Software developer, cyclist, photographer, hiker, reader.I work for the Library of Congress but all opinions are my own.Email: chris@improbable.org
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A roadmap to agriculture that’s sustainable and climate-neutral

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Image of young corn plants.

Enlarge (credit: Julie Doll, MSU/NSF KBS LTER Site)

The climate crises humanity is producing due to our profligate burning of fossil fuels is happening in the face of mounting evidence that said burning was very, very bad for the Earth. Some of the problems are now officially going to come even sooner than anticipated. If we want to have a hope of even mitigating these problems, we must change our habits, preferably yesterday.

While burning fossil fuels is a huge part of the problem, food production is also a primary driver of climate change. It is responsible for about 25 to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond that it also depletes groundwater, converts carbon-sequestering forest and jungle into cropland, and dumps excess nitrogen and phosphorous into soil, water, and air. Under business-as-usual scenarios, these effects will probably at least double by 2050 since the global population is slated to increase by about a third, and the income of the global population is also slated to increase—all of those new and newly rich(er) people are likely going to want to eat and eat well.

At that point, the environmental effects of food production will be “beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity.”

There is no quick fix. It will take a combination of different measures to rein in these effects. So says a recent report and analysis in Nature. But these measures are exceedingly ambitious, and, even if they could be pulled off, it looks like we will still be using too much groundwater (into which we will be pouring nitrogen and phosphorous).

Changes

The researchers looked at a few options for changes we could make, assessing their effects on each of the environmental parameters listed above: greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land use, nitrogen application, and phosphorous application. These included dietary changes, reductions in food waste, and improvements in technology. Each of these changes were examined in degrees—for example, they examined reducing meat consumption to three servings per week, as well as one serving per week. (This is relevant because animals account for about 75 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to agriculture.) They also examined the relative effects of reducing food waste by half and three-quarters (it is estimated that a third—a third!—of all food produced is currently lost or wasted).

The hypothetical improvements in technology, they assessed, would close the gaps between attainable and attained yields by either 75 or 90 percent. These improvements make the most of every acre and enhance fertilization and irrigation efficiency to maximize the use of nitrogen, phosphorous, and water. They only looked at technological fixes “that are considered realistic or attainable, or have been set as goals.” So no soil carbon sequestration, expanded use of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, or additional GMO technology.

They found that we could cut greenhouse gas emissions to amounts that would keep us out of the planetary boundary range if everyone ate not only less meat, but less, period: “lower consumption of meat, staple crops and sugar, and a generally lower energy intake in line with healthy body weights.” We also need to reduce food waste by at least half. These measures coupled with moderate technological innovations could keep us within the mean boundary ranges of water use and cropland use.

But staying below the maximum value of the boundary range for nitrogen and phosphorous application would require not only eating less but also reducing food waste by three-quarters, “ambitious technological improvements,” and “a more optimistic socioeconomic development pathway that includes lower population and higher income growth than is expected at present.”

Caveats

Of course, not only does food production affect the environment; the environment also affects food production. This analysis did not consider how climate change is and will impact things like crop yields and freshwater availability. It also acknowledged, but did not account for, the political and economic reality that investing in efforts to curb climate change caused by factors other than agriculture could limit the resources available to implement the changes outlined here.

Another caveat is that realizing these changes will require investments in public infrastructure and the establishment and enforcement of regulations, and these measures can be almost as difficult to effect as eating less meat. The report suggests that one way to alleviate the effects of a growing population is to make sure that women have information about, and access to, contraception.

Eating à la Michael Pollan—food, not too much, mostly plants—is not only better for your body, it is better for the planet. Who knows, maybe he’s right about LSD, too.

Nature, 2018. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0594-0 (About DOIs).

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Barley shortages from climate change could mean less beer worldwide

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Barley grain used in the production of beer at the Asahi Kanagawa Brewery in Japan.

Enlarge / Barley grain used in the production of beer at the Asahi Kanagawa Brewery in Japan. (credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

There's nothing quite like putting your feet up after a long, hot summer day and enjoying a refreshing cold brew if you're a beer lover. But a warming climate could give rise to global barley shortages, with a resulting shortage of beer. That's the conclusion of a new study just published in Nature Plants.

