From ‘International Herald Tribune’ a powerful blog…
A new report proposes agro-ecology as a way to feed the world
The oldest and most common dig against organic agriculture is that it cannot feed the world’s citizens; this, however, is a supposition, not a fact. And industrial agriculture isn’t working perfectly, either: the global food price index is at a record high, and our agricultural system is wreaking havoc with the health not only of humans but of the earth. There are around a billion undernourished people; we can also thank the current system for the billion who are overweight or obese.
Yet there is good news: increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels and experts (not hippies!) are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic — perhaps best called “sustainable” — can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production and, in the long term, become the norm.
On Tuesday, Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the Right to Food, presented a report entitled “Agro-ecology and the Right to Food.” (Agro-ecology, he said in a telephone interview last Friday, has “lots” in common with both “sustainable” and “organic.”) Chief among de Schutter’s recommendations is this: “Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just.”
Agro-ecology, he said, immediately helps “small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.” Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks. (Calling it a system is a convention; it’s actually quite anarchic, what with all these starving and overweight people canceling each other out.)
Industrial (or “conventional”) agriculture requires a great deal of resources, including disproportionate amounts of water and the fossil fuel that’s needed to make chemical fertilizer, mechanize working the land and its crops, running irrigation sources, heat buildings and crop dryers and, of course, transportation. This means it needs more in the way of resources than the earth can replenish. (Fun/depressing fact: It takes the earth 18 months to replenish the amount of resources we use each year. Looked at another way, we’d need 1.5 earths to be sustainable at our current rate of consumption.)
Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellectual — much research remains to be done — and physical: the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization. Many adherents rule out nothing, including in their recommendations even GMOs and chemical fertilizers where justifiable. Meanwhile, those working towards improving conventional agriculture are borrowing more from organic methods. (Many of these hybrid systems were discussed convincingly in Andrew Revkin’s DotEarthblog last week.)
Currently, however, it’s difficult to see progress in a country where, for example, nearly 90 percent of the corn crop is used for either ethanol (40 percent) or animal feed (50 percent). And most of the diehard adherents of industrial agriculture — sadly, this usually includes Congress, which largely ignores these issues — act as if we’ll somehow “fix” global warming and the resulting climate change. (The small percentage of climate-change deniers are still arguing with Copernicus.) Their assumption is that by increasing supply, we’ll eventually figure out how to feed everyone on earth, even though we don’t do that now, our population is going to be nine billion by 2050, and more supply of the wrong things — oil, corn, beef — only worsens things. Many seem to naively believe that we won’t run out of the resources we need to keep this system going.
There is more than a bit of silver-bullet thinking here. Yet anyone who opens his or her eyes sees a natural world so threatened by industrial agriculture that it’s tempting to drop off the grid and raise a few chickens.
To back up and state some obvious goals: We need a global perspective, the (moral) recognition that food is a basic right and the (practical) one that sustainability is a high priority. We want to reduce and repair environmental damage, cut back on the production and consumption of resource-intensive food, increase efficiency and do something about waste. (Some estimate that 50 percent of all food is wasted.) A sensible and nutritious diet for everyone is essential; many people will eat better, and others may eat fewer animal products, which is also a eating better.
De Schutter and others who agree with the goals of the previous paragraph say that sustainable agriculture should be the immediate choice for underdeveloped countries, and that even developed countries should take only the best aspects of conventional agriculture along on a ride that leaves all but the best of its methods behind. Just last month, the U.K.’s government office for science published “The Future of Food and Farming,” which is both damning of the current resource-intensive system (though it is decidedly pro-GMO) and encouraging of sustainable, and which led de Schutter to say that studies demonstrate that sustainable agriculture can more than double yields in just a few years.
No one knows how many people can be fed this way, but a number of experts and studies — including those from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the University of Michigan andWorldwatch — seem to be lining up to suggest that sustainable agriculture is a system more people should choose. For developing nations, especially those in Africa, the shift from high- to low-tech farming can happen quickly, said de Schutter: “It’s easiest to make the transition in places that still have a direction to take.” But, he added, although “in developed regions the shift away from industrial mode will be difficult to achieve,” ultimately even those countries most “addicted” to chemical fertilizers must change.
