Tag Archives: agriculture

High-Tech Hydroponic Farm Transforms Abandoned Bowling Alley

High-Tech Hydroponic Farm Transforms Abandoned Bowling Alley | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Gotham Greens

NEW YORK CITY — On top of an old bowling alley in industrial northern Brooklyn sits an expansive translucent greenhouse. Inside, a bounty of produce thrives under the supervision of a computer-controlled network of sensors, motors and plumbing.

The 15,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse facility, called Gotham Greens, is reputedly the first commercial-scale urban operation of its kind in the United States. Thousands of lettuce and basil seedlings were plopped into a soil-less farming system in May. Since then, three local entrepreneurs say their operation is on track to deliver 100 tons of produce by the one-year mark.

While that pales in comparison to about 1.5 million tons of soil-free produce trucked into the city each year, and is far less than the output of nearby soil rooftop farms, the $2 million startup can’t keep up with demand from the city’s top chefs and upscale grocery stores.

“On the first harvest day we had so much lettuce we almost didn’t know what to do with it all, but now we can’t grow it fast enough,” said greenhouse director Jennifer Nelkin.

Gotham Greens is already eyeing some of the the city’s more than 940 million square feet of rooftop space to expand their high-tech operation.

The hardest task, said co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri, is convincing landlords to entertain the idea of putting a watery business on their rooftops. After that it’s a matter of navigating zoning restrictions, building codes and figuring out how to engineer the plumbing.

“You can’t bury anything on a roof,” Puri said. “It requires some clever technology.”

Images: 1) Inside Gotham Greens at 810 Humboldt St. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Dave Mosher/Wired.com) 2) The outside of the greenhouse. (Copyright of Gotham Greens)


seedlings in basalt rock plugs


Plant Plugs

The greenhouse begins its work by germinating seeds of four lettuce types and one basil variety in plastic bins. Fibrous plugs, spun from a volcanic rock called basalt, draw water to the fledgling roots and provide a medium for them to grow in.

“Not just hydroponic growers use the plugs,” Nelkin said. “A lot of farmers try and get a head-start at their soil farms, usually about six weeks before they can plant, by germinating seedlings in them.”

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com


irrigation system


Irrigating Gutters

Between 10 and 14 days after planting in the basalt plugs (above), the seeds sprout into seedlings and are ushered into hydroponic gutters (below). A series of pumps and drains constantly move nutrient-rich water through the gutters. Gotham Greens uses the nutrient film technique, which circulates a very shallow layer of water to supply roots with ample oxygen. Tight control over the nutrients and climate gives growers extreme control over their products.

“Many [hydroponic] tomatoes in the store, for example, taste like a swimming pool — and it’s too bad they’re giving hydroponics a bad name. It’s indicative of the grower, not the method,” Nelkin said. “You can really manipulate produce with hydroponics. You can choose to grow a tasteless tomato full of water, or grow the best, sweetest, juiciest tomato you’ve ever had.”

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com


calcium iron micronutrient bucket


Produce Juice

Plants primarily need water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur to grow. Most of these  materials come from air and tap water, but some trace nutrients need to be supplemented.

Gotham Greens stores nutrient mixes in giant buckets (above). When low levels are detected by sensors or in human-collected samples, computer-controlled pumps move the fluid into a nearby lagoon. (For proprietary reasons, Wired.com was only allowed to photograph this part of the system.) From there the solution is delivered to the gutters, and runoff returns to the lagoon for recycling.

The irrigation system is less complex than those of other hydroponic greenhouses, but Nelkin said anything more would be cost-prohibitive. “For our scale, it doesn’t make practical sense to micromanage every nutrient,” she said. “We’re not that large.” Their water comes from the tap.

Image: Dave Mosher/Wired.com


weather station


Climate Control

Important to Gotham Greens’ farming efficiency is a computer controller that monitors environmental conditions, keeping the greenhouse climate as ideal as possible for each type of veggie.

A weather station (above) monitors outdoor conditions while a photometer (below) and other sensors help keep tabs inside.

“When it hits a certain climate, [the controller] can turn on the fans, draw the sun shades, open vents, turn on the lights, turn on the heaters and so on,” Nelkin said.

