Google Analytics Alternative

You are browsing the archive for Agriculture.

Science finds new routes to energy

April 17, 2014 in Agriculture, Biofuels, Carbon Dioxide, Energy, Technology

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The research opens the way to more nutritious soya beans grown with less water Image: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons

The research opens the way to more nutritious soya beans grown with less water
Image: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US have found new ways to make biofuel, increase crop yields and exploit carbon dioxide through novel applications of familiar materials.

LONDON, 17 April – While politicians posture, and climate scientists sigh sadly, researchers in laboratories continue to devise ingenious new ways to save energy, increase efficiency, and make the most of solar power.

Darren Drewry of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and two colleagues from the University of Illinois have a computer model that could design soybean crops able to produce 8.5% more nourishment, use 13% less water and reflect 34% more sunlight back into space.

They report in the journal Global Change Biology that they can achieve all three goals by breeding for slightly different leaf distribution on the stalk, and for the angle at which the leaf grows, using a technique called numerical optimisation to try a very large number of structural traits to get the best results. “And surprisingly, there are combinations of these traits that can improve each of these goals at the same time,” says Dr Drewry.

In the great evolutionary challenge match, plants fight for the light and try to put each other in the shade. “Our crop plants reflect many millions of years in the wild under these competitive conditions,” said Stephen Long, a plant biologist. “In a crop field we want plants to share resources and conserve water and nutrients, so we have been looking at what leaf arrangements would best do this.”

Once future agricultural scientists have worked out what they most want from a crop – and in arid zones, water economy must rate highly – the programme can decide the best configuration of leaf. From that, future breeders could select traits from the enormous library of existing soybean variations.

Lomg-lasting benefit

They could reduce the canopy to let light through to lower levels to increase yield, or they could heighten the canopy to reflect light back into space and offset climate change.

“We can also model what these plant canopies can do in a future climate, so that it will be valid 40 or 50 years down the line,” says Praveen Kumar, an environmental engineer.

At Stanford University in California, other scientists have thought of a way to make biofuel without benefit of fields, plants or sunlight. They report in Nature that they have devised an oxide-derived copper catalyst that can turn carbon monoxide – the lethal gas in car exhausts and coal-burning power stations – directly into liquid ethanol of the sort now made from corn and other crops.

What’s more, they say, they can do this at room temperature and normal atmospheric pressures. The technique rests on the ability to turn copper oxide into a network of nanocrystals of metallic copper that would serve as a cathode in an electrolysis reaction and reduce carbon monoxide to ethanol.

Biofuel is expensive: it takes time, fields, fertiliser and water. It takes 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which in turn yields three gallons of ethanol. The new technique could eliminate the crop, the time, and a lot of the water.

Ten-fold efficiency gain

And it opens another way to exploit captured CO2 as a power source. Carbon dioxide can be turned efficiently and easily into carbon monoxide. The new oxide-derived copper catalyst could then turn carbon monoxide into ethanol with ten times the efficiency of any normal copper catalysts.

The team would like to scale up their catalytic cell and see it powered by solar or wind energy. “But we have a lot more work to do to make a device that is practical,” said Matthew Kanan of Stanford.

Meanwhile, scientists in Oregon report in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal RSC Advances that they have tested a new way to tap the sun’s rays, and to use that power to make solar energy materials at the same time.

Once again, the match of nanoscience and copper has provided unexpected consequences. By focusing light continuously on a continuous flow micro-reactor, the researchers have synthesized copper indium nanoparticle inks that could make thin-film solar cells in minutes. Other processes might take hours to deliver the same materials.

“It could produce solar energy materials anywhere there’s an adequate solar resource and in this chemical manufacturing process, there would be zero energy impact,” said Chih-Hung Chang of Oregon State University. – Climate News Network

More CO2 limits plants’ protein output

April 12, 2014 in Agriculture, Carbon Dioxide, Soil, Uncategorized, Vegetation changes, Warming

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The Mojave desert: As CO2levels rose, it took up unexpectedly large amountsofthe gas Image: Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

The Mojave desert: As CO2 levels rose, it took up unexpectedly large amounts of the gas
Image: Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

With increasing warmth drying more of the Earth, arid soils may absorb more carbon dioxide – but that in turn is likely to limit protein production.

