Lufa Farms: transforming urban agriculture toward sustainability

Over 50% of the world population currently living in urban areas and this number is expected to continue to rise swiftly in the near future. Clear-cutting forests for new agricultural lands to feed the growing world population is the leading cause of global deforestation. Continual destruction of a valuable carbon sink, the lungs of the Earth, should not be the basis of our means of survival. On top of this, much of the produce found in grocery stores have come from thousands of kilometres away, which takes immense amounts of energy to transport, store and package this produce. This food system is a mess and is the master of its own destruction. This is why creating an urban agricultural system that can meet the food needs of high-density populations locally is so important for the future

EditedDSC00499Last Saturday, team ISP was so fortunate to be able to attend Lufa Farms‘ Earth day open house event. It makes me a bit sad that I cannot support this wonderful business since I do not live in Montreal at the moment, but if I ever move back, I will definitely support them the best that I can. Here is a recap of all the cool stuff we learned about Lufa Farms at the open house, and this information can also be found on their website.

Lufa Farms started out in 2011 with their rooftop greenhouse in Ahuntsic, distributing just 300 baskets of locally grown produce to Montrealers. Since then, they have expanded to three locations on the island and distribute 12000 baskets per week. They represent the heart of sustainability and act as a model for other sustainable businesses. I am so impressed with everything they do (and a little bit obsessed), mainly because they are doing everything right and doing it with the right mindset. They run by five main principles that work toward, saving water, energy, space, and reduce waste and chemical inputs.

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To conserve water, all of the crops are grown using a hydroponic system, which alone reduces water consumption of the growing process by 50-90%. They also recirculate all of the water used for irrigation, so that none of the water enters the municipal water system. This reduces excess nutrient runoff to the St Lawrence river basin, which is the main cause of oxygen depletion in those waters. To reduce additional water, they use snow melt and rainwater in their irrigation system as well.

Since the greenhouses are located on rooftops, they get more solar insolaEditedDSC00494tion than a greenhouse that is located on the ground. The minimal heating that the greenhouses need occurs only at night, and the use of semi-transparent curtains prevent excessive heat loss during cold winter nights, reducing the amount of heating actually needed. What little heating of the greenhouses that takes place is done using natural gas, however, since the produce is being shipped locally, within hours of the time it is harvested, no energy associated with refrigeration, storage or packaging of the produce is required, offsetting the energy used for heating.

EditedDSC00473I was a bit skeptical of the idea of a rooftop greenhouse, but when it’s done right, like at Lufa Farms, it is actually such a great idea. Since they are on rooftops, they are using space that would otherwise be useless and using it for productive land. This reduces the need to clear more area to grow food and reduces pressure for intensive agricultural practices on current farm lands. In theory, it would only take the area-equivalent of about 19 shopping mall rooftops to meet the produce needs of every Montrealer. This is something that is so achievable, and this excites me so much.

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Another great thing about Lufa Farms is that they are very conscious about reducing their waste as much as possible. All of the discarded plant matter and produce that has gone bad is composted on-site, which diverts a huge amount of organic waste from landfills. This is so important because when organic waste is sent to landfills, it cannot decompose due to the highly anaerobic conditions of the landfill. This produce huge amounts of methane, a really powerful greenhouse gas that contributes largely to climate change. By composting on-site, a beautiful nutrient-dense compost can be produced and used in gardens and for growing other plants at Lufa Farms and nearby.

EditedDSC00500Last, but not least, Lufa Farms does not use any harmful pesticides, fungicides or herbicides on their food. Alternatively, they use biological pest control methods, which are methods that use organisms or their products to control pest organisms, in this case insects. Essentially, these methods take advantage of natural/native predator-prey systems within the insect world with the overall goal of reducing impacts of chemicals on the environment.

I love what Lufa Farms is doing so much, because it is all so important for sustainability and for the future of urban food systems. This business should act as a model for more North American urban agricultural initiatives.

World Water Day: connecting us to nature and outlining the changes we need today

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The world’s waters are in peril and I wrote this post to share my experiences of today in celebration of World Water Day. Today I had the amazing opportunity to attend World Water Day at my university. I even got a fancy name tag and everything. Overall, it was a great day of learning about the amazing water research my colleagues are doing and to share new innovative ideas on how to deal with the world’s water crisis.

