Tag Archives: Agriculture

Win-win way to aid food security and climate

Water pressure: rice fields in China use huge amounts of water Image: Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons
Water pressure: rice fields in China use huge amounts of irrigation water
Image: Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US believe they have identified a way to feed billions more people, while at the same reducing the strains and stresses on the environment.

LONDON, 23 July, 2014 − Imagine being able to contain greenhouse gas emissions, make fertilizer use more efficient, keep water waste to a minimum, and put food on the table for the 10 billion people crowded into the planet’s cities, towns and villages by the end of the century.

An impossible dream? Not according to Paul West, co-director and lead scientists of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

He and research colleagues report in the journal Science that if government, industry, business and agriculture set about choosing the best crops for local conditions and then used resources in the most efficient way, the world could be fed on existing land with the least damage to the global environment.

Fresh thinking

This is thinking big: the global view of immediate and local problems. The researchers selected three key areas with the greatest potential for reducing environmental damage while boosting food supply. They thought about water use, food waste, greenhouse gas emissions and polluting run-off from farmland and where fresh thinking could make the most difference in the most efficient way.

They focused on cotton and the 16 food crops that produce 86% of the world’s calories from 58% of the global cropland area. They identified a series of what they called “global leverage points”, and those countries where application of such thinking could make the biggest difference.

The first challenge is to produce more food on existing land. They see an “agricultural yield gap” − that is, a difference between what soil actually produces and what it could produce− in many parts of the world.

And they point out that, in those places where the gaps are widest, simply to close even half those gaps would produce more than 350 million tonnes of additional grain and supply the energy needs of 850 million people − most of them in Africa, plus some in Asia and eastern Europe.

Half of these gains could be made in just 5% of the total harvested area of these crops. Co-incidentally, 850 million is very roughly the number of people the UN currently estimates to be severely malnourished.

The researchers based all their calculations on existing conditions, while recognising that climate change could force people to think again. But the study identified ways to grow food most efficiently, while at the same limiting the impact on climate.

Forests cleared

Agriculture is responsible for somewhere between 30% and 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but much of this is because tropical forests are being cleared for farmland. Methane from livestock and from rice fields supplies much of the rest.

Brazil and Indonesia, with the planet’s largest reserves of forest, are places where one set of actions could make a big difference. China and India, which produce more than half the world’s rice, are others.

China, India and the US between them emit more than half of all oxides of nitrogen from the world’s cropland, and wheat, maize and rice account for 68% of these emissions.

Rice and wheat are the crops that create most demand for irrigation, which in turn accounts for 90% of global water consumption. More than 70% of irrigation happens in India, China, Pakistan and the US, and just by concentrating of more efficient use, farmers could deliver the same yield and reduce water demand by 15%.

Crops now grown as animal food could supply the energy needs of 4 billion people, and most of this “diet gap” is in the US, China and Western Europe.

Wasted food

In addition, between 30% and 50% of all food is wasted, and the waste of animal food is the worst. To discard a kilogram of boneless beef is the same as throwing away 24 kilos of wheat. Waste reduction in the US, China and India alone could provide food for an additional 400 million people.

The paper is not a plan of action, but rather an identification of where the firmest concerted action could make the biggest differences.

“By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good,” Dr West says.

“By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment.” – Climate News Network

Emissions are fuelling Australian droughts

Water depth marker in Lake Albert, South Australia Image: Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons
Water depth marker in the dried out bed of Lake Albert, South Australia
Image: Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The Australian prime minister may be scathing about climate science, but new research shows that burning fossil fuels is a significant factor in the long-term rainfall decline that is leaving southern regions of the country parched and sweltering.

LONDON, 17 July, 2014 − American scientists have just confirmed that parts of Australia are being slowly parched because of greenhouse gas emissions – which means that the long-term decline in rainfall over south and south-west Australia is a consequence of fossil fuel burning and depletion of the ozone layer by human activity.

Such a finding is significant for two reasons. One remains contentious: it is one thing to make generalised predictions about the consequences overall of greenhouse gas levels, but it is quite another to pin a measured regional climatic shift directly on human causes, rather than some possible as-yet-unidentified natural cycle of climatic change.

The other is contentiously political. Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, has in the past dismissed climate science as “crap”, and more recently has cut back on Australian research spending.

Australia has already experienced a pattern of heat waves and drought – punctuated by catastrophic flooding – and even now, in the Australian winter, New South Wales is being hit by bush fires.

