For those who spent this year’s mild winter worrying about how incredibly hot the summer would be, recent damages to crops and homes should come as little surprise. Although the abnormally early spring delivered some benefits—such as one of the best blue crab seasons in a long time—they will be largely outweighed by the costs inflicted by the historic drought that is currently plaguing most of the United States, with particularly dire consequences in agricultural states.

The word “historic” is not an exaggeration: the 12 months running from June 2011 to June 2012 are the warmest on record, and more than two thirds of U.S. farms are in drought conditions, a magnitude that has not been experienced since 1956 and is nearing Dust Bowl-like proportions.  

Amid fluctuating rain patterns and crop price speculation, one trend is already emerging: we can expect higher food prices worldwide starting next year, and perhaps as early as this autumn. The Climate Desk, a journalistic collaboration focused on climate change, recently published a helpful estimate of how some basic foods could be affected by 2013. For instance, a 20-ounce loaf of white bread would go from an average price of $1.81 to $1.96; a whole chicken would sell at $4.91, compared to the 2011 average of $4.52.

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agriculture, Climate Change, climate effects, drought, food, food prices
Source: Xinhua

Water hyacinths block transport vessel passage in the Pearl River.

Last month, the section of Pearl River running through the city of Guangzhou in China was rapidly invaded by an explosion of water hyacinths. After two days of intense skimming (455 tons of water hyacinths removed on the 17th and 495 tons on the 18th), the river was still not fully cleared. Last month’s rainfall washed the plants downriver causing them to accumulate in the slow-flowing estuary, a common occurrence in flood season. From April to June of this year, water hyacinths accounted for 80 percent of the 15,000 tons of floating rubbish collected by Guangzhou city.

Introduced to China in the 1960s, the water hyacinth is now widely distributed in nineteen provinces across the country.  Warming temperatures due to climate change have created favorable growing conditions for water hyacinths across most of China – plant mass can double in two weeks in water temperatures between 27 and 35 degrees Celsius. Floods of water hyacinths occur regularly in many important bodies of water, including Dianchi Lake and Yangtze River.

As an invasive species that multiplies rapidly, heavy infestations of water hyacinths have to be quickly removed from impacted water systems to prevent economic and environmental damage. While water hyacinths do remove nutrient pollutants (N, P, K, Mg, Cu, Zn, and Mn) from waters, outbreaks cover water surfaces and consume most of the dissolved oxygen leaving little for fish and other aquatic species, which die off as a result. Unless removed, water hyacinths release nutrient pollutants back into the water when they die. Massive outbreaks cause further economic harm by blocking water transportation.

Despite these serious drawbacks, water hyacinth invasions can be harnessed for environmental benefit and renewable energy production. Water hyacinths have high cellulose content, making them a potential renewable energy source. Currently however, technical and cost barriers have forestalled widespread development of this energy option.

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agriculture, biofuels, biogas, biomass, China, water

This entry is the latest in a series on innovations in the climate and energy world.

The only place cows and coriander came together...until now

The greenhouse gases that come from livestock are silent but deadly. Conventional wisdom, originating in a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, says that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of global emissions, though a 2009 article by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang in World Watch magazine puts the number as high as 51 percent. (These numbers were so controversial, and received with such skepticism—including within Worldwatch’s  own Climate and Energy team—that a discussion forum was set up right here at ReVolt).

A large fraction of livestock emissions are the result of the methane that cows and other ruminants emit—in the case of cattle, between 90 and 180 kilograms annually. This is equivalent to 1,800 to 3,600 kilograms of carbon dioxide-equivalent.

A cow’s diet has a great deal to do with how much gas it produces. Substituting alfalfa and flaxseed for a portion of the corn and soy put into cow feed was found to reduce methane emissions by 14 percent (and sweeten their breath, a bonus!) on at least one farm. New research out of Newcastle University in the U.K., however, shows that this might be small potatoes. Coriander and turmeric, spices that are commonly used in curry dishes, were found to reduce livestock methane emissions by as much as 40 and 30 percent, respectively, when added to feed.

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agriculture, FDA, India, Innovation, livestock, Methane

Livestock are a major source of biogas, giving farmers the incentive and opportunity to invest in this new energy resource.

So far, discussions of new energy solutions in the United States have revolved mostly around solar and wind. The merits and drawbacks of these sources of energy have inspired much debate in light of the proposed climate and energy legislation currently circulating the U.S. Senate.

