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Global food system crisis

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Paul West of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment tackles humankind’s toughest question: “How do we sustainably feed an ever-increasing population?

Today, over a billion people are malnourished and another billion are overweight. The current agricultural system is failing two of every seven people on the planet. And the current trends—population growth, more people eating meat, and more crops being used for fuel—are only increasing stresses on the food system.

We need to double crop production by 2050 to meet these growing needs. A changing climate only adds to the challenges. We clearly need new approaches for meeting people’s needs both now and in the future.

Agriculture and greenhouse gases

Agriculture accounts for nearly a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. By far, the biggest source is deforestation—particularly in the tropics— to expand croplands and pastures. When forests are cleared and burned, the carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Agricultural expansion is most rapid in the tropics, where lush forests typically store more than double the amount of carbon as similar areas of forest in more temperate parts of the world. The next biggest sources of greenhouse gases from agriculture are methane from rice and cattle production, and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer.

Fortunately, emissions from these big sources can be greatly reduced. Programmes like Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) provide incentives for conserving forests. But these programmes will only reduce the need for food if yields are increased on existing agricultural lands.

Our team estimated that we could increase crop production by 58% on existing lands by closing the yield gaps through improved fertiliser and water management. Recent reports suggest that the most practical means for reducing methane emissions is to occasionally dry out rice fields that are normally permanently flooded.

Nitrous oxide emissions are about 1% of nitrogen applied as fertilizer and manure. Although emission will always exist—nitrogen is vital to plant growth—they can be reduced through more efficient application rates, timing and the form of nitrogen used.

In the long-term, nitrous oxide emissions could be reduced by breeding crop varieties to use nitrogen more efficiently. Most crops currently use less than 50% of the applied nutrients. In the case of nitrogen, excess fertilizer rapidly leaches out of the soil, which is both inefficient and causes water pollution in local streams and lakes as well as downstream coastal areas.

Video: The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is discovering solutions to Earth’s biggest problems, including the big question of how are we going to feed a growing world without destroying the planet?

Targeting investments

Tremendous change can happen in the short-term. The key is to focus those regions that suffer high rates of hunger and malnutrition but offer superior potential to increase yields by changes in management of the soil nutrients and water. Such an approach makes it possible to help those in need not only in the short-term but also in the long-term through increased self-sufficiency.

Food availability in these regions could also be increased by using what we produce more efficiently. Currently, 30-40% of food is wasted. In developing countries, the loss is usually caused by spoilage during transportation or storage. In industrialized nations, wastage occurs further down the supply chain—in the food industry, in grocery stores and in our refrigerators.

Although the payoff is not immediate, we also need to invest in improving several staple crops in the developing world, such as cassava, sweet potato and millet. The current emphasis for improvement is on crops like maize and soybeans, where the greatest yield gains have been in industrialised countries for use as animal feed.

Improvements in seed quality will certainly be beneficial, but genetic improvements alone will likely not solve our problems. Many gains in resource efficiency and improved nutrition will need to happen through changes in farm management, crop selection and our diets.

Big opportunities, difficult changes

As developing countries increase their wealth, many more people add meat to their plates. We already use 40% of the world’s crop production to feed animals. Eating less meat offers one of the biggest opportunities for increasing food availability. Why? It takes a great deal of calories to produce meat.

Between 30-40 calories of feed are needed to produce a calorie of boneless beef. Other meats, such as poultry and pork are more much more efficient, but still not one calorie in, one calorie out. Small changes go a long way; eating one less portion of beef a week reduces greenhouse gases more than buying only local food all year round.

Rallying the troops

Meeting the needs of our current and future population in a sustainable way is likely humanity’s greatest challenge. In over 10,000 years of farming, we’ve learned how to produce food at current levels. And now we need to double production within the next 40 years. That’s a staggering task ahead of us, but one that we can meet. We simply have to.

Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I can move the world.” We stand here now with five big levers with which to double food production and halve environmental impact: increasing yields on current croplands, halting tropical deforestation, using fertilizers and water more efficiently, reducing waste, and eating less meat.

Governments, corporations and non-profit groups are dedicating more resources to these issues. By concentrating those five big levers on crops and areas that offer the best chance to improve production and benefit the environment is the most effective path forward.

Further reading:

Climate-smart agriculture: responding to the challenge

Global biodiversity conservation is “necessary for lasting economic development”

Seven billion reasons to consider our ethical and environmental impact

The role of agriculture in promoting a sustainable economy

Paul West is an ecologist finding ways to feed the future while sustaining our planet. Through his job as chief collaboration officer at UMN's Institute on the Environment, he works to get science out of the ivory tower and into the hands of people affecting change on the ground. Follow him on twitter @coolfireconserv.

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2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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Environment

How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018

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eco-responsible
Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kengmerrymikeymelody

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly

eco-friendly

Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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