“We have to move towards sustainable production,” he said. “We cannot depend on the gas fields of Russia or the oil fields of the Middle East, and we cannot continue to destroy the environment and accelerate climate change. We must adopt the most efficient farming techniques available.”
And those, he and others emphasize, are not industrial but sustainable.
Sanitation concerns in post-quake Christchurch
Wendy Zukerman, Australasia reporter
In the New Zealand city of Christchurch authorities are scrambling to restore water supplies and sewage systems which were severely damaged by last week’s 6.3-magnitude earthquake.
(Image: Jamie Ball/Rex Features)
Isolated cases of measles and gastroenteritis have been reported. According to Humphrey the gastro cases were likely to have been water-borne and the result of people brushing their teeth with contaminated water – rather than spread through human contact.
But, a Canterbury District Health Board spokeswoman told the New Zealand Herald: “There is an underlying potential for there to be a measles outbreak. There’s a chance of an outbreak of gastro diseases.”
Many residents are living in camps, where the poor sanitation and cramped living conditions are perfect for disease outbreaks.
On Friday, Cowles Stadium welfare centre – which provided accommodation for Christchurch earthquake evacuees – was forced to close because its water and sewage services were not considered reliable.
Radio New Zealand reported that the Christchurch City Council was “worried about disease” at the stadium, and said it could not “afford an outbreak of diarrhoea.”
All citizens are being encouraged to boil their water before consuming it.
At 12.51 pm local time today – precisely one week from when the earthquake struck, burying as many as 200 people – the city stood silent for 2 minutes.
Mental health is seen as a growing concern in the city, too. A doctor from a nearby hospital that has been helping patients told the New Zealand Herald, “We had walking wounded coming in initially on Tuesday – people with cuts, minor injuries and things like that. We are starting to get more people with shock coming in and I expect that to increase.”
The tectonic forces that are shredding New Zealand
The week of 22 February the New Zealand city of Christchurch felt the force of a 6.3-magnitude earthquake. The quake came just five months after an even larger one struck 40 kilometres west of Christchurch, near the town of Darfield. In fact New Zealand experiences around 14,000 tremors each year, although most are too small to be felt. They are a sign of the tectonic processes that are gradually shredding the country.
Why is New Zealand so prone to earthquakes?
Regions that lie close to a boundary between tectonic plates tend to feel more quakes than areas in the middle of a plate. New Zealand may have a total land area of just 27,000 square kilometres, but that area happens to coincide with the margin between the Pacific and Australian plates, leaving parts of the island very seismically active.
Which areas are most vulnerable?
Large areas of both North and South Islands have felt earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 5 within the past 200 years. This is because of New Zealand’s unique tectonic regime: despite its small size, the country feels the impact of three distinct regions of tectonic activity.
The relatively low-density continental crust of the North Island, which sits on the Australian plate, is forcing the dense oceanic crust on the Pacific plate beneath it in a process called subduction. This creates a so-called destructive plate margin that is nibbling away at the Pacific plate. Earthquakes are common where a subducting plate grinds against the underside of an overriding plate.
Something similar is occurring to the south-west of South Island. But here the sliver of continental crust lies on the Pacific plate, and it is the Australian plate that is being destroyed through subduction.
In between, the continental crust on the Pacific and Australian plates slide past one another on South Island, creating a conservative plate margin where crust is neither created nor destroyed. This area is still prone to earthquakes, most notably along the Alpine fault. Further away from these fault zones the ground is generally more quiescent. Christchurch is over 100 kilometres from the Alpine fault.
So what caused the Christchurch quake?
It was caused by a new fault – or, to be more precise, a previously unrecognised fault.
“The fault is likely to have existed previously – and possibly produced earthquakes before – but they have not ruptured recently, in a geological sense,” says John Townend at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The unrecognised fault appears to be an offshoot from the Alpine fault. Unfortunately for the residents of Christchurch, that offshoot passes very near South Island’s largest city.
Are more quakes on the fault likely?
Earthquake prediction is an inexact science, despite tantalising evidence thatearly warning systems may be possible in some cases. But some seismologists are cautiously optimistic.
