Category Archives: agriculture

What Shrimp and Beef Have in Common? carbon footprint

Shrimp farms tend to occupy coastal land that used to be covered in mangroves. Draining mangrove swamps to make way for aquaculture is even more harmful to the atmosphere than felling rainforest to provide pasture for cattle. A study conducted in 2017 by cifor, a research institute, found that in both these instances, by far the biggest contribution to the carbon footprint of the resulting beef or shrimp came from the clearing of the land. As a result, CIFOR concluded, a kilo of farmed shrimp was responsible for almost four times the greenhouse-gas emissions of a kilo of beef

Eating wild shrimp is not much better: catches are declining around the world as a result of overfishing. Trawlers can pull as much as 20kg of by-catch from the sea for every kilo of shrimp. And reports abound of the appalling treatment of workers on shrimp-fishing vessels, including human-trafficking and child labour. When UN investigators interviewed a sample of Cambodians who had escaped virtual slavery on Thai fishing boats, 59% of them reported seeing fellow crew-members murdered by the captain.

Most of the world’s shrimp and prawns come from Asia. The continent accounts for 85% of the farmed sort and 74% of the wild catch. Global sales were around $45bn in 2018 and are thought to be growing by about 5% a year. But the industry is controversial, not just because of its part in global warming. Razing mangroves also leaves coastal regions vulnerable to flooding. Many shrimp farms are unsanitary; ponds often have to be abandoned after a few years because of problems with disease and pollution.

All this has given one Singaporean company a brain wave. “Farmed shrimps are often bred in overcrowded conditions and literally swimming in sewage water. We want to disrupt that—to empower farmers with technology that is cleaner and more efficient,” says Sandhya Sriram, one of the founders of Shiok Meats. The firm aims to grow artificial shrimp, much as some Western firms are seeking to create beef without cows. The process involves propagating shrimp cells in a nutrient-rich solution. Ms Sriram likens it to a brewery, disdaining the phrase “lab-grown”….The hitch is that producing shrimp in this way currently costs $5,000 a kilo.

Excerpts from How artificial shrimps could change the world, Economist, Feb. 28, 2020

Sewers: Turning Wastewater into a Valuable Resource

The world’s growing flows of wastewater offer a largely untapped, potentially lucrative source of energy, agricultural fertilizers, and water for irrigation. The opportunities will increase as the annual volume of wastewater—now 380 billion cubic meters—expands by an estimated 51% by 2050, as populations and incomes multiply, says a team led by researchers at United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment, and Health. About 13% of global demand for fertilizer could be met by recovering nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash from wastewater; such use provides a bonus, diverting nutrients from waterways, where they can create harmful eutrophication. Sewage also offers an alternative energy source…..

Reaping Resources from Sewers, Science, Feb. 7, 2020

How Sand Extraction Damages Ecosystems

The world uses nearly 50bn tonnes of sand and gravel a year—almost twice as much as a decade ago. No other natural resource is extracted and traded on such an epic scale, bar water. Demand is greatest in Asia, where cities are growing fast (sand is the biggest ingredient in concrete, asphalt and glass). China got through more cement between 2011 and 2013 than America did in the entire 20th century (the use of cement is highly correlated with that of sand).

Since the 1960s Singapore—the world’s largest importer of sand—has expanded its territory by almost a quarter, mainly by dumping it into the sea. The OECD thinks the construction industry’s demand for sand and gravel will double over the next 40 years. Little wonder then that the price of sand is rocketing. In Vietnam in 2017 it quadrupled in just one year.

In the popular imagination, sand is synonymous with limitlessness. In reality it is a scarce commodity, for which builders are now scrabbling. Not just any old grains will do. The United Arab Emirates is carpeted in dunes, but imports sand nonetheless because the kind buffeted by desert winds is too fine to be made into cement. Sand shaped by water is coarser and so binds better. Extraction from coastlines and rivers is therefore surging. But according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Asians are scooping up sand faster than it can naturally replenish itself. In Indonesia some two dozen small islands have vanished since 2005. Vietnam expects to run out of sand this year.

