Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist

Discovering Global Environmental Interconnections

Archive for the ‘Agriculture/Food’ Category

Drought and New Deserts by 2060: Most of Mexico, Central America and half of US

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Projected drought and dry regions in 2060-2069

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 22, 2012 (Tierramérica)

Mexico and Central America look like they are covered in dried blood on maps projecting future soil moisture conditions.

The results from 19 different state-of-the-art climate models project extreme and persistent drought conditions (colored dark red-brown on the maps) for almost all of Mexico, the midwestern United States and most of Central America.

If climate change pushes the global average temperature to 2.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial era levels, as many experts now expect, these regions will be under severe and permanent drought conditions.

Future conditions are projected to be worse than Mexico’s current drought or the U.S. Dust Bowl era of the 1930s that forced hundreds of thousands of people to migrate.

These are some of the conclusions of the study “Projections of Future Drought in the Continental United States and Mexico”, which was published in the December 2011 issue of the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Hydrometeorology and has gone largely unnoticed.

“Drought conditions will prevail no matter what precipitation rates are in the future,” said co-author Michael Wehner, a climate scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a U.S. government research centre in California.

“Even in regions where rainfall increases, the soils will get drier. This is a very robust finding,” Wehner told Tierramérica.

Without major reductions in carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, global temperatures will increase to at least 2.5 degrees of warming between 2050 and 2090, depending on rates of emissions of greenhouse gases, climate sensitivity and feedbacks. Read the rest of this entry »

Double Food Production in 10 Years AND Reduce Global Warming

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Greening of the Sahel desert region with eco-ag

Yields went up 214 percent in 44 projects in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa

“If we don’t radically transform the direction of the global food system we will never feed the billion who are hungry,” De Shutter warns.

“Nor will we be able to feed ourselves in the future.”

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Feb 8, 2011 (IPS)

Eco-farming could double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change, according to a new U.N. report released Tuesday in Geneva.

An urgent transformation to ‘eco-farming’ is the only way to end hunger and face the challenges of climate change and rural poverty, said Olivier De Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, following the presentation of his annual report focusing on agroecology and the right to food to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“Agroecology mimics nature not industrial processes. It replaces the external inputs like fertiliser with knowledge of how a combination of plants, trees and animals can enhance productivity of the land,” De Schutter told IPS.

“Yields went up 214 percent in 44 projects in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa using agro-ecological farming techniques over a period of 3 to 10 years… far more than any GM [genetically modified] crop has ever done.”

Other recent scientific assessments have shown that small farmers in 57 countries using agro-ecological techniques obtained average yield increases of 80 percent. Africans’ average increases were 116 percent.

“Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilisers in boosting food production in regions where the hungry live,” De Schutter said. [Video Interviews with De Schutter]


Agroecology applies ecological science to the design of agricultural systems. It enhances soil productivity and protects crops against pests by relying on the natural elements. Read the rest of this entry »

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Stephen:

My recent articles only touch on some of the significant problems with fracking. There’s more to come. (And check out trailer for the new fracking movie starring Matt Damon http://bit.ly/TC8qNB) —  Stephen

Originally posted on Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist:

UPDATE Jan 2013:

Yet another study reveals fracking has a huge problem of gas leaks. Up to  9% of the gas pumped out of the ground leaks into the atmosphere according to a study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published in Nature this week. Natural gas (methane) is a powerful greenhouse gas. If these leaks are widespread, fracking is worse than burning coal, accelerating global warming.

In Jan 2012 I detailed new research in the article below showing that replacing coal with natural gas from fracking does little to fight climate change (see below). Now two studies published that since then make an even stronger case that fracking for natural gas is a HUGE MISTAKE:

From Nature: Air sampling reveals high emissions from gas field. Methane leaks during production may offset climate benefits of natural gas.

From Environmental Research Letters: New study demonstrates switching to natural…

View original 1,150 more words

Common Pollutant as Bad as PCBs?

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“They’re crumbling out of couches…”

Blast from the past:  my previously published article on topic that’s back on front pages – Stephen

By Stephen Leahy

Wired News May 22 2004

Scientists reported this week that gull eggs in the Great Lakes region contain rising levels of a contaminant that could be as dangerous as the PCBs banned in the 1970s.

The contaminant, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, is used mainly as a flame retardant in upholstered furniture, computers, TVs, carpets and drapes.

While concentrations of the chemical have been shooting upward, doubling approximately every three years since the early 1980s, scientists have yet to investigate the environmental risks the substance poses.

