Tag Archives: agriculture

Interaction of agriculture and climate change: opportunties of synergistic policies

Agriculture and Climate Change: An Agenda for Negotiation in Copenhagen by Gerald Nelson, a new report from IFPRI, argues that due to the substantial impacts of climate on agriculture and agriculture of climate, agricultural policy should be coupled to climate policy.  SciDev.net reorts Put agriculture at heart of climate talks, says report

Mark Rosegrant, director of the Environment and Production Technology Division of IFPRI, said that the effect of climate change on agriculture was “uncertain and variable around the world. But one thing is very clear: that the poor and developing countries are more vulnerable.”

Developing countries have less rainfall, are more dependent on agriculture and face greater obstacles to adaptation, he said.

IFPRI has made provisional estimates that the global yield of rain-fed maize will decline by 17 per cent and the yield of irrigated rice will drop by a fifth by 2050 as a result of climate change. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will be the worst hit, according to the new data.

But the way agriculture will suffer as a result of climate change is only half of the story, the report argues. Its role in influencing climate change is also being ignored, despite the “huge potential to cost-effectively mitigate greenhouse gases through changes in agricultural technologies and management practices”.

Agriculture contributes about 14 per cent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. But by changing the types of crops grown, reducing land tillage and switching from annual to perennial crops — as well as changing crop genetics and improving the management of irrigation and fertiliser use — greenhouse gas emissions could be cut.

The report suggests several potential negotiating outcomes (for more information see the report):

  • Fund cost-effective mitigation in agriculture and research on promising technologies and management systems
  • Fund low-cost systems for monitoring agricultural mitigation
  • Allow innovative payment mechanisms and support for novel institutions for agricultural mitigation
  • Allow funding mechanisms that recognize the connection between pro-poor development policies for sustainable growth and sound climate change policies
  • Allow funding mechanisms that recognize and support synergies between adaptation and mitigation
  • Provide funds for agricultural science and technology
  • Provide funds for infrastructure and institutional innovations
  • Provide funds for data collection on the local context of agriculture

A diversification of French Farm policy?

Change in agricultural policy in France.  From the Independent Farming policy: an end to French hypocrisy?

After 46 years of shovelling farm subsidies to its richer, more polluting farmers, France yesterday took a historic step towards a greener and fairer European agriculture policy.

Paris announced that from next year it would confiscate over 20 per cent of the billions of euros of European taxpayers’ money paid to its ranch-like cereals farms and divert the cash to hill farmers, grazing land, shepherds and organic agriculture.

The announcement brings to an end almost half-a-century of official hypocrisy in which French governments have talked about protecting “family farms” and “quality food” but allowed the bulk of European largesse to flow to chemical-assisted, hedge-free, cereals-ranching in northern, central and eastern France.

Terra preta the only way to save our civilization?

James Lovelock appears to be marginally more positive about our civilization’s capacity to avoid collapse, because of terra preta in a New Scientist interview One last chance to save mankind.  He says:

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

Would it make enough of a difference?

Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.

Do you think we will survive?

I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 per cent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It’s happening again.

I don’t think humans react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what’s coming up. Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing’s been done except endless talk and meetings.

Ecosystem service questions: Whose pollen? Whose pollinators?

As the world becomes more human dominated and people enclose an increasing number of ecological commons we can probably expect conflicts over ecosystem services to become more common. In California there is currently a new conflict over pollination.  From Associated Press: Tangerine growers tell beekeepers to buzz off.

Is it trespassing when bees do what bees do in California’s tangerine groves?

Mega-grower Paramount Citrus has already sent letters to beekeepers near the company’s Kern County clementine groves threatening legal action and promising to seek “compensation for any and all damages caused to its crops, as well as punitive damages” if seeds develop. Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The new regulations would affect Kern, Tulare, Fresno and Madera counties in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where many orange growers converted to easy-to-peel tangerines. The fruit’s California acreage was expanded from 24,000 in 2005 to 31,392 in 2008 to compete with imports from Spain and the Middle East.

Tangerines and other normally seedless mandarins do not need bees to move pollen from the male to female parts of the flower in the process known as pollination. But if bees cross-pollinate the crop with the pollen of other fruit, mandarins develop undesireable seeds.

Almond trees on the west side of the valley, on the other hand, need lots of bees to pollinate. For the February pollination season, almond growers hire beekeepers from around the country to bring tens of thousands of hives to California, home to 70 percent of the world’s supply.

As almond blossoms drop in late March, citrus growers say, beekeepers relocate hives to make orange blossom honey before heading to the Midwest for spring clover season.

Some growers, who by law must ban spraying for citrus mites and other pests when bees are present, say the bees are an increasing burden.

“We’ve coexisted with them, but we don’t need them,” said Joel Nelson, executive director of California Citrus Mutual, a trade association. “Now we’re trying to adapt to changing consumer demands, and we’re hamstrung.”