During an EESI briefing Wednesday, I was exposed to a new renewable source that has been relatively absent from U.S. energy debates: biogas. Biogas is produced through the natural process of anaerobic digestion, in which tiny microorganisms break down the organic matter in landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and, most commonly, cow manure. One of the byproducts of the process is methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas that contributes heavily to climate change.

Today, most of this biogas simply escapes into the atmosphere. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the methane that originates from landfills, livestock manure, and wastewater accounted for 34 percent of all anthropogenic U.S. methane emissions in 2008. If this large source of methane is efficiently captured and utilized, however, it can serve as a relatively clean source of heat and power.

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agriculture, biogas, Climate Change, renewable energy
Photo courtesy Crosby Allison

Photo courtesy Crosby Allison

Jane Goodall, the venerable field biologist and chimpanzee champion, addressed the looming perils of climate change during a visit to the World Wilderness Congress in Mérida, Mexico.

Similar to her approach to wildlife awareness, Goodall chooses to describe the importance of curbing greenhouse gases through stories rather than statistics.

“I shall describe going to Greenland, standing at the foot of an ice cliff, watching and hearing vast loads of ice crash off and thunder down into the bowls of this ice cliff and a raging river coming out when before there was never even a trickle even during the summer,” she said, “seeing the elders with tears pouring down their faces because the animals are calling out for help.”

“Going almost straight from there to Panama where Kuna Yala indigenous people have been living for hundreds of years on an offshore island. They are now making careful plans to evacuate their people onto the mainland. They’ve found places for them to go. The first ones have already had to go because of rising sea levels,” she added.

Goodall stressed the importance of protecting forests as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The Jane Goodall Institute is collaborating with Google to provide forest communities with detailed maps, which they can use to demonstrate forest re-growth and apply for carbon credits, she said.

A main cause of greenhouse gas emissions that warrant greater attention, Goodall said, is human diet. “The vast amounts of greenhouse gases, which we are producing through people wanting to eat more and more and more meat, through the creation of methane gas, is contributing as much to greenhouse gas emissions as the burning of fuel in automobiles, as well as leading to mass amounts of pain and suffering from the animals and the release into the environment of all the antibiotics used to try to keep them alive. We are creating superbugs. People have already died from scratches on their fingers,” she said. [Read the current edition of World Watch magazine for more information about the role of livestock in climate change.]

agriculture, Climate Change, forests

In an article in the November/December 2009 [PDF] edition of World Watch Magazine (“Livestock and Climate Change”), authors Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang argue that livestock emissions have been severely underestimated. In their view, livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions.  Based on their analysis, Goodland and Anhang recommend a radical decrease in meat consumption in order to help slow climate change.

Goodland and Anhang’s numbers are far above those reported in a widely cited 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It  estimates that 18 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs, and poultry. “Livestock and Climate Change” has stirred intensive discussion in a number of fora. While some readers supported the authors’ assessment and recommendations, others disagreed with either or both.

We want to provide everyone who is interested in this important debate—experts or not—with an open forum for discussion. While the magazine’s masthead clearly states that “Opinions expressed in World Watch are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Worldwatch Institute,” scientific integrity and the search for viable sustainability solutions are the foundation of the Institute’s daily work.

We invite you to contribute to the discussion by commenting on the article here. The most constructive and compelling comments will also be printed in a future issue of World Watch. In addition, please check out our blog, Nourishing the Planet, where the Worldwatch food and agriculture team argues for a different, and in their view more effective, way to address mixed-crop livestock and sustainable food than the Goodland/ Anhang article recommends.

agriculture, Climate Change, emissions reductions, energy-related emissions, livestock, livestock emissions

Two news items from opposite ends of the carbon cycle are potentially hopeful signs for our planet’s climate – and in principle could have a positive bearing on the international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December.

The Wall Street Journal last month reported on a U.S. Geological Survey report [PDF] suggesting that economically extractable coal reserves in the United States, typically measured at some 240 years’ worth, could be substantially less abundant than previously thought – perhaps only half the estimated reserves.

US Coal Reserves are finally running out.

US coal reserves may not be as cornucopian as some once thought

“We really can’t say we’re the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore,” the head of the study told the Journal. The news is consistent with the findings of a 2007 National Research Council study and is similar to other reports of overestimates of economically recoverable coal reserves in other countries.

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agriculture, coal, emissions reductions, forests, UNEP