Researchers are starting to point out that farmers could actually directly contribute to the fight against climate change with better practices.
As irrefutable evidence that the globe is getting hotter mounts, eyes are starting to turn to the global agricultural system, especially with Earth’s human population at seven billion and counting. Climate change will have long-lasting and irrevocable effects on agriculture with serious potential implications, particularly in the global south, which is already starting to be hit hard by changing conditions. The planet is getting too hot, too fast, and normal adaptation can’t move at that speed.
Agriculture has always been a highly risky business, although many people in the west may not think of it that way. When food comes readily packaged at prices that remain steady in the grocery store, without a meaningful connection between consumer and farmer, people don’t often stop to consider the conditions, and factors, that go into food production. This has been illustrated by the general lack of interest in farm labour and the abuses that take place in the agriculture industry, and in the lack of understanding about how fragile farming can be, and how susceptible it is to climate change.
Farmers are utterly dependent on the weather for their crop. If it’s too cold, too hot, too wet, or too dry, they can experience radical declines in yield and quality, or lose a crop altogether. Seasonal changes that occur too early can also be a culprit in destruction; an early frost, for example, can destroy a harvest, while floods may wash away crops. In addition to affecting crops directly, changes in weather patterns can also create ideal conditions for pests, creating a secondary problem that needs to be addressed. An increase in weeds is projected to be one of the major problems associated with climate change, for instance.
Climate and weather projections have thus always been of acute interest to farmers, who rely on accurate forecasting and models to make decisions about what to plant, when, and where. With the climate changing, shifts in temperatures and weather patterns are already disrupting farming practices worldwide, especially when paired with loss of arable land due to a variety of factors. Farmers are being forced to give up their land, flooding and drought conditions are destroying usable land, development is eating farmland, and land is being rendered useless by shifts like desertification, which is a consequence of poor land management.
Many conventional western agricultural practices contribute to these issues; there is a premium in the west on high yields at the cost of long-term soil health and general environmental well-being. Researchers at agencies like the Environmental Protective Agency are starting to point out that farmers could actually directly contribute to the fight against climate change with better practices, like managing crops and soil to sequester carbon, using renewable fuels, and taking other measures to increase efficiency.
Notably, these tactics mark a return to more traditional farming techniques in many regions of the world, and in some cases represent traditional uses of farmland that were preferred by indigenous populations before the imposition of western agriculture. Just as the west swept into the Global South to dictate farming practices in what became known as the ‘green revolution,’ effectively telling people to stop using traditional farming methods that actually preserved the integrity of the soil and traditional ways of eating, the west is now slinking back to tell people to return to what they were doing, presenting their original practices as novel inventions rather than admitting that it was wrong. A classic example of colonialism followed by appropriation.
For farmers, adapting to climate change is going to require more than crop rotation, the use of cover crops instead of continuous production farming, renewable energy, and the occasional chicken tractor. It’s also going to necessitate a fundamental shift in what is farmed and where as the climate forces changes in temperatures and weather patterns, because most crops grow in a very narrow range of acceptable conditions.
Corn, for example, is a very water-intensive crop that requires warm temperatures, but not too warm. That makes it less than ideal for many regions affected by climate change, because it’s sensitive to disruptions in water supply such as the massive drought that devastated the US Midwest in 2012, and it doesn’t like increases in average annual temperature. With corn growing in a narrower range, this heavily-subsidised crop will become more expensive, and competition may arise between corn for fuel, food, and animal feed purposes as farmers struggle to meet a demand that will only grow with time.
Tragically, this didn’t have to be the case. Corn is perhaps one of the single greatest illustrations of the problems with modern western agriculture, reflecting a confluence of circumstances that’s led to a resource dilemma. This crop was once incredibly diverse, with hundreds of cultivars in question across Latin America in communities that relied on maize as a primary component of their diet.
However, this diversity wasn’t ideally suited to western agriculture, which prefers monocropping, the production of high volumes of a single cultivar of a specific crop. High production also means the generation of numerous uses for crops; corn is in a vast number of products in the US, some of which (corn syrup, for example) have been developed specifically to come up with uses for the overrun of corn produced.
