MDG: Do YOU know what it stands for?

By Amanda Stone

In this video produced by The New School Milano program for Management and Urban Policy in partnership with the United Nations, graduate students take to the streets of New York City as part of a social media campaign to educate the public about the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In 2009 the total number of malnourished people rose above 1 billion. (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

In September of 2000 after a decade of major United Nations conferences and summits, world leaders came together to adopt the eight MDGs, which range from halving extreme poverty to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing primary education universally by 2015 to meet the needs of the world’s poverty. But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admits that the implementation of these goals has “been unacceptably slow.”  In fact, in 2005-2007, the number of undernourished people had actually increased from the initial benchmark, with the total exceeding one billion in 2009 after the 2008 spike in food prices due to the financial crisis, according to the 2010 MDG report.

To galvanize support for reaching the goals, the United Nations created the MDG Awards Committee, a nonprofit organization with a mission to disseminate information to the public and to recognize and spotlight the successes of stakeholders who are making progress towards MDG implementation by the 2015 target date.

Want to see more?  Check out the MDG Awards Youtube channel and these entries to the UN Citizen Ambassador video contest where participants around the world tell UN leaders why the MDGs are important and how the international community can achieve them.

Amanda Stone is Nourishing the Planet’s Communications Assistant.

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Part 24: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding Directed?

Each day we run three of your responses to the question: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding Directed?

(Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

1. Pam Allee says:

“I’m not a farmer or any sort of expert and I haven’t traveled extensively for about a decade.  But I can tell you that we here in the more fortunate North American continent have our hands full encouraging sustainable gardening and farming practices – no synthetics, no GMO’s, no monocultures, no processing or transporting things all over. I guess my vote would be for more education– world-wide,  especially in the “developed” nations–regarding the fact that food is exported for money from the same areas where people are hungry. I like the idea someone mentioned of developing food security, not food “aid.” I’m guessing that if you take this question to many places and ask people on the ground what they need, you will get many different answers–perhaps with common themes, but still, answers that require solutions tailored by and for the people and lands involved.

2. Dennis Calvan says:

“I would like to see more funding for Community-Based Coastal Resources Management, where fishing communities are at the center of the development process. This is very important since the Philippines is considered to be the epicenter of global marine diversity. Around 2 million Filipinos are directly engaged in fishing but more than 60 percent of these fisherfolks are living below the poverty line. CB-CRM will facilitate participatory engagement of resource users in the planning, implementation and monitoring.”

3. Salibo Some, ASUDEC, Burkina Faso says:

“To halt the current tragedy of the commons that is core cause of ecological bankruptcy being experienced mostly in the Sahel area, including Burkina Faso, any investment in agriculture should focus at enabling the bulk of small holding farmers to have legal ownership of the lands they use.   This will serve as key incentive to improved environmental stewardship and to improved family planning in the countryside.  Land mapping and distribution should encourage farmers’ adoption of good practices against land degradation and for food production.  Also, it should result in the long time cattle herders settling for a more rational, environment friendly farming system.  Although improved land policy is primordial, I am tempted to add that the current socioeconomic marasmus in African countries necessitates that this proceeds jointly with or be followed by a livestock development program aiming to raise income rapidly for the vast bulk of poor villagers.”

To read more responses, see:

