Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Another alarmist meme bites the dust – UK study shows neonicotinoids don’t harm honey bees

November 2, 2015

The EU is almost a perfect example of an organisation which makes all its actions subservient to fear (which also happens to be my definition of cowardice). They banned neonicotinoids two years ago as a result of alarmist hype about their feared catastrophic effects on honey bees. It seems the fears have probably been grossly exaggerated.

HCJ Godfray et al, A restatement of recent advances in the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators, Proceedings Royal Society B

Farmers Weekly:

Honeybees are avoiding any significant damage from neonicotinoid insecticides according to an academic review of all in-field research carried out so far.

With the European Commission’s two-year ban on neonicotinoids to be reviewed soon, and new trial data about to be published, a number of academics were asked to study the current data.

“The evidence so far points to a lack of effect on honeybee colonies from neonicotinoids,“ Professor Charles Godfray, Oxford University Professor of Entomology, told a news briefing. He and his colleague Prof Angela McLean were two of the academics asked by the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, to review the data as the European Commission (EC) considers whether to extend the ban.

The EC imposed a ban in December 2013 on three neonicotinoids that were used as seed dressing on bee-attractive crops such as oilseed rape, due to their perceived harmful effect on bees. Prof Godfray said although there was no field data so far to show neonicotinoids had any effect on honeybee colonies, a Swedish study led by Dr Maj Rundlof had shown they have a harmful effect on bumblebees.   ……

He and Prof McLean are members of the Oxford Martin School, a research arm of Oxford University, and they were asked to review more than 400 scientific papers on the topic. Prof McLean said they looked to act as an “honest broker” to give a summary.

The EC ban covers three neonicotinoids – clothianidin, used in Bayer CropScience’s Modesto, thiamethoxam, used in Syngenta’s Cruiser, and also imidacloprid.

The seed dressings were used to control cabbage stem flea beetle and without the treatment, 3.5% of the nation’s oilseed rape crop was lost to the pest in autumn of 2014, according to an AHDB survey.

This season, growers in four flea beetle hotspot counties – Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire – were allowed to use neonicotinoids on up to a maximum of 30,000ha or about 5% of the national crop.

The UK government has always opposed the EC ban, as has the agrochemical industry, which has agreed to fund an independent trial run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, due to be published before Christmas.

The summary of recent evidence surrounding neonicotinoids and bees is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

I note also the statement by the authors in their paper that:

An analysis of the historical shifts in the ranges of European and North American bumblebees showed that they have failed to track climate warming at their northern range limits, while southern range limits have contracted.

They wouldn’t be able to track a non-existent warming now, would they?

12,000 years of agriculture has only reduced tree numbers by 46%

September 3, 2015

There is a new paper in Nature which tries to count the number of trees in the world.

Crowther, T. W. et al., Mapping tree density at a global scale, Nature (2015)

They find that there are 3.04 trillion trees which is about 7 times larger than was previously thought. They further estimate that in spite of 12,000 years of agriculture, the number of trees in the world has only reduced by 46%.

But then I heard the lead author, Thomas Crowther, being interviewed on the BBC today. I was less than impressed by his apparent lack of common sense. “The scale of human impact is astonishing” he says.


There has been a less than 50% reduction of tree-numbers in 12,000 years of agriculture, with all the forest clearing that entails, to feed 7 billion people. A human impact of less than 0.0038% per year (or 3.8% per 1000 years) is claimed to be “astonishing”.

He also claims that their results do not impact “carbon science”. Again, Really?

Seven times as many trees as thought before is 7 times as much bio-mass existing as trees, which leads to 7 times as much carbon inventory locked-up in trees as thought before. It means 7 times more trees die every year than was previously thought. Which makes man-made carbon emissions an even smaller fraction (c. 4%) of natural carbon emissions.

Crowther sounded like a vacuum cleaner salesman talking up his product. He kept emphasising the importance of his paper while denying that it had any implications for “politically correct science”. The estimate of the number of trees is interesting and could be something to build on for carbon cycle calculations. It also suggests that alarmism about bio-diversity of trees is ill founded. But some of their conclusions are just stupid and geared to getting more funding by demonstrating “political correctness”.

Reasonably interesting science but with idiot conclusions.

Oh dear!

