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Walker's World: The food crisis

Erratic global weather threatens food security: experts
Stockholm (AFP) Sept 7, 2010 - The drought in Russia and floods in Pakistan are part of a global trend of unpredictable weather patterns and rainfall that threaten food security, experts gathered in Stockholm said. "We are getting to a point where we are getting more water, more rainy days, but it's more variable, so it leads to droughts and it leads to floods," Sunita Narain, the head of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, told AFP on the sidelines of the World Water Week conference. "That is leading to huge amounts of stress on agriculture and livelihoods," she said, adding that "climate change is making rainfall even more variable." Narain was one of around 2,500 experts from 130 countries gathered in Stockholm for the 20th edition of the World Water Week, which opened Sunday and is set to run until Saturday.

Her comments came as eight million people in Pakistan remain dependent on handouts for their survival after monsoons caused devastating floods throughout the country. Russia is also still struggling with the aftermath of its hottest summer on record, during which drought and fires destroyed a quarter of the country's crops and prompted the government to slap a highly controversial ban on grain exports to protect domestic supplies. This contributed to soaring global wheat and overall food prices and sparked worries of a crisis in global food supplies. But it is not only in such extreme cases that changing weather patterns and unpredictable rainfall is causing problems. "Millions of farmers in communities dependent on rain-fed agriculture are at risk from decreasing and erratic availability of water," head of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI) Colin Chartres said in a statement.

IWMI published a report Monday stressing that the unpredictable weather required large investments in a diverse array of water storage options to counter the uncertainty. Some 66 percent of total crops in Asia are not irrigated, while in Africa a full 94 percent is rain-fed, according to the institute, which estimates that around 500 million people in Africa and India would benefit from improved agricultural water management. World Water Week director Jens Berggren agreed that unpredictable rainfall was wreaking havoc. "Climate change will lead to different weather patterns, and that is what we are already seeing in many places like Pakistan and Russia. It doesn't rain the way it used to," he told AFP. Farmers in Uganda for instance used to know when to sow to get the best crop, but now they can no longer predict when the rain will come, Berggren pointed out.

"So they sow a little bit all the time to be on the safe side. They know their harvest could at any moment be washed away or dry up, so they try to spread the risk as much as possible," he said. "But this means that they get much smaller harvests than before," he added. While accepting that the world has recently experienced extreme weather shifts, Jan Lundqvist, who chairs the Stockholm International Water Institute's Scientific Programme Committee, is wary on blaming global warming. Pointing out that there have been periods of extreme weather patterns before, he said: "These kinds of fluctuations are part of human history, but climate change is probably making them more extreme."
by Martin Walker
Paris (UPI) Sep 7, 2010
The deaths of 10 people during food riots in Mozambique last week, combined with Russia's renewed ban on wheat exports and floods that threaten crops in Pakistan, Canada and Argentina, have revived fears of the food shortages that rocked the world two years ago.

Welcome to the future. The combination of population growth, richer diets and the erosion of arable land means that there will be pressure on food supplies for decades to come.

Wheat prices touched $300 a ton last month, almost double their price in April. Beef prices in the United States are back to their 2008 peak of 90 cents a pound, after a bumpy but steady rise from 60 cents a decade ago. Prices for lamb have tripled in the course of this decade.

But there are two wild cards lurking in the future that could turn crisis into catastrophe. The first is climate change. It matters not whether one assumes this is caused by human action or is simply one of those centuries-long trends of warming and cooling that has marked the Earth's history. Temperatures are rising, weather and rainfall patterns are shifting and these changes will have major impact on crops and yields.

The most serious study yet produced on the likely impact of climate change on food, by William Cline of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, claims that the most serious change could come in India.

His model suggests that the overall food crop in India could fall by as much as 30 percent over the next 25 years. Since India's population is expected to grow from 1.1 billion to 1.5 billion over the same period, this spells disaster.

The second wild card is a form of wheat rust called Ug99, so named because it first emerged in Uganda in 1999. At first it was thought to have been controlled within a limited area but it seems to be spreading inexorably. First it hit crops in Kenya, then Ethiopia. Then it jumped across the Red Sea to Yemen and has now been found in Iran. This year it was found in South Africa.