Part 1Dave Andrews (USA), Dave Johnstone (Cameroon), & Pierre Castagnoli (Italy)
Part 2Paul Sinandja (Togo), Dov Pasternak (Niger), & Pascal Pulvery (France)
Part 3:  Christine McCulloch (UK), Hans R Herren (USA), & Amadou Niang.
Part 4Michel Koos (Netherlands), Don Seville (USA), & Ron Gretlarson
Part 5:  Shahul SalimRoger Leakey (Kenya), & Monty P Jones (Ghana)
Part 6Calestous Juma (USA), Ray Anderson (USA), & Rob Munro (Zambia)
Part 7Tom Philpott (USA), Grace Mwaura, & Thangavelu Vasantha Kumaran
Part 8Peter Mietzner (Namibia), Madyo Couto (Mozambique), & Norman Thomas Uphoff (USA)
Part 9Tilahun Amede (Ethiopia), Shree kumar Maharjan (Nepal), & Ashwani Vasishth (USA)
Part 10:  Mary Shawa (Malawi), Wayne S. Teel (USA), & Bell Okello (Kenya)
Part 11: Mark Wells (South Africa), Pashupati Chaudhary (USA), & Megan Putnam (Ghana)
Part 12David Wallinga (USA), Ysabel Vicente, & Esperance Zossou (Benin)
Part 13Susi Basith (Indonesia), Diana Husic (USA), & Carolina Cardona (Togo)
Part 14:  Rachel FriedmanJennifer Geist (USA), & Lowden Stoole
Part 15Antonio Requejo, Alexandra Spieldoch (USA), & Daniele Giovannucci (USA)
Part 16Mary Njenga (Kenya), Mabel Toribio,Makere Stewart-Harawira (Canada)
Part 17Dale Lewis (Zambia), Chris Ojiewo (Tanzania), & Molly Mattessich (USA)
Part 18Gregory Bowman (USA), Lucila Nunes de Vargas, & Caroline Smith
Part 19Tesfom Solomon (Sweden), Sahr Lebbie (USA), & Jenny Goldie (Austrialia)
Part 20Steven SweetVicki Lipski, & Viola Ransel
Part 21: Puspa R. TiwariJohan Staal (Netherlands), & Kevin Kamp (USA)
Part 22Steve Osofsky (USA), John Vickrey (USA), & Michael Levenston (Canada)
Part 23: Vasan (India), Excellent Hachileka (Zambia), Royce Gloria Androa (Uganda)

What is your answer? Email me at Dnierenberg@Worldwatch.org or tweet your response to @WorldWatchAg

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Nourishing the Planet in Gambia’s The Point

Check out this feature article in one of The Gambia’s largest circulating newspapers, The Point. While visiting with environmentally sustainable agriculture projects in Gambia’s capital city Banjul, Nourishing the Planet project co-director Danielle Nierenberg was interviewed by The Point staff. The article discusses NtP’s goals of portraying stories of hope and success from Africa and encouraging the exchange of working innovations between African farmers across the continent.

To read about one agricultural project that is working to improve livelihoods in The Gambia see:  Turning the Catch of the Day into Improved Livelihoods for the Whole Community.

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Celosia: Nature’s Prettiest Vegetable

By Amanda Stone

You may know it as that pretty ornamental flower in your garden, but did you know that Celosia could also be a delicious snack? This beautiful plant with flame-like flowers is actually a common and important food in parts of tropical Africa, its original home.

Photo Credit: J.M. Garg

Because of its flavor and nutritional value, Celosia is widely consumed in several parts of Africa. It is an especially important food in Nigeria, Benin and Congo because of its affinity for hot and humid climates, and it is also commonly eaten in Indonesia and India. The leaves, young stems, and flowers a can be made into soups and stews, served as a nutty-flavored side dish with meat or fish or with a cereal-based main course such as maize porridge. Celosia has a pleasant, mild flavor, and lacks the bitterness of other leafy vegetables.

Celosia grow easily, require little care, and often reseed themselves making them high yielding, cheap and simple to grow. Having proven widely tolerant to both tropical and dry conditions and usually unaffected by pests, diseases, or soil type, this crop is among the most flexible greens for harsh growing conditions.

In addition to their nutritional and aesthetic value, Celosia may also help repress striga, a parasitic weed which devastates other crops such as sorghum, millet and maize. Though the research on this trait is still far from clear, farmers call it “striga chaser”.

With the potential to increase food security, Celosia is valuable in more ways than one. When cultivated near homes, the colorful flowers will brighten villages and local cooks can also pluck off some leaves each day to add to dinner or for a snack.

Amanda Stone is Nourishing the Planet’s Communications Assistant.

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The Mother of All Traffic Jams

In quick order, China has climbed to the top of global rankings of producers and consumers of such key commodities as steel, aluminum, cement, and asphalt. These are all important materials for building cars, trucks, highways, and related infrastructure. In automobile production, China breezed past Germany (in 2006), the United States (2008), and then Japan (2009) to become the world’s largest automobile producer. If we include trucks and buses, China’s total motor vehicle sales in 2009 added up to 13 million vehicles, muscling aside the United States for the first time.

