Posts Tagged food

Richard Alley: what we know now… Gareth Renowden Jul 07

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In this talk, recorded at the American Geophysical Union’s Chapman Conference on Climate Communication in Colorado recently, Richard Alley gives his overview of what we know about the state of the climate. As you might expect, he covers the cryosphere in some detail (why Greenland may not be as big a worry as West Antarctica), but he also has interesting things to say about climate sensitivity (same as it ever was), food production, and the possibility that chunks of the planet may become too hot for humans. Well worth watching…

Check out the other talks from the conference, all up at the AGU’s Youtube channel. I’m planning to catch up with the talks by Mike Mann, Steve Lewandowsky, Jeff Masters and Gavin Schmidt — when I can find the time.

[Hat tip to Greenland's very own videographer, Peter Sinclair -- who also gave a talk at the conference.]

Revolution and realism required: UN report Bryan Walker Jul 14

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I’ve been looking at the The World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation which Gareth drew attention to in his recent post.  It’s a long document prepared by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), not intended for casual consumption, and I haven’t read all 250 pages.  But the theme chosen for the year’s survey is fundamental for the challenge of climate change and it’s somewhat cheering just to see the title.  I thought it worth highlighting some of the content.

The survey is quite clear on the necessity for a green technological transformation. Our progress over the past two centuries has been at a cost to the natural environment which cannot continue.

’About half of the forests that covered the earth are gone, groundwater resources are being depleted and contaminated, enormous reductions in biodiversity have already taken place and, through increased burning of fossil fuels, the stability of the planet’s climate is being threatened by global warming.’

There have to be new development pathways. DESA’s mission is to promote development for all. The global green technological transformation must enable today’s poor to attain decent living standards, while reducing emissions and waste and ending the unrestrained drawdown of the earth’s non-renewable resources. Moreover it will need to be greater in scale and achievable within a much shorter time-frame than the first industrial revolution.

The survey focuses on three elements of the transformation: sustainable energy, sustainable food security, and reducing human harm from increasing natural disasters.

It is almost brutally realistic about the renewable energy transformation. We have four decades in which to achieve it if we are to have any hope of limiting global warming to two degrees. The scope of current national and global policies and programmes simply doesn’t add up to the necessary global emission reduction targets, and the expectations from what we are doing are overly optimistic. The pace of the global energy transition has actually slowed significantly since the 1970s and public spending for energy-related research and development in developed countries is still well below that obtaining in the 1970s and early 1980s. Scaling up known technologies is more demanding than is commonly acknowledged. The survey calls for a reality check of current plans so that realistic and well-targeted initiatives can be devised at a far greater scale. But along with buckets of cold water it offers many suggestions for ways in which the issue can be tackled more comprehensively and successfully. It points to the significant economic opportunities along the way for both developed and emerging market economies, but adds that poorer developing countries must receive support from the international community.  It’s a sober but not ultimately pessimistic survey of the way ahead for energy.

Food security is in deep difficulty. The world needs to increase food production considerably as the population continues to grow, but if this is attempted using current agricultural technology, practices and land-use patterns the result will be increased greenhouse gas emissions, more water pollution and land degradation. The first green revolution in the 1960s and 1970s was not in fact all that green. It increased agricultural yields as much through intensive use of irrigation water and environmentally harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as through the introduction of new seed varieties. Reduction in the use of chemical inputs is needed, along with more efficient use of energy, water and natural resources, and significant improvement of storage facilities and marketing to reduce waste. There are many green technologies and sustainable practices which can be deployed, including  low-tillage farming, crop rotation and interplanting, water harvesting and recycling, water-efficient cropping, agroforestry and integrated pest management. Biotechnology has a part to play, and the development of new high-yielding varieties of crops, a central focus of the first green revolution in agriculture, should continue. The survey lays considerable emphasis on small farm holders in developing countries, since it is in this area that most gains in terms of both productivity increases and rural poverty reduction can be achieved.

On the issue of protection from natural disaster the survey points out that the frequency of such disasters has quintupled over the past 40 years. Most of this increase can be accounted for by the greater incidence of floods, storms, droughts and extreme temperatures associated with climate change. Developing countries are more vulnerable and suffer the most. Disaster risk management and adaptation to climate change in developed and developing countries alike have not been mainstreamed into broader decision-making processes. In practice, responses are most often largely event-driven. They need instead to be embedded in national development strategies. The technologies that can be employed in this process are briefly canvassed.

