Monday, December 31, 2007

The end of cheap food

I have visions of Charlton Heston in the 1973 sci-fi classic Soylent Green:

"Set in the year 2022, Soylent Green depicts a dystopia, a Malthusian catastrophe that occurs because humanity has failed to pursue sustainable development and has not halted uncontrolled population growth. The film portrays New York City's population as forty million, with more than half of it unemployed. Pollution has produced a "year-round heatwave"— identified in the film, presciently, as due to a "greenhouse effect"— and a thin, yellow, daytime smog. Food and fuel are scarce resources because of animal and plant decimation and soil poisoning, housing is dilapidated and overcrowded, and widespread government-sponsored euthanasia is encouraged to control overpopulation.

Meat, bread, cheese, fruit, vegetables, and alcoholic beverages are scarce and extremely expensive; for example, a six-ounce jar of strawberry jam is 150 "D's" (US Dollars). Like the Soylent food factories, the farms still producing rare foodstuffs are heavily guarded and off-limits to civilians. For most of the populace, natural foods are a rare luxury. The government dispenses rations of synthetic food — Soylent Yellow, Soylent Red — made by the Soylent Corporation, who controls half of the world's food supply. The newest and most popular product, Soylent Green - a small square green wafer - is made from plankton according to the corporation." (Wikipedia)

But we all know that Soylent Green is not made from plankton don't we? (GW)

Why the era of cheap food is over

The Christian Science Monitor
December 31, 2007

Corn, milk, bread, and other farm products hit record high prices in 2006 – and will likely keep rising in 2008.

Food prices worldwide hit record highs in 2006, and all the signs are that they will go on rising this year, and for the foreseeable future. The era of cheap food, the experts say, is over and we are going to have to get used to it. This is easier said than done for millions around the world, as evidenced by protests in Mexico over the cost of corn tortillas, and in Italy last September about the price of (wheat) pasta. Staff writer Peter Ford looks at why.

What is behind the increases in food prices?

Certainly not bad harvests. Although a drought hit the traditionally bountiful Australian wheat harvest this past year, world cereal harvests hit 2.1 billion metric tons, a record production level, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Two major trends have been pushing prices up faster than they have risen for more than 30 years. One is that increasingly prosperous consumers in India and China are not only eating more food but eating more meat. Animals have to be fed (grains, usually) before they are butchered. The other is that more and more crops – from corn to palm nuts – are being used to make biofuels instead of feeding people.

At the same time, the world is drawing down its stockpiles of cereal and dairy products, which makes markets nervous and prices volatile.

The result, says Joachim von Braun, who heads the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, is that "the world food system is in trouble. The situation has not been this much of a concern for 15 years."

How big a factor is the biofuels boom?

It is significant enough for the FAO to be warning about the dangers of turning too much food into fuel, and for the Chinese government, for example, to ban the construction of new refineries that use corn or other basic foods. In fact, earlier this month Beijing announced tax breaks and subsidies to encourage the use of cellulose, sweet sorghum, and cassava (nonfood crops in China) for biofuels.

Some analysts estimate that as much as 30 percent of the US grain crop will go toward producing ethanol this year, a doubling from 2006. IFPRI forecasts that if the world sticks to current biofuel expansion plans, the price of corn will go up 26 percent by 2020, and the price of oilseeds (such as soybean, sunflower, rapeseed) by 18 percent. If governments double efforts to produce this alternative fuel source, corn prices are expected to go up 72 percent and oilseeds by 44 percent in 12 years' time.

Who gets hit hardest? Does anyone benefit?

As usual, it is the poorest people in the world who suffer most, because food takes up a bigger share of their daily shopping bill than it does for richer people. A family in Bangladesh, for example, living on $5 a day, typically spends $3 of that on food. The 50 percent rise in food prices the world has seen in recent years takes a $1.50 chunk – nearly 30 percent – out of the family budget.

Even farmers are not immune. On the whole, small-scale farmers in developing countries buy more food than they sell, so they, too, are net losers. Relatively few peasants have holdings large enough to benefit from price increases.

Big farmers in the rich countries, however, are doing well: US corn farmers have seen the price their crop fetches jump by 50 percent since 2000. Other net food exporters, such as India, Australia, and South Africa, will also do well out of rising prices. Major dairy producers, such as New Zealand, have done well as consumption of milk, yogurt, and cheese rises in Asia. As a result, while property values in New Zealand are generally expected to soften, flat rural land, where cows can graze, is expected to continue to rise in price, according to a survey by Massey University in New Zealand.

Will market forces correct the situation, as farmers switch to the high-earning crops?

Not as quickly as you might expect, though the European Union, the largest food exporter in the world, has suspended a "set-aside" program that had paid its farmers to leave 10 percent of their land fallow (so as to prevent oversupply).

Cereal prices are considered "inelastic," meaning that a 10-percent price increase tends to boost supplies by only one or two percentage points. While prices are high, they are also very volatile at the moment, which scares a lot of farmers off making the investments they would need to switch crops.

At the same time, the food market overlaps with the fuel market. Farmers can now sell their corn, their palm nuts, or their sugar to biodiesel refineries. So the price of palm oil, for example, traditionally the cheapest in Africa, is now set not by the cooking oil market, but by the fuel market.

It will not help that climate change and the accompanying floods and droughts will reduce cereal output in more than 40 developing countries, mainly in Africa, according to recent studies.

Where will food shortages be most acute?

Wherever the underlying trends of rising prices and scarcer supplies are compounded by special problems. Sometimes they are natural disasters, such as the cyclone and flooding that hit Bangladesh last November, wiping out many people's stocks of food. Sometimes they are man-made, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where continuing civil conflict and mismanagement disrupt the market, or in Zimbabwe, where inflation of more than 7,000 percent and a crumbling economy are threatening people already short of food.

"The hot spots of food risks will be where high prices combine with shocks from the weather or political crises,", says Dr. von Braun. "These are recipes for disaster."

What effect will high prices have on hunger-prevention programs?

A big one says the World Food Program (WFP), the UN agency in charge of emergency food aid, which reported last year that food aid flows had reached their lowest levels since 1973.

Food prices "are an incredible concern for us at the moment" says WFP spokesman Robin Lodge. "The same dollars don't buy the same amount of food as they used to," and donations to the agency are flat.

The WFP has been making a big effort to buy food from countries as near as possible to crisis zones, to cut transport costs, and in 2007 it had 15 million fewer people to feed than in 2006 because there were fewer major emergencies.

"But we are now about as tight as we can get, so unless donations go up there is no doubt about it, we will have to reconsider who we are feeding and the rations" says Mr. Lodge. "There is no other way around it."

Many food aid organizations are trying to buy more food locally. The FAO is reportedly working on a program to offer poor farmers vouchers for seeds and fertilizer to help them adapt to changing climate conditions.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Reforming China's energy system

The decisions that China is making and will make in the near future on just about everything will have major implications for the all of us around the world. This is especially true with regard to energy -- a point that is being stressed with an increasing sense of urgency with each passing week that sees a new coal plant under construction there.

As has been mentioned here before, China's commitment to sustainable development appears to be sincere even as it clashes head-on with its non-negotiable goals for economic growth. The Chinese government is, for example, making considerable investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

But as California has clearly shown, technology alone is not enough. Indeed, even the most technically efficient technologies can be rendered impotent or irrelevant within an unfriendly policy context. China will be challenged to expedite the reform of its regulatory and pricing systems for energy as it focuses on the development and deployment of wind, solar and other clean energy technologies.

That's a very tall order. (GW)

Reform of the energy pricing system crucial

By Lin Boqaing
China Daily
December 25, 2007

Rapid economic growth has led to an increasing demand for energy. And as energy prices keep increasing more pressure is being put on supply and demand. The reform of the energy industry, especially its pricing mechanism, has drawn much attention.