“An earthquake of this magnitude does a good job of releasing stress,” says Gary Gibson, a seismologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Townend agrees: “My interpretation of what we are seeing near Christchurch is temporary, albeit harrowing, activity in what is generally a relatively low-seismicity part of the broad plate boundary.”
What’s the long-term prognosis for New Zealand?
Even if Christchurch dodges major seismic activity in the near future, tectonic forces will continue to act on New Zealand. Hamish Campbell at the research consultancy GNS Science in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, says it’s “very unlikely” that the newly recognised fault will have any serious effect on the country’s geography, but activity on the Alpine fault may well do so.
The rocks on either side of the Alpine fault are grinding past each other quickly – at around 30 millimetres per year. The southern part of South Island has moved at least 480 kilometres relative to the northern part within the past 25 million years. That rate of movement is “colossal”, says Campbell – and not far off the displacement seen on the world-famous San Andreas fault in California, which is itself a conservative plate margin.
Fast forward several million years and New Zealand will continue to twist and turn. The activity that is already shredding the country will ultimately see South Island “split in two along the Alpine boundary”, says Campbell. The town of Kaikoura would be at the northern tip of one island, with Greymouth at the southern tip of the other, he predicts.
The Alpine fault that runs along the mountainous spine of South Island marks the boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates. It now appears likely that the Christchurch quake resulted from a previously unknown fault extending directly eastward from the Alpine fault.
It first came to light last September when a stronger but less calamitous quake shook Darfield, 40 kilometres west of Christchurch. Seismologists believe the latest quake resulted from …
Today’s fatal earthquake near Christchurch in New Zealand confirms that a country already riddled with major fault lines has gained another one, say seismologists.
“Christchurch has never been identified as a major earthquake zone, because no one knew this fault ran beneath,” says Roger Musson, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.
New Zealand experiences thousands of earthquakes each year, because it lies on the boundary between the Pacific and the Australian tectonic plates. To the north-east, the Pacific plate is subducting beneath New Zealand’s North Island, and to the south-west, the Australian plate is subducting beneath the South Island. Between these two subduction zones lies theAlpine fault, running along the mountainous spine of the South Island.
It now appears likely that the Christchurch quake resulted from activity on a fault extending directly eastward from the Alpine fault that remained unknown until last year, says Musson.
The new fault first came to light last September when a stronger but less calamitous quakeshook Darfield, 40 kilometres west of Christchurch. Musson says the latest quake probably resulted from an eastward continuation of activity on the same fault. “It has probably not moved for tens of thousands of years, so lots of strain built up,” says Musson.
Christchurch was understandably unprepared for activity on a fault that is only now making its presence known. But two factors made today’s damage worse. The quake was just 5 kilometres down, limiting the amount of energy it dissipated before reaching Christchurch from its epicentre just 10 kilometres away. Also, the rock on either side of the fault accelerated almost three times as fast as in a typical quake, says Musson, so the shaking was extra violent – and significantly greater than the levels Christchurch’s structures have been designed to withstand
COMMENT: The Chinese as a people have somewhat of a mixed response to their environment – they recycle seemingly everything, with people whose job it is go through your rubbish – literally; Shanghai has a huge range of parks and is very green. The skyline above Shanghai was clear with blue skies during Expo 2010, but they are now grey again…. The big question is: can this new ‘economic powerhouse’ balance its needs and impacts – the needs of its people ‘now’ and needs of its future, as-yet-unborn generations and its environment – right!? Can China live sustainably…
In just two years, the idea of a “green economy”, with its links to sustainable development and poverty eradication, has gone from being an interesting idea to being one of the top two issues at the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20.
Many people may wonder whether the green economy is just pleasing jargon or a genuinely new pathway to a low-carbon, resource-efficient and sustainable 21st century. Is it a fundamental departure from the development models of the past that its advocates proclaim, or just another case of the emperor’s new environmental clothes?