Ross Norstrom, an adjunct chemistry professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, told the Toronto Globe and Mail that, “There is no reason to believe that these things will be any different than the PCBs.”

High levels of PBDEs are also being found in household dust, two new studies report this week. “PBDEs are everywhere,” said Bill Walker of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C., that conducted one of the studies.

“They’re crumbling out of couches and migrating out of plastics and TVs and getting into people’s blood and women’s breast milk,” Walker said in an interview. PBDEs are also being detected in just about every animal and fish around the world.

Lab research on animals shows PBDEs disrupt thyroid hormones, which can impact the developing brain and have other harmful effects. Newborn mice exposed to PBDEs have learning and motor-skill problems, and at least one form of the chemical is carcinogenic.

European countries have banned two of the three main forms of PBDEs, and U.S. manufacturers are also taking them off the market by year’s end. New research shows that the most heavily used remaining form, called “deca,” breaks down into one of the more toxic forms and ought to be banned as well, Walker said.

Many computer and electronics manufacturers such as IBM, Apple Computer and Toshiba are ahead of the curve and eliminating PBDEs from their products. “It also makes good economic sense because other countries are banning them too,” said Walker.

Wealthy Countries and Investors Buying Up Farmland in Poor Countries

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Lopiso Lagebo, 25, comes from Kambata, a small town 800km away from Metahar. He starts working at 0500, cuts up to 5 tons (5,000 kg) of sugar cane a day and earns $0.8. The company recruits most of the work force around his home town, where land shortage drives the workers to emigrate. Caption and Photo: Alfredo Bini/Cosmos  http://www.facebook.com/alfredobini

[I wrote this article three years ago revealing a global land grab by rich investors that is now estimated to be more than 200 million hectares - my recent update here - Stephen]

By Stephen Leahy*

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, USA, May 5 , 2009 (Tierramérica)

More than 20 million hectares of farmland in Africa and Latin America are now in the hands of foreign governments and companies, a sign of a global “land grab” that got a boost from last year’s food crisis.

Rich countries that are short on land or water at home are looking to secure food-producing lands elsewhere as a way to ensure food security for their populations, said Joachim von Braun, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

“There is a major lack of transparency in these land deals,” von Braun said in a telephone press conference from Washington.

The IFPRI study, “‘Land Grabbing’ by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries,” by von Braun and Ruth Meinzen-Dick, which was presented last week, estimates that 15 to 20 million hectares have been acquired or are in the process of being sold.

Von Braun pointed out that this is equivalent to about 25 percent of all the farmland in Europe.

Because hard data is difficult to come by – the study was based primarily on information from press reports – IFPRI conservatively estimates that the deals represent 20 to 30 billion dollars being invested by China, South Korea, India and the Gulf States, mainly in Africa.

“About one-quarter of these investments are for biofuel plantations,” von Braun said.  Read the rest of this entry »

Revealed: In Acidic Oceans Sunlight Kills Planet’s Most Important Organism — Marine Algae

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A number of marine diatom cells (Pleurosigma), which are an important group of phytoplankton in the oceans.
Credit: Michael Stringer

“There’s a synergistic effect between increased ocean acidity and natural light”

“It’s clear we are conducting a giant experiment on the planet and we don’t know what we are doing.”

 By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 8, 2012 (IPS)

Without major reductions in the use of fossil fuels, sunlight will kill an unknown number of ocean phytoplankton, the planet’s most important organism, a new study reports this week.

Not only are phytoplankton, also known as marine algae, a vital component in the ocean’s food chain, they generate at least half of the oxygen we breathe.

In the not so distant future, sunlight, the very source of life for phytoplankton, will likely begin to kill them because of the ocean’s increasing acidity, researchers from China and Germany have learned.

“There’s a synergistic effect between increased ocean acidity and natural light,” says Ulf Riebesell of the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.

Riebesell added that it was also possible “phytoplankton could adapt”.

Researchers were surprised to discover that diatoms, one of the most important and abundant types of phytoplankton, fared very badly during shipboard experiments conducted by co-author Kunshan Gao, from the State Key Laboratory of Marine Environmental Science at Xiamen University, Xiamen China.

Previous experiments in labs like Riebesell’s found that diatoms actually did better in high-acid seawater, unlike most other shell- forming plankton. Burning fossil fuels has made the oceans about 30 percent more acidic researchers discovered less than 10 years ago. Oceans absorb one third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from using fossil fuels.

The good news is this has slowed the rate of global warming. The bad news is oceans are now more acidic and it will get worse as more CO2 is emitted. This is basic, well-understood ocean chemistry.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Environmental Crisis Is in Reality a Crisis in Democracy

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Frances Moore Lappé, author of "EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want"

 “Our economy creates scarcity by being extraordinarily wasteful and destructive.”

