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Food & agriculture - Dec 7

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Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production

Staff, Worldwatch Institute

This summer, record temperatures and limited rainfall parched vast areas of U.S. cropland, and with Earth’s surface air temperature projected to rise 0.69 degrees Celsius by 2030, global food production will be even more unpredictable, according to new research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute (www.worldwatch.org). Although agriculture is a major driver of human-caused climate change, contributing an estimated 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, when done sustainably it can be an important key to mitigating climate change, write report authors Danielle Nierenberg and Laura Reynolds.

Because of its reliance on healthy soil, adequate water, and a delicate balance of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, farming is the human endeavor most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But agriculture’s strong interrelationships with both climatic and environmental variables also make it a significant playerin reducing climate-altering emissions as well as helping the world adapt to the realities of a warming planet.

“The good news is that agriculture can hold an important key to mitigating climate change,” said Reynolds, Worldwatch’s Food and Agriculture Research Associate. “Practices such as using animal manure rather than artificial fertilizer, planting trees on farms to reduce soil erosion and sequester carbon, and growing food in cities all hold huge potential for reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.”

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the global agricultural sector could potentially reduce and remove 80 to 88 percent of the carbon dioxide that it currently emits. By adopting more-sustainable approaches, small-scale agriculture in developing countries has the potential to contribute 70 percent of agriculture’s global mitigation of climate change. And many of these innovations have the potential to be replicated, adapted, and scaled up for application on larger farms, helping to improve water availability, increase diversity, and improve soil quality, as well as mitigate climate change.

This report, Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture: Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production,discusses six sustainable approaches to land and water use, in both rural and urban areas, that are helping farmers and other food producers mitigate or adapt to climate change—and often both. They are:

Building Soil Fertility: Alternatives to heavy chemical use in agriculture, such as avoiding unnecessary tilling or raising both crops and livestock on the same land, can help to drastically reduce the total amount of energy expended to produce a crop or animal, reducing overall emissions.

  • Agroforestry: Because trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping them on farms whenever possible can help mitigate climate change. Agroforestry also keeps the soil healthier and more resilient by maximizing the amount of organic matter, microorganisms, and moisture held within it. Agroforestry also provides shade for livestock and certain crops, and creates habitats for animals and insects, such as bees, that pollinate many crops.
  • Urban Farming: Growing food in cities can mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions released from the transport, processing, and storage of food destined for urban populations. Urban agriculture also increases the total area of non-paved land in cities, making urban landscapes more resilient to flooding and other weather shocks, while improving the aesthetic value of these landscapes.
  • Cover Cropping/Green Manure: Cover cropping, also known as green manure, is the practice of strategically planting crops that will deliver a range of benefits to a farming system, and often plowing these crops into the soil instead of harvesting their organic matter. Planting cover crops improves soil fertility and moisture by making soil less vulnerable to drought or heat waves. Cover crops also serve as a critical deterrent against pests and diseases that affect crops or livestock, such as corn root worm or Rift Valley fever, particularly as warmer temperatures enable these organisms to survive in environments that were previously too cold for them.
  • Improving Water Conservation and Recycling: Innovations in water conservation, including recycling wastewater in cities, using precise watering techniques such as drip irrigation rather than sprinklers, and catching and storing rainwater, all help to reduce the global strain on already-scarce water resources.
  • Preserving Biodiversity and Indigenous Breeds: Growing diverse and locally adapted indigenous crops, such as yams, quinoa, and cassava, can provide a source of income and improve farmers’ chances of withstanding the effects of climate change, such as heat stress, drought, and the expansion of disease and pest populations. Preserving plant and animal biodiversity also reduces farmers’ overreliance on a small number of commodity crops that make them vulnerable to shifts in global markets.

By tapping into the multitude of climate-friendly farming practices that already exist, agriculture can continue to provide food for the world’s population, as well as be a source of livelihood for the 1.3 billion people who rely on farming for income and sustenance.If agriculture is to play a positive role in the global fight against climate change, however, agricultural practices that mitigate or adapt to climate change will need to receive increased research, attention, and investment in the coming years.

(5 December 2012)

You can find the report here.



When a Green Revolution Runs Out of Water

David Agren, The Telegraph

CIUDAD OBREGÓN, Mexico–The Green Revolution sprang forth from this valley of wheat farms in Sonora State, producing the food required to feed a rapidly expanding population. But the water that has nourished crops here for decades and sustained the Yaqui people for centuries is threatened.