Is it any surprise that China now also has the unenviable distinction of being home to perhaps the worst traffic jam ever? Gridlock extending over a 100-kilometer stretch of the Beijing-Tibet Expressway formed on August 14. It is expected to last into the middle of September, when a major construction project on the adjacent National Expressway 110 is to be completed. (See Figure)

Source: English.xinhuanet.com

There is an ongoing mismatch between China’s rapidly multiplying fleet of cars and trucks, and the capacity of its roads and highways to handle the enormous flows of people and goods. China has created a massive road infrastructure. But just like Western countries found long ago, a new highway’s capacity is typically filled by the time it is opened to traffic. A “build, baby, build” approach will not work.

Part of the solution will lie in shifting a greater share of transport flows from road to rail. To some extent, this is happening. In the three decades since 1981, China spent 5.9 trillion Yuan ($860 billion) on highways, almost three times the $300 billion it spent on rail. But in more recent years, the country’s leadership decided to accelerate rail investments. In 2005–2010, rail infrastructure investments rose more than fivefold, whereas road infrastructure expenditures remained relatively flat. If China does not want to experience more of the epic traffic jams it currently faces, it will need to continue to shift its transportation priorities.

But Chinese innovators are not content with existing solutions. At the end of 2010, construction is to begin in Beijing’s Mentougou District on a pilot project variously called the “3D Fast Bus” or the “straddling bus.” A four-meter tall vehicle that accommodates up to 1,400 passengers would bypass cars stuck in traffic by in effect driving right above and around them. It seems like this is the transportation equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too.

Illustration and model of the proposed "straddling bus"

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Part 23: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding Directed?

Each day we run three of your responses to the question: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding Directed?

photo credit: Bernard Pollack

1. Vasan, India says:

“I am not sure whether i am the right person to answer this particular question about agricultural funding, for i am not aware of anything about Africa and Sub-Saharan region. But, by and large, I can answer this question based on the requirements of agricultural and allied agricultural practices in any dimension of climatic, geological and topographical conditions. Water: Rain water runoff should be checked completely by creating smaller water bodies depending on the amount of rainwater the area receives, catchment area and storage area.  This avoids the dependency on sub-surface or ground water resources where power is necessary to lift the water. Surface water utilization is a must where water is replenished and we can convert more land as wetlands where crops can be grown throughout the year maintaining the required cropping pattern and not affecting the fertility of the soil. Areas which cannot be converted into wetlands can be used to afforestation programme maintaining both bio-diversity and allied agricultural activities to produce forest crops like honey, spices and other forest related crops and orchards.

Marketing: For marketing, we have to revive and restore our original practice(as for as our country – India is concerned), a de-centralised approach.  All the villages surrounding a town or city used to be a self sustainable one except match boxes and salt whose production is restricted to the climatic and geological conditions suitable for their production. So, funding for creation of smaller water bodies and offering a de-centralised marketing infrastructure is a must for the Government.”

2. Excellent Hachileka, IUCN, Zambia says:

“More funding should go to small-scale irrigation along major river basins and conservation farming with agro-forestry for adapting agriculture to increasing rainfall variability, dry spells and shortening farming seasons in sub-Sahara Africa.”

3. Royce Gloria Androa, Uganda says:

“Invest in post-harvest handling processes and technologies that use solar energy for reducing losses by using cold stores for transportation from the gardens to the market, and in cooperatives and private/ public partnerships to handle post-harvest losses appropriately invest in abiotic/ biotic stress factor — develop resistant germ-plasm for major food security crops — invest in water management (drip irrigation,  micro sprinklers and treadle pumps)”

