Archive for the ‘Food Shortages’ Category

Beehives face ‘catastrophic’ decline

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

LONDON – Disturbing evidence that honeybees are in terminal decline has emerged from the United States where, for the fourth year in a row, more than a third of colonies have failed to survive the winter.

The decline of the country’s estimated 2.4 million beehives began in 2006 when a phenomenon, dubbed colony collapse disorder, led to the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of colonies.

Since then, more than three million colonies in the US and billions of honeybees worldwide have died and scientists are no nearer to knowing what is causing the catastrophic fall in numbers.

The number of managed honeybee colonies in the US fell by 33.8 per cent last winter, according to the annual survey by the Apiary Inspectors of America and the US Government’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

The collapse in the global honeybee population is a major threat to crops. It is estimated a third of everything we eat depends upon honeybee pollination, which means bees contribute about $54.6 billion to the global economy.

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Why Britain faces a bleak future of food shortages

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Britain faces a ‘perfect storm’ of water shortage and lack of food, says the government’s chief scientist, and climate change and crop and animal diseases will add to future woes. Science is now striving to find solutions.

It was an ecological disaster that occurred on the other side of the planet. Yet the drought that devastated the Australian wheat harvest last year had consequences that shook the world. It sent food prices soaring in every nation. Wheat prices across the globe soared by 130%, while shopping bills in Britain leapt by 15%.

A year later and the cost of food today has still to fall to previous levels. More alarmingly, scientists are warning that far worse lies ahead. A “perfect storm” of food shortages and water scarcity now threatens to unleash public unrest and conflict in the next 20 years, the government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, has warned.

In Britain, a global food shortage would drive up import costs and make food more expensive, just as the nation’s farmers start to feel the impact of disrupted rainfall and rising temperatures caused by climate change. “If we don’t address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move to avoid food and water shortages,” he told a conference earlier this year.

The reliable availability of food – once taken for granted – has become a major cause for alarm among politicians and scientists. Next month several of Britain’s research councils, together with the Food Standards Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for International Development – will announce a taskforce that will channel the UK’s efforts in feeding its own population and playing a full role in preventing starvation in other nations.

The problem is summed up by Professor Janet Allen, director of research at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). “We will have to grow more food on less land using less water and less fertiliser while producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

No one said science was easy, of course. Nevertheless, the scale of the problem is striking. It is also unprecedented, says Professor Mike Bevan, acting director of the John Innes Centre in Norfolk. “We are going to have to produce as much food in the next 50 years as was produced over the past 5,000 years. Nothing less will do.”

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Can We Feed and Save the Planet?

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Challenges of population control and food production need to be tackled in tandem

We are eating ourselves out of house and home. Recently, in the September 24 issue of Nature, Johan Rockström and his colleagues proposed 10 “planetary boundaries” to define safe limits of human activity. (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.) Those limits include caps on greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, the global conversion of land cover to cropland, and other mega-impacts on the earth’s ecosystems. Yet humanity has already exceeded several of them and is on a trajectory to exceed most of the others. The rising demand for food plays a large role in those transgressions.

The green revolution that made grain production soar gave humanity some breathing space, but the continuing rise in population and demand for meat production is exhausting that buffer. The father of the green revolution, Norman Borlaug, who passed away in September at the age of 95, made exactly this point in 1970 when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize: “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.”

That common effort was inconsistent at best and sometimes essentially nonexistent. Since 1970 the population has risen from 3.7 billion to 6.9 billion and continues to increase by around 80 million a year. Food production per person has declined in some big regions, notably sub-Saharan Africa. In India the doubling of population has absorbed almost all of the increase in grain production.

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A big picture snapshot

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

– A friend wrote me the other day about CO2 and said that most of the folks who are out there talking about CO2 and its dangers sound a bit like Chicken Little.  He said there must be places out there on the web where one can get a more balanced presentation of the issues.  And asked if I could direct him to such.

– I’m not sure I answered his questions as effectively as I might have.  I could have, for instance, done some research and tried to find web sites for him with more balanced presentations around CO2 and its issues.

– But, instead, I decided to tell him how and why the debate over CO2 has gotten to be so shrill and why many folks these days are sounding like Chicken Little.

– I think the explanation of why things have gotten so shrill is well worth repeating to a wider audience and so I’ve reproduced my friend’s questions and my responses below.

