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What does 7 Billion People Mean?

Making Sense of 7 Billion People | Wired Science | Wired.com.

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On the last day of October 2011, the global population of an upstart branch of the primate order will reach 7 billion.review smartphone android

What does it mean?

In itself, not much: Seven billion is just a one-digit flicker from 6,999,999,999. But the number carries a deep existential weight, symbolizing themes central to humanity’s relationship with the rest of life on Earth.

For context, let’s consider a few other numbers. The first: 10,000. That’s approximately how many Homo sapiens existed 200,000 years ago, the date at which scientists mark the divergence of our species from the rest of Homo genus, of which we are the sole survivors.

From those humble origins, humans — thanks to our smarts, long-distance running skills, verbal ability and skill with plants — proliferated at an almost inconceivable rate.

 

Some may note that, in a big-picture biological sense, humanity has rivals: In total biomass, ants weigh as much as we do, oceanic krill weigh more than both of us combined, and bacteria dwarf us all. Those are interesting factoids, but they belie a larger point.

We are the .00018 percent, and we use 20 percent.

Ants and krill and bacteria occupy an entirely different ecological level. A more appropriate comparison can be made between humans and other apex predators, which is precisely the ecological role humans evolved to play, and which — beneath our civilized veneer — we still are.

According to a back-of-the-envelope calculation, there are about 1.7 million other top-level, land-dwelling, mammalian predators on Earth. Put another way: For every non-human mammal sharing our niche, there are more than 4,000 of us.

In short, humans are Earth’s great omnivore, and our omnivorous nature can only be understood at global scales. Scientists estimate that 83 percent of the terrestrial biosphere is under direct human influence. Crops cover some 12 percent of Earth’s land surface, and account for more than one-third of terrestrial biomass. One-third of all available fresh water is diverted to human use.

Altogether, roughly 20 percent of Earth’s net terrestrial primary production, the sheer volume of life produced on land on this planet every year, is harvested for human purposes — and, to return to the comparative factoids, it’s all for a species that accounts for .00018 percent of Earth’s non-marine biomass.

We are the .00018 percent, and we use 20 percent. The purpose of that number isn’t to induce guilt, or blame humanity. The point of that number is perspective. At this snapshot in life’s history, at — per the insights of James C. Rettie, who imagined life on Earth as a yearlong movie — a few minutes after 11:45 p.m. on December 31, we are big. Very big.

However, it must be noted that, as we’ve become big, much of life had to get out of the way. When modern Homo sapiens started scrambling out of East Africa, the average extinction rate of other mammals was, in scientific terms, one per million species years. It’s 100 times that now, a number that threatens to make non-human life on Earth collapse.

In regard to that number, environmentalists usually say that humanity’s fate depends on the life around us. That’s debatable. Humans are adaptable and perfectly capable of living in squalor, without clean air or clean water or birds in the trees. If not, there wouldn’t be 7 billion of us. Conservation is a moral question, and probably not a utilitarian imperative.

But the fact remains that, for all of humanity to experience a material standard of living now enjoyed by a tiny fraction, we’d need four more Earths. It’s just not possible. And that, in the end, is the significance of 7 billion. It’s a challenge.

In just a few minutes of evolutionary time, humanity has become a force to be measured in terms of the entirety of life itself. How do we, the God species, want to live? For the answer, check back at 8 billion.

Major river basins have enough water to sustainably double food production in the coming decades

Major river basins have enough water to sustainably double food production in the coming decades.

ScienceDaily (Sep. 25, 2011) — While water-related conflicts and shortages abound throughout the rapidly changing societies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is clearly sufficient water to sustain food, energy, industrial and environmental needs during the 21st century, according to two special issues of the peer-reviewed journal, Water International (Volume 35, Issue 5 and Volume 36, Issue 1), released September 26 at the XIV World Water Congress.

The report from the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) of the CGIAR finds that the “sleeping giant” of water challenges is not scarcity, but the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of the massive amounts of water that flow through the breadbaskets of key river basins such as the Nile, Ganges, Andes, Yellow, Niger and Volta.

“Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today,” said Alain Vidal, director of the CPWF. “Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern.”

“Huge volumes of rainwater are lost or never used,” he added, “particularly in the rain-fed regions of sub-Saharan Africa. With modest improvements, we can generate two to three times more food than we are producing today.

While Africa has the biggest potential to increase food production, researchers identified large areas of arable land in Asia and Latin America where production is at least 10 percent below its potential. For example, in the Indus and Ganges, researchers found 23 percent of rice systems are producing about half of what they could sustainably yield.

The analysis — which involved five years of research by scientists in 30 countries around the world — is the most comprehensive effort to date to assess how, over vast regions, human societies are coping with the growing need for water to nurture crops and pastures, generate electricity, quench the thirst of rapidly growing urban centers, and sustain our environment. The findings also present a picture of the increasingly political role of water management in addressing these competing needs, especially in dealing with the most pressing problem facing humanity today: doubling food production in the developing world to feed a surging population, which, globally, is expected to expand from seven to 9.5 billion people by 2050.

