Archive for the ‘carbon’ Category


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

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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.


Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production

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By Laura Reynolds

This summer, record temperatures and limited rainfall parched vast areas of U.S. cropland, and with Earth’s surface air temperature projected to rise 0.69 degrees Celsius by 2030, global food production will be even more unpredictable. Although agriculture is a major driver of human-caused climate change, contributing an estimated 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, when done sustainably it can be an important key to mitigating climate change.

Agroforestry is one practice that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while adapting to the effects of climate change. (Photo credit: Christensen Fund)

Because of its reliance on healthy soil, adequate water, and a delicate balance of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, farming is the human endeavor most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But agriculture’s strong interrelationships with both climatic and environmental variables also make it a significant player in reducing climate-altering emissions as well as helping the world adapt to the realities of a warming planet.

The good news is that agriculture can hold an important key to mitigating climate change. Practices such as using animal manure rather than artificial fertilizer, planting trees on farms to reduce soil erosion and sequester carbon, and growing food in cities all hold huge potential for reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the global agricultural sector could potentially reduce and remove 80 to 88 percent of the carbon dioxide that it currently emits. By adopting more-sustainable approaches, small-scale agriculture in developing countries has the potential to contribute 70 percent of agriculture’s global mitigation of climate change. And many of these innovations have the potential to be replicated, adapted, and scaled up for application on larger farms, helping to improve water availability, increase diversity, and improve soil quality, as well as mitigate climate change. (more…)


Saturday Series: An Interview with Mary McLaughlin

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By Olivia Arnow

Today, Nourishing the Planet kicks off a new Saturday Series, in which we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone? E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Trees That Feed Foundation reforests tropical areas with edible fruit trees. (Photo credit: Trees that Feed)

Name: Mary McLaughlin

Affiliation: Trees That Feed Foundation

Bio: Mary is the founder of Trees That Feed, a non-profit foundation dedicated to maintaining affordable and sustainable food for tropical countries, including Haiti and her homeland Jamaica. The foundation strives to feed people and benefit the environment by reforesting areas with trees that produce edible fruit to improve diets, reduce foreign dependency, and restore ecological balance to the land.

What type of trees does the foundation plant?

I grew up eating breadfruit in Jamaica and I believe it to be one of the most sustainable tropical foods. Our organization plants a variety of trees that produce avocado, mango, papaya, pomegranate, acai, almonds, and cashews, but we primarily focus on planting breadfruit trees.



Santropol Roulant: A Leaner, Greener Meals on Wheels

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By Philip Newell

Santropol Roulant (Santropol is community, roulant means rolling in French) is an organization providing healthy, sustainable meals to homebound Montreal citizens. Instead of relying on fossil-fuel powered cars like traditional Meals-on-Wheels, this group delivers with a more carbon-friendly option—bicycles.

Part of the rooftop garden that supplies Santropol Roulant with delicious organic produce. (Photo Credit: McGill University)

But eliminating petrochemicals from their delivery routes wasn’t enough for the organization, so the group hired Natural Step (a non-profit sustainability research and education group) to help them further reduce their environmental impact. This is accomplished through Eco-Challenge, which is an action plan designed by Natural Step to help Santropol Roulant become even more sustainable.

Taking their organization’s sustainability two steps further than biking to deliver meals to the disadvantaged, Santropol Roulant grows a variety of fruits and vegetables on an organic rooftop garden, and recycle their food waste in the basement through vermicomposting. Vermicomposting is using worms to help decompose food waste for compost. That compost can be distributed to urban farmers who are starting their own backyard or roof-top gardens.



WWF Report– Soya and the Cerrado: Brazil’s forgotten jewel

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By Philip Newell

According to a recent report released by WWF UK, the increased use of soy beans has had painful consequences for the Cerrado region of Brazil. The Cerrado is the unique savannah south of the Amazon Rainforest. This landscape, once covering a quarter of Brazil, holds an amazing 5 percent of all life on Earth. Since the prehistoric days when there was only one continent, this grassy expanse has harbored not only 11,000 flowering plants (nearly half are found only in the Cerrado) but also countless animal species, including the giant anteater and maned wolf. This rich history also imbues the land with cultural significance, as it has played a key role for over 10,000 years in the culture and religion of a variety of indigenous Brazilian societies.

This rock painting in the Cerrado region provides evidence of human life in the area 12,000 years ago. (Photo Credit: WWF Brazil)

Currently, however, the Cerrado is being converted into farmland for the express purpose of growing soybeans (soya). In only 15 years, production of soy has doubled, now covering an area almost the size of Egypt worldwide. In Brazil, there are 24.1 million hectares planted with soy, equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom. Such a prolific conversion has devastated the natural biodiversity of the region. A recent survey suggests that by 2008, almost half of the original vegetation cover had been lost, disappearing at a rate significantly greater than the Amazon rainforest. This also has significant consequences for climate change. According to WWF, in the six year period between 2002 and 2008, land-use change in the Cerrado released 275 million tons of CO2 per year-more than half the total emissions for the United Kingdom.