The federal and Sonora State governments are building an aqueduct to take water from the Yaqui River to supply the mushrooming manufacturing hub of Hermosillo, 175 miles south of the Arizona border at Nogales. There, burgeoning automotive and aerospace industries and a booming population have put demands on water destined for agricultural purposes.

The aqueduct itself has pitted industrial interests and politicians against previously privileged farmers and the Yaqui.

“They’re taking water from one river valley to supply another,” said Francisco Ramos, a wheat farmer and one of the more than 21,000 members of the Yaqui Valley irrigation district. “If you do this in a semi-arid state, there are going to be problems.”

The conflict in Sonora raises water management questions that are common across Mexico, parts of which recently experienced the worst drought in decades. Those questions include the wisdom of moving water from one basin to another, as already happens in Mexico City and is being proposed for other industrial cities like León, Querétaro and Monterrey.

Other issues include whether industry should take priority over agriculture, especially as manufacturing expands in central and northern Mexico and Mexican-made goods gain an increasing share of the United States market.

Building the aqueduct, Mexico’s outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, said last week in Sonora, propels economic development in Hermosillo “by having a secure supply of water for industrial and commercial activities.”...

(5 December 2012)


Can Permaculture Transform Industrial Agriculture?

Sami Grover, treehugger

From clever chicken tunnels to a campus lawn turned no-dig garden, I've written about countless permaculture projects over the years. Some of them, like this peak oil inspired farming project in Britain, are exploring the realms of commercial agriculture—but it's fair to say that permaculture is still often seen as something more often practiced in backyards and community gardens for sustenance, not financial gain.

...But there are people practicing permaculture, or permaculture-inspired farming, on a commercial scale. Typically that involves some level of adaptation and simplification from the archetypical permaculture food forest. Now Rafter Ferguson, a doctoral student from the University of Illinois, is setting out to conduct a study of permaculture farms across the US, studying what works, what doesn't, and how permaculture techniques might be adapted and scaled up to take a significant dent out of the farming system as we know it.

But all that travel takes money. So Ferguson is crowdfunding his research trip and he needs your help to do it. You can learn more about his work at his blog Liberation Ecology, or you can check out his video below...

(3 December 2012)


A Genius Investor Thinks Billions Of People Are Going To Starve To Death — Here's Why

Henry Blodget and Rob Wile, Business Insider

Investor Jeremy Grantham of GMO recently published a startlingly depressing outlook for the future of humanity.

Grantham thinks the number of people on Earth has finally and permanently outstripped the planet's ability to support us.

Grantham believes that the planet can only sustainably support about 1.5 billion humans, versus the 7 billion on Earth right now (heading to 10-12 billion).

Basically, Grantham thinks most of us are going to starve to death.

Why?

In part because we're churning through a finite supply of something that is critical to our ability to produce food: Phosphorus.

Phosphorus is a critical ingredient of fertilizer, and there is a finite supply of it. The consensus is that we will hit "peak phosphorus" production within a few decades, after which point our phosphorus supply will inexorably decline. As it declines, we will be unable to feed ourselves. And you know the rest...

(4 December 2012)


How one nonprofit pub is giving back, one pint at a time

Makenzie Marineau, Idealist blog

The idea

Ryan Saari, an Oregon native, knows that Portlanders love their beer as much as they love helping others. But given the amount of nonprofits that already exist in the city, Ryan realized that another nonprofit, while wonderful, may not be needed. “Instead we thought, what can we do to partner with the existing nonprofits?” he says.

Three years ago what started off as a discussion between Ryan and his friends about what good they could do in their communities turned into something bigger: The Oregon Public House—a soon-to-open nonprofit pub that will serve local beer and seasonal, locally sourced food, pay employees fair wages, and donate all its profit to charities.

Ryan foresees The Oregon Public House growing and hopes after a year or two of running successfully they can open another in Portland, eventually with plans to brew their own beer and sell six packs in stores where 100% of the money goes to a charity.

Obstacles

Ryan’s first step was to bring a team on board and find a building to set up the brew pub. To buy an already existing business, the team would need a minimum of $200,000. Instead, they found a fix it up rental attached to a ballroom that was still used as an event space.

Now that they had the building, they took the next steps toward owning the first brew pub of it’s kind. Here are some of the many obstacles they encountered over the past few years to get this unique nonprofit up and running:

Obstacle: Community push back

Solution: Worried about bringing a bar into a community, Ryan didn’t want to contribute to the already existing problem of people abusing alcohol. “At first people questioned what we were doing. People wanted to change the idea into a coffee shop, or take the idea and brew craft root beer instead,” he says. He knew it was important to establish the nonprofit as a public house and not a bar, a place where friends and family can come together to enjoy a beer and food in a friendly environment.