Worse still, it isn't a single fungus. It has developed four variants so far, which means it can overcome most of the cocktails of wheat breeds that scientists have developed over recent decades. Two particular genetic variants, known as S24 and S31 which were developed as part of Norman Borlaug's famous Green Revolution, were long thought to have solved the problem of wheat rust.

But Ug99 defeats them. The red pustules it produces on wheat stems can burst and spread countless spores on the wind. And this means that 90 percent of the world's wheat supplies, which produce one-third of the calories that humans consume, is at risk.

Help may be at hand. This summer, scientists unpicked the complete genetic code of wheat and are desperately looking for strains of wheat that can resist Ug99.

It's a race against time. The fear is that the virus spreads from Iran eastward into the Punjab, the breadbasket of the Indian subcontinent, with dire implications for India and Pakistan. Or it could move north into the Caucasus and central Asia and then attack Russia and the Ukraine and Europe.

Worst of all, just one of those spores attached to a tourist's clothes could hop aboard a long commercial flight to the United States or to Brazil and spread the disease to the Western Hemisphere. That is what happened when yellow rust, a similar but less lethal disease, spread from France to Australia in the clothes of a visiting tourist.

Even without the wild cards of climate change and Ug99, the long-term outlook is deeply worrying. The global population, now 6.8 billion, is expected to top 9 billion by 2050, which means a lot more mouths to feed. Arable land is under intense pressure from urbanization, particularly in China. Most of the countries where population growth will be highest, which means Africa and the Indian subcontinent, are already facing severe stress on water supplies.

And human food habits are changing. As hundreds of millions of people in India and China and elsewhere clamber up the prosperity ladder, they also climb the protein ladder; they want meat and dairy products, hamburgers and a chicken in the pot. But it takes eight pound of wheat to produce a pound of beef.

The demand for beef is strong but the supply is problematic. Over the past decade, the total number of the U.S. beef herd has fallen from 100 million to 75 million. In Australia, the world's main supplier of lamb, the sheep herd has halved since the 1990s. Whatever the global demand, farmers are limited by local factors like Australia's drought or rising grain prices in the United States.

"In the past few weeks, global cereal markets experienced a sudden surge in international wheat prices on concerns over wheat shortages," the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said after scheduling a conference of agricultural experts to assess the crisis for Sept. 24.

"The purpose of holding the meeting is for exporting and importing countries to engage in constructive discussions on appropriate reactions to the current market situation," the FAO spokesman added.

The problem should be manageable, at least for this year. Globally, the world has seen a bumper crop of grains and, unlike 2008, food stocks are adequate.

But already experts are eyeing with alarm the coming of the El Nina currents and weather patterns in the Pacific, replacing the better-known El Nino. El Nina usually means reduced rainfall and smaller yields in Argentina, the world's largest exporter of corn after the United States and the third-biggest soybean exporter.

And Ug99 lies in wait.

earlier related report
U.S. at forefront of bio-security
Albuquerque (UPI) Sep 7, 2010 - U.S. scientists say they are training world laboratory leaders to secure deadly biological agents such as anthrax and HIV from accidental or intentional misuse.

To safeguard the world's most dangerous biological agents, researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories, working with the World Health Organization, developed the Biorisk Management Advanced Trainer Course, a Sandia release says.

The courses are part of Sandia's efforts to ensure potentially dangerous agents are not accidentally released or do not fall into the wrong hands.

The work was accelerated after the 2001 anthrax attacks on the United States, coming hard on the heels of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"In the 10 years since Sandia's team was founded, laboratory biosafety and biosecurity has become a particularly vibrant field," Ren Salerno, founder of Sandia's International Biological Threat Reduction program, said.

"The international community recognizes that safeguarding work with high-risk pathogens is critical to both public and agricultural health and international security.

"Today, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of labs around the world that work with high-risk pathogens, and lab leaders are increasingly committed to taking the proper precautions to prevent those agents from accidentally harming lab workers, being released into the environment or being misused by someone who intends to cause harm."

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Erratic global weather threatens food security: experts
Stockholm (AFP) Sept 7, 2010
The drought in Russia and floods in Pakistan are part of a global trend of unpredictable weather patterns and rainfall that threaten food security, experts gathered in Stockholm said. "We are getting to a point where we are getting more water, more rainy days, but it's more variable, so it leads to droughts and it leads to floods," Sunita Narain, the head of the Centre for Science and Envir ... read more

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