The 10 river basins that were studied include: the Andes and São Francisco in South America; the Limpopo, Niger, Nile and Volta basins in Africa; and the Ganges, Indus, Karkheh, Mekong, and Yellow in Asia. The basins — distinct and gargantuan geographic areas defined by water flows from high-ground to streams that feed major river systems — cover 13.5 million square kilometers and are home to some 1.5 billion people, 470 million of whom are amongst the world’s poorest.

According to Vidal, the 10 basins were selected for study because they embody the full measure of water-related challenges in the developing world. The research examines the role of policy and governance in managing water resources in ways that reduce poverty and improve living standards for the greatest number of people

“The most surprising finding is that despite all of the pressures facing our basins today, there are relatively straightforward opportunities to satisfy our development needs and alleviate poverty for millions of people without exhausting our most precious natural resource,” said Dr. Simon Cook, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Leader of the CPWF’s Basin Focal Research Project (BFRP).

For example, Cook and his colleagues found that if donors and government ministries put more emphasis on supporting rain-fed agriculture, food production can increase substantially and rapidly. In Africa, it was found that the vast majority of cropland is rainfed and researchers found that only about four percent of available water is captured for crops and livestock.

“With a major push to intensify rainfed agriculture, we could feed the world without increasing the strain on river basins systems,” said Cook.

The authors also note that boosting food production in the basins studied requires looking beyond crops to consider more efficient uses of water to improve livestock operations and fisheries. Water policies often ignore the role livestock and fish play in local livelihoods and diets. For example, the researchers found that in the Niger basin, freshwater fisheries support 900,000 people while 40 million people in the Mekong depend on fisheries for at least part of the year. In the Nile, researchers note that almost half of the water in the basin flows through livestock systems.

“The basin perspective is critical in order to assess the upstream and downstream impacts of water allocation policies, and to determine opportunities for optimizing the sum of benefits across many residents,” said Dennis Wichelns, Deputy Director General at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which was a major partner in the research.

The researchers contrast the poor use of water resources within river basins observed in many areas — which they refer to as “dead spots” for agriculture development — to “bright spots” of water efficiency. They said bright spots can be found in the large areas of the Ganges, Nile and Yellow River basins, where farmers and governments have responded to development challenges by vastly improving the amount of food produced from available water. They also single out “hot spots” — which can be found in the in the Indus, Yellow, Nile and Limpopo river basins — where there is mounting concern and conflict over sharing water resources and reaching consensus on development approaches.

Confronting the “Complete Fragmentation” of Water Management

Cook and his colleagues caution that while globally there is enough water to sustain human development and environmental needs, water-related conflicts will continue if particular issues like food security and energy production are considered in isolation from one another. Cook observed that in most areas there is a “complete fragmentation of how river basins are managed amongst different actors and even countries where the water needs of different sectors — agriculture, industry, environment and mining — are considered separately rather than as interrelated and interdependent.”

“In many cases, we need a complete rethink of how government ministries take advantage of the range of benefits coming from river basins, rather than focusing on one sector such as hydropower, irrigation or industry,” the authors stated.

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The New Geopolitics of Food

The New Geopolitics of Food – By Lester R. Brown | Foreign Policy.

In the United States, when world wheat prices rise by 75 percent, as they have over the last year, it means the difference between a $2 loaf of bread and a loaf costing maybe $2.10. If, however, you live in New Delhi, those skyrocketing costs really matter: A doubling in the world price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into flour for chapatis costs twice as much. And the same is true with rice. If the world price of rice doubles, so does the price of rice in your neighborhood market in Jakarta. And so does the cost of the bowl of boiled rice on an Indonesian family’s dinner table.

Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we’ve seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet’s poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute — and it has — to revolutions and upheaval.

Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year’s harvest predicted to fall short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes, and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common. The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile — and a whole lot more contentious — than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.

Until recently, sudden price surges just didn’t matter as much, as they were quickly followed by a return to the relatively low food prices that helped shape the political stability of the late 20th century across much of the globe. But now both the causes and consequences are ominously different.

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In many ways, this is a resumption of the 2007-2008 food crisis, which subsided not because the world somehow came together to solve its grain crunch once and for all, but because the Great Recession tempered growth in demand even as favorable weather helped farmers produce the largest grain harvest on record. Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather — a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today’s price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry. Each night, there are 219,000 additional people to feed at the global dinner table.

More alarming still, the world is losing its ability to soften the effect of shortages. In response to previous price surges, the United States, the world’s largest grain producer, was effectively able to steer the world away from potential catastrophe. From the mid-20th century until 1995, the United States had either grain surpluses or idle cropland that could be planted to rescue countries in trouble. When the Indian monsoon failed in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration shipped one-fifth of the U.S. wheat crop to India, successfully staving off famine. We can’t do that anymore; the safety cushion is gone.