The National Development and Reform Commission said recently it was necessary to reform the pricing mechanism of resource products to further improve efficiency. But the reform should be implemented at the right time with due consideration for all concerned.

Energy prices in China are mainly decided and controlled by the government and do not reflect the scarcity of resources and the impact of energy use on the environment. The prices are relatively low and the pricing mechanism is not in line with that of the international market. This has caused serious problems in energy utilization, economic development and environmental protection.

The pricing mechanism is not in line with production and consumption. This has led to the over-exploitation of resources. China's rapid economic growth is mainly built on an economic structure of high-energy consumption and low-efficiency. The waste in exploitation contrasts hugely with the shortage of resources.

At the same time, low energy prices have increased the competitiveness of China's high-energy-consuming, high-polluting and resource-based products, enlarged trade surpluses and exaggerated the pressure on the yuan's appreciation.

The government is now paying great attention to energy conservation and emission reduction. Without reform of the pricing mechanism, the efforts will only achieve half the results. Reform is a matter of urgency.

Reform will mean further price hikes, and as it takes hold, it will affect the producer price and consumer price indices. The pressure of increasing costs on producers will gradually be transferred to consumers. The process, however, will take time.

Though the rise of energy prices will increase pressure on middle and downstream products, its impact on inflation in the short term will depend on the supply and demand of consumer goods. Over-capacity will lessen pressure for price increases, judging by China's current industrial and energy consumption structure.

In the long run, a price lever is still the most effective way to conserve energy and reduce emissions. As long as energy prices are low, enterprises will lack the drive to improve efficiency and cut emissions. The only way to stop high-energy consuming enterprises from expanding is to increase energy costs. It is therefore necessary to reform the pricing mechanism, marketize energy products and let prices guide investment and economic restructuring.

The reform faces a series of tough issues.

First, the supporting measures of the reform are not completed. There is a lack of overall planning and design in the pricing structure of different energy products. For example, coal prices are market-led now but not electricity. China's crude oil prices are in line with the international market but reform of refined oil prices has not caught up.

Today discussions on reform of the energy pricing mechanism are mainly about bringing China's energy prices in line with the international market. But merely stressing this while ignoring the characteristics of the country's energy resources is not a good idea.

If the scarcity of resources and environmental costs are properly considered, China's energy prices may be even higher than the international level, which could attract more imports of energy resources.

Social fairness is also an issue that should be considered. The price hikes that will come with reform will produce different impacts on consumers of different income levels and social groups. Even prices that are in line with the international market will harm the interests of some consumers. Transparent subsidies for certain consumers will help solve the problem. This is also an important part of the reform.

The current way subsidies are granted to producers have led to unfair distribution and consumption, which does not improve efficiency or promote social fairness.

Compared with other reforms, reform of the energy pricing mechanism will take time because of its importance, complexity and sensitivity. Marketization offers a way.

Any further delay in reform will make us lose important opportunities and increase the cost of sustainable development. Without feasible alternatives, the inefficient use of energy resources driven by the low prices today will mean higher energy prices and a bigger cost to the environment tomorrow.

It is reported that mounting inflationary pressure could slow down our reform of the energy pricing mechanism, if we do not do it now, we will have to bear the costs later.

The author is director of China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Clean coal: hard to imagine, impossible to realize

Lost in the scientific and political debates over climate change and this country's growing concerns over energy security are the discussions about the human toll of our energy decisions. This is especially true among environmentalists who, on one hand, condemn the burning of fossil fuels -- primarily coal, and on the other oppose the development of of some renewable energy technologies -- especially wind energy. The opposition to wind technology (in many cases from the same environmentalists who oppose the burning of coal) usually boils down to concerns over their potential impacts on migrating birds and people's views.

Here's where the connection is apparently lost (or maybe just ignored). The people who don't want wind turbines spoiling their view of pristine ridge lines or ocean vistas are apparently unwilling to acknowledge that their continued opposition to wind (and its minimal impacts) only prolongs the massive devastation of land, people and communities due to our continuing dependence on "King Coal".

If, after reading the following article you are not thoroughly convinced that weaning ourselves from coal is equal in importance to reducing our dependence on foreign oil, read "Coal : A Human History" by Barbara Frees and/or "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future" by Jeff Goodell.

To learn more about the topic and what you can DO to help increase public awareness about coal mining's destructive practice of mountaintop removal check out . (GW)

Coal's ascent is igniting a debate

TWILIGHT, W.Va. - Even the name of this place speaks of an end ahead.

Surrounded by the rubble of mountaintops obliterated to mine coal, several of tiny Twilight's homes have been demolished. King Coal bought and removed them. Now, the town is on the same path as scores of other West Virginia communities that gradually lost their residents and died in the shadow of a vast mining operation.

When Maria Gunnoe drove through last week, she didn't think of stopping. Gunnoe, 39, a descendant of Cherokees and Scots in Appalachia, has received death threats lately for her fight against filling valleys with the coal trash from the mountaintop excavations. And for her, any place, even this rapidly shrinking one, doesn't feel safe anymore. She travels now with a bullet-proof vest and a can of Mace.

"If I stop, I could be a dead woman," she said.

Her battle in the Appalachian Mountains is set against a backdrop of a great global fight over coal.

Over the past several months in Washington, D.C., places such as Twilight have become the center of a growing debate over carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming, the US drive for greater energy independence, the economic future of a coal-producing region, and the health of people who live among the coal fields.

On one side: environmentalists who want to sharply curtail coal use because of carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming and mining operations they say destroy the nature of a land and its people. On the other side: the coal industry and those who seek America's independence from foreign oil, who argue that technology can create "clean coal" by burying the emissions in underground caverns.

But almost no one in Washington - and none of the Democratic or Republican presidential candidates - has mentioned what increased dependence on inexpensive, plentiful coal means for the people living amid the excavations.

In Twilight, 350 miles southwest of the nation's capital, residents say decisions made in Congress and at the White House shake their world like the powerful explosions on Montcoal Mountain that rattle the foundations of their homes. Some say these uncertain times for coal miners - whose jobs hang in the balance - eliminate tolerance for dissent.

Even though the US coal industry has reaped billions of dollars in revenue - Peabody Energy reported $5.2 billion in revenues in 2006 - the coal-rich regions have some of the worst poverty in the country. According to the US Census, the median income for Twilight and the surrounding region is less than $20,000 a year, and more than a quarter of families live below the poverty line.

Twilight is simply a line of double-wide trailers with no general store, set in the folds of steep hills, on a road that ends at a mountaintop coal operation.

"The coal industry just wants to keep what's happening here a secret," said Steve "Spankey" Webb, 51, of Twilight, who now works in an underground coal mine, a 33-year veteran of the business. "I know the country needs coal, but they don't worry about the people who live in these areas. They just don't care, I reckon."

Added Robbie Blevins, the retired president of United Mine Workers Local 9177: "We need the jobs here. I think if the coal companies were a little bit more responsible about how they do this mountaintop removal, it wouldn't be near as bad."

Few are betting against the coal industry now.

Coal accounts for at least half of the energy used to meet America's electricity needs, and coal-fired power plants produce 40 percent of the country's carbon dioxide emissions.

Since 2001, coal consumption nationally has risen gradually, according to US government figures, but several industry officials have forecast that demand could double by 2017 - if plans develop to turn coal into a liquid fuel.

Last week, Congress passed a bill that would allow the government to give up to $8 billion in loan guarantees to develop "clean coal" power plants and create liquid coal. Meanwhile, the new energy bill provides up to $240 million a year through 2012 on projects that would capture and store underground the carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants.

Pro-coal lawmakers and industry officials contend that if emissions-capture technology works, the pace of removing coal would probably accelerate, bringing more jobs to West Virginia and an increase in the mountaintop removal of coal.