Abstract: The global extent and distribution of forest trees is central to our understanding of the terrestrial biosphere. We provide the first spatially continuous map of forest tree density at a global scale. This map reveals that the global number of trees is approximately 3.04 trillion, an order of magnitude higher than the previous estimate. Of these trees, approximately 1.39 trillion exist in tropical and subtropical forests, with 0.74 trillion in boreal regions and 0.61 trillion in temperate regions. Biome-level trends in tree density demonstrate the importance of climate and topography in controlling local tree densities at finer scales, as well as the overwhelming effect of humans across most of the world. Based on our projected tree densities, we estimate that over 15 billion trees are cut down each year, and the global number of trees has fallen by approximately 46% since the start of human civilization.

“Organic farming a catastrophe for food security” – Swedish researchers

November 16, 2014

Most of Sweden is brainwashed into thinking that anything claiming to be “environmentally friendly” or “climate smart” must be a good thing. No politician or newspaper has the courage to challenge environmental political correctness. Normally they are quite rational but when it comes to questioning global warming or GM ideology, they leave all their critical faculties behind and just parrot the dogma. The reluctance to challenge and question borders on political cowardice. “Organic” and “ecological” and “environmentally friendly” and “climate smart” are meaningless labels which have now come to be used to justify lack of critical thinking and to silence opposition.

It does not require much deep thought to see that organic and ecologic farming which produces much lower yields is – inevitably – much more expensive than the conventional – and much more intensive – farming that has been developed over the last century. Global food production is still increasing and there is no global shortage of food today, even though the population exceeds 7 billion. Grain production in 2014 broke all manner of previous records – by using modern, intensive methods. Of course there are still serious inequality and food distribution problems around the world and there is still much undernourishment and hunger. There is actually enough food today to feed the world but it is not all affordable or cannot all be distributed. But the simple fact is that more people are being fed today than ever before in human history. Malthus has been proven spectacularly wrong precisely because of the advances in intensive farming. Global population will reach a peak in about 80 years. Thereafter population will decline but we need to be increasing both the quantity and the quality and, above all, the affordability of food for some time yet.

In Sweden there is a blind romanticism prevailing about anything claimed to be “ecologic” or “organic” or “environmentally friendly”. It shows up everywhere. It is an axiom of all advertising copy that labels such as “green” or “climate smart” or environmentally friendly” are necessary – no matter how convoluted the argument – to get through to the unquestioning and uncritical Swedish consumer. On matters labelled environmental, Sweden is almost totalitarian in its politics. The courage to challenge outmoded and obsolete – but politically correct – dogma is an attribute that is particularly lacking in Swedish politics (and in the media). Consensus has become the new god and seems always to trump facts. Paying lip service to democratic forms has become much more important than questioning the substance. Continuing down the wrong path is more socially acceptable than questioning the path.

So there is much controversy about an article in Svenska Dagbladet today by four reputed agricultural scientists who point out the blindingly obvious – that shifting to ecologic farming would be a catastrophe for food security. The article is by

  • Holger Kirchmann, Professor of plant nutrition and soil conservation, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU),
  • Lars Bergström, Professor of Water Quality at SLU,
  • Thomas Kätterer, Professor of Systems Ecology at SLU,
  • Rune Andersson, former program manager at SLU.

Organic farming – the road to starvation.

The belief that organic farming is good for the climate and produces better food is wrong. Only organic farming would be a disaster for future food security and would put further pressure on the environment at a very high cost, writes four researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), 
Many today believe that organic farming is good for the environment and that it also provides safe and healthy food. Sales increased by 30 percent during the first half of 2014 (DN 4/11) and the state supports organic farming with many millions. But virtually all popular beliefs about organic farming are incorrect. We discuss this in our book “The ecological dream.” Our conclusions in the book – based on serious research, our own and from others – are unambiguous:

  • Consumers get no better food or any better environment if they buy organic food.
  • The extensive subsidies for organic farming – about 500 million kronor a year – would have greater social benefit if used in improving the environmental effects of mainstream agriculture. 
  • Organic foods are not free of toxins.
  • Organic food is not more nutritious than conventionally grown food. 
  • Increased organic farming would severely affect food security, both in Sweden and worldwide.
  • Organic farming does not give a lower input of nutrients to surface and groundwater.
  • Organic farming is not better for the climate.

The most drastic effect is that we will only produce half as much food on the arable land we have today. Official statistics show that agricultural yields decrease between 30 and 60 percent depending on the crops we grow – at least for grass and most of the potatoes.

