Thursday, June 30, 2011

Castles and trains built of sand

It is that time of year. Roll out those lazy, hazy crazy, consulting days of summah!! (GW)

Work's a Day at the Beach for Sand-Castle Consultants

As the Summer Building Season Heats Up, Advisers Dig In; Lessons at $75 an Hour

Wall Street Journal
June 30, 2011

A train sculpture built for 'Sand in the City' in Omaha this year.

CANNON BEACH, Ore.—On a recent weekend, sand creatures were sprawled across this Pacific Coast beach. There were sea horses by a giant squid, with an "Attackin' Kraken" sea monster nearby, along with several pigs, some giant mice and an amputee octopus.

Many of the sand sculptures had the same point of origin: They had been built by people who at one time or another were advised by Bert Adams, one of the nation's handful of professional sand-castle consultants.

"They did well," said Mr. Adams, a 51-year-old former electrical engineer, as he surveyed the array of creations made by his onetime students at Cannon Beach's 47th annual sand sculpting tournament.

"He's a great mentor," says Amos Callender, an Olympia, Wash., architect who took a course—Sand 101—that Mr. Adams taught two years ago. Mr. Callender and his team took first place at Cannon Beach last year, while this year they built a sand sculpture depicting "the good life"—a wine lover sporting a beret; a mouse tucking into a giant wheel of cheese—that finished second.

As this year's sand-sculpture season gets going, Mr. Adams is one of the people who have carved out a unique consulting niche on the circuit. While millions of kids will construct sand creations all summer for nothing, sand advisers have built practices charging individuals and companies for sand castle-building classes, as well as partnering with charities that sponsor sand-sculpting competitions. Just one consulting gig can garner thousands of dollars, while building a birthday sand castle in an hour can yield a fee of $300.

Mr. Adams's peers include Lucinda Wierenga, who goes by the professional name Sandy Feet. The resident of South Padre Island, Tex., who teaches sand-sculpting workshops and gives private lessons for upwards of $75 per hour, says she expects to make around $65,000 this year.

The 53-year-old former high school English teacher says her sand-consulting practice has even gone global. Last year, she made $6,000 for a week of sand carving in Qatar; this past spring, an exhibition in Taiwan contracted her services. "Travel expenses, lodging, good food and they make sure I have a good time," says Ms. Wierenga.

The rise of sand-sculpting consultants comes as the sand-castle tour increasingly resembles the pro golf or tennis circuits, complete with grueling schedules. Competitions now take place everywhere from Amagansett, N.Y., which in August will hold the 20th annual East Hampton Beach Master Sand Sculpting Competition, to San Diego, where in July the U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition will distribute $21,000 in prize money.

Like stock-car racers, sand sculptors can even pad their income by signing on with sponsors—albeit at amounts more modest than what's available to Nascar stars. Mr. Callender's team, for example, was paid $800 last year for wearing T-shirts at Cannon Beach emblazoned with the name of a local veterinary clinic. At another tournament in Long Beach, Wash., he and his team got $1,200 to wear T-shirts provided by a building-supplies store.

Sand consultants don't have groupies though—just "gritties," jokes Mr. Adams. While fans admire his intricate creations, "I know how I look: covered with sand, sweaty," he says.

Mr. Adams, a Michigan native, came to sand sculpting after a former employer—National Semiconductor Corp.—transferred him to Oregon in 1995. On Oregon's beaches, he discovered he had a talent for converting wet sand into castles, busts and other objects.

Over the years, he forged a business model in sand, mainly through trial and error. In 1996, he began partnering with charities that sponsor sand-sculpting competitions, taking 10% of any gross from ticket sales and entry fees.

He has promoted "Sand in the City" in Omaha for the past eight years to benefit the Nebraska Children's Home Society. That event—sponsored on a rotating basis by local blue chips like ConAgra Foods Inc. or Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co.—grosses about $100,000 annually.

These days, Mr. Adams pulls in a five-figure annual income, though he says "it's less than my wife would consider a lot of money."

Mr. Adams says one partner didn't fulfill its obligations, leading him these days to demand a four-year exclusivity clause that groups he works with can't do a sand event in a given city without him, and vice versa.

James Anderson, assistant general manager of the Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mount, Wash., took a course from Mr. Adams where he learned how to wield a spackling tool with a turkey baster to lend a silky sheen to sandy surfaces.

Mr. Adams "was very open to any ideas we had on technique," says Mr. Anderson.

In May, Mr. Adams brought Sand in the City to Shawnee, Kan., for the Wonderscope Children's Museum. As with all new clients, Mr. Adams insisted on certain guidelines: that Wonderscope pay expenses for four trips for him to prepare the event, plus his fee of $4,000, or 10% of the gross, whichever is greater.

Ten teams paid the Wonderscope Museum $2,000 each to learn sand sculpting from Mr. Adams and then compete against each other at a fund-raiser that drew over 3,000 spectators. The museum took in just over $26,000, and over $100,000 in donated building materials. The event is now on Wonderscope's 2012 calendar.

"We're planning on this being our annual fund raiser going forward," says Lauranne Hess, Wonderscope's executive director.

At some events, he is a competitor, not a consultant. Mr. Adams' signature technique is creating pieces that play off each other—such as a train carrying a load of toys. For his Cannon Beach entry earlier this month, his team made a "Sand Bar," where sea horses made of sand were tied to a sand hitching post, near a sand sheriff and not far from a sand "pool" shark shooting a rack of balls with a sand seal.

The elaborate tableau drew admiring sighs from fans and other sand masters. It also won first prize for the day and a check for $1,300.

Write to Joel Millman at

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Who green is my Golf?

VW named as Europe's least green car maker

By Martin Hickman
The Independent
June 28, 2011

Europe's largest car maker, Volkswagen, is accused of exaggerating its green record and resisting attempts to make popular models such as the market-leading Golf more fuel efficient.

In a report seen by The Independent, the environmental group Greenpeace claims that despite having an image as a family friendly, green brand, VW Group has made less progress on fuel efficiency than rivals such as BMW and Toyota and is actively seeking to thwart EU plans to reduce climate-change emissions by 2020.

According to the 24-page Greenpeace report, The Dark Side of Volkswagen, the German carmaker puts its most efficient engines in only 6 per cent of its cars and inflates their price by more than their cost, deterring the wider adoption of greener motoring.

The environmental group intends to target VW with a high-profile crusade, starting today with the unveiling of a poster campaign in London featuring a Darth Vader mask with the VW symbol and the words "Volkswagen. The Dark Side." It intends to step up its efforts in coming months through social media and publicity stunts.

VW, which made 11.4 per cent of the world's cars last year, ostensibly aims to become the most environment- friendly carmaker. It points to the development of cleaner engine technologies such as BlueMotion, which gives its greenest Golf an efficiency rating of 99g of CO2 per kilometre.

But Greenpeace complains that VW puts BlueMotion into only a minority of its 70 Golf variants, with some models emitting twice as much CO2 as the least polluting vehicle. More broadly, it says, VW, which also owns the Skoda, Audi and Seat brands, among others, has failed to greatly increase fuel efficiency. Between 2006 and 2009, VW reduced its average emissions per kilometre by 7.8 per cent, whereas BMW and Toyota achieved reductions of 18 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively.

