Tag Archives: agricultural waste

Straw into gold: Trang Tran cultivates mushrooms to fight climate change

Social entrepreneur Trang Tran is teaching Vietnamese farmers how to use rice straw as a material in which to grow profitable mushrooms, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve livelihoods. Photo: Fargreen

Social entrepreneur Trang Tran is teaching Vietnamese farmers how to use rice straw as a material in which to grow profitable mushrooms, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve livelihoods. Photo: Fargreen

In agricultural entrepreneur Trang Tran’s native Vietnam, farmers traditionally burn the straw and husks that remain after the rice harvest. This practice happens at least twice a year for two months at a time, releasing noxious smoke and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Tran’s solution: using rice straw to cultivate mushrooms. Her social enterprise Fargreen is standardizing the process and teaching farmers how to recycle their own agricultural waste and improve their livelihoods. We asked Tran to tell us about how the idea evolved.

How did you become interested in the burning of rice straw as an environmental problem? Did you come from a farming community?

I’m from a little province called Hà Nam, two hours south of Hanoi, the capital city. My parents are not farmers, but Vietnam is an agricultural country, so everyone is surrounded by rice farms. Even if you live in Hanoi, the nearest farm is only a half an hour away.

Rice straw burning is something that happens every harvest season, and it happens all around us. It’s been done for many years, and it’s considered the most convenient way of getting rid of waste. Straw is perceived as having no value — farmers just want to get it out of the way as soon as possible in order to prepare for the next crop. In Vietnam, 20 to 50 million tons of rice straw are burned annually, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Obviously this contributes to climate change, but the more immediate problem is that local people inhale the matter, causing serious health problems in communities — particularly in babies. Poor communities are most affected, and of course they have the least money for health care.

When rice straw is being burned, it’s very smoggy, and it’s hard to breathe. It also blocks visibility. A lot of car accidents happen during harvest season. It’s crazy — whenever I have to travel from my home to Hanoi for work, or come home during harvest season, rice straw is being burned along both sides of the road and it is very dangerous for drivers.

In rice-producing countries, rice straw is often burned on the field in preparation for new crops. Photo: Scott Gable

In rice-producing countries, rice straw is often burned on the field in preparation for new crops. Photo: Scott Gable

Why is straw burned on roads? Why not just on the field?

The part of the rice plant left in the ground after the harvest is burnt right on the field. But the part left over after threshing is piled by the side of the road. There isn’t much space to store the agricultural waste once it’s been threshed, especially in Northern Vietnam, and roadsides are typically far enough away from houses that the straw can be safely burned. Some people also believe burning straw on the field helps the soil, but it’s actually really damaging because the soil gets drier and drier, and it just gets harder to farm it every year. The straw can’t just be buried because there is too much of it; composting rice straw requires a special technique and takes time. There’s a real need for the farmers to clear the field for the next round of rice cultivation — we plant two crops in Northern Vietnam and three in Southern Vietnam.

How did you come up with the idea to use rice straw to grow mushrooms?

My background is in international development. When I went to get my MBA in Colorado State, I kept thinking about this problem of rice straw waste back home. I had always seen this as an environmental problem, but getting my MBA gave me a way to see the problem differently and find a new way to approach it. My friend Thuy Dao, who was a fellow undergraduate back in Vietnam but in the biotechnology department, shared my fascination. Once I joked with her, “Oh, maybe someday we’ll work together on this problem.” Later, when I was talking to people to find a collaborator, her name popped into my head. So I contacted her and we started doing research.

Of course, we were not the first to tackle this problem. We looked into the various ways other researchers have considered to deal with rice straw. But because we grew up in the community as well as working in development, we could see from the local perspective that the problem is far more complex than just the act of burning. You have to ask, “What is the motivation for farmers? What’s in it for them not to burn?” If there’s nothing in it for them, and burning saves time so they can prepare for their next crop, then you can’t blame them for wanting to continue.

Mushrooms grown on rice straw are sorted and weighed before being sold to restaurants and grocery stores. Being able to stay home to cultivate profitable mushrooms between rice seasons prevents farmers from traveling to the city to find work. Photo: Fargreen

Mushrooms grown on rice straw are sorted and weighed before being sold to restaurants and grocery stores. Being able to stay home to cultivate profitable mushrooms between rice seasons prevents farmers from traveling to the city to find work. Photo: Fargreen

So we tried to think a bit differently — what can we offer the farmers that would make it worth it for them not to burn? In between rice seasons, most of the farmers we work with — many of them women — have to travel to the city to find employment. They don’t have skills to compete in the job market, so all they can get in cities are low-level jobs — picking up trash for recycling and so on. If they can stay on their land and cultivate a profitable crop between rice seasons, it would alleviate a lot of hardship.