A whopping 80 percent of the soy grown worldwide is used for feeding cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock, according to the report. Current trends suggest that developing countries will continue to increase their meat consumption, until they match levels of developed countries. If soy remains one of the main components of livestock feed, then soy production will increase. Since most land planted with soy has already achieved maximum production levels (only the Indian region has room for improving yields), demand for land for soy planting will grow.



Nourishing the Planet TV: Building a Methane Fueled Fire

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In this week’s episode, media intern Mara Schechter explains how biogas stoves take advantage of what is typically considered waste to provide a clean and safe source of energy. Biogas units use methane from manure to produce electricity, heat and fertilizer, emitting  significantly less smoke and carbon monoxide than other sources of fuel and reducing the amount of time that women spend gathering firewood. Smoke inhalation-related illnesses result in 1.5 million deaths per year worldwide, and the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that women spend up to 10 hours per week gathering wood for cook fires in some rural areas.


To read more, see: Building a Methane Fueled Fire

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.


What’s (Solar) Cooking in the Gambia?

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Check out these photos sent by Worldwatch Board Member Izaak Van Melle who is currently testing out solar cookers in The Gambia. Solar cookers work by absorbing and concentrating heat from the sun to cook food without the need for any kind of combustible fuel, improving the efficiency of home cooking while also reducing the amount of labor and fuel needed to prepare a hot meal.

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To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE .


What Works: Farmers Adapting to Climate Change

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By Matt Styslinger

This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!

Niger: Field Visits with ICRISAT

Climate change is adding even more pressure on already stressed food systems (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollack)

As world population and incomes continue to grow, food systems are increasingly stressed. Unprecedented demand for agricultural products and shrinking land and water resources threaten global food security. Climate change adds even more pressure on these already enormous challenges. An increasing number of extreme events—such as droughts and floods—are expected around the world, which will affect food supply. There is an urgent need to promote agricultural methods that sustainably increase productivity and resilience to environmental pressures. According to the Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Jacques Diouf, “We will not achieve food security without serious investment in climate change adaptation.”

Climate scientists are predicting increasingly dry conditions in much of sub-Saharan Africa in the coming decades, making innovations in irrigation efficiency more important than ever before. Research conducted by David Bainbridge at The University of California, Davis has found that buried clay pot systems are one of the most efficient irrigation methods and is ideal for small-scale farmers. This ancient form of irrigation uses a buried, unglazed clay pot filled with water to provide controlled irrigation to plants. The water seeps out through the clay wall at a rate that is influenced by the plant’s water needs. In India, for example, melon yield with the buried clay pot system was 25 tons/ hectare using only 2 cm of water, compared with yields of 33 tons/ hectare using 26 cm of water with flood irrigation. (more…)


Turning the Threat of Climate Change into an Opportunity to Build a More Sustainable Future

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By Janeen Madan

A recent article in Time Magazine discusses how small-scale farmers are finding ways to turn the threat of climate change into an opportunity to build a more sustainable future for themselves and for communities around the world.

In Africa’s Sahel region, innovative initiatives led by small-scale farmers are re-greening the once barren and dry land. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The innovative efforts of these farmers are re-greening the once barren and dry land of Africa’s Sahel region. Dr. Chris Reij, natural resource specialist with the Center for International Cooperation (and an author in the upcoming State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet), who has worked extensively in the region, told Time Magazine, “In areas that used to be completely barren, where you could see villages miles away, suddenly the view was blocked with green.”

Beginning in the late 1980s, farmers started sowing their crops in ditches called zaï, a traditional practice used to retain water and enable plants to survive dry periods. They also started erecting fences to prevent soil erosion. Satellite images of Niger, taken by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2005, show that farmers have successfully “re-greened” up to 5 million hectares of land. “That’s 200 million new trees — 20 times the number that had been there before— producing 200 million Euros ($US270 million) of value that feeds an extra 2.5 million people.  It was the biggest environmental transformation in Africa,” said Reij. Following two poor harvests between 2009 and 2010 in Niger, an international emergency effort was mobilized to feed some 4.3 million food insecure people. But farmers engaged in re-greening initiatives were unaffected. Reij noted, “Their trees have become like something we keep in the freezer. A lifeline to prune and sell for money to buy food in the bad years.” (more…)


Nourishing the Planet at the Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2010

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Check out Nourishing the Planet co-Project Director, Danielle Nierenberg, speaking about the role pastoralists and livestock keepers play in helping to mitigate climate change on December 4th, 2010 at this year’s Agriculture and Rural Development Day in Cancun, Mexico.

To learn more about the role agriculture can play in mitigating climate change, see the forthcoming State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, as well as: Livestock Keepers’ Rights: Conserving Endangered Animal Genetic Resources in Kenya, Creating a Roadmap for Environmentally Sustainable Meat Production and Consumption, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Wildlife Conservation, Malawi’s Real Miracle, Emphasizing Malawi’s Indigenous Vegetables as Crops, Finding ‘Abundance’ in What is Local, Honoring the Farmers that Nourish their Communities and the Planet, Investing in Projects that Protect Both Agriculture and Wildlife, Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry and Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use.