Mountaintop removal involves stripping trees and topsoil and blasting away layers of rock to get at coal seams underneath. The blasting and the removal of tons of debris often have literally buried streams; or sent a torrent of water tainted with heavy metals downhill, flooding areas; or coated towns with layers of coal dust.

In Appalachia, activists say, coal companies have leveled more than 470 mountains in the region since the late 1970s. That pace stepped up considerably after 2002, when the Bush administration changed just one word in federal environmental regulations; it reclassified mining debris "waste" - rock blasted from the mountain, then pushed into a valley - as "fill," allowing companies to dump debris into mountain streams.

The Department of Interior is considering an additional change in the Clean Water Act that would effectively end a Reagan administration ban on mining within 100 feet of a stream.

In a Washington speech last week, Senator John F. Kerry - Democrat of Massachusetts and the party's 2004 presidential nominee - said the United States should invest billions in clean-coal technology. "Coal is cheap, dirty, and abundant not only here at home, but also in countries like China," he said.

Kerry later said that while he opposes "blasting off mountains" to mine coal, the resource must be a part of the United States' long-term energy strategy.

West Virginia's governor, two US senators, and three US representatives, however, have supported the practice; each declined requests by the Globe to comment on mountaintop-removal coal mining.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, contends that the industry's future is extremely bright. He said 20,000 West Virginians are working in the industry, which has given residents "an opportunity to stay home in West Virginia and raise their kids here."

Coal is a promising solution to several urgent energy problems, he said: "We have plenty of coal resources in this country, we can make electricity with it, we can make liquid fuels with it, and we can sequester the carbon. I don't understand the hesitancy" to commit to it.

Raney also said the industry has made "tremendous strides" in environmental cleanup from mountaintop removal. "My conscience is completely clean," he said.

Gunnoe, a full-time organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, rejected the idea that coal can be a viable, environmentally friendly energy source. Since 2001, she said, seven floods - some possibly caused by waste water-containment pools that burst - have submerged almost five acres of her family farm and polluted her drinking water.

"Clean coal is a complete and total lie," Gunnoe said last week on her 24-acre property in Bob White, W.Va. "Coal is black, through and through."

Mountaintop-removal mining, she said, is a moral test for society: Will it choose cleaner alternatives, or will it choose to generate electricity from a process that "is helping kill off a whole culture" of people whose lives are intertwined with the region's wooded environment.

Gunnoe and others have filed lawsuits to stop mining companies from dumping debris into valleys; their aim is stop mountaintop removal of coal throughout the Appalachians.

After winning a case in October that shut down one mining operation, resulting in the layoff of 39 workers, Gunnoe and others received death threats. One person, she said, walked up to her and threatened to destroy her property if she didn't stop.

But Gunnoe, a slender, tough-talking mother of two whose brown hair reaches to the small of her back, said she and others will press ahead - carefully.

"The mining companies want to depopulate the area, like in Twilight," she said. "They can destroy the land and the water, but I'm not leaving. I'm here for the long haul. I'm going to continue fighting."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Peace, prosperity, equity & sustainability

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tropical diseases on the move driven by climate change

There are so many reasons why trying to play the game of climate change "winners and losers" is a futile/irresponsible undertaking. The fact is, no one can predict its impacts. We've already been presented with surprises like the premature melting of the Arctic. That development threatens to give new meaning to cold war as nations quarrel over the mineral rights to the ocean floor that the melting has made accessible.

More serious and no less immediate is the introduction of deadly tropical diseases to regions of the world previously immune to them. Scientists have warned about this possibility for some time. Like other phenomena associated with climate change, this appears to be occurring sooner than even the most dire predictions. (GW)

As Earth Warms Up, Tropical Virus Moves to Italy

CASTIGLIONE DI CERVIA, Italy — Panic was spreading this August through this tidy village of 2,000 as one person after another fell ill with weeks of high fever, exhaustion and excruciating bone pain, just as most of Italy was enjoying Ferragosto, its most important summer holiday.

“At one point, I simply couldn’t stand up to get out of the car,” said Antonio Ciano (in above photo), 62, an elegant retiree in a pashmina scarf and trendy blue glasses. “I fell. I thought, O.K., my time is up. I’m going to die. It was really that dramatic.”

By midmonth, more than 100 people had come down with the same malady. Although the worst symptoms dissipated after a couple of weeks, no doctor could figure out what was wrong.

People blamed pollution in the river. They denounced the government. But most of all they blamed recent immigrants from tropical Africa for bringing the pestilence to their sleepy settlement of pastel stucco homes.

“Why immigrants?” asked Rina Ventura, who owns a shop selling shoes and purses. “I kept thinking of these terrible diseases that you see on TV, like malaria. We were terrified. There was no name and no treatment.”

Oddly, the villagers were both right and wrong. After a month of investigation, Italian public health officials discovered that the people of Castiglione di Cervia were, in fact, suffering from a tropical disease, chikungunya, a relative of dengue fever normally found in the Indian Ocean region. But the immigrants spreading the disease were not humans but insects: tiger mosquitoes, who can thrive in a warming Europe.

Aided by global warming and globalization, Castiglione di Cervia has the dubious distinction of playing host to the first outbreak in modern Europe of a disease that had previously been seen only in the tropics.

“By the time we got back the name and surname of the virus, our outbreak was over,” said Dr. Rafaella Angelini, director of the regional public health department in Ravenna. “When they told us it was chikungunya, it was not a problem for Ravenna any more. But I thought: this is a big problem for Europe.”

The epidemic proved that tropical viruses are now able to spread in new areas, far north of their previous range. The tiger mosquito, which first arrived in Ravenna three years ago, is thriving across southern Europe and even in France and Switzerland.

And if chikungunya can spread to Castiglione — “a place not special in any way,” Dr. Angelini said — there is no reason why it cannot go to other Italian villages. There is no reason why dengue, an even more debilitating tropical disease, cannot as well.

“This is the first case of an epidemic of a tropical disease in a developed, European country,” said Dr. Roberto Bertollini, director of the World Health Organization’s Health and Environment program. “Climate change creates conditions that make it easier for this mosquito to survive and it opens the door to diseases that didn’t exist here previously. This is a real issue. Now, today. It is not something a crazy environmentalist is warning about.”

Was he shocked to discover chikungunya in Italy, his native land? “We knew this would happen sooner or later,” he said. “We just didn’t know where or when.”

It certainly caught this town off guard on Aug. 9, when public health officials in Ravenna received an angry call from Stefano Merlo, who owns the gas station.

“Within 100 meters of my home, there were more than 30 people with fevers over 40 degrees,” or 104 Fahrenheit, said Mr. Merlo, 47. “I wanted to know what was going on. I knew it couldn’t be normal.”

August is not the season for high fevers, Dr. Angelini agreed, and within days of interviewing patients she was intrigued.

“The stories were so similar and so dramatic,” she said. “But we had no clue it was something tropical.”

Hard-working shopkeepers could not get out of bed because their hips hurt so much. Able-bodied men could not lift spoons to their mouths. (Months later, many still have debilitating joint pain.)

From the start, doctors suspected that the disease was spread by insects, rather than people. While almost all homes had one person who was ill, family members seemed not to catch the disease from one another.

They initially focused on sand flies, since the disease clustered on streets by the river.

Canceling their traditional mid-August vacations (in Italy, a true sign of panic), health officials sent off blood samples, called national infectious-disease experts, searched the Internet and set out traps to see what insects were in the neighborhood. The first surprise was that the insect traps contained not sand flies but tiger mosquitoes, and huge numbers of them.

The scientific survey confirmed what residents of Castiglione had come to accept as a horrible nuisance, though not a deadly threat.

“In the last three or four years, you couldn’t live on these streets because the mosquitoes were so bad,” said Rino Ricchi, a road worker who fell ill, standing at the entrance to his neatly tended garden, where mosquito traps have now replaced decorative fountains. “We used to delight in having a garden or a porch to eat dinner. You couldn’t this year, you’d get eaten alive.”

