Category Archives: agriculture

Who to Save? Forests or Farmers

Agriculture continues to present the biggest threat to forests worldwide. Some experts predict that crop production needs to be doubled by 2050 to feed the world at the current pace of population growth and dietary changes toward higher meat and dairy consumption. Scientists generally agree that productivity increase alone is not going to do the trick. Cropland expansion will be needed, most likely at the expense of large swathes of tropical forests – as much as 200 million hectares by some estimates. 

Nowhere is this competition for land between forests and agriculture more acute than in Africa. Its deforestation rate has surpassed those of Latin America and Southeast Asia. Sadly, the pace shows no sign of slowing down. Africa’s agriculture sector needs to feed its burgeoning populations- the fastest growing in the world…. What’s more, for the millions of unemployed African youth, a vibrant agriculture sector will deliver jobs and spur structural transformation of the rural economy. Taken together, the pressures on forests are immense. Unless interventions are made urgently, a large portion of Africa’s forests will be lost in the coming decades – one farm plot at a time.

The difficult question is: what interventions can protect forests and support farmers at the same time? 

To tackle these complex challenges, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has launched a new initiative: The “Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) in Sub-Saharan Africa: Managing Trade-Offs Between Social and Ecological Impacts”  Read more

Excerpts from XIAOXUE WENG et al Can forests and smallholders live in harmony in Africa?, CIFOR, June 3, 2019

How to Kill the Tsetse Fly: Use Nuclear Energy

The tsetse fly’s toxic bite kills an estimated 3 million livestock annually in sub-Saharan Africa.  Farmers here used to count on losing pounds of valuable beef to the fingernail-size pest. Then veterinarians in the West African country teamed up with researchers in Austria, who work on a little-known project funded entirely by the United States.  The United States has poured about $5 million into the effort of sterilizing the male tsetse files with gamma rays.   This has led to the eradication of 99 percent of those files

Cows, Senegale. (source IAEA)

Farmer income in Niayes, Senegale,  is expected to jump by 30 percent, officials say, as more cows survive at a healthy weight. Farms, meanwhile, can now afford to buy hundreds of European dairy cows, which produce 20 times as much milkthan native breeds.  The fortune reversal sprouts from a global collaboration at the intersection of agriculture and nuclear technology

Since 2010, America has funneled roughly $379 million to Senegal’s partner in the tsetse fly fight: the International Atomic Energy Agency,…The United States earmarked an additional $560,000 this month for upkeep of the group’s laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria.

Rather, Jeffrey Eberhardt, whom President Trump has nominated to serve as his special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, said in a May statement that the United States has maintained its backing to “expand the benefits of peaceful nuclear uses” and expressed “a firm commitment to continuing this legacy.”

The peaceful use in Senegal is called nuclear insect sterilization.  First, scientists hatch thousands of tsetse flies in an artificial habitat about 870 miles away, in the West African nation of Burkina Faso.   Next, they send the bugs to the lab in Seibersdorf, where researchers place them in tiny ionization chambers and blast them with gamma rays, rendering the males unable to pass on a healthy seed.   Finally, they chill the flies to sleep — broken wings from panicked thrashing would sabotage the mission — before tucking them into biodegradable paper boxes and shipping them to Senegal.

Excerpts from A U.S.-funded nuclear project to zap a killer fly into extinction is saving West Africa’s cows, Washington Post, May 31, 2019
 

How to Strengthen the Immune System of Plants: biodiversity

n the past 150 years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 410 ppm. For farmers this is mixed news. Any change in familiar weather patterns caused by the atmospheric warming this rise is bringing is bound to be disruptive. But more carbon dioxide means more fuel for photosynthesis and therefore enhanced growth—sometimes by as much as 40%. And for those in temperate zones, rising temperatures may bring milder weather and a longer growing season. (In the tropics the effects are not so likely to be benign.) What is not clear, though, and not much investigated, is how rising CO2 levels will affect the relation between crops and the diseases that affect them…

Plant biology is altered substantially by a range of environmental factors. This makes it difficult to predict what effect a changing climate will have on particular bits of agriculture. Carbon dioxide is a case in point. It enhances growth of many plants but,  it also shifts the defences to favour some types of disease over others.

To make matters even more complicated, evidence is mounting that changes in temperature and water availability also shift plant immune responses. André Velásquez and Sheng Yang He, at Michigan State University, wrote an extensive review on the warfare between plants and diseases in Current Biology in 2018. They noted that though some valuable crops, such as potatoes and rice, experience less disease as moisture levels increase, this is not the case for most plants. High humidity, in general, favours the spread of botanical diseases. The same can be said for temperature—with some diseases, like papaya ringspot virus, thriving in rising temperatures while others, for example potato cyst, are weakened.