LONDON, 12 April – As global temperatures rise, more than one third of the land surface may become more arid. Although there will be changes in rainfall patterns, heat – and the attendant evaporation of the soil – could extend ever drier conditions to more and more farmland and cities, according to research in the journal Climate Dynamics.

The new study – which excludes Antarctica – is led by Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist both with the University of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the US space agency Nasa. It is based on climate simulation, and forecasts that 12% of the land surface will be subjected to drought by 2100 just through changes in rainfall. Throw in the increased heat, though, and the drying effect will be spread to 30% of the land.

Even those regions that might be expected to get more rain will be at greater risk of drought. This would be very bad news for the wheat, corn and rice belts of the south-western US and south-eastern China.

“For agriculture, moisture in the soil is what really matters,” said Cook’s co-author, Jason Smerdon. The research confirms previous studies, and the more recent warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other studies, have predicted that extremes of temperature will be bad news for farmers anyway, with yields  likely to be affected.

But nothing in climate research is simple. The extra warming will be a direct consequence of ever-higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A study in Nature Climate Change has just revealed that arid zones offer an unexpected source of what engineers call negative feedback.

Carbon sink

A 10-year experiment in the Mojave desert in the US has shown that as carbon dioxide levels increase, arid areas take up unexpectedly large amounts of the gas.

“They are a major sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide, so as CO2 levels go up, they’ll increase their uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere. They’ll help take up some of that excess CO2 going into the atmosphere. They can’t take it all up, but they’ll help,” says Dave Evans, a biologist at Washington State University.

All land surfaces absorb some carbon. Until now, most attention has been paid to the role of forests as major “sinks” of carbon. But the US experimenters marked out nine octagonal plots of the desert and blew air with current levels of CO2 over three of them, and air with 550 parts per million of CO2, the expected level by 2050, over another three. Three received no extra air at all.

Then the researchers excavated the soils to a depth of a metre to measure the absorbed carbon and were surprised by the gain in carbon during a relatively short exposure in the plots exposed to the extra carbon dioxide.

Arid and semi-arid soils account for a large proportion of the planet’s land surface: overall, they could increase carbon uptake to account for between 15% and 28% of the amount currently being absorbed by land surfaces.

Less protein

This sounds like good news, on balance. It may not be, as far as food supplies are concerned. In the same issue of Nature Climate Change a second study reports on experiments into the effects of elevated levels of carbon dioxide on wheat.

Carbon dioxide is seen as a fertiliser of plants and indeed, without it, there would be no plants. But Arnold Bloom, a plant scientist at the University of California Davis reports that, according to his experiments, elevated levels of carbon dioxide also inhibit the conversion of nitrate into protein in crops.

Wheat provides nearly one fourth of all protein in the global human diet. Other studies have shown the same effect with wheat – and also with rice, barley and potato tubers.

“When this decline is factored into the respective portion of dietary protein that humans derive from these various crops, it becomes clear that the overall protein available for human consumption may drop by about three per cent as atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches the levels anticipated to occur during the next few decades,” Bloom said. – Climate News Network

California goes nuts for water

March 27, 2014 in Agriculture, Drought, Economy, USA, Water

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

California's almond orchards may not look so green before long: Growers now have to find their own water sources Image: US Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service via Wikimedia Commons

California’s almond orchards may not look so green before long: Growers now have to find their own water sources
Image: US Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

While recent rainfall has brought welcome relief to California, the amount of precipitation has not been nearly enough to put an end to what is its worst drought on record.  The state’s $45 billion agricultural sector has been particularly hard hit.

LONDON, 27 March – Almonds are good for you. That’s the message California’s enterprising nut growers have been giving to the world – and they have been remarkably successful in their marketing efforts.

The world appetite for almonds is growing by the day – and nut farmers in the west of the US have been cashing in. According to the Almond Board of California the state now produces more than 80% of total world almond output: California’s almond crop has more than doubled since 2006 to 1.88 billion pounds last year.

The trouble is almonds – and other nut crops grown in California – need plenty of water, and right now water is in very short supply. A drought emergency is in force. The snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range – a key source of the state’s water – was recently recorded as being only 24% of its normal capacity for the time of year.

At the end of January, California’s State Water Project – the largest state-built water and power development and distribution system in the US, responsible for supplying water to two-thirds of the state’s 38 million people – stopped supplying local agencies in many areas.

