Latest posts by H. Sterling Burnett (see all)
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Recently two stories detailing agricultural innovations caught my eye. They intrigued me because they show, even if I’m wrong about the cause and possible consequences of climate change, people around the globe are discovering innovative ways to adapt to future climate changes regardless of the cause and the type of change.
An experimental greenhouse in the South Australian desert is producing 15,000 tons of tomatoes a year using just sunshine and seawater – no soil, pesticides, fossil fuels, or groundwater is required. The scientists who designed the system hope it points the way for continued agricultural abundance in the face of possible climate changes and increasing demands for fresh water and energy.
According to New Scientist, “sea water is piped 5.5 kilometres from the Spencer Gulf to Sundrop Farm … [where] a solar-powered desalination plant removes the salt, creating enough fresh water to irrigate” the greenhouses’ 180,000 tomato plants. The greenhouse uses various technologies to make crop production possible in an area unsuitable for conventional farming due to extreme heat and lack of water. The greenhouse is lined with seawater-soaked cardboard, cooling the plants in the summer, while solar heating keeps plants warm in the winter. Seawater sterilizes the air, eliminating the need for pesticides, and rather than soil, plants are grown in coconut husks. This is great news since we are not running out of sunshine or sea water anytime soon.
New Scientist reports, “[t]he $200 million infrastructure makes the seawater greenhouse more expensive to set up than traditional greenhouses, but the cost will pay off long-term, says [Sundrop Farm CEO Philipp] Saumweber. Conventional greenhouses are more expensive to run on an annual basis because of the cost of fossil fuels.”
Tomatoes from Sundrop Farm are being sold in Australian grocery stores.
More good news on the agriculture/water front comes from South Africa where 16-year-old South African schoolgirl Kiara Nirghin, through the time honor process of trial and error, combined orange peels and avocado skins with sunlight to create a super absorbent polymer reservoir capable of storing amounts of water hundreds of times its own weight. Nirghin’s invention earned her the regional Google Science Fair’s Community Impact Award for the Middle East and Africa.
In theory, Nirghin’s polymer reservoir should allow farmers to maintain crops at minimal cost during a drought. CNN writes it has the added benefit of being sustainable as it is made from recycled and biodegradable waste products.
Nirghin invented the material in response to South Africa’s extended drought causing water shortages for millions of people. According to CNN, Nirghin’s goal was “to minimize the effect that drought has on the community and the main thing it affects is the crops.” Beyond individual instances of drought, if the invention works on a large scale, it could reduce harms resulting from climate-induced dryer conditions if they occur.
Andrea Cohan, program leader of the Google Science Fair, praised Nirghin, saying, “Kiara found an ideal material that won’t hurt the budget in simple orange peel, and through her research, she created a way to turn it into soil-ready water storage with help from the avocado.” CNN reports Jinwen Zhang, Ph.D., a professor of materials engineering at Washington State University, who is also developing products to address drought, said, “Using waste products for low-cost feedstock for large volume [water storage] is definitely worth further investigation. I think it works.”