Tom Delworth, a research scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reports in Nature Geoscience that he and a colleague conducted a series of long-term climate simulations to study changes in rainfall across the globe.

Pattern of change

One striking pattern of change emerged in Australia, where winter and autumn rainfall patterns are increasingly a cause of distress for farmers and growers in two states.

The simulation showed that the decline in rainfall was primarily a response to man-made increases in greenhouse gases, as well as to a thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer in response to emissions of destructive gases by human sources.

The computer simulations tested a series of possible causes for this decline, such as volcanic eruptions and changes in solar radiation. But the only cause that made sense of the observed data was the greenhouse explanation.

South Australia has never been conspicuously lush and wet, but decline in precipitation set in around 1970, and this decline has increased in the last four decades. The simulations predict that the decline will go on, and that average rainfall will drop by 40% over south-west Australia later this century.

Dr Delworth described his model as “a major step forward in our effort to improve the prediction of regional climate change”.

In May, scientists proposed that greenhouse gas emissions were responsible for a change in Southern Ocean wind patterns, which in turn resets the thermostat for the world’s largest island.

Australian scientists report in Geophysical Research Letters that they, too, have been using climate models to examine Antarctic wind patterns and their possible consequence for the rest of the planet.

Temperature rise

“When we included projected Antarctic wind shifts in a detailed global ocean model, we found water up to 4°C warmer than current temperatures rose up to meet the base of the Antarctic ice shelves,” said Paul Spence, a researcher at Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science. This temperature rise is twice previous estimates.

“This relatively warm water provides a huge reservoir of melt potential right near the grounding lines of ice shelves around Antarctica,” Dr Spence said. “It could lead to a massive increase in the rate of ice sheet melt, with direct consequences for global sea level rise.”

Since the West Antarctic ice sheet holds enough water to raise sea levels by 3.3 metres, the consequences would indeed be considerable.

“When we first saw the results it was quite a shock,” Dr Spence said. “It was one of the few cases where I hoped the science was wrong.” – Climate News Network

Europe faces deadly cost for climate inaction

Smoke from Russian forest fires obscures the Sun in 2010 Image: Ximonic, Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons

Smoke from Russian forest fires obscures the Sun in 2010
Image: Ximonic, Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

A failure to act to reduce the impacts of climate change could cost Europe dear in lives lost and economic damage, according to a European Commission study.

LONDON, 13 July 2014 − Inaction over climate change costs lives. And in the case of European inaction, it is estimated that this could one day cost 200,000 lives a year.

That is the warning in a new European Commission (EC) study, which also says that failing to take the necessary action could burn 8,000 square kilometres of forest, and commit European taxpayers to at least €190 billion (US$259 bn) a year in economic losses.

Flood damage, too, could exceed €10bn a year by 2080, while the number of people affected by droughts could increase sevenfold, and coastal damage from sea level rise could treble.

The study weighs the bleak consequences of inaction. Scientists considered what would happen if the politicians and players on the continent worked with international partners to constrain global warming to a 2°C rise, or alternatively took no action and allowed global temperatures to soar to 3.5°C. They analysed the impact of climate change in agriculture, river floods, coasts, tourism, energy, droughts, forest fires, transport infrastructure and human health.

All involved in the research emphasised that their projections were conservative – that is, they were underestimates – and imagined a planet 60 years from now that was occupied by its present population, at its present state of economic growth. In a more populated, more developed world, the losses would be hugely greater.

Probable underestimates

The biggest and most obvious cost was to human health: premature death – from heat stress or other climate-related impacts – would account for €120 billion; coastal losses would claim €42 billion and agriculture €18bn. The worst-hit regions would be southern and south central Europe, which would bear 70% of the burden; northern Europe would experience the lowest.

If the world keeps temperature rise to the current international target of 2°C, there will still be huge costs, but the constraint would knock at least €60 billion off the overall bill. It would save lives too,  reducing the notional premature death toll by 23,000, and would burn only about 4,000 square kilometres of forest.

Calculations such as these − which are aids to political and economic planners, and intended to spur forthcoming political action − are uncheckable, but they are also almost certainly underestimates. They take no account of losses of, for example, biodiversity, on which it is impossible to place a value, and they do not include the consequences of catastrophic tipping points, such as the melting of Arctic ice.

