There’s a powerful narrative being told about the world’s food system—in classrooms, boardrooms, foundations and the halls of government around the world. It’s everywhere. And it makes complete sense when you listen to it. The problem is, it’s mostly based on flawed assumptions.
You’ve probably heard it many times. While the exact phrasing varies, it usually goes something like this: The world’s population will grow to 9 billion by mid-century, putting substantial demands on the planet’s food supply. To meet these growing demands, we will need to grow almost twice as much food by 2050 as we do today. And that means we’ll need to use genetically modified crops and other advanced technologies to produce this additional food. It’s a race to feed the world, and we had better get started.
To be fair, there are grains of truth in each of these statements, but they are far from complete. And they give a distorted vision of the global food system, potentially leading to poor policy and investment choices.
To make better decisions, we need to examine where the narrative goes off the rails.
The United States and 31 other counties on Friday learn their opponents for the opening rounds of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil next June and July. The football teams and their fans will also find out in which of the 12 tournament venues, scattered across South America's largest nation, their matches will be played.
Three of the host cities -- Fortaleza, Natal and Salvador -- all in Brazil's northeast, will be near peak dengue season then.
Making carbon dioxide by burning hydrocarbons is easy. A pair of novel catalysts recently made by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago could make it far more practical to do the reverse, converting carbon dioxide and water into fuel.
Because running this reaction normally requires large amounts of energy, it has been economical only in rare cases (see “Company Makes CO2 into Liquid Fuel, with Help from a Volcano”). But if the process could be done commercially, liquid fuels could be made from the exhaust gases of fossil-fuel power plants.
From our genomes to Jawbones, the amount of data about health is exploding. Bringing on top Silicon Valley talent, one NYC hospital is preparing for a future where it can analyze and predict its patients' health needs--and maybe change our understanding of disease.
Peak oil has generated headlines in recent years, but the real threat to our future is peak water. There are substitutes for oil, but not for water.
We drink on average four liters of water per day, in one form or another, but the food we eat each day requires 2,000 liters of water to produce. Getting enough water to drink is relatively easy, but finding enough to produce the ever-growing quantities of grain the world consumes is another matter.
Grain consumed directly supplies nearly half of our calories. That consumed indirectly as meat, milk, and eggs supplies a large part of the remainder. Today roughly 40 percent of the world grain harvest comes from irrigated land.
During the last half of the twentieth century, the world’s irrigated area expanded from close to 250 million acres in 1950 to roughly 700 million in 2000. But since then the growth in irrigation has come to a near standstill, expanding only 10 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States—and several other populous countries, including Iran, Pakistan and Mexico.
During the last couple of decades, some of these countries have overpumped to the point where aquifers are being depleted and wells are going dry. Several have passed not only peak water, but also the peak in grain production that often follows. Among the countries whose use of water has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In each of these countries peak grain has followed peak water.
In summarizing prospects for the three big grain producers—the United States, China, and India—we see sharp contrasts. In the United States, the irrigated grainland is starting to shrink largely as a result of depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, making it more difficult to rapidly increase overall grain production.
China, with four fifths of its grain harvest coming from irrigated land, relies heavily on irrigation, but it is largely river water. A notable exception to this is the all-important North China Plain which relies heavily on underground water. With tight water supplies in northern China and with cities claiming more irrigation water, the shrinking water supply will likely reduce the harvest in some local situations. And before long it could more than offset production gains, leading to an absolute decline in China’s grain harvest.
Of the big three countries, India is the most vulnerable to overpumping. Three fifths of its grain harvest comes from irrigated land. And since only a minor share of its irrigation water comes from rivers, India is overwhelmingly dependent on underground water. Its millions of wells, each powered with a diesel engine or electric motor, are dropping water tables at an alarming rate. Accurate data are hard to come by, but India may have already passed peak water. The question is, will peak water be followed by peak grain or is there sufficient unrealized technological potential remaining to raise grain yields enough to offset any imminent losses from wells going dry?
The world has quietly transitioned into a situation where water, not land, has emerged as the principal constraint on expanding food supplies. As water tables fall and as wells go dry, world food prices are rising. This collision with the earth’s water limits underlines the urgency of not only halting population growth but stabilizing it at a size that is within the earth’s water limits.
More than two dozen major American corporations are preparing to pay climate-related taxes, departing from conservative orthodoxy and exposing divisions between the Republican Party and its business supporters.
An army of secret warriors is being deployed increasingly by cities and managers of the built environment around the world. Their vital task is to make visible where energy is being wasted, saving carbon and money for everyone.
