Hungry Planet

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Link suite overview on malnutrition, blighted futures, dumb food aid, sachets of hopes, micronutrient magic, microbiology and new markets

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

There are now, by recent tally, 7 billion people on planet Earth and at least 2 billion of us are hungry. Malnutrition, either from lack of food or too much of the wrong food is a human tragedy on every level imaginable. By the time they are just two years old, malnourished children are permanently stunted, both in body and mind. Illness defines their lives (diarrhea to diabetes). The spark of potential dims.

Translated into the cold hard statistics of economic health, a humanitarian crisis starves the state of GDP. Productivity losses due to chronic famine in western China are estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. In the US, a “Hunger Bill Map” calculates, state by state, the cost of avoidable illnesses, poor educational outcomes and the value of emergency charitable donations.

As goes the “bottom of the pyramid,” so goes the pyramid: human potential, both at an individual level and as a species, squandered.

In world increasingly bound together by global trade and digital communications, lowering tides may not sink, but most certainly threaten, all boats. Whether from compassion or self-interest, malnutrition, a crisis whose vast dimensions have been obscured by images of the most extreme cases—the extended-bellies, toothpick-thin limbs and glassy-eyes of children more dead than alive—must be comprehensively tackled. The alternative is simply too grim to consider.

According to the UN’s 2011 Human Development Report, continued degradation of the environment just about guarantees that all development gains made in the world’s poorest countries will be erased, if not reversed, by mid-century. The issues of pollution, deforestation, soil erosion and climate change are deeply entwined with malnutrition.

Even if all the eco-angles were addressed, it will take more than a better distribution of calories to fix the problem. International aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF / Doctors Without Borders) has been at the forefront of a campaign—Starved for Attention—against grain-based food aid, primarily from the US, that fails to meet the nutritional needs of children. Although a boon to American farmers, shipping tons of corn and soy halfway around the world is a staggeringly inefficient and expensive way to help.

MSF promotes all-in-one “Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods” (RUTF) such as Plumpy’Nut, an enriched peanut butter paste that comes packaged in small packets called sachets, which are small enough for even the littlest hands to grasp. Rip open a sachet and a child squeezes out the sweet paste. Supplies can be given to mothers, shortening stays at emergency feeding centers. Another advantage: no water required.

A similar product call Wawa Mum using chickpeas as the base was used in Pakistan as part of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) post-flood emergency response. By incorporating a locally grown crop, the fortified food can also help revive a local economy.

Food giant PepsiCo, partnering with USAID and WFP, has announced a similar effort in Ethiopia that will enlist 20,000 small farmers and develop a nutritional food for young children.

Corporate partnerships have become an increasingly important trend. France-based Danone has collaborated with Bangladeshi microfinance pioneer Grameen to develop an inexpensive fortified yogurt that can last up to week without refrigeration. A cartoon-ish and child-friendly spokes-lion (someone dressed up in a lion suit) is used to help market “Shakti Doi,” which comes in both mango and vanilla flavors. Everything about the production and distribution of the yogurt is designed to generate jobs and strengthen community. Local dairies supply the milk. Thousands of women sell the product door to door.

The network that develops through the Shakti Doi yogurt routes also provides a way to distribute information about health and hygiene. Malnutrition weakens immune systems and people who are sick are more likely to be malnourished.

This hyper-local distribution model offers other advantages as well. In an op-ed piece for Indian broadcaster IBN, Save the Children’s Ananthapriya Subramanian tells the story of a mother who cannot risk leaving her home in an illegal Mumbai slum for fear it will be burgled. The door is a flimsy sack. Help has to come to her or help won’t happen.

THINKING SMALL

Calories and micronutrients can’t help a child with diarrhea. The food doesn’t stick around long enough for its nutrition to be absorbed. An estimated 1.6 million children die annually from diarrhea—a leading cause of death of young children worldwide. Something as simple as a bar of soap can make a difference.

Probiotics (beneficial gut microbes) and prebiotics (substances that help good gut microbes thrive) have been shown to cut the length of a bout of diarrhea in otherwise healthy children. A robust gut biome is also able to absorb more nutrition from food. More research is needed to determine whether pro- and prebiotics could make a difference among those moderately malnourished.