The problems are daunting, then, but there is a way to try to solve them… Genes which grant resistance to diseases that might become severe in the future need to be tracked down. Modern crops have been streamlined by artificial selection to be excellent at growing today. This means that they have the genes they need to flourish when faced with the challenges expected from current conditions, but nothing more. Such crops are thus vulnerable to changes in their environment.  One way to find genes that may alter this state of affairs is to look to crops’ wild relatives. Uncossetted by farmers, these plants must survive disease by themselves—and have been fitted out by evolution with genes to do so. Borrowing their dna makes sense. But that means collecting and cataloguing them. This is being done, but not fast enough. The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, a charity which works in the area, reckons that about 30% of the wild relatives of modern crops are unrepresented in gene banks, and almost all of the rest are underrepresented….

[This is becuase] most countries are, rightly, protective of their genetic patrimony. If money is to be made by incorporating genes from their plants into crops, they want to have a share of it. It is therefore incumbent on rich countries to abide by rules that enable poor ones to participate in seed collecting without losing out financially. Poor, plant-rich countries are in any case those whose farmers are most likely to be hurt by global warming. It would be ironic if that were made worse because genes from those countries’ plants were unavailable to future-proof the world’s crops.

Excerpts from Blocking the Road to Rusty Death: Climate Change and Crop Disease, Economist,  Apr. 20, 2019

5,000 Eyes in the Sky: environmental monitoring

The most advanced satellite to ever launch from Africa will soon be patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters to crack down on oil spills and illegal dumping.  Data from another satellite, this one collecting images from the Texas portion of a sprawling oil and gas region known as the Permian Basin, recently delivered shocking news: Operators there are burning off nearly twice as much natural gas as they’ve been reporting to state officials.

With some 5,000 satellites now orbiting our planet on any given day…. They will help create a constantly innovating industry that will revolutionize environmental monitoring of our planet and hold polluters accountable…

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund focused on natural gas flares from the wells in the Permian Basin, located in Western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Our analysis proved that the region’s pollution problem was much larger than companies had revealed.  A second study about offshore gas flaring in the Gulf of Mexico, published by a group of scientists in the Geophysical Research Letters, showed that operators there burn off a whopping 40% of the natural gas they produce.

Soon a new satellite will be launching that is specifically designed not just to locate, but accurately measure methane emissions from human-made sources, starting with the global oil and gas industry.  MethaneSAT, a new EDF affiliate unveiled in 2018, will launch a future where sensors in space will find and measure pollution that today goes undetected. This compact orbital platform will map and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet at least weekly.

Excerpts from Mark Brownstein, These pollution-spotting satellites are just a taste of what’s to come, EDF, Apr. 4, 2019

Biodiversity and Respect for Human Rights

The instinctive response of many environmentalists  is to to fence off protected areas as rapidly and extensively as possible. That thought certainly dominates discussions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the main relevant international treaty. An eight-year-old addendum to the pact calls for 17% of the world’s land surface and 10% of the ocean’s water column (that is, the water under 10% of the ocean’s surface) to be protected by 2020. Currently, those figures are 15% and 6%. Campaigners want the next set of targets, now under discussion, to aim for 30% by 2030—and even 50% by 2050. This last goal, biogeographers estimate, would preserve 85% of life’s richness in the long run.  As rallying cries go, “Nature needs half” has a ring to it, but not one that sounds so tuneful in the poor countries where much of the rhetorically required half will have to be found. Many people in such places already feel Cornered by Protected Areas.” (See also Biodiversity and Human Rights)

James Watson, chief scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs), another American charity, has an additional worry about focusing on the fence-it-off approach. If you care about the presence of species rather than the absence of humans, he warns, “‘nature needs half’ could be a catastrophe—if you get the wrong half.” Many terrestrial protected areas are places that are mountainous or desert or both. Expanding them may not translate into saving more species. Moreover, in 2009 Lucas Joppa and Alexander Pfaff, both then at Duke University in North Carolina, showed that protected areas disproportionately occupy land that could well be fine even had it been left unprotected: agriculture-unfriendly slopes, areas remote from transport links or human settlements, and so on. Cordoning off more such places may have little practical effect.

Southern Appalachians, Virginia. image from wikipedia

 In the United States it is the underprotected southern Appalachians, in the south-east of the country, that harbour the main biodiversity hotspots. The largest patches of ring-fenced wilderness, however, sit in the spectacular but barren mountain ranges of the west and north-west. In Brazil, the world’s most speciose country, the principal hotspots are not, as might naively be assumed, in the vast expanse of the Amazon basin, but rather in the few remaining patches of Atlantic rainforest that hug the south-eastern coast.