Scientists are busy analysing whether the drought is linked to changes in climate: President Obama, announcing a drought federal aid package, said the state provided an example of what might be in store for the rest of the country as climate change intensifies.

Left fallow

“We have to be clear”, said Obama.  “A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, are potentially going to be costlier, and they’re going to be harsher.”

Under an unprecedented range of restrictions, no water from state projects is being supplied to the agricultural sector. Instead, farmers have to find their own water sources, whether from rivers or by sinking boreholes. Agricultural experts estimate that up to 800,000 acres of farmland will not be planted this year because of lack of water.

Cattle ranchers are selling off livestock due to lack of grass. The US now has its smallest cattle herd since the mid-1950s – and beef prices are at an all-time high.

But it’s perhaps the nut growers who are suffering most. In recent years California’s farmers have moved away from traditional annual vegetable crops such as tomatoes and lettuce and into the far more profitable market for almonds, pistachios and other nuts. Almonds are now California’s second most valuable crop – only sales of grapes are worth more.

The downside is that the nut trees are mainly in regions of central California classified as being under extreme drought conditions. Nut trees demand long-term investment: they need lots of water and take years to produce a crop.

Deeper cuts coming

Nut farmers are now scrubbing up portions of their tree plots in order to concentrate water resources on the remainder. They are digging wells and tapping in to already declining aquifers. In the process they are losing millions in revenue.

Meanwhile traders say prices for almonds and other nuts are likely to rise sharply on the world market next year due to drought-induced crop shortages.

Farmers’ organisations have complained that the agricultural sector has been unfairly targeted with water restrictions, while California’s cities and towns have been only partially affected.

That could be changing. In recent days the state supplier to Silicon Valley – the high-tech hub and likely home of the almond milk-flavoured café latte – announced that for the rest of the year it would be supplying only 80% of the normal amount of treated drinking water to inhabitants. – Climate News Network

Heat extremes threaten crop yields

March 21, 2014 in Agriculture, Climate risk, Drought, Extreme weather, Food security, Temperature Increase, Vegetation changes

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

An undersized cob from a failed maize crop in Ghana's Upper West Region, which has suffered failed rains and rising temperatures Image: By CIAT (NP Ghana23_lo  Uploaded by mrjohncummings), via Wikimedia Commons

An undersized cob from a failed maize crop in Ghana which has suffered failed rains and rising temperatures
Image: By CIAT (NP Ghana23_lo Uploaded by mrjohncummings), via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Yields of several major crops are likely to be seriously affected by rising temperatures, scientists say, with spells of extreme heat posing the greatest risk.

LONDON, 21 March – Rampant climate change driven by ever-rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere poses a serious threat to world food supply, according to a new study in Environmental Research Letters.

The hazard comes not from high average temperatures, but the likelihood of heat extremes at times when crops are most sensitive to stress. And the message is: those communities that rely on maize as a staple are more at risk than most.

Delphine Derying of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the UK and colleagues looked at one of the big puzzles of the coming decades: what will global warming do for crop yields?

It is not a simple question: climate change must mean more evaporation, more precipitation, longer growing seasons, more warmth, and higher levels of the carbon dioxide that plants exploit by photosynthesis (the process they use to convert light into chemical energy), so the consequence ought to be greater yields. But as every farmer knows, what matters most is the timing of all that warmth, rain, and those dry spells in which the harvest can ripen.

Danger in extremes

There is a second consideration. Climate is the sum of all events. Rather than a steady overall rise in daily temperatures, an increasing number of ever-larger regions are predicted to experience ever more intense extremes of heat, and sometimes cold. Plants can be very sensitive to extremes of heat at flowering time: if the thermometer goes up, the pollen becomes increasingly sterile and less seed is likely to be set. So an extended heat wave in the wrong season could be calamitous.

The Tyndall team included the assumption that nothing would be done about climate change – that is, that governments, industry and people would continue with a business-as-usual scenario. They then chose three well-studied and vital crops – spring wheat, maize and soybean – and tested predictions under 72 different climate change scenarios for the rest of this century.

They allowed for the already-established benign effects of carbon dioxide-driven warming, one of which is that plants can make more tissue and at the same time use water more efficiently, and therefore respond more effectively to drought conditions. They also looked for the outcomes in places where yields could be most vulnerable: for example, the North American corn belt.