Connie Hedegaard, the EC’s Commissioner for Climate Action, said: “No action is clearly the most expensive solution of all. Why pay for the damages when we can invest in reducing our climate impacts and becoming a competitive low-carbon economy?

“Taking action and taking a decision on the 2030 climate and energy framework  in October will bring us just there, and make Europe ready for the fight against climate change.” – Climate News Network

Gene machinery helps plants handle CO2 rise

 

The mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) provides vital scientific clues Image: Alberto Salguero Quiles via Wikimedia Commons
Mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) provides valuable scientific clues
Image: Alberto Salguero Quiles via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The discovery of how plants respond to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could provide agricultural scientists with new tools to engineer crops that can deal with droughts and high temperatures.

LONDON, 10 July, 2014 − Biologists in the US have identified the genetic machinery that tells a plant how to respond to more carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Four genes from three different gene families together control the density of stomata, or breathing pores, on the foliage of the healthy plant. As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise, plants respond and make fewer stomata.

That means they can detect a gradual change in the levels of a vital gas – a change from 280 parts per million 200 years ago to 400 parts per million now – and change their plumbing arrangements.

In theory, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be better for plant fertility, and the reduction in stomata means that they should use water more economically. Water is a big expense for the growing plant.

Lose water

“For each carbon dioxide molecule that is incorporated into plants through photosynthesis, plants lose about 200 molecules of water through their stomata,” says Julian Schroeder, professor of biological sciences at the University of California San Diego, who led the team that reports in Nature  journal.

“Because elevated CO2 reduces the stomatal density in leaves, this is at first sight beneficial for plants, as they would lose less water. However, the reduction in the number of stomatal pores decreases the ability of plants to cool their leaves during a heat wave via water evaporation. Less evaporation adds to heat stress in plants, which ultimately affects crop yield.”

Quite how crops will respond to a greenhouse gas world has been exercising field biologists, agronomists and government planners for decades.

Plants respond to warmth and to plentiful carbon dioxide. But, as researchers found in April this year, that may not make crops more nourishing. It would be possible to have vigorous growth but lower protein yields in, for example, fields of wheat.

There is a second unresolved question: a warmer world will mean more evaporation, more rainfall in some regions, and greater aridity in others − not helpful to productive farming.

A third challenge is that extremes of heat in the growing season can have a catastrophic effect on the harvest later in the year.

But the San Diego research may, in the end, help tomorrow’s farmers. The study shows that when their test species Arabidopsis thaliana – a little mustard plant also known as mouse-ear cress − senses a rise in atmospheric levels of CO2, it increases the levels of a peptide hormone that alters the genetic machinery in the skin of growing leaves, and blocks the formation of stomata.

The challenge was to identify all the proteins involved, and the genes that are at work.

Plant health

“This change causes leaf temperature to rise because of a decrease in the plant’s evapotranspirative cooling ability, while simultaneously increasing the transpiration efficiency of plants,” the report says. “These phenomena, combined with the increasing scarcity of fresh water for agriculture, are predicted to dramatically impact on plant health.”

The more researchers know about the physiological response of a growing thing, the more confidently they can predict how it will react to changing conditions, the better they will be able to advise farmers on the plants to sow, and the more likely it is that they will be able to breed new strains that can adapt to new conditions.

“At a time when the pressing issues of climate change and inherent agronomic consequences which are mediated by the continuing atmospheric rise of CO2 are palpable, these advances could become of interest to crop biologists and climate change modellers,” said molecular biologist Cawas Engineer, lead author of the paper. – Climate News Network 

South Asia slow to act on water threats

The Ganges river delta in Bangladesh and India Image NASA World Wind via Wikimedia Commons
Satellite image of the vast Ganges river delta in Bangladesh and India
Image: NASA World Wind via Wikimedia Commons

By Nivedita Khandekar

A study of the five countries sharing and relying on the Indian sub-continent’s great rivers shows that Bangladesh is the only one that is taking climate change seriously.

NEW DELHI, 7 July, 2014: Even before this year’s delayed and inadequate monsoon recently brought some relief to the Indian sub-continent, researchers discovered widespread concern by local experts that their governments are mismanaging the water supplies on which a billion people depend for survival, and giving insufficient attention to climate change.

A new report, Attitudes to Water in South Asia, explores domestic water management and transboundary water issues in five countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. It focuses on two river systems, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and the Indus-Kabul basins, which are vital to the lives of a vast population.

