Tag Archives: environment

Defining ‘Sustainable Agriculture’

The New York Times.  27 July 2010.  [by Jared Flesher].  Conventional farmers, organic farmers, giant agribusiness companies, environmentalists — all have varying views on what “sustainable agriculture” really means.  Perhaps not for long.

The Leonardo Academy, an environmental think tank in Madison, Wis., is busy refereeing a debate over a new “National Sustainable Agriculture Standard,” under the guidelines of the American National Standards Institute.

One outcome of this effort could be a new “sustainable agriculture” label stamped on food — similar to the way some food is now marketed as organic. It could also create a system that rewards farmers for doing things like reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer they use.

In late May, members of the 58-member standards committee met in St. Charles, Ill., to make the first decisions about the scope of the voluntary standards they hope to create. The committee includes a variety of stakeholders like the National Corn Growers Association, General Mills, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and American Farmland Trust.

One early point of contention has been genetically modified crops.

A preliminary “draft standard” from 2007 used organic agriculture as a starting point for sustainability, and it prohibited crops that had been genetically modified.

But groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the United States Department of Agriculture balked at the draft, which was ultimately scrapped. The new goal is to find a standard that makes room for “any technology that increases agricultural sustainability,” according to a statement from the Leonardo Academy earlier this month.

“Organic is basically four percent of the domestic market,” said Russell Williams, director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau, in an interview. “So if you’re going to talk about ’sustainable organic agriculture,’ that’s fine. But if you’re going for ’sustainable agriculture,’ then the standard needs to be much more broad.”

Many organic advocates don’t agree — though they believe developing sustainability standards for use by all farmers could be valuable to their cause.  read more

No-till Farming Improves Soil Stability

e! Science News.  June 2010.  A joint Agricultural Research Service (ARS)-multi-university study across the central Great Plains on the effects of more than 19 years of various tillage practices shows that no-till makes soil much more stable than plowed soil.  The research team studied four sites across the Great Plains: Akron; Hays and Tribune, Kan., and the University of Nebraska at Sidney.

No-till stores more soil carbon, which helps bind or glue soil particles together, making the first inch of topsoil two to seven times less vulnerable to the destructive force of raindrops than plowed soil.

The structure of these aggregates in the first inch of topsoil is the first line of defense against soil erosion by water or wind. Understanding the resistance of these aggregates to the erosive forces of wind and rain is critical to evaluating soil erodibility. This is especially important in semiarid regions such as the Great Plains, where low precipitation, high evaporation, and yield variability can interact with intensive tillage to alter aggregate properties and soil organic matter content.

Tillage makes soil less resistant to being broken apart by raindrops because the clumping is disrupted and soil organic matter is lost through oxidation when soil particles are exposed to air.

A paper on this research was published in a recent issue of the Soil Science Society of America Journal.

Desalination Breakthrough!

ScienceDaily — Researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have unveiled a new class of reverse-osmosis membranes for desalination that resist the clogging which typically occurs when seawater, brackish water and waste water are purified.  The highly permeable, surface-structured membrane can easily be incorporated into today’s commercial production system, the researchers say, and could help to significantly reduce desalination operating costs. Their findings appear in the current issue of the Journal of Materials Chemistry.

Reverse-osmosis (RO) desalination uses high pressure to force polluted water through the pores of a membrane. While water molecules pass through the pores, mineral salt ions, bacteria and other impurities cannot. Over time, these particles build up on the membrane’s surface, leading to clogging and membrane damage. This scaling and fouling places higher energy demands on the pumping system and necessitates costly cleanup and membrane replacement.

The new UCLA membrane’s novel surface topography and chemistry allow it to avoid such drawbacks.

“Besides possessing high water permeability, the new membrane also shows high rejection characteristics and long-term stability,” said Nancy H. Lin, a UCLA Engineering senior researcher and the study’s lead author. “Structuring the membrane surface does not require a long reaction time, high reaction temperature or the use of a vacuum chamber. The anti-scaling property, which can increase membrane life and decrease operational costs, is superior to existing commercial membranes.”

The new membrane was synthesized through a three-step process. First, researchers synthesized a polyamide thin-film composite membrane using conventional interfacial polymerization. Next, they activated the polyamide surface with atmospheric pressure plasma to create active sites on the surface. Finally, these active sites were used to initiate a graft polymerization reaction with a monomer solution to create a polymer “brush layer” on the polyamide surface. This graft polymerization is carried out for a specific period of time at a specific temperature in order to control the brush layer thickness and topography.

“In the early years, surface plasma treatment could only be accomplished in a vacuum chamber,” said Yoram Cohen, UCLA professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and a corresponding author of the study. “It wasn’t practical for large-scale commercialization because thousands of meters of membranes could not be synthesized in a vacuum chamber. It’s too costly. But now, with the advent of atmospheric pressure plasma, we don’t even need to initiate the reaction chemically. It’s as simple as brushing the surface with plasma, and it can be done for almost any surface.”

