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Bite!!! Life in a Warmer, Wetter World

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Link suite overview: On vector-borne disease and climate change, connecting the infinitesimal and the invisible, Dopey Does DDT, the need for ecosystems thinking & bugs gone borg

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It is a midsummer night’s feast and we are on the menu. Nibbled and sipped by winged vampires and  blood-sucking squatters, we scratch, swat and fret. But the bugs, annoying though they may be, are merely messengers. Virus, bacteria, rickettsia, protozoans and helminths—those are the ones turning the whole predator / prey equation on its head.

From a safe distance, preferably behind screens, pants tucked sensibly into socks and doused in parfum-de-DEET, the elegance of the big picture is both undeniable and astonishing. This is the web of life at its webbiest, connecting the fates of the infinitesimal to the invisible—shifts in weather patterns, changes in climate—and everything in between.

A bird flies a little further north than usual one spring, staking out territory in what, for it, is literally new territory.  A warmer, more humid world has brought earlier thaws and later freezes to this particular neck of the woods. Which is also  good news for the bird’s passengers: the ticks on its body, mites on its wings, virus and bacteria in its blood. Occasionally even something as big as a snail manages to survive the journey, berthed in a bird’s gut, likely carrying a parasitic payload of its own.

For everything we can see changing in the landscape—tundra to forest, swamp to sea, lake to desert—there is so much more going on at the edges of detection.

A deer tick finds itself in grasslands favored by voles rather than the forest, where white-footed mice rule the leaf litter. But a blood meal is a blood meal. So the tick latches on and borrelia—the bacteria carried by the tick that causes Lyme Disease—sets up shop in a new animal host. This is the Disease Cycle as jazz, constantly riffing theme and variation. Innovation as making do.

While global trade and travel do a mighty job of mixing up the pot, speeding the spread of pathogens and invasive species, climate change alters the basic recipe. How do you restore a tundra whose permafrost has melted? Or a rainforest weakened by repeated periods of drought? How do you make plans for a world in transition to a “new normal”?

Pollution, carbon emissions, deforestation—all at least hold out the possibility of reversal: things can be done, if only we would do them.

Climate change is a dragon awakened.

BITE!!!

“Bite!,” the new link suite-story on the TrackerNews aggregator, surveys a variety of vector-borne diseases, all on the rise due, at least in part, to climate change: Cold-blooded insects prefer a warmer, wetter world.

It is not their only stroke of luck. Tight budgets in the US have put mosquito abatement districts in the political cross-hairs as an easy target for “saving” taxpayers money, no matter the expense of taxpayer illness. Lose the public abatement districts and there would be no coordinated surveillance for West Nile virus. Or for dengue, which has recently established a foothold in Florida decades after it was eradicated. Or for the next headline horror—chikungunya?—on the horizon. The standard bureaucratic spin about”the best science available” falls flat when the “best” is barely any at all.

Bugs—and the bugs they carry—won’t disappear even if the data do.

Funding actually needs to go up. Way up, according to Peter Hotez, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, dengue is “a bigger threat than many of the biodefense pathogens that we’re spending huge amounts of money on. Dengue and other vector-borne diseases are a true homeland security threat.”

Really, though, they are a global security threat and public health disaster. For every breakthrough…

…there are setbacks.  Babesia, a parasite carried by ticks—including the tick that transmits Lyme Disease—causing a malaria-like illness, is on the ascent. Diagnosis and treatment an be tricky. There is no vaccine. Further complicating matters, a single tick can deliver both babesia and borrelia.

Humans are hardly the only animal hosts under assault:

  • Moose are facing a similar fate from “winter ticks.” These are ticks that latch onto to moose in the fall, burrow into their coats and feed all winter. It used to be a moose might pick up 30,000 ticks, a horrifying but survivable number. But a shifting climate means snow melts earlier. Ticks fall off onto dry ground in the spring, allowing more to survive. Their breeding season is longer, too. Now “ghost moose” have been found with over 100,000 ticks. Like the baby fish, they are being bled to death.

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DOPEY DOES DDT

Meanwhile, cases of  leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease carried by sand flies, are also on the rise, bedeviling everyone from soldiers in Afghanistan to the  beleaguered residents of the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Efforts in India to eradicate the disease by 2010 failed spectacularly.

Yet simply getting rid of sand flies could lead to other problems: As larvae, they eat garbage.

Single-focus wars-on-fill-in-the-blank-disease rarely work (only smallpox and the cattle scourge rinderpest have been effectively wiped out, and notably neither were vector-borne).

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In the early 1940s, the Walt Disney Company produced a series of short educational films, among them, “Winged Scourge,” in which the Seven Dwarfs (yes, those seven dwarfs) take on Public Enemy Number 1: the Mosquito—”wanted dead or alive”… (HT to epidemiologist and author of the marvelous Aetiology blog Tara C. Smith)

Wrapped in gobsmacking kitsch is a matter-0f-fact portrayal of then state-of-the-art pest control: drain wetlands, coat breeding ponds with oil and waterways with Paris Green, spray copious amounts of insecticide (likely DDT, given the time frame), put up screens, seal building cracks and use bed nets. It worked, too, at least for a while,  if you don’t count the cascade of eco-disasters that followed.

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Not only is there a need for an “ecosystems thinking” approach, but one that can accommodate fast-changing landscapes. What was, isn’t any more. What is, won’t be for long.

The climate dragon is awake, scattering clouds of mosquitoes, flies, fleas, mites, ticks and lice as it yawns, stretches and shakes off a millenia-long slumber.

RELATED:

  • Under Our Skin, documentary by Andy Abrahams Wilson chronic Lyme Disease / website

iLabs: Community, Connection and a Culture of Innovation: a conversation with InSTEDD’s CTO Eduardo Jezierski

For the last few years, CTO Eduardo Jezerski and his colleagues at InSTEDD have been working on a model for an innovation lab—an “iLab”—to build local tech capacity in developing countries to support projects with social impact. The first, in Phnom Penh, is now 100% Cambodian-run, producing tech solutions that not only address local needs—primarily focused on public health—but are so useful, they are being adopted elsewhere as well. Could Southeast Asia be the next Silicon Valley? A second iLab was launched  a few months ago in Argentina, so perhaps it will be South America.

Recently, TrackerNews talked to Ed about iLabs, hackerspaces, BarCamps and creating the right circumstances for “virtuous circles” of good. (Article also available as a pdf).

