In natural ecosystems, soil over thousands of years old builds up as a mixture of biomass accumulated through the life and death of countless organisms, and also the breakdown of geological features in what is called geomorphology. Current industrial practices were empowered by Normal Borlaug's effort while at the Rockerfeller Foundation in the 50s to put forward a "Green Revolution. The Green Revolution led to the rapid industrialization of agriculture. This included the injection of industrial chemicals for fertilizers and pesticides, homogenized see varieties and mass production, mechanized farming practices. While providing dramatic short term gains in production, over the long term these innovations led the rapid degradation of natural systems that build and sustain fertile lands.
Often though the debate is quite narrow in that ecologists and industrialists debate about whether or not organic farming can sustain current production levels. What is still ignored in the mainstream (on both extremes of the agricultural debate) is that a paradigm shift is emerging that is moving humanity (whether it likes or not) away from conventional land based food production systems that require large amounts of land and heavy machinery (in order for the farms to be economically viable).
An alternative to conventional farming has emerged that includes what are termed
- Bio-intensive permaculture, growbiointensive, agroecology, biodynamic farming practices optimize natural systems using organic, poly-culture food growing practices, so that small gardens can rival the productivity of large scale corporate farming monocultures.
- Water based Integrated Farming Systems use digesters to process animal, plant and agro-industrial waste and then use hydraulic principles of water to optimize the growing process and may include aquaponics and pond-based agricultural systems.
These systems are more productive than conventional agriculture because they are designed to complement and synergize naturally occurring processes by:
- Maximizing the uptake/sequestration of gases (mainly carbon and nitrogen) from the atmosphere.
- Creating synergistic loops within the growing ecosystem that lead to a permaculture type design that modifies natural ecosystems but augments (rather than obliterating them as industrialized agriculture does) making selective changes that optimize production.
- Adding potent natural and organics fertilizers such as mineralized water and compost teas to maximize beneficial microbial that plants need to grow rapidly.
Integrated Farming Systems typically uses bio-solids from feedlots and feed barns as a feedstock for bioreactors. Biowaste feedstocks are first used to generate energy through the stimulation of anaerobic bacteria, in an airtight reactor which can then be used for electrical generation and heating.
Methane resulting from the Anerobic reactions in the reactor can be stored and then used at a basic level to create heat for cooking and hot water. At the larger, more ambitious scale Intergrated Farms can power fuel cells, microturbines and gas fired internal combustion engines as Combined Heating & Power units to produce electricity and heat for local use.
Algae and other microorganisms then feast on the remaining effluent first in the settling and aerobic digestion tanks Then once the sludge is removed it goes into fishpond and/or fish tanks, which the fish then eat thus preventing eutrophication and the degradation of the living machine system. Inflow effluent becomes nutrient loaded pond water, which then irrigates crops in a variety of methods from berm agriculture to aquaponics.
The Integrated Biomass System is almost completely self-reliant, eliminating the need for many expensive inputs typically associated with conventional agricultural production such as feed and fertilizer. Lower overhead costs for small farmers in developing countries helps to make farming more viable in these regions. Existing economic models link development with the idea of disposing of biomass as waste in landfills. The undervaluing of biomass is related to the patterns that emerge are those in which marginalized rural regions are being rapidly depleted of their natural resources to perpetuate this very unsustainable cycle of treating biomass as trash. It is not only an extractive economy but also an exploitative one that is rapidly deflating the value of natural and human systems in these regions to fuel unsustainable economic growth.
So long as an ecosystem is fully functional, a certain amount of biomass can be exported from that ecosystem to another part of the world without depleting or degrading the vitality of the ecosystem. So long as we do not exceed that threshold, we exist in a state of sustainability.
What makes this approach compelling is that it will capitalize on the tendency of society to undervalue waste byproducts that result from unsustainable agricultural, industrial and residential activities in conventional society and convert what society sees as a waste into value-added products—within an integrated and highly productive agricultural system. Our goal is not simply to create a sustainable economy but a restorative one that regenerates and rebuilds the integrity of ecological systems.
Integrated biowaste processing systems mimic nature, addressing problems of conventional wastewater treatment facilities in a way that is more ecologically as well economically sound. This makes them a key set of disruptive technologies for the development of decentralized village based sustainable economy.