Perhaps the answer can be found in some of the extraordinary transitions taking place in electricity and other energy sectors about the world. Many people, for example, scoff at the idea that solar power could be anything but a niche market for enthusiasts or a costly white elephant, over-hyped by environmental do-gooders. In 2002, one private equity fund estimated that annual installations of solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays might reach 1.5 gigawatts (gW) by 2010. In fact, 17.5 gW was installed in 2010, up 130 percent from 2009. And PV installations have been forecast to increase further this year, by perhaps 20.5 gW, taking global capacity to about 50 gW – the equivalent of about 15 nuclear reactors.
All this is not happening only in developed economies like Germany, Spain and the United States, but in countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Morocco. Indeed, according to an estimate by IMS Market Research, more than 30 countries will be part of this emerging solar revolution by 2015.
None of this has come about by chance. Some countries have moved early to embrace the energy dimension of a green economy, and have introduced the necessary public policies and incentives. Considerable manufacturing capacity has been added, which has halved costs over the past two years. In fact, PV prices are set to halve again this year.
A nuclear power plant can take 10-15 years to build, and a coal-fired power station about five years. Mid-size solar plants of 5-10 negawatts, however, are now taking only about three months to get from the planning stage to construction. With the advent of smart grids and free-market pricing, solar PV seems well positioned to provide solutions that are quick to build and scalable.
The International Energy Agency estimates that, to achieve universal access to electricity by 2030, about $33 billion in additional annual investments in the power sector will be needed. That sounds like a lot of money, especially in the wake of the economic and financial crisis that is still troubling large parts of the world. But new investment just in solar PV was about $89 billion in 2010. Multibillion-dollar investments also flowed into new wind farms, geothermal plants and a host of other renewable-energy technologies.
The green shoots of a green economy are emerging across the power sector, driven by concerns about climate change, air pollution and energy security – as well as by the desire to generate new kinds of competitive, employment-growing industries. They can also be seen in the growth of recycling industries in South Korea, or the way Indonesia is factoring forests into its social and economic planning. The challenge for Rio+20 is to agree on a range of forward-looking policies that can be deployed in part or in whole to accelerate all of this up.
At the UN Environment Program’s upcoming Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, we will launch a landmark contribution to this debate, with the release of A Transition to a Green Economy. The report analyzes how a global investment of 2 percent of global GDP in the green economy could unleash economic growth and positive social outcomes, while keeping humanity’s planetary footprint within sustainable boundaries.
In particular, the catalytic choices for 10 sectors – from agriculture, fisheries and forests to transport and buildings – are as relevant to developing as they are to developed countries. And they are equally relevant to State-led and more market-driven economies.
There will always be those who smile skeptically at the mere notion of a green economy and dismiss such far-reaching transitions. It is time to put the numbers on the table and show how advances in solar power alone are starting to prove them wrong.
The author is UN under-secretary general and UN Environment Program (UNEP) executive director. Project Syndicate.
The Guardian reports on BP and the oil industry….
Analysts said that blaming the oil industry, and not singling out BP, would help the company in its fight against being found guilty of gross negligence. But industry and legal sources told the Guardian that BP would still have to strike a deal out of court to settle myriad lawsuits.
BP is more likely to escape the potentially ruinous charge of gross negligence, according to City analysts, after a powerful US commission blamed “systemic” causes for the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Barack Obama’s national commission released part of its final report into the disaster last night on Wednesday night. The report, to be published next week, could influence several other parallel investigations into the spill that are yet to finish.
The commission was scathing in its criticism of BP, as well as its contractors Halliburton and Transocean, which it blamed for a collective “failure of management”. But it added that it had found no evidence that the blowout which led to last April’s disaster was the result of “aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials”.
Commission co-chair William K Reilly said: “So a key question posed from the outset by this tragedy is, do we have a single company, BP, that blundered with fatal consequences, or a more pervasive problem of a complacent industry? Given the documented failings of both Transocean and Halliburton, both of which serve the offshore industry in virtually every ocean, I reluctantly conclude we have a system-wide problem.”
Analysts said that blaming the oil industry, and not singling out BP, would help the company in its fight against being found guilty of gross negligence. But industry and legal sources told the Guardian that BP would still have to strike a deal out of court to settle myriad lawsuits. Separately, the US justice department has launched a civil action against BP and is investigating potential criminal violations.