Another small and potentially powerful answer could come in the form of a genetically modified fungus called VitaYeast. Developed by a group of Johns Hopkins undergrads for the iGEM competition (international genetically modified machines), the yeast is wired to produce vitamin A. As the yeast multiplies during bread-making, vitamin A is infused into the dough. Baking kills off the yeast. Still in experimental stages, the approach shows promise. It should be cheaper to add vitamin-enhanced yeast into dough than to fortify grain or grow GMO wheat.

PATH, an international health organization, has taken a slightly different approach, developing “Ultra Rice,” a fortified rice dough. “Grains,” that look just like regular rice are added to regular rice at a ratio of 1:100. PATH recently partnered with drug-maker Abbott to refine the manufacture and distribution of the product in India.

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Hungry Planet is one of the larger TrackerNews link suites, with more than 40 stories. All links on the aggregator become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

Among the highlights:

  • Hunger Notes / World Hunger Education Service (aggregator)

The Days, Years After: Recovering from Bigger, Badder Disasters

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Link suite overview: on recovering from disasters; the lessons of Irene, Joplin, Fukushima, Pakistan flood, Queensland flood, Christchurch quakes, Haiti quakes, Katrina; collateral damage and eco-smart design as insurance

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It has been a banner year for disasters in the US with  a record-breaking 10 “billion-dollar-plus” knock-out punches, and still four months to go. So far: massive blizzards, epic floods, murderous tornadoes and one staggeringly large, coast-shredding hurricane. As  a grace note, an earthquake on an previously unknown fault in Virginia put cracks in the Washington monument—a wound as disturbing symbolically as structurally.

Globally, the news is no less jaw-dropping: Floods stretching to the horizon in Australia and Pakistan. Two devastating earthquakes each for New Zealand and Haiti. And a trifecta of tragedy in Japan where an earthquake triggered a tsunami that drowned a nuclear plant.

Droughts—comparatively stealthy as disasters go—only grab headlines when people start keeling over from starvation by the tens of thousands (Somalia), or crop losses are so large, sticker shock sets in at the grocery store, while global food security—which means global security—becomes notably less secure (Russia, US).

The only bright spot in this litany of gloomy news is that communication during and about disasters has improved markedly.  As Hurricane Irene buzz-sawed its way up the eastern seaboard, The Weather Channel went into overdrive, leading a media mob—both mainstream and “citizen”—reporting, tweeting, crowdmapping, photographing, making videos, texting donations, aggregating, blogging, facebooking, and sharing every last little nugget of awful news.

It made a difference. People got out of harm’s way. Although the death toll has now climbed into mid-forties, with likely a few thousand more injured, an estimated 65 million people felt some part of Irene’s fury. Most stayed safe, which is remarkable.

Yet for all the technical brilliance that made it possible to track a weather blip off the coast of Africa to its lethal landfall an ocean away, or to plan mass evacuations, share safety tips and keep track of loved ones, there was no stopping Irene. Financial losses may have been less than expected—mostly because property values are lower in Vermont than in New York City—but they are enormous and devastating. Homes have been torn apart, lives turned upside down.

The collateral damage has yet to be tallied from lost incomes, delayed school starts, exposure to toxic mold, toxic water, mosquito-borne illnesses and weakened infrastructure.

It becomes a vicious circle: Until businesses affected by the storm are up and running again, tax revenues will decline, making it that much more difficult to pay for repairs or proactive maintenance. In Japan and New Zealand, bonds and special taxes are now on the table to cope with recovery costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.

In fact, the high cost of these mega-disasters—often quoted a percentage of a country’s GDP—can itself become a cost. Insurance companies, faced with catastrophic losses, are hiking rates and cutting coverage. But the more businesses and home-owners are forced to spend on insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, the less money they have to expand businesses or make purchases.

There are also more people than ever in harm’s way. Much of the development in Queensland, Australia over the last 30 years, for example, was on a floodplain.

Although specific storms are difficult to link directly to climate change, our warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere than it did even just a few decades ago. That means there is more rain to to be rained, and more energy to interact and magnify well-known weather drivers such as El Nino / La Nina.

Whether or not this is the “new normal” remains to be seen. It certainly seems to be the “more frequent.”

IN RECOVERY

“The Days, Years After,” a new link suite story on the TrackerNews aggregator, looks at a half dozen disasters from the last few years, focusing on recovery efforts. Each disaster is tragic in its own way, but patterns emerge.