The survey then devotes a couple of chapters to the national policies needed to enable green development and to the scaling up and reform in international cooperation and finance required to achieve the global technological revolution.

The survey adds up to a big call. ’A technological revolution is needed which will be like no other.’ There are readily usable starting points to jump-start the shift to a green economy, but the challenges lie in how to further improve these techniques, adapt them to need, scale up the applications so as to bring down significantly their costs, and enable their diffusion and knowledge-sharing. Added to this is the high cost of moving out of the non-green and non-sustainable technologies which existing economies are locked into, albeit a cost much lower than that which will accrue if we don’t move.

The technological revolution for a green economy will consequently, the survey declares, be fundamentally different from previous revolutions in three specific ways:

’First, it will have to take place within a specific and limited time period. Given existing pressures on our ecosystem, the goal would need to be achieved within the next three to four decades — a huge challenge, given that diffusion of technologies is a slow process…

’Second, Governments will have to assume a much more central role, the limited time frame being one key reason for this. Under current circumstances, there needs to be an acceleration of technological innovation and diffusion, which is unlikely to occur if they are left to market forces…

’Third, since the environmental challenges are global, the green technological revolution will need to be facilitated by intense international cooperation.’

At a remove from the hurly-burly of national politics the UN document sets out the inescapable realities which governments must come to terms with if they care about humanity’s future. The likes of Tony Abbott and Don Brash and innumerable US Republican politicians, urged on by vested interests in the brown economy, may vigorously deny and delay in the interim, but the imperative doesn’t go away and we can be grateful for yet another statement of it in this patiently argued survey.

Oxfam on food justice: clearheaded and admirable Bryan Walker Jun 22

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I thought of Oxfam’s recent report on food justice while I was reviewing Christian Parenti’s book Tropic of Chaos. He wrote of how climate change impacts are compounding the existing economic and political problems of many poorer populations. This is also very evident in Oxfam’s report on the alarming new surge in hunger as higher food prices hit poor countries. Time for a post on the report, I thought.

The message that climate change is already having bad effects on the welfare of poor populations needs to be hammered home. The fact that it intertwines with other causes doesn’t mean that it can be downplayed. It is clearly a significant part of the combination of factors threatening the food supply of many.

Overarching all the factors is one supreme element, as Oxfam sees it: ’power above all determines who eats and who does not’. That’s the power of the status quo and the special interests that profit from it, the power concentrated in the hands of a self-interested few.  The report speaks of a broken food system constructed by and on behalf of a tiny minority — its primary purpose to deliver profit for them. ’Bloated rich-country farm lobbies’ gain subsidies that tip the terms of trade against farmers in the developing world.  Self-serving elites amass resources at the expense of impoverished rural populations. Powerful investors play commodities markets like casinos. Enormous agribusiness companies, hidden from public view, function as global oligopolies. Dominant minorities are imposing paralysis on tackling climate change. Concentrations of greenhouse gases are already above sustainable levels and continue to rise alarmingly. Land is running out. Fresh water is drying up.

It will catch up with us all in the long run, but in the meantime it’s the poor and vulnerable who are suffering first from extreme weather, spiralling food prices, and the scramble for land and water. Ominously, food prices are forecast to increase by something in the range of 70 to 90 per cent by 2030 before the effects of climate change, which will roughly the double price rises again.

The report calls for a redistribution of power from a handful of companies and political elites to the billions who actually produce and consume the world’s food; for a shift in the share of consumption to allow adequate, nourishing food for those who live in poverty; and for a shift in the share of production from polluting industrial farms to smaller, more sustainable farms, including an abandonment of the subsidies which prop up the former and undermine the latter. The report adds that the vice-like hold over governments of companies that profit from environmental degradation — the peddlers and pushers of oil and coal — must be broken.

Strong words, and no less welcome for that. But the report doesn’t stop at generalised statements. It goes on to detail three specific challenges presented by the failing food system. The first is the sustainable production challenge. The dramatic yield increases of last century are drying up, but within the developing world there is huge untapped potential for yield growth in small-scale agriculture.  However investment in developing country agriculture has been pitiful. It has declined by 77 percent over the past 25 years, at the same time as rich country governments increased support for their own agriculture to be 79 times as large as the agricultural aid to developing countries.