Emissions cuts essential

What they found was that – if carbon dioxide fertilisation effects are not taken into account – then maize, wheat and soya yields are all likely to fall, in all five top-producing countries for each of these crops.

When they factored in the benefits of more CO2 in the atmosphere, the picture changed. There would be positive impacts on soya and wheat, but not on maize.

There is another proviso: so far, the benefits of extra CO2 have been confirmed in experimental plant laboratories. The experience in the fields 60 years in the future may be rather different. And in any case, these positive impacts could be severely offset by extremes of heat at the moment when the crops were most vulnerable, so overall, harvests remain at risk.

The best answer, the scientists argue, is to attempt to limit climate change. “Climate mitigation policy would help reduce risks of serious negative impacts on maize worldwide and reduce risks of extreme heat stress that threaten global crop production,” says Deryng. – Climate News Network

Call for more efficient livestock management

March 11, 2014 in Agriculture, Emissions reductions, Food security, Greenhouse Gases, Livestock, Methane

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Feed me grass, not wheat Image: Man vyi via Wikepedia Commons

Feed me grass, not wheat
Image: Man vyi via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Many methods of raising livestock are chronically inefficient argue a group of scientists. Changing the way animals are fed would mean more food being available for human consumption: methane emissions would also be reduced.

LONDON, 11 March – British and international scientists have proposed eight strategies to make cattle and sheep-farming more sustainable, to make both the animals and people who depend on them healthier, and to reduce the strain on the planet.

Mark Eisler, a veterinary scientist at the University of Bristol and colleagues argue in the journal Nature  that cattle, sheep and some other livestock eat the grass and crop residues that people cannot digest.

In so doing farm animals can offer both efficient use of resources and high quality protein for those who might need it most.

Dependence on livestock

Almost a billion of the world’s poorest people depend on livestock for their livelihood, but the scientists are not arguing that the world should eat more meat: rather that there should be more careful use of livestock as a resource.

They make their argument at a time when obesity has emerged as a global problem, and at a time when reports once again link a diet high in meat and animal products with cancer and diabetes.

“Annual meat consumption in India is just 3.2 kilograms per head, compared with 125kg per person in the United States in 2007, much of it from heavily processed foods, such as burgers, sausages and ready meals,” they write. “The focus should be on eating less, better quality meat.”

For the world’s poorest, however, there are clear nutritional advantages to high quality animal foods rich in protein. The challenge is to manage livestock in the most effective way.

Changing diet

They argue that farm animals now consume a third or more of the world’s cereal grain, which would be better used to feed people directly. Other scientists have lately argued that a higher quality diet for animals would lead to lower emissions of methane.

Instead, the Bristol-led team wants to see ruminants or cud-chewing animals fed food that humans cannot eat. Rather than try to improve yield in the developing world by exporting cattle that can deliver 30 litres of milk a day – yields that don’t survive a change in climate and environment – farmers and scientists should try to improve local livestock already adapted to local conditions.

They also argue that animal health is important. Sick animals can make people sick too. A total of 13 diseases transferred between animals and humans are linked to 2.2 million deaths a year and 2.4 billion cases of illness.

Professor Eisler and his fellow authors also want to see animal productivity boosted by the right food supplements to encourage better growth, more efficient digestion and lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Less red meat

They believe in a balanced diet with an average of no more than 300 grams of red meat per person per week; they want to see better management of animals and grazing land to conserve biodiversity and increase carbon capture by plants and soil, and they want to see a global network of research farms.

“The quest for intensification in livestock farming has thundered ahead with little regard for sustainability and overall efficiency, the net amount of food produced in relation to inputs such as land and water,” said Prof Eisler.

“With animal protein set to remain part of the food supply, we must pursue sustainable intensifications and figure out how to keep livestock in ways that work best for individuals, communities and the planet.” – Climate News Network

 

Farming on sand

March 10, 2014 in Black Carbon, Deforestation, Development Issues, Flooding, Food security, Glaciers, Himalayas, Land Use, Monsoon, Rainfall, Soil, Water

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

It was once a rice paddy but now it's only sand Image: Kieran Cooke

It was once a rice paddy but now it’s only sand
Image: Kieran Cooke

By Kieran Cooke

The Brahmaputra river is one of the world’s mightiest rivers, with millions dependent on its waters. The river also brings misery, with flooding and erosion major problems: climate change is likely to bring more hardship. Kieran Cooke, one of the editors of the Climate News Network, has been in Assam in northeast India, meeting villagers living on the Brahmaputra’s banks.

