Peak Yield? Climate and Crop Productivity
by Moses Seenarine, 12/19/17
Since the 1960s, feed crops' yield growth have jumped remarkably, but this rise is part of an ongoing process over the past 10,000 years. In pre-historic times, it took 3,000 acres (12 sq km) of land to feed one human forager, but now it takes 1/3 of an acre (1,300 sq m) to feed one person. So the amount of food grown per acre (43,500 sq ft) has multiplied by a factor of 10,000 in 10,000 years.
Global grain yields now average about 3.5 tons per hectare (2.5 acre). In the US, yields are double at seven tons per hectare. That difference in yield primarily reflects more access to capital and energy by US farmers and TFCs who can afford vast quantities of fertilizer, mechanized farm equipment, irrigation systems, pesticides, and other tools that dramatically boost agricultural yields, at least in the short-term.
An analysis of the effects of 2,800 weather disasters in 177 countries on 16 cereals from 1964 to 2007 show that climate change may have already begun to take a toll on agriculture. Drought and extreme heat in the last 50 years have reduced cereal production by up to 10%. And, the impact of these weather disasters was greatest in the developed nations of North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Production levels in the global North dropped by 20% because of droughts, double the global average.
Crops and methods of farming are uniform across immense areas, so if a drought occurs in a way that is damaging to those crops, they all suffer. In agriculture, crop yield or agricultural output, refers to both the measure of the yield of a crop per unit area of land cultivation, and the seed generation of the plant itself. For instance, if three grains are harvested for each grain seeded, the resulting yield is 1:3. The figure, 1:3 is considered by agronomists as the minimum required to sustain human life.
Ominously, grain yields are already stagnant and have stopped rising in many parts of the world. On a global scale, stagnating yield is affecting four major grain types that produce two-thirds of the world's calories - maize, rice, wheat and soybeans. Yields of these four crops are growing by only 0.9 to 1.6% a year. Yields in 25% to 33% of the crop producing areas are stagnating, like those in Australia, Argentina, Guatemala, Morocco, Kenya, and the US states of Arkansas and Texas. In parts of the UK, in areas that produced the highest outputs 20 years ago, yields have actually dropped.
Just nine or 10 plants species principally feed the world. An international research team ascertained that 16 of the 21 foods they inspected reached peak production between 1988 and 2008. Menacingly, this synchronization of peak years in upwards of three-quarters of edible plants suggests the whole food system is becoming overwhelmed. Maize reached its peak rate in 1985, followed by rice three years later, in 1988. Vegetables reached their peak rate in 2000, while wheat reached its peak rate in 2004, followed by sugarcane in 2007. Soybean reached its peak rate in 2009. As an outcome of peak food, larger production means greater amounts of land under cultivation.
Since GM crops were planted, the US staple crop system has performed worse than non-GM crops in Europe - in yields, pesticide use, genetic diversity and resilience. For the US system, there is a dangerous downward yield trend in recent years. Stagnating yields may be due to the soil damage caused by the use of heavy machinery and a long-term decline in organic matter content in soils. The upshot is additional fertilizers have to be used to boost yields.
Excerpt from "Meat Climate Change: The 2nd Leading Cause of Global Warming," by Dr. Moses Seenarine.
Hothouse Earth: Plants and Climate Change
by Moses Seenarine, 12/19/17
Raising carbon dioxide levels are not necessarily good for agriculture. The benefits of CO2 for plants may be less than previously thought and potentially counteracted by the damaging effects of the proliferation of surface ozone. Agriculture has always faced the challenge of weather variability, and altered agricultural conditions under a transforming climate could exceed farmers’ ability to adapt.
Farming could easily become adversely affected by (i) extreme heat and escalating water demands; (ii) inflated frequency of severe weather events, such as drought and flood; (iii) sea level rise and flooding of coastal lands; and (iv) modification in crop nutrient content. Variability is also likely to occur in (v) the number and type of pathogens and pests affecting plants and livestock; (vi) altered use of pesticides; (vii) damage to fisheries and aquaculture; and (viii) mycotoxin contamination.
There are numerous fine-scale processes that can moderate vegetation responses to nitrogen deposits. While smaller amount of nitrogen may act as fertilizer, stimulating growth in plants, large accumulated amounts can (ix) decrease soil health and cause a loss in the number of plant species. These vital food security issues need to be dealt with and modeled into future plans for livestock expansion.