Climate change plays its part in the decline of yield growth.  Estimates suggest that rice yields may decline by 10 per cent for each 1°C rise in dry-growing-season minimum temperatures. Modelling has found that countries in sub-Saharan Africa could experience catastrophic declines in yield of 20—30 per cent by 2080, rising as high as 50 per cent in Sudan and Senegal. Climate change will also increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and floods which can wipe out harvests at a stroke. Meanwhile, creeping, insidious changes in the seasons, such as longer, hotter dry periods, shorter growing seasons, and unpredictable rainfall patterns are making it harder and harder for poor farmers to know when best to sow, cultivate, and harvest their crops. The International Food Policy Research Institute has recently calculated that 12 million more children would be consigned to hunger by 2050, compared with a scenario with no climate change.

In addition to sustainable production the report highlights two other challenges, of equity and resilience. Equity is to do with access to land, to markets and to technology. Resilience includes adaptation to climate change, and it’s sobering to read that the rich countries have so far pinned down no details of the $100 billion a year pledge for future climate financing. Nor is current financing measuring up — the report says that most of the $30 billion of Fast Start Finance agreed at Copenhagen has turned out to be old aid money, recycled, repackaged and renamed. There is much to substantiate the report’s acid observation: ’History shows that justice tends not to come about through the benevolence of the powerful.

The report may be outspoken about why the the food system is failing, and go so far as to talk of a ’dance of death’, but it is primarily an appeal to make the changes which can solve the crisis and set us on a more hopeful road. There are three big shifts we need to work for. The first is developing new forms of governance both nationally and globally in which attention is more closely focused on reducing vulnerability to disasters. The second is changing the shape of agriculture by prioritising the needs of small-scale food producers in developing countries and reversing the current misallocation of resources whereby the vast majority of public money for agriculture flows to agro-industrial farms in the North. The third is building the architecture of a new ecological future; a global deal on climate change will be the litmus test of success.  The report follows these three shifts into details which there is not space here to describe. Suffice to say they add up to a realistic and hopeful programme well within human capability.

There must of course be an immediate caveat to those last words. It is not clear that our moral and political capability will have a clear run. That’s where the issue becomes clouded. Which I guess is why, in a concluding statement which draws attention to the organisations, businesses, and movements which are growing and connecting with vigour and hope for a better future, the report finds it necessary to repeat its frequent warnings against the vested interests which will strongly resist the needed changes. ’Governments must renew their purpose as custodians of the public good rather than allowing elites to drag them by the nose.’

’Some hope,’ the cynic in us might say. But the abandonment of hope is too terrible to contemplate. Oxfam may seem quaintly idealistic to some. Not to me. The organisation is morally right to keep advocating justice for the poor and vulnerable. It is intellectually clearheaded in its delineation of the forces that are impelling us towards disaster. It is admirable in its determination to continue sounding uncomfortable truths which we’re so ready to ignore.

Hotspots hit poor hardest Bryan Walker Jun 04

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Another report this week drives home the message that the world’s poorer people are going to suffer the early and potentially devastating effects of climate change. The report is the work of the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) programme associated with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a group of food research organisations.

The report, Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the Global Tropics, was produced by a team of scientists responding to what CCAFS describes as an urgent need to focus climate change adaptation efforts on people and places where the potential for harsher growing conditions poses the gravest threat to food production and food security.

The researchers identified places around the world where the arrival of stressful growing conditions could be especially disastrous.  They are areas highly exposed to climate shifts, where survival is strongly linked to the fate of regional crop and livestock yields, and where chronic food problems indicate that farmers are already struggling and they lack the capacity to adapt to new weather patterns.

For example, the report points to large parts of South Asia, including almost all of India, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa — chiefly West Africa — where there are 369 million food-insecure people living in agriculture intensive areas that are highly exposed to a potential five percent decrease in the length of the growing period. That’s a big enough change to significantly affect food yields and food access for people — many of them farmers themselves — already living on the edge.

Higher temperatures are also likely to exact a toll, the report indicates. Today, there are 56 million food-insecure and crop-dependent people in parts of West Africa, India and China who live in areas where, by the mid-2050s, maximum daily temperatures during the growing season could exceed 30 degrees. This is close to the maximum temperature that beans can tolerate, while maize and rice yields may suffer when temperatures exceed this level. For example, a study last year in Nature found that even with optimal amounts of rain, African maize yields could decline by one percent for each day spent above 30 degrees.  This map shows where the threatened areas are:

GISTEMPFig E201104

The intention of the report is to identify regions where adaptation measures are likely to be most urgently required. Crop production and livestock capacity are likely to be severely affected. One of the researchers commented on the need to move quickly on innovative solutions to meet the challenges if future serious food security and livelihood problems are to be avoided.