Part 1: Dave Andrews (USA), Dave Johnstone (Cameroon), & Pierre Castagnoli (Italy)
Part 2
: Paul Sinandja (Togo), Dov Pasternak (Niger), & Pascal Pulvery (France)
Part 3
Christine McCulloch (UK), Hans R Herren (USA), & Amadou Niang.
Part 4
: Michel Koos (Netherlands), Don Seville (USA), & Ron Gretlarson
Part 5
Shahul Salim, Roger Leakey (Kenya), & Monty P Jones (Ghana)
Part 6
: Calestous Juma (USA), Ray Anderson (USA), & Rob Munro (Zambia)
Part 7
: Tom Philpott (USA), Grace Mwaura, & Thangavelu Vasantha Kumaran
Part 8
: Peter Mietzner (Namibia), Madyo Couto (Mozambique), & Norman Thomas Uphoff (USA)
Part 9
: Tilahun Amede (Ethiopia), Shree kumar Maharjan (Nepal), & Ashwani Vasishth (USA)
Part 10Mary Shawa (Malawi), Wayne S. Teel (USA), & Bell Okello (Kenya)
Part 11
: Mark Wells (South Africa), Pashupati Chaudhary (USA), & Megan Putnam (Ghana)
Part 12
: David Wallinga (USA), Ysabel Vicente, & Esperance Zossou (Benin)
Part 13
: Susi Basith (Indonesia), Diana Husic (USA), & Carolina Cardona (Togo)
Part 14
Rachel Friedman, Jennifer Geist (USA), & Lowden Stoole
Part 15
: Antonio Requejo, Alexandra Spieldoch (USA), & Daniele Giovannucci (USA)
Part 16
: Mary Njenga (Kenya), Mabel Toribio, & Makere Stewart-Harawira (Canada)
Part 17: Dale Lewis (Zambia), Chris Ojiewo (Tanzania), & Molly Mattessich (USA)
Part 18
: Gregory Bowman (USA), Lucila Nunes de Vargas, & Caroline Smith
Part 19: Tesfom Solomon (Sweden), Sahr Lebbie (USA), & Jenny Goldie (Austrialia)
Part 20: Steven Sweet, Vicki Lipski, & Viola Ransel
Part 21: Puspa R. Tiwari, Johan Staal (Netherlands), & Kevin Kamp (USA)
Part 22: Steve Osofsky (USA), John Vickrey (USA), & Michael Levenston (Canada)

What is your answer? Email me at Dnierenberg@Worldwatch.org or tweet your response to @WorldWatchAg

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Part 22: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding Directed?

Each day we run three of your responses to the question: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding Directed?

Photo credit: Bernard Pollack

1. Steve Osofsky, Wildlife Health Policy, USA

“Full examination of opportunities that might enable the delinking of trade in livestock products from geographically defined animal disease status zonation is to be encouraged, as modern approaches to the management of transboundary animal diseases could potentially enable expanded international trade in livestock products from, for example, southern Africa to proceed safely while reducing the need for some of the disease control fences that currently preclude the connectivity required for transfrontier conservation success as currently envisioned by many SADC (Southern African Development Community) countries. Science-based shifts away from older disease management paradigms should result in an enabling environment for enhanced and diversified livelihood opportunities and regional economic growth related to benefits to and from both the livestock and environmental conservation sectors. Economic development that is based upon a diversified portfolio, including both livestock and wildlife activities, increases opportunities for resilience to threats like food insecurity and climate change.

The development of Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCAs) to further the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable development through the harmonization of transboundary natural resource management is a priority for SADC. Altogether, SADC’s existing and proposed transfrontier parks and TFCAs cover approximately 1,200,000 sq. km.- a huge area by any standard. A key economic driver behind TFCAs is nature-based tourism that seeks to maximize returns from marginal lands in a sector where southern Africa enjoys a global comparative advantage.  Nature-based tourism (photographic safaris, trophy hunting, etc.) now contributes about as much to the gross domestic product of southern Africa as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries combined – a remarkable and relatively recent development documented by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.  However, the management of wildlife and livestock diseases (including zoonoses – diseases transmissible between animals and people) within the larger transboundary landscapes is an  emerging policy issue of major concern to livestock production, associated access to export markets, and other sectors, including public health.  Livestock farming is, an important traditional way for communities in sSA to build and maintain wealth, not to mention attain food security.  Essentially, the TFCA concept and current internationally accepted approaches to the management of transboundary animal diseases (TADs) are largely incompatible. The TFCA concept promotes free movement of wildlife over large geographic areas, whereas TADs are controlled by vast fences to prevent movement of susceptible animals between areas where TADs occur and areas where they do not, and to similarly restrict trade in commodities derived from animals. This incompatibility between (a) current regulatory approaches for disease control and (b) the vision of vast conservation landscapes with fewer major fences needs to be reconciled now that SADC countries have chosen to pursue TFCA initiatives in the interest of regional risk-diversification of land-use options and livelihood opportunities. The AHEAD (Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development) Program works at the wildlife / livestock / human interface and strives to catalyze win-win opportunities related to food security, biodiversity conservation, poverty alleviation and enhanced livelihood diversification- all of which enhance resilience in the face of climate change. Thanks very much for all that you are doing on a critical set of issues.”

