Agriculture is widely understood to be one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which is unfortunate for two reasons: 1) greenhouse gases are a driving force of climate change, and 2) last time I checked, people still need to eat.
Courtesy Curbed SF
Specifically, farming is one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – all greenhouse gases – in our atmosphere. The four major sources of these emissions include fossil fuel consumption, fertilizer usage, animal farts and poop (no kidding!), as well as land use change (mainly, deforestation). As serious a problem as climate change is, one of the most important truths for environmentalists to remember is that people have needs that necessarily affect the health of the environment. For example, the world’s population is currently well over six billion people who need roughly 2,000 calories from food each day. That’s a lot of food that we depend upon farmers to raise and grow for us every day! And with predictions of nine billion people occupying the Earth in a mere forty years, our global population’s appetite is growing.
However, a June 2010 study published in Scientific American says that farming’s bad rap is undeserved, and actually modern high-yield crop farming has a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Say what??
Here’s how it works: What sustainability-minded scientists from many disciplines strive to do is find ways to limit (better!) or eliminate (best!!) peoples’ negative impact on the environment.
In the 1960s, farmers and researchers began to develop new methods of farming to feed the rapidly expanding population. This has been called the “Green Revolution.” The results of their studies produced modern high-yield farming, which has allowed farmers to produce more food in less space. According to the Stanford researchers, though high-yield farming is possible largely because of fertilizer use – one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms – it prevents land use change in the form of deforestation – another one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms. The key point is that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by fertilizer use is less than the greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation, which yields a net reduction. That is, if we had continued with pre-Green Revolution farming techniques, in order to feed today’s population, we’d be using less fertilizer, deforesting more land, and emitting considerably more greenhouse gases than we currently are.
Today, at the Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscapes Initiative continues to focus on seeking ways to secure a healthy land use future for both people and the environment. This includes researching innovative agricultural practices.
Another Scientific American article has it’s own ideas about how to provide food to our growing population: build vertical farms. These futuristic, skyscraping greenhouses are based upon existing hydroponic greenhouses and could reduce fossil-fuel use while simultaneously recycling city wastewater. Hydroponic greenhouses grow plants without soil! Instead, they use mineral nutrients dissolved in water, allowing plants to be grown just about anywhere… including on the 34th floor. According to the article,
“A one-square-block farm 30 stories high could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres…”
That’s a lot of food. A lot. Really? Is it possible? The paper’s author claims it is and that architects, engineers, designers, and “mainstream organizations” are taking note of his vertical farm concept.
Sperm whales are the particular focus of this study. The population of sperm whales in the Southern Ocean (the waters around Antarctica) is thought to be about 12,000. (There are more sperm whales in the world, but the study looked at Southern Ocean sperm whales.) Those 12,000 whales are thought to put about 200,000 metric tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That’s about the same amount that 40,000 passenger cars contribute each year. Destroy those polluting whales, right?
Wrong! See, it turns out that these sperm whales are also responsible for the removal of 400,000 metric tons of CO2 each year, making up for the amount they produce two times over. Their secret is this: they poop iron.
They don’t only poop iron, but sperm whales poop a lot of iron—each whale is thought to defecate about 50 metric tons of iron each year. That’s over 300 pounds a day! Obviously the whales aren’t pooping out solid iron ingots, though. It’s mixed in with their liquid feces. And that’s important.
The whales themselves don’t remove those 400,000 tons of CO2. They’re removed by phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that, like plants, use sunlight and CO2 to build their bodies. And they feed on iron.
The whales have lots of iron in their diets, because of the large amounts of fish and squid they eat. So the iron-rich whale poop is an ideal nutrient for phytoplankton. When the phytoplankton dies, the carbon they contain falls to the bottom of the ocean instead of being released back into the atmosphere. Where more carbon is trapped than is released back into the atmosphere, it’s called a “carbon sink,” and that’s what whale poop and phytoplankton create in the Southern Ocean.
Other parts of the ocean may naturally contain more iron for phytoplankton, but the Southern Ocean is poor in the nutrient, and the microorganisms rely on an iron cycle that the whales apparently play a large part in. More whales, greater carbon sink. Fewer whales, less whale poop, more atmospheric carbon.
Coincidentally, the International Whaling Commission will be meeting next week, to discuss regulations on how many whales can be harvested from the oceans each year. It’s a complicated world, isn’t it?