Beer brewers account for roughly 17 percent of the barley consumption worldwide, although it varies from region to region, with the vast majority of crops harvested as feed for livestock. If barley becomes too scarce, more of it will be funneled to livestock, since beer is technically a luxury good. The shortage of barley will give rise to steep price hikes and corresponding decreases in global consumption. While the most affluent beer lovers will still be able to indulge in a pint or two, "Future climate and pricing conditions could put beer out of reach for hundreds of millions of people around the world," says study co-author Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine.

Davis himself is a beer aficionado and home brewer, who frequently travels to China for research collaborations. During one such trip a couple of years ago, he spoke with a scientist at the Chinese Agricultural Academy of Sciences, who was studying the global supply of beer. (China is currently the largest consumer of beer and thus would be hit hard by a severe barley shortage.) They decided to collaborate on a study investigating the impact of climate change on beer, partnering with other researchers in the United Kingdom and Mexico.

Mad for mash

Brewers start the process by exposing grain to moisture so that it germinates, converting the starches into sugars. When the sugar levels are just right, they roast the grains, resulting in a malt for kicking off the fermentation into beer. In principle, any grain can be malted: wheat, rye, corn, and rice. But for beer, barley is the undisputed king because it germinates quickly and has a rich flavor when roasted. While brewers occasionally experiment with adding rice or wheat to their brews, "That's usually frowned upon as padding," says Davis. "The purists want you to use barley." Even wheat beers are still mostly barley.

Barley farmers in Montana are already feeling the impact of a warmer climate, although they are more likely to talk publicly about "erratic weather" or "drier, hotter summers" in that Republican stronghold rather than the politically charged "climate change." They are struggling to grow barley crops in more frequently occurring conditions of severe drought and extreme heat. Hot, dry weather compromises grain quality, making it more likely the barley will be sold as feed, at one-third the asking price of barley sold for beer. And climate scientists predict it will only get worse for the region, with statewide temperatures rising 4° to 5° Fahrenheit by 2055.

Barley is a fairly temperate crop, predominantly grown in cooler regions like the Northern Great Plains, North Central Europe, Australia, and the Asian steppe. So it's likely that barley farmers can adapt to gradual changes in the climate—at least that's the "somewhat heroic assumption" Davis et al. made in their study. Farmers could selectively breed their crops, or tweak them genetically, to develop more drought-resistant barley, for instance. They could also change their farming practices to increase yields in warmer conditions.

That's why the researchers focused on the most extreme years for their study, with shifts so severe that it's unlikely farmers would be able to adapt fast enough. According to Davis, under the most-favorable scenario they modeled, where the world avoids two degrees of warming (an increasingly unlikely scenario), roughly ten percent of those years will be extreme by the end of the 21st century. Under the worst-case scenario, it will be roughly every other year. Extreme heat and drought would "pretty much become the norm," he says.

To the extreme

The researchers took those extreme climate events and modeled their impact on barley yields in 23 world regions. Then they studied the effect of the resulting barley shortages on the supply and price of beer in each region, under several different scenarios. They concluded that the largest barley growing regions would experience declines in crop yields of 3 to 17 percent, depending on the severity of the conditions. Beer prices would double on average, and consumption would decrease by between 4 percent and 16 percent in the best and worst case scenarios, respectively.

Naturally, there would be regional variations. Price swings are tied to the ability and willingness of consumers to pay more for beer, or, alternatively, to drink less of it, thereby decreasing consumption, per Davis. Beer is already expensive in Australia and Japan, for instance, so beer drinkers there wouldn't feel the brunt of the sticker shock quite so much as other regions, like Belgium, Germany, or the Czech Republic. In Ireland, Davis estimates that people could pay an extra $20 per six pack.

It's difficult to say whether barley shortages will affect craft brewers or big commercial brewers like Coors more, according to Davis. One could argue that fans of craft beers already are sufficiently affluent to afford more expensive beers, and thus might be more willing to pay even higher prices during a shortage. Coors' customers might be less willing. Then again, Coors has the market dominance to be able to get good barley even in shortage years, with large enough profit margins to ride out the lean times.

A shortage of beer might not strike you as the most pressing life-or-death impact of global climate change, given the rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes, and worsening wildfires that have been making headlines of late. But most people rarely stop to consider all the little ways a warmer climate will impact their day-to-day lives.

"In an affluent country like the United States, people might not be so concerned if their bread gets 10 to 25 cents more expensive," says Davis. "It could be that luxury goods are actually more visible, in terms of the impact of climate change on affluent consumers. There is definitely a cross-cultural appeal to beer, and not having a cool pint at the end of an increasingly common hot day just adds insult to injury."