Laupani village, Assam, 10 March – The holes are dug laboriously in the dusty, sandy soil. Krishna Maya Sharma stops her work to wipe the sweat from her lined face.

“In the old days we would plant paddy here and have enough to sell at market” says Krishna, a 42 year old mother of six children.

“Now the soil is so bad, sweet potato is the only thing that will grow. The rest of our land is ruined.”

Laupani is a village in the north of the tea state of Assam, spread along the banks of the Brahmaputra river. In the distance, the pink evening light shines on the snow capped ridges of the eastern Himalayas.

The Brahmaputra, its waters rising more than 5,000 metres up on the Tibetan Plateau and flowing for about 3,000 kilometres through China, India and Bangladesh before joining up with the Ganges and out into the Bay of Bengal, is one of the world’s major rivers, 10 kilometres wide in places.

Widespread flooding

According to a recent report by India’s Third Pole organisation, the Brahmaputra carries a volume of water exceeded only by the Amazon and Congo rivers – and greater than the combined flow of Europe’s 20 largest rivers.

The river is a lifeline to millions, delivering vital nutrients to the soils of the plains but its fast flowing waters also cause widespread misery to people like Krishna.

Floods are frequent. There is widespread erosion and massive amounts of sand washed out of the river’s banks are deposited on surrounding fields, making once verdant areas into what looks like an enormous beach. The floods also bring invasive plant species that colonise agricultural lands.

More than 40% of Assam’s geographical area is designated as being flood prone: more than 1.5 million people were displaced by floods in 2012, lives were lost and whole villages were washed away.

Sand accumulations

“The waters were so deep and stayed so long that the grass was destroyed and our cattle died because they had no fodder” says Krishna.

“The sand means our land is no good anymore – my husband has given up being a farmer and is working in construction. Many young men go away to try and find jobs, there is nothing for them here.”

Locals – the majority of whom are poor, subsistence farmers – say river flows are becoming more unpredictable, with erosion and what’s called sandcasting becoming worse.

In part the flooding caused by the Brahmaputra’s waters is a natural phenomenon which has been going on for centuries. As the river’s waters cascade down from the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas, millions of tons of sediment is washed onto the alluvial plains of Assam and others states in India’s northeast.

Earthquake danger

There are other forces at work: the region is a highly seismic zone. In 1950 the Brahmaputra river basin suffered one of the most violent earthquakes ever recorded. The geology of the area was changed and the river level was raised dramatically, by between eight and 10 metres in places.

Climate change is another factor, with a combination of rising temperatures and accumulations of what’s known as black carbon or soot in the high Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau causing glaciers which feed into upper reaches of the Brahmaputra to melt.

Increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns, with periods of intense downpours, are also contributing to more volatile river flows.

Professor Jogendra Nath Sarma is a locally based geologist who has been studying the Brahmaputra for years.

“Over time different rivers in the Brahmaputra basin have merged, braiding over a very wide area. Thousands of square kilometres of land has been eaten away. Rampant deforestation is another big contributor to land erosion. “

In the past, says Professor Sarma, people would migrate to higher ground during the flood season but now, due to population growth and large scale immigration, there is nowhere for them to go.

Doubtful future

The future does not look good. According to models produced by scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati, Assam’s capital, climate change will result in the Brahmaputra valley region experiencing more flood events.

The Institute says that not only will river peak flows increase: so will the incidence of pre-monsoon flooding, endangering key phases of the agricultural cycle.

Talk of climate change is not of great interest to Krishna, digging holes for her sweet potato plants. She has more immediate things to worry about.

“Life is getting harder. Every time the floods come, I wonder what will happen. But where else can we go?” – Climate News Network


 

 

 

 

Biofuels from waste ‘need EU backing’

March 3, 2014 in Adaptation, Agriculture, Biofuels, Business, Carbon Dioxide, Energy, European Union, Forests

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The bales head  for the farm: Straw is an agricultural waste suitable for making biofuel Image: Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK via Wikimedia Commons

The bales head for the farm: Straw is an agricultural waste suitable for making biofuel
Image: Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The countries of the European Union could slash their greenhouse gas emissions and save significant amounts of oil by making fuel from waste, researchers say. But they think policymakers should give a lead.