Greenpeace also complains that VW Group opposes the target backed by Britain and other EU countries for an emissions cut of 30 per cent from 1990 levels by the end of this decade, which is also supported by corporations including Google, Ikea, Sony and Unilever.

In a letter to Greenpeace supporting the current 20 per cent target, VW said it was a policy which "puts jobs at risk and results in de-industrialisation in Europe". The European Automobile Manufacturers' Association, on whose board VW has more seats than any other carmaker, is lobbying against the policy at an EU level.

VW is also opposed to the EU's emission target for cars sold by 2020, at 95g CO2/km, describing it as not being based on "a realistic appreciation of the costs and technical progress".

Greenpeace said: "The truth is that the Volkswagen Group has lagged behind its competitors for years. It only stepped up progress on CO2 reductions once a legal framework was put in place that forced it do so. It has shown no ability or willingness to voluntarily deliver the innovation or technology changes required. Now Volkswagen is openly opposed to the agreed 2020 standard that would benefit motorists, the economy and the environment."

VW, jointly owned by Qatar Petroleum and the German state of Lower Saxony, said it had not had time to respond properly to Greenpeace's report, despite being given five hours to do so. Instead, it reiterated its statement to Greenpeace, dated 1 February this year.

That said: "It is the goal of the Volkswagen Group to be the industry leader in innovation and in the environmental performance of the company and its products." The most recent tangible evidence of these intentions, it said, was shown by the prototype VW XL1 which, with an 800cc diesel engine, has a rating of 24g CO2/km.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dirty, difficult and dangerous

Amazing stories - many bad, but some good/heartwarming - continue to pour out of Fukushima's crippled nuclear power plants. (GW)

Elders Offer Help at Crippled Reactor

By Ken Belson
New York Times
June 27, 2011

TOKYO — By any measure, the thousands of people toiling to cool the crippled nuclear reactors in Fukushima are engaged in jobs that the Japanese consider kitanai, kitsui and kiken, or dirty, difficult and dangerous.

Seemingly against logic, Yasuteru Yamada, 72, is eager for the chance to take part. After seeing hundreds of younger men on television struggle to control the damage at the Daiichi power plant, Mr. Yamada struck on an idea: Recruit other older engineers and other specialists to help tame the rogue reactors.

Not only do they have some of the skills needed, but because of their advanced age, they are at less risk of getting cancer and other diseases that develop slowly as a result of exposure to high levels of radiation. Their volunteering would spare younger Japanese from dangers that could leave them childless, or worse.

“We have to contain this accident, and for that, someone should do the work,” said Mr. Yamada, a retired plant engineer who had worked for Sumitomo Metal Industries. “It would benefit society if the older generation took the job because we will get less damage from working there.”

Weeks after the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck, he and Nobuhiro Shiotani, a childhood friend who is also an engineer, formed the Skilled Veterans Corps in early April. They sent out thousands of e-mails and letters, and even set up a Twitter account. On his blog,, Mr. Yamada called on people over age 60 who have “the physical strength and experience to bear the burden of this front-line work.”

The response was instant. About 400 people have volunteered, including a singer, a cook and an 82-year-old man. Some 1,200 others have offered support, while donations have topped 4.3 million yen, or $54,000. His blog has been translated into 12 languages.

Although Mr. Yamada, a soft-spoken cancer survivor, started with a simple goal, he has triggered a much wider debate about the role of the elderly in Japan, the meaning of volunteerism and the growing reality that the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the reactors, will face an increasingly difficult time recruiting workers. Some experts expect that Japan will ultimately import laborers to help with the cleanup. More than 3,000 workers, many of them poorly paid part-timers, are at the Daiichi site. Already, several have suffered heat stroke and nine have absorbed more than their legal limit of radiation. Dozens of workers have stopped showing up.

Mr. Yamada and his group have been described as selfless patriots surrendering for the greater good, mindless kooks willing to throw themselves in harm’s way, or pensioners with too much leisure time. The descriptions miss the point, according to Mr. Shiotani, who had a more practical idea in mind.

“Nuclear power plants are the brainchild of scientists and engineers,” he said. “They created this mess, and they have to fix it.”

In conditions this dangerous, wanting to help and being allowed to help are different things. Some lawmakers initially scoffed at the volunteers, including Goshi Hosono, an aide to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who told reporters last month that the work in Fukushima did not yet require a “suicide corps.”

“It is very precious that they sacrifice their lives and volunteer to resolve this situation,” Mr. Hosono later explained. But “they are at a certain age, so we don’t want them to get sick after working in such a dangerous environment with full face masks.”

But in a country starved for feel-good stories, the Skilled Veterans Corps has captured the hearts of many. Requests for interviews have poured in from around the world. Politicians have slowly come on board. On June 6, Mr. Yamada met Banri Kaieda, the minister of economy, trade and industry, who promised to help the volunteers before their “enthusiasm burns out.”

“I thought, what a brave idea when so many Japanese and non-Japanese are afraid to go to Fukushima,” said Hiroe Makiyama, a Parliament member in Mr. Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan who is helping promote the project. “No one intends to die there. They don’t really want to do this, but they feel they have to do this.”

Mr. Yamada got so busy working from home that he found some office space in a narrow walk-up in Tokyo’s Shimbashi neighborhood. In a spartan room with a couple of computers, a hot water pot and a few folding chairs, Mr. Yamada and his team are applying to become a nonprofit group and awaiting approval of their application to visit the Daiichi plant in July.

Mr. Yamada and Mr. Shiotani say the hardest part of their jobs may be dealing with officials at Tokyo Electric Power, or Tepco, as it is known. As engineers, they understand that their counterparts, who undoubtedly are very busy, likely will have bruised egos, given the scale of the damage and the tumbling status of the company.

But unlike high-paid consultants and vendors, the Skilled Veterans Corps has nothing to sell but ideas and hard work. As volunteers, they do not have a conflict of interest and can speak openly, they say. Still, Mr. Yamada and Mr. Shiotani recognize that they must be humble. Yoshimi Hitotsugi, a spokesman for Tepco, said that the company is “highly appreciative” of the offers of help, but that it is still deciding what the volunteers are capable of doing and how to ensure their safety.

Mr. Yamada, an avid bicyclist, said he did not expect to start working at the Daiichii plant until autumn because of the intense heat and humidity during the summer. Ever the engineer, he said that no one, not even older workers, should do anything hastily.

“We won’t take any reckless or meaningless action,” he said. “We won’t do fruitless work.”

Yasuko Kamiizumi contributed reporting.

Monday, June 27, 2011

When the issue is nukes, age does matter

Wind energy projects continue to be delayed or even scrapped because of alleged health risks associated with their operations. Turbines have been blamed for a laundry lis of ailments ranging from sleep deprevation to migraines.

Meanwhile, aging nuclear power plants continue to get their licenses extended -- apparently posing no threat to the public's health and safety. (GW)

Inadequate reaction?


By Jeff Donn

June 25, 2011

LACEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation's aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.

Time after time, officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews.

The result? Rising fears that these accommodations by the NRC are significantly undermining safety — and inching the reactors closer to an accident that could harm the public and jeopardize the future of nuclear power in the United States.

Examples abound. When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards.

Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered in the AP's yearlong investigation. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident.

Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.

Industry and government officials defend their actions, and insist that no chances are being taken. But the AP investigation found that with billions of dollars and 19 percent of America's electricity supply at stake, a cozy relationship prevails between the industry and its regulator, the NRC.

Records show a recurring pattern: Reactor parts or systems fall out of compliance with the rules. Studies are conducted by the industry and government, and all agree that existing standards are “unnecessarily conservative.”

Regulations are loosened, and the reactors are back in compliance.

The ongoing crisis at the stricken, decades-old Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility in Japan has focused attention on the safety of plants elsewhere in the world; it prompted the NRC to look at U.S. reactors, and a report is due in July.

But the factor of aging goes far beyond the issues posed by the disaster at Fukushima.

Commercial nuclear reactors in the United States were designed and licensed for 40 years. When the first ones were being built in the 1960s and 1970s, it was expected that they would be replaced with improved models long before those licenses expired.

But that never happened. The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, massive cost overruns, crushing debt and high interest rates ended new construction proposals for several decades.

Instead, 66 of the 104 operating units have been relicensed for 20 more years, mostly with scant public attention. Renewal applications are under review for 16 other reactors.

By the standards in place when they were built, these reactors are old and getting older. As of today, 82 reactors are more than 25 years old.

The AP found proof that aging reactors have been allowed to run less safely to prolong operations. As equipment has approached or violated safety limits, regulators and reactor operators have loosened or bent the rules.

Last year, the NRC weakened the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage to reactor vessels — for a second time. The standard is based on a measurement known as a reactor vessel's “reference temperature,” which predicts when it will become dangerously brittle and vulnerable to failure. Over the years, many plants have violated or come close to violating the standard.

As a result, the minimum standard was relaxed first by raising the reference temperature 50 percent, and then 78 percent above the original — even though a broken vessel could spill its radioactive contents into the environment.

Neil Wilmshurst, director of plant technology for the industry's Electric Power Research Institute, acknowledged that the industry and NRC often collaborate on research that supports rule changes. But he maintained that there's “no kind of misplaced alliance ... to get the right answer.”

Yet agency staff, plant operators and consultants paint a different picture in little-known reports, where evidence of industrywide problems is striking:

•The AP reviewed 226 preliminary notifications — alerts on emerging safety problems — issued by the NRC since 2005. Wear and tear in the form of clogged lines, cracked parts, leaky seals, rust and other deterioration contributed to at least 26 alerts over the past six years. Other notifications lack detail, but aging also was a probable factor in 113 additional alerts. That would constitute up to 62 percent in all. For example, the 39-year-old Palisades reactor in Michigan shut Jan. 22 when an electrical cable failed, a fuse blew, and a valve stuck shut, expelling steam with low levels of radioactive tritium into the air outside. And a 1-inch crack in a valve weld aborted a restart in February at the LaSalle site west of Chicago.

•One 2008 NRC report blamed 70 percent of potentially serious safety problems on “degraded conditions.” Some involve human factors, but many stem from equipment wear, including cracked nozzles, loose paint, electrical problems, or offline cooling components.

•Confronted with worn parts that need maintenance, the industry has repeatedly requested — and regulators have often allowed — inspections and repairs to be delayed for months until scheduled refueling outages. Again and again, problems worsened before they were fixed. Postponed inspections inside a steam generator at Indian Point, 25 miles north of New York City along the Hudson River., allowed tubing to burst, leading to a radioactive release in 2000. Two years later, cracking was allowed to grow so bad in nozzles on the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio, that it came within two months of a possible breach, the NRC acknowledged in a report. A hole in the vessel could release radiation into the environment, yet inspections failed to catch the same problem on the replacement vessel head until more nozzles were found to be cracked last year.

Nuclear plants are fundamentally no more immune to the incremental abuses of time than our cars or homes: Metals grow weak and rusty, concrete crumbles, paint peels, crud accumulates. Big components like 17-story-tall concrete containment buildings or 800-ton reactor vessels are all but impossible to replace. Smaller parts and systems can be swapped, but still pose risks as a result of weak maintenance and lax regulation or hard-to-predict failures. Even when things are fixed or replaced, the same parts or others nearby often fail later.

Even mundane deterioration at a reactor can carry harsh consequences.

For example, peeling paint and debris can be swept toward pumps that circulate cooling water in a reactor accident. A properly functioning containment building is needed to create air pressure that helps clear those pumps. The fact is, a containment building could fail in a severe accident. Yet the NRC has allowed operators to make safety calculations that assume containment buildings will hold.

In a 2009 letter, Mario V. Bonaca, then-chairman of the NRC's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, warned that this approach represents “a decrease in the safety margin” and makes a fuel-melting accident more likely. At Fukushima, hydrogen explosions blew apart two of six containment buildings, allowing radiation to escape from overheated fuel in storage pools.

Industry and government reports are packed with troubling evidence of unrelenting wear — and repeated regulatory compromises.

Four areas stand out:

•Brittle vessels: For years, operators have rearranged fuel rods to limit gradual radiation damage to the steel vessels protecting the core and to keep them strong enough to meet safety standards.

It hasn't worked well enough.

Even with last year's weakening of the safety margins, engineers and metal scientists say some plants may be forced to close over these concerns before their licenses run out — unless, of course, new compromises with regulations are made. But the stakes are high: A vessel damaged by radiation becomes brittle and prone to cracking in certain accidents at pressurized water reactors, potentially releasing its radioactive contents into the environment.

•Leaky valves: Operators have repeatedly violated leakage standards for valves designed to bottle up radioactive steam in the event of earthquakes and other accidents at boiling water reactors.

Many plants have found they could not adhere to the general standard allowing each of these parts — known as main steam isolation valves — to leak at a rate of no more than 11.5 cubic feet per hour. In 1999, the NRC decided to permit individual plants to seek amendments of up to 200 cubic feet per hour for all four steam valves combined.

But plants keep violating even those higher limits. For example, in 2007, Hatch Unit 2, in Baxley, Ga., reported combined leakage of 574 cubic feet per hour.

•Cracked tubing: The industry has long known of cracking in steel alloy tubing originally used in the steam generators of pressurized water reactors. Ruptures were rampant in these tubes containing radioactive coolant; in 1993 alone, there were seven. Even today, as many as 18 reactors are still running on old generators.

Problems can arise even in a newer metal alloy, according to a report of a 2008 industry-government workshop.

•Corroded piping: Nuclear operators have failed to stop an epidemic of leaks in pipes and other underground equipment in damp settings. The country's nuclear sites have suffered more than 400 accidental radioactive leaks during their history, the activist Union of Concerned Scientists reported in September.

Plant operators have been drilling monitoring wells and patching hidden or buried piping and other equipment for several years to control an escalating outbreak.

Here, too, they have failed. Between 2000 and 2009, the annual number of leaks from underground piping shot up fivefold, according to an internal industry document obtained and analyzed by the AP.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Part 2 of this series will appear Tuesday.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

“Baoding is following a path of ecological civilization”

Chinese officials really do understand that there are two shades of greens related to renewable energy. One is associated with the environment. The other with the economy. They are attempting to blend the two shades together seamlessly.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is still at the hardware store fiddling with those color fans. (GW)

China’s ‘solar city’ rushes to catch power boom

Daily Herald

June 25, 2011

BAODING, China — Solar panels jut out of streetlights in China’s self-proclaimed Clean Energy City. Tiny wind turbines twirl atop public buildings. Schools are due to teach students about “green living.”

