Year in Review: 10 Things You Should Know about Food and Agriculture in 2012

By Sophie Wenzlau and Laura Reynolds

Although Aunt Mabel’s Christmas trifle might top your list of current food concerns, there are a few other things about U.S. food and agriculture worth considering as you look back on 2012, and forward to 2013:

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1. Farm Bill Deadlock. The 2008 Farm Bill, which established the most recent round of policies and support programs for the U.S. food system, expired in September. Although the Senate has passed a new version of the bill, the House has not; congressional leaders are deadlocked on the issues of cutbacks in crop subsidies and reductions in food stamps. If the House does not reach an agreement, U.S. farm policy will revert to the last “permanent” Farm Bill, passed in 1949. With 1949 policy, many innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture (like low-interest loans for newfemale, or minority farmers) could be forced to shut down; the price for dairy products could double in January; and antiquated farm subsidies could increase by billions of dollars, likely leading to greater overproduction of commodity crops like corn and soybeans (to the benefit of agribusiness and the detriment of small and medium-sized farms).

2. Enduring Drought. Although media attention has faded, nearly 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land continues to experience drought conditions, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), making this year’s drought more extensive than any experienced since the 1950s. The drought is expected to make food more expensive in 2013 (the USDA predicts a 3 to 4 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index), particularly meat and dairy products. To boost agriculture’s resilience to drought and other forms of climate variability, farmers can increase crop diversity, irrigate more efficiently, adopt agroecological practices, and plant trees in and around farms. Consumers can support small-scale farmers, eat less meat, and pressure the government to enact food policies that support sustainable agriculture.

3. Acceleration of Both the Food Sovereignty Movement and Agribusiness Lobbying. Achieving food sovereignty, or a food system in which producers and consumers are locally connected and food is produced sustainably by small farms, is increasingly a priority for communities in the United States and worldwide. According to the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory, the total number of farmers markets in the United States increased by 9.6 percent between 2011 and 2012, while winter markets increased by 52 percent. But also accelerating is agribusiness lobbying: campaign contributions from large food production and processing groups—including American Crystal Sugar Company, the Altria GroupAmerican Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Beef AssociationCalifornia DairiesMonsantoSafeway Inc., and Cargill—increased from $68.3 million in the 2008 election cycle to $78.4 million in 2012, a 12.8 percent change.

4. Failed GM Labeling Bill in California. Although 47 percent of Californians voted in favor of Prop 37, a measure that would have required food companies and retailers to label food containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients, the initiative failed to pass in November. According to California Watch, food and agribusiness companies including The Hershey Co., Nestlé USA, Mars Inc., and Monsanto contributed $44 million in opposition of the initiative, while those in favor of GM labeling contributed $7.3 million. Also notable: the first independent, peer-reviewed study of GM food safety, published in the August issue of the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, found that rats fed low-levels of Monsanto’s maize NK603for a period of two years (a rat’s average lifespan) suffered from mammary tumors and severe kidney and liver damage. Although the science is not yet conclusive, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should urge consumers to familiarize themselves with the potential health risks of GM food consumption, and should conduct additional studies.

5. Corn Ethanol Found to Be Environmentally Unfriendly. study released by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in September found that the increased production of corn for ethanol creates environmental problems like soil acidification and the pollution of lakes and rivers. Although corn has long ruled the biofuels industry (ethanol accounted for 98 percent of domestic biofuel production in 2011), its relative energy-conversion inefficiency and sensitivity to high temperatures—in addition to its environmental footprint—make it an unsustainable long-term energy option. Perennial bioenergy crops like willow, sycamore, sweetgum, jatropha, and cottonwood, however, grow quickly; require considerably less fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide application than annual crops; can thrive on marginal land (i.e., steep slopes); and are often hardier than annual alternatives like corn and soy.

6. Red Meat Production Increases. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, while domestic beef production isprojected to decline in 2012, overall monthly red meat production is up from 2011 levels (due to an increase in pork, lamb, and mutton production). Americans eat a lot of meat: per capita, more than almost anyone else in the world. In 2009, the most recent year for which U.S. Census consumption data is available, the United States consumed nearly 5 million tons more beef than China, although the Chinese population was four times larger. U.S. consumers could significantly reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions by eating less red meat (the production of which is input intensive). A study published in theJournal of Environmental Science and Technology suggests that switching from a diet based on red meat and dairy to one based on chicken, fish, and eggs could reduce the average household’s yearly emissions by an amount equivalent to driving a 25 mile per gallon automobile 5,340 miles (approximately the distance from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and back).