All this has an environmental cost. Removing sand from riverbeds deprives fish of places to live, feed and spawn. It is thought to have contributed to the extinction of the Yangzi river dolphin. Moreover, according to WWF, a conservation group, as much as 90% of the sediment that once flowed through the Mekong, Yangzi and Ganges rivers is trapped behind dams or purloined by miners, thereby robbing their deltas both of the nutrients that make them fecund and of the replenishment that counters coastal erosion. As sea levels rise with climate change, saltwater is surging up rivers in Australia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, among other places, and crop yields are falling in the areas affected. Vietnam’s agriculture ministry has warned that seawater may travel as far as 110km up the Mekong this winter. The last time that happened, in 2016, 1,600 square kilometres of land were ruined, resulting in losses of $237m. Locals have already reported seeing dead fish floating on the water.

Curbing sand-mining is difficult because so much of it is unregulated. Only about two-fifths of the sand extracted worldwide every year is thought to be traded legally, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. In Shanghai miners on the Yangzi evade the authorities by hacking transponders, which broadcast the positions of ships, and cloning their co-ordinates. It is preferable, of course, to co-opt officials. Ministers in several state governments in India have been accused of abetting or protecting illegal sand-mining. “Everybody has their finger in the pie,” says Sumaira Abdulali of Awaaz Foundation, a charity in Mumbai. She says she has been attacked twice for her efforts to stop the diggers.

Excerpts from Bring me a nightmare: Sand-Mining, Economist, Jan. 18, 2019

Genetically Modified Crops May Become the Norm: the case of Golden Rice

Golden Rice is a genetically modified (GM) crop that could help prevent childhood blindness and deaths in the developing world. Ever since Golden Rice first made headlines nearly 20 years ago, it has been a flashpoint in debates over GM crops. Advocates touted it as an example of their potential benefit to humanity, while opponents of transgenic crops criticized it as a risky and unnecessary approach to improve health in the developing world.

Now, Bangladesh appears about to become the first country to approve Golden Rice for planting..Golden Rice was developed in the late 1990s by German plant scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer to combat vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of childhood blindness. Low levels of vitamin A also contribute to deaths from infectious diseases such as measles. Spinach, sweet potato, and other vegetables supply ample amounts of the vitamin, but in some countries, particularly those where rice is a major part of the diet, vitamin A deficiency is still widespread; in Bangladesh it affects about 21% of children.

To create Golden Rice, Potrykus and Beyer collaborated with agrochemical giant Syngenta to equip the plant with beta-carotene genes from maize. They donated their transgenic plants to public-sector agricultural institutes, paving the way for other researchers to breed the Golden Rice genes into varieties that suit local tastes and growing conditions.

The Golden Rice under review in Bangladesh was created at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. Researchers bred the beta-carotene genes into a rice variety named dhan 29…Farmers in Bangladesh quickly adopted an eggplant variety engineered to kill certain insect pests after its 2014 introduction, but that crop offered an immediate benefit: Farmers need fewer insecticides. Golden Rice’s health benefits will emerge more slowly,

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad,  After 20 Years, Golden Rice Nears Approval, Science,  Nov. 22, 2019

How to Own a Foreign Country: the Strategy of Gulf States in Egypt and Sudan

Nile has become a battleground. Countries that sit upriver and wealthy Gulf states are starting to use the Nile more than ever for water and electricity. That means less water for the 250 million-plus small farmers, herders and city dwellers in the Nile basin.  Dams funded by foreign countries including China and oil-rich neighbors like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are tapping the river to irrigate industrial farms and generate electricity. Crops grown using Nile water are increasingly shipped out of Africa to the Middle East, often to feed livestock such as dairy cows

Exporting crops to feed foreign animals while borrowing money to import wheat is “almost insane,” Sudan’s new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, said in an interview. “It’s exporting water, basically. We could be growing wheat and getting rid of half our import bill,” he said. Mr. Hamdok’s predecessor, dictator Omar al-Bashir, is in prison after an uprising sparked by rising prices for food….

