Toward a Low-Carbon Transportation Future: Part 2

By Tomas Endicott, Processing & Markets Manager

Last week I wrote about carbon intensity and how the GREET model, standardized by the U.S. Department of Energy, quantifies the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated when producing different transportation fuels—both fossil fuels and renewable fuels.

Today, let’s talk about factors that contribute to producing low-carbon transportation fuels.

Lifecycle carbon tracks CO2 emissions from feedstock production to combustion.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are tracked on a lifecycle basis. That is, CO2 is generated at many points in a fuel production pathway: feedstock acquisition, processing, refining, transport. The more carbon efficient each step in a particular fuel production pathway, the lower the carbon intensity of the final fuel. For processing fossil fuels or biofuels, reducing carbon emissions may include using renewable sources of heat and electricity that generate less CO2, such as biogas, wind power and solar power. Acquiring feedstock to produce transportation fuels presents many different pathways, each unique in the lifecycle CO2 emissions it generates.

All feedstocks are not created (carbon) equal.

Fossil fuel feedstocks—crude oil or natural gas—are fairly carbon-consistent no matter what their origin. They all are extracted in enormous volumes from underground. Biofuel feedstocks are incredibly diverse. There are many more variables that contribute to carbon intensity throughout every step of any particular biofuel feedstock production process.

All plants are self-sufficient. Some more than others.

Most plants are photosynthetic. They create hydrocarbons in the form of carbohydrates (i.e starch, sugar, wood) and/or fats (oils) using carbon dioxide (CO2), nutrients, sunlight and water. The plants use these carbohydrates and fats for their own energy, and they “invest” them into their seeds for the next generation. These carbohydrates and fats also are the source of the energy we harvest and convert into biofuels.

All plants also need some amount of nitrogen to grow and thrive. Legumes, like soybeans, alfalfa seed and pongamia seed, are special in that they harness their own nitrogen—the backbone for proteins—through symbiosis with bacteria that live on their roots. These rhizobium bacteria fix elemental nitrogen from the atmosphere and supply it to the plant in a form the plant can use.

Less inputs equals lower carbon intensity.

Non-leguminous plants must derive nitrogen from compounds in the soil. In a natural environment, that source of nitrogen may be composted organic matter or nitrogen compounds deposited in the soil through earthworm activity. Because modern, improved agricultural crops produce such high yields, they require large quantities of commercial fertilizer. Commercial nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized from natural gas, and its production requires significant energy input. As a result, producing commercial nitrogen fertilizer generates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and those emissions are attributed to the lifecycle carbon of the crops that use the nitrogen fertilizer.

Nitrogen is expensive, both in the energy consumed to manufacture and transport it and in the dollars farmers must expend to apply it to their fields. Because nitrogen fertilizers must be applied to non-leguminous crops like corn and canola, producing biofuels from these non-nitrogen-fixing crops is more carbon intensive than producing biofuels from legumes.

By-products provide additional value.

Oilseed crops, like soybeans, canola and pongamia, can provide oil as feedstock for renewable fuels. They also provide another by-product: high-protein meal, which has significant value as livestock feed and as organic fertilizer.

Pongamia seeds are removed from their shells before being processed. These shells are half the weight of the harvested pongamia pods, and they can provide significant biomass to supply renewable, low-carbon heat and power to the pongamia biofuel processing pathway.

Greater yield per acre equals lower carbon intensity.

Because carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated while producing crops are spread across the total yield of a particular crop, crops that produce higher yields per acre can be more carbon-efficient. Every trip across a field to till, seed, fertilize, spray or harvest increases CO2 emissions and increases the carbon intensity for a particular crop. Crops with higher yields spread their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over larger production.

Growing conditions also affect yield. Logically, crops grown in tropical and sub-tropical environments experience more sunshine and heat, and they have longer growing seasons, so they produce larger yields per acre.

Annual or perennial makes a difference.