The day began with The Water Song interpreted by UW’s Indigenous Students’ Society. This song represents the cultural importance of water to Indigenous communities in Canada. For Indigenous peoples, water is seen as a living thing, a spiritual entity that emits “life-giving” forces. With this, comes the duty and responsibility of its protection and respect by all. This song resonated with the crowd throughout the day, to remind everyone that water scarcity and pollution are not solely ecological and health issues but are merely small parts of the broader holistic perspective recognizing that everyone and everything on Earth are deeply and fundamentally connected and interrelated.

The Water Song fit extremely well into the theme of the day, The Answer is in Nature, A2_POSTER_WWD2018_EN-01which is all about utilizing natural solutions to help solve the world’s water crises. The Keynote speakers,  Tyler and Alex MifflinThey are the stars of their own TV show The Water Brothers, which looks at various environmental issues through the lens of water, aiming to increase the accessibility and understanding of these issues.

With 60 percent of the world’s lakes and 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, Canada is among the most water-abundant countries in the world. Such a fortune, comes immense responsibility that should be followed by examples of protection, preservation, conservation and care. However, Canada is one of the world’s biggest water wasters, consumers and polluters. This was described by Mifflin as The Myth of Abundance which is the idea that we have so much water, we do not need to worry about its quantity or quality, when actually the opposite is true.

In Canada, we may seem very far removed from the current water crisis in Cape Town, however the reality is that it could happen anywhere. Many human activities have disrupted the stability of the Earth’s water cycle to the point of creating a “preferred” water economy, wherein water use and consumption has little to do with natural cycles, but actually has a lot to do with the way humans have modified local ecosystems to meet demand for their desired activities. Water management in Capetown was based on the  more stable climatic conditions of the past, however, human induced climate change has fundamentally altered the water cycle to the point where Capetown’s water management systems simply do not work anymore.

This brings me to my main point, why should we, as Canadians, in the country with such abundant freshwater sources, focus on water issues?

Water is in everything we eat, drink, wear and consume. Our eating and consumption habits connect us to the water challenges all around the world. The water on Earth today has been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. We share the the water on Earth with all other life forms on the planet now and in those in past and future generations. We are not “running out of water,” per se. With so many people and other living things on the planet, we are running out of ways to provide everyone with the water that they need to live and thrive.

“No water, no life. No blue, no green.” – Sylvia Earle

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California is facing many issues with water scarcity due to periodic droughts related to climate change and the destabilized water cycle. Canadians have high dependence on California for winter produce, therefore, much of what goes on down there, affects us up here. To mitigate the water crisis, Californians were told that the best course of action was to take individual actions such as taking shorter showers and watering their grass less etc. These are all good things, that definitely have a positive impact on water conservation, however, the agricultural industry is actually responsible for 70 percent of freshwater consumption. It was those agricultural lobbyists that were encouraging other people to use less water so that they don’t have to.

The truth is that the water crisis is global issue that implicates everybody. To ensure availability and sustainable water management and sanitation for everyone on the planet, we have to think bigger than just taking a shorter shower. For instance, think about your own food choices, eating 10 hamburgers consumes the same amount of water as taking 365 showers. By eating less meat you are inherently are saving more water. We must take these individual actions, but we also must put pressure on governments to put adaptive and sustainable water conservation policies in place. These have capacity to make even bigger differences on even larger scales. When people raise their voices, that’s when changes are made. This is why the Mifflins are so passionate about using use their TV show and media presence to engage and educate people who care and have potential to work toward making the changes that are needed in the world.

 

The Plastic Tide Citizen Science Project

I’d like to bring a really important citizen science project to your attention today. As you may know, I am very passionate about plastics in the ocean and it is often a huge source of emotional stress when I begin to think about it.

That being said, I often feel like I should be doing more than I am doing to help save the planet because we are running out of time. Being in school and sitting at my desk in my small office everyday,  I find it hard to take the strong activist position that I would like to. So when I came across The Plastic Tide’s project, I got very excited because I finally feel like I am making a tiny impact and helping in some small way, which is extremely important.

The Plastic Tide has created an algorithm that works to identify plastics on coastlines with the goal of determining exactly how much plastics and other man-made debris are actually there. They are seeking people who will examine high-resolution photos of beaches and flag the plastic debris that appears in the photos. This will thus, teach the algorithm how to identify plastic debris, so that it can be used at a more broad scale. It is purely a citizen science effort, which is even more special, as it gives so many people, like me, the opportunity to participate in something they care deeply about, even if it is in just some small way.

Of course, it is not a project that works to solve systemic issues with the creation of plastic debris, however, the quantification aspect is something very important because I believe there is a lot of strength that can come from numbers.