In the scramble to profit from demand for clean energy, this city southwest of Beijing is promoting itself as a manufacturing center for solar, wind and other gear by transforming into a living showcase of environmental technology.

“Baoding is following a path of ecological civilization,” a deputy mayor, Zhou Xingshi, told a group of visiting reporters.

Baoding illustrates the intensity of Chinese government efforts to profit from rising global demand for clean energy. Communist leaders are promoting solar, wind and hydropower to curb surging demand for imported oil and gas and see technology exports as a route to cleaner growth and higher-paid jobs.

Chinese utility companies are required to install wind turbines and Beijing has promised to pay part of the cost of solar equipment — a strategy that is driving the rapid growth of Baoding and other supply centers.

China led the world in clean energy investment last year at $54.4 billion, up 39 percent from 2009, according to a March report by the Pew Charitable Trust. Worldwide, investment rose 30 percent to $243 billion.

Baoding, 90 miles (150 kilometers) from the Chinese capital in the table-flat farmland of Hebei province, started billing itself as a renewable energy center in 2002 after the success of Yingli Green Energy Co., a local startup founded in 1987 that grew into a major supplier of solar panels. City leaders officially declared Baoding a “Clean Energy City” in 2006.

Today, Baoding has two government research labs and 170 companies that produce clean power equipment. They include Zhonghang Huiteng Windpower Equipment Co., one of the biggest makers of wind turbine blades. Other fields targeted by Baoding for development include batteries and power transmission.

Baoding’s clean energy companies had 45 billion yuan ($7 billion) in revenue last year, according to the city government. It says the local industry should grow by 30 percent a year through 2016.

Local authorities work closely with companies, organizing job fairs, providing training and helping to recruit employees through local schools.

Companies also are attracted by Baoding’s “funding resources,” said Lian Shujun, deputy director of the Baoding National New and High-Tech Industrial Development Zone.

Lian gave no details but Chinese companies in favored industries can receive government support ranging from tax breaks and low-interest loans to free rent in business parks.

Such support has prompted complaints by Beijing’s trading partners that the government is improperly subsidizing Chinese companies and hampering market access. The U.S. government said this month Beijing agreed to rescind some policies that American officials said amounted to subsidies to makers of wind turbines.

China already is the world’s biggest producer of solar and wind equipment. Yingli and other Chinese solar suppliers have long competed in global markets because their equipment was too expensive for domestic use. Chinese makers of wind gear are only starting to expand abroad but some domestic producers already are among the world’s biggest due to their vast home market.

The Chinese government says it wants at least 15 percent of the country’s power to come from renewable sources by 2020. It is spending heavily on grants and other aid to propel technology development.

“The Chinese government is very supportive of the green market,” said Liansheng Miao, Yingli’s founder and chairman.

In a sign of high-level endorsement, Yingli received a 36 billion yuan ($5.5 billion) line of credit last year from state-owned China Development Bank.

Miao rejected what he said was the notion that Yingli, a private company with shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, succeeds due to government support.

“I am an entrepreneur, not a state-owned entity, so the government would not help me,” he said at a news conference. “What we compete on is our innovation and cost structure.”

Yingli’s CFO, Li Zongwei, said it has yet to receive any money from the China Development Bank and will have to submit individual projects to obtain loans. Li said such projects are conducted on “commercial terms.”

Other companies in Baoding say business is booming.

A wind turbine factory owned by China Guodian Corp., one of China’s biggest power generators, expects to sell 1,100 units this year, nearly double 2009’s level of 600, said the factory’s deputy general manager, Wang Hongbin.

Wang said all of his factory’s output of 1.5-megawatt turbines was sold in China, but Guodian also has announced plans to expand to the United States by supplying units for a power project in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“Production definitely will increase,” Wang said, standing beside rows of 130-foot-long (40-meter-long) turbine blades in wooden cradles outside the factory, awaiting delivery to power companies.

Other city government efforts to promote clean energy include installing 110 solar-powered traffic lights, according to Lian, the industrial zone official. New buildings are required to use solar-powered water heaters.

Baoding’s city government launched a joint effort with the environmental group WWF in 2008 to share information on city planning and technology and to develop environmental education programs.

“All citizens in Baoding will be taught about `green living’,” he said, “starting with elementary school students.”

Friday, June 24, 2011

Converting brownfields to renewable energy sites

On one hand, there is clearly much to be said in favor of converting contaminated and blighted lands into host sites for renewable energy generation projects. On the other, this opportunity should not be used as a back door way of continuing to shove the nation's energy infrastructure needs to poorer neighborhoods and letting wealthier communities (with ocean and mountain views) off the hook. (GW)

Brown to Green: A New Use For Blighted Industrial Sites

Few places in the U.S. are as well suited to developing renewable energy as the contaminated sites known as “brownfields.” But as communities from Philadelphia to California are discovering, government support is critical to enable solar and wind entrepreneurs to make use of these abandoned lands.

By Dave Levitan
Yale Environment 360
June 23, 2011

The Philadelphia Navy Yard sprawls over 1,200 acres on the banks of the Delaware River, a once-great shipyard now being transformed into a mix of research facilities, corporate offices, and manufacturing plants. In one remote, seven-acre corner — a nondescript plot of land with a highway bridge towering above it — the Navy Yard’s industrial past is palpable. Reeds and an occasional tree sprout among dilapidated buildings of corrugated iron. Crumbling cinder blocks are piled in a corner.

This forgotten corner of the city once served as a landfill and incinerator for the Navy Yard. Shipbuilding and other industrial activities, dating back to 1801, contaminated the site with heavy metals, among other things. Since the Navy built its last ship here in 1970, the area has sat largely unused.

But no longer: Soon these seven acres will be home to the largest solar photovoltaic installation in Philadelphia. Construction is scheduled to start this summer on the 1.3-megawatt, $5.6 million Navy Yard solar array, with a target completion date of early 2012. The facility will be capable of powering about 300 homes, and will create 50 construction jobs and 10 permanent jobs, according to developers.

The Navy Yard solar array is just one of a growing number of projects across the U.S. that fall into the small category of energy ideas that appear to have little to no downside: turning brownfields — or sites contaminatedor disturbed by previous industrial activity — into green energy facilities. Among the successfully completed brown-to-green projects are a wind farm at the former Bethlehem Steel Mill in Lackawanna, New York; a concentrating solar photovoltaic array on the tailings pile of a former molybdenum mine in Questa, New Mexico; solar panels powering the cleanup systems at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Superfund site in northern California; and the U.S. Army’s largest solar array atop a former landfill in Fort Carson, Colorado.

“It’s an untapped opportunity to not just deliver cleanup to some of these contaminated or previously contaminated sites, but to recycle our industrial legacy in making progress toward a cleaner energy future,” said Chase Huntley, a policy advisor on energy and climate change for the nonprofit Wilderness Society.

Huntley’s group is interested in preserving the country’s remaining wild lands, and every solar or wind project that rises from an industrial wasteland is one that won’t be built on a pristine ridgeline or tract of desert. Another plus is that public opposition to renewable energy projects on blighted land is highly unlikely.