7. Stanford Study on Organics Leads to Emotional Debate. A Stanford study titled “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives?” provoked emotional debate in September. The study found that the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods, although it also found that consumption of organic foods can reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The study’s results were misinterpreted by many, including members of the media, to imply that organic food is not “healthier” than conventional food. In reality, the study calls into question whether organic food is more nutritious than conventional food, and affirms that organics are indeed less pesticide-ridden than conventional alternatives (the primary reason many consumers buy organic).

8. World Food Prize Recognizes Water-Saving Potential of Drip Irrigation. In October, the World Food Prize was awarded to Israeli scientist Daniel Hillel in honor of his contributions to modern drip irrigation technology. Drip irrigation is the precise application of water to plant roots via tiny holes in pipes, allowing a controlled amount of water to drip into the ground. This precision avoids water loss due to evaporation, enables plants to absorb water at their roots (where they need it most), and allows farmers to water only those rows or crops they want to, in lieu of an entire field. Drip irrigation can enhance plant growth, boost crop yields, and improve plant nutritional quality, while minimizing water waste, according to multiple sources (Cornell University ecologists, and a study conducted by the government of Zimbabwe, among others). Agriculture account for 70 percent of water use worldwide; numerous organizations, including the Pacific Institute, have argued that the efficient and conservative use of water in agriculture is a top priority, especially as overuse and climate change threaten to exacerbate situations of water scarcity.

9. Rio+20 Affirms Commitment to Sustainable Development in AgricultureThe Future We Wantthe non-binding agreement produced at the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference in June, acknowledges that food security and nutrition have become pressing global challenges, and affirms international commitment to enhancing food security and access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food for present and future generations. In the document, the international community urges the development of multilateral strategies to promote the participation of farmers, especially smallholder farmers (including women) in agricultural markets; stresses the need to enhance sustainable livestock production; and recognizes the need to manage the risks associated with high and volatile food prices and their consequences for smallholder farmers and poor urban dwellers around the world. But overall, the agreement was heralded as a failure by many groups, including Greenpeace, Oxfam, and the World Wildlife Fund. According to Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace, “We were promised the ‘future we want’ but are now being presented with a ‘common vision’ of a polluter’s charter that will cook the planet, empty the oceans, and wreck the rain forests…This is not a foundation on which to grow economies or pull people out of poverty, it’s the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development model.”

10. White House Calls for More Investment in Agricultural Research and Innovation. A new report, released by an independent, presidentially appointed advisory group earlier this month, argues that the federal government should launch a coordinated effort to boost American agricultural science by increasing public investment and rebalancing the USDA’s research portfolio. The report cautions that U.S. agriculture faces a number of challenges that are poised to become much more serious in years to come: the need to manage new pests, pathogens, and invasive plants; increase the efficiency of water use; reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture; adapt to a changing climate; and accommodate demands for bioenergy—all while continuing to produce safe and nutritious food at home and for those in need abroad. Overall, the report calls for an increase in U.S. investment in agricultural research by a total of $700 million per year, to nurture a new “innovation ecosystem” capable of leveraging the best of America’s diverse science and technology enterprise for advancements in agriculture.

Although they might not be sexy, agricultural issues are worth caring about. The way we choose to grow, process, distribute, consume, and legislate on behalf of food can affect everything from public health, to greenhouse gas emissions, to global food availability, to water quality, to the ability of our food system to withstand shocks like floods and droughts. By familiarizing ourselves with these and other food issues, we as consumers can make informed decisions in both the grocery store and the voting booth, and can generate the action needed to move our food system in a healthy, equitable, and sustainable direction in 2013.

Sophie Wenzlau and Laura Reynolds are Food and Agriculture Staff Researchers at the Worldwatch Institute.