Annual crops—those that must be planted every year—require some amount of tillage or application of broad spectrum herbicides (i.e Round-Up) to prepare the seedbed and to minimize weed competition with the cultivated crop. Tillage alone can increase carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural fields simply by exposing organic matter in the soil to oxygen, thereby, allowing it to be decomposed aerobically, which generates CO2.
kai-oberhauser-252546
Simply tilling the ground increases carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural fields. Photo by Kai Oberhäuser on Unsplash

Perennial crops are established once and produce for many years. They do not require annual tillage. For large trees like pongamia, annual maintenance is low when the tree canopy prevents sunlight from penetrating to the ground, so nothing can grow there.

Although they require a few years to produce their first crop, yields for perennial crops tend to be much higher per acre than yields for annual crops. Whereas the average yield for soybeans in the U.S. is about 2,700 pounds per acre, perennial pongamia trees can produce more than 10,000 pounds of seeds per acre per year at eight years of age and beyond. The average lifespan of a pongamia tree is at least 25 to 30 years.

How many gallons of oils per acre?

For the purpose of biodiesel or bio-jet fuel production, seeds of different crops have different concentrations of oil—their percentage of oil by weight. Whereas soybeans contain only 16%-18% oil by weight, canola seeds contains more than 40% oil by weight and pongamia seeds contain 30% to 40% oil by weight. Considering the combination of per acre yields and the oil concentration in the seeds of a particular crop determines the amount of biodiesel or bio-jet fuel that can be produced by a given cultivated area. Here is a chart demonstrating the amount of oil per acre produced by different oilseed crops.

More yield per acre equals greater carbon efficiency.

Whereas soybeans produce only 55 to 60 gallons of oil per acre annually and canola produces about 120 gallons of oil per acre annually, mature pongamia trees can produce more than 450 gallons of oil per acre every year.

The CO2 generated to harvest an acre of soybeans or to harvest an acre of pongamia seeds are similar. Mature pongamia trees, however, yield almost four times more seed per acre than soybeans, and they yield about eight times the oil for every acre harvested. Now that’s efficiency!

Maximizing transportation efficiency minimizes CO2 emissions.

To achieve maximum carbon efficiency, transportation fuels need to be produced and moved in large volumes. It is most carbon-efficient to move fuels by pipeline, although pipelines are expensive to build and they have other environmental considerations. Moving a million gallons of fuel on a single ocean-going barge is ten times more efficient than hauling the same volume of fuel the same distance in hundreds of tanker truck loads. The efficiency of moving fuel in 25,000-gallon rail cars lies somewhere between the efficiency achieved by barges and the efficiency attributed to tanker trucks. Renewable fuels, like fossil-based fuels, must be produced on a large scale to achieve transportation efficiency.

Going further on a gallon of fuel reduces CO2 emissions too.

The most efficient gallon of fuel is the one that you never use. Producing low-carbon fuels at scale is only half the battle. Reducing consumption of all transportation fuels is the best carbon-reduction strategy for the transportation sector. Electric cars, hybrids and clean diesel technology are all available today, and all are improving with each new model year. In 2012, President Obama established new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards which will raise the average fuel efficiency for all new cars and trucks in the U.S. to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Impressive! Currently, the CAFE standard is 35.5 miles per gallon.

Carbon-efficient, sustainable biofuel feedstock, high-protein livestock feed and organic fertilizer from the perennial pongamia tree.

The pongamia tree can provide a unique and substantial contribution to the United States’ sustainable, low-carbon biofuel future. It is a nitrogen-fixing, subtropical tree that is native to India, Indonesia and Australia, and it grows well in Florida and in Hawaii. It is both drought resistant and accustomed to Monsoonal rains (TerViva’s pongamia orchards in Florida held their own against the wind, rain and flooding from Hurricane Irma last week). Pongamia can grow on sandy soils, and it is resistant to moderate salinity. It is a perennial tree that is highly productive for both non-edible oil as a feedstock for biofuels and for protein-rich meal for livestock feed and fertilizer.

Imagine our low-carbon transportation future!

TerViva is rolling out pongamia orchards on abandoned citrus land in Florida and on land that formerly grew sugarcane in Hawaii. Imagine a future where 100,000 acres of pongamia trees produce 50 million gallons of biofuel and 340,000 tons of high-protein meal each year. Imagine biomass heat and power produced from a half-million tons of pongamia shells harvested annually. Imagine bio-char from gasified pongamia shells sequestering carbon in the soil for thousands of years—steadily reversing the CO2 increase in the earth’s atmosphere.