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com


fly paper


Shoo, Fly

But what of the pests found in abundance near any unprotected plant? Gotham Greens doesn’t use pesticides. They fight fire with bug-eating fire.

Colored plastic cards covered with sticky goo attract the pests, which Nelkin and others check each day. When a bothersome bug is identified, Nelkin shops online for its predator, orders it and releases hordes of them in the greenhouse.

For aphids (above), a tray of ladybugs (below) usually does the trick.

“About 1,000 ladybugs costs probably $20,” Nelkin said. “It’s more expensive than pesticides, but it works.”

Controlling other pests requires the introduction of predatory wasps.

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com


solar panels


Green Power

Intelligent, organic greenhouses require electricity for lamps, pumps, computers and more. Solar panels installed by Gotham Greens satisfy about half of the facility’s needs, roughly enough to power 12 New York City households.

“Over the summer, we generated a good amount of power,” Puri said. “We’re going to track that data so we’ll be able to say exactly how much they help per year.”

Image: Dave Mosher/Wired.com


Jennifer Nelkin and Viraj Puri



Jennifer Nelkin (above, left) and Viraj Puri dreamed up Gotham Greens in 2008 after collaborating on a greenhouse that floated on the Hudson River. They’re now spending 100 percent of their time to develop Gotham Greens along with co-founder Eric Haley.

Their local food business may cut back carbon emissions better than most farms by minimizing transportation and relying on solar energy, but Puri said their main focus is delivering good produce. “The green aspects are a great bonus, but we want to be known for the quality of our products,” he said.

After Gotham Greens’ trial year ends in 2012, the company hopes to expand its line of crops to include tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, strawberries and even eggplant.

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

Crop scientists now fret about heat not just water

NewsDaily: Crop scientists now fret about heat not just water.

By Christine StebbinsPosted 2011/10/24 at 10:49 am EDT

CHICAGO, Oct. 24, 2011 (Reuters) — Crop scientists in the United States, the world’s largest food exporter, are pondering an odd question: could the danger of global warming really be the heat?

Haze from forest fires engulfs La Paz city, August 23, 2010. REUTERS/David Mercado

For years, as scientists have assembled data on climate change and pointed with concern at melting glaciers and other visible changes in the life-giving water cycle, the impact on seasonal rains and irrigation has worried crop watchers most.

What would breadbaskets like the U.S. Midwest, the Central Asian steppes, the north China Plain or Argentine and Brazilian crop lands be like without normal rains or water tables?

Those were seen as longer-term issues of climate change.

But scientists now wonder if a more immediate issue is an unusual rise in day-time and, especially, night-time summer temperatures being seen in crop belts around the world.

Interviews with crop researchers at American universities paint the same picture: high temperatures have already shrunken output of many crops and vegetables.

“We don’t grow tomatoes in the deep South in the summer. Pollination fails,” said Ken Boote, a crop scientist with the University of Florida.

The same goes for snap beans which can no longer be grown in Florida during the summer, he added.

“As temperatures rise we are going to have trouble maintaining the yields of crops that we already have,” said Gerald Nelson, an economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) who is leading a global project initially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to identify new crop varieties adapted to climate change.

“When I go around the world, people are much less skeptical, much more concerned about climate change,” said David Lobell, a Stanford University agricultural scientist.

Lobell was one of three authors of a much-discussed 2011 climate study of world corn, wheat, soybean and rice yields over the last three decades (1980-2008). It concluded that heat, not rainfall, was affecting yields the most.

“The magnitude of recent temperature trends is larger than those for precipitation in most situations,” the study said.

“We took a pretty conservative approach and still found sizable impacts. They certainly are happening already and not just something that will or might happen in the future,” Lobell told Reuters in an interview.


Scientists at an annual meeting of U.S. agronomists last week in San Antonio said the focus was climate change.

“Its impact on agriculture systems, impacts on crops, mitigation strategies with soil management — a whole range of questions was being asked about climate change,” said Jerry Hatfield, Laboratory Director at the National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

“The biggest thing is high night-time temperatures have a negative impact on yield,” Hatfield added, noting that the heat affects evaporation and the life process of the crops.