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Offering Thanks at the End of 2012

There is a lot to be thankful for in 2012. The Sustainable Prosperity Project, which Worldwatch began in 2011 as an effort to help shape the Rio+20 summit this past June, has had a number of successes in mapping out key elements of sustainable prosperity, from what the green economy would look like to how to degrow overdeveloped economies, from how corporations should look in the future to how to reform local and international governance. While this project will now come to a close, hopefully you’ll find the ideas generated during this year–discussed in detail in State of the World 2012, in news articles stemming from the report, and the Sustainable Prosperity blog–useful in coming years.

But before this project closes, we do want to list some of the successes of the year. First of course, were the many opportunities to discuss our research, at the Rio+20 conference, at the Stockholm+40 briefings in Sweden, through the help of partners in Milan, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Washington, Berlin, São Paulo, and in fora like the International Degrowth Conference. Through these we talked directly with policymakers like the German Science and Technology minister, the Finnish Environmental Minister, and the former environmental minister of Brazil, Marina Silva.

Second were the opportunities to share our report findings in other languages. Thanks go to our partners in producing translations of the report in over a dozen languages including Portuguese, Spanish, German, Korean, Japanese, Finnish, French, Italian, and Taiwanese. Third, were the many opportunities to spread our message in the media: an excellent series in CSRWire, several strong op-eds including one on economic and environmental prosperity and one on biodiversity in IPS and one on economic degrowth in (of all places) the Wall Street Journal. Needless to say, the comments on that op-ed weren’t all that positive!

And let's not forget the most important offering of our gratitude–to the Earth for sustaining our burgeoning human population for another year.

We also want to lay out our many thanks. Our gratitude, first and foremost, goes to the Ford Foundation who made this project possible. Not only did it provide the generous support that made the activities around the book possible, but a number of chapters drew directly from a series of “White Papers” commissioned by Senior Program Officer Don Chen for the Rio+20 conference. We also thank others who have collaborated with us—our publishing partners, the authors of the many report and blog articles, Sustainable Prosperity Project Fellow Antonia Sohns, and research interns Alison Singer and Tucker Hirsch. Thanks to everyone for all your help!

While this blog will now wrap up, we will of course keep this website live, with videos, discussion guide, blog archives, and as a special year end gift, two additional chapters available free for download. You can now read Worldwatch President Robert Engelman’s chapter “Nine Population Strategies to Stop Short of 9 Billion,” and Worldwatch Institute-Europe Director Bo Normander’s chapter “Biodiversity: Combating the Sixth Mass Extinction.” We hope you enjoy both of these chapters if you haven’t read them already!

Thanks for reading the Sustainable Prosperity blog this year and get ready for Worldwatch’s new blog, “Is Sustainability Still Possible?,” which will replace this and the Transforming Cultures blog. The new blog will continue to offer positive visions of how to transform cultures, economies and societies to get to truly sustainable prosperity. But it will also provide a new element, namely how to prepare for a disruptive ecological transition, which every year gets a bit more probable as we dilly-dally with implementing the solutions we know we need to pursue. The new blog will be available here—starting in 2013. Thanks for reading!

–Erik Assadourian and Michael Renner, Sustainable Prosperity Project Directors

Jamaica: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Worldwatch's Shakuntala Makhijani presents early findings of the Sustainable Energy Roadmap for Jamaica.

Recently, members of Worldwatch’s Climate & Energy program traveled to Kingston, Jamaica to conduct a Stakeholder Consultation for the ongoing Sustainable Energy Roadmap project. The workshop comprised a morning session where the Roadmap’s early findings were presented to members of the country’s electricity sector followed by an afternoon dialogue addressing some of the key questions at the heart of the team’s ongoing research. The consultation came at a very key time as Jamaica is in the midst of some significant changes in the electricity sector while it faces an ongoing energy crisis.

The Sustainable Energy Roadmap for Jamaica is part of a multi-year project sponsored by the International Climate Initiative of the German Ministry of Environment. Worldwatch is examining recently assessed renewable resource potential, current energy policy frameworks, the potential for adding energy efficiency measures, technical challenges to renewable energy integration and underlying economic factors to try and help decision makers understand the choices available for making the country’s electricity sector more sustainable. Not surprisingly, the country has a tremendous solar resource, an average of 5 to 7 kilowatt-hours per meter squared per day (kWh/m2/day), similar to the Southwest of the United States. It also has strong wind potential including some significant locations off the Southeast coast of the island.

