Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Farming needs 'climate-smart' revolution, says report BBC News

African women in fieldFarmland is another place for which "business as usual" has been judged untenable

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Major changes are needed in agriculture and food consumption around the world if future generations are to be adequately fed, a major report warns.
Farming must intensify sustainably, cut waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farms, it says.
The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Changespent more than a year assessing evidence from scientists and policymakers.
Its final report was released at the Planet Under Pressure conference.
The commission was chaired by Prof Sir John Beddington, the UK government's chief scientific adviser.

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We need to develop agriculture that is 'climate smart' - generating more output without the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions”
Prof Sir John BeddingtonCommission chairman
"If you're going to generate enough food both to address the poverty of a billion people not getting enough food, with another billion [in the global population] in 13 years' time, you've got to massively increase agriculture," Sir John told BBC News.
"You can't do it using the same agricultural techniques we've used before, because that would seriously increase greenhouse gas emissions for the whole world, with climate change knock-ons."
Farming is probably responsible for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, although the figure is hard to pin down as a large proportion comes from land clearance, for which emissions are notoriously difficult to measure.
Although there are regional variations, climate change is forecast to reduce crop yields overall - dramatically so in the case of South Asia, where studies suggest the wheat yield could halve in 50 years.
"We need to develop agriculture that is 'climate smart' - generating more output without the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, either via the basic techniques of farming or from ploughing up grassland or cutting down rainforest," said Sir John.
The techniques needed in different regions vary according to what is appropriate, said Dr Christine Negra, who co-ordinated the commission's work.
"In places where using organic methods, for example, is appropriate or economically advantageous and produces good socio-economic and ecological outcomes, that's a great approach," she said.
"In places where, using GMOs, you can address food security challenges and socio-economic issues, those are the right approaches to use where they've been proven safe."
Waste matters
The commission's recommendations go a long way beyond farming methods, however.
It says the economic and policy framework around food production and consumption need to change to encourage sustainability, to raise output while minimising environmental impacts.
Man carrying rice in warehousePolicies enacted now will help future farmland bear the weight of a growing population's needs
Farmers need more investment and better information; governments need to put sustainable farming at the heart of national policies.
Prof Tekalign Mamo, who advises the Agriculture Ministry in Ethiopia, said models already existed for many of the transformations needed.
One, highlighted in the report, is Ethiopia's Productive Safety Net Programme, inaugurated in 2003 with the involvement of the government and international partners.
"One [aspect of it] is household asset building, so people don't deplete their resources in times of chronic food shortage," Prof Mamo told BBC News.
"Another is working on community assets such as building small-scale irrigation or watershed development; the communities own such activities and also allocate free labour, and the government provides incentives like food or cash for those participating.
"It has lifted about 1.3 million of the population from poverty and into food security, and at the same time they also conserved and rehabilitated the environment."
India's guarantee of employment in rural areas, Vietnam's progress with no-till rice farming (which reduces greenhouse gas emissions from soil), and moves to give women secure land ownership in five southern African countries are also highlighted in the report.
But it also recommends changes in developed nations - for example, around food waste.
"The less we waste food, the less food we have to produce, the less greenhouse gases are emitted," noted Dr Negra.
Before last December's UN climate conference in South Africa, the commissioners had advocated incorporating sustainable agriculture into the UN climate convention's discussions.
The eventual decision - to start talks on a "work programme" - is viewed by the commission as being weaker than it might have been.
The commission was established by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the global network of institutions working on food and poverty issues.
The Planet Under Pressure conference is a four-day gathering of academics, campaigners and business people in London designed to inform policymaking in the run-up to the Rio+20 summit in Brazil in June.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Africa: the Next Mega drought Twin Falls, Idaho

Africa is suffering serious drought again—in both the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya) and in West Africa's Mali. How bad is the drought likely to get?

Three years ago, the New York Times reported a study of the lakebed sediments in Ghana's Lake Bosumtwi. Lead author Tim Shanahan of the University of Texas said Africa gets serious drought every 30 to 65 years—but "changing Atlantic sea-surface temperatures" are capable of triggering "much longer and more severe future droughts."

The Bosumtwi mud revealed a West African megadrought during the Little Ice Age that lasted from 1400 to 1750! The trunks of ancient dead trees now submerged in deep water show the lake lost four times as much water in the Little Ice Age as in the severe Sahel droughts of the 70's. Meanwhile, Africa's population has expanded from 110 million to 1 billion in the intervening centuries.

It gets worse. In East Africa, Karl Butzer of Switzerland found long wet-dry cycles in Ethiopian valley sediments during the "little ice age" called the Dark Ages. The culture collapsed in AD 600 and did not re-emerge until more than 600 years later.

Fast forward to 2011 when University of Washington's oceanographer Julian Sachs' article, "A Shifting Band of Rain" appeared in Scientific American. He studied the Intertropical Convergence Zone, the tropical rainbelts near the equator. Lakebed sediments across a whole north-south range of Pacific islands show him that the tropical rains have moved north 550 km in the years since the Lake Bosumtwi megadrought.

Sachs predicts the rain belt could move another 550 km north in the centuries ahead, as the Modern Warming continues. The Mexican desert could come to the southern U.S. The rains that now support farming in Ghana and Ethiopia could move north to the Sahara and North Africa, as they did during the Roman Warming (200 BCnAD 600). The Roman Empire fed itself on grain from then-wetter North Africa and Egypt—while Ghanaians and Ethiopians starved or moved. Came the Dark Ages and the ITCZ moved south again, while both North African and Egyptian cultures collapsed for centuries.
Shanahan is describing the effects of the 1,500-year Dansgaard-Oeschger cycle, discovered in the Greenland ice cores in 1984. He referred to "changing North Atlantic sea-surface temperatures"—but he's really talking about a solar-driven cycle that has produced more than 500 global warmings and "little ice ages" in the past million years. Our study of paleoclimate proxies is only now getting good enough to show us the drastic climate consequences of the shifting rain belts.

Is Africa starting the next megadrought now? I think that unlikely. We're only 150 years into the Modern Warming and even the short Medieval Warming lasted 350 years. It is more likely a repeat of the 1970s "serious drought" that cost 100,000 lives.

What will the world do when the tropical rains leave sub-Saharan Africa sometime in the centuries ahead for several hundred years, leaving behind many millions of Africans who will not be able to walk to sustainability? Ditto for Latin America. Where would we put them and how would we get them there?

Human numbers will be declining naturally after 2050—but mid-Africa's population may double before it stabilizes. Organic or traditional primitive farming won't feed them, or protect Africa's unique wild species from the stew pots of the starving.

During the famines of the Little Ice Age, human ingenuity produced the gang plow to crop the heavy, rich soils of the valleys that had defied earlier plows. "New" crops brought by Spanish ships from the New World included the potato, the tomato, maize and sweet potatoes—radically increasing food yields per acre for both Europe and Africa. Industrial nitrogen fertilizer is currently feeding 5.5 billion of our fellow humans. We'll need all our inventiveness and our persistence to adapt in the earth's future droughts; and enlightened consensus to then accept the technology.

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., is an environmental economist. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years. Readers may write to him at PO Box 202 Churchville, VA 2442; email to Visit our website at www.
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