Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category

Feb26

Agricultural Population Growth Marginal as Nonagricultural Population Soars

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The global agricultural population—defined as individuals dependent on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry for their livelihood—accounted for over 37 percent of the world’s total population in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. This is a decrease of 12 percent from 1980, when the world’s agricultural and nonagricultural populations were roughly the same size. Although the agricultural population shrunk as a share of total population between 1980 and 2011, it grew numerically from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people during this period.

The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011. (Photo Credit: UNDP)

Between 1980 and 2011, the nonagricultural population grew by a staggering 94 percent, from 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion people—a rate approximately five times greater than that of agricultural population growth. In both cases growth was driven by the massive increase in the world’s total population, which more than doubled between 1961 and 2011, from 3.1 billion to 7 billion people.

It should be noted that the distinction between these population groups is not the same as the rural-urban divide. Rural populations are not exclusively agricultural, nor are urban populations exclusively nonagricultural. The rural population of Africa in 2011 was 622.8 million, for instance, while the agricultural population was 520.3 million.

Although the agricultural population grew worldwide between 1980 and 2011, growth was restricted to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. During this period, this population group declined in North, Central, and South America, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.

In 2011, Africa and Asia accounted for about 95 percent of the world’s agricultural population. In contrast, the agricultural population in the Americas accounted for a little less than 4 percent. Especially in the United States, this is the result of the development and use of new and innovative technologies as well as the increased use of farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that require less manual labor.

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Dec20

Putting a Dollar Value on Food Waste Estimates

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By Carol Dreibelbis

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about one-third—or 1.3 billion metric tons—of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste each year. While it is easy to recognize the enormity of this number, it is much more difficult to make sense of it in a useful way. An October 2012 study by Jean Buzby and Jeffrey Hyman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeks to make food waste estimates more meaningful by attaching a dollar value.

Research from the USDA finds that Americans waste an average of US$544 worth of food per person per year. (Photo Credit: biocycle.net)

The study measures the value of food loss in the United States at the retail (“supermarkets, megastores like Walmart, and other retail outlets”) and consumer (“food consumed at home and away from home”) levels. Findings indicate that US$165.6 billion worth of food was lost at these levels in 2008. This translates to the loss of an average of US$1.49 worth of food per person per day—totaling about US$544 per person per year—at the retail and consumer levels. At the consumer level, alone, the average American wasted almost 10 percent of the amount spent on his or her food in 2008.

Food losses on this scale are concerning, especially when viewed in the context of a growing global population. As the study explains, “The United Nations predicts that the world population will reach 9.3 billion by 2050 and this growth will require at least a 70 percent increase in food production, net of crops used for biofuels.” Considering that a reduction of food loss at the consumer and retail levels by just one percent would keep US$1.66 billion worth of food in the food supply, limiting food waste could play a major role in feeding future populations.

Food waste also places an unnecessarily heavy burden on the environment. The production, processing, storage, and transportation of food that ultimately goes to waste still consumes natural resources and other inputs, while also releasing greenhouse gases and other pollutants that stem from the food system. For example, the study points out that the production of wasted food consumes over 25 percent of all freshwater used in the U.S. and around 300 million barrels of oil.

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Nov21

Iroko Trees Fight Climate Change

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By Kristen Thiel

Iroko trees are native to the west coast of Africa. Sometimes called Nigerian teak, their wood is tough, dense, and very durable. Their hardwood is so sought after that the trees are often poached and are now endangered in many regions of Africa. But a new scientific discovery may aid in reforestation efforts.

Iroko trees can serve as long-term carbon sinks. (Photo Credit: DJ Obruni)

Oliver de Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, has found that Iroko trees can serve as long-term carbon sinks and can potentially play a role in the fight against climate change. Iroko trees and microbes can turn carbon dioxide emissions into soil-enriching limestone, a process that packs a one-two punch: carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, and dry, acidic soil is made more fertile for agriculture.