To compensate for the loss of food, we must cultivate a much larger area of arable land than today. If you calculate that yields are on average 40 percent lower in organic farming, it means that at 100 percent organic growing needs acreage to be increased by a further 1.7 million hectares, from the current 2.6 million acres. That much arable land has never before existed in Sweden. ………. 

My translation of the article from the Swedish is here (pdf): Organic farming – the road to starvation SvD

Popeye approves of carbon dioxide

June 19, 2013

From the HockeySchtick comes news close to Popeye’s stomach (which is of course the way to his heart).

Popeye like CO2, like spinach

Spinach like CO2, Popeye like CO2

A new paper published in Advances in Space Research finds increased levels of CO2 promote spinach productivity and accumulation of vitamin C in spinach leaves. According to the authors, “High light and high CO2 independently one from the other, promoted spinach productivity, and the accumulation of ascorbic acid [vitamin C], while their interactive effect limited the accumulation of nitrate and oxalic acid in the spinach leaves.” Decreased oxalic acid is beneficial for human nutrition because oxalic acid blocks absorption of essential minerals.

Influence of the interaction between light intensity and CO2 concentration on productivity and quality of spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.) grown in fully controlled environment

Author(s): Simona Proietti , Stefano Moscatello , Gene A. Giacomelli , Alberto Battistelli

Abstract: The effects of the factorial combination of two light intensities (200 and 800 μmol m-2 s-1) and two CO2 concentrations (360 and 800 ppm) were studied on the productivity and nutritional quality of spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.) grown under controlled environment. After 6 weeks within a growth chamber, spinach plants were sampled and analyzed for productivity and quality. There were no statistically significant interactions between the effects of light and CO2 for all of the variables studied, except for the nitrate and oxalic acid content of the leaves.High light and high CO2 independently one from the other, promoted spinach productivity, and the accumulation of ascorbic acid [vitamin C], while their interactive effect limited the accumulation of nitrate and oxalic acid in the spinach leaves. The results highlight the importance of considering the effects of the interaction among environmental variables on maximizing production and the nutritional quality of the food when cultivating and modeling the plant response in controlled environment systems such as for bioregenerative life support.

“Not peer-reviewed” but it seems to work – A new green revolution underway in Bihar

February 17, 2013

The System of Rice Intensification was discovered almost by accident in 1983-84 in Madagascar by the French Jesuit Father Henri de Laulanié. It is a system of managing crops and is not based on fertilisers or insecticides or new gene modifications. As such it does not give rise to a huge number of supposedly “peer-reviewed” publications. Politically correct “scientists” are not keen to accept the benefits of SRI since it is not a   “science”.

Father de Laulanié died in 1995 but SRI has spread globally largely due to the efforts of Norman Uphoff and the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

SRI field

SRI field wikipedia

Father Laulanié’s unpublished paper from 1992 is here: Laulanie SRI unpublished

This System of Rice Intensification was discovered almost by accident in 1983-84. Due to a lack of time for letting rice seedlings grow for 30 days before being transplanted, students in a farm school at Antsirabe (1,500 meters a.s.l.) were obliged to use their very small nursery twice within a month. ….. Such was the beginning of the System of Rice Intensification.

But now some 3 decades after it was discovered SRI seems to be having a quite dramatic effect in the State of Bihar in India and rice yields have risen by a factor of 2 – 4. So much so that it is being called India’s secod “green revolution”. For Bihar and Chattisgarh – which have long had to put up with being labelled India’s least developed States – SRI is part of a new vigorous and  unexpected growth.

India Today: Bihar’s resurgence begins at the grassroots level. For many years, villages in Bihar saw their youths migrating to other states in large numbers in search of livelihood. It was left to the minuscule minority of do-gooders to stay back and contribute their mite towards a silent agricultural revolution in the state. 

Leading the pack of achievers are five young and doughty farmers from Darveshpura village from Nalanda district who recently created a new world record in paddy cultivation. Sumant Kumar had a bumper yield of 224 quintal per hectare which was enough to eclipse the world record set by a Chinese farm scientist Yuan Longping. Four of his friends from the same village – Krishna Kumar, Nitish Kumar, Ramanand Singh and Sanjay Kumar – also had extraordinary produce.