Monocropping allows farmers to use standardized equipment and standardized seed and supplies, but it also creates extreme vulnerabilities. Even as corn has been developed into a few very specific strains for particular purposes, each strain becomes more vulnerable to infectious organisms, pests, and other problems.
If, for example, a fungus that attacks a given corn cultivar develops, it can spread like wildfire across a farming region, utterly destroying the corn crop for that year and putting immense pressure on the food system. Were farmers growing a diverse array of corn cultivars, the fungus would be limited to a small proportion of the crop: a problem for those affected, but not something that would bring the industry to its knees.
A similar situation has occurred with the Cavendish banana, which has become the cultivar of preference throughout the industry. (If you have bananas sitting on top of the fridge to ripen, chances are high that they’re Cavendishes.) A fungus that causes a condition called Panama disease has slowly spread worldwide, threatening the global banana supply; it makes for funny headlines (‘Yes, we have no bananas’) but illustrates how vulnerable the global food system has become with a preference for monocropping.
Thousands of heritage cultivars of crops like tomatoes, apples, potatoes, maize, and more have been utterly lost to time, and in addition to being a source of sorrow to committed foodies, this is also a serious problem for agriculture, especially with climate change looming overhead. More cultivars mean more chances to develop crops that can withstand greater ranges of temperatures and more adverse conditions, and a chance to combine genes in creative and effective ways to keep crops healthy and diverse. The loss of these cultivars is a net loss to the gene pool and society in general, and should be viewed as a cause of grave concern.
Yet, many people are blissfully unaware of the threats facing the biological diversity of the crops they buy without thinking about it at the store. When they see a limited range of potatoes, onions, and apples on display, they don’t consider the implications of this, and the risks created when we rely on limited genetic sources for the bulk of our food supply.
And when these foods are produced primarily in conditions that are not environmentally friendly. Western agriculture relies heavily on practices like the use of pesticides and herbicides, which in addition to acting as pollutants and causing problems with herbicide resistance in the future can also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. It relies heavily on equipment from tractors to long-haul trucks that runs on non-renewable fuels and emits pollution, and it relies on soil use practices that are truly appalling, from the perspective of those concerned about the overall health of the globe.
Traditional farming practices naturally condition the soil, sequester carbon, and prevent problems like erosion, water waste, and pollution. When soil becomes stripped of its nutrients and the microorganisms that normally inhabit it, it becomes a wasteland, not suitable for crops (requiring more fertilizers, which can in turn run off and cause nutrient pollution). And the thin, grainy soil holds water like a sieve. More water than before is needed for farming, which contributes to water loss, while crops struggle to survive in the harsh soil, which erodes quickly in any rainy weather. This is a recipe for disaster, as it can take decades to rebuild the soil, yet the agricultural community has been slow to act on bringing some of its worst abuses in check.
Changing lifestyles are also creating added pressures. More people are demanding meat as part of their diets, precisely at the moment that animals are being adversely affected by climate change. Raising livestock tends to be more intensive than raising crops, because they need fodder, and they’re also extremely sensitive to heat waves and water shortages; in Texas, for example, cattle and horses died in the hundreds during the drought that gripped the United States in 2012, because farmers couldn’t afford to feed them and they couldn’t cope with the high temperatures.
Fisheries aren’t exempt from this problem either; as the oceans warm and acidify in response to climate change, it’s going to drastically affect the supply of food from the sea. Some species may die out altogether while others may migrate and be subject to more diseases. Already, many species are starting to move to colder northern waters to cope with changing ocean temperatures.
As the west exports a very specific lifestyle worldwide, pushing people to adopt the increased consumption of animal products as a status symbol, it creates even more pressure to produce these intensive products rather than relying on crops. This, too, is a combination that could lead to trouble, as many nations in the global south are devoting their energy to producing meat for export along with fad crops that fetch high prices on the western market, and are having difficulty feeding themselves.
Look at the case of quinoa, for instance, a crop which has been traditionally consumed in Bolivia for centuries. As quinoa consumption has risen worldwide, the nation has been forced to export more and more of its crop, while at the same time limiting production space to make room for pasturing livestock, particularly cattle, in order to meet the demand for meet. Within Bolivia, the cost of quinoa is rising to the point that many people cannot afford it, highlighting another problem the world can expect to face with climate change: increasing food inequality.