The reality is animal-based diets will become even less efficient and further wasteful as planetary heating intensifies. The FAO's 2006 and 2013 assessments do not fully factor in the effects of climate warming on plants and crops. In particular, as the land warms, drought may reduce tree productivity and survival across many forest ecosystems. If the vapor-pressure deficit continues to climb, forest drought-stress by the 2050s will exceed that of the most severe droughts in the past 1,000 years.
The world's food authority uses different baseline scenarios for improved land management for livestock over a 20-year period. But they model weather data from 1987 – 2006. This climate assumption is challenged by recent weather-related (a) lower crop yields, (b) feed crop failures, and (c) livestock die-offs. Upwards of 60% of crop yield variability can be attributed to climate irregularity. And unnervingly, this variation occurs in regions that are principal producers of major crops, like the Midwestern US, the North China Plains, western Europe and Japan.
Direct climate impacts to maize, soybean, wheat, and rice under a RCP 8.2 scenario could involve average losses of 400–2,600 calories, or 8 to 43% of the present-day total. Freshwater limitations in some heavily irrigated regions could necessitate reversion of 20–60 Mha (77k – 231k mi) of cropland from irrigated to rain-fed management, and a further loss of 600–2,900 Pcal.
These projections are a major cause for concern. Many subtropical arid and semi-arid regions will probably experience less precipitation. In wet tropical regions, extreme precipitation events will be further intense and frequent. Monsoon onset dates will start earlier while withdrawal rates are going to be delayed, resulting in a lengthening of the season. Tropical cyclones are expected to become extra intense, with stronger winds and heavier rainfall. In addition, variability of climate, such as El Niño events, has large impacts on crop production.
Africa will be the part of the world that is most vulnerable to climate variability and alteration. East Africa will experience further short rains, while west Africa will get heavier monsoons. Much higher temperatures could reduce the length of the growing period in some parts of Africa by up to 20%.
Who Should We Feed - Animals or People?
by Moses Seenarine, 12/19/17
Worldwide, two billion people live primarily on an animal-based diet, while double that sum, or 4 billion people, live primarily on a plant-based diet. In fact, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that calories lost from feeding cereals to animals could feed an extra 3.5 billion people.
Another report calculated that 4 billion people could be fed with the crops devoted to livestock. The single biggest intervention to free up calories would be to stop using grains for cow carcass production in the US. By far, the US, China, and Western Europe account for the bulk of the 'diet gap,' and corn is the main crop being diverted to animal feed.
By moderating diets from food animals, choosing less resource-demanding animal products, and maintaining non-feed systems, around 1.3 and 3.6 billion more people could fed. And ending consumer waste of animal calories could feed an additional 235 million people. The WHO estimated that the number of people fed in a year per hectare (2.5 acres) ranged from 22 individuals for potatoes and 19 for rice, to one and two persons, respectively for cow and sheep carcass. The agency added that the low energy conversion ratio from feed to carcass is a concern since the cereal grain being produced is diverted to livestock.
A Bangladeshi family living off rice, beans, vegetables and fruit may live on an acre of land or less. In sharp contrast, the average American, who consumes around 270 pounds of animal carcass a year, needs 20 times that. The current global average animal consumption is 100g (3.5 oz) per person per day, with about a ten-fold variation between high-consuming and low-consuming populations.
For most people in developing countries who obtain their protein from plants, eating animal flesh is a luxury. A kilogram (2.2 lb) of animal carcass can cost from $2 to $5 in the local markets, which is several days’ wages. A typical African eats only 20 kg (44 lb) of animal flesh a year, well below the world average. These findings suggest that over-consumption and dietary habits are of the essence for understanding resource use and GHG pollution, as opposed to expanding population being the primary driver as is popularly argued.
That is, population's importance is related to lifestyle expenditures, and specifically to the over-consumption class. A 2011 report concludes, “The mass consumption of animals is a primary reason why humans are hungry, fat, or sick and is a leading cause of the depletion and pollution of waterways, the degradation and deforestation of the land, the extinction of species, and the warming of the planet."
Growth for Who? Defining Progress by Under-Counting the Hungry Masses
by Moses Seenarine, 12/15/17
Malnutrition affects one in every three people worldwide. It affects all age groups and populations, and plays a major role in half of the 10 million annual child deaths in the developing world. In the children who survive, malnutrition continues to be a cause and a consequence of disease and disability.
