Category Archives: agriculture

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

The Disappearing Birds

North America’s birds are disappearing from the skies at a rate that’s shocking even to ornithologists. Since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, and even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline, U.S. and Canadian researchers reported in the September 2019 Issue of Science Magazine…  Five  years ago, PM Rosenberg a conservation biologist decided to take a broader look at what is happening in North America’s skies.

“I frankly thought it was going to be kind of a wash,” Rosenberg says. He expected rarer species would be disappearing but common species would be on the rise, compensating for the losses, because they tend to be generalists, and more resilient. Indeed, waterfowl and raptors are thriving, thanks to habitat restoration and other conservation efforts. But the declines in many other species, particularly those living along shorelines and in grasslands, far exceeded those gains, Rosenberg and his colleagues report. Grassland birds have declined by 53% since 1970—a loss of 700 million adults in the 31 species studied, including meadowlarks and northern bobwhites. Shorebirds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by about one-third, the team says. Habitat loss may be to blame.

The familiar birds that flock by the thousands in suburbs were not exempt. “There’s an erosion of the numbers of common birds,” Rosenberg says. His team determined that 19 common species have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970. Twelve groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, were particularly hard hit. Even introduced species that have thrived in North America, such as starlings and house sparrows, are losing ground.  “When you lose a common species, the impact will be much more massive on the ecosystem and ecosystem services,” says Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. “It’s showing the magnitude of the problem.”

Some of the causes may be subtle. Last week, toxicologists described how low doses of neonicotinoids—a common pesticide—made migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of surviving and reproducing. Climate change, habitat loss, shifts in food webs, and even cats may all be adding to the problem, and not just for birds. 

Weather radar data revealed similarly steep declines. Radar detects not just rain, but also insect swarms and flocks of birds, which stand out at night, when birds usually migrate. “We don’t see individual birds, it’s more like a big blob moving through airspace,” explains Cornell migration ecologist Adriaan Dokter. He converted “blobs” from 143 radar stations into biomass. Between 2007 and 2017, that biomass declined 13%, the Science paper reports. The greatest decline was in birds migrating up the eastern United States….

Excerpts from Elizabeth Pennisi, Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished,  Science, Sept. 20, 2019

A Cure Worse than the Disease? Biofuels in Planes

The 2019 report by the Rainforest Foundation Norway RFN is called ‘Destination Deforestation’ and reviewed the role of the aviation industry in contributing to the climate crisis, concluding that there’s a high risk that increased use of palm and soy-based biofuel in planes will lead to increased deforestation.

Finland, the world’s largest producers of renewable diesel and the only EU country that gives additional incentives for the use of palm oil products to manufacture biofuel, could spearhead the race towards deforestation, as areas of rainforest in countries like Indonesia or in South America are cleared to plant crops that will later be used to produce the fuel.  RFN says that meeting the aviation industry’s own climate-change targets to reduce emissions could result in 3.2 million hectares of tropical forest lost, an area larger than Belgium.

Researchers at Rainforest Foundation Norway believe the Finnish incentives for (Palm Fatty Acid Distillate) PFAD-based biofuels are likely to contribute to this deforestation, since Finland’s state-owned oil company Neste produces half of the world’s renewable diesel.  “Finland continues to treat the palm oil by-product PFAD as a waste, eligible for additional incentives. In addition, Finland is home to Neste, the world’s largest producer of hydrotreated biodiesel, and uses PFAD as a raw material. Therefore, Finland’s program could contribute to the massive deforestation discussed in our report” he explains.

With Finland left isolated as the only EU country to pay producers to use waste-classified PFAD in biofuel production, Rainforest Foundation Norway cautions that the country risks becoming a dumping ground for unsustainable raw material….“As long as PFAD is classified as ‘waste’, it enjoys huge incentives from the state. Biofuels made out of PFAD are completely exempt from carbon dioxide tax in Finland. Additionally, PFAD’s emissions can be discounted, and it is not subject to the same sustainability criteria as other raw materials.

With ‘flight shame’ gaining more momentum across the world, the aviation industry is desperate to find ways to make flying compatible with climate goals. While replacing fossil fuels with renewables sounds like a great idea, the sustainability of biofuels is highly dependent on the raw materials used to produce them…The most common aviation biofuels, Hydrogenated Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) fuels are produced from vegetable oils and animal fats. While the use of waste oils and other recycled materials is possible, the most viable raw materials for HEFA jet fuels are food crops.  “The cheapest and most readily available raw materials for HEFA jet fuel are palm oil and soy oil, which are closely linked to tropical deforestation” Ranum says.  The experts suggest that aiming to reduce emissions by increasing demand for palm and soy oil is a cure worse than the disease.

Elias Huuhtan, Report: Finland’s push to use biofuel could cause ‘massive deforestation, https://newsnowfinland.fi/ , Oct. 7, 2019

The Fight Against Toxic Algae

Signs posted around the Grand Lake, Ohio read: “Danger: Avoid all contact with the water.”  When dangerously high levels of toxins from blue-green algae in Grand Lake, Ohiio were publicized in 2009, many residents and tourists stopped using the 13,000-acre lake in northwest Ohio. Hotel revenue and home values sank for several years as algae bloomed in the state’s largest inland lake.

Greenish water still laps at Grand Lake’s shores, but recent water samples show that the amount of algae-feeding nutrients entering the lake is down significantly. State, federal and private donations covered more than $10 million in projects aimed at improving water quality. More people are boating on the lake again. Grand Lake could now serve as an example for communities with algae problems across the nation, experts say.

Algal blooms are on the rise, from Lake Erie to the Florida Everglades. In August 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency listed algae-related beach closures or health advisories in 23 states, and it said other blooms may not have been reported. In 2010, the EPA found that 20% of 50,000 lakes surveyed had been affected by phosphorous and nitrogen pollution, which feeds algae.e  Cleaning up bodies of water choked with toxic algae has proved difficult. The project to repair Grand Lake, once one of the most polluted by algae in the nation, is one of the clearest successes. It shows cleanup is possible, but also expensive and time-consuming.

“It’s not restored yet, but it’s on the road to recovery,” said Stephen Jacquemin, an associate professor of biology at Wright State University-Lake Campus in Celina.  Beginning in 2012, wetlands areas were built around the lake, which was hand dug in the 1830s. The thick stands of bulrushes and other plants have reduced phosphorous and nitrogen levels in water entering the wetlands before reaching the lake by as much as 90%, Dr. Jacquemin said.  Three wetland areas, which cost a total of about $6 million to build, are constructed as a series of interconnected pools that allow particulates to settle out and plants and microbes to remove nutrients.

Areal View of Artificial Wetlands, Great Lake Ohio

 The state’s Department of Natural Resources has also dredged the lake bottom to remove nutrient-loaded sediment, and tried to clean up one of Grand Lake’s beaches near St. Marys by building a rock jetty and installing aerators and a curtain to filter water. Recent water tests there showed levels below 6 parts per billion of the toxin microcystin, under Ohio’s threshold of 20 parts per billion for avoiding contact with water.

As Green Algae Forces Beaches to Close, Ohio Lake Offers Hope, WSJ, Sept. 18, 2019