DOI: Nature Plants, 2018. 10.1038/s41477-018-0263-1  (About DOIs).

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acdha
3 hours ago
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Maybe this will get more Americans to take it seriously
Washington, DC

The fattest bear

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I enjoyed the Washington Post account of the “annual fattest bear contest” in Katmai National Park: “America’s fattest bear has now been crowned”.

The science nugget that drives the outreach here is that grizzlies in Alaska lose a third of their body mass over their hibernation in the winter. They have to put on fat during the summer and early fall to survive, and the result is one of the largest cycles of annual weight gain and loss. The outcome is impressive (with photos at the article).

They were probably too busy on the small Brooks River, an upstream bottleneck for hundreds of thousands of the 62 million salmon that passed through Alaska’s Bristol Bay this year, LaValle said. There, the bears easily snatch the fish, then promptly massacre them for the fattiest parts — the skin, fat and brain — before nonchalantly discarding the flesh for which we humans might pay upward of $30 a pound.
LaValle compares this surgical approach to not filling up on bread at a restaurant — the fat is the good stuff, and there’s plenty more where it came from.

Lots to think about for students who are learning about optimal foraging.

The fattest bear was originally published by John Hawks at john hawks weblog on October 12, 2018.

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jad
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I would vote for a “radical socialist kick boxing lesbian” in a flash

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Have you noticed how Republican insults are becoming a genuine mark of pride? Sharice Davids is running for Congress, and is getting some heat from local Republicans in Kansas.

Davids is a unique candidate for the 3rd Congressional District seat up for grabs this November. If elected, the Ho Chunk Nation member would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress in U.S. history and would also be the first gay Kansan to represent the state in Washington. She’s also a former MMA fighter and currently works as a lawyer, having obtained her law degree from Cornell. This election cycle, she may be at the top of a historic group of emboldened Native candidates, who happen to overwhelmingly be women.

She sounds awesome. Her existence prompted Michael Kalny, a two-bit racist precinct committeeman, to write to the head of the county Democratic Women chapter with this little rant.

Little Ms. Pritchett- you and your comrades stealth attack on Yoder is going to blow up in your leftist face. The REAL REPUBLICANS will remember what the scum DEMONRATS tried to do to Kavanaugh in November. Your radical socialist kick boxing lesbian will be sent back packing to the reservation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

To quote Terry Pratchett, “And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head.” I’m not sure what he’d make of someone who used fifty exclamation marks.

Never forget. This is what Republicans are all about: racism, homophobia, misogyny, and oppression. That little pissant might get what he wants, now that the Supreme Court supports voter suppression laws that discriminate particularly severely against Indians, unless we all turn out the vote and kick these assholes back into the dead past.

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mareino
9 hours ago
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Washington, District of Columbia
diannemharris
22 hours ago
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angelchrys
16 hours ago
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I'm in her district and I can't wait to cast my vote for her.
Overland Park, KS

Little Rock’s dangerous and illegal drug war - The Washington Post

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satadru
20 hours ago
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New York, NY
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acdha
18 hours ago
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“Welch says she eventually moved away from Little Rock because she felt unsafe — not because of the crime, but because of the police”
Washington, DC

Oysters On The Half Shell Are Actually Saving New York's Eroding Harbor

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Oysters On The Half Shell Are Actually Saving New York's Eroding Harbor:

But the biggest draw for many coastal states such as New York, especially in an era of rising sea temperatures and eviscerating hurricanes, is that oysters can provide natural breakwaters. Oyster reefs can protect against a hurricane’s wave velocity, which can destroy a city’s infrastructure. The New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery has partnered with Billion Oyster Project to install oysters on its $74 million Living Breakwaters Project, which aims to reduce and reverse erosion and damage from storm waves, improve the ecosystem health of Raritan Bay and encourage environmentally conscious stewardship of nearshore waters.

Billion Oyster Project Executive Director Pete Malinowski says none of this work would be possible without the restaurant shell-collection program. “It’s critical. We need oyster shells to do our work, and the only place to get them is from restaurants,” Malinowski says. Luckily, restaurants are more than happy to oblige; Billion Oyster Project has collected more than 1 million pounds of oyster shells, well on the way to its goal of creating 1 billion live oysters — hence its name — across 100 acres of reefs by 2035.

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paulkruchoski
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