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Agriculture and the Environment

Agriculture and the Environment

I was driving south on I-15 in early September 2018 from Salt Lake City to Provo, Utah. As I approached the point of the mountain where the two valleys merge, I saw what can only be described as horrific. Smoke billowed into the sky, an angry orange glow rimming the horizon—it looked as though the entire valley were on fire. The smoke smothered Utah Valley for the next few weeks, forcing many to evacuate their homes and driving most everyone indoors to escape the acrid air. By October 7, the Pole Creek Fire was finally fully contained, but not before it devastated over 100,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in Utah in a decade

But the Pole Creek Fire pales in comparison to the mega wildfires that have canvassed the West over the last few years. California’s 2021 fire season saw two million acres burned and the future doesn’t bode any better. That’s because studies are finding that the disastrous wildfires coming to characterize the West are linked to increases in global warming—another reality only trending upward. 

Mega wildfires aren’t the only threat to result from climate change. Flash floods that leave thousands homeless, heatwaves that turn fatal, drought that threatens food insecurity. Recent years have seen these natural phenomena around the world intensify with increasingly severe consequences as global warming rises. And while some global warming is essential to maintaining viable ecosystems, human activity exacerbates it past those necessary thresholds. So governments, organizations, and corporations worldwide are looking to rein in greenhouse gas emissions by strategically targeting major sectors like oil production, transportation, heating/electricity—and agriculture.  

Though on the surface agriculture may not appear as harmful as some other major greenhouse gas emitters, there’s a complex network of emissions occurring from the beginning to the end of food production. Farming requires significant amounts of arable land, fuel-operated machinery to work that land, and fertilizer to optimize and maximize plant growth. Livestock create enteric emissions. Final products have to be transported not just off farm but in some cases across country borders to reach consumers. Globally, emissions from the agricultural sector equate to about 12% of annual emissions (electricity & heat sector is the largest contributor at 32%; transportation sits at 17%). It’s important to note that some discrepancy exists in terms of measuring agricultural GHG emissions since a life cycle assessment (emissions from beginning to end of production) of, say, a beef patty is a much more comprehensive picture than only measuring emissions from the tailpipe of a car. Still, there’s a lot happening in agricultural production that isn’t helping the cause of environmental sustainability. 

That being said, the agricultural sector represents a wealth of opportunities to help slow—and to a degree perhaps even reverse—global warming. Technological advances are allowing farmers to abandon or adapt outmoded practices to be more sustainable. One such technology is hydroponic farming, a method of cultivating plants without soil and often without fertilizer either. When it comes to feeding livestock, hydroponically sprouted grains are an increasingly popular option that offer several ways of more sustainable agriculture.

  • Land sparing:
    One method of more environmentally-friendly farming resides in land-sparing practices, where farmers practice land conservation by limiting their agricultural activity to a smaller but highly productive space. Hydroponic sprout systems are excellent examples of land sparing since they radically reduce the amount of space required to grow a crop by cultivating them inside under ideal conditions in vertical space. You can read more about how hydroponic systems work here: (link to a blog post on systems)
  • Less water:
    Rising temperatures and desertification of large areas around the world have stressed water availability and challenged farmers and ranchers. In the face of continuous drought, producers need to strategize how to continue operations on either unpredictable or simply less water access. Hydroponic systems optimize and decrease overall water usage compared to other traditional feed crops like alfalfa and corn. Anecdotal evidence from hydroponic producers estimates that their operations take up to 90% less water than traditional cultivation methods.
  • No fertilizer
    Although the use of fertilizers in crop production affords immediate benefits as far as controlling a plant’s yield and protecting it from pests, the long-term consequences include pollution of rivers, lakes, and groundwater sources. That pollution kills off aquatic species and can be passed back to humans who ingest infected fish. In contrast with traditional farming, hydroponic sprout systems do not require fertilizer to produce consistent, high-quality sprouts. By creating an optimal environment to begin with that remains constant year-round, hydroponic systems yield consistently without synthetic fertilizers, providing a quality crop output without the harmful runoff contributing to water pollution we typically see from fertilizer application.
  • Can be powered by renewable energy sources
    While hydroponic systems themselves operate solely on electricity and not fuel like other farm machinery, they do still often rely on electricity generated by power grids based on fossil fuels. So what makes a hydroponic system truly environmentally friendly is operating it on electricity produced by renewable energy sources, which is happening in places like British Columbia.
  • Potential reduction of enteric emissions due to high digestibility (though further studies required)
    Research studies show that manipulating ruminant diets can impact enteric emissions, and that impact has a lot to do with a feed’s digestibility, or in other words, how much of a foodstuff becomes available to the animal to utilize. While more research is needed to confirm what role hydroponic sprouts might play in reducing enteric emissions, its high digestibility is a point in its favor.

There is no silver bullet that will neutralize or eliminate climate change. But strategic planning within the agricultural sector, including the use of hydroponic systems, can be one effective piece of the puzzle in preserving an optimal environment for all of us on this planet.