* Disclosure: The TrackerNews project was incubated at InSTEDD  —J.A. Ginsburg, editor, June 2011

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1. TrackerNews: Let’s begin at the beginning with a some background. What was the spark for the iLab idea?

Eduardo Jezierski: The iLab as a concept came from a “melding of minds” across technology and social work. My background is in technology, while our CEO, Dr. Dennis Israelski, has dedicated his career to working on global public health issues, mostly in Africa and China. Although these two domains—technology design and public health—would seem to be quite different, we discovered they share quite a bit in common.

For both, it is important to constantly adapt to changing situations and to embrace iteration. It is a very different proposition from, say, building a car, where you’ve got a standardized set of processes to create a commodity product. Traditional post-industrial organizational styles and practices simply don’t apply. Our shared goal is to push the design frontiers in tech to improve health, safety and development in low-income settings—and to make sure the improvements are real and measurable and driven locally.

We began by defining the characteristics of projects that have had long-term impact:

  • Open spaces, neutral “commons”
  • Agile planning and strong field work
  • Collaborative culture
  • Local ownership
  • Sustainability through concrete business plans
  • A culture of designing for the end user, (which might be a patient)

We saw that the most innovative outcomes tended to draw from a combination of these elements. Clearly, our next step was to create a place that would provide all of these “fertile soil” characteristics for socio-technical work: an innovation lab or “iLab.”

Ironically, I am not a big fan of the word “innovation.” It has become so cliche and evokes so many wrong concepts about how things happen (e.g., the genius character, the epiphany moment, the romantic tale of invention). If you are really interested in innovation as a concept, I strongly recommend reading Scott Berkun’s book, The Myths of Innovation.

The iLab is a place that nurtures innovation, not as a goal, but as a part of the process of doing great work in technology for social good.

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2. TrackerNews: How did you begin? Was it just a room with a few computers? How has it developed over the last couple of years? How does this compare with Silicon Valley’s early “garage” culture?

EJ: We set up the iLab in early 2008, with support from Google.org and The Rockefeller Foundation. We started in a large house, with a mix of bedrooms, open space workrooms, classrooms, etc. A lot of people would crash in the bedrooms during BarCamps and other events. We had a constant cycle of foreigners—both from the region and beyond—who helped InSTEDD set up in Southeast Asia, or just wanted to connect with the accelerating local tech community.

We have iterated the physical set-up and now the iLab occupies part of a floor in an office building with beautiful open spaces. One thing, however, has remained constant: The internet connection is awesome—and a large part of the cost of the iLab’s infrastructure!

The iLab is 100% staffed by Cambodians, with a steady stream of visiting engineers, interns, volunteers and InSTEDD staff. The library is an eclectic combination of books that range from Muhammad Yunus’ Creating a World without Poverty, to technical manuals such as The Experts Guide to Asterisk and Sketching User Experiences, to the classic tell of the birth of Silicon Valley, What the Dormouse Said.

Something I hope distinguishes the iLab from Silicon Valley, though, is that it helps foster a broader focus, one that includes social impact as an explicit initial goal of a business and part of the bottom line.

I would also like to see a more fluid collaborative approach across organizations, and an emphasis on the importance of being able to try “start ups” with low initial investment. There is evidence this is happening.

Cambodia—and other developing countries—have a great opportunity to leapfrog past the traditional ways of doing business and building companies.

Tech mentor and developer Chris Brown (a “white Cambodian” of sorts) makes this a very important part of his BarCamp talks. He, himself, works across four organizations—including InSTEDD—where the tech teams share experience, knowledge, training sessions, and even hold “dev” competitions amongst themselves. (Ed. two of Brown’s projects: Upstart and Cambodian Atlas)

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3. TrackerNews: Tell me about the BarCamps you’ve held in Cambodia. What surprised you? (Please explain what a BarCamp is!)

EJ: BarCamps are a kind of “unconference,” self-organized by a community. They are collaborative gatherings where people share what they know, have debates, build things, teach each other new skills and have fun. Although there is no pre-determined agenda, they do require some preparation and sponsorship to make the experience good for the attendees!

InSTEDD was a sponsor of Cambodia’s first BarCamp in 2008. We have also sponsored, either directly or indirectly, all the BarCamps in Phnom Penh since, as well as the first Lao and Myanmar BarCamps. But I really want to stress the community nature of these events. The credit belongs to each and every one of the organizers, and the “instigators” whose efforts put the idea on the table. These are generally annual events, though it depends on how often people want to step up to the plate and put one together.

BarCamps are culturally harmonic with InSTEDD’s mission and approach. The social networks and trust that develop can become an important national asset in times of crisis. For example, right after the late March, 2011 Myanmar earthquake, it was BarCampers from the region who quickly set-up social networking tools to gather first-hand information.

It is worth noting that for the last two years, the largest BarCamps in history have been held in Myanmar. Big doesn’t necessarily mean better. But you need to offer more than t-shirt gifts to get over 3,000 people to show up. It is unprecedented.

If there had been a BarCamp Yangon before Cyclone Nargis, or Port-au-Prince BarCamp before the earthquake, I believe the local sharing and flow of information would have been better. There would have been better technology support for building collaborative networks within the country and with foreign responders.

Among the things that have delighted me at these BarCamps:

  • High level of the talks
  • Diversity of the talks: tech, business, crafts, from cooking to lock-picking!
  • Overall gender balance around 50%
  • Number of talks in Khmer, Burmese or the local language
  • International participation from across Southeast Asia
  • The local tech community sees this event as a commnunity asset, a “commons”
  • The stability of the social groups formed at these BarCamps. They are venues to discover people who share interests and values.
  • How much everyone looks forward to the next one through the year

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4. TrackerNews: Describe some of the projects that are being worked on at iLab / that have come out of iLab. Any software / apps that have attracted attention beyond Southeast Asia?

EJ: There are so many cool projects happening at any point in time. It’s hard to choose!

At InSTEDD, our work is to support NGOs, governments and community groups with technology that furthers their goals. We are continuously adapting to all sorts of requirements. It is critically important that tools we develop can, for the most part, be used without a great deal of training by almost anyone.

For example, GeoChat is a simple collaboration tool for group-messaging: People can hold group “chats,” collect data, or send alerts via SMS or email. Work at the iLab helped shape the design of the tool that would deliver solid communication capability within the limits of locally available tech. Then we found out Geochat is being used in New York for community public health projects. Sometimes, when you focus on the simplest phones, and the most basic audiences, you get surprised about the uptake from the “tech-savvier” end of the spectrum.

