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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)

Soggy Spring, Silent Seas (link suite overview)

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On storms, floods, food prices and foolish farm policies; Redistributing fertility from where it’s needed to where it’s not; Corn, gullies and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone

TrackerNews link suite on the record storms and floods in the US. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

According to insurance industry consultancy EQECAT, the damage caused by the hundreds of tornadoes that exploded across the southern tier of the US in April rank right up there in Hurricane Katrina territory: $2 to $5 billion. That’s 2 to 5 times the average seasonal toll. Meanwhile, the death count—still not final at 340—is more than four times the seasonal average. And while the outbreak itself lasted several days, individual tornadoes shredded cities, tossed cars, stripped trees and pulverized farms in mere  seconds, the strongest storms packing winds far more powerful than even a “Cat 5” hurricane.

The before-and-after photos are Hollywood blockbuster extreme: Landscapes scoured beyond recognition. Whole neighborhoods reduced to spiky plywood shards and lumps of fast-molding candy-pink insulation. With almost tornadic speed, a Facebook page was set up in the aftermath to reunite photographs and documents tossed from homes that no longer exist with their owners. The successes only underscore just how much is gone.

Heavy, steady rains and snow melt have combined to swell streams, rivers and lakes from Canada through the Deep South to the highest levels seen in decades. But it is the raging waters of the Mississippi and Ohio drowning America’s breadbasket that have grabbed most of the headlines.Gravid with topsoil-rich run-off,  they are breaking all the wrong kinds of records. To save Cairo, Illinois, a small, historic, hardscrabble city at the southernmost tip of Illinois where the two rivers meet—and was once a critical stop on the Underground Railway—the US Army Corps of Engineers blew a two-mile hole in a levee, turning nearly 200 square miles of rich Missouri farmland flood-plain into an insti-lake.

FARM REPORT

It will be months before the land dries out. Even then, the legacy of  chemical residues and storm debris will likely render the land unusable for some time. The situation is almost as dire throughout farm country. As of the last week of April, only 13% of the corn crop had been planted. Usually, 40 and 60% is in the ground by now. Prospects for the winter wheat crop are also bleak, with over 40% considered to be in “poor” or “very poor” condition. Predictably, commodity prices are soaring, with corn up 99% from a year ago and wheat up 55%. What began as a regional tragedy will become global catastrophe as food costs climb beyond the reach of millions.

At this point, even planting “fence row to fence row” will not be able to make up the losses. In fact, part of the problem has been this  push—supported by government subsidies—to plant every-last-possible–square-inch. Spring rains carve out deep gullies, funneling run-off laced with chemical fertilizers into creeks and streams—hundreds of tons of topsoil literally washed away every season.

Well, not quite away. The Mighty Mississippi will be delivering a mighty mother lode to the Gulf of Mexico in the coming days, where it will fertilize a bumper crop of algae, which will suck so much oxygen out the water, fish will either flee or float. Many predict a record hypoxic “dead zone” this year.

Stormy weather, indeed.

Scientists won’t know for sure whether any of this can be chalked up to climate change—a warmer world is a juicier, rainier one—until, frankly, it is too late to matter. It will take years of wretched weather to establish a proof-positive pattern.

But while we wait, there actually are some fairly simple things that could be done to mitigate damage from future storms. According to “Losing Ground,” a new report by the Environmental Working Group, creating land-cover buffers around creaks, streams and rivers would reduce farm run-off significantly: “97% of soil loss is preventable by simple conservation means.”

Really, why wouldn’t we want to do that?

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RELATED READING  / VIEWING

Plastics: Eco-Comedy / Eco-Tragedy

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On the power of humor, one farmer’s stand, birds, bottle caps, better bottles, trash-tracking and why corporations need  to push politicians toward smarter recycling policy

Here at TrackerNews, where our unofficial tagline is “One Damn Thing After Another,” the focus tends to be on the grim. Floods, droughts, plagues, blights, quakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, climate change, pandemics, drug-resistance, fake drugs,  oil spills, nuclear accidents, dead bees, dead trees, melting ice, rising seas, acidic oceans, aging populations, e-waste… Lather, rinse, repeat.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a sense of humor. Indeed, sometimes humor is the only thing that keeps us going. So when a music video on the evils of single-use plastic bags came flying in through the email transom, we perked right up (thanks Chris Palmer!). “A Plastic State of Mind,” co-winner of  this year’s Eco-Comedy Video Competition (who knew “eco-comedy” was a genre?), blew us away while hitting a bull’s eye on mission: We promise—we really do—to bring our canvas bags into the store, rather than forget them with a means-well shrug in the car. Or this could happen:

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Talk about “ads worth spreading”…

FARM(STAND) POLICY

Taking a more direct approach, farmer Henry Brockman, whose bounty is the stuff delectable legend at the summer market in Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago, charges for recyclable plastic bags, encouraging customers to bring their own re-usable bags instead. Within a single season, he managed to reduce demand 90%, taking 27,000 bags out of the plastic pollution equation. One little farm-stand. One small weekly market. A start.

Still, as his writer sister Terra notes, “recyclable plastic” isn’t exactly a get-out-eco-jail-card–free, so that’s still 3,000 bags too many:

First, we learned there is considerable doubt that biodegradable bags really do degrade under the conditions they are supposed to—including water, sun, and underground (e.g. landfill). Second, the renewable resource used to make most biodegradable plastics is corn, the chemical-intensive production of which has its own set of negative environmental impacts. To add insult to injury, we learned that the corn used to make the bags we purchased was grown in China. Thus, our “green” bags were contributing to soil loss, polluted wells, damaged ecosystems, and food insecurity in China—not to mention all the fossil-fuel use and concomitant pollution that started in a field in China, continued in a bag factory there, and then went on with emissions from trucks, ships, planes, and trucks again to finally get into our hands.

The Seasons On  Henry’s Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm

FOR THE BIRDS

If that isn’t enough for you to give up your errant plastic ways, do it for the birds. Photographers Chris Jordan and Kris Krug are currently on Midway Island,  filming a documentary follow-up to Jordan’s disturbing 2009 photo-essay on albatross killed from feeding in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirl of plastic rubbish in the middle of the ocean. The birds have a fatal fondness for plastic bottle caps, which accumulate in their stomachs, leading to agonizing deaths. Smaller bits of near invisible plastic—some no doubt that started out as single-use bags—threaten the food web itself.

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A BETTER BOTTLE?

Back in the grocery store, cola giants Pepsi and Coke are battling it out for “green” bottle bragging rights. Coke made the first move last year, introducing a 30% bioplastic bottle. Pepsi matched that and then some, announcing a new 100% bioplastic container to be rolled out in pilot trials next year.

With the cost of oil ever-rising, it’s a smart move financially. By some estimates, 200,000 barrels of oil per day are used to create plastic packaging, just in the US. Finding a cheaper, abundant, locally sourced feedstock is double eco-smart: ecological and economic.

Yet unless the recycle rate is vastly improved, there is a limit to the good it will do. Less than a third of all the plastic bottles that could be recycled actually are. The rest? Near-eternal entombment in landfills or swirling for decades in a toxic “ocean patch” vortex of death (every ocean has one…). The task isn’t made any easier when budget-slashing politicians, such as Wisconsin’s Governor Walker, cut municipal recycling funds.

An handful of companies and grocery chains, such as Aveda and Whole Foods, have plastic recycling programs, but it is a drop in the garbage bucket. And, though good-hearted, they take work. Who really wants to collect and schlep bags of plastic bottle caps to the store?

This is an issue that goes well beyond an “Earth Hour” or even a whole “Earth Day,” which, for all the hype and raised awareness, haven’t managed to move the dial nearly far enough. Policy, political will and corporate support must match the technical advances that have been made in materials science. Closed loop design only works if the loop can, in fact, be closed.

In 2009, a team from MIT’s Senseable City lab tagged 3,000 pieces of garbage in Seattle with tracking chips. Then they charted the journeys of each item over a two-month span, creating a mesmerizing data visualization video set to Hayden’s “Farewell Symphony.” An impressive 75% + found its way to a recycling facility and 95% was processed near the metro area. Those encouraging  numbers, however, may reflect skews specific to Seattle’s garbage / recycling pick-up services, the 500 garbage-providing volunteers, or the types of garbage collected. E-waste, for example, traveled an an average of nearly a 1,000 miles, adding a sizable carbon footprint to the process.

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Imagine if every major metro area developed a “garbage profile” to help pinpoint areas for improvement? The “feel-good” of recycling coupled with hard data to drive innovation: “Farewell Symphony”? Meet “Hello Dolly”!