That’s why the food crisis of 2011 is for real, and why it may bring with it yet more bread riots cum political revolutions. What if the upheavals that greeted dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya (a country that imports 90 percent of its grain) are not the end of the story, but the beginning of it? Get ready, farmers and foreign ministers alike, for a new era in which world food scarcity increasingly shapes global politics.

THE DOUBLING OF WORLD grain prices since early 2007 has been driven primarily by two factors: accelerating growth in demand and the increasing difficulty of rapidly expanding production. The result is a world that looks strikingly different from the bountiful global grain economy of the last century. What will the geopolitics of food look like in a new era dominated by scarcity? Even at this early stage, we can see at least the broad outlines of the emerging food economy.

On the demand side, farmers now face clear sources of increasing pressure. The first is population growth. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million additional people, nearly all of them in developing countries. The world’s population has nearly doubled since 1970 and is headed toward 9 billion by midcentury. Some 3 billion people, meanwhile, are also trying to move up the food chain, consuming more meat, milk, and eggs. As more families in China and elsewhere enter the middle class, they expect to eat better. But as global consumption of grain-intensive livestock products climbs, so does the demand for the extra corn and soybeans needed to feed all that livestock. (Grain consumption per person in the United States, for example, is four times that in India, where little grain is converted into animal protein. For now.)

At the same time, the United States, which once was able to act as a global buffer of sorts against poor harvests elsewhere, is now converting massive quantities of grain into fuel for cars, even as world grain consumption, which is already up to roughly 2.2 billion metric tons per year, is growing at an accelerating rate. A decade ago, the growth in consumption was 20 million tons per year. More recently it has risen by 40 million tons every year. But the rate at which the United States is converting grain into ethanol has grown even faster. In 2010, the United States harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel distilleries (up from 16 million tons in 2000). This massive capacity to convert grain into fuel means that the price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. So if oil goes to $150 per barrel or more, the price of grain will follow it upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain into oil substitutes. And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon: Brazil, which distills ethanol from sugar cane, ranks second in production after the United States, while the European Union’s goal of getting 10 percent of its transport energy from renewables, mostly biofuels, by 2020 is also diverting land from food crops.

This is not merely a story about the booming demand for food. Everything from falling water tables to eroding soils and the consequences of global warming means that the world’s food supply is unlikely to keep up with our collectively growing appetites. Take climate change: The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the growing season optimum, farmers can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This relationship was borne out all too dramatically during the 2010 heat wave in Russia, which reduced the country’s grain harvest by nearly 40 percent.

While temperatures are rising, water tables are falling as farmers overpump for irrigation. This artificially inflates food production in the short run, creating a food bubble that bursts when aquifers are depleted and pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. In arid Saudi Arabia, irrigation had surprisingly enabled the country to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years; now, wheat production is collapsing because the non-replenishable aquifer the country uses for irrigation is largely depleted. The Saudis soon will be importing all their grain.

Saudi Arabia is only one of some 18 countries with water-based food bubbles. All together, more than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. The politically troubled Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where grain production has peaked and begun to decline because of water shortages, even as populations continue to grow. Grain production is already going down in Syria and Iraq and may soon decline in Yemen. But the largest food bubbles are in India and China. In India, where farmers have drilled some 20 million irrigation wells, water tables are falling and the wells are starting to go dry. The World Bank reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is concentrated in the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn. An estimated 130 million Chinese are currently fed by overpumping. How will these countries make up for the inevitable shortfalls when the aquifers are depleted?

Even as we are running our wells dry, we are also mismanaging our soils, creating new deserts. Soil erosion as a result of overplowing and land mismanagement is undermining the productivity of one-third of the world’s cropland. How severe is it? Look at satellite images showing two huge new dust bowls: one stretching across northern and western China and western Mongolia; the other across central Africa. Wang Tao, a leading Chinese desert scholar, reports that each year some 1,400 square miles of land in northern China turn to desert. In Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests have shrunk by half or more over the last few decades. North Korea and Haiti are also suffering from heavy soil losses; both countries face famine if they lose international food aid. Civilization can survive the loss of its oil reserves, but it cannot survive the loss of its soil reserves.

Beyond the changes in the environment that make it ever harder to meet human demand, there’s an important intangible factor to consider: Over the last half-century or so, we have come to take agricultural progress for granted. Decade after decade, advancing technology underpinned steady gains in raising land productivity. Indeed, world grain yield per acre has tripled since 1950. But now that era is coming to an end in some of the more agriculturally advanced countries, where farmers are already using all available technologies to raise yields. In effect, the farmers have caught up with the scientists. After climbing for a century, rice yield per acre in Japan has not risen at all for 16 years. In China, yields may level off soon. Just those two countries alone account for one-third of the world’s rice harvest. Meanwhile, wheat yields have plateaued in Britain, France, and Germany — Western Europe’s three largest wheat producers.

IN THIS ERA OF TIGHTENING world food supplies, the ability to grow food is fast becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage, and countries are scrambling to secure their own parochial interests at the expense of the common good.