*I thought about making the headline “Whale poop is ‘green’” but… yuck.
Courtesy limonadaSeveral species of snakes seem to be in decline according to a study published in the journal Biology Letters. The most abrupt change took place right around 1998 and scientists are stumped as to what happened at that particular time that could have caused such a worldwide drop in snake population. Some of you may be happy to hear this news since snakes aren’t very highly regarded by most humans. But the slithery reptiles are one of the top predators of their kind, and scientists fear a diminished population would no doubt upset the ecological balance.
Seventeen populations of snake comprised of eight different species were in the study, and in most cases it didn’t seem to matter where on Earth they were located.
"Two-thirds of the monitored populations collapsed, and none have shown any sign of recovery over nearly a decade since the crash,” the researchers reported. The most affected species were opportunistic foragers - the proverbial “snakes in the grass” that wait in hiding for unsuspecting prey to pass by. The more active hunters showed less of a decline. Only one “sit and wait” forager species bucked the trend – the tiger snake (Notechis scutatus) which lives on a small island off the coast of Australia, showed little change in its population over the period of study. The researchers think the isolation of its location could be a factor.
“It surprised us when we realized what we were looking at," said team leader Chris Reading of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Great Britain. Researchers from several other countries were also involved in the study, and although they haven’t pinpointed what was going on in 1998 to trigger such a decline –it could be environmental or climate related or disease, or something completely unknown at the moment. But since it affected snake populations around the globe they suggest that it’s probably from a single cause.
A few weeks ago, I assumed that some of our readers were bored with the same ol’ climate change arguments. I know you know what I’m talking about: the Cuddly-Animals-are-Dying and the Catastrophic-Disasters-Will-End-the-Human-Race arguments come to mind first. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t some merit to these frames, but c’mon! Can’t we get a little variety?
Courtesy University of Minnesota
Lucky for you, University of Minnesota professor and Institute on the Environment fellow Stephen Polasky thinks creatively. In April, he gave a presentation on how adopting inclusive wealth could ultimately reduce climate change and its effects. And since virtually everybody likes money, I’m going to go out on a limb and bet you want to know more about the ca-ching!$
Here’s the skinny:
Economists say that just about everything has a monetary value, and how much something is worth plays largely into the decisions politicians make. Scientists like Polasky are increasingly saying that these traditional accounting methods do a poor job assessing value to natural resources, and these mistakes are leading us to make irrational choices. As an alternative, Polasky suggests adopting inclusive wealth theory.
Courtesy happyeclaire (Flickr)
Ready for the good stuff??
Economists and scientists both agree that the environment has worth, called natural capital, but they disagree on how much. In fact, not only do economists and scientists disagree with each other, but they disagree amongst themselves! To be fair, determining something’s worth can be extremely difficult. Because there are already economic markets for some natural resources like trees (i.e. lumber) and metals (i.e. gold), it’s easier to assess their value. Most ecosystem services, however, like the flood control provided by wetlands, are more difficult to put a dollar value on.
Inclusive wealth theory says that our decisions should be made on economic assessments that include true representations of the value of natural resources (difficult as that may be).
Politicians make important decisions regarding environmental policies, including actions that affect climate change. When politicians are choosing between multiple policy options, they are conducting policy analysis. One criterion that politicians pretty much always use is a cost-benefit ratio, or cost efficiency. In order to do that, politicians must determine the value of each policy option and weight the outcome against the rest. (It might sound complicated, but you do this same process informally everyday when you make decisions regarding what to eat for breakfast and whether to walk or ride your bike to school/work.)
Courtesy Ben Cody
Polasky and other like-minded individuals argue that under traditional accounting methods, politicians’ cost-benefit ratios are distorted – they are not accurately representing the true worth of the environment. Furthermore, as a result, we’re making some pretty big, bad decisions. According to Polasky, the solution is simple in theory, but difficult in practice: adopt inclusive wealth theory to more accurately measure environmental worth. If we increase the value of the environment in our analysis, the cost-benefit ratios will change and perhaps favor decisions that are more environmentally friendly. That is, under inclusive wealth, we might finally see how important it is to take climate change-reducing actions such as reducing our fossil fuel consumption, protecting forests from logging, and stopping eating so much meat… or not.
What do you think?
How much $$ is the environment worth to you? What about individual ecosystem services like pollination by bees or decomposition of waste by microbes?
Are politicians doing an accurate job of assessing the value of natural capital?