I have come to believe if you design for constrained environments, you force yourself to make things easier and simpler, and everyone benefits.

An example of a tool built bottom-up by the iLab that based on needs experienced in the field by our “client” organizations is a resource mapping tool. It allows people to track work, stocks and resources geographically and share information via SMS, smartphones and the web.

It is simple, but powerful. The team started writing the first lines of code in 2009, and today it is used by NGOs to track all sorts of things such as child immunizations. Within a few months, it will be available for Android tablets.

Tech innovation isn’t always about bits and bytes. For example, the team has developed the Reporting Wheel, a system using physical “coding wheels” that makes it possible for semi-literate health workers to reliably report quantitative data from the field. This came directly out of work at the iLab. Now these wheels are being used for disease reporting in Thailand and Cambodia.

Hardware or software, analog or digital, the iLab was designed to create an environment where people with skills can “connect the dots,” then rapidly validate (or invalidate—just as important!) ideas in the field.

From the beginning, we have supported interoperability and standard data exchanges with our tools. This allows projects to built on top of what’s already been done, developed locally and for local needs. Developers can take advantage of assets that are too costly for tiny humanitarian efforts and grassroots projects to build on their own.

For example, the team developed a simple mobile-poll app using a Google form. You can send out an SMS survey and results drop into Google spreadsheets.

As more and more people build apps on the APIs we have provided, we are starting to think about repackaging them so these apps are available to anyone in the world that just connects their mobile platform.

Imagine…

  • malaria elimination apps
  • village health worker tuberculosis referral apps
  • community early warning apps

…all designed bottom-up in specific communities and being useful worldwide.

The iLabs are the first place humanitarian organizations go for technical advice. By working together, we can see what are common versus unique needs and simplify how local communities build applications designed for whatever the task may be.

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5. TrackerNews: Have you had any “graduates” who have gone on to start tech-related businesses? Do you see iLab playing a central role in sparking a tech sector in Southeast Asia? Has a jobs network developed? Are there any relationships with universities, either local or foreign?

EJ: This is starting to happen. Part of our capacity development includes business management. By design, we never wanted the iLab itself to be the hub of activity, but rather to serve as a catalyst between social impact work and the tech sector. The iLab is actually part of an ecosystem made up of a handful of local organizations, all working together to help the Cambodian tech sector develop. For the iLab to do its job, it cannot place itself at the center!

Tech jobs networks have started to emerge around the iLab community. Members of the iLab, along with people from other local organizations, created a new group called “Share Vision.” Everyone shares what they’ve learned on the job with university students in an informal curriculum delivered through free talks. This has helped close the gap between the official curricula and ever-changing marketplace needs. And just in the past few months, a new group had emerged: Khmer Young Entrepreneurs (KYE). These are the business leaders of the future.

We didn’t “design” this exact outcome as part of the iLab work plan, but it is exactly what we hoped would develop if we created the right sort of culture.

We have been lucky to have donors and supporters that “get it.” They understand that these secondary “virtuous circles”—so critical for overall success—cannot be mandated. You have to leave it to the brightest and most passionate people at the iLab itself to steer the course.

A lot of organizations in the region see the potential of technology for their social projects, and InSTEDD as a natural “go-to” organization. We work with whole network of like-minded companies, such as Change Fusion and Open Dream in Thailand.

Google.org is sponsoring the next stage of the iLab’s development as it matures into a social enterprise able to support itself from triple bottom-line products and services: education, social impact, revenue.

The iLab staff is now thinking about a business strategy and planning for the long term. There is no guarantee of success. At the same time, there is no lack of demand for technology design and implementation skills. The iLab is well-positioned to design smartly targeted products.

Success, I think, is more a matter of “how” and “when,” but not “if.”

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6. TrackerNews: Tell me a little more about the Hackerspace Phnom Penh. How will this differ from the iLab, beyond being developed independently? How many people do you think will be involved? Is this part of an existing hackerspace movement in Southeast Asia, or do is the prototype?

EJ: Hackerspace Phnom Penh (HPP) is a related but different project. It is about providing a shared space to work on shared projects, with a focus on hardware. The plan in the long run is also to have additional teaching rooms, rental offices and provide space for Khmer small-capital startups. (Disclosure: I am one of the “‘investors” in HPP).

HPP is used already being used for small community projects and for tech talks. It’s an experiment. The hope is we can find a balanced business model that makes it self-sustaining.

There is another angle one can only understand by spending time in Southeast Asia: It may actually be better for a something such as HPP to be developed independently. In countries that receive a lot of NGO foreign aid, international organizations or groups with social missions are often perceived as a prime example of non-local ownership, non-efficient execution and non-business thinking. It is vital to attract people who want to develop the local economy, so having an independent identity is as asset.

The point is to keep iterating and finding new ways to share knowledge, support entrepreneurs and help develop the local social enterprise ecosystem. There have been other hackerspaces and similar such efforts in Southeast Asia before. Each provided lessons for its successors. The international community of hackerspaces is very good at sharing what’s been learned, so over time patterns emerge. Then you just have to try them out in the local context.

At the core of the iLab we have a triple bottom line:

  • social impact
  • capacity building
  • economic sustainability

There are several ways to approach reaching these objectives: For example:

  • Business: Are you setting up a company, a facility, an incubator or accelerator? Maybe it’s a mix that shifts over time.
  • Capacity-building / Knowledge-sharing: Is this delivered as classes, workshops, BarCamps? Or is this on-the-job?
  • Social Impact: Is it part of main mission or a serendipitous side-effect?

In the iLab, social impact is a core element. But in HPP, it is casual: commercial or entertainment projects are just as valid.

I think over the next few years, we will see lots of permutations and combinations of these approaches being tried as an integral part of technology projects for health, safety and development—with a mix of private and public sector support.

The iLabs can operate as standalone organizations, or a subsidiary or division of another organization acting as an implementing “host.” It is even possible to have combinations. Each iLab is unique and will develop in its own way.

We are trying all sorts of programs, for example, fellowship stipends for iLab graduates to work on specific tech projects focused on country and community priorities. We are also trying out competitive contests—with awards and small cash prizes-—both as potential first-step for incubator projects, and a great way to discover bright talent.

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7. TrackerNews: Let’s talk about replicability and scalability: Could you write a “recipe” for an iLab? How much does one cost? How is the Cambodia iLab funded? Does InSTEDD plan on opening more iLabs? Where?