LONDON, 3 March – Europe has the technology and the raw material to make a big cut in the amount of oil its transport uses, researchers say. But it will fail to reap the benefits on offer unless the European Union comes up with more radical policies.

A report, Wasted: Europe’s Untapped Resource, says the continent has significant unexploited potential to convert waste from farming, forestry, industry and households into advanced low-carbon biofuels, saving more than a sixth of the EU’s expected total fuel consumption for road transport 16 years from now.

But it says the conversion will not happen unless EU policymakers give greater priority to sustainability and to the need to lower the dependence of transport on high-carbon fuels by 2030.

The research which produced the report was carried out by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) and NNFCC, a UK research consultancy. The project was supported by a group of companies interested in introducing new technology, including two airlines, British Airways and Virgin, and by WWF, BirdLife Europe and several other environment NGOs.

The report says that if all sustainable waste from farms, forests, households and industry is used for transport fuels, that could make enough to replace about 37 million tonnes of oil annually by 2030 – the equivalent of 16% of the EU’s road transport fuel demand by then.

Safeguards needed

It also says that so long as the new fuels came from sustainable sources, they would produce less than 40% of the carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Using them would inject up to €15 billion (US$21 bn) of extra revenue into the rural economy every year and create up to 300,000 new jobs by 2030.

The sorts of wastes that could be used include straw and other crop left-overs, forestry residues, municipal solid waste and used cooking oil.

But the report carries a warning too: safeguards would be needed to ensure the waste was obtained sustainably, including land management methods to protect biodiversity, water and soil.

And the benefits of biofuel from waste would have to be paid for. The report says some combinations of feedstock and technology would need short-term financial incentives, although others are already close to being competitive and would need little more than certainty about policy.

Easier challenge

The authors say cautiously that the research shows it is possible to develop a biofuel industry based on farm and forest wastes “which in the case of the cheapest feedstocks could become cost-competitive with only modest incentives…” Biofuel from other wastes might need different levels of subsidy.

Chris Malins led the analysis for the ICCT. He said: “Even when taking account of possible indirect emissions, alternative fuels from wastes and residues offer real and substantial carbon savings. The resource is available, and the technology exists – the challenge now is for Europe to put a policy framework in place that allows rapid investment.”

David Turley of the NNFCC, who led the economic analysis, said advanced biofuels from agricultural and forest wastes would require “little or only a modest additional incentive” to stimulate production at prices comparable to those of current fuels made from specially-grown crops.

The report concludes that while trying to use all the available waste might be thought optimistic, achieving just 2% of current EU road transport fuel use in 2020, as suggested by the European Parliament, would be less challenging.

Even that more modest aim, the report says, would still add about €163 million (US$224 m) in net revenues to the agricultural sector and €432 m (US$594 m) to the forestry sector. It would also generate an extra 37,000 permanent jobs in the rural economy, and 3,500 more in biofuel refineries. – Climate News Network

Livestock diet ‘can cut GHG emissions’

February 25, 2014 in Adaptation, Agriculture, Economy, Land Use, Livestock, Methane

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Better livestock diets could mean greenhouse gas cuts of 23% by 2030, the researchers say Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons

Better livestock diets could mean greenhouse gas cuts of 23% by 2030, the researchers say
Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Limiting changes in the way we use land may be a better way slowing the contribution of livestock to climate change than reducing meat consumption, an international research team says.

LONDON, 25 February – Here’s a way to make cattle emit lower volumes of methane through their digestive tracts: give the beasts a higher-quality diet. That way, you get more stock on less grassland, get improved yields per hectare and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“There is a lot of discussion about the reduction of meat in the diet as a way to reduce emissions,” says Petr Havlik of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. “But our results show that targeting the production side of agriculture is a much more efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

This will provoke some argument, and in any case seems counter-intuitive. Campaigners have been arguing for decades that livestock farming is in many though not all regions an inefficient way to produce nourishment: grain, pulses, fruits and vegetables deliver greater outputs of calories and proteins at much lower overall costs in water, energy and emissions.