I believe that projects like these are very important in raising awareness and encouraging participation of the people. If people can understand it, they can care about it and fight for the change that the world needs because ultimately, politicians do not enact the needed change, passionate people do.

If you wish to participate in the project, you can do so through their website (link above) or through Zooniverse (as I did). Zooniverse is a platform for all kinds of citizen science projects, so you can explore it and find other projects that mean something to you.

Blog Highlights… from then to now

The Incredible Sustainable Planet has recently reached its 2nd birthday, and already, I can see a huge evolution in not only my writing style, but also in the topics that I chose to publish articles about. My blog has matured from something I would do for fun on Sunday nights in the library, to something more serious, professional and relevant. There are some true gems on this blog that I want to resurface and will highlight them in this post. There are also some very strange posts that I just want to bury and hope will never be read again.

First on the list is Zero Waste Week at McGill. This was the first time I was exposed to the zero waste movement and I was so excited to take part in all the social events, but with my crazy busy schedule, I wasn’t able to. I still tried to do the challenge on my own, but failed miserably, because I just wasn’t prepared or thinking enough about it. Luckily, I’m taking a second go at it with this year’s New year’s resolution in my own way which will most likely be more successful. Following the zero waste theme, I wrote about Revolutionizing Disposable Utensils which was a project on Kickstarter about disposable utensils that you can eat once you’re done using them. This was such a great idea, as it could drastically reduce the number of plastic utensils that get used once and then are thrown away.

Next up, is Trading Convenience for Sustainability which is the article I wrote when I had two hydrologists as professors. They both introduced me to the immense impact of human water use on the planet and also led me to write Some Interesting Perspectives on Water Usage, which also talks about the hidden water use that comes in products that you wouldn’t normally think about as a heavy water user.

Bringing Back the Woolly Mammoth sounds a bit silly, but actually features some very important information about the human domination of the planet and about recent advancements in genetic cloning that can actually make de-extinction possible.

Did you ever wonder if store-bought eggs could hatch? Well I can answer that! Yes, it is possible for store bought eggs to hatch, was surprisingly, this blog’s 3rd most popular article!

Finally, the most popular article from the past two years has been The underlying truth to why Montreal’s plastic bag ban doesn’t actually ban plastic bags by a landslide. This article talks about how the by-law implemented to eliminate the distribution of plastic bags in retail stores in Montreal could potentially be the source of more plastic waste.

The past two years have been absolutely life-changing for me, completing my undergraduate degree at McGill and then moving hundreds of kilometers away to start my Master’s degree. Since then, I’ve met so many new inspirational people, traveled far and wide, learned so much, and had so many incredible experiences. During all of this, my blog has matured so much, it got a new name, its own domain, new members, new segments, and has really been able to portray my own personal journey and evolution. I hope to always continue writing and bringing important issues to the attention of my followers.

And of course, remember that we always love to get feedback from our readers, whether it is comments, questions, suggestions or contributions of any kind. Hope you enjoyed reminiscing the past years as much as I did.

-Charlotte

Photos of the Week (December 26th)

Tropique Nord 2017 (Montréal).

I am sorry for the late post! I wish you all a very happy holiday.

The “preferred water economy”and its issues

Water access and availability is becoming an increasing problem throughout the world. However, many places on earth have little to no access to clean drinking water, while other places in the world are wasting clean water. A colleague of mine has just finished her thesis on the achievability of access to clean drinking water in a rural Indian city. In order to achieve this worldwide, the water soft path is proposed as a general pathway to increase water availability and by simply decreasing the demand.

The water soft path is described as the path to managing and reducing the demand side of water in ultra-efficient manners while managing the supply-end at small, regional scales. The water hard path manages water on the supply end on very large scales using capital-intensive methods. There are essentially two actions that can be done on the demand side of water (particularly fresh water) in order to reduce it, such that supply will be able to meet it: 1. Increase efficiency of water use and 2. Reduce consumption.

Firstly, increasing the efficiency of water use would involve several policies and programmes designed to reduce the quantity of water needed to achieve a given task as well as to change the nature of the task to conserve water. These types of policies and programmes could promote the use of low-flow shower heads or sprinklers, measures to plant native vegetation in a given area that therefore, it would not need to be watered other than by natural precipitation. For example, California has adopted different demand-side technologies that have been shown to be cost-effective when compared to the cost of different measures required to increase water supply (the water hard path). Since 80% of the cost of running municipal wastewater systems is associated with the collection and transportation of water, a lot of money can be saved by just using less water to complete the same tasks. California currently has serious issues with water supply due to chronic drought, therefore, taking measures to increase water supply would not only be extremely expensive, but would likely have serious environmental repercussions.