2. John Vickrey, USA

“Thank you for the opportunity to comment on agricultural funding in Africa. First, there is no single program to fit all food aid problems in Africa. Second, wealthy countries need to fund workable agricultural economic systems and move away from creating food aid dependency. Supporting local, sustainable farms and connecting farmers to reliable markets is paramount. Funding, at least in the interim, should be used to develop reliable food distribution systems from the farm to the local consumer. The long term solution is to connect local farms larger markets. Third, putting more effort into sustainable technologies is critical. We have idle college students who could be inventing the next wave of low cost, sustainable, agricultural equipment and shipping it to the third world. Can you imagine the excitement, sense of accomplishment students would get from partnering to solve real world problems? Worldwatch could educate and coordinate these efforts. Start by funding “Development Labs” in colleges.”

3. Michael Levenston, City Farmer – Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture, Canada

More funding should be given to urban agriculture groups who are working to open up vacant lands in cities for growing food. These can be groups working to start up more small household gardens, larger commercial market gardens, or allotment gardens where many people can grow food.


Part 1: Dave Andrews (USA), Dave Johnstone (Cameroon), & Pierre Castagnoli (Italy)
Part 2
: Paul Sinandja (Togo), Dov Pasternak (Niger), & Pascal Pulvery (France)
Part 3
Christine McCulloch (UK), Hans R Herren (USA), & Amadou Niang.
Part 4
: Michel Koos (Netherlands), Don Seville (USA), & Ron Gretlarson
Part 5
Shahul Salim, Roger Leakey (Kenya), & Monty P Jones (Ghana)
Part 6
: Calestous Juma (USA), Ray Anderson (USA), & Rob Munro (Zambia)
Part 7
: Tom Philpott (USA), Grace Mwaura, & Thangavelu Vasantha Kumaran
Part 8
: Peter Mietzner (Namibia), Madyo Couto (Mozambique), & Norman Thomas Uphoff (USA)
Part 9
: Tilahun Amede (Ethiopia), Shree kumar Maharjan (Nepal), & Ashwani Vasishth (USA)
Part 10Mary Shawa (Malawi), Wayne S. Teel (USA), & Bell Okello (Kenya)
Part 11
: Mark Wells (South Africa), Pashupati Chaudhary (USA), & Megan Putnam (Ghana)
Part 12
: David Wallinga (USA), Ysabel Vicente, & Esperance Zossou (Benin)
Part 13
: Susi Basith (Indonesia), Diana Husic (USA), & Carolina Cardona (Togo)
Part 14
Rachel Friedman, Jennifer Geist (USA), & Lowden Stoole
Part 15
: Antonio Requejo, Alexandra Spieldoch (USA), & Daniele Giovannucci (USA)
Part 16
: Mary Njenga (Kenya), Mabel Toribio, & Makere Stewart-Harawira (Canada)
Part 17: Dale Lewis (Zambia), Chris Ojiewo (Tanzania), & Molly Mattessich (USA)
Part 18
: Gregory Bowman (USA), Lucila Nunes de Vargas, & Caroline Smith
Part 19: Tesfom Solomon (Sweden), Sahr Lebbie (USA), & Jenny Goldie (Austrialia)
Part 20: Steven Sweet, Vicki Lipski, & Viola Ransel
Part 21: Puspa R. Tiwari, Johan Staal (Netherlands), & Kevin Kamp (USA)

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Part 21: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding Directed?

Each day we run three of your responses to the question: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding Directed?

Photo credit: Cathryn Kloetzli

1. Puspa R. Tiwari, PROLINNOVA, Nepal says:

“While talking about funding towards agriculture, I think it should be directed towards development of efficient food systems. For example niche to large scale food systems which helps to feed people in the particular region by reducing fuel consumption in transportation of goods. It reduces greenhouse gases which helps to bring climate resilient food system through decreasing climate extreme event vulnerability.”

2. Johan Staal, Agriprom, Netherlands says:

“I would like agricultural funding to be directed to collection and distribution centres and cooling facilities. I believe a major issue is the problem for small farmers to market their products and have access to large buyers in Europe for instance. Any country with sufficient production should have cooling warehouses where product can be collected, stored, loaded and distributed. Tanzania, for instance, has enough land for cash crop production but no infrastructure.”