When the West African Iroko tree is grown in dry, acidic soil and treated with microbes, it produces a very specific mineral. When the microbes are introduced, the tree combines the calcium already in the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce a mineral limestone. This mineral limestone is then stored in the soil around the Iroko tree’s roots.

Normally, biomass (such as trees) does not store carbon dioxide—the gas is used in the process of decomposition. But carbon in the form of limestone has a staying time that may span a million years. This makes a great case, according to the Swiss researchers, for the preservation and sustainable management of tropical forests to fight against the greenhouse effect.

Iroko trees are just one of many species from Africa and the Amazon that can turn carbon in the atmosphere into mineral limestone. In this study, scientists looked at several microbe-tree combinations to identify which was best for locking up carbon dioxide as limestone, and the Iroko-microbe pathway showed the greatest results.

“By taking advantage of this natural limestone-producing process, we have a low-tech, safe, readily employed and easily maintained way to lock carbon out of the atmosphere, while enriching farming conditions in tropical countries,” said Dr Bryne Ngwenya of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences.

There is also great potential for reforestation projects to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the developing world. Reforestation schemes that involve the use of microbes and Iroko trees together could improve the carbon sequestration balance of carbon trading initiatives, improve soil fertility, and even promote the implementation of agroforestry projects to benefit rural communities.

Are you familiar with Iroko tree restoration efforts? Let us know in the comments section below!

Kristen Thiel is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture program.

Nov10

UN Says Sustainable Farming Can Help Close Global Emissions Gap

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By Sophie Wenzlau

Agriculture offers opportunities to mitigate and adapt to climate change, according to a report released on November 5 by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Reductions in emissions from agriculture could help to close the greenhouse gas emissions gap. (Photo Credit: ucanr.edu)

The Emissions Gap Report 2013—which involved 44 scientific groups in 17 countries and was coordinated by UNEP—measures the difference between the pledges that countries have made to cut emissions and the targets required to keep global temperature change below 2 degrees Celsius (°C).

The report finds that if the global community does not embark immediately on wide-ranging actions to narrow the greenhouse emissions gap, the chance of remaining on the least-cost path to keeping global temperature rise below 2°C this century will diminish quickly and lead to a host of challenges.

Based on the current trajectory, greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are likely to reach 8–12 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (GtCO2e)—roughly comparable to 80 percent of current emissions from the world’s power plants. This is above the level that would provide a likely chance of remaining on the least-cost pathway; to be on track to stay within the 2°C target, emissions should reach a maximum of 44 GtCO2e by 2020, the report says.

Reductions in emissions from agriculture, an often-overlooked source of emissions, could help to close the emissions gap, the authors say. They estimate that emission-reduction potentials for the sector range from 1.1 GtCO2e to 4.3 GtCO2e.

Worldwide, agriculture contributes between 14 and 30 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions because of its heavy requirements for land, water, and energy. The agriculture sector releases more emissions than every car, train, and plane in the global transportation sector.

Activities such as operating fuel-powered farm equipment, pumping water for irrigation, raising dense populations of livestock in indoor facilities, managing soils, and applying nitrogen-rich fertilizers all contribute to agriculture’s high greenhouse gas footprint.

UNEP attributes an estimated 38 percent of agricultural emissions to nitrous oxide from soils, 32 percent to methane from enteric fermentation in ruminant livestock, 12 percent to biomass burning, 11 percent to rice production, and 7 percent to manure management. Direct agricultural emissions account for 60 percent of global nitrous oxide emissions and 50 percent of global methane emissions, according to the report. (more…)

Nov05

A Cubic Mile of Oil: Facilitating the Shift to Cleaner Energy Sources

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By Alyssa Casey

Agricultural production consumes large amounts of energy both through direct energy usage, such as fuel and electricity, and through the energy-intensive production of fertilizer. This makes the U.S. agriculture industry sensitive to changes in energy prices. Because current agricultural techniques are energy intensive, food production is also a significant source of climate-altering emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have increased rapidly in recent years.

