Listed below are challenges currently available for consideration by participating student teams at upcoming Challenge Events. BACK TO CHALLENGE EVENTS
Weeds Out of Control – Herbicides can no longer control the weeds that threaten crop productivity and food security in the US because the plants have evolved resistance, and future control must depend on management strategies that reduce reliance on chemicals. So concludes a UK epidemiological assessment of the factors that are driving the abundance and spread of the major agricultural weed, black-grass.
White Space Broadband – Farmers involved in precision agriculture and other agriculture technologies rely on internet access which can be spotty at best. The challenge is to determine and select a new technology or better application of a developing technology that improves internet connectivity in the rural regions of Maryland and insures the reliability of increased bandwidth for farmers utilizing technologies in agriculture.
Resource Depletion: The Costs of Industrial Agriculture – From mechanized feedlots to automatic irrigation systems to agricultural machinery, North American agriculture has become increasingly industrialized, placing ever-greater demands on fossil fuel, water and topsoil resources. Petroleum not only fuels trucks and mechanized farm equipment, but also serves as a base for synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, tying the cost of growing food increasingly closer to the price of oil. “We have an industrial agricultural system that’s totally dependent on the assumption that cheap fossil fuels will last forever,” says sustainable food and farming professor, John Gerber of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “That’s not a useful assumption anymore.” Many believe that the world has already passed “peak oil”, the point where the volume of oil reserves reaches its highest point and begins to decline. Gerber sees potential for reducing fossil fuel consumption in the integration of crop and livestock agriculture.
According to the US Geological Society, the amount of ground water drawn for use in irrigation has tripled since the 1950s. While water resources are not permanently finite, they do have limits. Climate models also suggest that rainfall may become less predictable and dependable. Professor Nicholas Jordan of the University of Minnesota believes the foremost challenge facing all agricultural systems is the ability to achieve some level of resilience to intensified bursts of rains followed by extensive periods of drought.
Agricultural production places additional stress on water supply by polluting water bodies with chemical runoff. The EPA cites agricultural runoff as the leading cause of pollution of lakes and rivers. Professor Jordan adds that making sure that farmers make good use of nitrogen and other agricultural additives before they leave the farm would not only reduce pollution of water and ecosystems, but also help to cut down on fossil fuel consumption. He says that planting cover crops like legumes, which scavenge nitrogen, prevents the nitrogen from leaching into the groundwater while storing it for later use by future crops.
Farmers’ dependence on nitrogen supplements stems in part from the erosion of topsoil. While topsoil loss has decreased 43% from the period 1982 – 2007, the USDA reports that 1.73 billion tons of topsoil are still lost each year. “Soil is eroding much faster than it can be replenished—taking with it the land’s fertility and nutrients that nourish both plants and those who eat them,” wrote Leo Horrigan, et. al., researchers at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in their 2002 article published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Horrigan and his colleagues charge that agriculture is one of the leading causes of desertification, citing “poor agricultural practices such as overcultivation, overgrazing, and overuse of water…” While in the past we have been able to expand agricultural croplands in order to meet increased demand for food, viable land for expansion is rapidly running out. According to the online database of country-specific facts and statistics, Index Mundi, the amount of arable land in North America has declined from 1.1 hectares per person in 1961 to 0.61 hectares per person in 2009. Changing land management approaches may be the only way forward.
Land Management: Degrading and Undervaluing Farmland – Throughout much of North America, especially in the United States, land management techniques have been draining the soil of nutritional value. Monoculture, the practice of continually planting the same solitary crop on one plot of farmland, removes nutrients from the soil that must be replenished with additional fertilizers. Many corn, soybean, and wheat farmers have switched to rotating crops from year to year to replenish the soil naturally. A USDA study of cover crops in sustainable agriculture found that interspersing cover crops in the field can prevent weed propagation and promote predator insects to naturally manage pests. At the end of the growing season, the cover crops can be worked into the soil, becoming added organic matter that increases water-holding before breaking down and replenishing the soil.
Livestock management is another major contributor to the degradation of farmable land. According to the 2009 textbook, Environmental Science by Daniel D. Chiras, continual overgrazing eliminates hardy grasses, creates dry soil conditions, and promotes the growth of weedy shrubs, such as sagebrush. Jim Howell, co-founder of The Savory Institute believes that the key to reversing desertification—and ultimately increasing food production—lies in holistic grazing practices. The Savory Institute promotes a managed grazing system developed by Alan Savory in Zimbabwe that involves keeping cattle in one location for just one week—just long enough to enrich a swath of future farmland with a carpet of dung. While the concept may seem simple, the practice involves extensive planning to allow grasslands to replenish before returning livestock to graze again. Howell believes that land and cattle management holds tremendous potential for intensifying food production.
Food Waste: Compromising Food Security – The United Nations estimates that one-third of the world’s food goes to waste, either during agricultural production, post-harvest handling and storage, processing, distribution, or consumption. In North America, a large percentage of this loss comes from consumers wasting food. Consumers accustomed to an abundance of food often purchase more than they actually eat, tossing spoiled food out at the end of every week. As the old saying goes, people’s eyes are often bigger than their stomachs, and they pile up their plates at family style and buffet meals, throwing away whatever remains when they feel full. According to a 2011 UN study conducted for the International Congress, on average, each individual in North America wastes between 200-250 pounds of food per year.