I don’t think writing a recipe would be smart because an iLab is about context and, ultimately, local ownership. However, I think you can start with stating its triple bottom line:

  • Social impact
  • Capacity building
  • Economic sustainability

Then build from there, applying what’s been learned from other local and international projects.

Some of these lessons almost go without saying:

  • Get the smartest people you can find who are passionate about social impact and the potential of technology.
  • Create a nurturing environment for leadership and execution

This can either mean providing resources or, depending on the situation, getting out of the way.

It is critical to engage with others working in local tech and social enterprise. Be part of and nurture the local ecosystem. Support the work of those who have the right intent, be agile in your business execution, and promote the exchange of ideas across sectors/cultures/disciplines.

And did I mention have the best internet connection possible?

How much that’s going to cost will depend on the initial goal set and the risks you are willing to face. Although I am a fan of low start-up capital endeavors—creating something agile is always desirable in my mind—there are some things you don’t want to compromise on: It is about the the quality of the people, a level of independence, the culture that’s created and the bottom line. Cheap, fast, and right might not always come together. The fundamentals require patience.

We look for people with great crossover skills. Whether projects are developed through independent NGOs or government ministries, or supported by local or international funders, or a local technology organization, an iLab has to offer strong skills in design, technology, program management and often require field staff.

We have plans to open other iLabs over the next few years, each developing from its unique context. An iLab is a community resource. This isn’t about growing a plant in a pot, but about contributing to the growth of a garden.

With support from Google.org, we just opened an iLab in Argentina to work with the communities of Latin America. Already, I am seeing how the iLab model is working with challenges quite different than those in Southeast Asia.

For example, the general technical experience is higher overall, but NGOs and governments need help understanding the potential of technology. Health, safety and development projects that either use or would like to use technology are best served by local people who understand local needs and can apply their design skills to help bridge that gap.

InSTEDD also collaborates with organizations who have mission-specific labs, like Jembi’s labs for Rwanda health systems, and OASIS nodes. Jembi is a local organization that hosts key OpenMRS developers working on health systems in southern Africa. We are also currently looking at opening/supporting other iLabs in partnership with like-minded organizations. The lab model itself may become more distributed and virtual over time as well.

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8. TrackerNews: What lessons / moments really stand out for you from the experience? What are the “take home” messages you want people to hear?

EJ: One the key moments for me was the day one of the developers told me about “Hello World of the Month.”

It’s brilliant. The iLab developers were getting tripped up, worried about their speed whenever they started to work in a new programming language. They realized they kept reverting to “old ways” that were more comfortable. So they created “Hello World of the Month,” an exercise to take something they knew absolutely nothing about and figure out how do something useful with it. There is always a mix of curiosity, frustration, even trepidation when trying to do something in a new programming language. “We want to feel comfortable with learning new things. We need to feel comfortable not knowing so we can look for the answer.” Now that’s the right attitude. We could all learn from that.

Another bright moment was when our product manager—Channe Suy negotiated a long-term contract with the largest mobile operator in Cambodia (Mobitel) to provide centralized infrastructure for mHealth projects. It was great to see her leadership, and how naturally high-tech, national scale, and social impact came together in her pitch.

Thanks to her work, Cambodia has its larger wireless operator supporting national social priorities (along with earlier implementers, such as Smart Mobile). This is real accomplishment: It hasn’t been done in many countries and it is extremely rare for a non-foreigner to take the lead.

My take home message: To realize the potential of technology for health, safety and development, we need to push both how we do design and improve local ownership. The iLabs are a great model to close the gaps, contributing to local business ecosystems in a way that generates impact for a long time.

RELATED LINKS

The Nuke Factor: How to Make Disasters Worse and the Implications for Humanitarian Aid

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On 400+ aging nuclear reactors, quake-prone countries, food chains, trade networks and what this means for first responders and social entrepreneurs

TrackerNews link suite on the Japanese nuclear disaster. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

Let’s get right to the point: What happens the next time a nuclear reactor goes rogue in the wake of a natural disaster? Japan is a worst case scenario in a best case place.

But what if the earth were to quake in Iran, China, Italy or Turkey—all of which are pursuing nuclear-fueled futures? Or Pakistan, where the IEAE  and US just gave their respective stamps of approval for two new Chinese-built plants? Each of those seismically-rocking countries floats precariously at (tectonic) plates’ edge. In fact, one of two reactors planned for Turkey is just a few miles from a major fault line.

The assurances of political leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are somehow less than reassuring: “I don’t think there will be any serious problem…The security standards there are the standards of today. We have to take into account that the Japanese nuclear plants were built 40 years ago with the standards of yesterday.”

Forty years may seem like an eternity to a politician, but is, in fact, a blink in a time-scale defined by nuclear radiation (see Chernobyl). Inspections have a way of getting missed (see Japan). Human error happens (see Three Mile Island).

In the meantime, major earthquakes striking all of these countries sometime over the projected lifespans of their reactors is a sure thing.

Beyond the issues of nuclear waste storage, the almost inevitable black market trade and surreptitious weapons programs, what happens when the “sure thing” meets the big risk? How does one keep radioactive fall-out from contaminating emergency food rations? Or find safe water? What happens when those best able to help are put in mortal danger if they try?

Is this the kind of border even doctors won’t cross?

No matter. The radiation will eventually come to them, traveling first through food chains, then trade networks. Some produce is already showing levels of radiation several times accepted limits, though authorities insist it is still safe. So far, the milk supply remains uncontaminated. But according the WHO, Japan is a big exporter of baby formula and powdered milk to China and the US. As the crisis drags on and radioactive particles work their way into cattle pastures, that could change.

In short, bad gets worse—much worse—once nuclear is part of the equation.

WAKE UP CALL

The tragedy in Japan should be a wake up call to NGOs, social entrepreneurs and all those working, as they say, “for positive change.” The nuclear issue is not an abstraction to be relegated to politicians, engineers and lobbyists. This threatens your work, potentially reversing years of hard-fought economic gains in poor countries and undoing decades-worth of global public health efforts. This isn’t just about regional clusters of radiation-related illnesses, but also of the loss of infrastructure for disease surveillance and drug distribution that would tip the balance in favor of infectious diseases outbreaks and pandemics.

Finally, the thorniest of ethical questions:  Who makes the call to send staff into disaster zones so dangerous that not only is personal health at risk, but that of future offspring as well? (As a 1950s military film put it: “the ultimate symptom, death itself”)

With more than 400 reactors spread across the globe—many now nearing their “sold-by” date—the next Japan is more a matter of when, not if. Power plants, of course, are not designed as weapons, but that doesn’t make their  fall-out any less lethal.