  • Political gridlock (Japan) can be just as devastating as corruption (Haiti) in slowing recovery
  • Good communications networks make a tangible difference (Joplin, New York)

On a more encouraging note, all sorts of new and better tools for  mapping, clean-up, construction and communication have emerged since Hurricane Katrina, all made accessible, and some made possible, by the web.

Many of the technologies are eco-smart, which turns out to be a good disaster defense strategy as well.

Imagine, for example, the difference it would have made if the electric grid in the Northeast had been based on a distributed power paradigm. Rather than large central power plants generating electricity transported over long distances on vulnerable wires, individual buildings and neighborhoods would generate their own, preferably green, power. Batteries capable of storing enough energy from solar panels and wind-turbines to power as many as 2,000 homes would be tied into local grid, which could, in turn, could be tied into a larger grid. A hurricane would still knock lights out, but not to millions of people.

Clean, green energy independence means energy insurance, too.

Additional highlights of the link suite include:

… and much more (all links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database)

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It’s Melting! It’s Melting!: Linking Weather to Climate, Food to Revolution and a Rare Ray of Win-Win Hope

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On making predictions: Groundhogs and weather, distributed computing and climate, commodity markets and poverty and why a better way to keep things cool may help cool off the planet

February 2011, Chicago: What a difference less-than-three-weeks makes; Lake Shore Drive on Groundhog Day; Green shoots poking through dirt

It is hard to quibble with climate change when the freaky weather is freaky good. Less than three weeks after the Great Blizzard of 2011 stopped traffic literally in its tracks on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, it looks like April outside. Mountains of snow have disappeared into the ground and thin air as tree buds fatten and little green shoots of precocious flower bulbs poke up through the dirt. It’s like one giant “nevermind…”  The bill for all the plowing and salting and towing and snow-day-ing hasn’t even come due and the evidence has vanished.

We are flirting with 60 degrees. There are robins. The chill is gone from the wind. Our local groundhog, whose prediction came a day early this year—the zoo was closed on February 2—was right: early spring. Scratch that. Earliest spring.

Yes, it’s going to get cold again. Snow will fall. Water will freeze. But it won’t last. The earth is now tilted in our favor.

So is this really climate change or just a lucky break? Two studies recently published in the journal Nature point to the former. Although focused on “extreme weather events” in the Northern hemisphere rather than extremely nice days in the Midwest, both studies bolster the argument pointing blame at human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The first study focuses the intensity of rain storms and blizzards, analyzing a half century’s-worth of  rain gauge data from 6,000 reporting stations run through a variety of climate models. Weirdly, the models taking into account GHGs tend to low-ball the effects compared to actual changes in precipitation tallies. It other words, it’s soggier in real life.

Notably, the research doesn’t include data after 1999, which is when a significant number of recording stations were shut down. Yet even when the “best science available” isn’t as good as it might have been, it appears, at least in this case, to have been good enough to raise some major concerns.

Still, one wonders whether the missing data could have helped predict this winter’s record snows in Korea, the string of  Nor’easters in New England, or the recent megafloods in Germany and Pakistan. And if data from the Southern hemisphere had been included, would we have seen a pattern leading to the catastrophic storms in Australia and Sri Lanka?

FROM PATTERNS TO PREDICTIONS

The second study is, in a sense, much more ambitious: linking a specific weather event—floods in England 11 years ago—to man-mediated global warming. That kind of pin-point precision usually gets lost in climate study footnote caveats that point to variables surrounding any one particular storm.

…The researchers ran thousands of simulations of the weather in autumn 2000 (using idle time on computers made available by a network of volunteers) with and without the temperature rises caused by man-made global warming. They found that, in nine out of 10 cases, man-made greenhouse gases increased the risks of flooding. This is probably as solid a signal as simulations can produce, and it gives us a clear warning that more global heating is likely to cause more floods here…

…both models and observations also show changes in the distribution of rainfall, with moisture concentrating in some parts of the world and fleeing from others: climate change is likely to produce both more floods and more droughts.

(The Guardian)

Three things are especially worth noting:

1) These calculations were made possible by donations of otherwise idle computer time—40,000 years-worth all told. Even in an era of slashed research budgets, there are ways to make enough sense of available data to drive policy decisions (along with, potentially, lawsuits against power companies and insurance rate hikes).