Deforestation Atlantic Rainforest in Rio de Janeiro. Image from wikipedia

Nor is speciosity the only consideration. So is risk-spreading. A team from the University of Queensland, in Australia, led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, has used a piece of financial mathematics called modern portfolio theory to select 50 coral reefs around the world as suitable, collectively, for preservation. Just as asset managers pick uncorrelated stocks and bonds in order to spread risk, Dr Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues picked reefs that have different exposures to rising water temperatures, wave damage from cyclones and so on. The resulting portfolio includes reefs in northern Sumatra and the southern Red Sea that have not previously registered on conservationists’ radar screens…

Another common finding—counterintuitive to those who take the “fence-it-all-off” approach—is that a mixed economy of conservation and exploitation can work. For example, rates of deforestation in a partly protected region of Peru, the Alto Mayo, declined by 78% between 2011 and 2017, even as coffee production increased from 20 tonnes a year to 500 tonnes.

Environmental groups can also draw on a growing body of academic research into the effective stewardship of particular species. For too long, says William Sutherland, of Cambridge University, conservationists have relied on gut feelings. Fed up with his fellow practitioners’ confident but unsubstantiated claims about their methods, and inspired by the idea of “evidence-based medicine”, he launched, in 2004, an online repository of relevant peer-reviewed literature called Conservation Evidence.  Today this repository contains more than 5,400 summaries of documented interventions. These are rated for effectiveness, certainty and harms. Want to conserve bird life threatened by farming, for example? The repository lists 27 interventions, ranging from leaving a mixture of seed for wild birds to peck (highly beneficial, based on 41 studies of various species in different countries) to marking bird nests during harvest (likely to be harmful or ineffective, based on a single study of lapwing in the Netherlands). The book version of their compendium, “What Works in Conservation”, runs to 662 pages. It has been downloaded 35,000 times.

Excerpts from How to preserve nature on a tight budget, Economist, Feb. 9, 2919

Who is Afraid of Bats?

More than 50,000 of the fruit bats are thought to have been killed in Mauritius since 2015, in an attempt to protect fruit in orchards.  The bats – also known as flying foxes – are resorting to eating in orchards to survive because only 5 per cent of Mauritius’s native forests remain, animal experts warned.  Fruit bats are vital for biodiversity as they pollinate flowers and scatter seeds, enabling trees and plants to grow and spread, according to conservationists.  But populations of the flying foxes have fallen by more than 50 per cent in four years, said Vincent Florens, an ecologist at the University of Mauritius. Some believe fewer than 30,000 now remain.

The first cull, in 2015, killed 30,000, and in a second cull, the following year, 7,380 were targeted.  The latest cull involved 13,000.  Prof Florens said he believed the number killed is much higher than the 50,300 government figure.  “The culls took place late in the year, when many mothers were pregnant or had babies,” he told National Geographic. “You shoot one bat and basically kill two.” Others were likely to have been injured and died later, he said.

Scientists are supporting a lawsuit against the government on grounds of animal welfare violations to prevent any more culls…Mahen Seeruttun, Mauritius’s minister of agro-industry and food security, told FDI Spotlight: “We have a large population of bats who will eat fruit crops.

Excerpts from Endangered fruit bats ‘being driven to extinction’ in Mauritius after mass culls kill 50,000, Independent, Mar. 4, 2019

From Savior to Villain: Biofuel from Palm Oil

Globally, average palm oil yields have been more or less stagnant for the last 20  years, so the required increase in palm oil production to meet the  growing demand for biofuels  has come from deforestation and peat destruction in Indonesia.  Without fundamental changes in governance, we can expect at least a third of new palm oil  area to require peat drainage, and a half to result in deforestation.

Currently, biofuel policy results in 10.7  million tonnes of palm oil demand.  If the current biofuel policy continues we expect by 2030:
• 67 million tonnes palm oil demand due to biofuel policy.
• 4.5 million hectares deforestation.
• 2.9 million hectares peat loss.
• 7 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions over 20 years, more than total annual U.S. GHG emissions.
It must always be remembered that the primary purpose of biofuel policy in the EU and many  other countries is climate change mitigation. Fuel consumers in the European Union, Norway  and elsewhere cannot be asked to continue indefinitely to pay to support vegetable oil based
alternative fuels
that exacerbate rather than mitigate climate change.

The use of palm oil-based biofuel should be  reduced and ideally phased out entirely.  In Europe, the use of biodiesel other than that produced from approved waste or  by-product feedstocks should be reduced or eliminated.
In the United States, palm oil biodiesel should continue to be restricted from generating  advanced RINs under the Renewable Fuel Standard. Indonesia should reassess the relationship between biofuel mandate, and its  international climate commitments, and refocus its biofuel programme on advanced biofuels from wastes and residues. The aviation industry should focus on the development of advanced aviation biofuels  from wastes and residues, rather than hydrotreated fats and oils.

Excerpts from Dr Chris Malins,  Driving deforestation: The impact of expanding palm oil demand through biofuel policy, January 2018

In Feb. 28, 2019, Norway’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, pulled out of more than 33 palm oil companies over deforestation risks.