Solving our world’s environmental challenges will take 21st century materials and creativity

Ag & Food |  4 min. read

Plant a grove of trees? Or plant a field of wheat?

“Land is under growing human pressure and climate change is adding to these pressures,” according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report broadly suggested that “farmland would need to shrink, and forests would need to grow to keep Earth from getting…hotter.”

We could be facing choices like that.

Or we can get creative.  We can grow food indoors. Grow food in fields that go up, instead of out.  We can farm without dirt.  We can put farms on water, and even underwater or maybe in space.  We can harvest food and electricity from the same field.  We can plant carbon dioxide in the soil and raise better crops from that soil.

Those aren’t just dreams in a laboratory. They’re happening right now, in America and around the globe.  But getting from “yes, we can do that” to “yes, we can feed a hungry planet that way” won’t just take 21st century creativity.  It will also take 21st century materials and technologies.

And as we’ll see, many of those 21st century materials, are made from petrochemicals that come from two very familiar materials: oil and natural gas.  Those petrochemicals: propylene, ethylene, xylene, butylene, benzene and toluene, when combined with other chemicals become the building blocks for the high-tech materials that make possible –well, everything you’re going to read about below.

Up in the sky.  It’s a bird.  It’s a plane.  It’s — a farm!

“The most troubling paradox of the 21st century may be that human population is expected to climb to 9.7 billion by midcentury — yet the global food supply is expected to plummet.”

That’d be “vertical farming.”

Inside an old meatpacking plant in Chicago, Backyard Fresh Farms is growing lettuce, kale, arugula and other greens indoors.

The four-tier towers of plants are monitored by cameras with artificial intelligence (aka AI) analyzing the data and adjusting growing conditions as needed.  When a tier of kale is ready for harvest, automated lifts bring the plants down to floor level for picking, then take the next newly-planted crop back up.

This farm doesn’t take up any farmland and because it’s inside, crops can grow come rain or shine, winter, summer, and all-year round.  Backyard Fresh reports that it’s actually less expensive to grow their crops indoors than out.  Oh, and Chicago chefs say their greens taste great too.

Looking ahead, Backyard Fresh wants to operate big indoor farms, up to 100,000 square feet, with towers of plants that have the capacity to produce 6 million pounds of food annually.  And what Backyard Fresh is doing in Chicago, other indoor farms are doing in cities around the country.

21st century materials:  Those plant-growing racks stand tall thanks to petrochemicals like high-density polyethylene and PVC for water pipes (made from ethylene), as well as polypropylene and high-impact polystyrene (HIPS) for growing trays, which in turn are made from propylene ethylene, and benzene.

 Also read about:  Sheets of high-tech polymers, made from the petrochemical ethylene — are used to make giant greenhouses that allow for year-round farming outdoors — even in Midwestern winters.

 So that’s a wrap.

“Across the planet, more than a billion tons of essential, nutritious, life-sustaining food goes to waste each year…Roughly one-third of all food produced on Earth is either wasted or lost…”

Well, something as simple as plastic wrap might just be part of the answer to that problem.  That’s because plastic-wrapped groceries stay fresh and edible longer.  Meat, for instance, can stay good to eat for an extra 21 days, wrapped in high-tech plastic that keeps air out.  Plastic-coated “pouches” for fruit, nuts, even fish keep all those foods fresh longer.  That’s especially good news for those of us fish-lovers who don’t live near an ocean or lake.  And our leftovers can make good lunches and dinners the next day, thanks to plastic containers and plastic wrap.

There are other points from farm to table where food can be spoiled or lost but taking care of business at home and in the grocery store, is one important part of bringing that “one-third” number down.

21st century materials: There are different types of plastic wraps for food but usually the starting point for all of them is the petrochemical ethylene.

Also read about:  The floating dairy farm with the polycarbonate “lid”, that doesn’t use any land at all.

You want a side of electricity with those tomatoes?

That might be on the menu soon.  Because growing plants underneath solar panels, turns out to be good for plants AND power.  Experimenting under the hot Arizona sun, researchers discovered that the shade of the solar panels made it possible to grow tomatoes and peppers by protecting them from being burned and from drying out.  In turn, having the plants underneath, kept the panels a little cooler, which increased electricity production.  And like regenerative farming, means we can get double the benefit from the same patch of ground AND, we can grow food in hot conditions, where food would be tough to grow otherwise.

21st century materials:  Sun and shade, solar panels work thanks to layers of ethylene vinyl acetate copolymers (which seal in the solar cells).  And those copolymers usually start with –ethylene (again).

 The lesson?

“The world’s land and water resources are being exploited at ‘unprecedented rates,’ a new United Nations report warns, which combined with climate change is putting dire pressure on the ability of humanity to feed itself.”

Let’s say that there isn’t one single answer to the challenge of feeding the world, and protecting it at the same time. But there are a lot of answers that combined together, should give us hope.

We’ll need 21st century creativity, absolutely. But another lesson is that 21st century technology and materials and materials made from petrochemicals, have an essential role to play in solving these complex food problems.