“One of the consequences of rising temperatures … is to compress the life cycle of that plant. The other key consequence is that when the atmosphere gets warmer the atmospheric demand for water increases,” Hatfield said.

“These are simple things that can occur and have tremendous consequences on our ability to produce a stable supply of food or feed or fiber,” he said.

Boote at the University of Florida found that rice and sorghum plants failed to produce grain, something he calls “pollen viability,” when the average 24-hour temperature is 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius). That equates to highs of 104 F during the day and 86 F at night, he said.

The global seed industry has set a high bar to boost crop yields by 2050 to feed a hungry world. Scientists said that the impact of heat on plant growth needs more focus and study.

“If you look at a lot of crop insurance claims, farmers say it is the lack of water that caused the plant to die,” said Wolfram Schlenker, assistant professor at Columbia University.

“But I think it’s basically different sides of the same coin because the water requirement of the plant increases tremendously if it’s hot,” he said.

“The private sector understands the threats coming from climate change and have significant research programs in regards to drought tolerance. They focus less on higher temperatures, but that’s a tougher challenge,” Nelson said.

“We are responding with a number of initatives…the primary one is focusing on drought tolerance,” said John Soper, vice president in charge of global seed development for DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred, a top U.S. seed producer.

Pioneer launched a conventionally bred drought-tolerant corn hybrid seed in the western U.S. Corn Belt this spring, selected for its yield advantage over other varieties.

“We have some early results in from Texas that show that is exactly how they are behaving. They currently have a 6 percent advantage over normal products in those drought zones,” Soper said.

Roy Steiner, deputy director for agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the foundation is focused on current agricultural effects of climate change.

“It’s amazing that there are still people who think that it’s not changing. Everywhere we go we’re seeing greater variability, the rains are changing and the timing of the rains is creating a lot more vulnerability,” Steiner said.

“Agriculture is one of those things that needs long-term planning, and we are very short-cycled thinking,” he said. “There are going to be some real shocks to the system. Climate is the biggest challenge. Demand is not going away.”

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Can Planting Vegetables in Vacant Lots Save Cleveland?

Can Planting Vegetables in Vacant Lots Save Cleveland? | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Backyard vegetables can fight crime, improve health, and boost the economy.

By transforming its vacant lots, backyards and roof-tops into farming plots, the city of Cleveland could meet all of its fresh produce, poultry and honey needs, calculate economists from Ohio State University. These steps would save up to $155 million annually, boost employment and scale back obesity.

“Post-industrial cities like Cleveland are struggling with more and more unused land, these become sources of crime,” said Parwinder Grewal co-author of a study “Can cities become self-reliant in food?” published July 20 in Cities.

“I was motivated to show how much food a city could actually produce by using this land,” he said. “We could address global problems through this way of gardening.”

Urban gardening improves health, reduces pollution, and creates local businesses, Grewal said. The population of Cleveland, what Grewal considers a typical post-industrial city, peaked near one million in 1950, and has been declining since. Today scarcely half a million people call Cleveland home.


As industrial jobs have dried up, the city’s exodus has accelerated. Unable to keep up their properties, many former residents have abandoned their homes. Vacant lots are proliferating, and currently number more than 20,000, according to the Cleveland City Planning Commission.

Ten percent of Clevelanders have been diagnosed with diabetes, as compared to the national average of 8 percent, and more than a third are obese. Among cities with a population between 100,000 and 500,000, it is the seventh most dangerous, according to one crime ranking. Growing tomatoes and beans, and keeping bees and chickens, would change all this, Grewal said. Studies have shown that gardens improve community health, reduce crime and increase property values.

Cleveland city planners have placed special emphasis on programs to foster urban gardening in the past five to 10 years, however, Grewal’s visions are on a more ambitious scale.

In the most intensive scenario he outlines 80 percent of all vacant lots, 62 percent of business rooftops, and 9 percent of residential lots would be tied to food, allowing the city to meet up to 100 percent of its fresh food needs. Grewal, who grows the bulk of his own food in his backyard, believes that his propositions are realistic and practical. The largest barrier is convincing citizens to garden.