Time journalist Bryan Walsh’s blog remarks that the report is a reminder of one of the inescapable facts of global warming politics: those who are least responsible for the problem, those who are already living close to the edge, are those who will almost certainly suffer the most. The implication he draws is surely correct:

’That leaves much of the responsibility in the hands of the developed nations, whose wealth will shield them from the worst impacts of climate change – provided they plan well. Reducing emissions is a must, to blunt the worst effects of warming.  But adaptation will be just as important – if not more so… In short, we’ll need to help with the hard work of international development – which in a hotter world, is all but synonymous with climate adaptation.’

In obvious exasperation with lack of progress on mitigation he pushes the cause of adaptation:

’As diplomats gather for yet another round of climate negotiations – this time in Bonn – I’d rather see governments make concrete pledges on adaptation, foreign aid and technological development, instead of another empty promise about preventing temperature rise or keeping the atmosphere’s carbon concentrations at a ‘safe’ level. Action now is worth a lot more than promise tomorrow.’

It’s certainly a cause worth pleading, although not one that is likely to have much traction if New Zealand’s recent budget is any indication.  For yet another year the small proportion of our gross national income devoted to aid has suffered a cut. Caritas politely says how regrettable this is.  I think I’d have chosen a stronger adjective.

No matter how impervious politicians appear to the hardships global warming is beginning to impose on the poor and will impose on generations to come it’s important to keep hammering the message, if only to bear witness, as Stephen Gardiner’s recently reviewed book, A Perfect Moral Storm, puts it. There may be some ethical embers lying dormant which might yet be fanned into a blaze. Here’s a short video from CGIAR which brings viewers face to face with those who already grapple with climate change.

There are a couple more of the videos, on Ghana and Kenya, which can be accessed here.

BBC News carries some useful comments on the report, and John Vidal’s Poverty Matters blog in the Guardian is worth a look.

The Climate Show #7: Box and Boxsters — the cryosphere special Gareth Renowden Feb 17

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Highlight of this week’s show is a fascinating — and sobering — interview with Greenland expert Professor Jason Box. His perspective on current events in the Arctic — from the dangers of permafrost methane, through rapid warming over Greenland and the potential impacts on sea level is essential listening and viewing. And he can surf, too. Glenn and Gareth discuss warm weather in New Zealand during a La Niña summer, drought in the Amazon and the complex interactions between climate and weather extremes, food production and political stability. John Cook from Skeptical Science debunks the favourite sceptic arguments about ice at both poles, and in the solutions segment we discuss the recent WWF report on renewable energy, and the new all-electric Porsche Boxster.

Watch The Climate Show on our Youtube channel, subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, or listen direct/download here:

The Climate Show

Follow The Climate Show at The Climate Show web site, on Facebook and Twitter.

Show notes below the fold.

News & commentary:

NZ bakes in hottest month ever and weather in Waipara.

Russian roulette with a rainforest — Amazon suffers another severe drought, could have dire consequences for atmospheric carbon.

China prepares for ‘severe, long-lasting drought’

Starving North Korea pleads for aid

Mexico’s Corn Crop Hit Hard By Cold Temps

From The Guardian: The World Bank has given a stark warning of the impact of the rising cost of food, saying an estimated 44 million people had been pushed into poverty since last summer by soaring commodity prices. Robert Zoellick, the Bank’s president, said food prices had risen by almost 30% in the past year and were within striking distance of the record levels reached during 2008.

Graph of the FAO food price index from a story at Daily Kos.

Egypt unrest fueled by high food prices.

Feature interview: One the world’s leading experts on Greenland and its ice sheet: Jason Box, Assoc. Prof., Department of Geography, Byrd Polar Research Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA, currently on sabbatical as a visiting professor, University of California, Santa Cruz. We’re talking to him a few weeks before he makes his first trip of the year to Greenland.

Extreme Ice Survey

Debunking the skeptic with John Cook from Skeptical Science.
This week: popular myths about the cryosphere.
Greenland is thickening in the middle

Arctic sea ice has recovered? Harrison Schmitt: ’Artic (sic) sea ice has returned to 1989 levels of coverage’ Heartland: ’in April 2009, Arctic sea ice extent had indeed returned to and surpassed 1989 levels.”
(No it hasn’t)

Monckton’s Arctic ice loss = Antarctic ice gain

Plus: an excellent overview of the world’s melting ice.


Here comes the sun: 100% renewables by 2050 — WWF report: press release and PDF.

