Climate Wars: Cropland Destruction and Improvement

cereals-agriculture-earClimate Change is currently recognized as one of the greatest threats to the stability and well being of the world and its people. But far worse than rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and an increase in forest fires is the threat that it could have on the global food supply. As our population increases by several billion over the next few decades, these problems will make it even harder to feed everyone.

Up until now, predictions and projections have taken into account rising temperatures, drought, erosion, and longer growing seasons. But a recent study, produced by researchers at MIT and Colorado State University shows that air pollution is also a major factor. In their report, which was published in Nature Climate Change, they claim that ground-level ozone could exacerbate the effects on staple food crops like wheat, soybeans, maize, and rice.

crop_failureUsing two scenarios, researchers mapped out the tandem relationship between pollution and climate change. As a baseline, the MIT and Colorado State researchers estimate that climate change alone will result in a 11% decrease in global crop production. But if countries fail to substantially curb greenhouse gas emissions (the first scenario), the scientists’ model shows that air pollution could trigger an additional 4% of crop failures.

That means that barring significant changes, croplands could see a 15% drop in productivity in the next 40 years. But if countries work to decrease greenhouse gas emissions after 2040, the researchers’ model shows that reduced air pollution could actually offset other negative impacts of warming on crops. They calculate that reduced air pollution in this second scenario could actually increase yields by 3%.

Pollution over Mexico CityThe link between air quality and food production may seem a bit odd, but the logic is actually very straightforward. Basically, the atmosphere forms ozone when sunlight energizes pollutants generated from sources like cars and power plants. Ozone concentrations can also increase at higher temperatures, the kind that already wither temperature-sensitive crops like maize. On top of the heat, increased ozone levels attack pollution-sensitive crops, like wheat.

In the climate scenario where emissions decrease after 2040, the reduction in ozone alone would be enough to increase wheat production in the U.S. and China, the researchers say. Their findings show that reducing air pollution could slow the negative impacts of climate change–even enough to reverse some of them. But some regions will be negatively impacted no matter what.

trafficAs Amos Tai, one of the study’s co-authors, explained:

It appears that South Asia will be the most hard-hit by the combination of warming and ozone trends, where ozone is expected to increase even in the more optimistic scenario. African countries with low domestic production and heavily reliant on food imports are also expected to suffer more in terms of climate-pollution-driven food insecurity.

In short, food production is likely to suffer no matter what, but the effects could be confined to certain areas of the world. With proper management, and the provision of food to these regions from those that are unaffected (say, a pollution-fighting US and China), the worst could be avoided. And there’s some good news coming from another report, which claims we can further increase our food production without taxing the environment.

crop_growthAccording to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, by focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of three billion more people while simultaneously decreasing agriculture’s environmental carbon footprint. The report, published in Science back in July, may sound like fantasy, but the argument offered is logical and compelling.

The report focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption. It then proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that have the greatest potential for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture while boosting production. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where NGOs, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can have the greatest impact.

agriculture_indiaThe biggest opportunities cluster in six countries – China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan – along with Europe. As the report’s lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative, explains:

This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people. By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.

Overall, the report identified a number of major areas of opportunity and key leverage points for improving the efficiency and sustainability of global food production. First, there is reducing the “yield gap” – i.e. the difference between potential and actual crop yields – in many parts of the world. Currently, the largest gaps are to be found in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, and reducing it by just 50% could provide enough calories to feed 850 million more people.

china agriculture researchSecond, there is improving growth efficiency. The study identified two key areas where major opportunities exist to reduce climate impacts and improve efficiency of crop growth. These included the reduction of emissions of global greenhouse gas – which agriculture is responsible for 20 t0 35 percent of – in the form of CO2, tropical deforestation and methane, as well as improved efficiency in water usage.

In the case of emissions, the biggest opportunities are in Brazil and Indonesia where deforestation is a major problem, and in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, livestock, and crop fertilization all lead to sizable carbon and methane emissions. With respect to nutrient use, the study found that worldwide, 60 percent of nitrogen and nearly 50 percent of phosphorus applications exceed what crops need to grow.

agribusinessIn the case of water usage, the greatest opportunities are in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, wheat and corn create the most demand for irrigation. India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. also account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Thus, by boosting crop water use efficiency could also reduce water demand by 8 to 15% without compromising food production.