2) We are all already paying the price—literally. Food costs are up by a nearly a third from a year ago, a spike so severe, the World Bank has voiced concern. According to its calculations, 44 million people  tipped into poverty due to higher food costs since June, 2010. Other commodities such as cotton are also up dramatically. Manufacturers are reigning in earnings estimates, citing weather-related crop shortfalls. Retailers, including Wal-Mart, are also bracing for the fall-out. The only thing going up is demand as global population continues to increase.

3) Soaring food costs, along with soaring unemployment and decades of repression, are fueling protests across North Africa, with global geopolitical ramifications.

Although higher commodity prices should at least be good news for growers, national subsidies have distorted global markets. In Africa, for example, even farmers with high-demand crops such as cotton can find it difficult to eek out a living.

A WIN-WIN AMIDST THE LOSE-LOSE

All in all, pretty bleak stuff. Except for the one little ray of good news / bad news hope that if the shift in climate is indeed driven by fossil fuel emissions—as a growing mountain of evidence indicates—maybe we can still do something about it. It may be too late to get the climate train back on  long-term track, but still possible to slow it down. That’s something.

Last fall, we wrote about some encouraging news on that front: an agreement between Greenpeace and the Consumer Goods Forum, which represents dozens large / multinational manufacturers, mandating a switch to climate-friendlier cooling technologies. The so-called “F-gases” released by traditional refrigerants account for a whopping “17% of the world’s global warming impact,” according to Greenpeace Solutions director Amy Larkin, who helped broker the deal. “That’s not annual emissions. That’s cumulative impact.”

Although several of the biggest companies, led by Coca-Cola, are already well on their way to making the switch, the language in the CGF agreement was softened at the last minute: Instead of requiring members to complete the transition by 2015, they are only required to begin making the transition by 2015.

What are they waiting for? Climate change-driven extreme weather is already taking a toll on bottom lines and shareholder confidence. F-gases may only a piece of the puzzle, but a piece that consumer goods companies can take the lead on: “positive change” that’s good for profits, too. In an era of a lot of lose-lose, that’s a rare win-win.

RELATED RESOURCES / ARTICLES:

Cry Me a River…and Pass Me a Shovel: On Rain, Snow, Sleet and Ice, Atmospheric Rivers and a World Gone Soggy

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Wintry Buffet: Blizzard, Ice Storms, Tornado Watches & Thundersnow / Feburary 1, 2011

The opening rounds of a potentially record-shattering blizzard swirl outside my office window. It is one thing to report on extreme weather around the globe and quite another to literally be in the howling midst of the story. It is a storm the likes of which has not been seen, at least in the hundred-some years since people have been keeping records.

Two-thousand miles across. A hundred million people in harm’s way. Blizzard warnings in at least nine states. Tornado warnings in others. Ice storms sealing whole cities in shells of slick an inch thick. Snow tallies measured in feet. Snow drifts sculpted into frozen dunes. Winds 30-40-50-even 60 mph driving temperatures into negative double-digit insti-frostbite territory. Twenty-five foot waves on Lake Michigan, powerful enough to turn Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive “into an ice-skating rink” (or, as it turned out, a parking lot…)

And yet we saw it coming, so it won’t be quite so bad. For the past couple of days, people have been stocking up on everything from salt and shovels to groceries and fireplace logs. Snow plows have been pre-positioned, and flights, by the thousands, canceled in anticipation by the airlines. Warming shelters have been opened and schools closed. The entire cast and crew of The Weather Channel is “in position,” ready to freeze for the camera so we don’t have to…

By Thursday, the sun will shine, though won’t make a dent in the mountains of snow now pushed Himalaya-high by the primal forces of snow plow and dump truck. If we’re lucky, thoughtful city crews will seize the opportunity to bury and maim much-hated foreign-leased parking meter boxes, giving us all a brief break from extortion-level fees.

Yes, there will be car accidents, stranded commuters, power outages, busted roofs, broken ankles, frostbitten fingers and toes, electric heater fires, and probably a few death-by-shoveling heart attacks. Municipal budgets, already struggling, will buckle under the costs. But mostly we will be alright.

TrackerNews link suite on global flooding

Not so the victims of floods in Australia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Germany, Italy, Mexico, England, Costa Rica, the Philippines and so many other places where record rains over the last year have led to tragedy beyond imagining. Normally quiet—or at least predictable—rivers have burst their banks, roaring Hulk-like over the land, submerging crops, stranding wildlife and sending millions of people scrambling for shelter, their lives forever altered, their hopes and dreams literally drowned. And when it wasn’t rivers on a rampage, it was the saturated ground itself that gave way, unleashing killer mudslides, burying thousands alive.