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Dennis,

I know your position on global warming.   Here are my thoughts:   First any thing that would get us untangled from the Middle East and every one else that we buy oil from would be a godsend.   Most people don’t realize that Canada and Mexico are our biggest suppliers.   Being tied to any other country the way we are is a bad thing.   I don’t think the oil/coal industries will are willing to have any change in the status quo until the last ounce of oil and coal is gone.   I think they control, to one extent or another, our government.   I believe that without their influence, we would have made massive changes by now.

Now, I would like to understand more about CO2.  I am not ignorant of the chemistry or of the geological history.   My problems is when I hear the side describing the downsides of CO2 they are so one sided that they sound like Chicken Little.

Even though the CO2 increase has great potential for mass disruption of the world’s ecological balance, there must be a little of this that is being balanced by natural processes.   Perhaps,  just not at a rate that we can accept.   Could you send me some web sites with a little balance?

Dave C.

=== and my response:

Dave,

You are right.  The oil/gas/coal industries are not going to recognize the global climate change effects their products produce.   If they did, it would cost them personally a pile of money.   And yes, they do have a huge effect on governments all over the world – especially the U.S. government.

Your question about CO2 is an excellent one and I wish I could do a better job of answering it.

When you say that the people describing the coming problems from rising CO2 levels sound like Chicken Little, I have to agree.   But, you need to also reflect on how the situation got to be like that.

First off, think about the fact that scientific discoveries don’t usually come up for public debate.

And consider that science comes up with some wild and almost unbelievable discoveries fairly often.   Take Dark Matter and Dark Energy for two things.   And Quantum Physics and all of its weird ideas like entanglement and action at a distance.   And the fact that really small things like electrons are not really in one place or another but rather exist in a small cloud of probability that hovers near where we think it actually is.  And how about relativity with its ideas that time slows down as your speed get closer and closer to the speed of light?

All that stuff was discovered by science and it beggared the imagination for most of us.  But people (most of them anyway), didn’t stand up and begin to argue passionately against these new findings.

And almost EVERYTHING you and I see around us in the world today is the product of science.   Telephones, electronics, plastics, microwaves, space shuttles, nylon and the list could go on and on for years.  It is hard to find much that we use that isn’t in some way or another the direct product of science and scientific research.   Not many people will stand up and claim that the chemistry that led to developing nylon is wrong.  Or that the laws describing voltage, current and resistance are wrong.

So what’s different about science’s findings about global climate change?

Well, you already said it.   It’s the money.  It’s the vested interests.  It’s what folks will stand to lose if the theories about CO2 and global climate change are true.  And it is big.  If this stuff is true, it means nothing less than that we have to simply reorganized how we do business on this Earth.  Almost everything about how most of us live is going to have to change some if we want to continue to live on this planet without turning it into a hell.

So, that’s a big big change that will result if we listen to what the scientists are saying.  It’s going to cost big oil/gas/coal billions of dollars.  It’s going to change the geopolitical balance between nations, it’s going to mean that ordinary folks like you and I and Joe Six-pack are all going to have to do things differently.

But nobody likes to lose money, nobody likes to lose political power and nobody likes to change their familiar and comfortable life-style.   Joe Six-pack doesn’t want to hear that his big two smoke-stack turbo diesel truck is bad for the planet and we can’t afford to have it running around any more.  The folks making money cutting down the Amazon rain forest don’t want to hear it.  The fishermen fishing the fish in the sea into extinction don’t want to hear it.   The folks buying cheap shit at Wal-Mart, don’t want to hear it.

And that brings these findings of the scientists right smack up against human nature.

And that human nature doesn’t want to change and it will begin to squirm and look for every reason and excuse it can to dodge the bullet and to avoid having to change, or lose money or whatever it is.

When the scientists decided that 70% of the entire universe was made of dark matter a few years ago, no one demonstrated in the streets or began to talk against it on the Rush Limbaugh show.   It didn’t get into anyone’s back pocket – so they didn’t care.

But CO2 and Global Climate Change is going to get into all our back pockets – big time.

Let me take you back and give you some history.   I learned what I’m going to tell you from a book entitled, Red Sky at Morning by Gustave Speth.

In the 1970’s, environmentalists in the U.S. were just beginning to push their efforts to get laws passed like the Clean Air Act and the Food and Drug Laws.  The public was mildly interested and industry was ignoring all of it.   Then Three Mile Island and a few other things all happened at about the same time and suddenly the public was very hot to support environmental protection laws.  The result was that a lot of laws about protecting the air and the water and such were all passed at once before the industry folks were really awake to what was happening.

Industry lost a lot of money because of all of these new laws and they vowed to never be asleep at the wheel again.