They are energy managers are the hidden footsoldiers of the twenty-first century's war against climate change, a foremost phalanx amongst those professions that are struggling to make urban environments more sustainable.
For the most part unseen and unnoticed by the public, they toil in buildings everywhere, from hospitals to hotels, factories to data centres, from office blocks to leisure centres. After all, the energy used in buildings forms about 40% of all energy used and 36% of the world's CO2 emissions.
Their training leads them to sense the hidden flows of energy as it courses through pipes, wires, spaces and materials. They don't perceive a static situation, such as a boiler switched on, a light glowing, the window open, a tap dripping. They see this as part of a set of processes through time, visualising it as a series of transformations from one type of energy to another, such as, to take the example of a motor, from electricity to kinetic energy to dissipated heat energy.
For them, saving energy is eternal delight, in an evolution of the visionary poet William Blake's famous aphorism, "energy is eternal delight". Consequently these heroes are constantly struggling against the limits of the second law of thermodynamics, striving to prevent useful thermal or electrical energy from being dissipated irreversibly.
Their catechism derives solely from the primum movens that "No process is possible in which the sole result is the absorption of heat from a reservoir and its complete conversion into work".
Singapore Exchange CEO Magnus Bocker calls on all Singapore-listed companies to better disclose and report their environmental, social and governance footprints, and highlights the role of efficient capital markets in helping responsible companies grow
30% less energy will be used for lighting by 2020 compared to 2006, Philips reveals (30% less energy will be used for #lighting by 2020 compared to 2006, Philips reveals http://t.co/dPHkp5uU43 #sustainability)...
Recycling aluminum uses about 95% less energy than making new one from bauxite ore, which compares very favorably with other types of recycling. For example, recycled plastic requires 70% less energy and paper uses about 40% less. That's pretty good, though as we've said many times, it's always better to just use less stuff to begin with, to find ways to reuse what you already have, or repair it, etc (the 7 Rs). But even if we apply these principles, we all use stuff anyway, and it's better for these raw materials to be recycled into something useful than to end up in a landfill.
To go back to aluminum, the fact that recycling it saves so much energy combined with the fact that it can be recycled almost an infinite number of times (it doesn't degrade like paper or plastic) mean that it possible to imagine a day when we don't even have to make new, energy-intensive aluminum anymore. The amount being recycled would meet the demand from industry to make new things.
The Planet Money men's T-shirt was made in Bangladesh, by workers who make about $3 a day, with overtime. The Planet Money women's T-shirt was made in Colombia, by workers who make roughly $13 a day, without overtime.
The wages in both places are remarkably low by U.S. standards. But the gap between them is huge. Workers in Colombia make more than four times what their counterparts make in Bangladesh. In our reporting, we saw that the workers in Colombia have a much higher standard of living than the workers in Bangladesh.
Wilmar International, the world's largest palm oil trader, today announced a No Deforestation Policy in response to pressure from Greenpeace, NGOs and consumers around the world.
Bustar Maitar, head of the Indonesia forest campaign at Greenpeace International said: “Wilmar has responded to years of pressure from Greenpeace, other NGOs, and a growingmovement of consumers around the world demanding clean palm oil and an end to forest destruction. Wilmar’s commitment to No Deforestation has the potential to transform the controversial palm oil industry.
While Greenpeace says the policy has the potential to be a landmark win for the world’s forests and the people that depend on them for their livelihoods, it now falls to Wilmar to follow through.
“Wilmar’s policy shows that the sector has a massive problem, and while this policy is great news for forests and tigers, its success will be judged by Wilmar’s actions to implement and enforce it,” Maitar added. “Our challenge to Wilmar is this: Will it now immediately stop buying from companies such as the Ganda Group, which is closely linked to Wilmar and is involved in ongoing forest clearance, illegal peatland development and social conflict?”
Over the last seven years, Greenpeace has repeatedly exposed Wilmar’s role in gross acts of forest destruction; sourcing from national parks, destroying prime tiger habitat, sourcing from suppliers linked to orangutan ‘graveyards’ or this year’s forest fire crisis in Sumatra, to name a few.
“For years companies, including Wilmar, have been hiding behind so-called sustainability bodies such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Greenpeace will be closely monitoring how Wilmar will put these words into action, and will welcome Wilmar’s immediate end to all trade with companies involved in deforestation. The gauntlet is thrown to other palm oil traders such as Cargill, Musim Mas and Sime Darby to release similar policies,” Maitar said.