The future could be even soggier. In the short-term, Australia’s rain-wracked state of Queensland is currently bracing for Yasi “one of the most devastating cyclones on record.” A little harder to pin down schedule-wise  is something called an ARk storm, due to slam into the California, dumping up to 10 feet of rain over several weeks and costing, when all is said and done, three times as much as a big earthquake: an estimated $725 billion.

ARk storms have happened before, most recently 150 years ago when it rained for nearly two months straight. So many livestock drowned, ranchers traded in branding irons for plows in the aftermath and became farmers. In the USGS scenario, one of the world’s great food baskets, the Central Valley, fills up like a giant bathtub, 300 miles long and 20 miles wide.

Serious flooding also occurs in Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and other coastal communities. Windspeeds in some places reach 125 miles per hour, hurricane-force winds. Across wider areas of the state, winds reach 60 miles per hour… Flooding evacuation could involve 1.5 million residents in the inland region and delta counties.

—Overview of the ARkStorm Scenario

The good news is that an ARk storm is supposed to happen only once ever 500 to 1,000 years. The bad news? A warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere, so scientists suspect that those between-storm time frames to shrink. Add in all the “fossil water” that’s been pumped to the hydrologic system from slow-renewing aquifers over the last half century and it’s easy to see that there is more water in Earth’s atmosphere than there has been for quite a long time. (Although fossil water amounts to a tiny percentage of the overall total, even small changes can eventually lead to much bigger ones: the “butterfly effect.”)

The “AR” in “ARk” stands for “atmospheric rivers.” We know them as the Pineapple Express or the Alberta Clipper—conveyer belts of moisture laden air. Now, with more moisture in the air, they, too, have burst their banks. The floods above our heads beget the floods here on the ground.

An intricate weave of ocean surface temperatures driving global weather patterns—La Nina, El Nino and a slew of acronyms only meteorologists can keep straight—combined with man-made changes to the land—deforestation, development, crumbling, inadequate infrastructure—determine how severe damage will be. But clearly more people are in harm’s way. And more harm is on the way.

The climate is in shifting. Climate change is a done deal. Umbrellas for everybody…and some shovels, too.

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All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

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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Trees, Food, Pakistan & the Lessons of Medieval Monks: How Ecosystems Thinking Can (Still) Save the World

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On deforestation, floods, global commodity markets and food empires; The lessons of medieval monks; Urbanization and ecosystems thinking; Saved by a worm?

On the frontlines of Pakistan flood: Chris Anderson's posts, videos and photographs

Of all the horrifying stories to come out of Pakistan in this long waterlogged summer of raging floods, perhaps the most tragic is why the disaster become a full-blown, future-blighting catastrophe: Deforestation had left the country stripped of almost all its forest cover. Trees that would have soaked up rain and slowed the flow weren’t there to do so. Nor were roots in place to keep land from sliding away.

Adding insult to injury, according to Al Jazeera, money from illegal logging near the Afghan border in Malakand found its way into the pockets of the Taliban. And in a literal cascade of bad to worse, the ill-gotten timber, stashed temporarily in ravines, magnified the destructive power of the flood-waters, shredding bridges and roads in the hurtle down river.

When the waters eventually recede, an eroded landscape will emerge. Whatever fertility the ground held will have been leached away, much of it to end up as mucky silt, clogging Pakistan’s over-extended, under-maintained massive irrigation network.

Even without flooding, deforestation means more than the loss of trees: Biodiversity flat-lines. In Pakistan, wild animals and plants that had been a source of food and medicine are no longer there to be hunted or gathered. The people who depended on the forests are out of luck. Another, albeit thin, slice of Eden gone.

Although the scars are local and downstream effects regional,  the impact is actually global.

Take, for example, Pakistan’s role as the world’s fourth largest producer of cotton, generating roughly 10% of global supply. Since this year’s crop is a literal wash out, the 2010 global harvest won’t meet demand. The situation is that much more serious, considering that even minus Pakistan’s contribution, the harvest will be larger than last year’s, coming in at 100 millions bales.  Increased demand from an ever-growing global population will translate to a 4 million bale shortfall, according to analysts. That means cotton prices are going up for everybody everywhere.