Additionally, North American consumer expectations that fruits and vegetable should be pristine and without blemish means that supermarkets and restaurants are forced to reject produce that is edible yet aesthetically imperfect due to an unusual shape, size or color. Further demand for extensive selection causes supermarkets to purchase an excess of produce, driving prices up and increasing potential for spoilage.
Despite this seeming excess of food, hunger remains a significant problem throughout North America. The Canadian Community Health Survey of 2007-2008 reported nearly one million food insecure Canadian households. In the United States, 17 million households experienced food insecurity in 2010 according the USDA. Mexico’s National Evaluation Council on Social Development (CONEVAL) estimated in a 2008 study that 49 million Mexicans experienced some form of food insecurity.
Excessive food waste threatens to compromise every effort to increase food production. According to the EPA, Americans generated 34 million tons of food waste in 2010. One million tons of that was recovered and recycled. The remainder was thrown away. Food that is currently sent to rot in landfills where it decomposes and releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere could be better distributed to bridge the gap between those with excess and the hungry. Food that spoils can be re-integrated into the food chain as compost. Howell of The Savoy Institute says that he would like to see food waste be diverted to hogs. “Right now we waste massive amounts of food in cities. All that used to be fed to hogs, but it became economically viable to feed them grain.” He says that returning slop feeding would enable us to continue to produce hogs in a way that they would no longer compete with humans for food sources.
Addressing the massive problem of food waste calls for a tremendous shift in mentality that favors conservation over convenience, a reversal of the trends of the last 50 years.
Demographic Changes: A Disconnected Public – In North American, the last 50 years have brought a major cultural shift that has removed consumers further and further away from their food sources. U.S. Census data from 2010 showed around 80% of Americans living in urban areas. The Mexican Household Survey conducted by Harvard School of Public Health found that in the last forty years, the number of Mexicans living in urban areas rose from 51 percent to 74 percent. According the Canadian Geographic, two-thirds of the entire population of Canada lives in one of eight urban environments. Swelling cities and their surrounding suburbs form an ever-thickening barrier between farming communities and consumers. If you ask the majority of young children where food comes from they will say, “from the grocery store.”
Entire neighborhoods, known as food deserts, have no fresh produce for sale. In many low-income urban areas fast food restaurants and convenience stores have become the only accessible sources of food. These so-called food deserts are most common in racially segregated urban areas where low-income neighborhoods are relatively isolated from the rest of the city. The USDA estimates that over 20 million Americans live in so-called food deserts.
As urban areas grow, farmers receive increasing pressures from encroaching developers and communities to sell their land, says Jack Rabin of Rutgers University. The result is a phenomenon known as ‘impermanence syndrome’ where urban fringe farming is squeezed out of existence. As he explains on the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station website, the land has become so valuable to developers that many farmers cannot afford not to sell, and would be farmers cannot find affordable land.
Further, Rabin suggests a largely disconnected public translates to intolerant neighbors. Residents of newly developed suburban communities are unaccustomed to the smells and sounds of farming life. In New Jersey, he has seen an increase in land-use disputes between farmer and non-farming neighbors. He estimates that these conflicts cost New Jersey farmers on average $25,000 per year, becoming one more incentive for farmers to leave agriculture.
PRECISION AGRICULTURE – Adoption rates of seed genetics and precision steering have exceeded 50 percent in several geographic markets because of their visible and compelling value. However, grower adoption of seed and fertilizer management continues to lag.
More efficient use of field inputs—particularly nitrogen fertilizer—is essential for several reasons. For one, fertilizer costs are rising. Fertilizer sales now exceed $18 billion annually in the United States and represent between 30–50 percent of the cost of production for wheat and corn on most farms. In addition, worldwide fertilizer use is on the rise. Globally, the rate of nitrogen use is outpacing increases in population and in arable land. Oxygen depletion triggered by excessive nitrogen and phosphorous levels, primarily caused by fertilizer runoff, is becoming a serious problem in several major waterways. The U.S. National Academy of Engineering has listed “Managing the Nitrogen Cycle” as one of its 14 grand engineering challenges for the 21st century.
It is believed that adoption of Precision Agriculture for seed and fertilizer management will improve when three key challenges have been overcome:
- Improving GNSS signal availability
- Improving the efficiency of soil measurements
- Analyzing data across multiple farms
Counting Oysters – Workers involved in oyster aquaculture are looking for a way to automate the counting of oysters. Oysters collected from cages are packaged 1,000 to a pallet and are currently counted by hand. The challenge is to develop a process or system that allows for greater efficiency in sorting and packaging oysters other than by hand.
Species Diversification – The entire aquaculture industry in Maryland is subject to one species, the oyster. Research and investment in other types of aquaculture will diversify and help to stabilize the industry as they respond to changing markets. A hatchery that produces clam, oyster and scallop larvae, can have a product almost 9 months a year rather than 6.