Imagine millions of acres of pongamia orchards spread across the sub-tropical areas of Asia, Africa, Mexico and South America providing billions of gallons of biofuel every year. Imagine fuel efficient vehicles that go twice as far on a gallon of fuel so that we consume half the transportation fuel that we do today. With biofuels, electric vehicles and other technologies in the mix, renewable fuels could make up 50% of the total transportation fuel consumption in the U.S. within twenty years.

This is not a pipedream. It is absolutely possible. It is a matter of aspiration, effort and will.

Let’s do it!

Land Sharing vs. Land Sparing: Can We Maximize Yield and Biodiversity?

By Nathan Chan, TerViva Germplasm Development Associate

We often think of the environmental impacts of agriculture being limited to things like pesticides and nutrient runoff polluting waterways (see my colleague’s post for more on this), and methane emissions from livestock contributing to climate change, but one of agriculture’s biggest impacts has been its role as a leading cause in declines in wildlife and natural habitat. That may not resonate with those of us in Europe and the United States, where we’ve had a fairly mature agricultural industry for the past 100+ years (I challenge you to imagine what the West may have looked like before humans), but deforestation to create lands suitable for agriculture in South America and Southeast Asia is directly responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of hectares of habitat for thousands of species. This is not a sustainable approach moving forward as we aim to feed 9 billion people worldwide while working to maintain our remaining biodiversity.

Clear cutting and burning rainforests is common in the tropics to create more land for agriculture.

A popular framework for finding a sustainable solution gives us two strategies: “land sharing” and “land sparing”. In land sharing, lower intensity agriculture is practiced in favor of less productive methods that promote more suitable conditions for wildlife resulting in less food produced per acre. In land sparing, farmers practice high intensity agriculture to boost yields, enabling them to forego expansion and leave natural areas “wild”. There are tradeoffs with both approaches — organic “land sharing” farms have on average 30% higher species richness and 50% higher abundance than conventional “land sparing” farms, but produce 20-25% less yield per acre.

In an article examining the tradeoffs of food production and wildlife published by The Breakthrough Institute, Linus Blomqvist puts forward the idea that higher yields, especially in the row crops that use the most land globally, will always result in lower on-farm biodiversity because there are “simple biophysical components of yield growth that there is not much of a way around.” The highly specific management practices farmers must use to get maximum yields from a specific crop preclude the establishment of other plants, which form the basis of a habitat that can sustain wildlife. As evidence, Blomqvist cites declines in farmland bird populations in Europe and America being driven by the loss of habitat and nesting sites in high-intensity agriculture settings – not due to direct mortality from pesticides.

An example of a “land sparing” farm — diverse set of crops, surrounded by potential wildlife habitat.

Even in the most organic, ecologically friendly, “land sharing” farm one can imagine, any decision to increase yields would result in higher-intensity practices that would in turn decrease the farm’s ability to support wildlife. If higher yields per acre on an organic farm decrease on-farm habitat quality, than the only way to increase yield while maintaining habitat quality is to use more land. In the West, more land probably means acquiring farmland or uncultivated land from a neighbor.  However, in South America, Asia, or Africa expanding croplands often takes place at the expense of natural habitats like forests. Any gains in on-farm biodiversity may be offset entirely by the loss of natural habitats.

Multiple combines and tractors with grain carts harvested a large field of corn outside New Haven, Ky.

As we try to feed a human population of 9 billion-plus people, agricultural land will expand and will undoubtedly come at the expense of wildlife and natural habitats. The question we face is how to minimize that impact. Land sharing and land sparing underscore the idea that there is a tradeoff between food production and biodiversity: increasing one will invariably decrease the other. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can try to mitigate that trade off. Embracing GM technologies like Bt enables crops to produce their own insecticide (that is safe for human consumption) and reduce the need for spraying pesticides allowing non-target species to thrive. Incorporating staples of organic or agroecological farming like crop rotations and cover crops make it difficult for a single pest species to persist from year to year further reducing pesticide loads.