Next year, when you pay more for jeans, blame the Taliban…

(added 10/4/10: “Cotton Clothing Price Tags to Rise” / New York Times)

HOW MORE BECOMES LESS

Global supplies are also tight – and prices rising – for other commodities. What began as a season full of bumper crop predictions turned to whole wheat toast in the heat of Russia’s bumper drought, and mush in the wake of Canada’s floods. Supplies aren’t expected to ease until the end of 2011, the earliest a temporary Russian export ban may be lifted.

From corn to rice, and fish to fruit, the era of easy surpluses is over. Any glitch almost anywhere in the weather, or disease outbreak, insect infestation, pollinator decline or oil spill can send ripples throughout the global food network.

“Despite record harvests beteeen 2000 and 2007, the world ate more food than it produced. Back in 1998, human beings grew 1.9 billion tons of cereals and ate 1.8 billion tons of them. Since then yields have risen, but so have our appetites, and there’s a disjoint between the two. In five of the last ten years, the world consumed more food than farms have grown, while in a sixth year we merely broke even. Reserves are bottoming out. Even without a climate trigger, the ledger shows some unpleasant mathematics.”

Empires of Food

So entwined have commodity markets become  that instead of diluting risk, we share consequences. Inevitably, the consequences that are roughest on the most vulnerable: As the need for food aid increases, not only is there less food to go around, it is also more expensive.

FOOD / CULTURE

This is hardly the first time this sort of thing has happened. In their new book, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas write with breezy style and depressing detail of how food networks throughout history have crashed for utterly predictable, if not always completely preventable, reasons.

They point to four fraught assumptions:

  • Soil is fertile: Unless carefully managed, it won’t stay fertile. Fertility “bumps” from planting on newly deforested areas are temporary. Chemical fertilizers are addictive: The more you use, the more you need. Also, much is lost in farm field run off, which knocks nature’s balance out of whack as it moves downstream (e.g., algal blooms that lead to marine “dead zones”). Fertilizers and pesticides also take a toll on soil’s natural microfauna, further affecting fertility.
  • Weather is good: Civilizations tend to flourish when the weather is predictable, with nice long growing seasons. But climates change, with or without man-made greenhouse gases to goose the process along.  A drop of one degree in Europe’s average temperature during the 16th century was enough to tip the Little Ice Age. “While such aberrations may seem piffling, if spring temperatures drop by just half a degree, the growing season can shrink by ten days.”
  • Specialization is smart business: Monocultures are more vulnerable to disease and predation. A food network of monocultures is only as strong as its weakest link. “…(S)ince all our specialty food patches depend on one another to constitute our food empire, none of them can exist alone.”
  • Energy is abundant and cheap: From fossil fuels used in chemical fertilizers, to fuel for tractors, trucks, trains, ships and planes and electricity for refrigeration, the cost of modern food is wedded to the cost of energy. Oil prices rise and food prices follow. If they spike, expect food riots, such as those seen in 2008, despite record-breaking harvests. “The weight of the global breadbasket was 2.24 billion tons, a robust 5 percent increase over the previous year. Yet food prices utterly detached themselves from the fact that we had reaped the best harvest in the entirety of human existence.”

To be mistaken in one colossal assumption about our food empire may be a misfortune. To be mistaken in all four seems like something worse than carelessness. It seems like willful disregard for the truth. When we finally shed these assumptions, we’ll realize the genuine price of the way we produce, distribute, and consume food.

MONKS, MONOPOLIES & TREES (AGAIN…)

Fraser and Rimas tell a cautionary tale from the Middle Ages that offers particularly striking parallels the present. A thousand years ago, monasteries sat atop a vertically integrated food network that would have been the envy of  any modern transnational conglomerate. The monks had money to invest in innovative technology (the moldboard plow), which provided an unbeatable advantage over small farmers, who found themselves with no choice but to move to cities. The monks also had to clout to control processing (royal licenses for milling) and become gatekeepers for distribution (royal licenses to run market fairs). But even such divinely-blessed productivity wasn’t to last.

More than temporal success, the most striking impact that the Cistercians had on Europe was that they chopped down all the trees. …(R)eal estate in Europe had gotten expensive. Even marginal land, bits of scrub and hilltop, needed to come under the plow to feed the growing markets in the cities. Since chopping trees and tilling hilly ground is a sure means of exhausting and eroding soil, over time, the harvests worsened. The monks kept pushing their farms outward, even plowing uplands that once pastured sheep and cattle – animals whose digestive systems had done an effortless job of fertilizing the earth. With the loss of livestock’s manure and the added cultivation, the ground blew and washed away even quicker…

…By the end of the thirteenth century, margins between supply and demand had thinned to a razor’s breadth. A decline of 10 percent in a year’s harvest spelled hunger; a loss of 20 percent of the harvest meant famine.

