Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Food Security in a Climate-Altered Future (Part 1)

“Hotspots” Suggest Food Insecurity More Than a Supply Problem

Small talk about the weather with my Malawian taxi driver became serious very quickly. “We no longer know when the rains are coming,” he said as we bumped along the road toward the Lilongwe airport last November. “It is very difficult, because we don’t know when to plant.”

These days, he is grateful for his job driving a taxi. His extended family and friends are among the 85 percent of Malawians employed in agriculture, much of which is small-holder, rain-fed subsistence farming. Weather-related farming challenges contribute to ongoing food insecurity in Malawi, where one in five children is undernourished.

His observations of the recent changes in climate match forecasts for the region: in East Africa, climate change is expected to reduce the productivity of maize – Malawi’s main subsistence crop – by more than 20 percent by 2030, according to a recent analysis by Oxfam International.

I looked out the window at dusty fields and tried to imagine what Malawi might look like in 2030. For one thing, it will be more crowded. A lot more crowded. According to UN population projections, by 2030, Malawi’s population will have grown from about 15 million today to somewhere between 26.9 and 28.4 million. With climate change dampening agricultural productivity and population growth increasing food demand, how will Malawians – many of whom don’t have enough to eat now – have enough to eat in the future?

It gets quiet in the taxi as the driver and I both ponder this question. Malawi is not alone in being a climate-vulnerable country with a rapidly growing population dependent on rain-fed agriculture. Population Action International’s Mapping Population and Climate Change tool shows us that many “hotspot” countries – scattered across Latin America, Africa, and Asia – face the triple challenge of low climate change resilience, projected decline in agricultural productivity, and rapid population growth.

Agricultural trade, government safety net programs, and foreign assistance will no doubt continue to play an important role in the quest for food security in Malawi and other “hotspot” countries in the future. And climate change adaptation projects will, hopefully, reshape agricultural practices and technologies in ways that can boost yields and enable crops to better withstand temperature and precipitation fluctuations.

These interventions will be critical in addressing the supply side of future food security challenges. But what about growing demand?

Malthus Revisited?

Juxtaposing population growth with food production does, of course, bring us back to Thomas Robert Malthus’ original (and by now somewhat infamous) dire warning: that population growth would eventually outrun food supply. But seeing the scale of the challenges in Malawi firsthand, I must admit that my inner Malthus sat up and took notice.

It is true that technological advances have enabled astounding growth in agricultural yields that have enabled us to feed the world in ways the doom-filled Malthus could never have imagined in the early 19th century. But it is also true that the agricultural productivity gains that helped us keep pace with population growth for so long are beginning to slow: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aggregate agricultural yields averaged 2.0 percent growth annually between 1970 and 1990, but that growth in yields declined to 1.1 percent between 1990 and 2007, and is projected to decline to less than 1.0 percent in the years to come. More


Monday, March 19, 2012

Water and Food Facts for World Water Day

March 22 is World Water Day, and its theme this year—water and food security—couldn’t be more pressing. But what do we really know about water—where it goes, what it’s used for, and how to preserve it? Here are a few water facts to get people thinking about what the “food and water crisis” really means, and how we can begin to change things.


India, China and the United States together account for about one-third of the water extracted each year globally.

Over 90 percent of the water consumed globally by humans is used for agriculture.

Irrigation and Groundwater

Only 16 percent of world’s cropland is irrigated. But because irrigated land is more than twice as productive, that land accounts for 36 percent of the food we harvest.

To meet the constant demand for irrigation, countries are increasingly using more and more non-renewable groundwater. According to the United Nations, groundwater extraction has tripled in the last half century. India and China’s use of groundwater grew the most – today these countries use ten times as much groundwater as they did in 1950.

The amount of groundwater the world uses is so huge, it’s contributing to rising sea levels – as much as 25 percent of the observed amount in recent years. That means that an enormous amounts of water drawn from underground aquifers is never replaced. Or as Duke University’s Bill Chameides puts it, “Mankind is moving buckets and buckets of water from land to the ocean.”

The amount of groundwater the world uses is so huge that it’s also changing local climates, and it may bemasking the effects of global warming, according to research published in Climate Dynamics. This masking effect is most striking over North America, India, the Middle East and East Asia.

Pumping groundwater consumes enormous amounts of energy. In India, approximately one-fifth of the nation’s total electricity consumption goes toward pumping groundwater for irrigation. In the most important food producing areas, that number is much higher.

Virtual Water

Almost everything we do—from growing food, to making clothes and computers and automobiles, to generating electricity requires water. “Virtual water” refers to the amount of water it takes to produce and transport a commodity. Check your own water footprint here.

Many water-stressed nations are today virtual water exporters. India is the largest net exporter of virtual water.

Climate Change and the Future

According to the OECD, by 2030 almost half of the world’s population will be living under severe water stress.

Globally, heat waves and extreme drought could increase under climate change. The impact will be worse in some areas. According to research by Lamont-Doherty scientists at the Earth Institute, by mid-century dustbowl conditions seen in the 1930s will become the new norm for the southwestern United States.

Water stress threatens the grid. Conventional powerplants – hydroelectric, coal-fired, gas fired and nuclear—require tremendous volumes of water to run, accounting for 50 percent of water withdrawals in the United States. According to a study for the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, the convergence of population growth, rising demand and drought could cause huge water shortages and force powerplant shutdowns.

What You Can Do

Think about diet. The amount of water it takes to produce different kinds of food various tremendously. The water footprint of beef is particularly egregious, consuming anywhere from 2500 to 5000 gallons of water per pound. Consider cutting back, or switching to grass-fed beef, which has a significantly lower water footprint. More




Thursday, March 8, 2012

Permaculture Resiliency Project with the San Bushmen in the Kalahari

In a land of contrast, mystery and years of imperialism, a small village of over 300 people on the edge of the Kalahari in Namibia germinated a new permaculture resiliency project in January of 2012. In talking with the headman of the village, he shared that their people, the San Bushmen, have lived in harmony with the land as hunter gatherers for eons. They are often cited as the first peoples of Africa and very likely all of humanity may have descended from their ranks many millennia ago.

The village elder sadly shared that colonialism has destroyed the San migratory way of life — a hunter gatherer tradition that was sustainable for thousands of years. He told us that they were no longer allowed to roam freely and trophy hunters destroyed the vast herds of game that formed their principal supply of food. Both Black and White farmers alike built up huge herds of cattle that destroyed the ecology of the Kalahari and subsequently the foods that had been their staple diet. They soon found they had to work for the farmers to be able to feed their families and hence a cycle of poverty and separation from their cultural roots ensued.

Although rarely recognized in the histories of the west, a similar unfolding of separation from our ancestral sustainable way of living has been a part of all our stories at some point in our history. Somewhere deep in our bones we can truly empathize with the plight of these people. The village of Vergenoeg came to be out of the displacement of the San and that of the Damara peoples who eventually had to settle to survive. You can see and feel the the years of gathered grief that are evident in the very fabric of the village in both prominent and subtle ways. Yet, there are vast cultural roots that keep the people cohesive in their plight for a sustainable future.

Seven years ago an inspired Canadian named Kimberly Cornish visited the village, fell in love with the land and the people, and felt that she could eventually facilitate some positive and lasting projects to help the people remember their gifts and build their capacity and resilience — and that of the land. Ever since then she has been building her skill set and experiences to prepare her for this vision that has led up to this project. More