Porsche produces EV version of Boxster

Thanks to our media partners:, Scoop and KiwiFM.

Theme music: A Drop In The Ocean by The Bads.

Lester Brown: Russian heat hits world grain supplies Bryan Walker Aug 13

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One of the things that persuaded Gwynne Dyer that it was time to write his book Climate Wars was the realisation that ’the first and most important impact of climate change on human civilization will be an acute and permanent crisis of food supply’. He’s not the only one to recognise that. Many of us hearing about what the Russian heat wave is doing to crops have no doubt been wondering what the effect of so much loss might be on global supplies. Right on cue Lester Brown, whose Plan B books always lays great stress on food reserves, has produced  an update on what the failed harvest in Russia might mean.

’Russia’s grain harvest, which was 94 million tons last year, could drop to 65 million tons or even less. West of the Ural Mountains, where most of its grain is grown, Russia is parched beyond belief. An estimated one fifth of its grainland is not worth harvesting. In addition, Ukraine’s harvest could be down 20 percent from last year. And Kazakhstan anticipates a harvest 34 percent below that of 2009. (See data.)’

He notes that the heat and drought are also reducing grass and hay growth, meaning that farmers will have to feed more grain during the long winter. Moscow has already released 3 million tons of grain from government stocks for this purpose. Supplementing hay with grain is costly, but the alternative is reduction of herd size by slaughtering, which means higher meat and milk prices.

The Russian ban on grain exports and possible restrictions on exports from Ukraine and Kazakhstan could cause panic in food-importing countries, leading to a run on exportable grain supplies. Beyond this year, there could be some drought spillover into next year if there is not enough soil moisture by late August to plant Russia’s new winter wheat crop.

The grain-importing countries have in recent times seen China added to their list. In recent months China has imported over half a million tons of wheat from both Australia and Canada and a million tons of corn from the US. A Chinese consulting firm projects China’s corn imports climbing to 15 million tons in 2015. China’s potential role as an importer could put additional pressure on exportable supplies of grain.

The bottom line indicator of food security, Brown explains, is the amount of grain in the bin when the new harvest begins. When world carryover stocks of grain dropped to 62 days of consumption in 2006 and 64 days in 2007, it set the stage for the 2007—08 price run-up. World grain carryover stocks at the end of the current crop year have been estimated at 76 days of consumption, somewhat above the widely recommended 70-day minimum. A new US Department of Agriculture estimate is due very soon, which will give some idea of how much carryover stocks will be estimated to drop as a result of the Russian failure.

We don’t know what all this will mean for world prices. The prices of wheat, corn, and soybeans are actually somewhat higher in early August 2010 than they were in early August 2007, when the record-breaking 2007—08 run-up in grain prices began. Whether prices will reach the 2008 peak again remains to be seen.

Brown performs the obligatory ritual of acknowledging that no  single event can be attributed to global warming, though I would have thought that by now that proviso could be taken as read. It’s surely more important to affirm, as of course he does, that extreme events are an expected manifestation of human-caused climate change, and their effect on food production must be a major concern.

’That intense heat waves shrink harvests is not surprising. The rule of thumb used by crop ecologists is that for each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum we can expect a reduction in grain yields of 10 percent. With global temperature projected to rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius during this century, this effect on yields is an obvious matter of concern.’

Demand isn’t going down to match the reduction:

’Each year the world demand for grain climbs. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million more people. In addition, some 3 billion people are trying to move up the food chain and consume more grain-intensive livestock products. And this year some 120 million tons of the 415-million-ton U.S. grain harvest will go to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars.’

And the obvious conclusion:

’Surging annual growth in grain demand at a time when the earth is heating up, when climate events are becoming more extreme, and when water shortages are spreading makes it difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up. This situation underlines the urgency of cutting carbon emissions quickly–before climate change spins out of control.’

There’s a podcast in which Lester Brown speaks at greater length, elaborating the matters covered in his written update, and amongst other things commenting on how we might be thankful, from a global grain harvest perspective, that it was Moscow and not Chicago or Beijing which experienced temperatures so far above the norm. The grain loss would have been much higher in either case.

It’s worth adding that while the Russian event is dramatic in terms of its obvious impact on exports of grain globally, there are plenty of other places where food production is threatened by extreme events or by other  trends which are in line with climate change predictions. It is impossible to look at the vast flooding of land in Pakistan and not wonder how they will cope with the washing away of millions of hectares of crops — there have been “huge losses” according to the BBC.

’We need to cut carbon emissions and cut them fast.’

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