Tag Archives: food

National Climate Assessment – censored?

13 U.S. agencies, including NOAA, NASA and EPA, are required to produce a National Climate Assessment every four years. The thing about bureaucracy, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad, is that it grinds on somewhat disconnected from the political process. So the latest National Climate Assessment has been produced. It has to be approved by political appointees in the agencies before it can be officially released, but no matter because the New York Times has posted the key appendix here, called the U.S. Global Change Research Program: Climate Science Special Report. I’ll post a couple excerpts below:

First, a bit of the up-front matter:

The findings in this report are based on a large body of scientific, peer-reviewed research, as well as a number of other publicly available sources, including well-established and carefully evaluated observational and modeling datasets. The team of authors carefully reviewed these sources to ensure a reliable assessment of the state of scientific understanding. Each source of information was determined to meet the four parts of the IQA Guidance provided to authors: 1) utility, 2) transparency and traceability, 3) objectivity, and 4) integrity and security. Report authors assessed and synthesized information from peer-reviewed journal articles, technical reports produced by federal agencies, scientific assessments (such as IPCC 2013), reports of the National Academy of Sciences and its associated National Research Council, and various regional climate impact assessments, conference proceedings, and government statistics (such as population census and energy usage).

“Fake news published by the failing New York Times”, indeed! I vowed never to forgive the New York Times for their role in the Iraq invasion debacle, but they are beginning to redeem themselves. The Trump junta seems to be getting frustrated that their Goebbels-esque propaganda isn’t just getting parrotted unopposed.

And now, I’ll just share this graphic which I found a bit shocking:


One interesting thing is you might think Florida or Georgia might be the wrong place to be, but these maps suggest they may not change as much and the rest of the country will sort of catch up to create one big Jurassic stew. Now, people live in hotter places than Florida and Georgia and manage to get along just fine. The real question is whether we can grow food under these conditions.

If you don’t believe me that this is disconnected from the political process, read this Guardian article about how the USDA has been instructed to avoid the term climate change. That is the agency responsible for our nation’s food security.

Staff at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been told to avoid using the term climate change in their work, with the officials instructed to reference “weather extremes” instead…

The primary cause of human-driven climate change is also targeted, with the term “reduce greenhouse gases” blacklisted in favor of “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency”. Meanwhile, “sequester carbon” is ruled out and replaced by “build soil organic matter”.

Reading on, I have to say it isn’t clear how high up the political chain this directive came from, or whether it is a mid-level supervisor advising staff how to stay out of political trouble. Self-censorship is still censorship though, and indicates the politicians have created a climate (no pun intended) of caution and fear for scientists. I can’t argue with building organic matter though, which would be good with or without climate change.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!


organic farming and soil fertility

This study in Ecological Economics looked at the effects of organic vs. conventional farming and owner vs. tenant farmers on soil biochemical activity. To paraphrase and oversimplify, what they found is that owners take better care of the soil than tenants, but organic farming methods can offset this effect so that the soil remains active under either type of farmer. I also found it interesting to hear how scientists use enzymes to measure the health of soil, which is a living system after all.

Various effects of land tenure on soil biochemical parameters under organic and conventional farming − Implications for soil quality restoration

Land tenure insecurity is one of the worldwide problems that often leads to soil degradation. We tested whether owner-operators maintain a higher level of soil quality and biochemical activity than tenant-operators and how this effect is modified by the agricultural system (organic vs. conventional) in arable fields. We selected 45 plots with cambisol soil based on a factorial design of owner-operator vs. tenant-operator and organic vs. conventional management. On all tested plots, the crop was wheat in shortly after harvest. We measured total carbon in soil and a set of 8 soil enzymes: acid phosphatase, β-glucosidase, α-glucosidase, cellobiohydrolase, β-xylosidase, chitinase, glucuronidase and arylsulfatase. These enzymes participate in the main geochemical nutrient cycles in soils.

Differences in the activity of 4 out of these 8 enzymes and differences in the weighted means of the total enzyme activity show a joint effect and indicated higher biochemical activity of the soil under conventional farming in plots farmed by owners. However, when organic farming was practiced, no obvious differences in enzymatic activity were found between soils farmed by owners or by tenants. The total carbon showed a similar pattern, although not significant.