About 10 years later, in the 1980’s, the environmentalists began to realize that they could not protect the entire world by just passing good laws in the U.S.   They needed to expand their efforts and begin to fight for environmental protection laws that would be international in scope.  By the early 90’s the alarms were being sounded that we needed to do some things internationally or we, as a species, and as a planet, were going to have big problems.

But this time industry was not asleep.   They’d been burned once by not paying attention.   Now, every time an effort was mounted to increase environmental protection globally, industry looked at the proposed laws and if they could see that such a law was going to cost them big money, they mobilized to confuse people and to prevent the political will from developing to pass such a law.

This cat and mouse game has been going on for two decades now.   At first the scientists simply published the results of the scientific research in papers.  They trusted that people would be smart enough to see the writing on the wall.   But, industry confused people and confused the issues.  They published counter studies that seemed to show the opposite conclusions.

So scientists and environmental activists began to talk louder trying to get their messages and warnings out.  And industry fought back harder.  And the entire thing escalated up and up.

Most scientists now think that the entire “Global Climate Change is because of CO2” issue has been definitively proven over and over beyond the shadow of any doubt.   But the public doesn’t think that.   They are still deeply confused by the mis-information industry has been putting out for just that purpose – to confuse them and to therefore prevent political will from developing that could result in some real laws getting passed.

What’s going on in Copenhagen now is a great example.   Many people think that awareness of our environmental problems has finally gotten to the point where the world’s leaders might actually come together and try to do something real to prevent a major environmental and climate disaster.   And then, two weeks before the conference, the other side unleashes a major campaign to throw doubt on the scientific conclusions and to mess the entire conference up.

And, I fear, they are doing a pretty good job.   Frankly, I think we’re toast and I’ve thought so for a long time.   Human nature is just too predictable and to easily manipulated.   Those who want to convince the public that the climate science is wrong actually have a pretty easy time of it because Joe Six-pack and folks like him would prefer to believe that nothing’s going on because it is way easier than thinking about the fact that they might have to change their consumerist lifestyles.

So yeah, some folks are sounding like shrill Chicken Littles.  Why?  Because it is a damn desperate situation and the world is likely to go into the toilet in spite of the very best efforts of the environmentalists.  And they are worried about it.

After reading over what I’ve written here, I realize that I’ve only partially answered what you actually asked.  You asked for some balance on the question of how CO2 is processed by the environment.

There are a lot of answers to that because, as you can imagine, the world’s climate and biosphere is a wickedly complex system.   But, here are a few of the high points:

– The level of CO2 in the atmosphere hasn’t been this high in 6 million years.

– The current swift rise in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is faster than anything we can see in the climate records back for 6 million years.

– This rise corresponds with the rise of industrial civilization.   It begins in the climate record just about the time industrialization began when the English started building factories in the 1840’s or so and it increases in the climate record in pace with the increasing rise in industrial production.

– The denialists say that the rise in CO2 is a natural thing and has nothing to do with the CO2 humans are putting into the air.   I find that an amazing idea.   It’s like saying, “I just tromped down on the gas pedal and now the car is going really fast.”   And then having someone tell you that it’s just a coincidence and that the gas pedal has nothing to do with the acceleration.  Yeah, right.

– Nature does have some ability to absorb excess CO2.  The ocean absorbs a lot of it.  But, it cannot keep up with the rate we’re adding it to the air.   And, as the ocean absorbs it, the water becomes more acidic.  As it becomes more acidic, it makes it harder for ocean animals that have shells to make their shells because the acidification interferes with their chemistry.  At some point, this rise in dissolved CO2 is really going to mess with some huge food chains in the ocean.

– Plants and trees like CO2 and use and absorb it.  To a point.  Add a little more CO2 and a little more heat and they thrive.    But, add a bit more and they begin to weaken and wilt and their ability to absorb CO2 lessens.   This is true for the majority of plants and trees.   There are some exceptions but they are a minority and what really matters is what the majority of the world’s plants and trees are likely to do.  And what they are likely to do it not good.

– Big coal has been yammering on for years about CO2 sequestration.  But, in spite of many big public relations splashes, no one yet has made a full scale carbon sequestration plant that works.   In the mean time, China is building one or more coal fired dirty power production plants a week!   Much of the public thinks “clean coal” is either a done deal or very close.   It truth, it is miles and mile off and maybe we’ll never have it.

– The problem is bigger that just how much CO2 we’re putting into the air.  That’s bad and we can see it ramping up.  But, it is causing other problems much as one fire creates others as the embers fly.