The achievements in Bihar and Chattishgarh are begining to attract international attention much to the chagrin of the International Rice Research Institute which does not like to acknowledge any advance which does not originate with them. Low tech solutions just aren’t sexy enough to attract funding especially when no large corporation will make any extra profit on new, expensive, high-tech products.
The Guardian: Sumant Kumar was overjoyed when he harvested his rice last year. There had been good rains in his village of Darveshpura in north-east India and he knew he could improve on the four or five tonnes per hectare that he usually managed. …. This was not six or even 10 or 20 tonnes. Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of India’s poorest state Bihar, had – using only farmyard manure and without any herbicides – grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world’s population of seven billion, big news. 
…… It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the “father of rice”, the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies. ….
……. That might have been the end of the story had Sumant’s friend Nitish not smashed the world record for growing potatoes six months later. Shortly after Ravindra Kumar, a small farmer from a nearby Bihari village, broke the Indian record for growing wheat. ….
…. What happened in Darveshpura has divided scientists and is exciting governments and development experts. Tests on the soil show it is particularly rich in silicon but the reason for the “super yields” is entirely down to a method of growing crops called System of Root Intensification (SRI). It has dramatically increased yields with wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, yams, tomatoes, garlic, aubergine and many other crops and is being hailed as one of the most significant developments of the past 50 years for the world’s 500 million small-scale farmers and the two billion people who depend on them. ……  While the “green revolution” that averted Indian famine in the 1970s relied on improved crop varieties, expensive pesticides and chemical fertilisers, SRI appears to offer a long-term, sustainable future for no extra cost. ….
…… In its early days, SRI was dismissed or vilified by donors and scientists but in the past few years it has gained credibility…..
Low -tech crop management does not lead to a splurge of publications, corporate funding or scientific career advancement. It does not offer the chance for developing new high-tech plants or fertilisers or insecticides. In modern “science”- it would seem – being “peer-reviewed” is more important than being real!
…. The state will invest $50m in SRI next year but western governments and foundations are holding back, preferring to invest in hi-tech research. The agronomist Anil Verma does not understand why: “The farmers know SRI works, but help is needed to train them. We know it works differently in different soils but the principles are solid,” he says. “The biggest problem we have is that people want to do it but we do not have enough trainers.“If any scientist or a company came up with a technology that almost guaranteed a 50% increase in yields at no extra cost they would get a Nobel prize. But when young Biharian farmers do that they get nothing. I only want to see the poor farmers have enough to eat.”

The System of Rice Intensification (SRI)

was developed as a methodology aimed at increasing the yield of rice produced in irrigated farming without relying on purchased inputs. Its main elements were assembled in 1983 by the French Jesuit Father Henri de Laulanié in Madagascar after 20 years of observation and experimentation.[1] However, systematic evaluation and then dissemination of the system did not occur until some 10-20 years later. The productivity and merits of SRI have been debated between supporters and critics of the system since 2004, but the controversy has waned in recent years.

SRI concepts and practices have continued to evolve as they are being adapted to rain-fed (unirrigated) conditions and with transplanting being superseded sometimes by direct-seeding. Regarding the management of rice plants, the basic practices of SRI according to SRI-Rice at Cornell University are:

  • Rice plant seedlings should be transplanted very young (usually just 8-12 days old) with just two small leaves
  • Seedlings should be transplanted carefully and quickly to inflict minimum trauma on the roots
  • Seedlings should be transplanted singly, with only one per hill instead of 3-4 together to minimize root competition
  • Seedlings should be widely spaced to encourage greater root and canopy growth
  • Seedlings should be transplanted in a square grid pattern (25×25 cm, or wider in good quality soil)

Food production can double and solutions are available for feeding the planet

October 14, 2011

A new study shows that alarmist, Malthusian, doomsday scenarios regarding feeding the world’s population which may reach 9 billion in 2050 are not justified.

A team of researchers from Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Germany has concluded from modelling results that it is feasible to double the world’s food production while reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture. Their findings were recently published in the journal Nature.

Solutions for a cultivated planet, by Jonathan A. Foley, Navin Ramankutty, Kate A. Brauman, Emily S. Cassidy, James S. Gerber, Matt Johnston, Nathaniel D. Mueller, Christine O’Connell, Deepak K. Ray, Paul C. West, Christian Balzer, Elena M. Bennett, Stephen R. Carpenter, Jason Hill, Chad Monfreda, Stephen Polasky, Johan Rockström, John Sheehan, Stefan Siebert, David Tilman, David P. M. Zaks. . Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature10452

Science Daily:

By combining information gathered from crop records and satellite images from around the world, they have been able to create new models of agricultural systems and their environmental impacts that are truly global in scope. ….