“No discredit to the value of Grewal’s study,” said Kim Scott, a Cleveland City Planner and urban gardening specialist, “but articulating an idea is a different experience from implementing it.”

While Cleveland might have enough land to be self-sufficient, it doesn’t yet have the labor force to make it happen, Scott said.

“A mental shift has to take place,” said Scott. “Many people don’t have a clue about farming. They lack the patience to eat whole foods, they lack the desire.”

Both Scott and Grewal hope that shift is coming. Cleveland now has hundreds of community gardens. Some residents are growing market gardens, cultivating and selling produce as a full-time job. The city is seeing the grandest show of large public gardens since the Victory Gardens of World War II, when 40 percent of U.S. vegetables came from private and public gardens.

“If we could do it then,” said Grewal, “we can do it now. And if we design cities that are as self-sufficient as possible, the longer human civilization can sustain itself.”

Image: Parwinder Grewal

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Crop disease to add to east Africa's woes

Crop disease to add to east Africa’s woes – environment – 13 July 2011 – New Scientist.

NEARLY 20 million people face starvation in east Africa as the region experiences its worst drought for 60 years. Hopes now focus on the return of the rains, perhaps as early as the autumn. But that could just bring another problem with it.

A new, aggressive strain of yellow rust, a fungal disease of wheat, is waiting in the wings, and east Africa isn’t the only region at risk.

The disease had already struck the US, Australia and Europe when, in 2010, a particularly virulent strain infested an area from Morocco to Pakistan, and spread faster than any known major crop disease (see map). Most wheat varieties in warm countries have no defence against it. Its march continued this year, with an outbreak in northern India.

Concern about yellow rust has languished as wheat scientists rushed to respond to a related disease, the Ug99 strain of stem rust against which little of the world’s wheat has any resistance. Yellow rust has historically been less deadly than stem rust, and thrived only in cool countries.

But in 2000, a new aggressive strain of the disease was detected in California, though it probably evolved in Africa or Asia, says Mogens Hovmøller of Aarhus University, Denmark. It generates more spores than its ancestors, so it spreads farther, faster.

It is also nastier. Yellow rust typically does not destroy entire crops, even in the absence of fungicide. But this lineage wiped out organic crops in Denmark, says Hovmøller. Based on the location of recent outbreaks, Colin Wellings of the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, says some of the world’s major wheat producers are at risk from the new strain.

Concern is greatest in the tropics, where most farmers cannot afford fungicide and yellow rust has not typically been a problem: until now, the disease has not been adapted to warm temperatures. As a result, most local wheat varieties carry only one gene to resist it, called Yr27.

The new strain tolerates warmer temperatures and appears to have acquired genes to defeat Yr27, possibly from other yellow rusts. No one knows where or when this happened, but plant pathologists discovered last year that yellow rust can reproduce sexually, suggesting the new strain may have picked up genes from local strains by mating with them.

The result was an epidemic that in 2010 killed up to 40 per cent the wheat crop in Ethiopia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Morocco and Kenya. The spores like humidity, and struck irrigated fields in drought-stricken areas, says Mahmoud Solh, head of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria. Drought is now holding them at bay in some places, but “when the rains return to Africa, the rust will be waiting”, he warns. Hovmøller agrees.

Wheat researchers meeting at ICARDA in April said they had developed wheat varieties that can resist the new strain of yellow rust. They also yield 15 per cent more grain and resist Ug99 stem rust. But it will take several years to breed enough seed for regions blighted by the new strain, cautions Solh. And the aggressive strains produce so many spores so fast, adds Hovmøller, that they mutate and adapt faster than yellow rust has in the past. “What works now may not last long,” he says.

Is free global trade too great a threat to food supplies, natural heritage and health?

Is free global trade too great a threat to food supplies, natural heritage and health?.

ScienceDaily (June 9, 2011) — Researchers from the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme say that we face a future of uncertainty, and possible new threats to our food supplies, natural heritage, and even human health, from animal and plant pathogens. Human behaviour, travel and trade exacerbates the problem and we may need to reconsider our approach to free trade.