There is no correct answer to the land sharing vs. land sparing debate. Both ideas have their merits and embracing one or the other is better than nothing. The growth of the global human population will continue and it will be at the expense of the natural world, but through the discussion and implementation of ideas like land sparing and land sharing, and the incorporation of new crop technologies and agronomic practices we can hopefully reduce that negative impact.

Author’s Note: The idea behind this blogpost came largely from the previously mentioned article published by The Breakthrough Institute, Food Production and Wildlife on Farmland. I encourage you to read it if you are interested in this topic. 

Keep Edible Oils for People, and Non-edible Oils for Industry

By Tom Schenk

In 2012, actor Matt Damon starred in a movie “Promised Land”.  The story was about a rural community whose water was being contaminated from chemicals used in the injection fluids from a petroleum company’s nearby oil and natural gas fracking operation.  While the movie was a box office flop for Damon, it did raise the public’s awareness about the toxic cocktail of chemicals (benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene, and methanol, to name a few) that are combined with the large quantities of water (up to 7 million gallons) and sand that are injected deep underground at high pressures to fracture and open up rock formations so oil and gas can flow to a well. These chemicals help to reduce corrosion of the well, lubricate the extraction process, and prevent clogs and bacterial growth.

fracking

Many studies have claimed that these chemicals were used in such small quantities that they posed little risk to aquifers and other groundwater sources. Nevertheless, the movie, numerous articles, and academic studies raised the public’s awareness about some of the potential dangers created by this new drilling technology.  And no doubt it also raised alarms in the oil and gas companies’ legal and risk management departments that contaminating the water supply of one or more cities would wipe the company off the map.

Guar gum has been used in the food industry for many decades.  It has also been one of the favorite products drillers used to hold that sand in suspension and deliver it to its destination.  The greatest source for guar gum historically has been India.  The boom in fracking has created monumental price spikes and shortages for drillers in obtaining this product and has created havoc on their P&L’s.

In recent years, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, and a myriad of other oil-related companies have been developing suitable alternatives – often from plant-based oils – for developing greener, more environmentally-friendly lubricants for their drilling activities.  They would also like to see a more dependable domestic supply for the ingredients in their fracking recipes for biodegradable polymers.

However, in the fast developing world of biodegradable polymers, drilling fluids are almost a rounding error by comparison to all the other wonderful consumer and industrial products that technology that is developing from plant-based oils such as marine oils, auto and aviation lubricants (often with superior wear and heat properties), surfactants, detergents, shopping bags, food containers and countless other products where petroleum-based products and plastics have historically dominated. This technology is in a profound growth phase as almost anything we currently know as plastic can be reproduced in a more sustainable manner with plant-based oils rather than petroleum. And it sells because the consumer wants it.

Soy is the most dominant feedstock for many of these renewable products, as well as corn, canola, flax, palm, cottonseed, peanut, and others that are cultivated in large quantities worldwide.  Couple the growth in biofuels with the growth in this new technology for industrial applications, and all it will take is one or two bad years of crop production for there to be be a collision between food security for people and feedstock supply for factories and refineries.

Only the most arable lands – which are in diminishing supply – should logically be devoted exclusively to food.  Champions of these earth-friendly fuels and industrial products made from renewable feedstocks are missing the full picture.  They should be calling for the development of high-yielding non-edible oilseed crops that can thrive on the marginal land!

This is Terviva’s mission.  One of the most promising crops in this space is the wild tree called pongamia that our company is commercializing. These oilseed trees can produce up to 10x the amount of oil per acre that the best soybean land in Iowa can produce. Carbon is sequestered, and vast fallow acreage in Florida and Hawaii is on its way to becoming annually renewable – and profitable -“oilfields”.  Hardy, high-yielding crops on marginal lands are the optimum way to achieve peak biodiversity. Leave the good lands to make food for people.

Understanding Global Agriculture in 15 Minutes

By Tom Schenk, Director of Business Development

Over the past ten years, scores of articles have been written about the merits of investing in farmland as well as the challenges of producing enough food to feed a population that is growing at the rate of about 80 million per year at the same time arable farmland is diminishing.  To put that in perspective, that is like producing the population of Germany – annually!  Worldmapper.org has done an excellent job of producing world maps that show the relative size of each country in relation to various data sets they are analyzing.  The following five maps will be helpful in illustrating the challenges of feeding the world.