The most visible form of hunger is famine, a true food crisis in which multitudes of people in an area starve and die. There are over 850 million people who are chronically hungry. This is the largest number and proportion of malnourished people ever recorded in human history. Plus, being underweight is a major problem globally. A quarter of women in India and Bangladesh are underweight. And a fifth of men in India, Bangladesh, Timor, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Ethiopia are underweight. Being underweight put a person at risk for multiple health problems including anemia, infertility and osteoporosis.
In the entire developing world, or Global South, hunger and poverty are intense and may worsen as economic growth across the world stalls. From 2005 and 2008 food prices almost doubled. To make matters worse, from 2007, there has been a sizable slowdown in food aid, bringing hunger reduction "essentially to a halt for the developing countries as a whole."
As many as 2.8 billion people on the planet struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, and upwards of one billion people lack reasonable access to safe drinking water. There is an enormous and persistent food gap between the global South and the developed north. To illustrate, the average person in the industrial world took in 10% more calories daily in 1961 than the average person in the developing world consumes today. The large numbers of poor and malnourished people in the world are unacceptably high, but these numbers may be much higher due to under-counting.
Misleadingly, the UN set the threshold for hunger as the minimum calories needed for a "sedentary lifestyle." In reality, the number of hungry people could be as high as 1.5 billion, or in excess of 25% of the world's adult population if the threshold was set as the minimum needed for "normal activity." And numbers of the hungry would jump to 2.6 billion, or nearly 45% of the global adult population, for "intense activity."
Currently, 4.3 billion people live on less than $5 a day. Although this figure is higher than the World Bank poverty criteria at $1.25 a day, one report showed that a realistic poverty measure would be around $10 a day. By this standard, over three-quarter of humans live in poverty. One-fifth of the Earth's 7 billion people have no land and possessions at all. These "poorest of the poor" are non-literates lacking safe drinking water and living on less than a dollar a day.
Many spend about 80% of their earnings on food, but still they are hungry and malnourished. The average US house cat eats twice as much protein every day as one of the world's poorest of the poor, and the cost to care for each cat is greater than a poor person's annual income. Half of the world's population have enough food to provide energy, but suffer from individual nutrient deficiencies. Billions of people lack iron, iodine, vitamin A, and other vital nutrients. In addition, racial, ethnic, and religious hatred along with monetary greed cause food deprivation for whole groups of people.
The IPCC's AR5 report suggest that climate transformation will affect poor countries the most, and inflate food insecurity. While Oxfam predicts world hunger will worsen as planetary heating inevitably affects crop production and disrupt incomes. The number of people in the peril of hunger might climb by 10% to 20% by 2050, but daily per capita calorie availability is falling across the world.
Whose Carbon Footprint is Larger? Diet Versus Over Population
by Moses Seenarine 12/15/17
Many parts of the world expect substantial modifications in population size, age structure, and urbanization this century. These variations can affect energy use and GHG outflows. In particular, aging, urbanization and variations in household size can substantially influence GHG footprints in some regions.
Aging will occur in most regions, due to declines in both fertility and mortality. Aging is expected to be particularly rapid in regions like China that have recently experienced sharp falls in fertility. On the positive side, slowing population growth could provide 16–29% of the GHG reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate transformation.
There is an inverse relationship between the two main drivers behind increased land requirements for food – as socioeconomic development improves, population growth declines. At the same time, diets become richer. Typically, consumption of animal protein, vegetable oil, fruit and vegetable swells, while starchy staples become less essential. With higher purchasing power comes higher consumption and a greater demand for processed food, animal carcass, cow milk products, chicken eggs, and fish, all of which add pressure to the food supply system. This over-consumption severely affects global sustainability, equity, food security, and GHG emissions.
During a span of 46 years, from 1961 to 2007, a review of FAO data showed that in most regions, diets became richer while the land needed to feed one person diminished. In many regions, dietary change may override population growth as a major driver behind land requirements for food in the near future. Potential land savings through yield improvements are offset by a combination of population growth and dietary change. These dynamics were the largest in developing regions and emerging economies.
Notably, additions to the total per capita food supply were not observed everywhere around the world. In most developed regions, the share of animal products is extraordinary high. From 1961 to 2007, food animals constituted one-third of the available calories in the global North, compared to 10% or less in many of the poorer regions in the global South. These over-consumption dynamics are slowly changing but remains highly skewed.
