Monday, June 30, 2014

China Experiment in Permaculture Offers World Hope

China is the most populous and possibly one of the most diverse nations on the planet, with a population of over 1.3 billion people and 56 ethnic groups.

What each one of those people shares with the rest of the world, regardless of political, linguistic, economic, and existential differences, is the complete and utter dependence on the ability to find food. In China’s Loess Plateau, sustained generational farming had depleted the soil, leaving in its wake a textured landscape of dust. When winds came, the dust blew into cities, compromising air quality. In the rains, it washed down the valley, depositing more of the silt that gives the Yellow River its name. In 1995, scientists and engineers surveyed the land of the Loess Plateau in an attempt to determine what was causing the once fertile belt to be a thorn in the country’s. The results of their study led to an experiment in permaculture in China that offers hope to the world.

John D. Liu, Chinese American ecologist and documentary film-maker, documented the project in an award-winning film called Hope in a Changing Climate. In the film that Liu narrates, he reports that the first thing that the scientists discovered was a causal relationship between ecosystem destruction and human poverty. Where environmental degradation is severe, the population becomes trapped in a downward spiral. Because they needed to eat to survive, generational subsistence farming had stripped the land bare in the Loess Plateau. In search of food for themselves and their flocks, farmers and their families continued to deplete the fertility of the surrounding ecosystem, further impoverishing themselves.

When scientists developed the plan to restore the ecosystem in China’s Loess Plateau, generational farmers had to be convinced that not farming was critical for their families’ long-term survival. To get buy in from the locals who did not understand how their families would eat if they were not allowed to farm, the government subsidized them and taught them how to do the work that would restore their land from a scarce dirt pit to a thriving ecosystem.

Around the world, populations are living a scarce subsistence lifestyle similar to the one that the citizens of China’s Loess Plateau used to live. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that besides fleeing for personal safety, the basic need for food and shelter is the primary motivation for people leaving their homes and becoming displaced. If there were a stable food supply and supportive ecosystem, then the motivation for the world’s most vulnerable populations to move, would decrease. The UNHCR reports that competition for scarce resources triggers violence. If there were a way to restore resources so that people had food and a sense of power in their lives, the fuel for much of the world’s violence would be spent.

The permaculture experiment in China indeed offers hope to the world. Working with scientists, the local population terraced slopes, they planted trees, and they penned their herds so that the trees could grow without being eaten. Soon they found that their hillsides were green. Instead of letting the rains sheet off the mountains, the terraces collected the water and fed the delicate new roots systems, transforming the arid land into a booming garden. Liu reports that since he first visited the area in 1995, the people have seen a threefold increase in income and a profound sense of hope and empowerment. More


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Rains Failing Over India:

Feeble 2014 Monsoon Heightens Concerns That Climate Change is Turning A Once-Green Land into Desert

El Nino has yet to be declared. Though signs of the Pacific Ocean warming event abound, they are still in the early stages. But for all the impact on the current Indian Monsoon — the rains this vast sub-continent depends on each year for a majority of its crops — the current pre-El Nino may as well be a monster event comparable to 1998.

For the rains that have come so far have been feeble. By June 18, precipitation totals were more than 50% below the typical amount by this time of year for northern and central India and 45% below average for the country as a whole. A stunted Monsoon that many are saying is about as weak as the devastatingly feeble 2009 summer rains. And with Pacific Ocean conditions continuing to trend toward El Nino, there is concern that this year’s already diminished rains will snuff out entirely by mid-to-late summer, leaving an already drought-wracked India with even less water than before.

Through June 25th, the trend of abnormally frail monsoonal rains continued unabated:

India cloud cover on June 25, 2013 [Left Lower image] compared to India cloud cover on June 25 of 2014 [right upper image].

Note the almost complete lack of storms over India for this year compared to 2013 when almost the entire country was blanketed by rains. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

India’s Rain Pattern Has Changed

It’s not just that 2014 is a bad year for India. It’s that the current weakened monsoon comes at the tail end of a long period in which the rains have increasingly failed. Where in the past it took a strong El Nino to stall the rains, ever-increasing human atmospheric and ocean warming have pushed the threshold for Monsoonal failure ever lower. Now even the hint of El Nino is enough to set off a dry spell. A growing trend of moisture loss that is bound to have more and more severe consequences.

A new study by Stanford University bears out these observations in stark detail. For the yearly monsoon that delivers fully 80 percent of India’s rains has fallen in intensity by more than 10% since 1951. And though a 10% loss may seem relatively minor, year on year, the effects are cumulative. Overall, the prevalence of dry years increased from 1981 to 2011 by 27% and the number of years experiencing 3 or more dry spells doubled.

Meanwhile, though a general drying trend has taken hold, rain that does occur happens in more intense bursts, with more rain falling over shorter periods. These newly intensified storms are more damaging to lands and homes, resulting in both increasing destruction of property while also greatly degrading the land through more intense erosion.

25 Percent of India’s Land is Turning to Desert

Loss of annual monsoonal rains is coming along with a dwindling of water flows from the melting Himalayan glaciers. These two climate change induced drying effects are already having stark impacts.