One day, we discovered in our research that rice straw can be used to grow mushrooms. We saw that it wasn’t very complex, so we bought some spawn, collected some straw to the back of the house and grew a crop.

What were the varieties of mushrooms that you grew?

We grew paddy straw, oysters and white button. Our first harvest was only a few kilograms, but they were so good! At first we hadn’t even realized that the used straw could then be recycled back to the field. But we saw that the straw had turned into really good compost, because the fungi had helped break it down. Nearby farmers said, “Well, if you want to get rid of it, we’d love to get that to the field for you.” We said OK. We also started to experiment with planting potatoes with the used straw — you put the potatoes in soil, and layer the straw over it to provide more nutrients. We got a really good crop.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

Field, fuel & forest: Fellows Friday with Sanga Moses

Blog_FF_SangaMoses

When former accountant Sanga Moses ran into his sister on a far-from-home road carrying firewood on what was supposed to be a school day, his life changed. He knew that Uganda’s rapidly disappearing forests had big implications for the environment, but he hadn’t recognized the day-to-day effect it was having on the lives of his family and village. Now, with his company Eco-fuel Africa, Moses helps farmers transform agricultural waste into cooking fuel, and also sponsors tree-planting projects. Here, he tells the TED Blog about fast-changing ecological conditions in Uganda, and how he hopes to help restore the country’s forests as quickly as possible.

You started out as an accountant, and now you are an environmental entrepreneur. What was the moment that changed the course of your life?

I used to work for one of the biggest banks here in Uganda, and that meant that I was away from my home village. One day, I decided to go check on my mother and little sister. This was a Wednesday — and I ran into my sister on her way carrying wood. She saw me and started crying. She said, “I’m supposed to be in school today. But mother told me to go out and get the wood, and I do this at least twice a week.”

Seeing her didn’t surprise me at first, because I also carried wood as a kid. At first I didn’t get what was wrong. [When she started crying], I thought that maybe my mother was sick or something terribly wrong had happened at home. I helped her put the wood down, and we sat for a few minutes and I asked her, “What is the problem? Why are you crying?” She told me, “It’s about the wood. I’m supposed to be in school today. [But] my mom told me to skip school to go out and get the wood. ” I told her I would talk to our mother, and bring her back to a school in the city where I worked so she wouldn’t have to fetch wood.

But when I spoke to my mother, she said, “No, you can’t do that. She’s the only girl I have, I’m an old woman, I can’t survive without her. If you take her, I’ll be dead.” I went back to the city, but this conversation haunted me. I couldn’t really live my life anymore. I was constantly thinking about my sister, at the verge of losing the only opportunity she had to a better life — that is, education. And as a child who grew up in a rural area, my own life was transformed by education.

I wasn’t sure what to do. All I knew was how to be an accountant and work in a financial institution. But one night, I asked myself, “If I don’t don’t do something, who will? I am just complaining about what I can’t do, and my sister can’t go to school because she has to fetch wood.”

The press machine forms briquettes of biochar fuel. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

The press machine forms briquettes of biochar fuel. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

But wait, why had this become a problem when you’d fetched wood as a child yourself?

When I was growing up, we had a forest close by. It no longer exists now. I used to graze cows as a kid and we would graze in forests — have a lot of fun, play hide and seek. But kids these days don’t have that luxury. It’s all empty land — you can see virtually 50 kilometers away because it’s all empty.

The problem is that once people deplete the few forests remaining, they must venture further to find wood. At first, I thought I was just blowing my sister’s dilemma out of proportion, but it became clear that she is not alone. There are so many people — so many kids like her who can’t go to school because there are no trees left in the villages. At my office, where I had access to the internet, I did some research. I found that Uganda has already lost 70% of its forests. According to UN statistics, Uganda will have no forests left by the year 2052 if nothing is done to curb the current rate of deforestation. In a few years’ time, Uganda will have to import wood. But we’re talking about people who live on less than two dollars a day. If we imported wood, would they be able to afford it? And if they can’t afford cooking fuel, how will they survive?

So what you noticed was a connection between changes in the environment and a threat to your community’s way of life.

Yes. It’s actually about the entire ecosystem. When I was younger and we had forest, we were semi-nomads — a cattle-keeping community that traveled with cows. It was easy to take care of them, because seasons were stable, rains were predictable, we had water. In the last ten years, things have changed for the worse. Now droughts are becoming persistent. Actually, as I speak to you now, my family is relocating our cows to a distant area because there’s no water left in the village — also a problem of deforestation. Even in national parks, animals are dying, and the population of buffalo is getting lower, and people encroach looking for water. People are competing for the little that is remaining. And in mountainous areas where all the trees have been cut down, the hills are so dry they develop cracks. When it rains, landslides cover people’s houses and it floods — people are dying because of this. It’s not the world that I grew up in.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>