We face a future of uncertainty, and possible new threats to our food supplies, natural heritage, and even human health, from animal and plant pathogens, according to researchers from the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.

In a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the academics take a fresh look at infectious diseases of animals and plants, from an interdisciplinary perspective.

They conclude that increasing global trade may put us at greater risk from pathogens in the future, as more exotic diseases enter the country. This process is already happening, particularly in plant disease. Climate change is driving shifts in cropping patterns across the world and they may take pests and diseases with them. We are also seeing completely new pathogens evolve, while existing ones develop the ability to infect new hosts. During the 20th century the number of new fungal, bacterial and viral diseases in plants appearing in Europe rose from less than five per decade to over 20.

But these problems are exacerbated by human behaviour, and understanding this could be key to helping policymakers deal with risk and uncertainty.

In many cases the spread of disease is caused by increased trade, transport and travel. Trends in the international horticultural industry have been towards fewer, larger producers, supplying vast numbers of retailers. Thus, disease which begins in one location may be spread far and wide.

Changes in the livestock trade have similar effects at national level. Reduction in income per animal, and the introduction of mechanisation, means that fewer farmers manage more animals per farm, and animals are moved around more frequently. They may be born in one location but sold on and reared elsewhere. Government policy and the classification of diseases may even increase the risks. Farmers restocking to combat one disease may, unwittingly, introduce another.

Understanding the biological dimensions of animal and plant disease is important, but it is equally important to understand the role played by human beings in spreading disease. Whether the threat is from a tree disease such as Sudden Oak Death that could devastate familiar landscapes, or from zoonotic diseases such as E coli or Lyme disease that affect human health, it can only be addressed effectively if an understanding of human behaviour is part of the strategy, and people are given the information they need to reduce risks.

Director of the Relu Programme, Professor Philip Lowe said: “We live in a global economy: we have seen in the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany, how the complexity of the food chain can increase risk and uncertainty.

“Ultimately we may have to take a more precautionary approach to the movement of animal and plants, and recognise that free trade could, in some cases, pose unacceptable risks.”

Growing Evidence on Climate Change Affecting U.S. Gardens

Growing Evidence on Climate Change Affecting U.S. Gardens – ScienceInsider.

Federal climate scientists are teaming up with horticulturalists to inform the public about the potential effects of climate change on gardens. Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a new partnership aimed at that goal with the American Public Gardens Association (APGA). The partnership has launched with a pilot project at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, in the form of an exhibit featuring NOAA’s climate data.

“There is telling evidence that climate change is affecting plant life around the world and here at Longwood,” Paul Redman, the director of Longwood Gardens, said in a press release. “For example, through Longwood Gardens-sponsored research we have observed that plants are flowering earlier on average 1 day per decade over the last 150 years.” Other public gardens across America are also observing earlier bloom times, in addition to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns and distribution of species.

Visitors to the exhibit can view maps showing the effects of changing temperature on climate-related planting zones and listen to recordings via their cell phones featuring NOAA climate scientist Thomas Karl and other researchers studying the impact of climate change on local plants.

The goal of the partnership between NOAA and APGA is to increase awareness about climate change through educational programs at public gardens. Each year, 70 million people visit North American public gardens, Redman told ScienceInsider, making them an effective venue for educating the public about the effects of climate change. The exhibit at Longwood Gardens is the partnership’s first step in a larger educational effort on climate change for visitors to public gardens. At the APGA annual conference held this past week, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco committed to developing educational outreach programs through public gardens. This week, directors of public gardens and others in the profession from across North America will visit Longwood Gardens to view the exhibit and take the message back to their own gardens, possibly creating their own exhibits; some already have.

Virtual water cannot remedy freshwater shortage

Virtual water cannot remedy freshwater shortage.

ScienceDaily (June 6, 2011) — The implementation of virtual water into trading deals has been suggested as a realistic solution to solving the global inequality of renewable freshwater, but new research suggests that it may not be as revolutionary as first thought.

In a study published June 7, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers have claimed that virtual water is unlikely to increase water use equality, primarily because the existing amount of virtual water is not large enough to overcome the inequalities that exist.