Humanitarian aid workers: Are you ready?

Global earthquake activity since 1973 and nuclear power plant locations (click through to map web page)

* Addendum 3/31/11:

Hospitals and temporary refuges are demanding that evacuees provide them with certificates confirming that they have not been exposed to radiation before they are admitted….

…The eight-year-old daughter of Takayuki Okamura was refused treatment for a skin rash by a clinic in Fukushima City, where the family is living in a shelter after abandoning their home in Minamisoma, 18 miles from the crippled nuclear plant….

…Prejudice against people who used to live near the plant is reminiscent of the ostracism that survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 experienced. Many suffered discrimination when they tried to rent housing, find employment or marriage partners…

—”Japan nuclear crisis: evacuees turned away from shelters” / The Telegraph

Discrimination based not on race, creed or color, but on a cruel twist of geographic fate: simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It is tragedy compounded, reverberating through generations.

Perhaps we need to add a “futures wrecked” column to graphs purporting to show the comparative benignness of nuclear energy versus that produced by coal and oil. It is a lobbyist’s argument, telling a truth, but not the whole truth.

The whole truth? All of these energy sources are fraught in the present and threaten the future. A warming earth with rising seas and wilder weather will send millions of climate refugees fleeing to higher, safer ground—human migrations on a scale unimaginable.

Radioactive refugees have nowhere to go.

We need to get beyond this devil’s choice fast, to invest in renewables at every scale, macro to micro (e.g., micro-wind). We—as in “We the people,” as in our governments—need to support research and innovation and help ideas scale for practical, commercial use.

One the few hopeful stories this past week was the announcement of an “artificial leaf” that can create energy from photosynthesis. MIT professor Daniel Nocera has been working on ways that essentially cut out the middleman in energy generation. Unlike coal and oil, which are fossilized sunlight—energy banked in the past—or nuclear power, which requires vast investment to tap, Nocera’s inexpensive playing card-size solar chip can harvest enough energy from a gallon of water—stored in a small fuel cell—to power a home in a developing country for a day. The water doesn’t even have to be all that clean, either.

The latest version of Nocera’s technology is of commercial interest because, by integrating the catalyst with the chips, it dispenses with the need for traditional solar panels. That, he says, will cut costs considerably, by eliminating wires, etc. “The price of the silicon of a solar panel isn’t much,” he says. “A lot of the cost is the wiring. What this does is get rid of all that.”

“The real goal here,” he adds, “is giving energy to the poor” – especially, he notes, in rural Africa, India, and China.

Even better, he adds, the device doesn’t need ultrapure water. “You can use nature water sources, which is a big deal in parts of the world where it’s costly to have to use pure water.”

MIT scientist announces first “practical” artificial leaf / Nature

Recently, Tata Group, an international conglomerate best known as India’s largest automaker, invested $9.5 million in Nocera’s company, Sun Catalytix.

Follow the money. The smart money.

(video: Daniel Nocera explains personalized power / Poptech / 1 of 2)

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The Age of Old: The Population Bomb We Should Have Seen Coming (link suite overview)

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On demographic destiny, boomers as geezers, population pyramids, the Singularity, dementias, Simon & Garfunkel, why humanitarian & public health policymakers have even more to worry about and areas ripe for impact investing and social enterprise

“The Age of Old”—  New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

The future, it turns out, isn’t all that hard to predict. No oracles required. Just some actuarial tables and possibly a good stiff drink. The picture that emerges from the tea leaves of data sets looks pretty good, at least until you look a bit deeper: More people are living longer than ever before.

The first American baby boomers turn 65 this year, marking the start of a geezer boom that will see as many as 10,000 erstwhile hippies qualifying for senior discounts every day for the next 18 years (globally, the stat tops 125,000 per day). As all things baby boom, it is a marketer’s dream, complete with an MIT lab devoted to designing products and services to help seniors “‘do things’ throughout the lifespan,” and anti-aging hucksters lining up for a piece of a multi-billion dollar pie.

The bigger story, though, is about demographic distribution, visualized in “population pyramids.”

population pyramids over time

When a population is young, the graph looks like a pyramid, with children at the bottom far outnumbering their elders. Epidemics, wars and natural disasters chip chip away at a pyramid’s profile, but nothing chips more dramatically than contraception. It is no coincidence that the US baby boom ended a few years after “The Pill” was approved by the FDA in the early 1960s. Contraception has also played a key role battling skyrocketing birth rates in developing countries, with collateral benefits for women’s rights and economic improvement.

Yet as intrinsically good as improved health care and family planning may be, it turns out there are some serious unintended consequences.

Journalist Ted Fishman’s new book, “Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation, goes into great jaw-dropping detail about those consequences, noting that two other 21st trends—urbanization and globalization—are actually making things worse.

“A Shock of Gray” is a guide book to a world that’s coming. We are just in the first ten minutes of a demographic denouement that’s been unfolding for 100,000 years. For the first time in history, there are more people over 50 than there are under 17. And that turns the world upside down.

Rarely at TrackerNews have we come across a story with so many tentacles. Like climate change, “the gray tsunami”—as some have termed it—puts a twist on everything.

Globally, the median age is 28, meaning there are just as many people older than that as younger. In less than a decade, there will be more people over 65 than under the age of 5. By 2045, there will be more people over 60 than children, period.

Interestingly, 2045 is also the year futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts for the “Singularity,” the moment  when machine intelligence and technological know-how matches, then surpasses, human capabilities, leading to a “transhuman” future unbounded old fashioned slow-and-steady evolutionary constraints.

The most important perspective in my view is that health, medicine, and biology is now an information technology, whereas it used to be hit or miss. We not only have the (outdated) software that biology runs on (our genome), but we have the means of changing that software (our genes) in a mature individual with such technologies as RNA interference and new forms of gene therapy that do not trigger the immune system. (from Technology Review)

Even without fancy “Borg-ish” interventions, demographers predict there were be 3.2 million centenarians in the world by 2050, a more than 6-fold increase from the current numbers.

Humans are turning into Energizer bunnies that just keep going, though sadly not without operational glitches.

The rates of age-related chronic illnesses—diabetes (exacerbated by an obesity epidemic), cancer, impaired vision and dementias—are spiking upwards with no end in sight. Beyond the incalculable heartbreak, the economics are staggering. According to a new study released by Alzheimer’s Disease International, “the worldwide costs of dementia will exceed 1% of global GDP in 2010, at US$604 billion.”