I wonder if this means that allergy sufferers will be able to sue people who plant pollen producing plants?

via Agricultural biodiversity weblog

Mapping global fires

Global Fires : Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory:

Like plants, fire activity grows and wanes in seasonal patterns. Globally, fires peak in July, August, and September, when summer’s drying heat makes vegetation flammable and lightning ignites the landscape. In addition, summer is the time when many crops are harvested and fields are burned in the Northern Hemisphere, where most of Earth’s continents are. On any given day in July, August, or September an estimated 6,000 fires burn across the world. February is the slowest month of the year, with an estimated 3,000 fires per day. To watch fires move across the globe throughout the year, see Fire in the Global Maps section of the Earth Observatory.

The contrast between the two months is shown in this pair of images made from data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. The top image shows all of the fires detected during August 2008, while the lower image shows February 2008. Dense fire concentrations are yellow, while more scattered fires are red. February is clearly the burning season in the tropics. A solid band of red stretches across the Sahel of Africa, and hundreds fires were burning in northern South America, Central America, and southeast Asia. In August, the fire regions shifted into more temperate regions north and south of the Equator. Intense agricultural fires burn in south-central Europe and in southern Africa.

An animation of global fires is available on the Global Maps section of the NASA Earth Observatory

Evaluating Ruddiman’s long anthropocene hypothesis

From In The Field a report on a symposium on Bill Ruddiman‘s long anthropocene hypothesis –  that the development of agriculture caused significant global warming:

Ruddiman’s basic argument goes like this: Although the climate has cycled through a series of ice ages and warm interglacial periods for more than a million years, none of those warm spells looks like the one we’re in. In all previous cases, carbon dioxide and methane concentrations peaked just after the preceding ice age ended and then levels of those greenhouse gases dropped until the planet slipped again into a new glacial epoch. The planet seemed to be following the same routine since the last ice age ended about 11,000 years ago. But then something funny happened. After falling for a few thousand years, carbon dioxide levels started to rise about 8,000 years ago and methane values swung upward 5,000 years ago.

As an explanation, Ruddiman suggests that carbon dioxide concentrations started to grow when early farmers cleared vast stretches of forest to plant crops, thus reducing the planet’s ability to sop up carbon from the atmosphere. Later, when people learned how to irrigate rice 5,000 years ago, the paddies created for that purpose led to a jump in methane emissions. Those changes prevented the planet from slipping into an ice age, he suggested.

At Wednesday’s session, Ruddiman took the provocative stance of saying that the case is closed.

“I think we are at the point where it is a dead end to claim that natural [processes] explain the Holocene trends,” said Ruddiman, an emeritus professor at the University of Virgiinia. If you look at the previous interglacial periods, none show the rising pattern of carbon dioxide and methane. Q.E.D.

Jean Jouzel, director of the Pierre Simon Laplace Institute in Paris, said “the change in methane is huge. It’s difficult to think it’s not natural.” There were so few people alive 5,000 years ago that it would be hard for humans to account for the methane changes, he said. Jouzel was part of a group that examined the interglacials and made the point that they are each unique in some way. So arguments about the uniqueness of the current interglacial leave some researchers cool.

Scenario-planning for robust development in small-scale farming

Making Investments in Dryland Development Work: Participatory Scenario Planning in the Makanya Catchment, Tanzania is a new paper my colleagues Elin Enfors and Line Gordon from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Debbie Bossio from the International Water Management Institute, and I have just had published in Ecology and Society.  Below is part of the press release Scenario-planning help small-scale farming from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Predicting living conditions in 2030
People farming in the world´s drylands are some of the world´s poorest people, their populations are growing, but they have to cope with a variable climate that causes frequent crop failures. Consequently, many governments, NGOs, and scientists are making large efforts to improve productivity in small-scale farming particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

The recent development of cheap, farm-scale water management technologies offer the potential for farmers to improve their farm productivity and reduce their vulnerability to drought. However, often many development investments have failed.

To develop better approaches to investments in water management, Enfors, Gordon, Peterson and Bossio worked with famers, local officials, and scientists in Tanzania to identify alternative ways livelihoods, farming practices, and ecosystems could change over the next 25 years.

“We had two parallel objectives with the scenario planning exercise in Makanya”, says author Elin Enfors.

“The first was to analyze how, investments in water system technologies would play out over a range of alternative, but plausible futures, and the second was to initiate a discussion locally about the catchment’s future development”.

From our paper’s discussion and conclusions

Developing participatory scenarios also proved to be a useful tool to rapidly assess some of the major hopes, fears, and thoughts about the future among people in the local community. Such an overview is useful in any project, especially in a start-up phase. In this particular case, where the objective was to assess the relevance of investments in agricultural technologies that are intended for small-scale farmers, this perspective was essential because the farmers’ risk calculations and expectations of the future will influence whether or not, and under what conditions, they will adopt small-scale water system technologies.

Furthermore, there seems to be a risk that development and applied research projects become trapped in a vision that describes how their proposed interventions will ideally unfold over time. Scenario planning may help overcome such biases as it facilitates an understanding of how the project could develop in different kind of futures and because it improves the understanding of events and processes that either may challenge the project or provide opportunities for it.