The researchers recommend:

  1. Halting farmland expansion and land clearing for agricultural purposes, particularly in the tropical rainforest. This can be achieved using incentives such as payment for ecosystem services, certification and ecotourism. This change will yield huge environmental benefits without dramatically cutting into agricultural production or economic well-being.
  2. Improving agricultural yields. Many farming regions in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe are not living up to their potential for producing crops — something known as “yield gaps.” Improved use of existing crop varieties, better management and improved genetics could increase current food production nearly by 60 per cent.
  3. Supplementing the land more strategically. Current use of water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals suffers from what the research team calls “Goldilocks’ Problem”: too much in some places, too little in others, rarely just right. Strategic reallocation could substantially boost the benefit we get from precious inputs.
  4. Shifting diets. Growing animal feed or biofuels on prime croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on human food supply. Dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50 per cent. Even shifting nonfood uses such as animal feed or biofuel production away from prime cropland could make a big difference.
  5. Reducing waste. One-third of the food produced by farms ends up discarded, spoiled or eaten by pests. Eliminating waste in the path that food takes from farm to mouth could boost food available for consumption another 50 per cent.

The study also outlines approaches to the problem that would help policy-makers reach informed decisions about the agricultural choices facing them. “For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet,” said lead author Jonathan Foley, head of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “It will take serious work. But we can do it.”


Malthusian doomsday postponed – indefinitely 

7 billion people from October 31st by UN decree – but it is an opportunity not a problem

La Niña is back and will persist till 2012

August 22, 2011

In February Klaus Wolter came to the conclusion that there was an even chance that La Niña conditions could extend into 2012. He wrote then:

While La Niña conditions are guaranteed well into 2011, it remains to be seen whether it can rally once more to cross the -2 sigma barrier, and/or whether it will indeed last into 2012, as discussed six months ago on this page. I believe the odds for a two-year event remain well above 50%, made even more likely by the continued unabated strength in various ENSO indices.

Bob Tisdale points out at WUWT that

NINO3.4 SST anomalies (a commonly used El Niño-Southern Oscillation Index) have dropped significantly below the -0.5 deg C threshold of a La Niña Event. They are presently at approximately -0.74 deg C.

NINO3.4 SST anomalies

NOAA has yet to update its El Niño / La Niña forecasts but has called a “La Niña watch” but Bob Tisdale is ahead of them in calling the return of La Niña which is not too far away from Wolter’s forecast.

Update!! 8th September: NOAA now calls it:  La Niña is back

But reports that the money is already betting on La Niña conditions for this winter and into 2012:

Sentiment towards commodities lying in the traditional path of conditions known as La Nina is starting to turn more bullish, exacerbated by supply shortages in a number of products like iron ore and coal.

Forecasting models by the U.S. National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center predict La Nina will redevelop this autumn. “Atmospheric patterns continue to reflect La Nina-like conditions,” the weather body said.

La Nina is a periodic climatic phenomenon that brings more rain to the western Pacific, and to a lesser extent, to the eastern Pacific. Climatologists blamed La Nina for last year’s floods that gripped Australia, resulting in major losses to coal and iron ore stockpiles. 

But while it isn’t clear what impact La Nina might have on the production and shipment of commodities, its return isn’t expected to cause the same serious problems as in 2010. That’s because historically the La Nina weather phenomenon occurs in bursts of three consecutive years, with the first one being the worst and the next two much milder. ……

Joe Vaclavik, grains broker at Chicago-based MF global, said from an agricultural commodity markets perspective, the biggest fear of a second La Nina would be the continuation of the current drought in the U.S. southern plains, causing further damage to the winter wheat crop. ….. Matt Rogers, President of Maryland-based Commodity Weather Group, warned that possible effects from the second round of La Nina could bring above-normal precipitation in eastern Australia, but would actually benefit the wheat and barley crops in terms of moisture. Yet, dryness concerns could be an issue for Argentina and southern Brazil, which would experience lower amounts of rainfall, causing damage to wheat, corn and soybean yields.

And Indian and Japanese forecasters have already called La Niña conditions.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast an active wet spell for northwest India during the next five days and over east and adjoining central India during the next three days. This came about on a day when Japanese scientists assessed that the predicted return of La Nina conditions may already be happening.