A Cubic Mile of Oil, by Hewitt Crane, Edwin Kinderman, and Ripudaman Malhotra, illuminates the history, sources, and way forward for global energy. (Photo credit: Oxford University Press Blog)

With this undeniable link between agriculture and energy, the future of energy will greatly influence the future of agriculture. Concerns surrounding fossil fuel supplies and climate change are stimulating attempts to convert more of the world to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources. It is likely that the agriculture industry will find itself adapting alongside energy.

What are these possible advances in the future of energy? How do we attempt to understand the changes and participate in the discussion, which can be muddled by a multitude of energy sources, mathematical equations, and units of measurement?

These questions were the basis for a new book, A Cubic Mile of Oil: Realities and Options for Averting the Looming Global Energy Crisis, by co-authors Hewitt Crane, Edwin Kinderman, and Ripudaman Malhotra of SRI International. The study attempts to clear the hurdle of constantly converting between energy units, such as gallons, barrels, British Thermal Units, and kilowatt-hours, and to address the question of how to continue supplying energy to a growing world population.

The book builds off the premise that talking about current and future energy consumption can be simplified through the use of one all-encompassing unit of measurement, the “cubic mile of oil” (CMO). One CMO can be understood by simply envisioning a swimming pool one mile wide, one mile across, and one mile deep. This unit does away with the need to constantly convert between units and eliminates the need to tack on an unfathomable multiplier, such as one billion barrels.

After establishing the premise for using the CMO, the authors divide the book into three sections. The first explains the history of energy consumption and the sources from which humans have obtained energy. The second separates energy sources into two simple categories: inherited energy sources, such as oil, coal and natural gas, which exist in limited and diminishing supplies; and income energy sources such as wind, biomass, hydropower, and solar power, of which a relatively infinite supply exists. The final section discusses the future of energy supply and consumption, emphasizing the need to conserve our current supply and invest in a sustainable plan for powering our future.

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Oct10

Oxfam’s GROW Method Engages Individuals in Building a Better Food System

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Oxfam International’s GROW campaign launched the GROW Method in July 2012 to encourage individual action toward a more just and sustainable food system.

The GROW Method’s fourth principle encourages individuals to support small-scale farmers through their buying habits. (Photo Credit: Oxfam)

The  campaign envisions a global food system that contributes to human well-being and ensures food security for all as the world grows to accommodate a projected 2 billion more people by 2050. As described in a previous blog post, GROW focuses on three major shifts: protecting and investing in small-scale farmers, ensuring a fair and safe food system that produces enough for all, and protecting the environment.

The GROW Method offers individuals “a brand new way of thinking about food—and the way we buy, prepare, and it eat,” according to Oxfam. The Method centers around five principles that can be incorporated into everyday life:

  1. “Save Food.” According to Oxfam, wealthy nations throw away almost as much food as sub-Saharan African nations produce each year. To combat food waste and the large expenditure of resources that accompanies it, the GROW Method encourages individuals to create shopping lists, to bring food home from restaurants, to label leftovers with “eat by” stickers, and to reuse leftovers in creative ways.
  2. “Shop Seasonal.” Oxfam encourages individuals to plant a garden or buy seasonal produce from local farms. Rather than simply promoting local foods, the GROW Method’s focus on seasonality can help reduce energy and resource losses. According to researchers at the University of Texas, “Eating locally is not always the greenest option if it means a food item is grown out of season…. For example, lamb grown in New Zealand with native rainfed grasses and shipped to the United Kingdom is less energy intensive than lamb locally raised in the United Kingdom on feed produced by use of energy-intensive irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides.” To find out which foods are in season across the United States, use this map.
  3. “Less Meat.” According to the FAO, livestock production is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and according to Oxfam, urban households in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Brazil could reduce emissions equivalent to taking 3.7 million cars off the road by swapping beans for beef once each week for a year. The GROW Method recommends replacing meat and dairy products with vegetables or legumes once a week.
  4. “Support Farmers.” This principle helps to ensure that small-scale farmers are paid fairly for the food they produce. Oxfam points out that many small-scale farmers in developing nations spend more money buying food for their families than they earn from selling their harvests. But, if Americans in urban areas bought Fair Trade chocolate bars twice each month, 30,000 small-scale cocoa farmers would reap the benefits. In addition to buying Fair Trade products, the GROW Method suggests buying produce from farmers markets.
  5. “Cook Smart.” This principle is aimed at saving water and energy when storing and preparing food. Oxfam points out that taking the following three steps when cooking vegetables on the stove could reduce energy use by up to 70 percent: using just enough water to cover the vegetables, using a flat-bottomed pan with a lid, and reducing the cooking heat once the pot begins to boil. The GROW Method also recommends preparing more cold foods and turning off appliances when able.