Though practical considerations abound, the potential involved in taking contaminated land and putting it to use as solar or wind farms is enormous. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 490,000 brownfields exist nationwide, largely concentrated in formerly industrialized regions.

Lura Matthews, team leader for the EPA’s Re-Powering America’s Land initiative — which aims to encourage and streamline the process of turning brown into green — said that about 11,000 of those sites, covering 15 million acres, have been at least preliminarily assessed for their renewable energy potential. The EPA has estimated that the total technical potential of energy sited on brownfields (not taking into account practical or monetary considerations) is nearly 1 million megawatts. That roughly equals the total existing U.S. electricity generating capacity.

More practical estimates have also been done on smaller scales. One study by researchers at Michigan State University found that Michigan’s brownfields could eventually generate 5,855 megawatts of wind and solar power, enough to provide electricity to nearly half the state’s homes. Developing these Michigan sites would also attract $15 billion in investments and create more than 17,000 jobs, the Michigan State study found.

Converting brownfields to renewable energy sites faces no real opposition, although some developers caution that communities should make sure that a green energy project is the best long-term use of a former industrial site.

“In the short term, it makes great sense to take land that is otherwise not usable and put renewable energy on there,” said Jesse Silverstein, executive director of the Colorado Brownfields Foundation, which is working to put solar panels on a former landfill in Colorado Springs. But since solar arrays typically have a lease lasting 20 to 30 years, if the area around a proposed renewable energy site is projected to develop in other ways, then that spot may be better suited to different redevelopment options, Silverstein said.

The EPA has been working on its Re-Powering America’s Land initiative since September 2008. Matthews said there is widespread interest from communities that want to develop renewable energy projects but may not have a lot of space on which to locate them.

Generally, contaminated or disturbed sites could fall into one of two categories for renewable energy generation: either they could produce enough electricity to power the cleanup itself, or they could generate power for the grid. The extent of contamination and the site’s industrial history will determine which kind of renewable energy development would occur.

Though small sites — capped landfills, abandoned factories, mine tailings piles — make up the majority of the half-million brownfields, larger sites and those that have been given Superfund designation could also be home
One of the most attractive aspects of brownfield sites is the existence of infrastructure.
to solar and wind power installations. Gail Mosey, with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has helped conduct assessments of several such locations, including the Stringfellow site in Riverside County in Southern California. Stringfellow was a hazardous waste dumping ground until 1972, with more than 34 million gallons of liquid industrial waste ending up on the site. Mosey said that this type of site, where cleanup is ongoing, is an ideal candidate for a renewable energy project.

“They were using power from the grid to power their pump-and-treat [cleanup process], and it was an expensive proposition for the state to pay for the power that was required,” Mosey said. “And they were looking for alternatives.” Mosey’s report on the site recommended a solar facility with a 250-kilowatt capacity, capable of providing nearly all the power for the cleanup.

One of the most attractive aspects of Stringfellow and similar sites is the existence of infrastructure, with roads and transmission lines — two of the biggest obstacles when it comes to developing wind and solar in more remote and pristine areas — already in place. At Stringfellow, it will largely be a matter of mounting the solar panels and plugging them in.

Mosey said that at some sites the options for reuse could be restricted because of the cleanup of contaminants, or a need to wait for those contaminants to disperse. “But in the meantime, maybe we’re talking about 10 or 15 years where power could be generated on that site,” she said. In her analysis, the cost of the solar installation would be recouped in less than 20 years when certain government incentives are included.

At the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Williams Agate, Jr., vice president of management and development at the Philadelphia Industrial Development
‘People realize that there is not a lot else that you can put on a property that’s in this condition,’ said one expert.
Corporation, which is responsible for revitalizing the shipyard, said that the history of contamination at the solar site is not among the greatest challenges. The solar array will be built so that the cap on the landfill is not disturbed; Agate said the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection made sure the project wouldn’t compromise the state of the site.

Agate said more serious challenges involved issues such as securing financing and the necessary city permits. Another challenge is liability: When toxic contaminants are involved, will renewable energy developers be responsible for the cleanup costs at a site? Some developers may be scared off by the prospect of paying for previous damage, but the EPA can issue “comfort letters” that aim to allay those fears and provide guidance for developers to protect against liability issues.

Huntley, of the Wilderness Society, said that while the EPA’s initiative to convert brownfields into renewable energy sites is a good start, further government incentives are needed. “What you’re doing is creating a market for reusing these places that until now have not seen interest,” he said.


Green Energy’s Challenge:
The Task of Scaling Up

Green Energy’s Big Challenge: The Daunting Task of Scaling Up
To shift the global economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy will require the construction of wind, solar, nuclear, and other installations on a vast scale, David Biello writes. Can these new forms of energy approach the scale needed to meet the world’s energy demands?
Last year, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D—NJ) introduced both the Cleanfields Act and the Cleanfields Investment Act as ways to spur conversion of brownfields. The former bill would provide incentives to utilities to develop renewables on contaminated sites under a national renewable energy portfolio standard; the latter would allocate $50 million annually for developers planning to build on brownfield sites. Neither bill made it out of committee, however, and neither has been reintroduced in the current session of Congress.

In a further illustration of the idea’s widespread appeal, however, U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R—OK), an opponent of national renewable energy standards and one of the most vocal global warming skeptics in Washington, recommended expanding the legislation’s scope beyond strictly defined brownfields to virtually any type of contaminated site.

As Inhofe’s support shows, few, if any, people would argue that former industrial sites will somehow be ruined by a solar array or wind farm. “People realize,” said Agate, “that there is not a lot else that you can put on a property that’s in this kind of condition.”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Everything you wanted to know about European food security but were afraid to ask

We tend to take food for granted here in the U.S -- at our own peril. That is a foolish thing to do under any circumstance, but it is especially irresponsible in light of the threat of climate change.

EU leaders appear to understand this. They are at least talking about it. That's a start. Like climate change, they are out ahead of the U.S. on this important issue.(GW)

Europe and global food security

12 March 2009

As the world's population approaches ten billion, issues like climate change, growing scarcity of oil and availability of quality land and water are challenging the planet's capacity to produce enough food for everyone - a paradigm shift that could potentially pave the way for a new global 'food crunch'.


  • 1962: The EU Common Agricultural Policy launched.
  • June 2008: Global Food Summit in Rome adopted declaration calling on the international community to increase assistance for developing countries, in particular the least-developed countries and those that are most negatively affected by high food prices.
  • Jan. 2009: European Parliament adopted an own-initiative report calling for more European initiatives to ensure global food security.
  • 26-27 Jan. 2009: UN Food Security for All meeting in Madrid.
  • 4 March 2009: Global food security conference in Prague.
  • 17-18 March 2009: 2nd Forum for the Future of Agriculture: "The Global Financial and Economic Crisis: The challenge of financing food and environmental security," featuring a speech by 2008 Economic Nobel Prize Winner Paul Krugman on food security (see blog on the issue).
  • 16-22 March 2009: Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul.
  • March 2009: Commission to publish a White Paper on adaptation to climate change.
  • 2009: Discussions on the EU's future long-term budget after 2013 to start, giving indications as to the scope of the future CAP.
  • 12-13 Oct. 2009: How to Feed the World in 2050: High-level expert forum in Rome.
  • 13 Oct. 2009: Fondation EurActiv debate entitled 'World food security: What role for Europe?'
  • 16-18 Nov. 2009: World Summit on Food Security in Rome.
  • 15 March 2011: 4th Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Brussels.
  • By 2015: Target date for achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, including that of eradicating extreme hunger and poverty.