The west is determined to adapt, and it has the money, technology, and space to maintain a steady supply of food; while food insecurity is a problem for numerous people in the west, the issue is not agricultural but political. The food is there, it’s simply not reaching the people who are hungry. This is not the case in many regions of the Global South, where food resources are flowing to the west as people starve. Subsistence farming is much less sustainable in these regions than it once was, and in regions like Mexico, many people are abandoning it altogether to seek their luck elsewhere.
Economically, the Global South is not prepared to cope with the agricultural effects of climate change, a problem primarily created by the west. As usual, people in these nations will bear the brunt of western arrogance while the west saves itself.
With outsourcing, it’s a race to the bottom when it comes to working conditions, wages, and workplace protections
Last weekend, 125 garment workers died in Bangladesh in a horrific factory fire that tore through the Tazreen Fashion factory. Accounts of the conditions at the factory, and in the fire, should conjure up a certain amount of deja vu for anyone familiar with the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which occurred over 100 years ago; the fire started in late evening, and moved quickly through a building with inadequate safety controls. Workers struggled to leave, finding locked doors and no emergency exits, which left them trapped inside the factory to burn to death. Meanwhile, fire crews struggled to get to the site, with limited access making it difficult to respond promptly.
We’re used to sporting comebacks; we love the tenacity and the heroism of them but where do world famous film directors retreat to when they have to lick their wounds?
Faster, higher stronger! The Olympics continue to deliver the most extraordinary tales of endeavour, victory and defeat against the backdrop of a resurgent London. Athletes and pundits litter their media bites with all the standards: dedication, hard work, sacrifice, agony, heartache, despair, elation and desire. We’re used to sporting comebacks; we love the tenacity and the heroism of them but where do world famous film directors retreat to when they have to lick their wounds?
With its nuanced depictions of politics, spirituality, diversity and solidarity, its rich characterisations and inspiration from ‘Eastern’, Avatar: TLAB presents a vision for an alternative I didn’t know I was looking for.
The first season of Legend of Korra, the follow-up to the ground-breaking animated show Avatar: the Last Airbender (2005-2008), ended just last month. Episodes were aired on TV in the U.S. and webcast on the Nickelodeon website for U.S. viewers, but you could also not be one and still get to keep up if you had a reasonably fast internet connection.
If we’re going to talk about the power of girls, well, they have their own ideas about the ways in which they are powerful and how they want to direct their potential.
8 March! Don’t we love 8 March? It is that wonderful day during the course of which we internationally celebrate women! Women are pretty great. I know because I am one of them. Women are, however, not the only members of their gender. There are these other people called girls who are also pretty great. I know because I was one of them once, too. Girls are people who are wonderful and vulnerable in their own particular ways. This is why I am right on board for the theme for this, the 101st International Women’s Day, which is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures”.
After decades of military rule and censorship, the Burmese government is really desperate to show itself in a positive light. They’re so desperate that, ironically, the international community remains very cautious.
Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is in a whole jar of pickles right about now. The brand new civilian government is trying to set up a semblance of democratic reform, but human rights conditions in particular remain very repressive. Bad economic management and worse social injustice have been the case for decades, of course. So why is it coming to a head right now?
What marks out director Yuya Ishii’s bitter sweet comedy Sawako Decides is its celebration of mediocrity. In a population of over 127 million someone is bound to be average.
Small town girl Sawako is constipated both literally and metaphorically. Her dream life in Tokyo has ground to a halt. Her get up and go has got up and gone. She’s on her 5th job and her 5th boyfriend. She cleans up after toy-testing toddlers have peed on the floor and is mercilessly bullied equally by her male boss and female co-workers alike. Her knitting obsessed boyfriend Kenichi is a wannabe eco-warrior who sees Sawako as a potential mother to his young daughter Kayoko.
“You’ve learned how to relax for insertion,” deadpans her colonic irrigation nurse. Certainly Sawako has learned how to bend over and take the worst that Japanese society has to offer. She has become so emotionally stunted that she can’t even offer a defence to her tormentors other than, “ I have no dreams or aspirations.” When quizzed on the global economic crisis Sawako meekly offers, “Can’t really be helped can it.” She even sits exactly like the forlorn gorilla in the Zoo she visits with the hopeless Kenichi and Kayoko.