Even diseases that don’t affect the elderly directly can have a tremendous impact on them. Pandemic influenza, for example, usually takes its biggest toll on adults in the prime-of-life. But since those people are also the caregivers, their loss can easily cascade into another round of tragedy.

Although the problem is one of demographic relativity—the ratio of old to young—the answer is not more babies. The absolute population numbers are still rising—expected to hit 9 billion by mid-century—while limited natural resources are either under siege or running low and food production barely keeps pace with demand.

Kurzweil, ever the optimist, is hopeful that the Singularity will also deliver a bounty of tech solutions for all manner of catastrophic developments.

Meanwhile, the fuse has been lit on a population bomb—albeit an evil twin of the one Ehlich warned about—and the clock is ticking.

“How terribly strange to be 70,” sang Old Friends Simon & Garfunkel in 1968 at the ripe age of 27. This year, they will be 70. Maybe not so strange any more?

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  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

Nature as Nurture: A Paradigm Shift at TEDxMidwest & Our Place in the Greater Scheme of Things

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On humans as animals, the dawn of the anthropocene, designing nature, nature-mediated design, culturally smart rainforest restoration, doing right by orangutans and energy positive skyscrapers

Go Meave Leakey! With the addition of a single word tucked into a sprightly 6-million-year time-travelogue of our species’ history, the reigning matriarch of archeology’s most famous family blithely breezed past the troublesome—and artificial—division between man and nature: “Homo sapiens and other animals…,” said Leakey.  Not man and beast, but man as a beast, too. Which isn’t to say we are not unique. Noted Leakey, “We are the only species capable of destroying the biosphere,” which may very well be the most dubious distinction ever.

This shift away from an “us versus them” mindset emerged as a subtle but important theme at the recent TEDxMidwest conference in Chicago. From design and architecture, to conservation and reforestation, a new paradigm is emerging, one that offers genuine hope for slowing climate change, biodiversity loss and even improving health care.

Leakey’s casual comment may not have seemed all that radical, but it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Look up the word “zoonosis” and you will learn it is an animal disease that can also affect humans. By implication, then, humans are not animals. This is what every doctor is taught.

The arrogance of the definition regularly comes back to bite us—sometimes literally. Nearly 2/3’s of human maladies are zoonotic, including ebola, SARS, influenza, plague, cowpox and West Nile virus. Yet despite countless “teachable moments” over the last several years, budgets and databases, along with veterinarians and doctors, remain largely segregated. Score one for the pathogens…

NATURE AS NURTURE

Our connections to the environment are likewise profound, sometimes arching over eons. “The oxygen exhaled by stromatolites is what we all breathe today,” explained photographer Frans Lanting, during the first talk of the conference, a presentation of his famous Philip Glass-scored slideshow,  “LIFE: A Journey Through Time.”

So no stromatolites, no us.

Lanting spent seven globe-trotting years, seeking out scenes true to Earth’s earliest history and evolution for his photographs. Three billion years ago, curious little stump-like structures created from massive colonies of cyanobacteria—stomatolites—ruled the world. Today, the last remaining “living fossils”  are found only off the coast of Australia. Since they flourished before “before the sky was blue,”  Lanting photographed them in twilight.

Stromatolites / "LIFE: A Journey Through Time" / Frans Lanting

BY DESIGN

Fast forward to the present and humans have bumped the stumps off the pedestal of champion planetary engineers. You would have to look far beneath the surface to underground lakes, deep sea thermal-vent ecosystems and Verne-imagined center-of-the-earthscapes to find somewhat pristine wilderness. Even there, though, since the weight of rising sea levels caused by man-mediated climate change has altered pressures along geological fault-lines, our collective carbon footprint can be felt.

The holocene era, according to a growing cadre of scientists, has given way to the anthropocene, a new geological age defined by human impact on the world’s ecosystems. Maps charting “anthromes”—biomes that take human influence into account—reveal the extent and speed of our species’ global conquest. In a few short centuries, we have tilled, industrialized, deforested, drilled, paved and sprawled our way into just about every nook and cranny. Changing the world may be what we do best.

Maps shows human impact on the world's biomes / created by ecologists Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

For designer and TEDxMidwest speaker Bruce Mau, who has spent good deal of his career thinking about Massive Change, separating man from nature is absurd. “It’s not about control, but responsibility If we don’t openly design to nature, we destroy it.”  So far, we seem to be leaning heavily toward the latter. However, and encouragingly, two other presenters offered templates that could, if not return us to Eden, at least help pull us back from the brink.

RAINFORESTS, APES (HAIRY & OTHERWISE) & ECOSYSTEMS THINKING

Willie Smits first wow’ed the TED crowd with a talk in 2009 outlining a scheme to rebuild Indonesian rainforests using the sugar palm: a prodigious sap-producer that thrives on degraded land and only grows in polycultures:

  • Unlike the oil palm, which lends itself to vast plantations that shred biodiversity and produce only palm oil, a sugar palm-based polyculture produces dozens of forest products, from ethanol and fruit, to sugar and wood.
  • Oil palms require fertilizers and pesticides. Sugar palm polycultures enrich and stabilize land.
  • Rainforests burned to make way for oil palms have bumped tiny un-industrialized Borneo to the #3 spot for global CO2 emissions. Planting sugar palms can re-start the “rain machine,” promoting cloud formation and cooling.
  • Run-off from oil palm plantations fouls watersheds and contributes to flooding. Sugar palm polycultures soak up heavy rains and help keep watersheds healthy.
  • Oil palm plantations mean the extinction of orangutans and almost every other native forest inhabitant. Sugar palm polycultures are about stability through complexity. The more, the merrier, bio-wise.
  • Sugar palm polycultures produce more jobs than monoculture oil palm plantations

That last point is key. “The real issue is how to make it useful for people,” noted Smits. The sugar palm juice must be tapped daily, a labor-intensive proposition, which means steady jobs. The polyculture “recipe”—a plan for what to plant where and when, tweaked for specific sites—is designed to include food crops, which are especially important in the early years before the sugar palms start producing. The cascade of harvests starts quickly.

Willie Smits and orangutan orphans

Smits developed techniques to keep the fast-fermenting sugar palm juice stable for 24 hours and designed a processing plant that can be packed into three containers, flown into the jungle via helicopter and set up with almost “plug’n’play” ease. Once a village commits to the plan, it is fairly straightforward to jump-start resilient, eco-friendly economic development.