Dr Jing-Jia Luo, Senior Scientist with the Climate Variation Predictability and Applicability Research Programme Research at RIGC, wrote to Business Lineon Friday that the La Nina condition is currently on the way back. This condition is forecast to persist until early next year, Dr Jing-Jia says, adding that a weak positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), which mimics EL Nino-La Nina in the Indian Ocean, also may occur during the next few months.

Positive IOD refers to the warming of seas-surface temperatures in the western part of the Indian Ocean, and vice versa. Positive IOD has been found to favour a concurrent monsoon. Regional forecast from the RIGC said that the La Nina would bring cool to wet conditions over southern Africa, Australia, and Brazil during the southern hemisphere summer.

The confirming indicators for a La Niña event are accumulating – from the Indian monsoon to greater evaporation leading to increased rains expected in the Western Pacific in Australia, less rain in the Eastern Pacific on the western coast of S. America (coastal Chile and Peru) but increased rain on the east coast in southern Brazil and  northern Argentina.

What population problem? More brains and hands could well cater for the extra mouths to feed

July 30, 2011

Malthus’ ideas haven’t quite been discredited but his alarmism certainly has. As world population increases from the current 6 billion and approaches around 9 to 10 billion by 2100 studies suggest that population growth can have economic and environmental benefits.

A new article in  Science 29 July 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6042 pp. 544-546

DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6042.544

Are More People Necessarily a Problem?

by David Malakoff

In 1937, A bureaucrat serving in the British Empire’s Kenya Colony penned an alarming memo to his bosses about conditions in the Machakos Reserve, a hilly, drought-prone farming region 50 kilo meters south of Nairobi. “Benevolent British rule” had encouraged the explosive “multiplication” of the “natives,” he reported, leading to massive environmental degradation. “Every phase of misuse of land is vividly and poignantly displayed in this Reserve, the inhabitants of which are rapidly drifting to a state of hopeless and miserable poverty and their land to a parching desert of rocks, stones and sand.” The apocalyptic warning came as the region’s population approached 250,000.

Today, more than 1.5 million people call Machakos home. Rather than a cautionary example of the perils of overpopulation, however, for some experts Machakos has become a symbol of something very different: the idea that rapid human population growth, even in some of Earth’s driest, most challenging environments, is not necessarily a recipe for disaster—and can even bring benefits. They argue that, over the past 75 years, population growth in Machakos and nearby Nairobi has triggered social and economic shifts that have made it possible for residents to regreen once-barren hillsides, reinvigorate failing soils, reduce birth rates, and increase crop production and incomes. “A landscape that was once declared good for nothing is now like a garden when the rain falls,” says Michael Mortimore, a geographer with Drylands Research, a United Kingdom–based nonprofit organization, who helped document the turnaround in More People, Less Erosion, a 1994 study that is still influential—and controversial—today. “Too many people still have the simplistic notion that too many people is a problem,” he says. “What happened in Machakos challenges that pessimism.”…..

 ……. Many see crisis looming in those numbers for people and the environment. Others, however, see some hope for a transition to more sustainable livelihoods and cite Ester Boserup, a Danish economist who died in 1999, as one source of their optimism. In 1965, the then-little-known Boserup, who spent most of her career consulting for international development institutions, published a slim volume titled The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure(pdf Boserup1965) It examined the history of subsistence farming and offered a theory that essentially turned Malthus upside down. Instead of rising population density leading to barren fields and starvation, Boserup suggested it could naturally trigger “intensification”: the use of new technologies and more labor to get bigger harvests from less land.

“The idea was that people weren’t just mouths to feed but also brains that could think and hands and legs that could work very hard”.

….. In some parts of Africa, meanwhile, researchers are documenting a notable, Machakos-like “regreening” of arid areas with fast-growing populations. …. There’s some evidence that the extra greenery is helping to make poor farm communities more resilient to droughts and economic setbacks, but the long-term outlook remains at best unclear.

In the forest frontiers of South and Central America, researchers have found both Malthusian and Boserupian forces at work in deforestation. Depending on local circumstances, families faced with growing population densities have responded by both migrating to clear new farms in forested areas, the agricultural “extensification” predicted by Malthus, and intensified land use à la Boserup, a team led by David Carr of the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported in a 2009 study in Population and Development. Paradoxically, the result is that areas with relatively low population densities can have much higher deforestation rates than those with higher densities.