Said Dr. Angelini: “They were treating the mosquitoes like an annoyance. They knew that mosquitoes could spread tropical diseases but they had peace of mind because they knew this didn’t happen in Italy.”

Ravenna immediately set about killing the bugs in the hopes of containing the epidemic. Workers sprayed insecticides and went into each family’s garden, emptying flower pots, fountains and the rainwater collection barrels to remove the mosquitoes’ breeding ground.

By early September, there were no new cases in Castiglione di Cervia. But there were a number of mini-epidemics in the region — in Ravenna, Cesena and Rimini — set off by tiger mosquitoes there. Each was controlled in the same way.

By that point, the doctors had cataloged the patients’ symptoms and tried to match them to mosquito-borne diseases.

“We realized,” Dr. Angelini said, “we were seeing a photocopy of an outbreak on Réunion,” a French island in the Indian Ocean where more than 10,000 people have contracted chikungunya in the last two years. Blood tests confirmed the diagnosis. By summer’s end, home-grown chikungunya had been diagnosed in nearly 300 Italians.

Chikungunya is spread when tiger mosquitoes drink blood from an infected person and, if conditions are right, pass the virus on when they bite again. Tiger mosquitoes first came to southern Italy with shipments of tires from Albania about a decade ago but their habitat has expanded steadily northward as temperatures have risen.

But the doctors were baffled by how chikungunya made its way into mosquitoes in northern Italy since no one in Castiglione di Cervia had been abroad. In the past two years France, especially Paris, has had a number of imported cases of chikungunya, in travelers returning from Réunion. But the disease has never spread in France, because the mosquito cannot thrive there yet.

Eventually investigators discovered a link: one of the first men to fall ill in Castiglione di Cervia had been visited by a feverish relative in early July. That relative, an Italian, had previously traveled to Kerala, India. Chikungunya traveled to Italy in his blood, but climatic conditions are now such that it can spread and find a home here.

Now it is winter in Castiglione di Cervia, near freezing as the sun went down on a recent evening and Christmas lights glowed across the piazza. There are no mosquitoes now.

But dozens of residents still suffer from arthritis, a known complication of chikungunya.

Mr. Ricchi, the road worker, says he still has trouble clenching his fists, and his left ankle has horrible pains. Three people in the town died after getting the virus, Mr. Merlo said, although all of those victims had other illnesses as well.

From the start, townspeople noticed that the very elderly never got the disease. Now it makes sense: “If all you do is walk the 50 yards from your home to the church, there’s not much chance to get bitten,” said Mr. Ciano, the retiree.

But the biggest mystery is whether chikungunya will emerge here next summer. In the tropics, it is a year-round disease, since the mosquitoes breed continually. But the virus can winter over in mosquito eggs, too, and no one knows if there are reservoirs of sleeping eggs in some pool of water in Italy.

With climate change at hand, Dr. Bertollini said, chikungunya will surely be back somewhere in Europe again.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Suffering and social injustice continue in New Orleans

So what does it say about the United States when actor Brad Pitt has a better plan to address the post-Katrina housing crisis in New Orleans than either the president of the United States or any of the candidates (Democrat or Republican) running for office? With many people still living in formaldehyde-polluted trailers, the New Orleans city council is following through with its plans to demolish the city's four largest low-income housing developments.

Protesters, who understandably do not trust the promises of government officials, do not believe that the current units will be replaced with housing they can afford. In their view, the plan to transform New Orleans into a kind of sanitized "Dixeyland" tourist destination (devoid of "undesirable elements") continues to unfold. (GW)

Violent protests over housing erupt in New Orleans

CNN News
December 21, 2007

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Protests against a City Council plan to tear down low-income New Orleans housing turned ugly Thursday, with police using pepper spray and stun guns to clear a crowd angry they weren't allowed into City Hall for the vote.

The City Council voted unanimously to greenlight the demolition of the city's four largest public housing developments, saying they are too damaged by Hurricane Katrina to allow residents back into them.

But many in New Orleans, including former residents of the developments, say they fear the local and federal governments will not guarantee similarly affordable housing be built in their place -- calling the demolition an effort to move poor people out of the city.

At about 11 a.m., several protesters were dragged out of council chambers after scuffles broke out among people who packed the room, and members of the crowd booed council members and shouted insults at them.

About 30 minutes later, hundreds more protesters angry that they weren't allowed into the meeting began rattling an iron gate outside City Hall.

"They were pulling the gate open, trying to come in," said Superintendent Warren J. Riley of the New Orleans Police Department. "They were allowed to stand there and protest peacefully. Then they began to try and tear the gate down. They punched a couple of civil sheriffs in the face. They broke the gate open. So, some of those officers did use Mace to defend themselves and also to regain control of the gate and close the gate."

Riley said that after the council chamber's maximum capacity of 278 was reached, no one else was allowed inside.

Video, shot by New Orleans television station WDSU, shows at least one law enforcement officer shooting a liquid spray at the crowd as police struggled with protesters for control of the gate.

Moments later, a woman could be seen crying and screaming on the ground before several other protesters picked her up and carried her away.

Peter O'Connell, who described himself as a student living in New Orleans, told the station he was hit by pepper spray and narrowly avoided being shocked by a police stun gun, which hit his jacket but not his body.

"We were just trying to gain access to the City Council meeting, which we all feel and know that we have a right to attend," he said. "We were denied access and, in the process, brutalized by the police."

Riley said the use of force was justified.

"It was clear that there were people there that had one goal in mind and that was to be disruptive, be disobedient and in some cases to actually start a physical confrontation," he said.

The department said 15 people were arrested. Most were charged with disturbing the peace, and all had been released from jail by Thursday evening, police said. Authorities said there were no serious injuries.

After the vote, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin commended the council for the decision.

"Could the federal government have done better? Sure. Could [federal housing officials] have opened more units quicker? Sure," he said. "But we are where we are today, and today, we had a unified decision to move forward with accountability, honoring our overriding premise that every citizen has a right to return to the city."

The city has promised to replace the developments with mixed-use family housing that will provide plenty of low-income units.

Some at Thursday's meeting said that saving the existing developments would not have been a favor to the city's poor.

Howard Robertson, a retired major with New Orleans police, said the units already were in bad shape before Katrina -- with many of them boarded up and vacant havens for crack dealers.

"Since the storm, they are even in worse condition -- windows are broken, more than a fourth of all the buildings are boarded up where you can't even go in," he said. "All the city's trying to do is actually improve the living conditions."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"We are facing the perfect storm for the world's hungry"

It is amazing to me how much most of us in the "developed world" take food for granted. And not just food -- cheap food.

That will probably not be the case much longer.

Dire warnings have been issued by the United Nations and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) among others in recent months. Their message is clear: unprecedented demands on nations' agricultural systems (including increased dependence on unsustainable energy/fossil fuel-intensive farming practices, climate instability, and the conversion of land to grow crops for biofuels ) have converged to dramatically drive up food prices and threaten future food security.

Unfortunately, those who have the power to address this problem don't seem to be listening. And once again, the poor are the first to feel the brunt of these developments. However, if nations continue to adopt a business-as-usual attitude it won't take long before everyone will feel the pain. (GW)

World food stocks dwindling rapidly, UN warns

Monday, December 17, 2007

ROME: In an "unforeseen and unprecedented" shift, the world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels, the top food and agriculture official of the United Nations warned Monday.

The changes created "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food," particularly in the developing world, said Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The agency's food price index rose by more than 40 percent this year, compared with 9 percent the year before - a rate that was already unacceptable, he said. New figures show that the total cost of foodstuffs imported by the neediest countries rose 25 percent, to $107 million, in the last year.