Generally, we conclude that farmer’s motivation for making investments in soil health is driven by tenure security, especially in cases where the farm economy depends on profit from crop yields. However, the positive features of tenure security can also be ensured by effective agroecological standards, strict rules, higher levels of subsidies and other incentives that are typically provided for organic farming. We propose that changes in agricultural policies may not only stop land degradation in various parts of the world but also support ecosystem restoration process.

I think research on organic farming is crucial. (And no, “organic” is not the perfect word to describe it, but everybody knows what it means so it works.) If we are going to feed 10 billion or more people, we have to get more food from the same land because there is not going to be a whole lot more farm land opening up on this planet. In the past, we have done exactly this by dumping fossil fertilizer and irrigation water on our crops. This may continue to work for awhile, but it doesn’t seem sustainable for a number of reasons, ranging from overpumping of groundwater to loss of glaciers and snowpack we have relied on to nutrient pollution of our coastal waters to desertification to collapse of fisheries, all at the same time the population is not only growing but each individual’s impact is growing. If we can find ways to actually improve the land and soil over time, without causing pollution downstream, and without losing yield, that would be ideal.

food security in Asia and the Pacific

This 2013 report from the Asian Development Bank has some eye-popping statistics.

Trends in population, economic growth, industrialization, urbanization, and changing dietary patterns have largely encumbered already scarce natural resources. Total arable land per person in East and South Asia has been shrinking, falling from almost one-quarter hectare per person 50 years ago to an estimated one-tenth hectare by 2050. Water resources are also strained. Across Asia, between 60% and 90% of water is used for agriculture. However, share of household and industrial water consumption almost doubled during 1992–2002. The region would need an additional 2.4 billion cubic meters of water each day to provide each consumer with 1,800 calories per day by 2050. The growth in yields has been declining in Asia. And the projected impact of climate change will significantly affect soil and water resources in many subregions.

Expanding cultivated lands is no longer an option for food production growth in nearly all countries in Asia and the Pacifi c. Although most arable land is accounted for, there remains considerable room to increase crop yields even with currently available resources and existing technologies—provided appropriate market incentives and public support mechanisms are in place. Agricultural output and productivity can be raised in two broad ways: (i) through improved productivity at the farm level, and (ii) through better postharvest productivity. In South and Southeast Asia, about one-third of food production is lost as it travels through the supply chain.

During my brief time living in Asia and working on urban development and water resources projects, I started to have a sense that the sheer scale of human activity in Asia is such that it will determine our civilization’s future. What we do here in the United States or the western hemisphere more generally is less consequential, simply because we don’t have the scale of population, agricultural and industrial production, consumption, and more importantly, exponential growth of all these things that Asia is experiencing.

I am not an expert on agriculture, so it is easy for me to sit here and opine on organic farming and sustainable agriculture. Feeding people by the billions is a serious business where any missteps have unacceptable consequences, and so far a combination of irrigation, fossil-fuel derived fertilizer, massive surface water diversion and groundwater mining has largely managed to do that, although the poor sometimes get left behind. In the short term I don’t think we want to disrupt this system. But we better give some serious thought to whether it is sustainable (in the dictionary sense) in the face of exponential population and consumption growth. If not, the scale of human misery that will result could be truly awful.

So I would look for incremental improvements to farming practices that increase sustainability and reduce long-term risk without decreasing output. Soil and water conservation seem like a good place to start to me. If your farming practices are building the amount and fertility of the soil from year to year without causing water scarcity or pollution, that is a good clue that you may be doing something sustainable.

what’s going on with mad cow?

Mad cow disease is scary because there is such a long time between when someone is infected and when they begin to show symptoms, the kind of disease that could spread through large portions of a population before anyone realizes it is there. I am not saying it has, I don’t know. This article in Alternet doesn’t really address the current status, but it goes through some interesting history of the first outbreak in the U.S.

On December 23, 2003, the USDA announced that a Holstein cow, imported from Canada and slaughtered in Moses Lake, Washington, tested positive for mad cow disease. Ann Veneman, USDA secretary at the time and other USDA officials, said the cow was discovered because she was a “downer”––unable to walk—which was how the system screened for mad cows. In other words, the system “worked.” The problem was three workers said the cow had walked just fine suggesting that the entire federal mad cow testing program was worthless. Congressional hearings ensued.

As it turned out, congressional troubles were the least of cattle producers’ problems. Within hours of the mad cow announcement, China, Mexico, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea and ninety other countries banned US beef and 98 percent of the $3 billion overseas beef market vanished. (The only reason the EU didn’t ban US beef was it was already banned for its hormones oestradiol-17, trenbolone acetate, zeranol and melengestrol which EU officials said increased breast and prostate cancer risks.)