It’s either that or a more “Plastic State of Mind”:

LYRICS
Shoulda brought your own bag
Yeah but you forgot it though
You were busy dreamin of ice cream and
all that cookie dough

Your life is wrapped in plastic
Convenience is your motto
But plastic addiction’s worse
than they want you to know

BP’s oil spill
Almost like we did it –
We use one million grocery-bags
every single minute

Recycling them’s a joke yo
That baggie don’t go anywhere
It turns to little pieces
and then it spreads over everywhere

Into your food supply
Into your blood supply
Not to mention birds and fish and
Cuties you don’t wanna die

Just look at baby Sammy
Dioxins in its milky way,
cuz even her breast milk it’s got
PCB and BPA

OK now you get it
How you gonna stop it though
Banning Single Use Plastic Bags
is the way to go!

Join other states and cities
Kick the nasty habit
Tell your representatives
Ban single-use bags made from plastic…

RELATED ARTICLES / RESOURCES:

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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Additional links include:

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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Additional links from the aggregator suite include:
  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

Germs, Soap & Water: Link Suite Overview

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At TrackerNews, we tend to shy away from issues that have “days” as almost a sure mark that the cause, however noble, is all but lost. Awareness is whipped to fever pitch, followed almost inevitably by a “what do we do now?” hang-over, and an ADD sprint onto the next issue du jour. But World Toilet Day (Nov. 19) caught—and kept—our attention. So much so, we used it as the fulcrum of one the largest link suites ever on the aggregator.  —Ed.

“Germs, Soap & Water” – New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

It is as basic—and necessary—as breathing. And, just like breathing, one of the first things we need to be able to do on our own: We poop. But what begins as a triumph of living, quickly devolves into daily problem with deadly implications. Human poop is a happy home for at least 50 pathogens, including cholera, the latest of Haiti’s cascading list of immeasurable woes.

At some point each day, each one of the now more than 6 billion people on that planet will need to “take a moment,” “go to the powder room,” or “be right back.”  For one in six, however, there is no “powder room,” or even a bucket into which to “do one’s business.”  A full third don’t have access to a clean bathroom. Instead, they do as nature designed, find a place to squat and simply “go”—or, in the jargon of the sanitation experts, perform “open defecation” (OD).

It is messy, smelly, wildly dangerous in terms of public health, and dicey in terms of personal safety. Women and children are especially vulnerable to attack and rape. No safety, privacy or dignity.

Journalist Rose George, author of “The Big Necessity” and an expert on the issue, notes that only a small fraction of development funds spent on water projects goes toward sanitation. Yet to seriously move the dial on global public health, safe toilets and hand-washing with soap are required as well. According to one, oft-quoted stat, one child dies every 15 seconds from largely preventable diarrheal diseases. Hand-washing with soap alone can reduce the tally by more than half.

Which is why Clean the World (CTW), a two-year-old charity that steam-cleans partially-used hotel soaps for distribution in poor countries, is one of the best, cheapest, smartest public health efforts to come along in some time. At 50 cents a bar, soap in Haiti is a luxury. Free soap is a literal life-saver. Think of it as a kind of bed-net against germs.

Likewise, Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) delivers dramatic results for almost no cost, using a combination of shock, peer-pressure and incentives to stamp out OD. Villagers are graphically shown how excreta and germs get into water and food via dirty hands, shoes, feet. Not only are latrines quickly built, but a combination of fines and rewards ensure they’re used.

INNOVATION, HISTORY, CULTURE & ART

At TrackerNews, we never met a stray fact we didn’t like and bathrooms, it turns out, are full of them. Consider the latest breakthrough in TP tech: the tubeless toilet paper roll. The center is hexagonal—a biomimicked bee hive cell—which is a particularly strong shape that easily fits over a roller. Not only is every sheet usable, but if the design were to be widely adopted, one that could keep an estimated 17 billion-with-a-“b” cardboard tubes out of landfills annually, just in the U.S.

Although the basic design of the flush toilet hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years, the variety and sheer spectacularness of loo-design has been nothing short of breathtaking. From Golden Plunger award-winners to “Toilets of the World” (book & website), the variations on the theme are inspirational.

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  • night soil: free, cheap, endless supply of fertilizer
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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.

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