Oxfam’s report on the GROW Method indicates that household decision makers are receptive to changing their everyday habits. The report surveyed more than 5,000 women with families in six countries—Brazil, India, the Philippines, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States—on their willingness to implement elements of the GROW Method. The majority of respondents in all countries (except the United Kingdom) were concerned with how and where their food is produced. Likewise, the vast majority of respondents in all countries wanted to know how to make a difference in the food system through their food choices.

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Oct01

Ireland Takes Strides to Walk Its “Green” Talk

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By Robert Engelman

True to its iconic national color—green—Ireland may be the first country whose government is taking steps to measure sustainability and to integrate the concept into its economy.

Poster and “sustainability extension agent” on government-funded research farm in Count Meath, Ireland. (Photo Credit: Robert Engelman)

They’re small steps, not remotely on a scale or schedule that can stop the world’s climate from heating up to well past 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial times. But Ireland is a small country, and (as Worldwatch has discovered working with small-island states in the Caribbean) small nations can act as beacons pointing the way to sustainable behavior—particularly when large nations refuse to lead.

Ireland’s “scheme” (the term, while pejorative in American English, means program or plan here) is called Origin Green. It’s an apt name that calls to mind both the deep history of the country’s people and the lush verdure of its land. Origin Green is the brainchild of Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, an independent agency funded largely by the government to promote Irish food exports to a globalized world. The board held a one-day conference last week on sustainable food production, and used the opportunity to educate some 800 attendees on the Origin Green program. (Full disclosure: the board covered my expenses to attend.)

Having written a chapter in Worldwatch’s State of the World 2013 called “Beyond Sustainababble,” I tend to apply a skeptical ear to the use of the words sustainable and sustainability, especially by corporations. As I note in the chapter, the S-words are often used without meaning or verification to pitch brands and products to consumers who want to help the planet through their purchasing power. And indeed, some of the corporate executives presenting at the meeting on their companies’ efforts did skirt past the tough question of what sustainability really means, particularly for their own operations.

Got sustainability? (Photo Credit: Robert Engelman)

There were plenty of PowerPoint slides showing reductions in the use of energy, water, and other resources. And there were some mentions of long-term targets and even a few goals of achieving zero waste or net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the future. These are healthy signs that these companies—ranging in this meeting from Irish firms like Errigal Seafood to multinationals like PepsiCo—are at least showing some leadership and are ahead of the many others that can’t be bothered to worry about their impact on the future of humanity.

But what was more interesting than the individual corporate efforts is the role that the Food Board—and thus indirectly the Irish government—is playing in trying to introduce real metrics of sustainability into the food industry, all the way to the farm itself.

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Sep26

Norway Invests $23.7 Million to Ensure Crop Diversity in a Changing Climate

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By Sophie Wenzlau

Earlier this week, the government of Norway pledged US$23.7 million to conserve and sustainably manage some of the world’s most important food crops, citing the critical need for crop diversity at a time when populations are soaring and climate change is threatening staples like rice and maize, according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT).

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault harbors nearly three-quarters of a million seed samples from around the world. (Photo Credit: GCDT)

“In just 10 years we will have a billion more people at the global dinner table, but during that same time we could see climate change diminish rice production by 10 percent with a one-degree increase in temperature,” said Marie Haga, executive director of the GCDT. “Our best hedge against disaster is to make sure we have a wide array of food crops at our disposal to keep harvests healthy in the bread baskets of the world.”