At the same time, reserves of cereals are severely depleted, FAO records show. World wheat stores declined 11 percent this year, to the lowest level since 1980. That corresponds to 12 weeks of the world's total consumption - much less than the average of 18 weeks consumption in storage during the period 2000-2005. There are only 8 weeks of corn left, down from 11 weeks in the earlier period.

Prices of wheat and oilseeds are at record highs, Diouf said Monday. Wheat prices have risen by $130 per ton, or 52 percent, since a year ago. U.S. wheat futures broke $10 a bushel for the first time Monday, the agricultural equivalent of $100 a barrel oil. (Page 16)

Diouf blamed a confluence of recent supply and demand factors for the crisis, and he predicted that those factors were here to stay. On the supply side, these include the early effects of global warming, which has decreased crop yields in some crucial places, and a shift away from farming for human consumption toward crops for biofuels and cattle feed. Demand for grain is increasing with the world population, and more is diverted to feed cattle as the population of upwardly mobile meat-eaters grows.

"We're concerned that we are facing the perfect storm for the world's hungry," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, in a telephone interview. She said that her agency's food procurement costs had gone up 50 percent in the past 5 years and that some poor people are being "priced out of the food market."

To make matters worse, high oil prices have doubled shipping costs in the past year, putting enormous stress on poor nations that need to import food as well as the humanitarian agencies that provide it.

"You can debate why this is all happening, but what's most important to us is that it's a long-term trend, reversing decades of decreasing food prices," Sheeran said.

Climate specialists say that the vulnerability will only increase as further effects of climate change are felt. "If there's a significant change in climate in one of our high production areas, if there is a disease that effects a major crop, we are in a very risky situation," said Mark Howden of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra.

Already "unusual weather events," linked to climate change - such as droughts, floods and storms - have decreased production in important exporting countries like Australia and Ukraine, Diouf said.

In Southern Australia, a significant reduction in rainfall in the past few years led some farmers to sell their land and move to Tasmania, where water is more reliable, said Howden, one of the authors of a recent series of papers in the Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences on climate change and the world food supply.

"In the U.S., Australia, and Europe, there's a very substantial capacity to adapt to the effects on food - with money, technology, research and development," Howden said. "In the developing world, there isn't."

Sheeran said, that on a recent trip to Mali, she was told that food stocks were at an all time low. The World Food Program feeds millions of children in schools and people with HIV/AIDS. Poor nutrition in these groups increased the risk serious disease and death.

Diouf suggested that all countries and international agencies would have to "revisit" agricultural and aid policies they had adopted "in a different economic environment." For example, with food and oil prices approaching record, it may not make sense to send food aid to poorer countries, but instead to focus on helping farmers grow food locally.

FAO plans to start a new initiative that will offer farmers in poor countries vouchers that can be redeemed for seeds and fertilizer, and will try to help them adapt to climate change.

The recent scientific papers concluded that farmers could adjust to 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees) of warming by switching to more resilient species, changing planting times, or storing water for irrigation, for example.

But that after that, "all bets are off," said Francesco Tubiello, of Columbia University Earth Institute. "Many people assume that we will never have a problem with food production on a global scale, but there is a strong potential for negative surprises."

In Europe, officials said they were already adjusting policies to the reality of higher prices. The European Union recently suspended a "set-aside" of land for next year - a longstanding program that essentially paid farmers to leave 10 percent of their land untilled as a way to increase farm prices and reduce surpluses. Also, starting in January, import tariffs on all cereal will be eliminated for six months, to make it easier for European countries to buy grain from elsewhere. But that may make it even harder for poor countries to obtain the grain they need.

In an effort to promote free markets, the European Union has been in the process of reducing farm subsidies and this has accelerated the process.

"It's much easier to do with the new economics," said Michael Mann a spokesman for the EU agriculture commission. "We saw this coming to a certain extent, but we are surprised at how quickly it is happening."

But he noted that farm prices the last few decades have been lower than at any time in history, so the change seems extremely dramatic.

Diouf noted that there had been "tension and political unrest related to food markets" in a number of poor countries this year, including Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania. "We need to play a catalytic role to quickly boost crop production in the most affected countries," he said.

Part of the current problem is an outgrowth of prosperity. More people in the world now eat meat, diverting grain from humans to livestock. A more complicated issue is the use of crops to make biofuels, which are often heavily subsidized. A major factor in rising corn prices globally is that many farmers in the United States are now selling their corn to make subsidized ethanol.

Mann said the European Union had intentionally set low targets for biofuel use - 10 per cent by 2020 - to limit food price rises and that it plans to import some biofuel. "We don't want all our farmers switching from food to biofuel," he said.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Who says we won't be fooled again?

Not everyone is thrilled with the outcome at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that recently concluded in Bali. George Monbiot is tough, hard-nosed, respected journalist. I'm sure many consider him a radical (see "Manifesto for a New World Order"). His book on what can be done to avert a global climate catastrophe: "Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning" is one of the best books I read this past year.

His pull-no-punches analysis of the Bali talks within the context of Kyoto should give one pause. Climate change is a very tough issue. No one can be allowed a "pass" on this based on reputation or even good intentions. The stakes are too high. (GW)

We've been suckered again by the U.S. So Far the Bali deal is worse than Kyoto

Bush trashed the climate talks. But look what Gore did.

By George Monbiot
The Guardian
December 17, 2007

“After eleven days of negotiations, governments have come up with a compromise deal that could … even lead to emission increases. … The highly compromised political deal … is largely attributable to the position of the United States which was heavily influenced by fossil fuel and automobile industry interests. The failure to reach agreement led to the talks spilling over into an all night session …”(1)

These are extracts from a press release by Friends of the Earth. So what? Well it was published on December 11th - I mean to say, December 11th 1997. The US had just put a wrecking ball through the Kyoto Protocol. George W Bush was innocent; he was busy executing prisoners in Texas. Its climate negotiators were led by Albert Arnold Gore.

The European Union had asked for greenhouse gas cuts of 15% by 2010. Gore’s team drove them down to 5.2% by 2012. Then it did something worse: it destroyed the whole agreement.

Most of the other governments insisted that the cuts be made at home. But Gore demanded a series of loopholes big enough to drive a Hummer through. The rich nations, he said, should be allowed to buy their cuts from other countries(2). When he won, the protocol created an exuberant global market in fake emissions cuts. The western nations could buy “hot air” from the former Soviet Union. Because the cuts were made against emissions in 1990, and because industry in that bloc had subsequently collapsed, the FSU countries would pass well below the bar. Gore’s scam allowed them to sell the gases they weren’t producing to other nations. He also insisted that rich nations could buy nominal cuts from poor ones. Factories in India and China have made billions by raising their production of potent greenhouse gases, so that carbon traders in the rich world will pay to clean them up(3).

The result of this sabotage is that the market for low carbon technologies has remained moribund. Without an assured high value for carbon cuts, without any certainty that government policies will be sustained, companies have continued to invest in the safe commercial prospects offered by fossil fuels rather than gamble on a market without an obvious floor.

By ensuring that the rich nations would not make real cuts, Gore also guaranteed that the poor ones scoffed when we asked them to do as we don’t. When George Bush announced, in 2001, that he would not ratify the protocol, the world cursed and stamped its feet. But his intransigence affected only the United States. Gore’s team ruined it for everyone.

The destructive power of the US delegation is not the only thing that hasn’t changed. After the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, the British environment secretary, John Prescott, announced that “this is a truly historic deal which will help curb the problems of climate change. For the first time it commits developed countries to make legally binding cuts in their emissions.”(4) Ten years later the current environment secretary, Hilary Benn, told us that “this is an historic breakthrough and a huge step forward. For the first time ever all the world’s nations have agreed to negotiate on a deal to tackle dangerous climate change.”(5) Do these people have a chip inserted?