Post your comments below!
Courtesy Thomas HahmannI'm not going to get into the full parasite extravaganza here, because Wired Magazine already laid it out pretty well, but here's the general idea:
What if some worm eggs snuck into your body through something you ate (something gross)? What if one of them lodged itself in your liver, and, after a little while, started producing embryos of its own? What if it packed those embryos into giant, pulsating egg sacks that flopped out of your eye sockets and hung from your head? And what if those pulsating egg sacks looked so delicious to birds that they would flap down and eat them (and your eyes)?
It can all happen. I mean, you'd have to be a snail for it to happen to you, but still... Leucochloridium paradoxum is out there.
Courtesy Etrusko25You could be attacked from above at any second. By a shark. Because they are invisible. And you can’t see invisible things. So they can easily attack you.
I mean, you’re not going to get attacked by just any shark. But, really, if there’s an invisible shark hovering above you, about to attack, does it matter what kind of shark it is? That’s like a squirrel wondering if the car that’s about to force its digestive tract out through its lowermost orifice is a Ford or a Toyota. Let’s be practical here.
If you must know, the shark is called a “velvet bellied lantern shark.” (Coincidentally, if you replace “shark” with “head” you have my childhood nickname.)
But the important part, again, is that it can turn invisible.
It’s not quite up to Harry Potter levels, at least—the shark is only invisible from below, thanks to its velvety lantern belly. See, if you’re a weak little prey species flopping pathetically around the ocean (I assume you are), if you see a dark shadow pass overhead, you want to flop pathetically toward some cover, because dark shadows often come from things that can eat you. Like a shark! The underside of this shark, however, is covered with light-producing organs, called photophores, which shine at the same frequencies as the sunlight that filters through the water. That, of course, tricks the other little fishies (and you) into thinking that the shark isn’t there.
It’s more than a little concerning, isn’t it? Don’t worry, though. I’ve been working on a product for just this sort of problem, and I think it’s about ready. It’s an invisible-shark detecting stick. It actually looks a lot like a wooden yardstick, and you can even use it for measuring things up to one yard long, but it’s really meant for keeping you safe from invisible sharks. You use it by holding it above your head at all times. If you feel a pressure on the stick, just look up. If you see a doorway, or a broken light fixture or ceiling fan, you’re probably safe. But if you look up and see only a familiar comforting glow, you should dive for cover. Or, if you carry a firearm, you should shoot wildly into the air above you. Shark crisis averted.
They’re $30. Email me.
Courtesy bradypus courtesy of wikimedia.orgThe famous Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology recently released a new study showing bonobos (Pan paniscus), a species of chimpanzee, communicating their disapproval by shaking their heads side-to-side as if to say NO. This may seem rather simple and uneventful, but until now, there has been no observed behavior in chimps or bonobos that indicates a negative context. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos are known to use other head gestures like bowing and shaking up and down to communicate with group members, but the side-to-side NO gesture is actually considered quite sophisticated and ingrained in human culture. This simple gesture is recognizable in most, but not all cultures.
I recently finished up a semester teaching Evolution and many of my students commented on how interesting they found our ape relative the bonobo. Many had never heard of them and were surprised at how similar they were to humans in behaviors and social structures. We frequently here about how closely related we are to the chimpanzee biologically, but culturally, the bonobo's social structure is actually more human-like than that of our chimp cousin. The bonobos have extremely egalitarian and cooperative societies with a rather unusual “loving” way of diffusing social tensions (suffice to say there is a reason why bonobos are not found in most American zoos!) This new study brings us a little closer to our ape cousins and maybe we can learn a few lessons from them in these times of conflict. Unfortunately, these gentle creatures are endangered and need our help. Check out this website for more on Bonobo Conservation.
Some of you may have said to yourselves over the years, “Yeah, yeah. Climate change. Hug a tree. Save the polar bears and manatees. Whatever. I’m just SO over the sexy megafauna, appeal-to-emotion approach.” Well, have I got a story for you!
In April, the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Jonathan Patz, who holds a medical doctorate and a masters degree in public health, gave a riveting lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment on how climate change affects public health. And pretty much everybody wants to live long and prosper, so I’m guessing you care about your health just as much as I do and want to know more…
Well, basically, there is increasing scientific evidence that climate change is hazardous to your health.