Species diversification requires research, technology transfer, and permitting mechanisms. Right now, there is not a true permit in place to culture these species using species-specific gear. While permits are for ‘shellfish’, it would take DNR some time to determine how to permit lantern nets used for scallops, or hanging ropes for mussels. DNR has been very willing to work on these through research initiatives, but it still needs to get to the farms.
Maryland-based Shucking House – A few of the smaller oyster growers in Maryland have their own small shucked product and sell shucked pints/quarts of oysters as a value-added product. For many though, they sell a large portion of their product to a shuck house out-of-state. This results in the shell leaving Maryland, which is a scarce resource for restoration and bottom-lease operations in the Chesapeake Bay. A shucking operation in Maryland would allow for shell to be kept within the State. This would require a lot of product in order to be economical.
Phosphorus Mitigation – Our company is deploying a patent-pending Combined Remediation Biomass and bio-Product Production (CRBBP) Process to extract excess phosphorus and other problematic substances from soils and waters, which are part of the Chesapeake bay watershed. We currently have approximately 40 acres of Biomass Sorghum planted in three locations in the region.
We have recently learned that the Governor and his administration is very concerned about the phosphorus and other problematic substances, that are in the waters and silt, which are accumulating behind the Conowingo Dam, just before they flow into the Chesapeake Bay. We have just spoken with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), about how our patent-pending CRBBP Process (See attachment) might help, in a very cost-effective way.
Live Smart – Evaluate environmental, social, and economic data to design tools and plan blueprints for smart and connected rural and urban settlements.
Population dynamics, changes in climate, and diversity of available resources all influence the quality of life in urban and rural areas. Applying innovative techniques and using data creatively to research and plan urban and rural areas will help improve residents’ lives and help preserve social, economic, and environmental resources for future generations.
Your challenge is to plan next-generation sustainable cities, towns, and villages that integrate data and smart/connected technologies in various domains, including energy, education, transportation, agriculture, environment, and health. Ensure that the benefits of smart planning are accessible to all populations.
This challenge addresses the following Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly to engage all countries and all stakeholders in a collaborative partnership. The SDGs aim to build a better future for all people by achieving sustainable development in three dimensions – economic, social, and environmental – in the spirit of strengthened global solidarity:
Goal 1.5: By 2030, build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters.
Goal 2.4: By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystem, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.
Goal 7.1: By 2030, ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services.
Goal 11.3: By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.
Goal 13.1: Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate–related hazards and natural disasters in all countries.
You can design a high-level plan of smart cities, towns, and villages, or develop tools and ideas that contribute to smart planning and running of these settlements.
Your solution can address any or all of the following topics:
Data collection tools
Data assimilation tools
Application of data to settlement planning
Design low cost sensors to be distributed around urban and/or rural areas to help observe and respond to local conditions, such as atmospheric processes and their impacts. For example, consider how atmospheric processes will be affected by changes in climate while planning for sustainable and healthy living.
Explore the impacts of urban heat on health, infrastructure (including transportation and energy), and society. Design tools for remote sensing observations and modeling, and/or for adaptation and mitigation (for example, building designs with open spaces and green roofs).
Develop low-cost, wireless-enabled, battery-powered sensors to collect and transmit real-time data about other environmental variables, including precipitation, wind, relative humidity, noise, pollution, vibration etc., to compare trends in rural versus urban settlements. Explore innovative applications for these sensors to benefit science and society.
Consider the needs of urban versus rural environments when developing tools. For example, appropriate monitoring of urban environments may necessitate a dense network of sensors making frequent measurements.
Ensure connectivity of tools to share data and allow timely responses.
Give care to design cost-effective and resource-effective tools and plans for greater global impact.
Wood Supply Logistics – find viable uses for the 800,000 tons of low grade, small diameter wood that is annually discarded throughout Maryland.
Products derived from Maryland forests support $4 billion of economic activity annually. Maryland forests are more productive today than they were 100 years ago, and continue to supply some of the highest quality wood products found anywhere on earth. Today, Maryland forests annually grow about 1.25% more wood than is lost to harvest, natural mortaility or converting forests to development. Yet, Marylanders as a whole consume more than 9x the volume of wood harvested and manufactured.
Furthermore, it’s estimated that over 800,000 tons of wood are literally thrown away each year. This is wood generated by tree trimming, clearing, logging residuals, etc. This wood is typically what remains after the best parts of the trees are seperated and sent to various mills for processing; what remains is typically small diameter, crooked, hollow, or in some other way not usable for lumber or paper manufacture.
Finding a viable use for this portion of the wood supply would solve many problems. The economic contributions could be substantial. And the goal is to find a market use for this material that would offset the costs of generating it. If these materials could be sold and therefore their costs could be recovered, then forest managers would finally be able to tackle the biggest threat to forest health in Maryland which is overcrowding. Simply put, we have too many trees in our forests and the overcrowding is making our forests weak and susceptible to disease and destructive insects, and less productive overall. This is not good for wildlife or our future water supplies, or our economy.