Stephen Leahy interviews writer and environmentalist FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ

UXBRIDGE, Canada (IPS)

To meet the challenges of the 21st century, including climate change, feeding the world and eliminating poverty, we need to free ourselves from the “thought traps” that prevent us from seeing the world as it truly is and narrow our vision of how to respond.

At same time, we need to eliminate “privately-held government”, says Frances Moore Lappé, author of “EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want” published by Nation Books. Lappé has written 18 books, including the very influential “Diet for a Small Planet”.

“There is no way to deal with climate change or poverty without real democracy,” she says.

IPS climate and environment correspondent Stephen Leahy spoke with Lappé about her new book.

Q: What do you mean by the term “thought traps”?

A: We don’t see the world as it really is but through a filter or mental map. Research in neuroscience shows that we interpret the world based on our previous experiences and understanding of the world. In other words we see what we expect to see.

One of the dominant ideas in our society is about scarcity or lack. There isn’t enough resources or food or whatever for all of us. We then “see” or interpret everything from that filter or frame of reference.

Q: How does this widely-held idea of “scarcity” affect us? 

A: Believing there isn’t enough makes us defensive and competitive with each other. We think we’d better get ours before someone else does. The majority of people I talk to insist with seven billion people on the planet scarcity is our reality now and into the future. They are blinkered by this scarcity mentality.

Q: But isn’t it true that we are running out of resources like water, energy, food and so on? 

A: I discovered as a young student that the U.S. food production was extraordinarily wasteful and inefficient. Sixteen pounds of corn and soy fed to cattle to get one pound of meat. That pound of meat also requires as much as 12,000 gallons of water. Nearly half of all food harvested is never consumed.

This staggering waste is the rule, not the exception, and not just in food production. The U.S. energy sector wastes 55-87 percent of the energy generated – most of it in the form of waste heat at power plants. It’s not just the U.S. U.N. studies showed that 3,000 of the world’s biggest corporations caused two trillion dollars in damage to the global environment in 2008 alone.

Powerful and inspiring, EcoMind will open your eyes and change your thinking. I want everyone to read it — Jane Goodall

Q: Why are we so destructive and wasteful? 

A: It’s a result of the current market economy with its single focus on generating the quickest and highest return to a small minority of wealth-holders. Our economy creates scarcity by being extraordinarily wasteful and destructive. The term “free market economy” is completely wrong. What we have is a corporate-monopoly market economy of waste and destruction. We need to be more careful and more precise in our language.

Q: There is a growing call by environmentalists and some economists of the need to shift from a growth economy to a no-growth economy, but you say this is a thought trap? 

A: Yes, it leads to a distracting debate about merits of growth versus no-growth. Growth sounds like a good thing so most people will resist the idea of no growth. Better to focus on creating a system that enhances health, happiness, ecological vitality and social power.

Q: In your book you also say everyone needs to focus on “living democracy”. 

A: America has become what’s called a “plutonomy”, where the top one percent control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Inequality is now greater in the U.S. than in Pakistan or Egypt, according to the World Bank. The result is corporations and the very wealthy sway public decision making via political contributions and lobbying. There are now two dozen lobbyists for every member of Congress.

To counter this privately-held government we need to re-create a culture of mutual responsibility, transparency, citizen participation and public financing of elections. Democracy is not just voting once a year, it is a culture, a way of living.

The “mother of all issues” in most countries is removing the power of concentrated wealth from public-decision making and infusing citizens’ voices instead. The environmental crisis is in fact a crisis in democracy.

Q: There is a feeling amongst many environmentally-aware people that it is already too late and there is too much to be overcome. 

A: Thinking it’s too late is another thought trap. It may be too late to avoid significant impacts that could have been avoided if action had been taken two decades ago. It is not too late for life. My book is filled with examples of people taking charge and turning things around.

What makes people think it’s too late is that they feel alone and powerless. People feel that way because of the thought traps, the false beliefs about scarcity and of human nature as greedy and selfish. Those beliefs and a privately-held government have led to feelings of powerlessness.

Q: This year is the 20th anniversary of the historic Earth Summit and major conference called Rio+20 will be held in June. What are your thoughts? 

A: I participated in the Rio+10 conference and we’ve gone backwards in those 10 years. Rio+20 could be the opportunity to reverse course and align ourselves with nature to create the world we really want.

First published on IPS Feb 7, 2012 Q&A: “The Environmental Crisis Is in Fact a Crisis in Democracy” – IPS ipsnews.net.