Sawako is a woman devoid of pride, without opinion and lacking any sense of self-worth. Those traits have been shredded by the Japanese class system. She guzzles beer, watches television and goes to work and that’s about it. Only when she receives a call out of the blue from her boozehound uncle do we start to piece together the reasons why she left for Tokyo in the first place. The news isn’t good–her father Tadao is seriously ill and she’s needed to run his faltering freshwater clam business.
This is a collection about collisions, metaphorical and literal, in an evolving China where the boundaries of society are shifting. Some characters are left behind while others keep up, and communication gaps loom large between old and new, traditional and radical.
Su Tong, Madwoman on the Bridge, Transworld Publishers, 2008.
Su Tong is a Chinese author who has gained international recognition for his work, recently being nominated for the Man Booker International Prize awarded to Philip Roth in controversial circumstances. Wives and Concubines, later adapted into Raise the Red Lantern, is perhaps his most famous works in the West. Madwoman On the Bridge, translated from Josh Stenberg, is a collection of sparse, elegant short stories that hint at a fantastic literary outpouring in contemporary China. The availability of his works in translation is a source of much delight; these are stories that will sneak into the back of your brain and lurk there long after you are finished reading.
Many of the stories are slightly macabre, and it’s an overall theme in the book as a whole; ‘How the Ceremony Ends’ was a particular favourite of mine that exemplifies the almost playfully grotesque nature of the tales in this collection. A folklorist travels to a rural village to study an unusual tradition, and asks the villagers to enact it for him, finding himself sucked into the narrative. The villagers, caught up in the revival of an old custom, carry it to its logical conclusion and bring the reader along with them. Other characters in the story are surprisingly prosaic about its outcome, treating it as nothing more than an interesting curiosity.
The same unsettling physicality comes up in ‘The Giant Baby,’ which also underscores another theme that runs through these stories, one of poor communication, where characters say one thing and mean another, or operate in entirely different words. The titular character in ‘The Madwoman on the Bridge’ and the girl in ‘The Water Demon’ both appear to be inhabiting a place beyond reality, but to the discomfort of other characters, their world often intersects with the mundane one to reach and touch the people who would deny or exploit them. In ‘On Saturdays,’ the inability to communicate ruptures a friendship and the characters live in a sense of unresolved, lingering regret.
While the West may go green, more mercury is discharging into the oceans and causing sustained pollution. By fueling the desire for cheaper greener electricity, we are literally poisoning ourselves.
Thomas Edison said two prescient things about the manufacturing of lightbulbs: “we now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb” and “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” Edison’s dream is realised in modern compact fluorescent lamp bulbs or CFLs, which provide cheap light in homes, schools and workplaces. Indeed they are becoming so popular that the traditional incandescent light bulbs are disappearing from the shelves and the European Union, the United States, Canada, Cuba and Venezuela are adopting CFLs as standard.
By switching to energy saving bulbs, EU citizens will save almost 40 TW·h (almost the electricity consumption of 11 million European households), leading to a reduction of about 15 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year.
CFLs are popular, not only because of the cheap light but they save 80% of the energy of incandescent bulbs and last fifteen times as long. They reduce carbon emissions which is vital for planetary survival. CFLs produce less heat which can allow significant savings in air conditioning in certain climates. They also provide a feel good factor because switching to CFLs allows people to make their homes greener and contribute to the green movement.
I’ve barely heard a televisual or newsprint word about the situations in South Africa, Brazil or the Philippines, but a lot about Queensland.
Floods are rampant worldwide just at the present. There has been one disaster after another between the flooding in the northern Australian state of Queensland, South Africa, Brazil and the Philippines. The spectre of the 2010 Pakistani floods in everyone’s minds. One wonders how much more flooding the world can take, and at the extent of our collective capacity for endurance.
Actually, it isn’t the collective the world is concerned with here precisely. I’ve barely heard a televisual or newsprint word about the situations in South Africa, Brazil or the Philippines, but a lot about Queensland. The thing is, while things are terrible in Queensland, the state is getting a lot more attention in the international media than are those three nations.
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