Crop diversity, which is conserved in farmers’ fields and genebanks around the world, has dwindled as farmers have steadily cultivated a narrower range of crop varieties and as genebanks have suffered from insufficient funding. Meanwhile, a recent study of the 29 most important food crops revealed severe threats to over half of their wild relatives—species that can hold valuable traits for plant breeders.

Worldwide, agriculture depends on a relatively small number of crops; only about 150 are used on a significant scale. Individual crops, such as the 20,000 varieties of wheat, have different traits for drought or heat tolerance, nutritional quality, disease resistance, and other characteristics. Today, much of the world’s crop diversity is neither safely conserved nor readily available to scientists and farmers who rely on it to safeguard agricultural productivity, according to the GCDT. Limited crop diversity could prove dangerous in the context of climate change, as extreme and unpredictable weather events place unprecedented pressures on our ability to grow the food we need. Diversity is being lost, according to the GCDT, and with it the biological basis of our food supply.

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Sep18

FAO Says Food Waste Harms Climate, Water, Land, and Biodiversity

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By Sophie Wenzlau

The world wastes 1.3 billion tons of food annually—a third of all the food that’s produced—according to a report published last week by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This waste not only results in major economic loss, but also causes significant harm to the natural resources that we rely on for food production. It also has moral implications, given that an estimated 870 million people go to bed hungry every night.

Food that is produced but not eaten adds 3.3 billion tons of greenhouses gases to the atmosphere every year. (Photo Credit: SeamePost.com)

The report, Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources, analyzes the impacts of global food waste from an environmental perspective, looking specifically at its consequences for the climate, water and land use, and biodiversity.

According to the report’s authors, food that is produced but not eaten consumes a volume of water three times greater than Lake Geneva and adds 3.3 billion tons of greenhouses gases to the atmosphere every year—more than the entire global shipping industry. Approximately 1.4 billion hectares of land—28 percent of the world’s agricultural area—is used annually to produce this food.

In addition to its environmental impacts, the FAO estimates the direct economic consequences of food waste (excluding fish and seafood) to be $750 billion annually.

“We all—farmers and fishers; food processers and supermarkets; local and national governments; individual consumers—must make changes at every link of the human food chain to prevent food wastage from happening in the first place, and re-use or recycle it when we can’t,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. (more…)

Aug19

Reducing Food Waste While Feeding the Hungry

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By Carol Dreibelbis

According to a report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) last year, 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. Americans throw away about US$165 billion worth of food each year—or about 9 kilograms of food per person each month—which then ends up in landfills, where it accounts for about a quarter of U.S. methane emissions.

Americans throw away about 9 kilograms of food per person per month, which ends up in landfills, where it accounts for roughly a quarter of U.S. methane emissions. (Photo Credit: Frank Pascual)

The NRDC’s farm-to-fork-to-landfill report makes clear that Americans not only eat more than other nations, but they also waste more. In fact, the average American wastes 10 times as much food as the average Southeast Asian. While one in six Americans is food insecure, only 60 percent of the nation’s food is consumed. The report also points out that reducing food waste by just 15 percent would save enough food to feed more than 25 million people annually.

As of November 2011, American schools are fully equipped to do their part in both cutting food waste and feeding hungry people. While food donors who give to food pantries and food banks are protected from all liability under the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, recent legislation went a step further by explicitly protecting public schools that donate unused food. Now that schools can donate food without risk, they are free to put their unused food to good use.

Schools of all kinds are answering the call for food donations. Dranesville Elementary School in Herndon, VA implemented a new donation program in March of 2012 to donate unopened cafeteria food to local shelters and food banks. Previously, the school cafeteria threw away about 12.25 kilograms of food each day. Many colleges and universities also have food donation programs through their volunteering or civic engagement programs. Student volunteers at Princeton University pick up unused food from campus dining halls several times each week and deliver it to a local soup kitchen. (more…)