The most dramatic change to the Nile in decades is rising in Ethiopia, where the Blue Nile originates. Ethiopia, which has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, turned to China to help finance the $4.2 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project to generate electricity. While the dam, located just miles from the Sudan border, won’t supply water for farms and cities, its massive reservoir will affect the flow of water.

Downstream, Egypt is worried that Ethiopia will try to quickly fill the reservoir beginning in 2020. The issue is “a matter of life and death for the nation,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi said in televised remarks in 2017. “No one can touch Egypt’s share of water.” A spokesman for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a September press conference that “any move that does not respect Ethiopia’s sovereignty and its right to use the Nile dam has no acceptance.”  Sharing of the Nile’s waters has long been governed by international treaties, with Egypt claiming the vast majority. Since Ethiopia wasn’t included in those treaties, it was never provided an allotment of water. Ethiopia’s massive dam has thrown a wrench into past agreements…

Sudan is stuck in the middle. Much of the water that flows through the country is already allocated. “Sudan actually doesn’t have that much free water available,” says Harry Verhoeven, author of “Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan.”  By early 2015, Saudi Arabia doubled its investment in Sudan’s agriculture sector to $13 billion, equaling about one-third of all foreign investment in Sudanese industry….The contrast between verdant export crops watered by the Nile and parched villages was visible in the area where protests started in December 2019, during a nationwide wheat shortage.   The protesters were angry about food prices, poor job prospects, social strictures and Sudan’s moribund economy, Mr. Alsir says. “We’re surrounded by farms,” he says. “But we’re not getting any of it.

Past a rocky expanse next to the village flows a deep canal, green with weeds, dug a decade ago by a Saudi-owned company called Tala Investment Co. It runs from the Nile about 10 miles to Tala’s farm, which leases its land from the government.  Tala grows crops for export and maximizes profits using Sudan’s “cheap manpower,” the company’s website says….The alfalfa is shipped 400 miles overland to Port Sudan and then across a nearly 200-mile stretch of the Red Sea to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, then is used for animal feed….

The Aswan dam  In Egypt is primarily used to generate electricity. But a sprawling desert farm, the Toshka project to the west, taps the reservoir. That is where Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have made some of their biggest agricultural investments in Egypt in the past decade.  The strategy there is straightforward, says Turki Faisal Al Rasheed, founder of Saudi agriculture company Golden Grass Inc., which has explored purchasing farms in Egypt and Sudan. “When you talk about buying land, you’re not really buying land,” he says. “You’re buying water.”

Even with all that water dedicated to growing crops, Egypt  is rapidly outstripping its resources.  This is because he country’s population is forecast to grow 20% to 120 million by 2030, and to 150 million by 2050.  Access to water in Egypt is increasingly uncertain. The country’s annual per capita water use dipped below 24,000 cubic feet in recent years and is expected to fall below 18,000 cubic feet by 2030, a level defined as “absolute water scarcity,” according to the United Nations. The comparable figure in the U.S. is 100,000 cubic feet, enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool.  Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. control about 383,000 acres of land in Egypt, an expanse nearly twice the size of New York City, according to Land Matrix. The main crops are corn, potatoes, wheat, alfalfa, barley and fruit such as grapes that are exported back home.

Mr. Sisi is now looking for new places to grow food. In 2015 he launched a program to expand arable land by more than 1.5 million acres in the country, part of which will tap into the Nubian aquifer, an irreplaceable ancient store of water beneath the Sahara. Saudi and U.A.E. companies have bid for lands in the project, according to the New Egyptian Countryside Development Co., which is managing the project.  Mr. Al Rasheed, the Saudi farm owner in Egypt, says that for him and others from the Gulf, farming along the Nile is about building regional influence as much as ensuring food supplies. “Food is the ultimate power,” he says.