…And then the financial system imploded. For centuries, bankers in Siena had loaned heavily to Europe’s royal houses, financing wars and armies. They overextended themselves on architecture, cavalry, and crusades, so when the harvests dropped and manors or cities defaulted on their loans, the banks collapsed. In 1298, the Gran Tavola bank of the Bonsignori, the Rothschilds of their day, failed. Rents soared as landlords struggled to pay their debts. Work on Siena’s great cathedral came to stop…”

It took a few centuries, but the clever Sienese finally figured out how to turn a giant half-built nave into a tourist-driven profit center offering a one-of-kind-view of the Tuscan countryside. In the meantime, things got worse:

For most of Europe. the crisis truly began with a midsummer storm in 1314. It rained too much and for too long, drumming flat the ripening crops and rotting them on the stalk. The grain harvest proved both late and short, and the next year was worse. Dikes collapsed, the sea engulfed the fields and pasture, and an epidemic carried by Mongol raiders, possibly anthrax, managed to snuff out much of the continent’s livestock. In England, the price of wheat jumped eightfold. In 1316, it rained again, and Europe toppled into the worst famine in its history.

Deforestation. Economic collapse. Torrential rains. Burst dikes. Floods. Famine. Disease. Sound vaguely familiar?

By some estimates, 10% of Europeans starved to death that year.

CENTURY OF THE CITY

Can we learn from the monks’ mistakes? Or is the tragedy of Pakistan a sign of things to come? From Haiti to Guatemala to Borneo, deforestation has amplified the effects of natural disasters, yet planting trees is rarely, if ever, part of comprehensive aid packages.

graph credit: "Foreign Policy" - from a package of stories on global urbanization

The disconnect is pervasive. Urbanization may be the defining trend of our time. Over half the population now lives in cities. One billion people live in slums – a number expected to double with a couple of decades. Collectively, cities are expanding at a rate of 130 people-per-minute. China and India alone will account for 2/5 of global urban growth over the next 20 years. Yet few urban planners, economists, policy-makers or politicians seem to take into account the importance of undeveloped land –  sometimes far beyond city limits – for the health and safety of cities.

Stanford economist Paul Romer tells of looking out a plane window while flying over Africa and seeing plenty of “uninhabited” land, perfect for  “charter cities.” These are settlements built from scratch, based on rules designed to “provide security, economic opportunity, and improved quality of life.” These rules of men, however, show a breathtaking obliviousness to the rules of nature. Land empty of people doesn’t mean it is uninhabited, or that is doesn’t provide key services. Wetlands, flood plains, forests – all have great value for people. But their value is tied up in costs avoided (storm damage, pollution-related expenses), which are always more of a challenge to slot into a spreadsheet for investors.

To help make his case, Romer shows a graphic that visualizes all the arable land on Earth as a series of identical dots. The planet’s 3 billion city-dwellers take up only 3% of the dots. Add another billion living in proposed charter cities and it is 4%. Which sounds like a pretty reasonable deal, but, of course, the dots are not identical. Some land is good for wheat, other for rice. Some is ruined for a season by flood or drought, or just plain marginal. Some dots are former forests that have been slashed and burned to make way for  biodiversity-busting palm oil plantations. More people means we probably need more dots of arable land, not fewer. And as for wildlands that help nourish and provide water for the arable lands that feed the people in cities? Dot-less.

NODES & NETWORKS

Likewise, the truth behind the much-touted efficiencies of scale that make dense cities “greener” than car-dependent suburbs can get a little messy. “Green-ness” isn’t only about whether people walk or drive to stores, but also a function of how “green” the products and services they purchase may be, shipping included (which is why hybrid cars, loaded with globe-trotting battery components, aren’t quite as eco-friendly as billed). A true urban footprint extends as far as the trade routes used to bring in the goods that keep a city going. By that definition, almost every city is now a global city.

Boundaries are further blurred as urban areas merge and sprawl into megacities. In a sense, cities have become nodes of a single globe-spanning “supra-urban” network.