Chatham House – the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs − worked on the report with India’s Observer Research Foundation, and similar partner organisations in the other four countries. Their findings are based on evidence from almost 500 interviews conducted in the five countries in 2013 with a range of water experts, government officials, policy-makers and decision-makers from NGOs and the private sector.

Observing that water is “highly politicised in the region, with strong links to food security and the livelihoods of the large proportion of the population dependent on agriculture”, the report underscores the relation between the domestic mismanagement of water in each country and the failure to address transboundary water relations.

Few agreements

“In spite of the shared river system and the interdependencies, South Asian governments have signed few bilateral water agreements and no regional ones,” the report says. “Those transboundary water treaties that do exist face criticism on a number of grounds: for time periods too short to too long; and for their lack of provision for environmental factors or new challenges, such as climate change.”.

Yet the ability of countries in South Asia to deal with the possible effects of climate change will be in part determined by their ability to manage water, and also how they deal with weather events such as floods and droughts.

“The majority . . .  expressed concern that their governments
were giving the issue of climate change insufficient attention”

While many respondents across the region felt that other immediate concerns were more pressing, the majority of those interviewed expressed concern that their governments were giving the issue of climate change insufficient attention,” said Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at Chatham House and lead author of the report.

For instance, in Afghanistan, even where respondents had some knowledge of the body responsible for setting government-wide policy on climate change, they were equally certain that the amount of practical action on ground was virtually zero.

In Bangladesh, where most respondents were acutely aware of climate change and its possible effects, many said their government was doing better. There was a general consensus that ministers had made climate change a priority by setting aside funds for adaptation and mitigation.

However, Afghani and Bangladeshi respondents noted the lack of availability of important policy documents − currently available only in English − in local languages..

And Indian respondents felt that climate change was not a major priority for the government, although it was widely recognised that it could wreak havoc on the country.

“Inadequate water storage leaving farmers vulnerable to the vagaries of weather suggest an urgent need for appropriate investment in such facilities in order to not just increase agriculture production, but also to ensure farmers have an option to adjust to changing climate,” the report says.

Food security

Climate change could also have a big impact on the transboundary water relations, the report warns. Some respondents from India and Bangladesh feared that a variation in the timing and intensity of monsoons could affect agricultural production and weaken food security, “driving tension between the two countries over access to water in a dry period”.

Interviewees from Nepal perceived climate change as a “future threat”, in comparison with immediate challenges and the need to increase access to water and electricity. Most respondents felt that Nepal’s approach was “inadequate” and pointed out the gap between national plans and local implementation.

Pakistani respondents believed their country’s approach to climate change lacked “urgency”. They particularly pointed out that a Ministry of Climate Change had recently been reduced to a mere division of another ministry, and had had its funding slashed by 62%.

Brink of cataclysm

The report quoted a climate change expert working with the Pakistan government, who said his country stood on the brink of an environmental cataclysm, with the seasonal monsoon shifting away from traditional catchment areas towards Afghanistan. “This trend, reinforced by climate change, [has]increased the likelihood of extraordinary rainfall patterns, cloudbursts, and flash floods,” he said.

The researchers’ recommendations Include: improving domestic water management, and rainwater harvesting; enhancing data collection, data sharing and discussions between the five countries, particularly in relation to floods and droughts, and the management of watersheds and river basins; easing water demand through less water-intensive crops and irrigation methods.

They also stress that existing treaties should be revisited, ensuring that they address technological advances, environmental factors and climate change. – Climate News Network

  • Nivedita Khandekar is a journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on environmental and developmental issues. She has worked at the Press Trust of India, India’s premier news agency, and the Hindustan Times, one of the leading national daily newspapers in India. Her journalistic achievements include a national award for environmental reporting, an award for reporting on health issues, and a Rural Reporting Fellowship.

Climate puts US at risk of multi-billion bill

Overheating: US crops such as cotton face a %20 drop in yield Image: Wars via Wikinmedia Commons
Overheated economy: US crops such as cotton face a 20% drop in yield
Image: Wars via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

A study of the possible cost of climate change to the US economy warns government and business that billions of dollars could be at risk through damage to property, reduced harvests and workers incapacitated by extreme heat.

LONDON, 29 June, 2014 − The sheer economic cost of climate change to Americans could be far greater than many realise, an influential study says.