This is as much a jobs program as it is a reforestation project, and a way to help save our red primate cousins. It is about helping people where they live, rather than forcing them to uproot and become economic migrants competing for work in ever-expanding cities. The human cultural component is an integral part of habitat restoration.

BIOMIMICRY AND BIG TALL BUILDINGS

While Smits focuses on finding village-level answers in the rainforest, Chicago-based architect Gordon Gill seeks to “green” cities by reimagining the quintessential nature-defying structure: the skyscraper. A whopping 70% of greenhouse gas emissions are building-related, so it is a promising area for serious move-the-dial improvement. Rather than simply try to reduce a building’s carbon footprint, however, Gill would like to see it disappear altogether. Better yet, he wants buildings to go net positive, generating more energy than they consume.

No longer does form follow function. Gill has updated Louis Sullivan’s famous dictum for the 21st century: Now form follows performance, driven by a “synthesis of nature and technology.”

The 71-story Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China, set to open next year, generates its own energy through wind turbines integrated into the building’s structure. The design funnels air into the turbines, serendipitously lightening the load, saving enough money to cover construction costs of half a dozen stories. Vertical solar panels accent east and west-facing facades. Everything about the building relates to its environmental context. It is literally shaped by forces we cannot see.

Pearl River Tower, designed by Gordon Gill for Skidmore Owings & Merrill

The massive Masdar Headquarters project in Abu Dhabi is 103% efficient, mining sun and wind energy and recycling water on site.

The Federation of Korean Industries Tower in Seoul, which just broke ground, sports an accordion-style glass facade, with solar panels angled up to the sun and windows angled down to improve thermal efficiency.

Federation of Korean Industries, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, architects

Closer to home, Gill’s firm, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, developed the Chicago Central Area Decarbonization Plan, which promotes retrofits of older buildings and redirecting surplus energy back to the grid. According to their estimates, retrofitting half the commercial and residential buildings over the next 10 years could cut the city’s energy use by a third. Retrofitting the 10 largest buildings in the Loop could cut downtown emissions by 10%.

Gill’s firm itself is set to take on the largest green retrofit project in the city, or indeed, anywhere, ever: Willis (nee Sears) Tower. The estimated $200-to- $300 million project includes replacing 16,000 windows, installing more efficient lighting and plumbing systems and planting some experimental green roofs. The payback is expected to take 26 years, but enough energy will be saved to cover the needs of a proposed high-rise hotel to be built next door.

Willis (Sears) Tower retrofit: rendering with proposed hotel, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill architects

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It is liberating, empowering and deeply inspiring to see what a dramatic difference a shift in perspective can make: We are part of a greater whole, not the lords of all we survey. By finding ways to work with nature and understanding ourselves as a part of nature, there may yet be a way to turn things around. There is no time to lose.

RELATED READING, VIDEO:

Vaccines!: The Good Fight, Funding Struggle, Breaking the “Cold Chain” and a Bit of Biomimicry

TrackerNews “Tumblr” posts are short intros to new link suites on the aggregator.  However, the Vaccines! post ran a bit longer than usual, so we have decided to reprint here as well. – Ed.

Few things bring as much “bang for the buck” in global public health as vaccines. It is simply a lot cheaper to prevent a disease than to pay for treatment and the cascade of downstream costs (orphaned children, food for people too ill to farm or keep jobs, etc.) Yet in the current economic downturn, funding cuts have forced even high profile programs such as polio eradication and HIV vaccine research to make some fraught decisions about which initiatives to pursue and which to drop.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of money vaccines. Sales jumped nearly 30% between 2007 to 2009, from $18.5 billion to $26 billion, with flu jabs accounting for $5 billion, and Gardasil, Merck’s controversial vaccine designed to prevent cervical cancer, hauling in just over $1 billion. Per year.

Some vaccines provide subtle but significant side-benefits. Use of vaccines against diarrheal and pneumococcal diseases, for example,  have led to a decrease in antibiotic resistance in local populations. Fewer antibiotics overall are needed, which cuts down on the opportunities for resistance genes to evolve. Those who need antibiotics are more likely to actually benefit from them.

Likewise, GALVmed’s focus on livestock and poultry vaccines not only benefits animals, but also the hundreds of millions of rural poor in developing countries who rely on them for food and income. A measly 5%  of international aid goes toward agriculture, yet it is much cheaper to help people grow their own food than to ship stockpiles of emergency grain.

Breakthroughs in vaccine delivery and storage have significantly increased the effectiveness of immunization programs. Breaking the “cold chain” has become a rallying cry for a raft of new technologies. Traditionally, vaccines have had to be kept chilled throughout the entire journey from high-tech lab to off-the-grid clinics. A new bi-chambered syringe, which keeps the vaccine in a freeze-dried form until needed, may change that.

Vaccines with longer shelf lives should also cut down on costs. An estimated $260 million worth of swine flu vaccine had to be thrown out in the U.S. when it hit its expiration date over the summer.

Research continues on “edible vaccines,” a.k.a. “plant-based pharmaceuticals,” a.k.a. “molecular farming.” Although not quite the headline-darling they were five years ago, in large part due to concerns over GMOs, 20 years of research has more than proved the concept. It is possible to snack one’s way to immunity.

Since human researchers have yet to invent anything Nature doesn’t already do at some level (see “jumping genes), it begs the question whether foods naturally provide a degree of vaccination. For example, could this be a contributing factor for why not everyone gets sick drinking contaminated water? Is it possible that plants, which are known to take up pathogens via water (e.g., e.coli in lettuce), slurp up low levels of local germs, triggering an antibody response in those who eat them?

Of course, this is just speculation. But if anyone out there knows of any research, or is inspired to do the research, please keep us posted at TrackerNews. We love this sort of thing. Nobody does balance better than Nature.

The link suite includes articles and videos on:

  • Breaking the “cold chain” with a smarter syringe
  • Malaria vaccine possible by 2015
  • Vaccinating the middle man: protecting robins against West Nile and mosquitoes against plasmodium
  • Dengue trials for an all-four-strains vaccine in Australia
  • Why the money might run out before polio does
  • Hurdles slowing down progress on TB jab
  • Fungus to fight fungus – vaccinating trees
  • Is eradication futile?
  • and more…

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

Hot, Cold, Wet, Dry: When Weather Becomes Climate

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The past as prologue: fortune-telling from tree rings; The Green Revolution hits the skids: genetically resilient pathogens and monoculture crops

What happens when the future comes early? When does record-breaking weather segue from unfortunate inconvenience to an inconvenient truth?