In both cases the United States demanded terms which appeared impossible for the other nations to accept. Before Kyoto, the other negotiators flatly rejected Gore’s proposals for emissions trading. So his team threatened to sink the talks. The other nations capitulated, but the US still held out on technicalities until the very last moment, when it suddenly appeared to concede. In 1997 and in 2007 it got the best of both worlds: it wrecked the treaty and was praised for saving it.

Hilary Benn is an idiot. Our diplomats are suckers. United States negotiators have pulled the same trick twice and for the second time our governments have fallen for it.

There are still two years to go, but so far the new agreement is even worse than the Kyoto Protocol. It contains no targets and no dates. A new set of guidelines also agreed at Bali extend and strengthen the worst of Al Gore’s trading scams, the clean development mechanism(6). Benn and the other dupes are cheering and waving their hats as the train leaves the station at last, having failed to notice that it is travelling in the wrong direction.

Though Gore does a better job of governing now that he is out of office, he was no George Bush. He wanted a strong, binding and meaningful protocol, but US politics had made it impossible. In July 1997 the Senate had voted 95-0 to sink any treaty which failed to treat developing countries in the same way as it treated the rich ones(7). Though they knew this was impossible for developing countries to accept, all the Democrats lined up with all the Republicans. The Clinton administration had proposed a compromise: instead of binding commitments for the developing nations, Gore would demand emissions trading(8). But even when he succeeded he announced that “we will not submit this agreement for ratification [in the Senate] until key developing nations participate”(9). Clinton could thus avoid an unwinnable war.

So why, regardless of the character of its leaders, does the United States act this way? Because, like several other modern democracies, it is subject to two great corrupting forces. I have written before about the role of the corporate media (particularly in the US) in downplaying the threat of climate change and demonising anyone who tries to address it(10). I won’t bore you with it again, except to remark that at 3pm eastern standard time on Saturday there were 20 news items on the front page of the Fox News website. The climate deal came 20th, after “Bikini-wearing stewardesses sell calendar for charity” and “Florida store sells ‘Santa Hates You’ T-shirt”(11).

Let us consider instead the other great source of corruption: campaign finance. The Senate rejects effective action on climate change because its members are bought and bound by the companies which stand to lose. When you study the tables showing who gives what to whom, you are struck by two things(12).

One is the quantity. Since 1990, the energy and natural resources sector (mostly coal, oil, gas and electricity) has given $418m to federal politicians in the US(13). Transport companies have given $355m(14). The other is the width: the undiscriminating nature of this munificence. The big polluters favour the Republicans, but most of them also fund Democrats. During the 2000 presidential campaign, oil and gas companies lavished money on George Bush, but they also gave Al Gore $142,000(15), while transport companies gave him $347,000(16). The whole US political system is in hock to people who put their profits ahead of the biosphere.

So don’t believe all this nonsense about waiting for the next president to sort it out. This is a much bigger problem than George W Bush. Yes, he is viscerally opposed to tackling climate change. But viscera don’t have much to do with it. Until the American people confront their political funding system, their politicians will keep speaking from the pocket, not the gut.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"Turning ocean winds into gold"

When I posted a story on this back in December 2006, the concept of a kite hauler was featured in the New York Times Magazine Annual Review of the year's best ideas. It seemed pretty conceptual at the time. But here we are just a little over a year later and the first commercial freighter to be pulled by a high tech kite has been christened and is preparing to take its maiden voyage this coming January.

Back then a California company called KiteShip appeared to have the competitive edge on the technology. But it looks as if German-based SkySails will be the first out of the gate. (GW)

New high-tech kite helps power ship, cut emissions

HAMBURG, Germany, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Turning ocean winds into gold while cutting greenhouse emissions in the process might sound like some sort of alchemy for the 21st century.

But unlike futile earlier efforts to convert ordinary metals to gold, two fast-growing German companies have worked together developing a high-tech kite system to pull enormous ships across the oceans -- and save enormous amounts of money.

The 132 metre (433 ft) long MV "Beluga SkySails" will make its maiden voyage in January across the Atlantic to Venezuela, up to Boston and back to Europe. It will be pulled by a giant computer-guided 500,000-euro ($725,000) kite tethered to a 15-metre high mast.

It is a throwback to an earlier maritime age, harnessing the winds that fell out of favour over a century ago when sailing lost the battle for merchant shipping to modern steam power because it was seen then as primitive and unpredictable.

But now, in the age of climate change, wind power is making a remarkable comeback thanks to modern technology.

"This is the start of a revolution for the way ships are powered," Beluga chief executive Niels Stolberg said in an interview with Reuters on the windswept deck of his new ship MV Beluga SkySails. "It's a small but crucial step for the future."

To latch onto the powerful winds prevailing well above the surface, the kite attached to the high-tech steerage unit flies up to 300 metres high to tug the 10,000-tonne ship forward, supporting its diesel engines and cutting fuel consumption.

Under favourable wind conditions, the 160-square metre kite shaped like a paraglider is expected to reduce fuel costs by up to 20 percent or more ($1,600 per day) and cut, by a similarly significant amount, its carbon dioxide emissions.

Burning fossil fuels cause CO2 blamed for climate change.


A driving force for Beluga -- and other shippers already lining up to buy the system if it delivers on its promise -- is the fuel price, which has tripled for shippers in recent years.

While it might seem almost too simple -- or too good -- to be true, SkySails inventor Stephan Wrage and German engineers have spent more than five years perfecting the system and they will tell you that it is anything but pie-in-the sky technology.

"At the heart of this all for me, the real motivating factor is to get to the crossroads of ecology and economics -- and to prove it pays to protect the environment," Wrage said in an interview on the ship so new it still smells of fresh paint.

While some political and industry leaders complain about the financial burdens of fighting climate change and cite costs in resisting CO2 reduction efforts, Wrage said SkySails is proof that the opposite can be true: there's money to be made.

"If our calculations are right, our clients will not only have considerably greater earnings but also substantially reduce their CO2 output as well," the 35-year-old added after a ceremony to christen the new ship in Hamburg port on Saturday.

"To be able to make a contribution to fighting climate change makes us all proud," the SkySails managing director said as the sail made of ultralight synthetic fibre and as big as a medium-sized passenger jet unfurled in a breeze above the deck.


SkySails developed the kite propulsion system that Beluga Shipping only just finished installing on the new cargo ship. Both firms aim to prove on a commercial scale what years of testing on smaller vessels showed: you can turn wind into cash.

Wrage, who got the idea as a 16-year-old while flying kites and wishing he could tap their power to make a small sail boat go faster, is optimistic even greater savings can be achieved. He said larger kites should cut fuel usage by 30 to 50 percent.

Two 320-square metre kites will pull two more Beluga ships by 2009 and after that 600-square metre kites will be added.

"That's where the savings get really interesting," he said.

But the immediate impact on cutting CO2 caused by ships will be limited. Shipping carries more than 90 percent of the world's traded goods. There are more than 50,000 merchant ships carrying everything from oil, gas, coal, and grains to electronic goods.

They emit 800 million tonnes of CO2 each year -- 5 percent of the world's total. They emit high levels of sulphur dioxide.

Yet Wrage is confident the demand will take off. There are three orders in hand and if the savings achieved on a smaller 55-metre long prototype are confirmed by the "Beluga SkySails", he said others were lined up to buy systems.

"We're planning to equip four to eight ships next year, provided the first voyage turns out as well as the trials did," he said. "In 2009 we expect to sell at least 35 systems. After that, we want to at least double every year."

The target is 1,500 vessels equipped by 2015.

"I've had a lot of meetings where shippers have said to me 'If it works out on the Beluga SkySails we're going to buy one, two, four or 10 systems'," Wrage said. "Believe me. If we're successful now, it won't be hard to find buyers." (Editing by Stephen Weeks) ($1=.6881 Euro)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Radical agriculture revisited

I've always thought that when intellectual carpetbaggers attempt to co-opt words or catch-phrases like "natural", "organic" or " sustainability" it's precisely because they understand the power of word's underlying concept.