Early results of a Levelized Cost of Electricity for Jamaica using the World Bank's ESMAP modeling tool.

Early research has also yielded some interesting economic results. Using the Model for Electricity Technology Assessment (META) from the World Bank’s ESMAP program, Worldwatch has generated a levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) showing the cost of energy from various fuel sources. However, the model also allows for calculating external costs associated with fossil fuel use. This analysis shows wind coming in at a very competitive price (around US $0.11 per kWh) as opposed to oil and diesel generation (ranging from about US $0.22 to $0.35 per kWh). Comparatively, liquefied natural gas (LNG) comes in at around US $0.12 per kWh and, as Worldwatch has mentioned previously, is a likely solution to the persistent problem of variability that comes with renewable energy generation.

The workshop concluded with a look at the policy framework that will be necessary to achieve the aggressive – but doable – goal of seeing 30 percent of Jamaica’s energy mix come from renewable sources by 2030. Obviously renewable energy generation should be at the heart of all future planning and, with the country’s forward-looking energy plan, Jamaica has a solid long-term plan in place. However, an efficient and well-planned structure to carry out the energy plan will also have to exist, and right now, it appears the country is having difficulty in this area.

Earlier this year, the government of Jamaica removed itself from the process of bringing 480 megawatts (MW) of LNG capacity to the island. The project, which has been talked about for more than ten years, is intended to replace old, inefficient generation plants with newer technology that requires a much more economical fuel source. The island’s lone electricity utility, Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS), won the bid to move the project forward and is now trying to resolve the dilemma of securing a gas source at a price competitive enough to make the project profitable. Having waited so long, it appears that will not be resolved soon and the LNG capacity, which was supposed to come online this year, is now being estimated to arrive in 2015.

The renewable energy policy landscape for Jamaica was further complicated when the Jamaican government rescinded an order that gave the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ) exclusive right to develop renewable energy projects. Shortly thereafter, Jamaica’s Office of Utility Regulation (OUR) was given the responsibility of procuring 115 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy generating capacity through a request for proposal (RFP) process. In an effort to satisfy the quota as quickly as possible, the OUR suspended a provision that exempts from a public tendering process renewable energy projects smaller than 25 MW and whose electricity would be sold to JPS. This decision has received considerable pushback from some local groups who claim it will only add to the bureaucracy of bringing renewable energy investment to the island. The OUR feels its decision will lead to a more competitive bidding process and better management of meeting the 115 MW quota.

These changes took place while a proposed Feed-In Tariff, which had been making its way through the Jamaican Parliament, was quietly shelved. This policy instrument would have set a price floor for electricity generated from various renewable sources and provided more certainty for potential investors. Instead, the prices designed for the tariff are now being used as a cap. The OUR is expecting that projects, subject to the fore mentioned competitive bidding process, will come in under the defined price ceiling.

Another level of uncertainty was added to the electricity sector when the Jamaican Supreme Court invalidated the transmission and distribution monopoly enjoyed by JPS. The utility and the Jamaican government are appealing the ruling even though Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell has openly called for dismantling the monopoly. While not directly related to renewable energy, this adds to the confusion that keeps renewable energy investors at bay.

Clearly, Jamaica still has a long road to travel to realize a more sustainable energy future. Fortunately our Sustainable Energy Roadmap continues to strengthen the argument for a more proactive and aggressive pursuit of renewable energy use in the country. What remains to be seen is if larger factors like government coordination and legal frameworks can be implemented to make the transition as smooth and as efficient as possible.

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Hungry for Change: Five Blogs Every U.S. Food Activist Should Follow

By Sophie Wenzlau

Blogs are a dynamic medium to share and learn information about topics related to sustainable agriculture (e.g., rooftop gardening, Farm to School programs, and agricultural policy). Today, Nourishing the Planet recommends five blogs that provide useful information and insightful commentary on current issues in sustainable agriculture in the United States—blogs every food activist should follow.

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1. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Blog 

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities.

NSAC publishes weekly blogs on agricultural policy as it relates to topics such as the U.S. Farm Bill, beginning farmers, Farm to School programs, agriculture appropriations, minority farmers, and organic agriculture. NSAC envisions an agricultural system where “a safe, nutritious, ample, and affordable food supply is produced by a legion of family farmers who make a decent living pursuing their trade, while protecting the environment and contributing to the strength and stability of their communities.”