The first signs of trouble came in 2007, when farmers began having difficulty keeping up with the growth in global demand for grain. Grain and soybean prices started to climb, tripling by mid-2008. In response, many exporting countries tried to control the rise of domestic food prices by restricting exports. Among them were Russia and Argentina, two leading wheat exporters. Vietnam, the No. 2 rice exporter, banned exports entirely for several months in early 2008. So did several other smaller exporters of grain.

With exporting countries restricting exports in 2007 and 2008, importing countries panicked. No longer able to rely on the market to supply the grain they needed, several countries took the novel step of trying to negotiate long-term grain-supply agreements with exporting countries. The Philippines, for instance, negotiated a three-year agreement with Vietnam for 1.5 million tons of rice per year. A delegation of Yemenis traveled to Australia with a similar goal in mind, but had no luck. In a seller’s market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term commitments.

Fearing they might not be able to buy needed grain from the market, some of the more affluent countries, led by Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China, took the unusual step in 2008 of buying or leasing land in other countries on which to grow grain for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in Africa, where some governments lease cropland for less than $1 per acre per year. Among the principal destinations were Ethiopia and Sudan, countries where millions of people are being sustained with food from the U.N. World Food Program. That the governments of these two countries are willing to sell land to foreign interests when their own people are hungry is a sad commentary on their leadership.

By the end of 2009, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated, some of them exceeding a million acres. A 2010 World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that a total of nearly 140 million acres were involved — an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. Such acquisitions also typically involve water rights, meaning that land grabs potentially affect all downstream countries as well. Any water extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate crops in Ethiopia or Sudan, for instance, will now not reach Egypt, upending the delicate water politics of the Nile by adding new countries with which Egypt must negotiate.

The potential for conflict — and not just over water — is high. Many of the land deals have been made in secret, and in most cases, the land involved was already in use by villagers when it was sold or leased. Often those already farming the land were neither consulted about nor even informed of the new arrangements. And because there typically are no formal land titles in many developing-country villages, the farmers who lost their land have had little backing to bring their cases to court. Reporter John Vidal, writing in Britain’s Observer, quotes Nyikaw Ochalla from Ethiopia’s Gambella region: “The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.”

Local hostility toward such land grabs is the rule, not the exception. In 2007, as food prices were starting to rise, China signed an agreement with the Philippines to lease 2.5 million acres of land slated for food crops that would be shipped home. Once word leaked, the public outcry — much of it from Filipino farmers — forced Manila to suspend the agreement. A similar uproar rocked Madagascar, where a South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, had pursued rights to more than 3 million acres of land. Word of the deal helped stoke a political furor that toppled the government and forced cancellation of the agreement. Indeed, few things are more likely to fuel insurgencies than taking land from people. Agricultural equipment is easily sabotaged. If ripe fields of grain are torched, they burn quickly.

Not only are these deals risky, but foreign investors producing food in a country full of hungry people face another political question of how to get the grain out. Will villagers permit trucks laden with grain headed for port cities to proceed when they themselves may be on the verge of starvation? The potential for political instability in countries where villagers have lost their land and their livelihoods is high. Conflicts could easily develop between investor and host countries.

These acquisitions represent a potential investment in agriculture in developing countries of an estimated $50 billion. But it could take many years to realize any substantial production gains. The public infrastructure for modern market-oriented agriculture does not yet exist in most of Africa. In some countries it will take years just to build the roads and ports needed to bring in agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and to export farm products. Beyond that, modern agriculture requires its own infrastructure: machine sheds, grain-drying equipment, silos, fertilizer storage sheds, fuel storage facilities, equipment repair and maintenance services, well-drilling equipment, irrigation pumps, and energy to power the pumps. Overall, development of the land acquired to date appears to be moving very slowly.

So how much will all this expand world food output? We don’t know, but the World Bank analysis indicates that only 37 percent of the projects will be devoted to food crops. Most of the land bought up so far will be used to produce biofuels and other industrial crops.

Even if some of these projects do eventually boost land productivity, who will benefit? If virtually all the inputs — the farm equipment, the fertilizer, the pesticides, the seeds — are brought in from abroad and if all the output is shipped out of the country, it will contribute little to the host country’s economy. At best, locals may find work as farm laborers, but in highly mechanized operations, the jobs will be few. At worst, impoverished countries like Mozambique and Sudan will be left with less land and water with which to feed their already hungry populations. Thus far the land grabs have contributed more to stirring unrest than to expanding food production.

And this rich country-poor country divide could grow even more pronounced — and soon. This January, a new stage in the scramble among importing countries to secure food began to unfold when South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, announced that it was creating a new public-private entity that will be responsible for acquiring part of this grain. With an initial office in Chicago, the plan is to bypass the large international trading firms by buying grain directly from U.S. farmers. As the Koreans acquire their own grain elevators, they may well sign multiyear delivery contracts with farmers, agreeing to buy specified quantities of wheat, corn, or soybeans at a fixed price.