Policy Summary

What is food security?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), "food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life". This, it adds, involves the following conditions:

  • Adequacy of food supply and availability;
  • stability of supply, without fluctuations or shortages from season to season or from year to year;
  • accessibility to food or affordability, and;
  • quality and safety of food.

According to the FAO, around 923 million people worldwide were chronically hungry due to extreme poverty in 2007, while some two billion more intermittently lack food security as a result of varying degrees of poverty.

Towards food cartels?

Recent food price increases have lead to violent protests in Latin America, Africa and Asia, demonstrating the immediate impact the rise in basic commodity prices has had on the world's poorest populations. In spring 2008, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia agreed in principle to form a rice price-fixing body, the Organisation of Rice Exporting Countries (OREC), amid soaring costs of basic grain. Such a food cartel, to be set up by 2012, would be similar to the oil cartel OPEC.

Developing countries which are net importers of food have been hit hardest by the hike in food prices, while net food exporting countries are making large profits. However, in the long term, rising food prices could help rural communities in some developing countries to escape poverty, increasing farmers' income.

Higher agricultural prices could increase public and private investments to programmes that improve productivity and infrastructure and spread production to marginal land. This in turn might stop increasing urbanisation, as higher wages and increased labour demand would incite people to stay in rural areas.

Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was initially created to support production and overcome food shortages induced by the Second World War. But it lead to overproduction and exported food surpluses to world markets, which in turn meant that developing countries faced unfair competition.

Nowadays, while the EU has opted to reduce its direct subsidisation of production in favour of redirecting money towards rural development, recent hikes in food prices have prompted renewed debate on the way forward.

Debate on the CAP's future is just beginning, with major changes to EU agricultural policy expected to be introduced from 2013.


Current threats to global food security

Increased demand for food

Increased demand for food stems from global population growth. The world's population currently stands at six billion, but is expected to rise to about nine billion by 2020 before stabilising at ten billion around 2050.

In addition to population growth and increased demand for basic foods like wheat, demand for meat and dairy products is steadily growing, as emerging economies like China and India become richer and their populations adopt Western-style, resource-intensive eating habits. According to the World Bank, demand for food in general is expected to increase by 50% by 2050, and demand for meat by 85%.

Competition for land

Potential yield increases might not be enough to feed the world. It is expected that more acreage will be required if agriculture is to meet the population challenge. But agriculture must compete for land as urbanisation increases throughout the world - cities tend to expand to the most productive land - and more land is used for farming biofuels and timber. Climate change also poses a threat to increasing acreage for agriculture, creating the need to preserve forests to absorb greenhouse gases.

Soil quality

Since the green revolution in the early 1950s, intensive farming around the world has led to serious degradation of agricultural soil. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, up to 40% of agricultural land around the globe is seriously affected by soil degradation. This is caused by farming only one type of crop on certain land, which over a number of years exhausts all the required nutrients from the soil and reduces yields.

'Genetic erosion' in agricultural biodiversity

In some cases, replacing local varieties of domestic plants with high-yield or exotic varieties has, according to scientists, led to the collapse of important gene pools, like wild and indigenous varieties. Some researchers also believe that the general tendency towards genetic and ecological uniformity imposed by the development of modern agriculture, such GMOs, represents a challenge to the genetic diversity of agro-ecosystems, and lowers agriculture's capacity to adapt to changing climatic conditions and new varieties of pest.

Water scarcity

While agriculture accounts for some 70% of global freshwater use, unsustainable extraction from lakes, rivers and groundwater is increasingly threatening the long-term sustainability of global food production. The annual Davos meeting in 2009 warned that the world is on the verge of water bankruptcy in many places. A UN-sponsored 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment further notes that 70 of the world's major rivers, including the Colorado, Ganges, Jordan, Nile and Tigris-Euphrates, are close to their maximum extraction levels for supplying irrigation systems and reservoirs with water.

Climate change

Climate change directly affects food production by changing agro-ecological conditions. Increased seasonal variations in rainfall are expected to further affect water availability, making yield prediction more difficult. Changing weather conditions are also expected to bring new crop diseases and pests.

Furthermore, climate change is expected to introduce pronounced regional shifts in agricultural production. As sea levels are expected to rise, a considerable increase in suitable cropland at higher latitudes in most developed countries is expected - matched with a corresponding decline of potential cropland at lower latitudes, where most developing countries are located. Meanwhile, melting glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet are expected to cause serious water supply problems in Asian countries, including China.

Peak oil

Modern food production has been highly dependent on fossil fuels since the so-called 'Green Revolution' in the 1940s, when pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides derived from petrochemicals began to be used and mechanisation began to increase. While the Green Revolution increased global grain production by 250% between 1950 and 1984, the ever-decreasing supply of fossil fuels is expected to have a major effect on the modern industrial agricultural system: all the more so given that energy input into the agricultural process has also greatly increased over time.

In addition, food security can be hampered by socio-political factors, in developing countries in particular. Government intervention may reduce the incentive for producers to invest in and increase their production, and small rural farmers have difficulty accessing seed, fertiliser, machinery, credit and markets. The power of intermediaries in the agrifood chain can also hamper rural farmers' chances of receiving fair compensation for their work, while wars and ethnic unrest hamper the sustainability of overall food production.

Global food security: possible solutions

Increasing agricultural productivity

As food demand grows and increasing competition for land restricts opportunities to expand farming land, increasing yields from existing land becomes crucial. One of the main debates in this regard centres on genetically-modified (GM) crops.

As GM crops are more resistant to pests, weeds, insects and parasites, they allow for better harvests and reduce the need for pesticides. Second-generation GM technologies, which are currently under development, are about making crops more resistant to water shortages, extreme temperatures, and salinised or acidic soils. Drought and salt-tolerant crops could be of particular interest in the context of fighting climate change, water shortages and soil degradation.

Yields could also be increased, in particular in developing countries, by ensuring that farmers have access to seeds, fertilisers, machinery, technology, credit and markets. This could be done by means of greater public sector investment in agriculture and overall infrastructure, and by developed countries increasing their development assistance to developing countries.

Boosting agricultural research and development

While the world is currently fed by a small number of crops, namely rice, maize and wheat, agricultural researchers argue that it is necessary to diversify the crops cultivated, as well as to explore new varieties and then diversify the genetic resources of the new crops. More genetic variety within a species, it is argued, would allow it to adapt more easily to changing climatic conditions.

Researchers also highlight the need for more cross-sectoral research combining, for example, agronomy, urbanisation, energy supply, genetics, pathology and economics, to respond to agricultural challenges.

Opting for more 'greener' agricultural practices

Use of water in agriculture can reportedly be reduced by 50% and 30% by opting for less water, using drip or sprinkler irrigation methods instead of flood irrigation.

Other possible solutions include integrated pest management, integrated soil fertility management and minimum tillage.