Before we begin, here’s the color-coded world map to use as a point of reference:

LandArea

Now, here’s how the world should look if a country’s land mass was proportional to its population:

Land2Pop

Now that we have a sense of how populations are distributed, let’s consider food.  The most basic measure of food is to considerer cereal grains because they are a major food staple and feed livestock and poultry.  Here’s what the world would look like if each nation’s boundaries were proportional to the cereal grain they produced:

Land_Cereal

Nevertheless, the above map doesn’t give us an idea if the cereal grains they produce are adequate enough to feed their populations.  So let’s look at net cereal grain imports:

Cereal_Imports

So then, which countries are exporting all the grain these countries are importing?

Cereal_Exports

Africa, the Middle East, SE Asia and China cannot feed themselves. Depending on which side of the fence you are on, it is now becoming easier to see the challenge – or the opportunity – for US agriculture. To understand the limiting factors in keeping the world fed, there’s no better place to begin than the soils.  Since about 6000 BC when tribes began to congregate along the Nile, man has been able to transition from being a hunter/gatherer to creating stationary communities that could produce more food than they needed and thus was the beginning of trade.  And it was also often one of the core causes of war throughout the history of civilization.

Not all soils are created equal, and good soils are certainly not always found where they are most needed.

GlobalSoils

The two best soils are Mollisols and Alfisols followed by Ultisols and Oxisols.  These last two soil types, even with considerable additional inputs of fertilizers and lime however, still cannot match the productivity of the first two soil types.

Examine where these four soil types are distributed around the globe.  You will see that these soil types are generally distributed along temperate growing zones and moderate elevations and rainfall. It is also interesting to note that most of the major world powers throughout history are located within these zones, but that’s a discussion for another day.

What these maps show is that the US has the single largest contiguous mass of the best soils in the world.  Though it accounts for only 6.7% of the world land mass, it contains 21% of the worlds Mollisols and 10% of the Alfisols.  The icing on the cake is that within these productive soil areas is a network of navigable waterways and ocean ports.

The Ukraine has great soils, but poor transportation infrastructure.  Canada has good soils, but also a shorter growing season and long transportation distances.  Brazil is blessed with an abundance of productive soils, but a coastal mountain range creates logistical nightmares of transporting grain from the interior via bumper-to-bumper trucks that clog the roads at harvest time.  They have no rivers near any productive agricultural land on which they can barge the grain or railroads they can ship it on.  You see, for every quarter percent of slope on a mountain grade, the weight a locomotive can pull is reduced by 50%!  Several miles of grain laden Brazilian trucks could easily fit on a single Mississippi River barge.  It is one thing to have transportation capabilities but another to have efficient (read cheap) transportation capabilities.

Two challenges worth mentioning in the US are water and farmers.  Almost every significant aquifer in the US is being depleted.  Advances in ag technology and irrigation efficiencies need to be more rapidly utilized. The proliferation of irrigation wells from Florida to Washington State has exceeded the recharge capacity of the aquifers. In the first 5 months in 2015, 1800 California wells have gone dry in the midst of a relentless drought.

Considering all the challenges of feeding the people on this earth, it is difficult to imagine a more noble profession.  However, there is an alarming shortage of young people going into farming.  The average age of an American farmer is 57 years old.  The Young Farmers Success Act bill was recently introduced to the US House of Representatives.  This bill would recognize farmers, ranchers, and farm employees to be eligible for Federal Service Loan Forgiveness program that is currently available to doctors, nurses, teachers, and government employees.  This program forgives loan balances after 10 years (120 payments).

On this last point, there is an important intangible many people in agriculture have pointed out to me.  In contrast to, say, Latin America where modern production farming is a phenomenon of the last 30 years, most multi-generation family farms in the US  have a legacy of understanding, conservation, and environmental care for the land that produces long-term efficiencies that few others in the world can match.

Dry Farming: A Sustainable Solution for California Farmers?