The study was commissioned by the Risky Business Project, a research organisation chaired by a bi-partisan panel and supported by several former US Treasury Secretaries.

It expects climate change to have varied impacts across different regions and industries. Rising sea levels, it says, could destroy many billion dollars’ worth of coastal properties by 2050, and warming temperatures, especially in the south, south-west and mid-west, could cut the productivity of people working outdoors by 3%.

Without a change in crops, harvests in these regions could fall by 14%. But further north, in states such as North Dakota and Montana, winter temperatures will probably rise, reducing frost and cold-related deaths and lengthening the growing season for some crops.

Kate Gordon, executive director of the Risky Business Project, said : “We still live in a single integrated national economy, so just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean you won’t feel the heat of climate change.”

Michael Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, said: “Damages from storms, flooding, and heat waves are already costing local economies billions of dollars. We saw that firsthand in New York City with Hurricane Sandy.

Costs of inaction

“With the oceans rising and the climate changing, the Risky Business report details the costs of inaction in ways that are easy to understand in dollars and cents − and impossible to ignore.”

Hank Paulson, a former Treasury Secretary and co-chair of the Risky Business Project, said the report shows us that “our economy is vulnerable to an overwhelming number of risks from climate change.

“But if we act immediately, we can still avoid most of the worst impacts of climate change and significantly reduce the odds of catastrophic outcomes. But the investments we’re making today will determine our economic future.”

In a section on short-term climate threats, the authors say: “The American economy is already beginning to feel the effects of climate change. These impacts will likely grow materially over the next 5 to 25 years…”

“Just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean
you won’t feel the heat of climate change”

They say there is a 1-in-20 chance of yield losses of more than 20% in corn, wheat, soya and cotton crops over that timespan.

On energy, they say changes in temperature driven by greenhouse gases will probably mean a need to build roughly 200 average coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants between 2020 and 2045, costing up to $12 billion per year.

Climate impacts, the report says, are unusual because future risks are directly tied to present decisions. By failing to lower greenhouse gas emissions today, decision-makers put in place processes that increase overall risks tomorrow.

By 2050, on present trends, $66bn-$106bn worth of existing coastal property will probably be below sea level nationwide, with $238-$507bn worth by 2100.

By mid-century, the average American will probably see 27 to 50 days over 95°F (35°C) each year − two to more than three times the average annual number of such days seen over the last 30 years. By the end of the century, this number will probably average 45 to 96 days over 95°F each year.

But the study says that the south-west, south-east, and upper mid-west will probably see several months of 95°F days annually.

Human threshold

In the longer term, extreme heat during parts of the year could pass the threshold at which the human body can no longer maintain a normal core temperature without air conditioning. At these times, anyone who has to work outdoors, or without access to air conditioning, will face severe health risks and possible death.

The authors say they hope it will become standard practice for the American business and investment community to factor climate change into its decision-making process. They say: “We are already seeing this response from the agricultural and national security sectors; we are starting to see it from the bond markets and utilities as well.

“But business still tends to respond only to the extent that these risks intersect with core short-term financial and planning decisions.”

And the authors warn the government: “We also know that the private sector does not operate in a vacuum, and that the economy runs most smoothly when government sets a consistent policy and a regulatory framework within which business has the freedom to operate.

“Right now, cities and businesses are scrambling to adapt to a changing climate without sufficient federal government support…” − Climate News Network

Monsoon brings late relief to scorched India

 

Sweltering heat has hit Kolkata street hawkers by keeping many customers away Image: Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons
Fierce heat has hit Kolkata street hawkers by keeping many customers away
Image: Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons

By Shiba Nanda Basu

Meteorological researchers in India suspect that climate change is a contributory factor to the changing weather patterns that have caused  the late arrival of the monsoon after a summer of swelteringly dry heat that has broken temperature records

Kolkata, 24 June, 2014 − At last, the rains have come. The summer monsoon arrived in West Bengal last week – almost two weeks later than usual − and brought relief to Kolkata and other cities and states across India that have been enduring an unusually hot summer.

A temperature of 41.5˚C was recorded in Kolkata in late May – the highest in 10 years – while temperatures in New Delhi  earlier this month exceeded 43˚C for seven consecutive days, and at one stage reached 48˚C. Other cities and states have had record temperatures, and many lives have been lost due to the heat.