The first of the latter options involves using natural predators and parasites to destroy pests, thus reducing the need for pesticides. The second requires combined use of organic and inorganic fertilisers to increase yields, while at the same time improving the quality of depleated soils.

Tillage - ploughing and turning the soil over before sowing seed - leads to the formation of a hard layer of soil in the long term, which stops plant roots and water from penetrating deep into the soil. Minimum tillage is a conservation tillage method that does not turn over the soil. Plant residues are left on the ground, and seeds are sown through this layer into undisturbed soil. While this means that herbicides need to be used to control the weeds, the method is thought to prevent erosion and help keep soils moist.

International cooperation

Other proposals include agricultural trade liberalisation, particularly because EU and US farm subsidy schemes for food production and exports restrict competition from developing countries and erode their agricultural sectors.

The creation of an emergency response system and an international agency ('International Food Agency'), overseen by a disinterested party like the World Food programme, has also been suggested as a means of coordinating collective action in future food crises.

Supporting small-scale farming, in particular in developing countries, and helping them increase agricultural productivity, is also seen as a way of not only enhancing food security, but also helping small farmers out of poverty, as they could sell over-production and reinvest gains in diversifying their production.

EU response

The Commission recognises that rises in food and commodity prices, if sustained over time, could have implications for both global and EU security, including a threat of conflict over scarce resources and increased movement of people. It is even proposing that the issue be included in an ongoing re-examination of the 2003 European Security Strategy.

The EU executive has proposed a number of EU initiatives to address rising global food prices. These include promoting an open trade policy and concluding the WTO Doha Round, which the Commission believes should lead to "significant potential gains for developing countries" in terms of new market opportunities. Progress on Doha would help generate additional export income, stimulate agricultural production and facilitate access to foodstuffs.

Until 2007, African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries enjoyed preferential access to EU markets. They could apply barriers on imports from the EU, but enjoyed almost duty- and quota-free access to the Community market. However, such practices were considered violations of WTO requirements regarding non-discimination of WTO members.

Bilateral Economic Trade Agreements (EPAs) between the EU and the ACP countries had to be concluded by the end of 2007, when WTO waivers for ACP countries' temporary preferential access to EU markets expired and trade reciprocity had to be implemented.

But by the end of 2007, just one full regional EPA had been agreed upon, whereas in other five negotiating regions, only interim agreements - mainly covering trade in goods - were signed, with a view of continuing negotiations towards full regional EPAs.

The EU executive also believes that its development cooperation programmes can help structural, long-term change in developing countries by supporting the creation of an "enabling environment for the sector". This, it argues, stands for reformed agricultural policies, institutions and land management regimes, and investment in rural development, notably in rural infrastructure and agricultural research programmes.

The Commission is also committed to its current humanitarian engagements and hopes to help increase access to food for the world's poorest people, by supporting international schemes such as the World Food Programme.


The UN Millennium Development Goals aim to achieve global food security. In its list of objectives, the first Millennium Development Goal states that the UN "is to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty" and "agricultural productivity is likely to play a key role in this if it is to be reached on time".

However, the UN has warned that the global economic crisis further "complicates and exacerbates the situation". David Nabarro, coordinator of the UN secretary-general's task force on the global food security crisis, said "price volatility and a global credit crunch are discouraging new planting and new investment, while food prices in many poor countries remain at historically high levels".

"We must learn the lessons of the financial crisis and act together with the rest of the world to meet the food challenge", said French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier, calling for a worldwide partnership on food and agriculture. This would include officials from the FAO, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, involve the establishment of a technical group like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and require "international financial mobilisation, in keeping with what is at stake to expand agriculture in developing countries".

Czech First Deputy Minister of Agriculture Ivo Hlaváč, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, argues that the development dimension must become an integral part of the common trade and agricultural policies of the EU. More emphasis on land cultivation and educating the workforces that cultivate crops is essential, according to Hlaváč.

Non-market investments and development cooperation will not have the desired effect from a long-term perspective unless education and infrastructure is developed, market barriers are removed and local markets are allowed function properly, the minister believes.

The European Parliament is calling for more European intiatives to ensure global food security. The House believes that €1 billion in EU aid earmarked for developing countries should be accompanied by fresh investment in agriculture. MEPs also want EU development aid in general to be redirected towards agriculture.

The EU assembly also argues that the EU should propose the creation of mechanisms to ensure that sufficient global food stocks are available. This could, the House argues, be done through the creation of a "worldwide stockholding obligation programme" to ensure the availability of food and provide a better basic storage system for key production inputs - such as protein, fertilisers, seeds and pesticides - in developing countries.

Several MEPs have noted that development aid should be refocused on agriculture, that farmers worldwide need decent incomes to enable them to continue producing enough, and that international trade negotiations need to produce a more balanced agreement for developing countries.

The European Landowners' Organisation (ELO) underlines that the "quality of the environment is closely related to the state of our farm land and forests". It notes that while "first-generation or pre-industrial agriculture" did not intrude on nature, the current "second-generation agriculture," involving science and technology, has increased productivity and output "at significant environmental cost".

ELO thus identifies moving to "third-generation agriculture, [...] maintaining and increasing productivity in a dramatically less environmentally intrusive way," as the main challenge in addressing the global food security challenge.

While ELO welcomes the global and EU focus on liberalising agricultural trade and ending protectionist policies in the developed world, it underlines that markets alone simply cannot deal with the pervasive environmental market failures surrounding food production. Cooperation with other stakeholders, such as NGOs, is needed, the organisation argues.

ELO laments that the farming sector is "in a situation of extreme imbalance in market power, squeezed as it is between powerful upstream input supply industries and the even more powerful downstream food processing and retailing sectors".

In order to trigger wider discussion of the food security challenge, ELO and Syngenta, a Swiss biotech company, established a new Forum for the Future of Agriculture in 2008, calling for a re-evaluation of European agricultural policy to address the double challenge of food and environmental security.

"We need a policy change. We cannot tackle tomorrow's challenges with yesterday's policy toolkit", according to Franz Fischler, chairman of both the Forum for the Future of Agriculture and the RISE Foundation, and a former EU agriculture commissioner. "We need a modern policy framework which enables our farmers to meet world food demand in an environmentally sustainable way. We must first identify the most important tools to meet these challenges, and then reassess the budgetary means required," Fischler argues

"Modern technology is essential to equip farmers to meet the challenge of growing more food on limited land in a sustainable way," said John Atkin, Syngenta's chief operating officer for crop protection products. "But some proposed regulations risk limiting the technological tools available to farmers, which could reduce their productivity. Lower productivity means more land under production, threatening forests and other natural habitats."

Syngenta CEO Mike Mack highlights the importance of science and research in finding alternative sources of energy, combating water scarcity and protecting biodiversity to ensure food security and environmental safety. "A full modern toolbox including biotechnology, crop protection and seed care is vital to provide solutions," Mack said.

"Our innovative products allow us to unlock the potential of plants, enabling us to do more with less – feed more people and produce more fuel and fibre, while using less water and decreasing the carbon footprint of agriculture," he continued.