20142015 droughtAs California emerges from a “winter” with average temperatures 4.4°F warmer than the 20th century average and the lowest snowpack in 24 years drought is on the minds of many. While many of us will notice higher water bills, brown lawns, and asking for water when dining out the agriculture industry will continue to bear the brunt of the drought. In 2014 the agriculture industry suffered $2.2 billion in economic losses and 17,000 farmers lost their jobs. We can likely expect more of the same in 2015 as the drought continues, but what, if anything, can farmers do to minimize their losses?

soil-profileDry farming is a set of practices that aim to capitalize on using the water stored in the subsoil layer, rather than traditional irrigation, and was practiced long before modern irrigation existed. In areas with long dry seasons and seasonal rainfall, crops such as olives, grapes, figs, apricots, almonds and walnuts were historically farmed without irrigation. Dry farming was widely practiced in California up until the 1970’s, when drip irrigation became the industry standard. Today, dry farming is most notably used in the cultivation of wine grapes in California and abroad – in some regions of Europe it is illegal to irrigate because it is thought to dilute the quality of the wine.

The practice relies on tilling practices that create a “sponge-like environment” in the topsoil. Water from the subsoil layer then rises into the topsoil and a roller is passed over the topsoil sealing in the water and preventing it from escaping through evaporation. Drought resistant varieties are then planted and use the water in the soil to sustain their growth throughout the dry season. The precise timing of the planting and tilling is essential for proper moisture retention.

The potential for dry farming is limited by climate and soil type. A sandy soil will never be suitable for dry farming because any water will quickly drain away. At least 12 inches of rain are needed for proper moisture in soils, excluding much of the Southern portion of the Central Valley. However, in areas that have the appropriate soils and climate, it could prove to be a useful tool for farmers looking to cut costs or make use of land that seemed unsuitable in the current drought.

The lack of irrigation requires less dense planting, because only so much water is available for each plant, and leads to significantly decreased yields, sometimes as little as one-tenth of that of irrigated fields. To some extent, the savings of not using irrigation counteracts the loss in revenue from reduced yields. Irrigation infrastructure can be very expensive to purchase and install, and the cost to pump groundwater will continue to rise as we deplete our reserves. One case study from a vineyard in Sonoma County, CA found that a minimum of 16,000 gallons/acre feet was saved compared to growers who lightly irrigate. Less irrigation can also results in less weeds, reducing the need for expensive herbicides and pest management.

Dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes at Live Earth
Farms in Watsonville, CA.

In addition to savings on irrigation, some dry-farmed fruits and vegetables have created a cult-like following for their improved flavor. The improved flavor comes from reduced water content and higher concentrations of sugar and flavor compounds. In recent years, dry-farmed tomatoes have been in high demand from chefs and wholesalers around the country and can provide high economic returns despite low yields.

The economics of dry farmed products are far from certain, however. Though fruit coming from dry farmed orchards and farms tends to be more flavorful and better storing, the commercial fruit industry has invested a substantial amount of time and money in developing standards for large fruit, dependent on the application of irrigation, fertilizers and chemicals. Dry farming is not going to be the answer for large-scale agri-businesses – the yields are too low and crops like strawberries, rice, or lettuce would not survive without irrigation. For smaller growers and unemployed farmhands, however, dry farming could provide some relief in the current agricultural landscape of drought-stricken California.

Beyond the Buzz: High Impact Trends in Sustainable Agriculture

By Anne Slaughter Andrew, Co-founder and Chairman of TerViva

TerViva was formed and launched around a commitment to advancing sustainable agriculture – ahead of the trendy buzz that this concept invokes today. Yet this buzz, and the sobering fact that agriculture produces about one quarter of the global green house gas emissions, has given impetus to the hard work of developing measurable outcome data and of shifting cultural concepts around “the way it’s always been done on the farm” in order to advance sustainability – from large corporate farms to the rural agricultural communities of Latin America and Africa.

sustainability_venn_diagram

Sustainable agriculture aims to incorporate social, economic, and and environmental sustainability.

One impressive recent initiative is the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (“SISC”), which seeks to promote sustainable agriculture by providing common measurement tools and metrics for food producers and consumers. SISC’s goal is to provide a common language for communication about sustainability activities related to specialty crops  (fruits, vegetables and nuts).