We conclude that increasing the robustness of water investments should build

A way to increase the robustness of this type of investments is to build capacity among farmers for innovation and learning through experimentation, as this will generate benefits across a range of possible futures. The analysis shows that there is not one ideal type of collaborative partner for research and development projects working with small-scale agricultural technology, highlighting the importance of identifying a diverse set of potential collaborators.

Follow the links for more of Elin’s research in Makanya, and more photos of Makanya catchment.

How important are pollination ecosystem services?

Nature News reports on a paper by Aizen, Garibaldi, Cunningham & Klein in Current Biology (doi:10.1016/j.cub.2008.08.066) in an article Agriculture unaffected by pollinator declines

Bees and many other insects may be in decline almost everywhere — but agriculture that depends on pollinators has been surprisingly unaffected at the global scale.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Alexandra Klein at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues. Using a data set of global crop production — maintained by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) — which spanned 1961 to 2006, they compared the yields of crops that require pollinators with those that don’t.

They found that crop yields for both crop types have gone up consistently, seeing average annual growth rates of about 1.5%. There was also no difference when the researchers split the data into crops from developing countries and crops from developed countries.

And when the researchers compared crops that are cultivated almost exclusively in tropical regions, they found no difference between the success of insect-pollinated crops — such as oil palm, cocoa and the Brazil nut — and those crops that need only the breeze to spread their pollen.

An interesting finding, but I expect that data collected at the national level is not able to detect current declines in pollination services.  In the news article Klein states that the data doesn’t show the extent to which farmers may have adapted to a decline, and that the world is becoming increasingly reliant on pollinator dependent crops.  They have grown from 8 % of developed world agricultural production in 1961 to about 15% in 2006.

This study also points out the gap between local level ecological understanding and regional to global assessment needs.

Agricultural involution in the IJsselmeer, Netherlands

NASA Earth Observatory shows agricultural development and divisions on reclaimed land in the man-made IJsselmeer in the Netherlands. Over time the heterogenity of the newly created land shown in the image as fields are divided and land uses have diversified.

NASA image of land reclamation in NL

NASA Earth Observatory explains:

NASA’s Landsat satellites captured repeated images of IJsselmeer, and recorded changes on one such polder, shown in the top-middle part of each image. Landsat 2 took the top picture on September 8, 1980. Landsat 5 took the middle picture on May 23, 1989. Landsat 7 captured the bottom image on July 1, 2006. In these false-color images, red indicates vegetation, and the brighter the red, the more robust the plant life. Water appears navy blue. Pavement and bare soil range in color from pale blue to gray-green.

Intensive agriculture’s ecological surprises

regime shift cartoon from TREE paperRhitu Chatterjee has written a news article Intensive agriculture’s ecological surprises in Environ. Sci. Technol. (July 2, 2008) about a paper Agricultural modifications of hydrological flows create ecological surprises (doi:10.1016/j.tree.2007.11.011) that Line Gordon, Elena Bennett and I published in TREE earlier this year.  From the article:

Previous reports have outlined ways that agriculture alters ecosystems by changing hydrology. The new study, led by Line Gordon of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, classifies these changes, or “regime shifts”, from one ecological state to another into three categories: through agriculture’s interaction with aquatic systems, as in the case of nutrient runoff; in the interactions of plants and soil, as in Australia’s salinity issues; or by influencing atmospheric processes such as evaporation and loss of water by plants (transpiration), as in the rapid drying of the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa.

The authors “make it clear that agricultural practices result in these regime changes by altering water quality and available quantity,” says Deborah Bossio, a water expert at Sri Lanka’s International Water Management Institute.

“The increasing demand for food, feed, and fuel is placing enormous pressure on the world’s arable lands,” says ecologist Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia (Canada). Awareness of agriculture-related environmental problems has been growing in the past few years, says Bossio. But some of that awareness has been lost in the “current frenzy of global food crisis shifting the balance back toward increasing yield.”

Be it the desertification of the Sahel, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or the increasing salinity in Australia, countries all over the world are already trying to solve some of these problems. But the fixes are not quick, and the results of their efforts are often hard to predict.

Given the difficult-to-repair, or even irreparable, nature of the problems, agricultural systems must be made resilient to change, the authors argue. The new study adds to “the increasing chorus of voices” that emphasizes the need to avoid irreversible ecological damage, says Donner.

However, the science of understanding ecological regime shifts is still young, which makes it difficult to predict when the changes will manifest. “The tipping points aren’t very well understood at all,” says Bossio. Researchers first need to understand the various biophysical factors involved and how those factors interact with one another, the authors say.

For now, ecologists, agronomists, and regulators can acknowledge the problem and encourage certain practices to minimize the likelihood of some of these water-related changes. People should begin by viewing agriculture not simply as a source of food but also as a source of ecosystem services like water and biodiversity, says coauthor Garry Peterson of McGill University (Canada). For example, Australian farmers are adopting mosaic farming, which involves combining annual crops, pastures, and perennial trees into the same landscape. This restores biodiversity and hydrology and prevents the rise of salinity.

“If we don’t heed the management lessons from the past, many of which are listed in the paper, we are bound to face many more ecological surprises in the coming decades,” says Donner.