Field of Innovations

The textbook for my AP Environment Science class was dense with small print, depressing statistics, and heavy cynicism. It was critical of humans, citing overpopulation and human behavior as causes for environmental problems. It made the reader (as a human) feel guilty for existing!

Some of the environmental topics have stayed with me many years after collecting sample water from the wetlands to measure dissolved oxygen levels, or memorizing the top 10 countries’ annual CO2 emissions. I am increasingly reminded of them while also fiercely wanting to believe in hope for the future of our physical environment, and that people are doing something about it.

I started researching areas in agriculture/food production where innovations are being developed to improve farming practices and reduce the harmful impact on the land, air, water, and human health. Here are a few that were new to me and exciting to discover — I hope you learn something new, too.

Precision Farming – Professor George Vellidis works with graduate student Anna Orfanou on checking the circuit board of a University of Georgia Smart Sensor Array node. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)
  1. Precision Farming (Precision Agriculture)
    Area: Agriculture and Technology
    Who: Private companies and start ups, farmers
    What: Using tech tools like GPS, ArcGIS, satellites, drones and sensors to better understand land and improve efficiency (use less fertilizer, better-tailored irrigation, use algorithms to optimize crop yield based on soil quality).
    Current challenges: “Poor internet coverage, inability to afford the set-up costs of apps and services, and a lack of technological know-how among farm workers have all been cited as barriers to uptake. This will be even more of a challenge in the developing world.”
    Example companies: Ag Big-Data Firms, such as True Harvest, Discovery by Farmlink, and many examples listed starting at 2:07 in this video:
  2. Climate-smart Farming
    Area: Agriculture
    Who: Government, smaller farmers
    What: Uses “simple” (less high tech than precision farming) solutions that work with current climate conditions to improve farming. For example, Nepal has a monsoon season which means there is sometimes very heavy rainfall that washes away crops. Provide subsidized tanks to farmers which can capture rainfall and distribute irrigation water. Or, set up plastic ‘tunnels’ to cover tomato plants and protect from blight. Provide drought-tolerant seeds and hybrid goats that are hardy to the environment. Educate village farmers on soil mulching, rainwater harvesting.

  3. Vegan Farm Transitioning
    Area: Agriculture, Ethics – Veganism
    Who: Private companies, not-too-small farms
    What: Help farmers in struggling traditional industries like cow milk production (milk value has been falling) to set up fields for plant-based milks like oat milk, which have been rising in demand and value. Some farmers dedicate 1/4 of their land to plant-based milks while maintaining their dairy-cow business. Some brands like Elmhurst completely transformed to producing plant-based products.
    Example Companies: Hood, Elmhurst, Oatly, Planet Oat, Miyoko’s Creamery

    Impact: Much less land, water, and emissions are used to produce each cup of plant-based milk than cow milk. In order for a dairy cow to produce milk, the cow must be pregnant and give birth (usually then separated from her calf) for her entire milk-producing life. To me, this is deeply concerning as the cow suffers an exhausting life just for the utility and pleasure of humans. This fate would not be acceptable for a human mother, so I do not believe it is just to impose this on any animal mother.

  4. Technology and scientific innovations to improve plant-based milk taste & shelf life, and lower cost
    Area: Food Processing Technology, Ethics – Veganism
    Who: Private companies
    What: Innovations that help improve the flavor, creaminess, and durability of plant-based milks.
    Impact: This will bring more consumers into the plant-based milk world as products become tastier and (I hope) eventually cheaper than their dairy-milk options.
    Examples: Elmhurst’s HydroRelease (TM) to preserve nutrients and flavor without gums and thickeners, Aseptic packaging (packing milk in air-less vacuums, so milks last for months when unopened and not refrigerated in their cartons)

  5. Increasing Accessibility: Getting cafés to carry more vegan milks without costing extra
    No source here – just an idea budding in my mind.
    I’ve long been bothered by the $0.50 surcharge for requesting soy milk in my cappuccino. I don’t think the business is paying 50 cents more per foamed soy milk cup than for 2% milk. It feels like the consumer is being punished for choosing a healthier option, and I’m sure this deters many customers from even considering a plant-based milk option in their drink.

    When I lived in Peru, finding a cafe that even offered a plant-based milk option was rare to behold. And that’s how it used to be elsewhere, including the United States — at first, cafes and grocery stores didn’t carry them, and when they started, they had premium cost.

    Eventually, I hope that the supply and demand of plant-based milks will rise so that they are readily available and do not cost extra, as the cost of producing cow’s milk (raising the cow) is higher than growing a plot of soybeans or oats.


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