Excerpts from Justin Scheck &Scott Patterson, ‘Food Is the Ultimate Power’: Parched Countries Tap the Nile River Through Farms, WSJ, Nov. 25, 2019

When Logging Works: “Every Part of the Tree”

The rapacious industrialisation of the Finnish forest, which covers three-quarters of the country’s landscape, looks the antithesis of tree-hugging environmentalism. The forest is home to wolves, bears, deer and many other species of wildlife, and its trees lock away carbon that would otherwise be in the air, warming the atmosphere. Yet Metsä Group, which operates the Äänekoski pulp mill, claims the very opposite.  Metsä is ultimately controlled by a co-operative belonging to more than 100,000 families who have each owned large chunks of the forest for generations. For every tree harvested, four saplings are planted. These are allowed to grow for a few years and are then thinned to encourage the best specimens to develop vigorously. The thinnings, however, are not wasted. They are sent to the mill. The mature trees, meanwhile, are harvested when they are between six and ten decades old. The consequence of this husbandry, according to Finland’s Natural Resources Institute, is that the annual growth of trees in Finland exceeds the volume of felling and natural loss by over 20m cubic metres, despite the increasing demand for wood.

As for the mill itself, Metsä’s stated aim is to make best use of every part of a tree, both to maximise the value of its wood and, where possible, to continue to lock up its carbon. To this end, besides the bread-and-butter business of turning out planks and plywood, the firm has come up with several new ideas. Three are of particular interest. One is a better way of converting wood pulp into fibre that can be turned into textiles. A second is to produce plastic-free cardboard cartons which can be used as food containers and then recycled. The third is to find employment for lignin, a by-product of the pulping process which is, at the moment, usually burned…

Metsä has also teamed up with Itochu, a Japanese trading company with a large clothing business, to make fabric that will compete with oil-based synthetic fibres and provide an alternative to cotton, the growing of which requires a lot of land, irrigation and pesticides. Some fabrics—rayon, for example—can be made from wood….

The complex processes involved in processing wood result in several “sidestreams”. These are wastes that become raw materials for other processes. They include sulphuric acid, which is re-used by the mill, and biogas, tall oil (a byproduct of papermaking) and lignin—carbon-rich materials burnt to produce electricity. This powers the mill, and yields a surplus which is exported to the national grid. As a consequence, unlike some wood mills, the Äänekoski plant uses no fossil fuels.

Excerpts from Sustainable Forestry: If you go down to the woods today, Economist, Oct. 19, at 75

Bio-Energy and Food Security

In the effort to keep the planet from reaching dangerous temperatures, a hybrid approach called BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) has a seductive appeal. Crops suck carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, power plants burn the biomass to generate electricity, and the emissions are captured in a smokestack and pumped underground for long-term storage. Energy is generated even as CO2 is removed: an irresistible win-win. But, the United Nations’s climate panel sounded a warning about creating vast bioenergy plantations, which could jeopardize food production, water supplies, and land rights for poor farmers.

In an earlier special report in October 2018, IPCC called for holding the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 1.5°C above preindustrial conditions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. It emphasized that cutting emissions won’t be enough to reach that goal. Replacing coal with renewable energy, and significantly cutting oil and natural gas, would still leave gigatons of excess carbon in the atmosphere. BECCS could remove it, computer models suggested, if several million square kilometers—an area the size of India—were devoted to energy crops.

But the 2019 IPCC report examines the consequences of deploying BECCS on that vast scale and concludes it could “greatly increase” the demand for agricultural land. The pressure on conventional crops could compromise food security, as happened in 2007 when rising U.S. corn ethanol production contributed to a spike in food prices. (In Mexico, the price of tortillas, a staple for the poor, rose 69% between 2005 and 2011.) The bioenergy plantations could also take a toll on biodiversity—as is happening in Southeast Asia, where plantations producing palm oil for biodiesel as well as food are displacing diverse tropical forest. And they could suck up scarce water, especially in drylands, where irrigation of crops might deplete local supplies, the IPCC report says.

Industrial bioenergy crops can lead to the same kinds of problems as intensive food production, such as the contamination of water from excess fertilizer. Scaling up bioenergy in developing countries can also exacerbate social problems like the loss of land by small farmers.

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, Bioenergy plantations could fight climate change—but threaten food crops, U.N. panel warns, Science, Aug. 8, 2019