– The arctic ice is melting and as it does, the white snow and ice disappear and the darker sea and land underneath become visible.  The white reflected heat back into space.   The darker stuff being exposed absorbs it.  So there’s more heating going on because of this and it, in turn, causes more ice and snow to melt.  It is a positive feed back cycle and it is beginning to get up onto legs of its own.

– Glaciers all over the world, with very few exceptions, are melting.  The winter snow falls that used to stay in the mountains and then melt in the summer are going away and that’s going to have a huge impact on human beings.  The summer water that millions need to grow crops and survive is going away, soon.  We’re talking most of the west coast of South America, the Southwestern U.S., Northern India and a huge swath across Central China from east to west.  We’ve never seen anything like the disruption and starvation that will result.

Dave, I’ve been reading this stuff for years and this is just a part of what I’ve read.  Scientists have no reason to make this stuff up.  But, folks who make big big bucks by keeping the world running as it is now have a huge motivation to not see and react to the coming global climate changes.  These folks have a lot of money and they think that even if there are big problems, they will have to money to hang out in nice villas up in the Alps and where ever while the rest of use starve and fight it out in the streets.

All they have to do is keep us confused so we won’t shut their party down.

Dennis

Got Gas?

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

– A good friend of mine sent me this article saying, “Interesting article on natural gas“.

– It is, indeed, an interesting article but I saw it in a different light than many perhaps do.

– My response to my friend:

D,

An interesting and potentially game-changing story, indeed.

But, it is a classic case of humanity’s inborn tendency to jump at the short term relief without fairly balancing it against the long-term consequences.

To see the consequences, I’d like to see someone make the assumption that ALL the fossil fuel we burn from here forward is this cleaner gas.   And, to be really fair, we can drop all considerations of the collateral damages associated with obtaining the gas that were mentioned in the article.

Just assume that the world will continue growing and producing and have more babies and all the rest of it for the next 20 to 50 years – all largely fueled by this gas.

The analysis should show what will happen to the CO2 levels in the atmosphere from consuming just this gas.  And then it should consider the consequences of this change in CO2 levels on global weather, ecosystems, environmental refugees, depleted glaciers and winter snow packs, increasing desertification, species die-offs and an entire host of follow-on consequences that will attend continued rising of global CO2 levels.

Short-term thinkers are enthusiastic about these new gas producing technologies because they allow us, for the moment, to avoid having to deal with the really tough long term questions regarding what we have to do to get into a sustainable long-term homeostatic balance with the planet’s ecosphere.

Long term, it’s really the only question that matters much.

Everything else is an avoidance or a denial that only take us further down the road wherein we do not solve this problem and cause a major crater in the Earth’s evolutionary history; killing many species, altering the weather for tens of thousands of years and killing the majority of the human beings alive and reducing the ones that survive to miserable circumstances.

Not an insignificant outcome – and all the more terrible because, difficult as it may be, we could avoid most of it if we had the grit and the will to do so.

Dennis

Hungry in the dark of drought

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

NAIROBI – Crops have shrivelled, hundreds of cattle are dead and the World Food Programme says 3.8 million Kenyans need emergency food aid because of a prolonged drought, which is even causing electrical blackouts in the capital because there’s not enough water for hydroelectric plants.

With rivers thinning to a trickle and mountain glaciers shrinking, authorities this month began rationing power in the capital, darkening homes and businesses at least three days a week.

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Blue Desert

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

– George Monbiot, always one of my favorite writers, writes here on the Fishing Industry.   Just one small piece in the large gathering Perfect Storm, this industry is a perfect microcosm of the macrocosm.  At all levels, there is a war between the competing drives towards short-term profits and long-term sustainability.

– In a very real way, how this contest turns out in all the micro and macrocosms will be a succinct measure of our intelligence as a species.   And I think, to the objective observer, the outcome is not looking good.

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By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 2nd June 2009

I live a few miles from Cardigan Bay. Whenever I can get away, I take my kayak down to the beach and launch it through the waves. Often I take a handline with me, in the hope of catching some mackeral or pollock. On the water, sometimes five kilometres from the coast, surrounded by gannets and shearwaters, I feel closer to nature than at any other time.

Last year I was returning to shore through a lumpy sea. I was 200 metres from the beach and beginning to worry about the size of the breakers when I heard a great whoosh behind me. Sure that a wave was about to crash over my head, I ducked. But nothing happened. I turned round. Right under my paddle a hooked grey fin emerged. It disappeared. A moment later a bull bottlenose dolphin exploded from the water, almost over my head. As he curved through the air, we made eye contact. If there is one image that will stay with me for the rest of my life, it is of that sleek gentle monster, watching me with his wise little eye as he flew past my head. I have never experienced a greater thrill, even when I first saw an osprey flying up the Dyfi estuary with a flounder in its talons.