Other importers will not stand idly by as South Korea tries to tie up a portion of the U.S. grain harvest even before it gets to market. The enterprising Koreans may soon be joined by China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other leading importers. Although South Korea’s initial focus is the United States, far and away the world’s largest grain exporter, it may later consider brokering deals with Canada, Australia, Argentina, and other major exporters. This is happening just as China may be on the verge of entering the U.S. market as a potentially massive importer of grain. With China’s 1.4 billion increasingly affluent consumers starting to compete with U.S. consumers for the U.S. grain harvest, cheap food, seen by many as an American birthright, may be coming to an end.

No one knows where this intensifying competition for food supplies will go, but the world seems to be moving away from the international cooperation that evolved over several decades following World War II to an every-country-for-itself philosophy. Food nationalism may help secure food supplies for individual affluent countries, but it does little to enhance world food security. Indeed, the low-income countries that host land grabs or import grain will likely see their food situation deteriorate.

AFTER THE CARNAGE of two world wars and the economic missteps that led to the Great Depression, countries joined together in 1945 to create the United Nations, finally realizing that in the modern world we cannot live in isolation, tempting though that might be. The International Monetary Fund was created to help manage the monetary system and promote economic stability and progress. Within the U.N. system, specialized agencies from the World Health Organization to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) play major roles in the world today. All this has fostered international cooperation.

But while the FAO collects and analyzes global agricultural data and provides technical assistance, there is no organized effort to ensure the adequacy of world food supplies. Indeed, most international negotiations on agricultural trade until recently focused on access to markets, with the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina persistently pressing Europe and Japan to open their highly protected agricultural markets. But in the first decade of this century, access to supplies has emerged as the overriding issue as the world transitions from an era of food surpluses to a new politics of food scarcity. At the same time, the U.S. food aid program that once worked to fend off famine wherever it threatened has largely been replaced by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), where the United States is the leading donor. The WFP now has food-assistance operations in some 70 countries and an annual budget of $4 billion. There is little international coordination otherwise. French President Nicolas Sarkozy — the reigning president of the G-20 — is proposing to deal with rising food prices by curbing speculation in commodity markets. Useful though this may be, it treats the symptoms of growing food insecurity, not the causes, such as population growth and climate change. The world now needs to focus not only on agricultural policy, but on a structure that integrates it with energy, population, and water policies, each of which directly affects food security.

But that is not happening. Instead, as land and water become scarcer, as the Earth’s temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is emerging. Land grabbing, water grabbing, and buying grain directly from farmers in exporting countries are now integral parts of a global power struggle for food security.

With grain stocks low and climate volatility increasing, the risks are also increasing. We are now so close to the edge that a breakdown in the food system could come at any time. Consider, for example, what would have happened if the 2010 heat wave that was centered in Moscow had instead been centered in Chicago. In round numbers, the 40 percent drop in Russia’s hoped-for harvest of roughly 100 million tons cost the world 40 million tons of grain, but a 40 percent drop in the far larger U.S. grain harvest of 400 million tons would have cost 160 million tons. The world’s carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) would have dropped to just 52 days of consumption. This level would have been not only the lowest on record, but also well below the 62-day carryover that set the stage for the 2007-2008 tripling of world grain prices.

Then what? There would have been chaos in world grain markets. Grain prices would have climbed off the charts. Some grain-exporting countries, trying to hold down domestic food prices, would have restricted or even banned exports, as they did in 2007 and 2008. The TV news would have been dominated not by the hundreds of fires in the Russian countryside, but by footage of food riots in low-income grain-importing countries and reports of governments falling as hunger spread out of control. Oil-exporting countries that import grain would have been trying to barter oil for grain, and low-income grain importers would have lost out. With governments toppling and confidence in the world grain market shattered, the global economy could have started to unravel.

We may not always be so lucky. At issue now is whether the world can go beyond focusing on the symptoms of the deteriorating food situation and instead attack the underlying causes. If we cannot produce higher crop yields with less water and conserve fertile soils, many agricultural areas will cease to be viable. And this goes far beyond farmers. If we cannot move at wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand. The time to act is now — before the food crisis of 2011 becomes the new normal.

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.

Essential 'green' metals are being thrown away

Essential ‘green’ metals are being thrown away – environment – 31 May 2011 – New Scientist.

That old cellphone gathering dust in your cupboard could help the economy go green, if only you could get round to recycling it. A UN report published last week says that too many of the rare metals that are essential for green technologies are locked up in old gadgets we throw away or forget about.

The report, from the United Nations Environment Programme, examined the recycling rates of 60 metals. Globally, 34 of them have recycling rates below 1 per cent, while only 18 have rates above 50 per cent. Among the least-recycled metals are tellurium and gallium – which are used in solar cells – and lithium, a key component of the batteries in electric carsMovie Camera – which is also found in cellphone batteries.