Livelihoods have also suffered. Kolkata is famous for its bustling streets and pavements crowded with hawkers, but throughout recent months there has been a deserted look to the city.

“We have had to close our stalls earlier than usual and there’s been hardly any customers,” says Asraf Ali, a street hawker. “People from neighbouring districts, who are our main customers, have not been coming into the city due to the terrible heat.”

Absence of humidity

One thing that’s been worrying residents of Kolkata is an unusual period of what is called “dry heat” – an absence of humidity. Locals say this has made daytime conditions even more scorching.

Aminul Hasaan, a worker in one of Kolkata’s notoriously polluting leather tanning factories, says: “I was working so hard, and usually I sweat so much. But in the weeks before the monsoon I felt my forehead was always dry. It made me feel sick.”

Anshujyoti Das, who works for Express Weather, a private weather research organisation that aims to provide location-specific weather forecasts, says the dry heat indicates certain changes in weather patterns.

He says: “We cannot claim that this is the direct result of climate change, but we can’t brush the issue under the carpet. We must conduct studies to ascertain the reasons behind such unusual weather patterns.”

One possible cause for the dry conditions is thought to be the absence of the north-westerly storms that usually lash Kolkata and surrounding areas in the run-up to the monsoon.

On average, five to seven such storms hit in April and May, but this year only one was recorded. There was also an absence of moisture-laden winds blowing from the south.

Due to the conditions, the local government authorities extended summer vacations at 57,000 primary schools and more than 18,000 secondary schools. And the city police in Kolkata decided that traffic constables aged 55 and above should be relieved of their duties because of the extreme heat.

Dilip Adak, a senior officer at Kolkata’s traffic department, said: “We try to help [traffic policemen] by providing oral rehydration kits and umbrellas, but often that is not enough.”

Driving up prices

About half of India’s 1.25 billon people are involved in agriculture and are dependent on the summer monsoon rains. The late arrival of the monsoon can have a serious impact, driving up prices of many agricultural goods.

The latest report from the Indian Meteorological Department shows that the monsoon has not only arrived late but is less intense than normal, with many areas receiving well below average rainfall.

Climate change and the influence of an El Niño – a periodic warming of waters in the western Pacific that affects prevailing trade winds, with serious consequences on both sides of the Pacific and Indian Oceans – are seen as important influences on the behaviour of the monsoon– Climate News Network

• Shiba Nanda Basu is a reporter with The Statesman newspaper, Kolkata, India.

• Additional reporting by Kieran Cooke.

US corn’s gravy train faces derailment

 

A field of Maize in the Corn Belt state of South Dakota on the American Great Plains Image: Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons
A ripening field of maize in the American Corn Belt state of South Dakota
Image: Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The US produces enough corn in one year to fill a freight train stretching round the world, according to a recent study. But climate change and unsustainable use of water resources and fertilizers threaten this vast industry.

LONDON, 22 June, 2014 – One-third of cropland in the US is devoted to corn. It produces nearly 40% of the world’s corn, and a record harvest last year was valued at nearly $70 billion.

But now there are warnings that this mighty agricultural edifice – which supports not only farmers, but a legion of food and animal feed, transport and other companies, big and small − could be seriously damaged by a changing climate.

To make matters worse, increasingly scarce water supplies could also have an adverse effect, and so too could the intensification of growing techniques − in particular, the overuse of  fertilizers and pesticides.

A study by Ceres, a US not-for-profit group that lobbies for more environmental sustainability in the business sector, looks at the risks facing one of the country’s main industries.

Negative impact

States in the American Midwest and the Great Plains region – known as the Corn Belt − account for the bulk of corn production. But the study warns: “Record-breaking weather events – including prolonged drought, intense precipitation and high temperatures – are increasingly common in the Corn Belt and are negatively impacting corn yields and corporate profits.”

Floods in 2010/11 caused millions of dollars worth of crop losses in many areas. Lands were also degraded, and erosion increased. The following year there was drought, when the rains didn’t arrive and temperatures soared.

“The 2012/13 drought exemplified the vulnerability of the US corn supply chain to extreme weather,” the study says.

The bulk of US corn output goes either to animal feed or to the production of ethanol fuels, with only 10% going to food processing.

According to the report: “The 2012/13 drought had unusually severe financial impacts for many companies in the US corn value chain, hitting the meat and grain trading sectors particularly hard.