Read the whole article 


 Sustainable growth in Machakos by Francis Gichuki , Mary Tiffen , Michael Mortimore, ILEIA Newsletter • 9 nº 4 • December 1993

More People, Less Erosion, Overseas Development Institute UK, 1994


Deforestation? Carbon sequestered in forests is increasing

June 7, 2011

A new paper studying forest area and the density of forests by researchers from the University of Helsinki, the US Forestry Department and Rockefeller University:

A National and International Analysis of Changing Forest Density

by Aapo Rautiainen, Iddo Wernick, Paul E. Waggoner,Jesse H. Ausubel, Pekka E. Kauppi

doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019577  pdf

Carbon mass by region 1990–2010.

Annual change in forest area a, carbon density d′, and carbon mass q by region (a) 1990–2000 (b) 2000–2010.

The density of forests and woodland across much of the world is actually increasing

In countries from Finland to Malaysia, the thickening has taken place so quickly that it has reversed the carbon losses caused by deforestation between 1990 and 2010. In Britain, forest density has increased by 10.8 per cent from 2000 to 2010 and by 6.6 per cent across the whole of Europe. Even South America and Africa, which have suffered deforestation because of logging and farming, have recorded increases in forest density of 0.8 per cent and 1.1 per cent respectively. The research, carried out by teams from the University of Helsinki and New York’s Rockefeller University, shows that forests are thickening in 45 of 68 countries, which together account for 72 per cent of global forests. Traditionally, environmentalists have focused their concern solely on the dwindling extent of forested areas, but the authors believe evidence of denser forests could be crucial in reducing the world’s carbon footprint. Professor Pekka Kauppi of Helsinki University, a co-author of the study, said: ‘People worry about forest area, and that’s quite correct. But if you want to know the carbon budget, it cannot be monitored observing only the changes in area. It is more important to observe this change in forest density.’  Aapo Rautiainen, lead author of the report, also based at Helsinki University, said: ‘The reversal occurred in Europe much earlier, then a little bit later in North America, and it has now spread to certain parts of Asia. So that is a positive sign.’  In China, an ambitious reforestation programme has added three million hectares to the country’s forests every year over the past decade, but green campaigners believe this is predominantly composed of one species – eucalyptus. 

No food crisis in sight: World can feed its 9 billion in 2050

January 13, 2011
Smaller cropped version, made for Template:Agr...

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Doomsday proponents will not like this new on-line publication in Nature and are already beginning to object. But I see no resource or food crunch that cannot be addressed by human ingenuity and the development of technology.

Paillard, S., Treyer, S. & Dorin, B. Agrimonde: Scenarios and Challenges for Feeding the World in 2050 (Editions Quae, 2011) doi:10.1038/news.2011.14

From Nature News:

Future of food could be bright: French agencies’ study punctures assumptions about the state of global agriculture.

The world will be able to feed the predicted 2050 population of nine billion people, according to two French agricultural research organizations. In a joint report published today, they lay out findings gleaned from 2006 to 2008 that could overturn some current assumptions about the state of global farming.

The report, titledAgrimonde, is published by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the Centre for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD), both headquartered in Paris. It contains some surprise findings on Africa and other regions — the latest results from an ongoing study by the two research agencies.

Agricultural productivity in Africa doubled between 1961 and 2003 — a finding that overturns most assumptions “and is one of the most surprising results of our work”, Patrick Caron, CIRAD’s director-general for research and strategy, told reporters last night.

African productivity remains the lowest in the world, however, averaging 10,000 kilocalories per hectare (kcal ha–1) compared with 20,000 kcal ha–1 globally and 25,000 kcal ha–1 in Asia. Productivity elsewhere doubled or tripled over the same period.

Asia scored higher on productivity than in other studies, because the agencies looked at aggregate rather than independent annual yields of wheat, rice and other crops, explains Bruno Dorin, an economist at CIRAD and one of the report’s authors. “In Asia, the wheat yield may be lower, but if you take account of rice and other crops grown in the same year, the total yield is higher,” he says.

Another finding to emerge is that major reserves of potential farmland exist across the globe, especially in Africa and Latin America, Dorin says. “The 1.5 billion hectares of land now cultivated could be increased to 4 billion, but this would of course be at the expense of pastures and forests, which are a reservoir of biodiversity and carbon,” he adds.

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