A major culprit behind global warming is methane (biogas) gas. Anaerobic digesters are a low cost solution to mitigate global warming by reducing methane emissions into the atmosphere.
Biogas can function as fuel creating power in any number of configurations from providing energy with relatively low-tech devices such as boilers internal combustion engines to more complex and state of the art micro turbines and solid oxide or molten carbonate fuel cells. The waste not digested by the Anerobic bacteria and made into biogas becomes either liquid fertilizer or compost growing a variety of crops.
A community with an IF or similar sustainable technology could receive money for the scale of carbon and methane sequestration. Gaviotas, an ecovillage in Columbia, received 2 million dollars from a Japanese fund and this money helped them to plant 36,000 acres of pine trees, but from the forest sprang a business exporting colofonia, which is needed to make natural paints, in Columbia.
Considering the Role of Information Technologies Like farming in general, more advanced stages of Integrated Farming can see additional benefits through the application of Information Technologies to enable more effective optimization of the feedback loops within the system (for more read about considering the role of Holistic ICT in Sustainable Development/Holistic ICT for EcoLiving).
ZERI founder Gunter Pauli then president of Ecover oversaw the expansion of the company’s product line to include bio-based soaps. He soon discovered that this effort, while helping to clean Europe’s rivers, simply externalized the pollution to Indonesia by encouraging the proliferation of large scale palm plantations that caused massive environmental degradation there. ZERI was therefore founded as a NGO consultancy providing businesses, NGOs and governments with a strong methodology to build a foundation for real sustainable development. Without a firm commitment and understanding of sustainability, companies end up making compromises that undermine the meaning of the word sustainability. Prof. Chan’s work in developing Integrated Farming Systems (IFS) is consistent with ZERI’s uncompromising comprehensive approach to sustainable development. IFS projects demonstrate how ZERI methods can apply practically to farming; enabling wise management of natural resources while ensuring the economic survival of the small farmer.
When travelling to Shanghai with over 25 experienced engineers from USA, in a US People to People Environmental Mission to China in 1983, he realized that the paradigm he has been trained under in the West was based on many faulty assumptions about how nature operates. From that point onward his life shifted towards the development of a system of farming that could be incorporated by families and communities in rural regions of tropical nations.
Prof Chan working as an environmental engineer has refined a process of bio-engineering, optimizing agricultural production systems without the use of expensive industrial inputs: pesticides, farm implements and synthetic fertilizers. The IFS or the Integrated Farming & Waste Management System (IF&WMS), is potentially a powerful engine for sequestering carbon and methane that can be applied to mitigate Global Climate Change. The IF&WMS includes using biogas from the bioreactor/digester decomposition process as an energy source, while channelling the resulting effluent into settling tanks and ponds so that it can be used as a fertilizer for growing various crops. Because it is a highly productive agricultural system that requires a small footprint, it is particularly suitable for small farmers.
As part of this movement, environmental engineer Professor George Chan of Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) helped pioneer the development of a remarkable and exciting approach to agriculture called Integrated Farming. Prof. Chan spent several years studying the ancient integrated oriental agricultural systems that are still place in many low-lying areas of China and Vietnam where they are most ideally suited. The Chinese have long understood that the proper arrangement of organisms can make waste into food without little need for complex machinery.
The names have changed over the year Night Soil, Integrated Farming, Integrated Biomass Systems and now Integrated Farming & Waste Management Systems, but the underlying principle is the same. These more integrated approaches to farming, incorporate appropriate technologies such as digesters that increase the production and utilization of biomass while only marginally increasing energy and resource inputs for infrastructure and construction.
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ZERI has been active in promoting these alternative technologies to the developing world. There are now numerous Anaerobic Digesters are ideal for rural villages in the developing world. IF&WMS projects have been built in countries throughout the world, such as Namibia, Benin, China, Vietnam, Sweden and Fuji.
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The Longju Sustainable Village (PDF) plan was the result of a brainstorming session between leading American sustainability think tanks including the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems and the Rocky Mountain Institute. This plan for South China complements the ZERI approach, promoting an integrated sustainable village model.
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