“Impacts ranged from interruptions to corn supply − which affected meat processing and ethanol refining activities − to operational challenges linked to insufficient water for manufacturing facilities, to low Mississippi river water levels that restrict transport of agricultural goods.”

While the percentage of corn production shipped abroad is relatively small, the US is still the world’s biggest corn exporter. Shortages or rising prices can have an adverse impact on the developing world, with the potential for outbreaks of serious social unrest.

The study points out that extreme weather events in recent years have resulted in large-scale price volatility. This in turn has led to what it calls riskier growing practices, with farmers and the big agricultural conglomerates seeking to cash in on rises in the market by using ever more fertilizer and pesticides on their lands.

The US government’s recent National Climate Assessment said the negative effects of climate change, such as higher temperatures and drought, would outweigh any positive impacts in the Midwest and Great Plains.

The Ceres study says corn is particularly sensitive to higher temperatures, and much of the corn is grown in regions where water supplies are already limited. In future, corn growing might have to move to cooler and more water-abundant areas further north.

Northward shift

“Higher temperatures and increased water stress mean that increased irrigation for corn will be required. Given limited water supply in parts of the Great Plains region, a northward shift in corn acreage is predicted, increasing the risk of stranded agricultural assets, such as processing, storage and transportation infrastructure.”

Costs, to the agricultural industry and to the US government are mounting. In 2012-13, the government’s Federal Crop Insurance Programme paid out a record $10.8 billion to farmers, mostly for reasons related to the drought.

Ceres says farmers and the large conglomerates that control increasing amounts of agricultural land must learn to farm more sustainably. In many cases, this means a less intensive crop regime.

There should be more measured use of fertilizers and pesticides. More efficient irrigations methods and charging systems that encourage less water use should also be implemented.

More mixed cropping should be introduced in order to preserve soil fertility, the report recommends. And companies should examine their supply chains, and pressure the farming sector to put in place better land practices.

Perhaps most controversially, Ceres has a simple message that is likely to cause a storm of anger across the Corn Belt: buy less corn. – Climate News Network

Rainforest tribes seek World Cup spotlight

 

Kayapò tribal leaders from the Amazon rainforest put their case to the media Image: Sue Cunningham/SCP
Kayapò tribal leaders from the Amazon rainforest put their case to the media
Image: Sue Cunningham/SCP

By Kieran Cooke

Tribal leaders from the Amazon rainforest are using the glare of publicity on the football World Cup in Brazil to highlight an impassioned plea for recognition of their lands and an end to dam building and deforestation

LONDON, 17 June − Chief Raoni Metuktire, head of the Kayapò indigenous group from the Xingu region, deep in the Amazon rainforest, sits in a packed lecture hall in London. With his jutting lip plate and large feather headdress, the elderly, gently-spoken tribal leader is an imposing presence.

“When I’m gone I want my children and grandchildren to live in the forest as I have done,” he says. “I ask for your help. In the past, we didn’t knock down the trees, destroy the land and build dams, but now all that is happening.

“The climate in the forest is changing: it is a lot hotter than it used to be, and the pattern of the winds is altering.”

Lungs of the world

The Amazon rainforest – often referred to as the lungs of the world – has a major influence on the world’s climate. Its trees and vegetation act as a vital carbon sink, soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Megaron Txucarramãe, a long-time campaigner for land rights for indigenous tribes in the Amazon region, sits alongside Chief Raoni, his uncle.

“The logging in our region is increasing,” he says. “Our lands and those of other indigenous tribes should be properly demarcated, but the Brazilian government is seeking to alter the constitution and undermine our land rights, giving more power to loggers, dam builders and mining companies.

“While the government worries about building stadiums
for the World Cup, our land is being threatened.”

“We went to Brasilia [Brazil’s capital] to protest, but we were received with rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray. While the government worries about building stadiums for the World Cup, our land is being threatened. I would like to ask the world to pay attention to our problems and help us.”

In a tour of European capitals that coincided with the opening of the World Cup, the two tribal leaders met Prince Albert of Monaco and, in London, Prince Charles. They also took their message to the Norwegian royal family.

The Kayapò are by far the largest ethnic group in the Xingu region. After years of campaigning and sometimes violent struggle, the group succeeded in having 19,000 square miles of land demarcated as an indigenous reserve in 1992.

The tribal leaders say the government of President Dilma Rousseff – which faces an election in October – is now threatening the land rights of indigenous groups and the health of the whole Amazon by allowing mining and other projects to go ahead.