3. Kevin Kamp, CARE, USA says:

“Funding should be directed towards the empowerment of small farmers, in particular women and youth, with the goal of building greater knowledge, social and financial capital to engage in more sustainable, intensified and diversified farming practices. Farming practices should focus on knowledge intensive agriculture systems which are more resilient, environmentally sustainable, locally appropriate and economic viable as opposed to chemically intensive. Funding should be directed at farming systems which address the multifaceted needs of farming households including food which supports appropriate feeding practices, income and markets which generate capital accumulation at the lowest possible levels.”

Part 1: Dave Andrews (USA), Dave Johnstone (Cameroon), & Pierre Castagnoli (Italy)
Part 2
: Paul Sinandja (Togo), Dov Pasternak (Niger), & Pascal Pulvery (France)
Part 3
Christine McCulloch (UK), Hans R Herren (USA), & Amadou Niang.
Part 4
: Michel Koos (Netherlands), Don Seville (USA), & Ron Gretlarson
Part 5
Shahul Salim, Roger Leakey (Kenya), & Monty P Jones (Ghana)
Part 6
: Calestous Juma (USA), Ray Anderson (USA), & Rob Munro (Zambia)
Part 7
: Tom Philpott (USA), Grace Mwaura, & Thangavelu Vasantha Kumaran
Part 8
: Peter Mietzner (Namibia), Madyo Couto (Mozambique), & Norman Thomas Uphoff (USA)
Part 9
: Tilahun Amede (Ethiopia), Shree kumar Maharjan (Nepal), & Ashwani Vasishth (USA)
Part 10Mary Shawa (Malawi), Wayne S. Teel (USA), & Bell Okello (Kenya)
Part 11
: Mark Wells (South Africa), Pashupati Chaudhary (USA), & Megan Putnam (Ghana)
Part 12
: David Wallinga (USA), Ysabel Vicente, & Esperance Zossou (Benin)
Part 13
: Susi Basith (Indonesia), Diana Husic (USA), & Carolina Cardona (Togo)
Part 14
Rachel Friedman, Jennifer Geist (USA), & Lowden Stoole
Part 15
: Antonio Requejo, Alexandra Spieldoch (USA), & Daniele Giovannucci (USA)
Part 16
: Mary Njenga (Kenya), Mabel Toribio, & Makere Stewart-Harawira (Canada)
Part 17: Dale Lewis (Zambia), Chris Ojiewo (Tanzania), & Molly Mattessich (USA)
Part 18
: Gregory Bowman (USA), Lucila Nunes de Vargas, and Caroline Smith
Part 19: Tesfom Solomon (Sweden), Sahr Lebbie (USA), & Jenny Goldie (Austrialia)
Part 20: Steven Sweet, Vicki Lipski, & Viola Ransel

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As China Slashes Rare Earths Production, the US Should Prepare to Get its Hands Dirty

Yttrium, a rare earth element

Over the past few months, elected officials, military personnel, and political and industry observers began to question whether the United States should lessen its reliance on Chinese “rare earths.” Now, with China having just announced steep cuts in its export quota for these materials for the second half of 2010 and the foreseeable future, the United States, and the rest of the world, will have little choice.

Rare earths are some of those elements with the funny names that you ignored in high school chemistry: yttrium, scandium, and the 15 lanthanides (one of those long rows of elements that often gets separated from the rest of the periodic table). They are now emerging from obscurity because of the crucial role they will play in the green economy. From wind turbines to hybrid cars, superconductors to televisions, rare earths are present throughout current and future industry. Moreover, the U.S. dependence on Chinese production is real, with 91 percent of U.S. rare earths imports in 2005–08 originating there.  Last year, China produced 97 percent of the world’s rare earths.

China plans to reduce its export quota for rare earths by 72 percent in the second half of 2010 compared to the second half of 2009. For the first time, demand outside China will exceed supply. And global demand, especially for use in metal alloys and magnets, will continue to grow rapidly; annual growth over the next four years is projected at 8-11% .

The reduction of the quota is only part of China’s reorganization of its rare earths mining industry. The government has also announced that only a few state-owned enterprises will be given mining rights and that it will crack down on what it describes as “rampant” illegal mining and exporting. In part because of this illicit trade, Chinese officials claim, the price of rare earths is too low, and legitimate producers have seen losses of profit. China will also be introducing a unified pricing mechanism for rare earths in the main production regions.