In this new membrane, the polymer chains of the tethered brush layer are in constant motion. The chains are chemically anchored to the surface and are thus more thermally stable, relative to physically coated polymer films. Water flow also adds to the brush layer’s movement, making it extremely difficult for bacteria and other colloidal matter to anchor to the surface of the membrane.

“If you’ve ever snorkeled, you’ll know that sea kelp move back and forth with the current or water flow,” Cohen said. “So imagine that you have this varied structure with continuous movement. Protein or bacteria need to be able to anchor to multiple spots on the membrane to attach themselves to the surface — a task which is extremely difficult to attain due to the constant motion of the brush layer. The polymer chains protect and screen the membrane surface underneath.”

Another factor in preventing adhesion is the surface charge of the membrane. Cohen’s team is able to choose the chemistry of the brush layer to impart the desired surface charge, enabling the membrane to repel molecules of an opposite charge.

The team’s next step is to expand the membrane synthesis into a much larger, continuous process and to optimize the new membrane’s performance for different water sources.

“We want to be able to narrow down and create a membrane selection system for different water sources that have different fouling tendencies,” Lin said. “With such knowledge, one can optimize the membrane surface properties with different polymer brush layers to delay or prevent the onset of membrane fouling and scaling.

“The cost of desalination will therefore decrease when we reduce the cost of chemicals [used for membrane cleaning], as well as process operation [for membrane replacement]. Desalination can become more economical and used as a viable alternate water resource.”

Cohen’s team, in collaboration with the UCLA Water Technology Research (WaTeR) Center, is currently carrying out specific studies to test the performance of the new membrane’s fouling properties under field conditions.

“We work directly with industry and water agencies on everything that we’re doing here in water technology,” Cohen said. “The reason for this is simple: If we are to accelerate the transfer of knowledge technology from the university to the real world, where those solutions are needed, we have to make sure we address the real issues. This also provides our students with a tremendous opportunity to work with industry, government and local agencies.”

Keep Close to Nature’s Heart

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.”

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”        

— all quotes by John Muir

[John Muir was one of the first modern preservationists.  His letters, essays, and books telling of his adventures in nature, and wildlife, especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, have been read by millions and are still popular today.  His direct activism helped to save the Yosemite Valley and other wilderness areas.  The Sierra Club, which he founded, is now one of the most important conservation organizations in the entire world.]


Fountains of Life

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. — John Muir

AFBF President Denounces Sustainable Agriculture?

LINCOLN, Neb. —While American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman didn’t outright denounce sustainable agriculture in his January address, it was apparent that the 150 producers who attended the 2010 Healthy Farms Conference this month — Nebraska’s annual sustainable agriculture convention — were still feeling the sting of Stallman’s well-publicized “extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule” comment.

Sustainable Almonds: Ord Bend, California

This made Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s keynote address at the conference all the more welcome, and his support of the local foods movement, both in Nebraska and nationwide, brought a standing ovation. “Much has changed the last few years in the local foods movement that was young exotic not too long ago,” Fortenberry said.  Sustainable agriculture, the force behind the local foods movement, has captured consumer interest, both in their food and the people who produce their food. “Indeed, there is a veritable tradition and high esteem for agriculture today,” he said.

This connection between farmers and consumers, while threatening to some in conventional agriculture, provides a great opportunity for improved public policy — one where consumers show that they care about their food supply by getting involved in the lawmaking process — specifically more emphasis on the importance of the Farm Bill. While the Farm Bill isn’t perfect, sustainable agriculture made progress with this last one put in place, Fortenberry said. In fact, what began on local farms — the concept of economic, environmental and social sustainability — has now spread not only to government but to industries far removed from agriculture and to consumers’ homes in the middle of the city, said Fortenberry who himself is a gardener and a wannabe beekeeper. Sustainability — and the connection between people that it promotes — is now the hot new trend.

More and more people are also realizing that it can be more than a fad; that it’s a practical, long-term solution to the problems that plague America. [as reported in the Yankton Press & Dakotan, Saturday 20 February]

Note: It is both obvious and sad that president Bob Stallman doesn’t understand the concept, definition nor vital importance of sustainability to American farmers, our nation, and the world.  Perhaps Mr. Stallman is confused with the differences between “organic farming” and “sustainable agriculture.”  Sustainable agriculture integrates three main goals: (1) environmental stewardship, (2) farm profitability, and (3) prosperous farming communities. These goals have been defined by a variety of philosophies, policies and practices, from the vision of both farmers and consumers.  In production terms, sustainable agriculture refers to the ability of a farm to continue producing indefinitely, with a minimum of outside inputs.

Without argument, our soil and irrigation water are America’s most precious and valuable natural resources.  And without sustainability, agriculture has no future…period. Fertile Soil Solutions, LLC will always promote and proudly stand up for everything sustainable pertaining to global and domestic agriculture.  –Brent Rouppet, Ph.D.