Meanwhile green NGOs argue that GM crops do not increase yields, as "increased yield" is rather a result of reduced loss of yields. Friends of the Earth further argues that GM crops actually increase pesticide use, in particular that of herbicides. In the long term, it argues, weeds become resistant to the chemicals engineered by the crops that are designed to kill them.

Greenpeace argues that GMOs should not be released into the environment "as there is not adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health". The NGO is worried that GMOs spread throughout nature and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating non-genetically engineered environments and future generations in an "uncontrollable way". GMOs cannot be recalled once released into the environment.

The NGO also opposes all patents on plants and patents on their genes, because "life is not an industrial commodity" and the biodiversity and environmental integrity of the world's food supply is "too important to our survival".

Farmers and agri-cooperatives across Europe, represented by Copa-Cogeca, are increasingly concerned by the current crisis in agricultural markets. "Producer prices for many agricultural products have fallen substantially over recent months, while the cost of production has risen sharply," they deplore.

As global food markets have become volatile, Copa-Cogeca is calling on policymakers to urgently introduce measures to "help prevent the most extreme market fluctuations and make sure that the remaining market managing tools are used," in order to maintain sustainably-produced, high-quality food security in Europe.

Gert van Dijk, president of Cogeca, is also calling for more transparency in the food chain, and is urging the European Commission to "urgently step up its efforts and take action against the imbalances of power in the food chain".

"How can consumers be expected to pay the same amount for their food in supermarkets, while farmers are being paid less?," van Dijk asked, calling on the Commission to investigate price transmission mechanisms. He also argued that more support for cooperatives would lead to smoother running of the food chain and fairer competition, enabling farmers to obtain a larger proportion of the added value. "Whilst we do need to cooperate with other stakeholders in the food chain, no unfair commercial practices should be allowed," he summarised.

African farmers and parliamentarians, who recently toured European capitals to raise awareness of the disastrous effects of the current EU-ACP Economic Trade Agreements (EPAs) on food security in Africa, argued that if these agreements are not revisited, they will lead to the destruction of African small farmers' livelihoods, destroy the continent's fragile agro-industry and lead to increased food insecurity in African countries.

While the EPAs aim to open ACP and particularly African markets to Europe, via the principle of reciprocity, the different levels of development and competitiveness between European and African countries makes trading on an equal basis impossible, they argued. In addition, the EU's hesitation to eliminate export support to its farmers and to reduce its current level of agricultural subsidies means EPAs are still a long way away from being fair trade.

African farmers and their representatives are therefore urging the EU to respect principles of fair trade and stop dumping surplus agricultural products on Africa's smallholder farmers and producers. They are also stressing the need to address and discuss CAP-related issues (including agricultural subsidies and dumping) in the context of the EPA negotiations.

"The conditions imposed on us by EPAs are so harsh that Africa cannot export," deplored Pauline Ndoumou, a member of the National Assembly of Cameroon. "In the end, EPAs will kill Africa's agricultural production," Ndoumou added. "We need to protect African agriculture while it develops," she said.

Other African representatives agreed that African agriculture must go through a development phase before any trade liberalisation can take place, to allow the continent to compete fairly. "The current level of African trade does not allow reciprocity," they underlined. In addition, they complained that the EU ties allocation of its European Development Fund (EDF) aid to the signing of EPAs.

Via Campesina, the international peasants' movement, calls for the reorientation of agricultural policies towards small-scale production based on sustainable rural communities and local consumption models, which bring food sovereignty. This "genuine agrarian reform", it argues, uses a minimal amount of energy, creates jobs, respects cultural and biological diversity and helps fight global warming, as fertile soils capture the most CO2.

Via Campesina rejects "corporate-driven, monoculture-based production of agrofuels" and calls for an international moratorium on the production, trade and consumption of industrial agrofuels, until an "in-depth evaluation of the social and environment costs of the agrofuel boom, and of profits made by transnational companies in the processing and trade of raw materials".

The Fair Trade Movement underlines that small farmers are key to feeding the world. It argues that big global agribusiness, which drives small farmers off their land in poor countries, was instrumental in causing the current global food crisis.

The movement further argues that small farms are productive, environmentally-friendly and create jobs, unlike agribusiness, which "favours profit over sustainability and human rights".

Stephen Devereux, a research fellow at the UK Institute of Development Studies looks beyond technical factors tow political explanations to find answers to current food shortages and famines in a book entitled 'The New Famines - Why Famines Persist in an Era of Globalisation'.

If in the past, attempts to understand famines focused on the causes and consequences of food production decline, "contemporary famines are either caused deliberately or they are not prevented when they could and should have been. Many recent famines are associated with catastrophic governance failures or collapses of the social order," Devereux writes.

Even when a livelihood shock, such as drought, triggers a food shortage, it is the failure of local, national and international responses that allows subsequent food shortages to evolve into a famine, Devereux writes. "The distribution of food within a country is a political issue" and government action or inaction determine the severity of famine conditions. Priority in food security is often given to urban areas, which hosts the "most important electorate".

He also notes that many agrarian policies, especially in pricing agricultural commodities, discriminate against rural areas. "Governments often keep prices of basic grain at such artificially low levels that subsistence producers cannot accumulate enough capital to make investments to improve their production," and are effectively prevented from getting out of their precarious situation.

When a government monopolises trade, Devereux explains how farmers may find that they are free to grow cash crops for export, but under penalty of law, are only able to sell their crops to government buyers at prices far below the world market price. The government then is free to sell the crop on the world market at full price, pocketing the difference.

This creates an artificial "poverty trap", from which even the most hard-working and motivated farmers may not escape, he laments.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a World Bank initiative, notes that policy options for addressing food security include developing high-value and under-utilised crops in rain-fed areas; increasing the full range of agricultural exports and imports, including organic and fair trade products; reducing transaction costs for small-scale producers; strengthening local markets; food safety nets; promoting agro-insurance; and improving food safety and quality.

Price shocks and extreme weather events call for a global system of monitoring and intervention for the timely prediction of major food shortages and price-induced hunger, IAASTD argues.

Guy Riba, deputy director of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), underlines that challenges related to sustainable food production cannot be solved by technological research alone, with an integrated approach key to addressing them.

According to Riba, this means integrating into a single system advances made in genetics, agronomy, pathology, technology, economy and sociology, for example. "We are losing a lot of time, because some very interesting innovations are not being integrated. For example, what is the point in increasing the yield of some crops in one region if neither the farmer organisation nor the infrastructure to get the crops to market is improved?," he noted (see EurActiv interview).

Another research challenge is to improve diagnosis of diseases and pests, as well as of water, soil and air quality, because "we are currently losing a lot of time and money on identifying the problems" once, for example, a new plant disease occurs, Riba explained.

The United States' development aid agency, USAID, proposes the following to increase agricultural productivity to boost rural income and food security: increasing agricultural science and technology; securing property rights and access to finance; enhancing human capital through education and improved health, conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms; promoting governance based on democracy; and promoting principles of accountability and transparency in public institutions to protect vulnerable members of society.

International agency Oxfam highlights that "decades of underinvestment in agriculture, coupled with the increasing threat of climate change, mean that despite recent price falls, future food security is by no means guaranteed, and in fact the situation could get worse".

The agency argues that lasting solutions to the global food crisis include "adequate investment in agriculture, fairer trade, the redistribution of resources, and action on climate change".