Recent posts you won’t want to miss include: Strengthening Policy for Soil Health and a Food Secure World, Path to the 2012 Farm Bill: Is a Deal Possible and What Would A Good Deal Look Like?, and What’s at Stake: Energy Savings and Renewable Energy for Producers and Rural Businesses.

2. The Seedstock Blog

Seedstock is an organization focused on innovation and sustainability in agriculture; it promotes agricultural startup companies, university research, urban agriculture initiatives, and farmers employing innovative agricultural techniques.

The organization publishes an informative daily blog on topics related to agricultural innovation and sustainability, current events, and sustainable farms. Recent posts include: National Farmers Market Directory Sees 52 Percent Spike in Winter Listings, Hydroponic Urban Ag Startup Seeks to Create Scalable, Sustainable and Affordable Model to Feed Cities, and N.C. State CEFS Report Lays Out Strategies to Reduce Environmental Impact of Outdoor Hog Production.

3. City Farmer News

City Farmer News, an organization based in Vancouver, Canada, encourages urbanites to plant food gardens in lieu of grassy lawns. The organization believes that “shoemakers, fashion models, computer geeks, politicians, lawyers, teachers, chefs…all city dwellers…can grow food at home after work in back yards, community gardens or on flat roofs.”

The City Farmer blog is a collection of stories about urban farmers from around the world. It is an excellent resource for anyone interested in urban farming and urban agricultural policy.

4. The Environmental Working Group Blog 

The mission of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a lobby and research organization, is to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment. The organization is perhaps best known for criticizing the continuation of subsidies to big agribusinesses.

The EWG food blog provides a critical perspective on topics like the U.S. Farm Bill, school nutrition, local food, and food system transparency. Recent posts include: Americans Eat Their Weight in Genetically Engineered Food, Dairy’s Downward Spiral a Consequence of Broken Biofuels Policy, and California Boosts Funding Opportunities for a New Generation of Sustainable Farmers and Local, Healthy Food.

5. Civil Eats

Civil Eats is a daily news source for critical thought about the U.S. food system. The organization, founded in 2009, is a community resource of more than 100 contributors who are, “active participants in the evolving food landscape from Capitol Hill to Main Street.” Civil Eats is committed to building socially and economically just communities by promoting sustainable agriculture.

The blog is divided into sub-topics: business and technology, eating culture, energy policy, environment, food access, food policy, grow your own, health, in the kitchen, life on the farm, re-localize, and take action. It also features multiple blog series, such as Young Farmers Unite and Local Eats.

Other notable agriculture blog sites are: Wasted Food, U.S. Food Policy, La Via Campesina, Yale Sustainable Food Project, Think Forward, and Food Politics.

Sophie Wenzlau is a staff researcher with the Worldwatch Institute.  

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For Vulnerable Regions, Renewable Energy Is Key to Climate Adaptation

Renewable energy development is critical to climate adaptation efforts for numerous reasons, including its minimal use of increasingly scarce water resources. (Source: ClimateTechWiki).

For countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change—especially developing countries—the lack of urgency in the recently ended United Nations climate talks failed to reflect the reality back home. In many of these places, the effects of climate change are already taking their toll on social and economic development, not to mention human lives. So it’s no surprise that throughout the halls and meeting rooms of the 18th Conference of the Parties in Doha, Qatar, the most vulnerable countries made it abundantly clear that—for them—adaptation, not mitigation, is the number-one priority.

The impacts of climate change are mounting. Shifting rainfall patterns are already affecting Kenya’s agricultural sector, and the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events are necessitating rebuilding in numerous Caribbean countries. But unfortunately, both adaptation and energy, a critical area for development, are consistently shortchanged in climate negotiations. Of the “fast-start financing” provided by Germany in 2010 and 2011, only 28 percent was allocated for adaptation projects, while mitigation received 48 percent of the funds (the rest went to REDD+ and multipurpose activities).

Meanwhile, the energy sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and the emission reduction opportunities that the sector presents, hardly made it into the recent discussions. When renewable energy is brought up, it is most often in the context of mitigation, highlighting how a shift away from fossil fuel-fired power generation can reduce emissions and slow further climate change.