Farm animals are responsible for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions and, as the poorer nations develop, demand for meat and dairy protein tends to rise, so emissions are expected to increase.

Production economics

Volume for volume, methane or natural gas is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and researchers in Europe and the US have begun to consider ways of reducing or at least limiting methane discharges from either or both ends of billions of the planet’s grazing animals.

But Havlink and colleagues from Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe and the US think the answer lies in the changing economics of production. Livestock provide a third of the protein in human diets: in the developing world oxen, donkeys and buffalos also deliver haulage, manure and regular income.

Around 30% of the global land area is used to rear livestock. Between 1980 and 2000, 83% of the expansion of agricultural land in the tropics was at the expense of the tropical forests. A lot of this space is devoted to cattle, sheep and goats. Increasing quantities of maize and soya are also being converted to animal feed. So the problem is not likely to go away.

As land prices rise, there is pressure to stock more animals and buy in high-density fodder, to increase yield and to deliver quicker returns. So the new research proposes that both the increase in the cost of land, and the still-rising yields per hectare from croplands, will lead to richer diets for animals: this in turn would pay off in greater returns for the farmers, higher yields for people and – because livestock diets would be lower in cellulose and richer in energy – lower emissions of methane from the flatulent animals.

Better option

The scientists argue that by 2030 the change to more efficient farming could cut emissions by 736 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. That, they suggest, could happen anyway, because it pays farmers to do such things. If political and economic measures were taken to accelerate such changes – and at the same time reduce the conversion of forest to farmland – then the world could save 3,223 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year.

The real target in all this is not the livestock, but the change in land use. Stringent climate change policies, were they ever to be enforced or even introduced by the governments of the world, could constrain the food available to a swelling population. The researchers argue that it would be five to 10 times more efficient and effective to reduce the changes in land use – to stop burning and clearing forests to make new grazing land.

All this involves complex economic reasoning, and the use of economic metrics such as “total abatement calorie cost” and “marginal abatement costs”, but a global package of measures that included investment, trade and education could reduce total emissions from the farms and cattle sheds by 25%.

“From the livestock sector perspective, limiting land use change seems the cheapest option both in terms of the economic cost and in terms of impact on food availability,” says Havlik. – Climate News Network

Half of plants may move in warmer world

February 16, 2014 in Adaptation, Agriculture, Arctic, China, forest fires, Vegetation changes, Warming, Wildlife

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Vegetation changes on a warmer planet may mean that giant pandas go hungry Image: Jeff Kubina via Wikimedia Commons

Vegetation changes on a warmer planet may mean that giant pandas go hungry
Image: Jeff Kubina via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

An international team of scientists says that by the end of the century one probable consequence of climate change will be a change in patterns of vegetation over much of the planet’s land surface.

LONDON, 16 February – By 2100, vegetation patterns will be shifting in almost half the land area of the planet, according to new research in the journal Global and Planetary Change.

Song Feng of the University of Arkansas in the US and colleagues in Nebraska, China and South Korea have taken a long cool look at what the projected patterns of warming are likely to do to the planet’s mosaic of climate types. And they predict dramatic changes.

Climate type is a century-old idea useful for making sense of geographical zones: regions are grouped according to the type of vegetation they support. Since a global map of native vegetation types can also deliver useful information about altitude, rainfall, soil type, prevailing weather and latitude, geographers regard the Köppen-Geiger classification – and an updated version known as Köppen-Trewartha – as a helpful way of describing the world.

Feng and his colleagues decided to see what projected changes in temperature would do to climate types. He wasn’t the first to do so; scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in 2013 in Nature Climate Change on the probable speed of change in such zones.

But science advances by challenge and replication, and the Arkansas team began looking for themselves at the details of simulated change under the notorious “business as usual scenario”  – the one in which global fossil fuel use continues to increase and higher levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases concentrate in the atmosphere.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made a series of predictions of rising global average temperatures, but plants, of course, don’t care about global average temperatures: they are however distinctly vulnerable to local extremes of frost and heat.

The Feng scenario projected an increase of between 3°C and 10°C; the team analysed observations made between 1900 and 2010, and then ran computer simulations from 1900 to 2100.