Third, the report calls for improved efficiency in crop use, which can be done by shifting crops from livestock to humans use and reducing food waste. Currently, the amount of crops fed to animals is sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The U.S., China and Western Europe account for the bulk of this “diet gap,” with corn being the main crop diverted to animal feed. Shifting these crops could also form a “safety net” in the event of an unforeseen shortfall.

Last, but not least, the report calls for the elimination of food waste, which accounts for some 30 to 50 percent of food production worldwide. Again, the U.S., China and India are the major players, and reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people. All told, these changes could allow for enough food for an additional 3 billion people, which is what the world population is expected to reach by 2050.

world_hungerOverall, West summarizes the report and its recommendations as follows:

Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food. Fortunately, the opportunities to have a global impact and move in the right direction are clustered. By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment. Of course, while calories are a key measure of improving food security, nutrition, access and cultural preferences must also be addressed. But the need to boost food security is high. So let’s do it.

As always, the good news is contained within the bad. Or more precisely, every crisis present us with an opportunity for change and advancement. Though Climate Change and air pollution may threaten current and future levels of food production, there are solutions. And in all cases, they present opportunities for healthier living, more efficient use of land and water, and a more sustainable way of meeting our most basic needs.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, sciencedaily.com

The Future of Urban Planning: The Urban Skyfarm

urban-skyfarm-9The world’s population is projected to grow to between 9 and 10 billion people by the middle of the century. What’s more, roughly two-thirds of those people are expected to live in major cities. Coupled with the expected changes caused by Climate Change (i.e. increased drought and less in the way of arable land), and its understandable why urban farms are seen as a means of picking up the slack.

That’s the concept behind the Urban Skyfarm, a concept for a skyscraper that is shaped like a tree and comes with leaf-like decks to provide space for real trees to grow. Currently, most vertical farming operations – like warehouses in Chicago, Kyoto, Singapore and a recent skyscraper built in Sweden by Plantagon – grow plants with ultra-high-efficiency systems under artificial light.

urban-skyfarm-2However, this new design concept from Aprilli Design Studio takes a different approach, using lightweight decks to provide growing space outdoors on the sides of a giant skyscraper. The architects aren’t the first to embrace the trend of sticking greenery on towers, but they may be one of the first to look at how to use the technique to maximize food production. As architects Steve Lee and See Yoon Park explained:

Our version of the vertical farm was intended to become an independent, open-to-air structure which would be purely focusing on farming activities and sustainable functions such as generating renewable energy and performing air, and water filtration.

Designed to mimic the shape of an enormous tree, the Urban Skyfarm uses leaf-like decks to provide 24 acres of space for growing fruit trees and plants. The “trunk” houses an indoor hydroponic farm for greens, and solar panels and wind turbines at the top of the tower provide enough energy to power the whole operation. The design would also capture rainwater and filter it through a constructed wetland before returning it to a nearby stream.

urban-skyfarm-5So in addition to growing food and using rainwater to provide irrigation, the building also was also designed with an eye towards energy independence. The architects envision the project in the middle of downtown Seoul, South Korea:

It seemed to be an ideal place to test out our prototype since the specific area is very dense and highly active and has been suffering for a long time by all sorts of environmental problems resulting from rapid urbanization…With the support of hydroponic farming technology, the space could efficiently host more than 5,000 fruit trees. Vertical farming is more than an issue of economical feasibility, since it can provide more trees than average urban parks, helping resolve urban environmental issues such as air pollution, water run-off and heat island effects, and bringing back balance to the urban ecology.

The design would also provide community gardens, park space, and a farmers market to cater to a demand for fresh, local food in a city where apples can cost more than $20 at local markets.

urban-skyfarm-7Vertical farming has already started in South Korea. Another project, based in Suwon, is growing food in a three-story building and may eventually expand into a skyscraper. But the outdoor vertical farm is just a concept for now. Lee and Park are confident this is the way of the future, and that demand for clean, sustainable buildings that grow fresh food is only going to increase:

We believe there will be more attention and discussions of vertical farms as the 2015 Milan Expo approaches, and we hope the Urban Skyfarm can become part of the discussion as a prototype proposal. Vertical farming really is not only a great solution to future food shortage problems but a great strategy to address many environmental problems resulting from urbanization.

And with the problems of urban growth and diminished farmland occurring all over the developed world – but especially in nations like China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and India (which are likely to be the hardest hit by Climate Change) – innovative designs that combine sustainability and urban farming are likely to become all the rage all over the world.

Source: fastcoexist.com