The palm oil sector is the greatest single cause of deforestation in Indonesia. Ministry of Forestry maps show that Indonesia lost some 620,000 hectares of rainforest every year between 2009-2011 (an area greater than the size of Brunei). Palm oil’s expansion into New Guinea and Africa is already threatening forests, and sparking controversy and conflict with local communities.
Greenpeace’s most recent action against Wilmar came in October, when the organizationlaunched a report calling out a host of consumer products companies — including Colgate Palmolive, Mondelez International, Nestlé Oil, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser and a host of other companies — as guilty by association for rainforest destruction in Indonesia, through their association to the palm oil producer, which accounts for more than a third of global trade of palm oil.
Major fishing nations have failed to agree to deep cuts in the amount of tuna caught in the Pacific Ocean, angering conservationists who claim unsustainable fishing is threatening the species.
A week-long meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, held in Cairns, has seen large fishing nations, such as the US and China, refuse to drastically reduce the amount of tuna they take from the Pacific.
The 33 member states of the commission, which is tasked with ensuring sustainable fishing, negotiated a proposal to reduce the amount of yellowfin and bigeye tuna, which is regularly used in sashimi and sushi, by 2018.
However, this proposal, along with a move to cut the amount of long line fishing, which is blamed for unnecessarily scouring tracts of ocean of fish, have failed to find a consensus agreement required to pass.
The US, China, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Taiwan are responsible for 80% of bigeye tuna caught each year. In 2012, a record 2.6m tonnes of tuna was hauled from the Pacific – 60% of the global total.
The Cairns meeting has been viewed as a battle between large fishing nations such as the US and small Pacific nations, which have warned of the consequences of overfishing.
Despite the lack of progress on cutting tuna quotas, the commission has agreed to a ban on fishing the silky shark, a near-threatened species that often ends up as bycatch.
Large fishing vessels will also now have to carry unique identification numbers, similar to passenger and cargo ships. The move is aimed at reducing illegal and unreported fishing.
“The big nations are the disappointing ones, given that they’ve refused to take cuts in their quota,” said Amanda Nickson, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ tuna conservation project. “All the scientific advice shows that tuna is being overfished. Bluefin tuna numbers, for example, are less than 4% what they were prior to being fished.
“The week has been enormously frustrating. Although there has been progress on some measures, it’s disappointing to see the commission fail on its core objective, which is to ensure sustainable fishing. The commission has been around for 10 years now and needs to front up to its responsibilities.”
A new report (pdf) by CDP, an environmental data company, reveals that twenty-nine major companies including oil giants ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Shell and BP, are incorporating a price on carbon emissions in their long-term financial planning. The cost, ranging from $6 to $60 per metric ton, could affect how much companies pay for energy, invest in efficiency and charge their customers. While some of these companies have spent millions lobbying against just public policy that would put a carbon price in place, climate change Cassandras see the inclusion of such figures in their financial planning as a sign that their positions are evolving—and that change could be on the way.
One problem is that the process of growing food itself actually releases 7.3 billion to 12.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide – some 14 to 24 percent of total global emissions. Trying things like growing trees on farms and practicing low-till agriculture are therefore "climate-smart" because they can simultaneously increase production while minimizing environmental impact. These approaches are essential if we want to meet our food needs while preserving scarce natural resources and cutting our climate footprint.
The danger climate poses to agriculture – and, correspondingly, the threat our current approach to agriculture poses to the planet’s climate patterns – have been recognized at the Warsaw talks. A leaked draft report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that because of global warming, food production will flatten out, decreasing by as much as two percent every decade, failing to keep pace with rising demand, which is expected to increase by as much as 14 percent each decade.
And the risk for climate-driven hunger is greater in the tropical regions, where adaptive capacity has not kept pace with the impact of climate change. In vast parts of Africa, for example, the growing season will shrink by an estimated 20 per cent within two generations. Life is already extremely harsh in these areas; less food will be devastating.
Following the successful September event focused on the Limits of Growth, the Beyond Business as Usual series will take it a step further in December to look at how firms are practically tackling the strategic issues of sustainability and then recalibrating their models.
Globalization means that we are all connected—for good or for bad. Systems are connected across countries and sectors. For instance, food production is intimately connected to energy, water, and finance, and drought in the United States can raise food prices for people all around the world. Changes in one or a few factors in interlinked systems may trigger crises that cascade across time and space in unpredictable ways.
A new WRI issue brief, Weaving the Net, explores how complex, global crises can have profound impacts on low-income, vulnerable households. In many cases, climate change can exacerbate these impacts. The world experienced this fact—to dramatic effect—when the food crisis unexpectedly erupted in 2008.