Lead author David Seekell, of the University of Virginia, said, “Virtual water is unlikely to overcome these constraints because there just isn’t enough to go around.”

80 per cent of humanity currently lives in regions where water security is threatened, meaning that as the global population grows against a finite volume of freshwater, a more equal distribution of water use between countries will be needed.

Virtual water — the amount of water it takes to produce goods or a service — has been suggested as a possible solution to this growing problem by using virtual water values to inform international trade deals.

Most goods carry a virtual water value — for example, producing one kilogram of beef requires 15 thousand litres of water — which can act as a significant tool for addressing a country’s input and output of water.

For example, a trade deal could be struck where products with a high virtual water value, such as oranges, could be exported from countries where there is an efficient and abundant water supply, into a country where the requirement of water to grow that particular product is more of a burden.

This would allow the receiving country to save on water, relieving the pressure on their limited water resources, and allowing the water to be used elsewhere in its infrastructure.

This study, performed by researchers at the University of Virginia, assessed the inequality in water use between countries and examined how different uses, such as industrial, household, and for agricultural products consumed domestically, contributed to the overall inequality.

To do this, the authors compared United Nations statistics on both social and human development statuses with water usage statistics for a range of countries.

Their study concludes that virtual water transfers are not sufficient to equalise water use among nations because water used for agriculture consumed domestically dominates a nation’s water needs and cannot be completely compensated by current volumes of virtual water transfers.

Seekell continued, “Even if it cannot completely equalise water use between countries, virtual water may stand to contribute to this effort if there is increased transfer from high water use to low water use countries, but the danger here is that these transfers effectively prop up populations above the carrying capacity of their natural resources and this could actually erode a population’s long-term resilience to drought or other disasters.

“There are a myriad of political and economic barriers to trade, and because water is not usually a deciding factor in trade decisions, it is unlikely that global trade will ever be viewed as efficient from a water use point of view.”

Identifying "Hot Spots" of Future Food Shortages Due to Climate Change

Identifying “Hot Spots” of Future Food Shortages Due to Climate Change: Scientific American.

climate change, global warming, food, agriculture, food crisis FOOD CRISIS: A new report identifies world regions likely to be hardest hit by climate change’s impact on food. Image: Evelyn Simak/Wikimedia Commons

Southern Africa, India and Southeast Asia will be plagued with both high susceptibility and a lack of coping mechanisms as climate change takes its toll, according to models published in a new study.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s (CGIAR) Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security identified world regions that will bear the brunt of climate change’s consequences on food availability. The project’s researchers measured current food security indicators and climate-sensitive zones in 2050, and the overlap between the two.

Other high-risk hot spots include Mexico, northeast Brazil, southern Africa and West Africa, assessed by indicators like future water availability, number of days above 30 degrees Celsius, length of the growing period, reliable growing days and high or low rainfall.

“In all of these areas, food security is always an issue,” said Philip Thornton, one of the study’s authors and a senior scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute. In addition to climate and economy, “these are areas where population increases are projected to carry on, adding more potential problems.”

How productivity flips
The researchers mapped vulnerability to nine thresholds — the points at which a region can “flip” from normal productivity to subpar yields. One example of a threshold is the 120-day growing period, the minimum length needed for a crop like corn to survive. If climate change causes growing periods to shrink to less than 120 days, it will take a significant toll on food sustainability.

Southern Africa — encompassing Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa — showed to be highly exposed to several of the eight thresholds. Spots in northeastern Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan were also very vulnerable, concluded the study.

Food security indicators, a combination of economic, health, logistic and population statistics, assessed which areas are currently at greatest risk for hunger and malnutrition.

“Africa and South Africa are clearly much more chronically food insecure regions than Latin America or China,” states the study. “In terms of resource pressure, again Africa is highlighted for population growth rates.”

Market access, economy also key
North Africa, a region that will not be especially vulnerable to climate change according to the study’s findings, ranked high in the number of hours needed to access a market. As seen in food riots earlier this year, the region is also sensitive to price volatility in international markets.