The logic is that basic changes in the Earth’s physical environment affect public health. Take one example, as warmer climates trigger species migration, vector-borne diseases like malaria and Lyme disease will leave traditional zones to infest new land areas. That’s good news for some people, but bad news for others.
Courtesy Scott Bauer, USDA
Let’s break that idea down: global climate change suggests that some regions will experience warmer annual temperatures. Mosquitoes (that carry malaria) and ticks (bringers of Lyme disease) are cold-blooded, which means they don’t make their own heat and have to “steal” heat from their surroundings. Regions with warmer annual temperatures are attractive real estate for cold-blooded critters. As climate change increases annual temperatures, tick and mosquito habitat ranges will shift. Like many people, mosquitoes and ticks will move into warmer, better neighborhoods. Unfortunately for their new neighbors, the baggage of these insects causes fever, vomiting, and diarrhea (malaria) or rash, joint pain, and numbness (Lyme disease). Yikes!
Other symptoms of climate change (i.e. extreme weather and rising sea levels) have the potential to increase the severity of diseases like heat stress, respiratory diseases like asthma, cholera, malnutrition, diarrhea, toxic red tides, and mental illness (due to forced migration and overcrowding).
Not to be a downer, Patz pointed out that tackling global climate change might be the greatest public health improvement opportunity of our time in terms of number of lives saved, hospital admissions avoided, and ultimately health care cost decreases (which everyone needs!).
Is there any other good news?? Uh, besides less frostbite? No, seriously: on the bright side, warmer weather should increase the amount of physical activity of the average person (not many of us like to run in the dead of winter, you know), and, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin put it, "…an increase of two or three degrees wouldn't be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.” So, yeah, there is some good news, but the real question is: does it outweigh the bad stuff?
Throughout the ongoing debate about exactly how, to what extent, and the ethical implications, the indisputable fact remains that humankind has altered the planet. Back when the human population was only a few thousand strong and agriculture and cooked food were the latest inventions, it was easy for the Joneses to pick up and move camp when the water ran dry, the soil stopped producing tasty wheat, or the garbage piled too high in the backyard. The same can’t be said for the populations of world cities today.
Advances in public health, industry, and agriculture have blown the human population out of the brush. There will soon be 9 billion people on the face of planet Earth! Coupled with rising affluence, our ballooning population’s resource consumption and waste outputs are wrecking havoc on natural systems. New research (see several links below for more info) suggests that within a fixed amount of space, humankind is in danger of causing our own extinction and the only way out is to discard traditional ideas of industrialization and embrace sustainability.
Courtesy Go Gratitude
The first step to bailing out humankind is to investigate how close to failure the world actually is. This was the point of a recent international collaboration: to calculate safe limits for pivotal environmental processes. The key idea here is that of “tipping points,” which can be thought of as thresholds or breaking points. Think about being pestered by your brother or sister: aren’t you able to put up with the annoyance for even a little while before you get so upset you retaliate? That’s your tipping point – the last straw that put you over the edge.
Led by Stockholm Resilience Center’s Johan Rockstrom, a group of European, Australian, and American scientists – including the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment’s director, Jonathan Foley – identified nine processes reaching their tipping points. Three (climate change, nutrient cycles, and biodiversity loss) have already been pushed past their tipping points, four (ocean acidification, ozone depletion, freshwater use, and land use) are approaching their tipping points, and two (aerosol loading and chemical pollution) do not yet have identified tipping points because they require more research. The Institute on the Environment recently released a YouTube video addressing the conclusion of this new research:
Blissfully, there are things we can do to stop hurting the planet and begin patching its wounds. According to Foley’s article, we can’t let ourselves get any closer to the tipping points and piecemeal solutions won’t cut it because of the interconnectedness of the issues. Instead, we should focus on switching to low- or no-carbon fuel sources, stopping deforestation, and rethinking our approaches to agriculture.
The conclusions of this research have been well-accepted, but there has been some criticisms for 1) attempting to establish tipping points at all, and 2) for the appropriateness of the establish tipping points. If you would like more information, including commentaries, please check out the following sources:
Article in Nature: A safe operating space for humanity
Article in Scientific American: Boundaries for a Health Planet
Article in Ecology and Society: Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity
Two questions to consider as you watch the YouTube video and take a look through the links and articles referenced above are:
1) What are the consequences of being past our tipping points?
2) How do the solutions discussed prevent us from reaching tipping points?
You are encouraged to post your thoughtful answers below!