These metals are not yet in heavy use, but will be crucial over the next few decades. While we are unlikely to run out of them in the near future, recycling those already in use is less energy-intensive than mining, offering a way to make the green technologies that rely on the metals even greener.

“Most metals can be used over and over again,” says lead author Thomas Graedel of Yale University. But this doesn’t happen, partly because electronic devices are not designed with recycling in mind, and partly because people hang onto their old gadgets for years. This hoarding mentality may be influenced by privacy concerns associated with selling or recycling old electronics that store personal information.

Part of the solution is to collect more metals for recycling, but Graedel says we also need to update our recycling technology. At the moment, about 70 per cent of the metal sent for recycling gets lost during the process.

Will 10 Billion People Use Up the Planet's Resources?

Observations: Will 10 Billion People Use Up the Planet’s Resources?.

 

Sunrise Dam Gold Mine -- NASA satellite viewThe human enterprise now consumes nearly 60 billion metric tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and plant materials, such as crop plants and trees for timber or paper. Meanwhile, the seven billionth person on the planet is expected to be born this year—and the human population may reach 10 billion by this century’s end, according to the latest United Nations analysis. Hundreds of millions of people in Europe, North America and Asia live a modern life, which largely means consuming more than 16 metric tons of such natural resources—or more—per person per year. If the billions of poor people living today or born tomorrow consume anything approaching this figure, the world will have to find more than 140 billion metric tons of such materials each year by mid-century, according to a new report from the U.N. Enviromental Programme.

Figuring out how to do more with less is becoming a global necessity.

The international agency derived its consumption figures by simply dividing the total world production figures for such commodities by national population. The good news is that economic prosperity has been rising faster than direct resource consumption. Between 1980 and 2002, the resources required to produce $1,000 worth of consumer goods fell from 2.1 metric tons to just 1.6 metric tons and global per capita income has increased seven-fold. The bad news is that trend will not necessarily continue and—in absolute terms—resource consumption has increased 10-fold since 1900.

Of course, a wide array of national governments and even the international community have committed to “sustainable development,” variously defined but essentially attempts to reduce things like energy use or resource extraction that go along with economic growth. Those lofty goals, however, do not match up to facts on the ground: such as an unwillingness on the part of the U.S. to lower its consumption or a hesitance on the part of China to restrain its economic growth.

This is the exact recipe for creating the kind of commodity price spikes the world is already enjoying in everything ranging from essential food crops to the “luxuries” of modern life such as copper for electric wiring or oil for transportation. Increased demand is running up against increased scarcity as well; already it takes three times as much total mining material to produce the same amount of ore as 100 years ago and the era of easy oil is over.

The U.N., for its part, plans to launch an effort similar to the Millennium Development Goals to curb resource waste, greenhouse gas emissions and the like, and Swiss scientists have come up with a plan for a “ 2,000 watt” per person society, which aims for reducing each European’s energy use by roughly one third.

But that type of approach, in order to be effective, would need to paired with a mindset no longer driven by gadget lust. After all, technological leapfrogging, such as from burning wood for light and heat to lighting a bulb with electricity from photovoltaic panels requires a shift from consumption of biomass to consumption of minerals, which differ only in the type of impact on the planet. Nor is it clear that “decoupling”—rising economic growth paired with reductions in resource consumption—actually is now taking place; most gains to date, such as those in Germany or Japan, may simply have been achieved by outsourcing resource-intensive manufacturing and the like abroad to countries like China.

High prices for commodities, in and of themselves, will drive more efficient use of such resources, but that may not be enough to prevent the total depletion of world’s resources and attendant environmental apocalypse, according to the new UNEP report. Ultimately, the quantity of resources consumed by the nearly 7 billion of us on the planet will need to average out to six metric tons per year per person—a steep cut in the resources currently enjoyed by people in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S. As it stands now, an average American uses 88 kilograms of stuff per day and, all told, our modern gadgets require at least 60 different elements, ranging from the toxic to the treasured, such as gold. These devices fuel the same kind of exploitative and annihilating resource-extraction that has been a hallmark of consumption since at least the ivory craze of Victorian England or the relentless pursuit of whale oil in the 19th century and earlier.

“People believe environmental ‘bads’ are the price we must pay for economic ‘goods,'” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in releasing the report on May 12 and calling for an increased effort to decouple economic growth and resource consumption. “However, we cannot, and need not, continue to act as if this trade-off is inevitable.”

Image: The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured this true-color image of the Sunrise Dam Gold Mine on December 4, 2009; credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Let's take better care of our rare earth elements

Let’s take better care of our rare earth elements – tech – 15 February 2011 – New Scientist.

Despite their name, rare earth elements are not especially rare. So how come we are so worried about them running out?

THE periodic table is a thing of beauty, yet we seem to be quite happy to exhaust parts of it before we’ve fully realised its potential. Helium will probably run out within the next 100 years. Gallium and indium are running low. Phosphorus, too, may soon become an “endangered element”.

