ontl et al. measured the response of root productivity of three different bioenergy cropping systems across a topographic gradient with variation in typical agroecosystem soil conditions. The hypothesis is that root dynamics would vary by cropping system and position of the landscape across a hillslope. If landscape alone was not a good enough indicator, they predicted that root productivity would be related to differences in soil. Continue reading

Cellulosic Ethanol Technically Comes of Age

by Emil Morhardt

Making liquid fuel out of crop waste is, in principal, an extremely good idea. But the ethyl alcohol (ethanol) we add to gasoline—and also drink in vodka, wine and beer—has been made out of edible fruits and grains. Corn ethanol, the main gasoline substitute is made out of the corn kernels which otherwise might become corn meal or tortillas, cutting into the food supply and encouraging conversion of more land into cropland. There have been many studies on the effect of this land conversion on atmospheric CO2 levels, and it appears that it will often be a decade or more before the CO2 released from land conversion will be offset by the substitution of ethanol for fossil fuels. Continue reading

Oil Palm Plantation Boom in Indonesia

by Chieh-Hsin Chen

The anticipated depletion of fossil fuel has caused the production of alternative fuel sources to become an extremely important field of industry. Many less developed countries in South East Asia promote mass production of biofuel crops as a primary export. Palm oil, used in cooking as well as biofuel, is one of the main exports from Indonesia. The high demand of palm oil has led to a rapid increase of oil palm plantations, leading also to massive deforestation. Riau Province is one of the largest oil palm producing regions. From 1990s to 2012, there has been a significant decrease of forest in the region due to the boom of oil palm plantations. Ramdani and Hino (2013) analyze satellite imagery and greenhouse gas emissions from different time periods to determine the scale of deforestation. The results show that in the Riau Province, the oil palm industry rapidly increased from 1990 to 2000, with transformation of tropical forest and peat land as the primary source of emissions. Continue reading