Whereas the terms natural and organic apply to inherent qualities of a product or practice, sustainable is, I would argue more systemic and consequently a bit more complex and difficult to describe. I don't think that means it is any less precise. Just more susceptible to being exploited and co-opted.

The Brundtland Report: "Our Common Future" published in 1987 is usually cited as the document that officially defined sustainable development. In reality, folks involved in appropriate technology like Rodale the New Alchemy Institute were designing, modeling and building sustainable food and energy systems dating back to the early '40's (Rodale) and '70's (New Alchemy).

The work of these grassroots non-profit organizations became the basis for the sustainable agriculture movement (once deemed "Radical Agriculture") in the U.S. Their definitions, models and practices are as valid today as they were 30 years ago. (GW)

Our Decrepit Food Factories

Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of the names.” The corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts. So what about this much-abused pair of names, sustainable and unsustainable?

To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

For years now, critics have been speaking of modern industrial agriculture as “unsustainable” in precisely these terms, though what form the “breakdown” might take or when it might happen has never been certain. Would the aquifers run dry? The pesticides stop working? The soil lose its fertility? All these breakdowns have been predicted and they may yet come to pass. But if a system is unsustainable — if its workings offend the rules of nature — the cracks and signs of breakdown may show up in the most unexpected times and places. Two stories in the news this year, stories that on their faces would seem to have nothing to do with each other let alone with agriculture, may point to an imminent breakdown in the way we’re growing food today.

The first story is about MRSA, the very scary antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that is now killing more Americans each year than AIDS — 100,000 infections leading to 19,000 deaths in 2005, according to estimates in The Journal of the American Medical Association. For years now, drug-resistant staph infections have been a problem in hospitals, where the heavy use of antibiotics can create resistant strains of bacteria. It’s Evolution 101: the drugs kill off all but the tiny handful of microbes that, by dint of a chance mutation, possess genes allowing them to withstand the onslaught; these hardy survivors then get to work building a drug-resistant superrace. The methicillin-resistant staph that first emerged in hospitals as early as the 1960s posed a threat mostly to elderly patients. But a new and even more virulent strain — called “community-acquired MRSA” — is now killing young and otherwise healthy people who have not set foot in a hospital. No one is yet sure how or where this strain evolved, but it is sufficiently different from the hospital-bred strains to have some researchers looking elsewhere for its origin, to another environment where the heavy use of antibiotics is selecting for the evolution of a lethal new microbe: the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that at least 70 percent of the antibiotics used in America are fed to animals living on factory farms. Raising vast numbers of pigs or chickens or cattle in close and filthy confinement simply would not be possible without the routine feeding of antibiotics to keep the animals from dying of infectious diseases. That the antibiotics speed up the animals’ growth also commends their use to industrial agriculture, but the crucial fact is that without these pharmaceuticals, meat production practiced on the scale and with the intensity we practice it could not be sustained for months, let alone decades.

Public-health experts have been warning us for years that this situation is a public-health disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later, the profligate use of these antibiotics — in many cases the very same ones we depend on when we’re sick — would lead to the evolution of bacteria that could shake them off like a spring shower. It appears that “sooner or later” may be now. Recent studies in Europe and Canada found that confinement pig operations have become reservoirs of MRSA. A European study found that 60 percent of pig farms that routinely used antibiotics had MRSA-positive pigs (compared with 5 percent of farms that did not feed pigs antibiotics). This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study showing that a strain of “MRSA from an animal reservoir has recently entered the human population and is now responsible for [more than] 20 percent of all MRSA in the Netherlands.” Is this strictly a European problem? Evidently not. According to a study in Veterinary Microbiology, MRSA was found on 45 percent of the 20 pig farms sampled in Ontario, and in 20 percent of the pig farmers. (People can harbor the bacteria without being infected by it.) Thanks to Nafta, pigs move freely between Canada and the United States. So MRSA may be present on American pig farms; we just haven’t looked yet.

Scientists have not established that any of the strains of MRSA presently killing Americans originated on factory farms. But given the rising public alarm about MRSA and the widespread use on these farms of precisely the class of antibiotics to which these microbes have acquired resistance, you would think our public-health authorities would be all over it. Apparently not. When, in August, the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition asked the Food and Drug Administration what the agency was doing about the problem of MRSA in livestock, the agency had little to say. Earlier this month, though, the F.D.A. indicated that it may begin a pilot screening program with the C.D.C.

As for independent public-health researchers, they say they can’t study the problem without the cooperation of the livestock industry, which, not surprisingly, has not been forthcoming. For what if these researchers should find proof that one of the hidden costs of cheap meat is an epidemic of drug-resistant infection among young people? There would be calls to revolutionize the way we produce meat in this country. This is not something that the meat and the pharmaceutical industries or their respective regulatory “watchdogs” — the Department of Agriculture and F.D.A. — are in any rush to see happen.

he second story is about honeybees, which have endured their own mysterious epidemic this past year. Colony Collapse Disorder was first identified in 2006, when a Pennsylvanian beekeeper noticed that his bees were disappearing — going out on foraging expeditions in the morning never to return. Within months, beekeepers in 24 states were reporting losses of between 20 percent and 80 percent of their bees, in some cases virtually overnight. Entomologists have yet to identify the culprit, but suspects include a virus, agricultural pesticides and a parasitic mite. (Media reports that genetically modified crops or cellphone towers might be responsible have been discounted.) But whatever turns out to be the immediate cause of colony collapse, many entomologists believe some such disaster was waiting to happen: the lifestyle of the modern honeybee leaves the insects so stressed out and their immune systems so compromised that, much like livestock on factory farms, they’ve become vulnerable to whatever new infectious agent happens to come along.

You need look no farther than a California almond orchard to understand how these bees, which have become indispensable workers in the vast fields of industrial agriculture, could have gotten into such trouble. Like a great many other food crops, like an estimated one out of every three bites you eat, the almond depends on bees for pollination. No bees, no almonds. The problem is that almonds today are grown in such vast monocultures — 80 percent of the world’s crop comes from a 600,000-acre swath of orchard in California’s Central Valley — that, when the trees come into bloom for three weeks every February, there are simply not enough bees in the valley to pollinate all those flowers. For what bee would hang around an orchard where there’s absolutely nothing to eat for the 49 weeks of the year that the almond trees aren’t in bloom? So every February the almond growers must import an army of migrant honeybees to the Central Valley — more than a million hives housing as many as 40 billion bees in all.

They come on the backs of tractor-trailers from as far away as New England. These days, more than half of all the beehives in America are on the move to California every February, for what has been called the world’s greatest “pollination event.” (Be there!) Bees that have been dormant in the depths of a Minnesota winter are woken up to go to work in the California spring; to get them in shape to travel cross-country and wade into the vast orgy of almond bloom, their keepers ply them with “pollen patties” — which often include ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and flower pollen imported from China. Because the pollination is so critical and the bee population so depleted, almond growers will pay up to $150 to rent a box of bees for three weeks, creating a multimillion-dollar industry of migrant beekeeping that barely existed a few decades ago. Thirty-five years ago you could rent a box of bees for $10. (Pimping bees is the whole of the almond business for these beekeepers since almond honey is so bitter as to be worthless.)

In 2005 the demand for honeybees in California had so far outstripped supply that the U.S.D.A. approved the importation of bees from Australia. These bees get off a 747 at SFO and travel by truck to the Central Valley, where they get to work pollinating almond flowers — and mingling with bees arriving from every corner of America. As one beekeeper put it to Singeli Agnew in The San Francisco Chronicle, California’s almond orchards have become “one big brothel” — a place where each February bees swap microbes and parasites from all over the country and the world before returning home bearing whatever pathogens they may have picked up. Add to this their routine exposure to agricultural pesticides and you have a bee population ripe for an epidemic national in scope. In October, the journal Science published a study that implicated a virus (Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus) in Colony Collapse Disorder — a virus that was found in some of the bees from Australia. (The following month, the U.S.D.A. questioned the study, pointing out that the virus was present in North America as early as 2002.)