After the first mad cow, things got worse. Two more mad cows were found in the US in 2004 and they weren’t from Canada. One was born in Texas and the other Alabama. Worse, a USDA export verification report admitted that 29 downers at two unidentified slaughterhouses went into the human food supply and twenty were not tested for mad cow disease.

Most of the countries mentioned lifted their ban shortly afterward, but China apparently is just lifting it now, according to NPR:

Cooked chicken from birds grown and raised in China soon will be headed to America — in a trade deal that’s really about beef…

The Chinese appetite for beef is huge and growing, but American beef producers have been locked out of that market since a case of mad cow disease cropped up in the U.S. in 2003. In response, many countries, including South Korea, Japan, Mexico and China, banned imports of U.S. beef…

Many people long had seen China’s refusal to lift its ban on U.S. beef imports as a negotiating tactic, a tit for tat aimed at allowing Chinese chicken imports into the United States. The negotiations that led to the new trade deal have been going back and forth for more than a decade, stalled at one point by worries in Congress over China’s food-safety practices.

This might be good for the U.S. beef industry in the short term, but an exploding demand for beef can’t really be good for the world in the longer term. Maybe this is not the kind of industry of the future that the U.S. should be focusing on. I’ll admit I’m a hypocrite – I love a good cheeseburger, but I try to treat it as an occasional treat rather than a staple food.

March 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • La Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • Trump admires Andrew Jackson, who I consider a genocidal lunatic and the worst President in U.S. history.
  • Fluoridated drinking water could eventually be looked back on as a really stupid idea that damaged several generations of developing brains, like leaded gasoline. Or not…I’m not sure who to believe on the issue but caution is clearly warranted.

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new political survey says there is a chance that a majority of Americans are not bat-shit crazy. Which suggests they might not be too serious about Steve Bannon, who believes in some bat-shit crazy stuff. There are a number of apps and guides out there to help sane people pester our elected representatives when they fail to represent our interests.
  • South Korean women are projected to be the first to break the barrier of an average life expectancy of 90, with a 50% probability of this happening by 2030.
  • Advanced power strips can reduce the so-called “vampire loads” of our modern electronic devices that are never really off.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • This long NASA article first gets you excited about the possibility of life on eight new planets it has just discovered, and then throws cold water (actually, make that lethal X-rays) all over your excitement.
  • Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • CRISPR could be used to create new crops out of the wild ancestors of our current crops.

palm oil and peat

Mongabay explains why draining peatlands to grow oil palms is not a great idea.

Peat is a type of soil composed of partially decayed organic material such as vegetation that accumulates over time in a water-saturated environment lacking in oxygen. Peatlands are characterized by a thick layer of peat, often several meters deep that can take thousands of years to form.

Peat swamp forests act as massive carbon sinks, and when they are drained, carbon that has been slowly captured over the centuries it takes the peat to form is suddenly released into the atmosphere. A group of scientists recently uncovered the world’s largest tropical peatland in the Congo basin, thought to store the equivalent of three years’ worth of the world’s total fossil fuel emissions. The draining of peatlands can also lead to widespread subsidence, or sinking, as the organic matter rapidly decompresses and decomposes, ultimately rendering land unsuitable for agricultural or community development, according to NGO Wetlands International.

Across Southeast Asia, peat swamp forests have been cleared, drained, and burned away, often replaced by monocrop plantations or construction projects. Malaysia and Indonesia’s vast peatlands have been significantly reduced by large-scale draining and drying, leading to huge forest and peat fires across the region – such as the 2015 haze crisis that scientists say may have led to the premature deaths of 100,000 people. The event subsequently led Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to ban the clearance and conversion of peat swamps.


using CRISPR to create new crops

This article in Trends in Plant Science (which I know you’ve seen, since it flies off the news stands) argues that CRISPR should be used to create entirely new crops out of wild plants, mimicking the process that created our most common cereal crops over thousands of years.

Of the more than 300 000 plant species that exist, less than 200 are commercially important, and three species – rice, wheat, and maize – account for the major part of the plant-derived nutrients that humans consume.

Plants with desirable traits, such as perennials with extensive root systems and nitrogen-fixing plants, are currently being domesticated as new crops…

Several traits in crops that were crucial for their domestication are caused by mutations that can be reproduced by genome-editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9, offering the potential for accelerated domestication of new crops.