Yet for the most vulnerable countries, the focus is increasingly on how to continue social and economic development in the face of an already changing climate. And this is where renewable energy can contribute. Numerous synergies exist between distributed renewable energy systems and adaptation efforts, with renewable energy development providing both development benefits and adaptation services.

Recent events demonstrate the adaptation benefits of renewables. As Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in the northeastern United States last month, it was the wind and solar power plants that weathered the storm and were back online quickly. Nuclear and fossil fuel plants, having been shut down for precautionary safety, took days or even weeks to resume operations. In countries with less-developed emergency response procedures than the United States (such as some of the Caribbean countries pounded by Sandy before she touched down in New Jersey), this rapid response time would be crucial for making sure that critical institutions like hospitals and water treatment facilities have power to continue operating.

In addition to adapting to the destructive power of hurricanes and severe storms, renewable energy can temper some of the impacts of prolonged, severe drought. In a 2009 analysis, the Energy, Environment, and Development Network for Africa (AFREPREN/FWD) examined the effects of ongoing drought on Kenya’s electricity sector, which relies on large hydropower (typically not considered a form of sustainable energy) for more than 60 percent of generation.

The drought caused a 25 percent reduction in hydropower capacity, prompting the government to turn to expensive thermal generation to cover the resulting power deficit—at the cost of US $442 million, or nearly 1.5 percent of Kenya’s GDP. AFREPREN calculated that this $442 million could have built 295 megawatts of renewable energy generation, or twice the generating capacity lost from reduced hydropower. In the face of more severe, prolonged droughts due to climate change, regions that invest in renewable energy systems today could avoid some of the more devastating economic and social effects of such catastrophes.

Renewable energy provides benefits for water-scarce regions as well. Fossil fuel generation consumes vastly more water than electricity from wind or solar photovoltaics—both in the extraction and refining processes for the fuels themselves and in the actual power plant operations. In the United States, thermoelectric power plants withdrew as much water as the entire agricultural sector in 2005. This water is needed mainly for cooling, and if it is unavailable, thermoelectric plants have little choice but to shut down. Wind and solar photovoltaic systems, in contrast, use negligible amounts of water in operation and have no fuel-extraction processes upstream.

It’s true that some renewable energy sources, such as biofuels and geothermal, are also water intensive, but these technologies can be implemented when and where it makes sense. The bottom line is that, given its high water demand, fossil fuel power may be a short-lived investment. In water-scarce regions, and with the prospect of increasing water scarcity, shifting to low-water-consuming renewable energy as opposed to fossil fuel power could be the difference between frequent blackouts and reliable energy access, while continuing to ensure the availability of adequate water resources.

The benefits of providing energy access to underserved populations have been well documented. But it is critical to remind ourselves that the way in which we provide energy will affect our future as well. In the face of a changing climate, renewable energy offers the prospects of both the energy access that everyone deserves and a stronger buffer against the global effects of climate change that many are already experiencing.

For the countries already dealing with the impacts of a changing climate, adaptation and development are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Smart investment in clean energy development can provide benefits toward both goals.

Reese Rogers is a MAP Sustainable Energy Fellow at Worldwatch Institute. 

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Growing City Populations Face Unique Challenges

Smokey Mountain in Manila (courtesy of Getty Images)

The world’s urban population is expected to grow by 2.6 billion people between 2011 and 2050, bringing the total number of urbanites from 3.5 billion to 6.3 billion, according to new research conducted for Vital Signs Online. This urban expansion will be especially burdensome for developing countries, where 82 percent of the world’s population currently lives.

Although the developing world is less urbanized than the industrial world in relative terms, developing countries are home to an estimated 1.54 billion more people. In absolute terms, the developing world is projected to add approximately 2.45 billion people to its cities by 2050, while the industrial world is due to add just 170 million.

Within the developing world, the vast majority of this urban growth is projected to occur in Asia and Africa. Asia far outstrips Africa in total population, with 4.2 billion people in 2011 compared with Africa’s 1 billion. But these regions are also the least urbanized areas on Earth: Asia’s population was 45 percent urban in 2011, and Africa’s was only 40 percent urban. In Latin America and the Caribbean, by contrast, 78 percent of the regions’ 599 million people live in cities.