The FAO projects that world population will expand 34 to 41% by 2050 to reach 8.9 - 9.1 billion. Food demand will soar upwards by 70%, and daily per person calorie intake will rise to 3,130 calories. Food is a major part of climate warming, but it is essential for survival, security and equity. Although the consumption per capita of cereals is likely to stabilize, population growth will escalate the demand for both food animals (almost doubling) and cereals for feed (50%) by 2050.
Another problem related to over-consumption is the hidden population of obesity. The average body mass is climbing at a sharp pace. For the first time in human history obese people outnumber underweight people. Almost 11% of men and 15% percent of women worldwide are obese, while under 9% of men and 10% of women are underweight. In 2005, global adult human biomass was 287 million tonnes, of which 15 million tonnes came from being overweight. This extra mass is equivalent to that of 242 million people of average body mass or 5% of global human biomass. Biomass from obesity was 3.5 million tonnes, the equivalent of another 56 million people of average body mass.
In 2012, the US came in third following the Pacific island nations Micronesia and Tonga for having the highest average weight in the world. By comparison, Americans are 33 pounds heavier than the French and 70 pounds bigger than the average Bangladeshi. In addition to extra energy and food demands, severe and morbid obesity are associated with highly elevated risks of adverse health outcomes.
Cows and Sand: Effects of Livestock Overgrazing
by Moses Seenarine 12/15/17
Worldwide, livestock overgrazing practices are substantially reducing many grasslands' performance as carbon sinks. Overgrazing occurs on 33% of all range-land, and often, marginal range-lands are used intensively when historically productive adjacent range has become overgrazed and unproductive. The cycle of overgrazing, soil degradation, topsoil erosion and loss of vegetation is rapidly expanding on all continents.
The chief ecological impacts of overgrazing are (i) the loss of biodiversity, (ii) irreversible loss of topsoil, (iii) strengthening of turbidity in surface waters, and (iv) greater flooding frequency and intensity. Overgrazing of pastureland leads to a decrease in long-term grazing productivity. In Botswana, for example, farmers' common practice of overstocking cattle to cope with drought losses made ecosystems further vulnerable and risked long-term damage to herds by depleting scarce biomass.
Globally, 70% of all grazing land in dry areas is considered degraded, mostly because of overgrazing, compaction and erosion attributable to livestock activity. Worldwide, overgrazing can be considered the major cause of desertification in arid dry-lands, tropical grasslands, and savannas. On top of that, in arid and semi-arid dry-lands around the globe, overgrazing is the major cause of desertification.
Placement of high densities of livestock on a grassland removes biomass at a rapid rate, which produces a series of accompanying effects. For instance, (i) the residual plants decline in mass density, and (ii) surface water infiltration is reduced. Then (iii) there is a dwindling away of fungal biomass that relies on grasses. Ground surface temperatures rise, which exaggerates the amount of (iv) evaporation and (v) transpiration, and this leads to (vi) a build up in aridity. In addition, overgrazing has a characteristic effect of (vii) reducing root depths. With impeded water uptake from the soil, a positive feedback loop of growth retardation is established.
At least 25% of the world's biodiversity lives underground where the earthworm is a giant alongside tiny organisms such as bacteria and fungi. These organisms act as the primary agents driving nutrient cycling, and they help plants by improving nutrient intake, which in turn supports above-ground biodiversity.
Removing livestock, and better soil and land management that supports healthy soil organisms can boost the soil's ability to absorb carbon and mitigate desertification. This could result in greater quantities of carbon being sequestered, thus helping to offset agriculture's own emissions of GHGs. A four-year survey of the northern China plains concluded that by reducing grazing pressure to half can deliver improved ecosystem services like lower GHGs and improved grassland composition. Early summer rest maintained the best grassland composition.
In the US, removing livestock from public lands would reduce CH4 discharges, with attendant benefits for climate mitigation. This climate action would also mirror federal nutrition policy, particularly the recommendation to eat less cow flesh. Much of the degraded environmental conditions on public lands and waters caused by grazing farm animals would end. This would enable improvement or even recovery of vulnerable areas. And, undertaking this policy shift makes fiscal sense by saving taxpayer dollars.
Excerpt from "Meat Climate Change: The 2nd Leading Cause of Global Warming," by Dr. Moses Seenarine.
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