Other factors may be in play as well. Mining rare earths has a significant environmental impact, and the operators of the unregulated mines that are common in China are presumably not very concerned with limiting the damage. At least one industry observer believes that once China has effectively reined in illegal mining and crafted more effective environmental regulations, it will resume competing on the international rare earths market. Other analysts aren’t so sure. Some see China’s export cuts as a move to strengthen the position of domestic companies in these growing industries. The drop in supply combined with export tariffs of up to 25 percent could make it impossible for clean energy companies—for example, electric car manufacturers—outside China to compete without the development of alternative sources of rare earths.

China’s rare earths reserves constitute only roughly one-third of the world total, so there are other known rare earths out there, and undiscovered resources are thought to be large as well. The United States has the second largest reserves after China, and Australia and India have significant deposits as well. It is almost unanimous among analysts in the field that the United States, and the rest of the world, can meet their long-term rare earths needs even with the decreased supply from China.

It is the short term that is raising concern. The United States has no national stockpile of rare earths, and active mining stopped years ago, due largely to high labor costs and the increased costs associated with environmental regulations. And the actions that the U.S. government is considering—initiating a World Trade Organization dispute with China and passing legislation subsidizing domestic mining—wouldn’t have an immediate effect. It will take time for domestic mines—including the Mountain Pass mine in Southern California  (once the world’s largest) and possible sites in Idaho and Wyoming—to begin producing, and the supply chain needed to turn the raw materials into useful products is completely absent. There are private stockpiles that U.S. companies can draw from, and production in Australia, Malaysia, India, and other supplier countries will likely increase to cover the immediate shortfall. With supply having outpaced demand for so long, there should be enough rare earths to go around. But it seems inevitable that prices will rise.

It also seems inevitable that rare earths mining will return to the United States sooner rather than later.  Molycorp Minerals, the owner of the Mountain Pass mine has already announced plans (backed by Goldman Sachs) to reopen the mine. Developers in Wyoming believe that the location can be producing by 2015. With the U.S. military in need of a reliable supply of rare earths, these ventures seem unlikely to fail. Rising prices will allow U.S. operators to again become competitive, and it’s hard to imagine money—or environmental regulations—standing in the way of extracting minerals of such strategic importance to the military.

All of this will likely happen in spite of major environmental concerns. Chemical processing at Mountain Pass was stopped in 1998 after a federal investigation discovered 60 unreported radioactive wastewater spills. But the reopening may not be something that the environmental community should fight. Of course, there should be careful monitoring of the mine’s activities. But if the United States is going to rely on advanced technology to mitigate climate change and reduce fossil fuel consumption, then it can’t refuse to do the dirty work.

There are currently no viable alternatives to rare earths, and being unwilling to mine in the United States—especially if the country can effectively monitor it and it is economically viable—seems like the worst kind of NIMBYism. This isn’t Drill, Baby, Drill; this is being realistic about what widespread adoption of clean technology will require. And looking at environmental quality in the aggregate, regulated mining in the United States is undoubtedly better than illicit and haphazard mining in China.

While China’s decision to drastically cut its rare earths exports is not likely to trigger a worldwide shortage in the long run, it will cause an industry transformation. Prices of rare earths will rise, which will in turn affect prices of many technologies that we are counting on to build a clean energy future. All the more reason to start mining.

Worldwatch has begun to examine the issue of strategic material inputs as part of its Energy Security 2.0 initiative. You can find our first policy paper on implications for U.S. national security here.

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Seeing the World in China: An Interview with Haibing Ma

In this interview we talk with Haibing Ma, the China Program Manager at the Worldwatch Institute, about the increasingly large role that China is playing in global agriculture development.

Haibing Ma is an expert in climate change policy analysis and development and international environmental policy. A native Chinese, his primary focus is on China-related topics. Before coming to Worldwatch, Ma was an International Policy Associate at the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP), where he played a leading role in managing several China-related projects.He holds a B.A. in Public Administration from Zhejiang University in China and an M.A. in Public Policy Analysis from Beijing University. He is currently completing his doctoral degree at the University of Maryland, College Park, where his primary research focus is on waste electric and electronic equipment management issues in China.