Trailer from Al Gore's documentary on climate change

When…

  • the Rio Grande actually looks like a big raging river? Some sections along the U.S. / Mexican border have risen 17 feet and more above flood stage, cutting off clean water supplies, affecting tens of thousands of people, destroying thousands of homes and triggering mass evacuations. Or…

“Warmer than average global temperatures have become the new normal,” says Jay Lawrimore, chief of climate analysis at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, which tracks these numbers. “The global temperature has increased more than 1 degree Fahrenheit [0.7 degree C] since 1900 and the rate of warming since the late 1970s has been about three times greater than the century-scale trend.”…

…”Frankly, I was expecting that we’d see large temperature increases later this century with higher greenhouse gas levels and global warming,” Stanford climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, who headed up the research, said in a prepared statement. “I did not expect to see anything this large within the next three decades.”

Was last Spring’s  Nashville flood, which took the region by surprise after 13 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, a local catastrophe or part of much larger trend? What about the 8 inch deluge than drowned Milwaukee last week? Or the second tornado ever to hit the Bronx?

WEATHER HAPPENS / CLIMATES CHANGE

If man-made greenhouse gases are behind the deadly weather, that’s good news: We can still do something about it. But as a new study of historic droughts in Asia shows, the ramifications of disturbed weather patterns can be devastating, no matter what the cause.

Scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory spent 15 years collecting samples from more than 300 sites across Asia to create an atlas of tree ring data for monsoon weather patterns. The correlations between major droughts and political unrest are striking, if not completely surprising. From the collapse of the Khmer civilization to the demise of the Ming Dynasty and the French Revolution, nothing topples a government faster than a desperate hungry mob.

Perhaps the worst drought, the scientists found, was the Victorian-era “Great Drought” of 1876-1878. The effects were felt across the tropics; by some estimates, resulting famines killed up to 30 million people. According to the tree-ring evidence, the effects were especially acute in India, but extended as far away as China and present-day Indonesia. Colonial-era policies left regional societies ill-equipped to deal with the drought’s consequences, as historian Mike Davis details in his book Late Victorian Holocausts. Famine and cholera outbreaks at this time in colonial Vietnam fueled a peasant revolt against the French.

The political opposition to the now crippled U.S. Climate Bill should be quaking in their boots. Given the staggering amount of scientific evidence linking human-generated greenhouse gas emissions to global warming and climate change, they will bear the blame for blocking action when it could have made a difference. (According to a new survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97% of scientists say climate change “very likely” has a man-made component.)

A BOUNTY OF BLIGHTS: CAUSE & EFFECT OR COINCIDENCE?

The cruelty of blight is uniquely insidious. Hopes, dreams and futures are destroyed along with crops. A blight is promise snatched away. In a matter of weeks, sometimes days, sometime hours, months of labor is laid to waste and investment is turned to debt.

It doesn’t take much: just a few invisible spores carried by the wind to a host plant. Once a botanical beach-head is established, blights – which thrive in the monocultures of modern agriculture – quickly become “community diseases,” spreading from plant to plant, field to field, region to region, painting once verdant fields black with the brush of death.

The first major victory in the The Green Revolution was genetic lab-tweak that made wheat impervious to a blight called stem rust, while also increasing yields – a rare and remarkable “two-fer” benefit. So significant was this breakthrough, plant biologist Norman Borlaug was award the Nobel Prize for it. The dream of eradicating hunger seemed within reach. Yet a little over a half-century later, the solution – crop protection provided by a single gene – has become part of the problem.

In 1999, a strain of rust was discovered in a wheat field in Uganda that had evolved past the genetic barrier. Dubbed “Ug99,” it has since splintered off into several strains or “races,” some of which are impervious to more recently developed multi-gene defenses. In a little over a decade, stem rust has traveled 5,000 miles and now threatens grain production in Africa and Asia, and indirectly threatens production everywhere else. From the pathogen’s perspective, all wheat has become more or less alike as diversity has been systematically bred away.

Wheat is the primary source of calories for millions of people worldwide, and accounts for around 30 percent of global grain production and 44 percent of cereals used as food. Globally, wheat provides nearly 55 percent of the carbohydrates and 20 percent of the food calories we consume every day.

Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General of the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

With so much at stake, an international collaborative effort, spearheaded by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, is playing a frantic game of defense, developing resistant strains to deploy strategically as barriers to slow the blight’s spread. But the work requires the cooperation of countries otherwise at odds, such as India and Pakistan. And it takes money: steady, dependable funding and lots of it.

Stem rust isn’t the only globetrotting super-pathogen:

  • An especially aggressive strain of brown streak virus is attacking Cassava, a staple for 800 million people in Africa, Asia and South America. In the 6 years since it was first spotted in East Africa, it has spread at pandemic speed. Cassava, a drought-tolerant plant that requires very little tending, is particularly important for regions beset with malaria and HIV/AIDS. Its loss means billions of dollars more needed for basic food aid. Cassava is also under siege from mealybugs in Thailand, which produces 60% of the world exports. Last year, many farmers suffered lost their entire crop.
  • Late blight, a.k.a. the blight that caused Ireland’s Great Potato Famine, turns out to also have a taste for American tomatoes. Last year, its spores not only rode the wind, but took to the highways, hitching on seedling plants trucked to home improvement stores across the country. In only two years, it appears to have become entrenched.
  • Stripe rust, another wheat  plague, was recently discovered to have an alternate host, the common ornamental barberry plant, on which the fungus sexually reproduces. The resulting genetic diversity of the fungus, set against the genetic uniformity of wheat, supplies the resilience that has made it so difficult to stamp out.

A warming world favors pathogens’ survival over winter, while shifting weather patterns can blow them into new territories. Human-mediated transport (trade and travel) clearly play a large role as well.

Whatever the drivers, these colliding trends of record-breaking weather / climate change and emerging plant diseases spell big trouble for global food security. In just the past month, wheat prices spiked 30%, due mostly to the Russian drought. Russia will still have enough for domestic needs, but higher prices are expected to drive up inflation, and there will be that much less for export. Stem rust primarily affects small farmers gowing for local consumption in the developing countries. Higher global commodity prices also translates into higher food aid costs.

According to the scientists at NOAA, the extreme weather of 2010 may very well be the “new normal.” Hotter, colder, wetter, drier. And way beyond inconvenient.

FURTHER READING