In recent years, Brazil has embarked on a wide-ranging dam building programme in the Amazon. The Xingu river, a major tributary of the Amazon river, runs through the Kayapò’s lands. Despite various court judgements and continuing protests by the Kayapò and other groups, construction of the Belo Monte dam − which will be one of the world’s biggest when it is completed − began on the Xingu in 2011.

After years of decline in deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest, they then increased dramatically by 28% over the 2012 to 2013 period, with many blaming controversial reforms to Brazil’s forest laws pushed through by a powerful and extremely wealthy land lobby.

Weather patterns

In recent months, large parts of Brazil have been suffering a drought that is one of the worst on record. Environmentalists say deforestation in the Amazon has disturbed weather patterns and has resulted in less rainfall in many areas.

Patrick Cunningham, who has travelled extensively through the Xingu region, photographing and documenting the lives of the indigenous tribes, is a spokesman for Tribes Alive, a group that highlights indigenous peoples’ issues.

He said: “Chief Metuktire and Megaron are not only asking for an end to the destruction of their lands, they are also campaigning to stop what is a suicidal rush to develop their region.

“Such actions will not only be a setback for them but also for the whole of Brazil as rain patterns alter farther south, in what is the most agriculturally productive region of the country.” – Climate News Network

Brazil’s winning lead on carbon cuts

 

Rainforest near the Amazonas state capital Manaus, one of the World Cup venues Image: Neil Palmer/CIAT via Wikimedia Commons
Rainforest near Amazonas State capital Manaus, one of the World Cup venues
Image: Neil Palmer/CIAT via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

As Brazil bids to win the World Cup on home soil, new research indicates that it can already claim to be a world-beater in cutting CO2 emissions as a result of a 70% decline in rainforest clearance during the last decade

LONDON, 14 June − Brazil might or might not win the World Cup, but it so far seems a clear winner in the race to reduce carbon emissions – having stopped 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere during the last decade.

A team of economists and scientists report in the US journal Science that Brazil has achieved this, since 2004, by simply not cutting down 86,000 square kilometres of rainforest. This is, in effect, a 70% decline in deforestation, and in 2013 alone such abstention amounted to a 1.5% drop in global carbon emissions.

It sounds like eccentric accounting – awarding credits for unauthorised destruction that didn’t happen – but it represents a change of course all the same.

The scientists report that, between 1999 and 2004, pressure on the Amazon rainforests had reached alarming levels as tracts totalling the equivalent of almost 14.3 million football pitches were cleared annually for soy crops and beef.

Native forest

Government policy required farmers to keep four-fifths of their land as native forest. But this was not seen as realistic, and compliance, say the report’s authors, was “virtually unattainable, reducing the law’s credibility”.

One of the report’s authors, Claudia Stickler, a scientist with the Earth Innovation Institute, called it “trying to stop a tsunami with a sand castle”.

But something happened. A combination of bold public policies, market rejection of farmers who felled forest, and an increase in protected areas somehow reduced the clear cutting of trees. At the same time, soy and beef production actually grew, but it isn’t easy to point to any single agency that led to the change.

“The truth is that the government can’t claim this win alone, nor can Greenpeace or responsible companies,” said co-author Toby McGrath “It’s the mixture of interventions that worked.”

The report’s lead author, Daniel Nepstad, a founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, warned that the gains were globally significant, but fragile. “We’re bumping all the time against the limits of what can be achieved by punitive measures,” he said.

New approach

“As global demands for soy and beef begin to grow again, we will need a new approach to keep deforestation low in the Amazon. Through a one billion dollar pledge from Norway, Brazil has an important first step towards the creation of positive incentives for farmers who forgo forest clearing.”

European and US researchers have argued that a mix of tax and subsidies for semi-intensive farming could beef up Brazil’s cattle business and save huge tracts of rainforest.

What saved the Amazon forests in the last decade was the combined effect of falling profitability of soy harvests, a campaign by Greenpeace, and a government initiative to cut off agricultural credit to regions with high rates of deforestation. But, ominously, demand for beef and soy are growing again, and clear-felling increased by 28% in 2013.

“The great global challenge is to grow more food, for more people, on smaller areas of land, while we end and reverse the loss of the tropical forests ,” Dr Nepstad said. “Brazil has shown the world that it can be done.” – Climate News Network