The latest part of the table to arouse such fears is a block of 17 metals known as the “rare earth elements”. China, which produces most of the world’s supply, is increasingly protective of its deposits, sparking concern over their future availability.

Both the US and European Union have set up initiatives to look at these strategically important metals. The UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry is making them a focus of its activities during the 2011 International Year of Chemistry. It is good to make a fuss – but the issue isn’t one of absolute scarcity, it’s about how we manage resources.

The rare earth elements – or as chemists call them, the lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium – might not be household names, but they are common in every household. They are used in a wider range of consumer goods than any other group of elements due to their unusual electronic, optical and magnetic properties. Rare earth elements are an ever-present part of our lifestyles and in many cases difficult to replace in terms of functionality.

Without lightweight magnets made from alloys of rare earth elements, computer hard-drives and iPod headphones and speakers would be impossible. They colour our liquid crystal displays, darken our sunglasses and provide phosphors for low-energy light bulbs and LEDs. They are a vital ingredient in lightweight alloys for aircraft and in catalysts to process crude oil and clean exhaust emissions. Industry uses them in lasers for high-precision manufacturing; hospitals use them for medical imaging. The list goes on.

Rare earth elements are also expected to play a big part in the future. It turns out they are indispensable for a range of urgently needed green energy technologies such as wind turbine generators, low-energy lighting, fuel cells, rechargeable batteries, magnetic refrigeration and hydrogen storage. If any of these technologies is implemented on the scale required to significantly reduce carbon emissions, demand for certain rare earth elements will almost inevitably exceed current supply – and quite probably known reserves.

Which brings us back to the topic of scarcity. Despite their name, rare earth elements are not especially rare – they are thus called because there were few known concentrated deposits of their ores, or “earths”, when they were first discovered. Cerium, the most common, is similar in abundance to copper and more abundant than lead, tin, cadmium, boron, tantalum, germanium and numerous other commonly used elements. Even so, rare earth elements are in short supply.

Of course, elements can’t be made or destroyed except in nuclear processes, so we can’t “run out” of them. Scarcity is largely a political question due to the fact that at least 95 per cent of the global supply originates in China. Accurate data on how much it has and produces is difficult to obtain, but the country is becoming increasingly protective of its resources. At the turn of the year the Chinese government announced that it was drastically reducing exports of the rare earth elements.

What is the rest of the world to do? Economists will argue that the market will correct itself: as the price goes up then lower grade ores become viable. This already appears to be happening. The world is scrambling to open up new sources and reopen old ones, such as Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine in California which used to supply the majority of the world’s demand but has been mothballed since 2002. But it takes several years to start or restart a mine and demand for several rare earth elements – notably neodymium, europium, terbium and dysprosium – is forecast to outpace supply in the near term, according to a 2010 report by the British Geological Survey.

The economic argument also ignores the environmental cost of accessing lower grade ores, which may outweigh the benefits delivered by the end uses. In any case, price isn’t always a good indicator of scarcity.

The real problem is the way we obtain, use and discard rare earth elements. In our linear economy, getting hold of them depends on finding sufficiently concentrated sources. We then smash the ores out of the ground, expend huge amounts of energy purifying them, use them and then discard them. The concentration of rare earth elements and other precious metals in our waste streams is often higher than in the ore.

We need a different approach to managing the elements: better mining and extraction, more efficient production, sustainable use and planned recovery. The principles of reduce, replace and recycle must be applied at every stage to ensure we utilise rare earth elements efficiently, substitute more common materials where possible and design products to be dismantled and recycled. It may eventually be necessary to reserve key materials for vital applications rather than for short-lived lifestyle goods.

Many industries already carefully recycle their valuable “waste” materials – photographic silver and catalysts from the fine chemicals industry are good examples. We need to adopt those approaches everywhere.

Ultimately, the scarcity of rare earth elements comes down to our own short-sightedness and the apparent low cost of business as usual – dig it up, use it, discard it. If we value modern society and want to build a better future, business as usual is no longer an option. We must treasure our rare resources.

Mike Pitts is the sustainability manager for Chemistry Innovation based in Runcorn, UK, which promotes innovation and knowledge transfer in the UK’s chemistry-using industries

Planet could be 'unrecognizable' by 2050?

Planet could be ‘unrecognizable’ by 2050, experts say – Yahoo! News.

WASHINGTON (AFP) – A growing, more affluent population competing for ever scarcer resources could make for an “unrecognizable” world by 2050, researchers warned at a major US science conference Sunday.

The United Nations has predicted the global population will reach seven billion this year, and climb to nine billion by 2050, “with almost all of the growth occurring in poor countries, particularly Africa and South Asia,” said John Bongaarts of the non-profit Population Council.

To feed all those mouths, “we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000,” said Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

“By 2050 we will not have a planet left that is recognizable” if current trends continue, Clay said.

The swelling population will exacerbate problems, such as resource depletion, said John Casterline, director of the Initiative in Population Research at Ohio State University.