Increasing efficiency is not the only thing that must be done to promote the sustainable use of water. The reduction of consumption is a key measure that must be taken in order to achieve sustainability. There are many things that we use potable water for that lower-quality water can easily do. Approximately, fifty litres of water per person-day are typically needed for an adequate life style, but this amount does not have to be satisfied with high-quality drinking water. For example, flushing the toilet does not need to use potable water, simply because no one is actually drinking it. The sole purpose of using water to flush the toilet is to push the waste down the drain. There are at least two alternatives to toilet flushing that will drastically reduce high-quality water consumption. The first is the use of gray water to flush toilets. This is actually being done at the University of Waterloo in the Environment 3 building. Secondary quality water is being used to flush the toilets, then it is being run through the artificial wetland just outside the building and then through the living wall inside the building. These act as natural filters for the water. Once the water has been filtered, it returns (as secondary quality, non-potable water) to the building to flush the toilets. Gray water can have many other uses, such as: watering lawns, plants or gardens and irrigation of crops. A second alternative to using potable water to flush the toilet is the installation of composting toilets. This is not something new, I have actually seen these used at my summer camp over 10 years ago.  I discovered that the reason why they decided to install composting toilets because the sole water source for the camp was one single lake. With thousands of people using this lake year-round, it was crucial to not only reduce water consumption, but also to maintain the quality of the lake and surrounding environment. Nutrient loading of the lake from the use of non-biodegradable soaps and from what went down the toilet was beginning to become a problem before the camp installed composting toilets. At the worst point, while I was there, the lake had its highest levels of blue-green algae and we were told to be careful not to swallow any water while swimming. The next year I returned to the camp to experience these composting toilets and heard about the camp’s reasoning behind their installation. Since then, upon returning to the camp for several years proceeding this, I have not heard of or experienced any significant water quality issues in the lake. From this, it is easy to see how toilets do not need to use any water (directly) at all. These are just two examples from my experience of how wastewater can be used to reduce the demand for high-quality water.

Another issue that I would like to address is that we are taking all these measures to reduce consumption and promote sustainable use of water to achieve a “preferred future water economy.” The question here is: preferable for whom? Clearly, the answer is: for humans. Many of the natural resource commodities are not valued for themselves (inherent value) but because they provide us with services that we want/need as individuals in a society. A system does not really “care” what state it is in, and just like that, the Earth doesn’t “care” what the water supply to humans is in a given area only humans care about this. In the current state of the Earth, the amount of water available in an area has little to do with the demand of the local human population. Therefore, for all humans to have access to potable water, reduction in demand plays a large role, but so does the modification of the water cycle. When I visited the coast of Lima, Peru with Dr. Jeffrey Mackenzie, who specializes in groundwater flow in the Peruvian Andes, I was shown that this area is supposed to be a desert, there is not supposed to be grass and thousands of acres of passionfruit and potato farms. It never actually rains in this area, but still, an immense amount of water is being consumed everyday. This water is coming primarily from the ground as well as glacial meltwater. Excessive/unsustainable groundwater extraction is a large issue in many parts of the world. The groundwater in Lima is likely mostly fossil groundwater since it doesn’t currently seem to have a large recharge rate since there is no rain. An aquifer’s groundwater footprint (GF) is the area required to sustain all current services and ecosystem services . The GF describes the use of the aquifer not its actual size. If the GF/Aa (area of aquifer) is greater than 1, then the aquifer is not being used sustainably and is at risk for saline intrusion and contamination from nearby human activities. Therefore, the preferred water economy being created has a lot to do with the way we modify local ecosystems to meet demand for our desired activities.

In conclusion, the water soft path promotes sustainable water use, which is necessary for the future and for the goal of achieving water security for all. Despite the fact that we are modifying the water cycle in order to achieve water security, the water soft path is way of reducing the impact of our water needs on the planet.

References:

Brooks, D. B., & Holtz, S. (2009). Water soft path analysis: from principles to practice. Water International, 34(2), 158–169. https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060902839940

Gleeson, T., Wada, Y., Bierkens, M. F. P., & van Beek, L. P. H. (2012). Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint. Nature, 488(7410), 197-200. doi:http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v488/n7410/abs/nature11295.html#supplementary-information