BP shares rose by more than 2% during morning trading in London but finished the day slightly down. Analysts expect BP to resume paying dividends – which were suspended last summer under intense White House pressure – when it reports full-year results on 1 February, as the company tries to move on from the disaster.
Before the spill the company paid out $10bn (£6.5bn) annually to shareholders but it is likely to resume dividends at only half that level. Investors could receive dividends for the last quarter of 2010 as soon as March.
Analyst Peter Hitchens, of stockbroker Panmure Gordon, said: “The national commission’s report is another chink of light for BP. BP was named and held responsible in the report but it also said ‘we can’t solely blame BP’.
“It’s hinting that there won’t be a finding of gross negligence. What seems to be coming through is there was an unfortunate string of accidents which led to the disaster. BP had a near-death experience. But time is a great healer for BP, it seems.”
The national commission report was also highly critical of the now-disbanded offshore regulator, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which it previously accused of giving a higher priority to increasing production in the gulf than to safety. The full report, to be released on Tuesday, is likely to recommend a radical overhaul of the regulatory regime to improve offshore drilling.
Charlie Kronick, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said: “The report sets up a big flag that the regulatory regime is going to be much tighter. The new regulator has already indicated that it won’t be a permit-fest once new guidelines for offshore drilling are drawn up.”
But he said that pointing the finger at BP’s contractors should not exonerate the company from blame. “Halliburton and Transocean were operating on BP’s behalf. It’s hard to see how that lets BP off the hook.”
If BP avoids a charge of gross negligence it will be able to charge its junior partners in the fateful Macondo well – Anadarko and Mitsui – for a third of the costs. US federal fines would triple under a gross negligence finding, with JP Morgan estimating that the total bill for BP under this scenario could be as high as $69bn.
BP has made good progress in its programme of selling assets worth $25-30bn, having netted about $20bn so far.
Lessons from the oil spill…
Following one of the biggest disasters in recent history, BP boss Tony Hayward admitted to his company’s insufficient response to the Deepwater Horizon rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico. But was there anything better they could have done to avert the tragedy?
January 8, 2011 – Washington
Following one of the biggest disasters in recent history, BP boss Tony Hayward admitted to his company’s insufficient response to the Deepwater Horizon rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico. But was there anything better they could have done to avert the tragedy?
Obama’s commission pointed out lack of safety procedures as a determining factor behind the disaster.
“Major accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could also happen in the North Sea. But strong, organizational barriers between the oil industry, trade unions and the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway reduce the risk,” says Preben Lindoe, professor of societal safety and security at the University of Stavanger, Norway.
The researchers compare oil industry regulation in the USA, Great Britain and Norway.
The US regulator, Minerals Management Service, carries out inspections based on a fairly meticulous body of rules. Inspectors are transported to offshore installations, equipped with long and detailed check lists.
Norwegian authorities rely on the companies administering their safety work themselves. The model is based on trust – built up over time.
“The reason this model has succeeded in Norway, is because the parties have been able to fill the concept of internal control with substance. Both employers and unions are involved in developing industrial standards and good practice which can be adhered to,” he said.
“When attention fades, accidents happen more easily, and are followed by increased awareness. Societal safety is thus a perpetual Sisyphus effort. It is a big challenge for all organizations to maintain a high level of safety awareness over time,” he added.
According to Lindoe and associate professor Ole Andreas Engen, it is common practice in the US to look for scapegoats, and pin the blame for accidents on them, instead of changing the systems.
In Norway, the parties are more likely to come together to find out how systems and routines may have contributed to an employee making a mistake.
The researcher sum up the lessons learned after the Gulf of Mexico disaster:
“The Deepwater Horizon accident has uncovered some evident weaknesses within US safety regulation. The Government being restrained from intervening directly with the industry is one of them.
“To the Norwegian industry, this accident and the near-accident on Gullfaks C, should serve as reminders of the importance of maintaining the foundation pillars of the Norwegian safety management system: Effective and well qualified authorities, and clear guidelines for cooperation and trust between the parties,” Lindoe concluded.
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