(Photo credit: The Worldwatch Institute)

Please outline the China Program at Worldwatch. What are your main projects right now?

I think of the China Program is an overarching brand and inside of this program is climate and energy and also agriculture and food, also transforming cultures—essentially all of the other programs that are relevant to China, and can be integrated into the program, are under the umbrella of the China program.

Right now we are focusing on two projects. One is focused on a general discussion of China’s potential to contribute to a green economy with a special focus on green job opportunities. From my personal experience talking with Chinese officials, they were really keen on this one. They saw this as something that could really help them make decisions about future development strategies. It is a very general concept and I hope in this report to establish the Worldwatch role in defining the” green economy” concept, just like we did for “sustainable development” back in 1970s. We’d like to put the Worldwatch brand on this. There are a lot of different opinions about green economy, low carbon economy, green growth, etc., and maybe we can offer something unique.

The second focus is a discussion of what should be China’s role in shaping sustainable global development. The focus will be on the impact of China’s shifting development pattern on other developing countries. We are trying, in a sense, to create a “south to south” dialogue. Given China’s increasing dependence on foreign based natural resources—they are buying resources such as metal and energy from other developing countries, for example— its policy decisions have a growing influence on sustainability throughout the developing world. How can we enhance China’s leading role and how can we engage China to help the rest of the developing world in alleviating poverty and other discrepancies? We’ll look at China’s green transition as a model and explore its implications on the international level. We want to see what experiences and lessons we can draw on from China.

Also, I would like to further integrate other programs like water and energy into the China Program because I think that is a field that deserves more attention. Water needs, and water impact, especially given China’s tremendous new energy development planning, are increasingly important now. It’s a challenge for China to have enough water resources to support its ambitious energy plan while also providing for residential and agricultural water needs. Current energy development plans are not taking into account the population’s water needs, so we sense the need to shed a light on that.

The gas program is also very important for China. In the next five years, china wants to double its share of gas in the total energy mix. It’s an impressive target but it might need some out-of-the-box practices to achieve it. We’d like to work with Chinese partners to explore the potential role of unconventional gas. So, there is a lot of potential to grow that aspect of the China program, as well.

Why is it important to focus on China apart from other countries?

China in many ways is a unique country. It has such a massive economy and population. A  recent report stated that China’s GDP has surpassed that of Japan, becoming the world’s second largest. And in terms of energy consumption, and green house gas emissions, China is viewed by many as the world’s largest as well. But in terms of the per capita figures, China is still very much a developing country. Within this country you have the southeastern coastal cities that are almost like western metropolitans; but in the inland, rural areas, people are really poor. There are still about 40 million people living under the poverty line. China, in terms of development standards, is facing most of the problems of both developing countries and developed countries at the same time. Given the size of China’s economy and its potential impact on the world, it’s crucial to have a strong understanding of the country. China’s efforts in its green transition, if successful, will significantly encourage other countries to pursue an environmentally sustainable development path.

In what ways can the Food and Agriculture work at Worldwatch partner with the China Program and why is this collaboration important?

Much of China in the northwest is mountainous or desert and not suitable for large-scale agriculture. At the same time, the pace of urban expansion is accelerating. As a result, agriculture development and food security in China is a growing concern and could have a big impact on other countries.

During the industrialization process, China’s agricultural and food sector wasn’t given the attention it deserved. At the current stage, I think, when you talk about development strategy, you can’t ignore the population’s basic needs, not to mention that China has a huge population that has to be sustained by a well designed and sophisticated agriculture system. Any national food insecurity will eventually lead to internal social instability, and in turn might trigger international problems just based on, as we already discussed, the huge international role China already plays. We have already seen conflicts over food sensitive resources like water, in fact, at the southern border. The river sources, the building of dams and contaminated run-off, for example, if loosely planned and controlled, could have tremendous impact on neighboring areas in terms of water availability and human health.  So agriculture and food availability is incredibly important both within China and in determining how China interacts with other countries.  There is clearly a lot to be done in our China program together with food and agriculture and I look forward to integrating these possibilities into a sustainable China framework in the near future.

To read more about China and the role it play in agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, see: Is There a ‘Win-Win’ Solution to Land Acquisitions?, China’s Agricultural Development: Lessons for Africa?, In Ethiopia, Getting to Market on Chinese Roads, and Reducing Emissions: it Not Just About Climate Change.

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