“One of the key areas in helping to provide food security is not simply an idea of more productivity, but also access and affordability of food to those who need it,” said Thornton, in regard to North Africa.

But for the regions that are faced with increasingly stressful weather patterns, “there’s a great deal that could be done to offset the impacts of climate change through adaptation, farming with new technology and government policies that are conducive to promoting small-holder agriculture,” he said.

Crop substitution for a drier and warmer climate, converting cropland to livestock grazing land, and making better use of rainfall are proven methods.

“It’s not particularly rocket science,” he said.

Thornton’s words reflect the conclusions of another report released this week. The nonprofit aid organization Oxfam released a food security report recommending government investment in small-scale farming and instituting concrete plans to deal with climate change. Continuing to follow the current system may drive food prices up 70 to 90 percent in the next 18 years, warns Oxfam.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

African land grab could lead to future water conflicts

African land grab could lead to future water conflicts – environment – 26 May 2011 – New Scientist.

IS THIS the face of future water conflicts? China, India and Saudi Arabia have lately leased vast tracts of land in sub-Saharan Africa at knockdown prices. Their primary aim is to grow food abroad using the water that African countries don’t have the infrastructure to exploit. Doing so is cheaper and easier than using water resources back home. But it is a plan that could well backfire.

“There is no doubt that this is not just about land, this is about water,” says Philip Woodhouse of the University of Manchester, UK.

Take Saudi Arabia, for instance. Between 2004 and 2009, it leased 376,000 hectares of land in Sudan to grow wheat and rice. At the same time the country cut back on wheat production on home soil, which is irrigated with water from aquifers that are no longer replenished – a finite resource.

Meanwhile, firms from China and India have leased hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland in Ethiopia. Both China and India have well-developed irrigation systems, but Woodhouse says their further development – moving water from the water-rich south to northern China, for instance – is likely to be more costly than leasing land in Africa, making the land-grab a tempting option.

But why bother leasing land instead of simply importing food? Such imports are equivalent to importing “virtual water”, since food production accounts for nearly 80 per cent of annual freshwater usage. A new study into how this virtual water moves around the world offers an explanation for the leasing strategy. Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe of Princeton University and Samir Suweis of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have built the first mathematical model of the global virtual water trade network, using the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s data on trade in barley, corn, rice, soya beans, wheat, beef, pork, and poultry in 2000. They combined this with a fine-grained hydrological model (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2011GL046837).

The model shows that a small number of countries have a large number of connections to other countries, offering them a steady and cheap supply of virtual water even if some connections are compromised by drought or political upheaval. A much larger number of countries have very few connections and so are vulnerable to market forces.

Most importantly, the model shows that about 80 per cent of the water flows over only about 4 per cent of the links, which Rodriguez-Iturbe calls the “rich club phenomenon”. In total, the model shows that in 2000, there were 6033 links between 166 nations. Yet 5 per cent of worldwide water flow was channelled through just one link between two “rich club” members – the US and Japan.

The power of the rich club may yet increase. The model allows the team to forecast future scenarios – for example, how the network will change as droughts and spells of violent precipitation intensify due to climate change. Predictably, this will only intensify the monopoly, says Suweis. “The rich get richer.”

China and India are not currently major players in the virtual water network on a per capita basis, and as the network evolves they could find themselves increasingly vulnerable to market forces and end up paying more for the food they import. Leasing land elsewhere is an attempt to secure their food and water supply in a changing world. But it could be a short-sighted move.

Last year, Paolo D’Odorico of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville showed that a rise in the virtual water trade makes societies less resilient to severe droughts (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2010GL043167). “[It] causes a disconnect between societies and the water they use,” says D’Odorico. The net effect is that populations in nations that import water can grow without restraint since they are not limited by water scarcity at home.

Although this could be seen as a good thing, it will lead to greater exploitation of the world’s fresh water. The unused supplies in some areas that are crucial in case of major droughts in other areas will dry up. “In case of major droughts we [will] have less resources available to cope with the water crisis,” says D’Odorico.

In the end, then, the hunt for water that is driving emerging economies to rent African land to grow their crops could come back to haunt them.