“We’re placing so many demands on bees we’re forgetting that they’re a living organism and that they have a seasonal life cycle,” Marla Spivak, a honeybee entomologist at the University of Minnesota, told The Chronicle. “We’re wanting them to function as a machine. . . . We’re expecting them to get off the truck and be fine.”

We’re asking a lot of our bees. We’re asking a lot of our pigs too. That seems to be a hallmark of industrial agriculture: to maximize production and keep food as cheap as possible, it pushes natural systems and organisms to their limit, asking them to function as efficiently as machines. When the inevitable problems crop up — when bees or pigs remind us they are not machines — the system can be ingenious in finding “solutions,” whether in the form of antibiotics to keep pigs healthy or foreign bees to help pollinate the almonds. But this year’s solutions have a way of becoming next year’s problems. That is to say, they aren’t “sustainable.”

From this perspective, the story of Colony Collapse Disorder and the story of drug-resistant staph are the same story. Both are parables about the precariousness of monocultures. Whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.

Michael Pollan is a contributing writer. His new book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” will be published next month.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

There are no winners and losers with business-as-usual climate change

More curious than climate change naysayers are those who believe that climate change is real but feel that we should either just prepare to "adapt" to it and those who are convinced that there will be winners and losers and we should first determine if we'd be the former or latter before deciding if we should take action.

Gregg Easterbrook wrote about climate change winners and losers in the April 2007 issue of Atlantic Monthly: Global Warming: Who Loses-- And Who Wins? I did not find it to be a very convincing argument. Several state governments, most notably Vermont, have already begun to develop adaptation strategies. To be sure, some measure of adaptation will be necessary if for no other reason than we are already committed to -- and in fact are arguably experiencing -- the effects of climate change already (i.e., the melting of the Arctic).

Both scenarios (Winners/Losers and Adaptation) assume that that we are able to accurately predict how climate change will unfold. That is a mistake. Already we are seeing that predictions of even the more pessimistic scientists may be too conservative both in terms of actual impacts and their timeframes.

Moreover, as the results from research conducted at Purdue University points out, we need to look beyond the obvious physical impacts in order to fully appreciate the full measure of climate change. (GW)

Scientists develop new measure of 'socioclimatic' risk

Purdue University News
December 10, 2007

New analysis 'highly relevant' for U.N. Bali negotiations

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - As the United Nations climate negotiations proceed in Bali, Indonesia, researchers have taken a first step toward quantifying the "socioclimatic" exposure of different countries to future climate change.

The research team from Purdue University and the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, found that China, India and the United States - major greenhouse gas-emitting nations that are currently unbound by the Kyoto treaty - face substantial exposure relative to other nations, but that every area of the world faces high exposure in at least one category.

"Climate negotiations have become increasingly concerned not only with who is responsible for climate change, but also who is likely to suffer the most damage," said Noah Diffenbaugh, the Purdue assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences who led the study. "Our analysis provides quantitative information to support international negotiations such as those that are taking place in Bali this week. By integrating state-of-the-art global climate model experiments with socioeconomic indicators of poverty, wealth and population, we create a unique measure of 'socioclimatic' risk for each nation."

Filippo Giorgi, vice-chair of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and head of the Abdus Salam International Center of Theoretical Physics (ICTP) Earth System Physics section, initiated the research and worked closely on the analysis.

"This study goes beyond the physical aspects of climate change – such as increased temperatures, sea-level rise and changes in precipitation patterns – and looks at the interaction of these physical changes with various socioeconomic factors throughout the world," Giorgi said. "A key message is that there are no winners and losers with business-as-usual climate change. Countries in all regions of the world face different – but high – potential exposure to socioclimatic stressors in the 21st century. We hope this message will be heard in the Bali negotiations, as the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony highlights the importance of effective and immediate response to the climate change crisis."

The research will be published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Leigh Raymond, associate director of Purdue's Climate Change Research Center and co-author of the study, said different nations face different exposures to climate change depending on their socioeconomic dimensions.

"Climate change is only half of the story," said Raymond, who also is an associate professor of political science at Purdue. "We need to consider how different societies are threatened by these physical changes in unique ways. Impoverished areas have fewer resources to deal with environmental stress, while wealthy areas have a greater amount of infrastructure that could be lost, and areas with larger populations have more lives at stake."

Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, said the study is pertinent for negotiations to explore a post-Kyoto treaty framework of climate policy.

"This study provides an insightful reminder that different nations and regions will likely face very different impacts from continuing climate change," he said. "This adds to the complexity of establishing a viable international policy and underscores the importance of getting as many key design elements right as possible."

Raymond is currently attending the U.N. conference on climate change in Bali, where he is participating as an official observer of the negotiations.

"Our study is an important first step to get people thinking about the issues from this new perspective," he said. "Of course, famine is a far more serious risk than property damage. But all of these parameters are relevant to policy decisions, and it seems clear that more sophisticated estimates of national exposures to socioclimatic risk will be highly relevant for negotiations of any future climate change agreement."

Regionally, the most exposed nations are China, Bangladesh and Myanmar in Asia; western Sahel and southwestern nations in Africa; Brazil in South America; the eastern United States in North America; and the Mediterranean nations (including France, Italy and Spain), Russia and Scandinavia in Europe.

The study found that the climatic and socioeconomic variables together determine the international variations in socioclimatic risk.

"Patterns emerge that you wouldn't recognize from just looking at either climatic or socioeconomic conditions," Diffenbaugh said. "For example, China has a relatively moderate expected climate change. However, when you combine that with the fact that it has the second largest economy in the world, a substantial poverty rate and a large population, it creates one of the largest combined exposures on the planet. We see similar effects in other parts of the world, including India and the United States, which also have relatively moderate expected climate change. So it's where the socioeconomic and climatic variables intersect that is the key."

He added that the study does not address the absolute degree of impact or risk.

"This study illustrates exposure of one nation relative to another," Diffenbaugh said. "Thus, it is important to note that a country low on the relative scale could still face substantial risk."

Michael Mastrandrea, a research associate at the Center for Environmental Science and Policy at Stanford University and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said this combination of climatic and socioeconomic indicators provides a new method to assess the risks of 21st century climate change and how they vary across nations.

"As this work is developed further, it has the potential to be informative to the international climate policy debate," he said. "The severity of future climate impacts is very sensitive to the pathway of socioeconomic development. This paper proposes an interesting basis from which to quantify the broad implications of concurrent changes in climate and society."

The climate models used the A1B scenario, which is a standard greenhouse gas emissions scenario used by the IPCC. However, the authors calculated the exposures based on each degree of global warming, meaning that similar results could be expected from other scenarios, said Xunqiang Bi, a researcher at the ICTP and co-author of the paper.

"Our study leads toward providing integrated, country-based information to aid the development of adaptation and mitigation policies at the national and regional level," Giorgi said. "Much additional work has to be done to account for more comprehensive climatic and socioeconomic information. This is an extremely exciting and innovative area of future research."

The Purdue Climate Change Research Center is affiliated with Purdue's Discovery Park. The center promotes and organizes research and education on global climate change and studies its impact on agriculture, natural ecosystems and society. It was established in 2004 to support Purdue in research and education on regional scale climate change, its impacts and mitigation, and adaptation strategies. The center serves as a hub for a range of activities beyond scientific research, including teaching, public education and the development of public policy recommendations.

The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics was founded in 1964 by Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam. The center operates under a tripartite agreement among the Italian Government and two U.N. agencies, UNESCO and IAEA. Its mission is to foster advanced studies and research, especially in developing countries. While the name of the center reflects its beginnings, its activities today encompass most areas of physical sciences, including geophysical and environmental sciences.