The Cardigan Bay dolphins are one of the only two substantial resident populations left in British seas. It is partly for their sake that most of the coastal waters of the bay are classified as special areas of conservation (SACs). This grants them the strictest protection available under EU law. The purpose of SACs is to prevent “the deterioration of natural habitats … as well as disturbance of the species for which the areas have been designated”(1).

That looks pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? The bay is strictly protected. It can’t be damaged, and the dolphins and other rare marine life can’t be disturbed. So why the heck has a fleet of scallop dredgers been allowed to rip it to pieces?

Until this Sunday, when the season closed, 45 boats were raking the bay, including places within the SACs, with steel hooks and chain mats. The dredges destroy everything: all the sessile life of the seabed, the fish that take refuge in the sand; the spawn they lay there, reefs, boulder fields, marine archaeology – any feature that harbours life. In some cases they penetrate the seafloor to a depth of three feet. It is ploughed, levelled and reduced to desert. It will take at least 30 years for parts of the ecosystem to recover; but the structure of the seabed is destroyed forever. The noise of the dredges pounding and grinding over the stones could scarcely be better calculated to disturb the dolphins.

The boats are not resident here. They move around the coastline trashing one habitat after another. They will fish until there is nothing left to destroy then move to the next functioning ecosystem. If, in a few decades, the scallops here recover, they’ll return to tear this place up again.

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A ‘time bomb’ for world wheat crop

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

– This story has been gathering steam for awhile: , , and .

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The Ug99 fungus, called stem rust, could wipe out more than 80% of the world’s wheat as it spreads from Africa, scientists fear. The race is on to breed resistant plants before it reaches the U.S.

The spores arrived from Kenya on dried, infected leaves ensconced in layers of envelopes.

Working inside a bio-secure greenhouse outfitted with motion detectors and surveillance cameras, government scientists at the Cereal Disease Laboratory in St. Paul, Minn., suspended the fungal spores in a light mineral oil and sprayed them onto thousands of healthy wheat plants. After two weeks, the stalks were covered with deadly reddish blisters characteristic of the scourge known as Ug99.

Nearly all the plants were goners.

Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa. It has already jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran. Experts say it is poised to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America — if it doesn’t hitch a ride with people first.

“It’s a time bomb,” said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it’s going to be here. It’s a matter of how long it’s going to take.”

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– Hat tip to Cryptogon

World Bank demands poverty action

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

The head of the World Bank has warned of a “human catastrophe” in the world’s poorest countries unless more is done to tackle the global economic crisis.

Speaking at the end of the World Bank’s spring meeting, Robert Zoellick also called on rich nations to do more to help tackle global poverty.

He said the crisis meant targets on tackling poverty in the poorest countries were unlikely to be met.

The World Bank says an extra 53 million people are at risk of extreme poverty.

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Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Key Concepts

  • Food scarcity and the resulting higher food prices are pushing poor countries into chaos.
  • Such “failed states” can export disease, terrorism, illicit drugs, weapons and refugees.
  • Water shortages, soil losses and rising temperatures from global warming are placing severe limits on food production.
  • Without massive and rapid intervention to address these three environmental factors, the author argues, a series of government collapses could threaten the world order.

One of the toughest things for people to do is to anticipate sudden change. Typically we project the future by extrapolating from trends in the past. Much of the time this approach works well. But sometimes it fails spectacularly, and people are simply blindsided by events such as today’s economic crisis.

For most of us, the idea that civilization itself could disintegrate probably seems preposterous. Who would not find it hard to think seriously about such a complete departure from what we expect of ordinary life? What evidence could make us heed a warning so dire—and how would we go about responding to it? We are so inured to a long list of highly unlikely catastrophes that we are virtually programmed to dismiss them all with a wave of the hand: Sure, our civilization might devolve into chaos—and Earth might collide with an asteroid, too!

For many years I have studied global agricultural, population, environmental and economic trends and their interactions. The combined effects of those trends and the political tensions they generate point to the breakdown of governments and societies. Yet I, too, have resisted the idea that food shortages could bring down not only individual governments but also our global civilization.

I can no longer ignore that risk. Our continuing failure to deal with the environmental declines that are undermining the world food economy—most important, falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures—forces me to conclude that such a collapse is possible.

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