For according to the Indian Government’s Fifth National Report on Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought, a quarter of India’s land mass is now experiencing desertification even as 32 percent is suffering significant degradation due to heightening dryness and erosion. This amounts to more than 80 million hectares of land facing desertification while more than 100 million hectares are steadily degrading. The report also noted that areas vulnerable to drought had expanded to cover 68% of the Indian subcontinent.

From the report: (India Monsoon.)

Desertification and loss of biological potential will restrict the transformation of dry lands into productive ecosystems. Climate change will further challenge the livelihood of those living in these sensitive ecosystems and may result in higher levels of resource scarcity.

Monsoonal Delay, Weakening Continues

By today, June 26, the long disrupted and weakened monsoon continues to sputter. Moisture flow remains delayed by 1-2 weeks even as the overall volume of rainfall is greatly reduced.

Though storms have exploded over some provinces, resulting in flash flooding, much of the country remained abnormally dry.

Overall, preliminary negative rainfall departures remained at greater than 40% below average for most of the nation with only five provinces receiving normal rainfall and the remaining 31 receiving either deficient or scant totals. More




Widespread impacts of neonicotinoids 'impossible to deny'

Neonicotinoid pesticides are causing significant damage to a wide range of beneficial species and are a key factor in the decline of bees, say scientists.

Researchers, who have carried out a four-year review of the literature, say the evidence of damage is now "conclusive".

The scientists say the threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.

Manufacturers say the pesticides are not harming bees or other species.

Neonicotinoids were introduced in the early 1990s as a replacement for older, more damaging chemicals.

They are a systemic insecticide, meaning that they are absorbed into every cell in a plant, making all parts poisonous to pests.

But some scientists have been concerned about their impact, almost since the moment they were introduced.

Much of the worry has surrounded their effects on bees.

There's been a well documented, global decline in these critical pollinators.

Many researchers believe that exposure to neonicotinoids has been an important destabilising factor for the species.

'Worldwide impacts'

In 2011, environmental campaigners, the IUCN, established an international scientific taskforce on systemic pesticides to look into the impacts of these chemicals.

The members have reviewed over 800 peer reviewed papers that have been published in the past 20 years.

Their assessment of the global impact says the threat posed goes far beyond bees.

In their report, to be published next month, they argue that neonicotinoids and another chemical called fipronil are poisoning the earth, the air and the water.

The pesticides accumulate in the soil and leach into water, and pose a significant problem for earthworms, freshwater snails, butterflies and birds.

The researchers say that the classic measurements used to assess the toxicity of a pesticide are not effective for these systemic varieties and conceal their true impact.

They point to one of the studies in the review carried out in the Netherlands.

It found that higher levels of neonicotinoids in water reduced the levels of aquatic invertebrates, which are the main prey for a whole range of species including wading birds, trout and salmon.

"There is so much evidence, going far beyond bees," Prof Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex told BBC News.

"They accumulate in soils, they are commonly turning up in waterways at levels that exceed the lethal dose for things that live in streams.

"It is impossible to deny that these things are having major environmental impacts."

DDT comparison

The scientists are very worried about the prophylactic use of neonicotinoids, where seeds are coated in the chemicals and the plant grows up with the ability to destroy pests already built in.

"It is a bit like taking antibiotics to avoid getting ill," said Prof Goulson, one of a team of 29 scientists involved in the research.

"The more they are used, the stronger the selective pressure you place on pest insects to become resistant to them. Using them as prophylactics is absolute madness in that sense."

The task force argues that with neonicotinoids and fipronil making up around a third of the world market in insecticides, farmers are over-relying on them in the same way as they once became over reliant on chemicals like DDT.

"We have forgotten those lessons and we're back to where we were in the 1960s," said Prof Goulson.

"We are relying almost exclusively on these insecticides, calendar spraying 20 times or more onto a single field, it's a completely bonkers way."

While neonicotinoids don't accumulate in human or animal tissue in the way that DDT once did, the modern pesticides are more lethal, about 6,000 times as toxic compared to the older spray.

Representatives of manufacturers say that there is nothing new in the task force study.

"There is very little credible evidence that these things are causing untoward damage because we would have seen them over 20 years of use," said Dr Julian Little from Bayer, one of the manufacturers of neonicotinoids.

"If you look at the tree bumblebee, it is eating the same food as the other bees, and is being exposed to the same pesticide load and weather conditions and yet it is flourishing, whereas some other bees are not.

"If it were pesticides causing the mass destruction of our fauna, surely you would see effects on all bees?"

The European Crop Protection Association said the task force was being selective in their evidence, pointing to recent studies carried out by industry showing that the declines in bee populations have been overstated.

"We respect the scientists who have produced this research, but it appears that they are part of a movement that brings together some academics and NGOs whose only objective is to restrict or ban the use of neonicotinoid technology regardless of what the evidence may show," a spokesperson said.

Europe already has a two-year moratorium in place meaning that neonicotinoids can't be used on flowering crops such as oilseed rape.

Last week, President Obama announced the creation of a pollinator health task force to look at the impact of pesticide exposure on bees and other insects.

Prof Goulson says that he isn't in favour of a ban.

"We have been using these things for 20 years and there's not a single study that shows they increase yield," he said.

"I'm not personally in favour of an outright ban but I think we should use them much more judiciously - if they don't benefit yield we should stop using them." More