Obstacle: Never been done before

Solution: Without a model to learn from, Ryan knew trust was key when opening a nonprofit like this, which is the first of its kind in the country. “Customers need to know where the money is going,” Ryan says. Their books are public so customers can see where the profits go to help combat any skepticism. With the idea to one day expand and turn the pub into a brewery, The Oregon Public House is continually aware of maintaining the balance between giving to local charities and the operational costs for the pub.

Obstacle: Opening without debt

Solution: With the largest donation only being $2,500, there needed to be other ways to raise funds. One way was to start a ‘Founders’ program, where people give to the nonprofit and in return receive a free beer each day, or week, depending on their contribution level.

Another way they stayed debt-free was not building until the money was available, a strategy they plan on continuing. While they received a grant from the city of Portland for the store front, they also didn’t take out any loans.

They likewise relied on volunteers to help reconstruct the building: pour the cement, paint the walls, and do whatever they could to help. Opening with zero debt will allow them to immediately begin donating the profits to worthwhile charities and to positively influence the community around them.

Obstacle: Staying profitable

Solution: Ryan says there are lots of questions about how to make a public house a viable business while giving away most of the earnings. He and his team pay rent by renting out the event space attached to their brew pub location for weddings, movie screenings, and more. “An event space is extremely profitable,” he says. They also plan on having the leadership all-volunteer run, with paid staff to cut down costs.

(28 November, 2012)


Are We Heading Toward Peak Fertilizer?

Tom Philpott, Mother Jones

You've heard of peak oil—the idea that the globe's easy-to-get-to petroleum reserves are largely cashed, and most of what's left is the hard stuff, buried in deep-sea deposits or tar sands. But what about peak phosphorus and potassium? These elements form two-thirds of the holy agricultural triumvirate of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (also known as NPK, from their respective markers in the periodic table). These nutrients, which are essential for plants to grow, are extracted from soil every time we harvest crops, and have to be replaced if farmland is to remain productive.

For most of agricultural history, successful farming has been about figuring out how to recycle these elements (although no one had identified them until the 19th century). That meant returning food waste, animal waste, and in some cases, human waste to the soil. Early in the 20th century, we learned to mass produce N, P, and K—giving rise to the modern concept of fertilizer, and what's now known as industrial agriculture.

The N in NPK, nitrogen, can literally be synthesized from thin air, through a process developed in the early 20th century by the German chemist Fritz Haber. Our reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (as its known) carries its own vast array of problems—not least of which that making it requires an enormous amount of fossil energy. (I examined the dilemmas of synthetic N in a 2011 series at Grist.) But phosphorus and potassium cannot be synthesized—they're found in significant amounts only in a few large deposits scattered across the planet, in the form, respectively, of phosphate rock and potash. After less than a century of industrial ag, we're starting to burn through them...

Given that a savvy investor like Grantham calls Morocco's phosphate holdings "the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history," you can bet that the Polisario Front isn't going to let the Moroccan government control it without a fight. In other words, a scarce mineral key to the future of industrial agriculture is concentrated on geopolitically fraught territory. As Pearce puts it, "If the people of Western Sahara ever resume their war to get their country back—or if the Arab Spring spreads and Morocco goes the way of Libya—then we may be adding phosphate fertilizer to the list of finite resources, such as water and land, that are constraining world food supplies sooner than we think."

Yet something tells me that peak phosphorus will continue to be an obscure topic. I've been writing about it since 2008 (see here, here, here, and here). Foreign Policy ran a major piece on it in 2010; 2011 brought Pearce's article as well as a profile of Grantham in no less a forum than the New York Times Magazine, in which he talked up peak phosphorus at length. Even after all of that, I can think of few crucial issues as far from the center of public conversation than the phosphorus shortage. We've haven't really begun to face the problem of climate change; our reliance on mined phosphorus doesn't register at all. It's easy to ignore crises whose most dire consequences loom decades away.

But the next time someone facilely insists that the "industrial farms are the future," ask what the plan is regarding phosphorus. Developing an agriculture that's ready for a phosphorus shortage means a massive focus on recycling the nutrients we take from the soil back into the soil—in other words, composting, not on a backyard level but rather on a society-wide scale. It also requires policies that give farmers incentives to build up organic matter in soil, so it holds in nutrients instead of letting them leach away (another massive problem stemming from our reliance on abundant NPK). Both of these solutions, of course, are specialties of organic agriculture...

(28 November 2012)

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