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Newsletter 20th April 2007

- The future of farming - Climate change at the UN Security Council - Ecocide or rates? - Kilimanjaro's ice

The future of farming

This week saw Professor Bill McKevley, head of the Scottish Agricultural College, raising the issue of competition between food and non-food crops in a world with an increasing – and increasingly prosperous – population. In an article in the Scotsman and an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, he laid out the facts which are well known by some but probably not appreciated by the general public.

The following points seem to be irrefutable:

    * The world’s population is continuing to grow. From about 6.5 billion currently, we are likely to see a peak of around 9 billion by the middle of the century.
    * Many developing world countries have rapidly growing economies, and higher disposable incomes mean people eat more meat. Animals require considerably larger amounts of land to graze and/or to supply their feed.
    * Already, we rely on agriculture to supply many non-food needs: cotton, wool, starch etc. But the recent resurgence of interest in renewable feedstocks for industrial processes and, in particular to produce bio-fuels, has increased the potential for conflict between crop grown for food and other purposes.
    * The global stock of good farmland will, if anything, decrease as urban development increases and erosion and salinisation take their toll.

His conclusion also seems inescapable: agriculture must become more intensive and productive if all our needs are to be met. "Grain yields have risen fourfold over the last 50 years and we'll have to see more of the same over the next 50," he said. In his view, this means embracing all relevant technologies, including genetic modification.

Not so, said Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, also interviewed on Today. He still believes that organic agriculture can feed and fuel the world provided, of course, that we eat less meat. However, experience shows that, given a free choice and sufficient income, meat consumption goes up rather than down. Short of enforced rationing, nothing seems likely to change this. And all the evidence is that farming without the use of synthetic fertilisers just cannot supply enough food to feed the global population.

We believe that the future does indeed lie in the sensible and responsible use of all available technologies. In some cases, this will surely include genetic modification.

Climate change at the UN Security Council

Britain continues to take the lead in climate change policy, a few weeks ago with the publication of the government’s draft climate change bill – the first attempt to set statutory limits on carbon dioxide emissions – and now this week by initiating a debate in the UN Security Council. However, this initiative was not universally popular. Take, for example the headline in the Times: “Beckett feels the heat after debate on climate”.

The report went on “A chorus of protests met Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, as she chaired the UN Security Council’s first debate on climate change yesterday.

China, Russia and some leading developing nations said that Britain was overstepping the council’s remit.” Of the 15 members of the council, only Slovakia and Italy joined the UK in sending a ministerial-level representative to the meeting.

The Foreign Secretary was probably less than pleased. In order to get the debate to happen at all, it had to be tabled formally as a discussion of a British letter on energy, security and climate. It seems that, despite climate change being such a high profile topic, trying to force fit it into a body not designed to deal with such matters is just not productive.

One thing this incident highlights is the sheer difficulty of getting real international cooperation on any issue, no matter how important. In the case of the Kyoto protocol, attention has focussed on the United States and a few other countries which have chosen not to ratify it. However, an even bigger issue is the large number of willing participant countries who stand little chance of meeting their targets. Some of the recent fractious discussions between the European Commission and Member States on new targets illustrate this only too well.

Under these circumstances, it seems prudent and rational to put resources into local adaptation to changes in climate rather than engage in an unprecedented attempt to create a centralised, global system for emissions reductions. Evidence would suggest that this is doomed to failure.

Ecocide or rats?

Archaeology is not often a source of eye-catching headlines, but this week we read in the Times “Inconveniently, Rapa Nui did not commit ecocide”. This, of course, is a reference to Jared Diamond’s popular book “Collapse” which presents apparently plausible accounts of how a number of societies “chose” to condemn themselves to failure and collapse by effectively destroying their capacity to survive.

The story about Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island) is that the original Polynesian inhabitants cut down all the trees on this originally forested island and put their efforts into erecting the unique giant stone heads or moai, which to most people define the island. However, in a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science (Vol 34; pp 485-502) Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii begs to differ.

He reports evidence that the ecological devastation was caused primarily by rats rather than the humans who presumably originally imported them in their canoes. The hard nuts of the now extinct giant jubaea palm tree have been found in caves and, in every case, had been gnawed and rendered infertile. Dr Hunt suggests that this, together with the rats eating young seedlings and preying on nesting birds, could be the reason behind the loss of the society’s ability to support itself. Archaeological evidence shows that forest decline preceded human clearance of trees. In a situation where the trees could not regenerate, this was ultimately disastrous.

Nevertheless, despite the apparent impact of the rats, Dr Hunt concludes that the human population (which he believes peaked at around 4,000 by AD 1370) was still substantial until the arrival of Europeans. A combination of new diseases and slave trading then spelt the end of the indigenous population. Maybe the original inhabitants of Rapa Nui made disastrous mistakes, but is does not seem that they wilfully destroyed  the environment they depended on.

Kilimanjaro’s ice

Mount Kilimanjaro, ice-capped but almost on the Equator, is an iconic image. There have been many predictions of the loss of this ice because of global warming. However BBC online this week carries a report of work by a group of Austrian scientists who point out that it is reduced precipitation, not higher temperatures, which is to blame for the shrinking ice field.

To quote: “The mountain's ice is dependent on the pulses of moist air that sweep across from the Indian Ocean. Since the late 1800s, these have become less frequent, and the regular snows that would maintain the ice fields are now a rare occurrence in what has become a much drier climate in East Africa.” In other words, climatic change seemingly unconnected to the rising CO2 levels of the late 20th century is causing a slow but steady loss of ice over many years. The area is now around 2.5 square kilometres, only about 20% of the area a hundred years ago.

The Austrian group calculate that there will still be ice on top of the mountain until around 2040, possibly longer. However, this prediction should come with a word of warning: it is based on modelling of current trends, a technique relied upon by the IPCC.