Traditional Slash and Burn Agriculture Sustainable Solution to Climate Change

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Gwendolyn Smith, Amazon Conservation Team. Photo: Stephen Leahy

Climate change is the result of not behaving in the right way says remote Amazon tribe

 by Stephen Leahy

First published at National Geographic’s NewsWatch

Climate change is the result of not behaving in the right way, according to the isolated Trio, an indigenous people living in Suriname’s Amazon forest near its border with Brazil.

“They see climate change as big problem. They say their forests are changing, deteriorating,” said Gwendolyn Smith, a project director for the non-profit organization Amazon Conservation Team (ACT).

ACT was launched by U.S. ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin and Costa Rican conservationist Liliana Madrigain Madrigal in 1996 to work with indigenous peoples in the rainforests of Suriname and elsewhere in the Amazon to retain their traditional knowledge.

The Trio (also known as Tiriyó) number perhaps 2000 and live entirely off their forests as hunters and swidden farmers. Swidden is a form of slash and burn agriculture where small plots are cleared and crops planted for one or two seasons, after which plots in new areas are cleared. Old plots are left fallow for many years, allowing the forest and soils to replinish. On a small scale this is sustainable.

“They have strict rules for managing their forest,” said Smith, who has worked with the Trio for seven years and is also a PhD student at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Their knowledge of the forest is unparalleled but the Trio know little about the wider world. “Money was only introduced to them six years ago and they don’t really understand concepts like saving,” she said.

Similarly, the concept of carbon and using their forests to soak up carbon is simply not part of their worldview, she told delegates at The Climate Change Mitigation with Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples workshop in Cairns, Australia. Read the rest of this entry »

Rio+20: The Moment in History to Ensure Our Future Survival?

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Planet Under Pressure - State of the Planet Declaration Mar 29 2012.

Worlds’ Scientists Say Facing “Planetary Emergency”

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, (IPS)

The upcoming Rio+20 conference has to be the moment in human history when the nations of the world come together to find ways to ensure the very survival of humanity, many science and environmental experts believe.

Except that governments, the media and the public aren’t paying attention to the “planetary emergency” unfolding around them. The situation is like firefighters yelling “fire” in crowded room and still no listens.

“The situation is absolutely desperate and yet there’s nothing on the front pages or on the agenda of world leaders,” said Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, an international environmental organisation based in Ottawa.

“The lack of attention is a tragedy,” said Mooney, who has 40 years experience in international environment and development issues.

Humanity is failing in its stewardship of the planet. An incredible 85 percent of the world’s oceans are in trouble, said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group, a U.S. organisation.

Rio+20 is a major opportunity to turn this around, Lieberman told IPS.

The Jun. 20-22 Rio+20 meet is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio. The Earth Summit captured world attention, with leaders from most countries and some 10,000 media attending.

It gave birth to the most important environmental treaties on climate change, biodiversity and land degradation and desertification. World leaders also endorsed Agenda 21, a detailed blueprint on how nations can practice sustainable development.

Years of preparation went into the 1992 Summit, while only months have gone into Rio+20.

“There hasn’t been nearly enough preparation to be able to sign treaties,” said Lieberman. It’s been a struggle to get many governments like such as the US to focus on Rio+20 at all she said.

“Governments are not giving this opportunity enough importance given the mess we are in,” said Lisa Speer, director of the international oceans programme at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. NGO. Read the rest of this entry »

No Magic Solutions for the Extinction of Species that Produce Our Air, Water and Water

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Photo: Yann Arthus- Bertrand, GoodPlanet Foundation http://www.goodplanet.org/en/

Is there a middle ground between economic interests, livelihoods and conservation?

By Stephen Leahy

VANCOUVER, Canada (IPS)

The Earth’s life support system, which generates the planet’s air, water and food, is powered by 8.7 million living species, according to the latest best estimate. We know little about 99 percent of those unique species, except that far too many are rapidly going extinct.

What can be done to slow down this process, which could eventually lead to the extinction of the human species?

“The challenge is to find the middle ground between economic interests, livelihoods and conservation,” says Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, the newly appointed head of the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the international agency charged with helping countries slow and reverse the loss of plants, animals and other species.

A native of Brazil, Dias holds a doctorate in zoology from the University of Edinburgh, and worked for many years at the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment, where his last position prior to joining the CBD was as Secretary of Biodiversity and Forests.

An exclusive interview with BRAULIO FERREIRA DE SOUZA DIAS, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity

Q: Why are species going extinct and why does it matter? 
Read the rest of this entry »

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