The SISC agreed-upon metrics focus on a commonsense platform for sustainable agriculture: (1) Applied water use efficiency; (2) Energy use; (3) Nitrogen use; (4) Phosphorus use; and (5) Soil organic matter.  With today’s agriculture accounting for more than 70% of freshwater drawn from rivers, lakes and aquifers and the documented impact on water quality from agricultural runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus (not to mention the costly waste of limited resources like phosphorous), there is no debate that monitoring and adjusting farm practices around these metrics will advance sustainability to the benefit of the growers, producers, and consumers.

eutrophication-china

Agricultural runoff high in nitrogen and phosphorous can lead to eutrophication, harmful algal blooms, and other negative impacts on lakes, oceans, and rivers.

What has driven the interest by producers and consumers around this more transparent and measurable approach to sustainable agriculture? A major factor was the rising demand for “sustainability” in the marketplace where there was no consensus among producers and consumers of exactly what “sustainability” meant. The benefit of this “buzz-feed” is that it brought together a broad coalition of interests– from growers and producers like Del Monte Foods; trade associations like the National Potato Council; retailers like Walmart; and environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Counsel — to develop a comprehensive system for measuring sustainable practices performed at the farm level.

Underlying the metrics of SISC, and making its approach possible, is the impact of big data and predictive analytics in agriculture. For agriculture to sustain its customers – including the growers and producers – it must be able to feed the world’s population, which by 2050 is expected to be 9.2 billion people. To meet this demand, it is expected that global food production must increase by 70%. With real-time data on critical information (e.g. the weather, soil quality and crop maturity) that can be processed, analyzed and downloaded back to the growers, farmers can maximize food production, operate more cost effectively and minimize the environmental impact.

Rural, small scale farmers feed more than 2 billion people every year.

Rural, small scale farmers feed more than 2 billion people every year.

These “precision agricultural technologies” today can be accessed and utilized by large farming operations and agricultural companies which have the financial resources to support a robust IT infrastructure to gather, monitor and analyze the data. However, this means that small scale farmers, who represent over 75% of the world’s farms and feed more than 2 billion people, are not positioned to take advantage of the advances in sophisticated data-driven agricultural technologies. This is particularly concerning because most of these small scale farmers are in underdeveloped areas where population growth, food scarcity and climate change will have such a disruptive impact.

 How can we bring these technology-based resources into the hands of the small-scale farmers? More importantly, how do we convince these small-scale farmers to adapt to more sustainable—and technology-based –agricultural practices when the farming traditions they follow are woven into the fabric of their communities and culture.

One organization with a track-record that has gained attention from major donors like MasterCard Foundation for their success in developing young leaders in sustainable agriculture is EARTH University in Costa Rica. EARTH University was founded 25 years ago with a mission to prepare young people capable of leading positive change in their communities to advance sustainable development and prosperity. Today, EARTH University has 420 students from 36 countries across Latin America and Africa, many of whom are the first in their villages to attend university. The students come together at EARTH U. with all of their diverse local traditions and customs, and with little exposure to modern agricultural science and technology. When these students graduate, the impact they are having in advancing sustainable agriculture at local and regional levels in developing countries is transformative.

A student at Earth University tends to an organic lettuce project.

A student at Earth University tends to an organic lettuce project.

How can EARTH U. create such a transformative impact on sustainable agriculture? It starts with the fact that 4 out of 5 EARTH graduates return to their country of origin—and bring with them a commitment to have a positive impact. More than 50% of EARTH graduates are actively engaged in advancing modern sustainable agriculture practices, from soil management and water conservation to alternative forms of energy for farming operations. At the same time, more than 75% of EARTH graduates are actively engaged in influencing positive social change, from improving working conditions to addressing gender and ethnic equality within their agricultural-based economies and communities. These students have learned how to be agents of change within the social and cultural context in which they live. No doubt the students of EARTH can best tell this story and you can hear from them here.

In agriculture, change comes at a pace that synchs with the growing seasons. Luckily, we are trending towards a more sustainable approach to agriculture—from the high-tech impact of big data and measurable metrics for growers and consumers to the high-value impact of young and committed leaders engaged in advancing sustainability in their communities across the developing world. Will this trend continue and support the global policies and practices necessary to feed the global population and sustain our environment? What do you predict?