But incomes are also expected to rise over the next 40 years — tripling globally and quintupling in developing nations — and add more strain to global food supplies.

People tend to move up the food chain as their incomes rise, consuming more meat than they might have when they made less money, the experts said.

It takes around seven pounds (3.4 kilograms) of grain to produce a pound of meat, and around three to four pounds of grain to produce a pound of cheese or eggs, experts told AFP.

“More people, more money, more consumption, but the same planet,” Clay told AFP, urging scientists and governments to start making changes now to how food is produced.

Population experts, meanwhile, called for more funding for family planning programs to help control the growth in the number of humans, especially in developing nations.

“For 20 years, there’s been very little investment in family planning, but there’s a return of interest now, partly because of the environmental factors like global warming and food prices,” said Bongaarts.

“We want to minimize population growth, and the only viable way to do that is through more effective family planning,” said Casterline.

Global Warming's Silver Lining For the Arctic Rim

Slashdot News Story | Global Warming’s Silver Lining For the Arctic Rim.

Some of the comments on /. are worth reading….

“According to Laurence C. Smith, an Arctic scientist who has consistently sounded alarms about the approach of global warming, within 40 years the Arctic rim may be transformed by climate change into a new economic powerhouse. As the Arctic ice recedes, ecosystems extend, and minerals and fossil fuels are discovered and exploited, the Arctic will become a place of ‘great human activity, strategic value and economic importance.’ Sparsely populated areas like Canada, Scandinavia, Russia and the northern United States — the northern rim countries, or NORCs — will become formidable economic powers and migration magnets. Predictions in Smith’s new book The Earth in 2050 include the following: New shipping lanes will open during the summer in the Arctic, allowing Europe to realize its 500-year-old dream of direct trade between the Atlantic and the Far East, and resulting in new economic development in the north; NORCs will be among the few place on Earth where crop production will likely increase due to climate change; and NORCs will become the envy of the world for their reserves of fresh water, which may be sold and transported to other regions.”

Human impact on world's rivers 'threatens water security of 5 billion'

Human impact on world’s rivers ‘threatens water security of 5 billion’ | Environment | The Guardian.

The world’s rivers are so badly affected by human activity that the water security of almost 5 billion people, and the survival of thousands of aquatic species, are threatened, scientists warned .

The study, conducted by institutions across the globe, is the first to simultaneously look at all types of human intervention on freshwater – from dams and reservoirs to irrigation and pollution. It paints a devastating picture of a world whose rivers are in serious decline.

While developing countries are suffering from threats to both water security and biodiversity, particularly in Africa and central Asia, the authors were surprised by the level of threat posed to wildlife in rich countries.

“What made our jaws drop is that some of the highest threat levels in the world are in the United States and Europe,” said Prof Peter McIntyre, one of the lead authors, who began the project as a Smith Fellow at the University of Michigan.

“Americans tend to think water pollution problems are pretty well under control, but we still face enormous challenges.”

Some of the worst threats to aquatic species in the US are in the south-eastern states. Prof Charles Vörösmarty of the City University of New York, lead author and an expert on global water, said the impact on wildlife in developed countries was the result of river systems that had been heavily engineered and altered by man. “With all the protection the EU has in place, it was surprising to see it was a hotspot for biodiversity loss. But for a long time Europeans have altered their landscapes, including the removal of 90% of wetlands and floodplains, which are crucial parts of river ecosystems,” he said.

The team behind the report, published in the journal Nature, examined datasets to produce a map of how 23 different human influences – such as dams, the introduction of alien non-native fish, and pollution – affect water security and biodiversity. Previous studies have tended to look at just one influence at a time.

Even the world’s great rivers, such as the Yangtze, the Nile and the Ganges, are suffering serious biodiversity and water security stress.

Despite their size, more than 30 of the 47 largest rivers showed at least moderate threats to water security, due to a range of human impacts such as pollution and irrigation. Even the Amazon, considered to be relatively pristine, still has human fingerprints on it, said Vörösmarty.

“While the Amazon is in generally good shape, in the upstream regions, such as Peru, there are many high density areas of people that inject threat into the system.

“The legacy of that human threat passes downstream into the remote forested areas of the river.”

Globally between 10,000 and 20,000 aquatic wildlife species are at risk or face extinction because of the human degradation of global rivers, the report said. The world’s least affected rivers, the authors found, were those furthest from populated areas, such as remote parts of the tropics, Siberia and elsewhere in the polar regions.

Vörösmarty said he hoped the global report would highlight the need to address the root causes of the degradation of rivers. “We’re spending trillions of US dollars to fix a problem we’ve created in the first place. It’s much cheaper to treat the causes rather than the symptoms, which is what we do in the developed world today,” he said.

In Britain rivers have been getting cleaner over the past decade. But a report by the UK’s Environment Agency last year admitted only five of 6,114 rivers in England and Wales were considered pristine and three-quarters were likely to fail new European quality standards for various reasons.