A characteristic feature of Asian urbanization is the prevalence of “megacities” that are home to more than 10 million people. In 2011, there were 23 such cities worldwide, 13 of which were Asian. By 2025, the total number of megacities is expected to reach 37—with 21 in Asia alone. Southeast Asia is the most densely settled subregion in Asia, with approximately 16,500 people per square kilometer (compared with only 4,345 people per square kilometer in Europe in 2000).

Cities, especially in the developing world, must find a way to provide essential services to their ever-increasing populations. When cities fail to meet these essential needs on a large scale, they create areas known as slums, where households typically lack safe drinking water, safe sanitation, a durable living space, or security of a lease. According to UN HABITAT, 828 million people in developing-world cities are considered slum dwellers—one in every three residents. Slum populations are expected to grow significantly in the future, and UN HABITAT projects that 6 million more people live in slums every year.

Young boy reading a comic on Smokey Mountain (Getty Images)

The World Health Organization identifies the rapid increase of urban populations, especially slum populations, as the most important issue affecting health in the 21st century. The agency cites overcrowding, lack of safe water, and improper sanitation systems as the primary factors contributing to poor health among the urban poor. Slums often become breeding grounds for diseases like tuberculosis, dengue, pneumonia, and cholera, and slum dwellers contract water-borne or respiratory illnesses at much higher rates than people in rural areas do.

Cities and their slums will continue to grow as long as rural populations continue to migrate to cities to find economic and other opportunities, such as access to cultural amenities, education, and health care. The only question is whether urban infrastructures will be able to keep up with this growth.
Grant Potter is an Executive Assistant with the Worldwatch Institute.

New Book Discusses Causes, Effects, and Extent of Land Grabbing

By Andrew Alesbury

On December 4, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. held a book launch and panel discussion for the recently released book, The Global Farms Race: Land Grabs, Agricultural Investment, and the Scramble for Food Security. The book is among the first to examine the burgeoning and complex trend of land grabbing and its implications for investors, host countries, and the world as a whole.

The Wilson Center recently held a book launch and discussion on the prevalence, causes, and effects of land grabbing. (Photo credit: Wilson Center)

The panel discussion, which was webcast live, was led by four experts in the global food security and agriculture community: Michael Kugelman, the book’s co-author and Senior Program Associate at the Wilson Center; Derek Byerlee, an independent scholar and advisor; Gary Blumenthal, President and CEO of World Perspectives, Inc.; and Janet Larsen, Director of Research at Earth Policy Institute.

The speakers noted that land grabbing, or the acquisition of large plots of land by foreign actors such as national governments or large corporations, has become particularly notable since 2007. A growing number of countries, fearful of unrest caused by volatile food prices or driven by the need for more energy security through biofuels, have begun investing in farmland abroad, cultivating the land and then exporting the products back home.

The countries purchasing the land typically have insufficient farmland at home (or they have exhausted it) but have ample capital to invest abroad. Among the biggest investors are China, India, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, which have been buying up substantial parcels in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. The International Land Coalition estimates that more than 200 million hectares of foreign agricultural land (nearly the area of Western Europe) were approved or under negotiation between 2000 and 2010.

In The Global Farms Race, the authors note that these land transactions occur most frequently in less-developed countries where governments lack transparency or accountability. These countries attract investors with financial incentives such as low taxes or inexpensive labor, but provide little support for local populations that are displaced or otherwise negatively affected by the land sales. As such, land grabs often become a “race to the bottom” among agriculturally fertile countries to attract wealthy investors, said author and panelist Kugelman.

Kugelman adds, however, that the pace of land grabbing has slowed in recent years. And although the driving factors behind land grabs—food and energy insecurity—are likely to persist, he suggests possible actions to avoid the potential downsides of these investments. Effective government oversight and regulation could help sellers avoid compromising their food security too much. Meanwhile, investing in drought-resistant farming techniques and crops could alleviate some of the demand created by nations too arid to farm their own land.

What is your opinion on land grabbing? Is it inherently bad or can the practice be modified to benefit all affected parties? Watch the webcast discussion here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section!

Andrew Alesbury is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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