It will take systems thinking – preferably ecosystems thinking – to fully understand the dynamics of the network, and the keystone roles played by “undeveloped” lands.

Still, the connections are are clear enough to merit serious attention in the U.N.’s first “Global assessment report on disaster risk reduction,” published last year. Fast-growing slums are singled out as especially vulnerable to natural disasters. Along with improving urban infrastructure, the report underscores the need to protect ecosystems.

SAVED BY A WORM?

According to Fraser and Rimas, civilizations are only as strong as their food empires, and our global food empire is fraying badly. The quick fixes of chemical fertilizers, miracle pesticides, massive water projects and genetically modified seeds have either come up short or led to unintended consequences. Old blights, including Norman Borlaug’s nemesis, wheat rust, are staging comebacks, wiping out crops with as much ruthless efficiency as our increasingly erratic weather.

Growing Power's Will Allen with agricultural gold: vermicompost and worm casings

Although the situation appears bleak, ecosystems thinking – this time  writ small –  may help tide us along. Urban agriculture, from Havana to Brooklyn to Detroit, has gone from  green-hearted curiosity to a movement with the potential to change the dynamics of the global food empire. Small, local, replicable, scalable, flexible – it offers an alternative that can be adapted to almost any urban configuration.

Incorporate a closed-loop  aquaponics component, as MacArthur genius Will Allen has done at his three-acre Growing Power farm in Milwaukee, and there is a replenishable source of protein to go with all the fresh veggies. Fish – perch and tilapia by the thousands – swim in water filtered through plants grown in compost fertilized by the castings of red wriggler worms that have munched through mounds of garbage.

The worms –  Allen refers to them as “the hardest working livestock on the farm” – are the lynchpin of the operation. They generate the fertility that drives the biomimicked ecosystem, starting with a product that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

Sweet Water Organics, the first commercial scale-up based on Allen’s blueprint, has now been in operation in Milwaukee for about a year. The learning curve has been steep, but the first crops of fish have now been harvested and sold.

Would such an operation work in Pakistan? Possibly. It would not answer the need for grains, which require fields. It would take time and investment. But it could provide a model for a local sustainable food supply. It could be a part of the solution.

So… If you really want to make a make a difference and help save the world, start by planting trees. Lots of flood-slowing, land-stabilizing, biodiversity-nurturing, CO2-absorbing trees. Then be humbled by the talents of worms. Support urban agriculture. Finally, try very, very hard not to repeat the food mistakes of the past. The story, guaranteed, always ends the same grim way.

RELATED READING / VIEWING / LISTENING

More Incentive to Clean Up the Gulf: The X Prize Foundation Announces the Wendy Schmidt Oil Clean-up X Challenge

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Idea first floated at the TEDxOilSpill conference by Francis Belland of the X Prize Foundation and David Gallo of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute becomes real.

Since the BP gusher started spewing millions of gallons of crude oil and methane into the Gulf of Mexico more that three months ago, there have other high profile spills, including one of China’s largest, near the city of Dalian, that created a 170 mile slick. Closer to my home in Chicago, a pipeline break released over 800,000 gallons into western Michigan’s Kalamazoo river, which flows into Lake Michigan.

Last year, Australia took a one-two punch, first with a tanker spill that fouled 40 miles of Queensland’s coast, then an oil rig blow-out eerily similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In Nigeria, oil spills have become such an every day nightmare – an estimated 7,000 between 1970 and 2000 – that the tally is measured in units of “Exxon Valdez” (over 50 and still counting).

Clearly, if you drill, it will spill. Although the X Prize Foundation’s Oil Clean-up Challenge was developed in response to the mess in the Gulf, its importance goes far beyond our local oily waters. “The oil industry has focused on,”How do you drill deeper, further, more efficiently. Little money has actually been spent so far on “How do you clean it up properly?’, ” notes Peter Diamandis,  X Prize CEO.

With $1.4 million in incentive prizes provided by the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Challenge is designed to wrap up next summer, with demonstrations of the promising technologies at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility (OHMSETT) in Leonardo, New Jersey.

RELATED READING:

“Introducing the Oil Clean-up Challenge,” by Wendy Schmidt, Huffington Post

“TEDxOilSpill: Surface Slicks, Deep Water Despair, Galaxies of Oil Platforms and Why We Really, Truly, Don’t Need Oil” by J.A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews Editor’s Blog