Drastic changes ahead

In the last three decades of the 21st century, for instance, northern winter temperatures are likely to rise by between 3° and 12°C; Arctic coastal temperatures are likely to rise by 8°C; warming in mid-latitudes is likely to be between 5°C and 7°C, the tropics and the southern hemisphere around 5°C.

The Arctic will shrink. Sub-polar vegetation is expected to advance by 5° of latitude and the temperate zones will push northwards too. Arid and semi-arid climate zones are expected to expand by somewhere between 3.3 and 6.6 million square kilometers in the last three decades of this century.

What this does to native vegetation types is hard to predict in detail but some projections have been made. In the Qinling mountain region of China, for instance, somewhere between 80% and 100% of the bamboo forests on which the giant pandas depend could disappear, because the rising temperature would be “no longer feasible for bamboo growth.”

In the south-western US higher temperatures and drier conditions could lead to more forest fires, and pest outbreaks could lead to changes in forest structure and composition.

As the plants change, the animal species that evolved with the vegetation types could be increasingly at risk. Altogether, up to 46.3% of the planet’s land area could shift to warmer or drier climate types

“Climates are associated with certain types of vegetation. If the surface continues to get warmer, certain native species may no longer grow well in their climate, especially in higher latitudes. They will give their territory to other species. That is the most likely scenario”, said Feng. – Climate News Network

Drought intensifies in western US

February 3, 2014 in Agriculture, Drought, Extreme weather, Food security, Forests, USA, Vegetation changes

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Low water in California's San Gabriel dam after two years of drought Image: Shannon1 via Wikimedia Commons

Low water in California’s San Gabriel dam after two years of drought
Image: Shannon1 via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

In recent days California has announced its most severe water restrictions ever as drought continues to hit the state. Scientists say the region’s rainfall has been declining over the years and the consequences are serious.

LONDON, 3 February – January is the month when Californians put on their rain jackets – but not this year.

It’s the month which is usually wettest in the western US, when rivers and reservoirs are replenished: this year there was virtually no rain through January in much of the region, following on from an exceptionally dry period through much of 2013.

A vast area of land in the western region of the American land mass, stretching from the province of Alberta in Canada across to parts of Texas in the US and on down into Mexico, is suffering as reservoirs and rivers dry up. A state of emergency has been declared in several areas, including California.

Dr Wallace Covington is director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. “What we’re seeing across this region is an intensification of long-established aspects of climate change”, Covington told Climate News Network.

“I hate to sound pessimistic but all around in these large watersheds we’re seeing a degradation of water structure and function. There’s increased erosion leading to desertification, and with the dry conditions and generally stronger winds the forest fire season is being extended.”

Covington is an internationally recognised expert on forest restoration who has been studying tree growth in Arizona for many years, particularly among its ponderosa pines – the Pinus ponderosa.

30-year drought

“Longer drought periods and increasing temperatures are resulting in attacks by bark beetles – which can eventually kill off trees – becoming increasingly severe.

‘The trees can’t produce adequate moisture: if enough photosynthesis is going on they can fight off the beetles and their larvae. But in northern Arizona we’ve been under drought conditions for about 30 years and it’s getting worse. We’ve been losing pines that are 300 or 400 years old at an alarming rate.”

At the end of last month California’s State Water Project – the largest state-built water and power development and distribution system in the US – said it would stop supplying water to local agencies in many areas in order, said officials, to use what water remained “as wisely as possible”.

The agencies – which supply water to about 25 million people and to about 750,000 acres of farmland – would in future have to look elsewhere for water, including from local reservoirs or from groundwater sources.

Mr Jerry Brown, California’s governor, says the water shortages are “a stark reminder that California’s drought is real” and has asked people to reduce their water consumption by at least 20%.

Food price fears

The western region of the US is one of the world’s main agricultural production regions and if the drought is prolonged global food prices could rise. In some areas ranchers have been forced to sell off their herds and in others farmers are abandoning their crops.

In southern California, an area which produces a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts and other crops, farmers are complaining that water supplies are being diverted to towns and cities from their lands.

“It’s not as if there hasn’t been enough warning about what’s happening”, says Covington.

“These changes have been going on over decades but the trouble is our political and management systems respond only in four to five year cycles, not to 40 or 50 year trends.

“This is above national – it’s global. Yet our institutions are national at best. And we don’t have a lot of time to act.” – Climate News Network