Living on Earth: Maple Syrup and Climate Change
Federal climate models predict that the Northeast U.S. will lose most of its maples by next century. But Julie Grant of the Allegheny Front reports that many maple sugar producers aren’t worried; they say times are as sweet as their syrup.
Which land should governments protect from floods: urban and coastal cities, or agricultural farmlands?
GRANT: Jason Blocher’s livelihood each year largely depends on the weather in February and March. He’s the third generation in his family to run Milroy Maple Farms in Somerset County, on Pennsylvania’s southern border, just a few miles from Maryland.
BLOCHER: You can’t outguess Mother Nature, and she controls everything in this business.
GRANT: It takes warm days and cold nights to get sap flowing through a sugar maple.
GRANT: They start drilling tap holes in the trees when daytime temperatures get in the 40s, and nights are still below freezing. When Blocher was a kid, they would tap in late February and early March. But he says that’s changed in the past ten years. Now, they usually tap earlier as much as month earlier. And the timing is more erratic.
Like most producers, Blocher remembers the winter of 2012 there was a thick layer of snow in his maple forest. And then, right as syruping was starting, temperatures shot up into the 80s it was the warmest March on record.
BLOCHER: So we went from fighting our way through three or four feet of snow, and anticipation of a very good season, because of that heavy snow pack, to one of our poorest seasons we have on record because we had such a drastic change in the weather from cold, deep snow to too warm and in a matter of two weeks to three weeks, it ruined our season.
GRANT: Milroy Farms wasn’t alone. Syrup production around the northeast U.S. was down 40 percent in 2012.
Erratic years like that aren’t a surprise to Dave Cleaves. He’s the climate change advisor at the U.S. Forest Service, which means he’s often the bearer of bad news.
CLEAVES: God, in this job I’m in, people hate to see me coming. They run like hell.
GRANT: About fifteen years ago, the Forest Service published what’s called the Climate Change Tree Atlas. And what it found didn’t look good for sugar maples in the Northeast.
CLEAVES: We will see it gradually disappear. Or become less prominent.
Interesting argument against governments protecting urban zones over food-production zones. Coastal communities and inland cities are protected from floods and erosion by highly complex infrastructure mechanisms, such as dams, levees, and piping. Agricultural lands do not enjoy the same levels of infrastructural capacity. But, should they? Should farms have an equal amount of protection as cities do?
Government accused of failing to address effects of climate change on coastal and rural areas
The Year the Monarch Didn't Appear
Severe flooding threatens to undermine the country’s food security, according to farmers and environmental groups, who today accuse the government of failing to address the effects of climate change on coastal and rural areas.
As gales swept southern and western parts of the UK, with already drenched counties bearing the brunt of the storms, it has emerged that parliament’s select committee on the environment warned in a report last year that “the current model for allocating flood defence funding is biased towards protecting property, which means that funding is largely allocated to urban areas. Defra’s [the Department of the Environment’s] failure to protect rural areas poses a long-term risk to the security of UK food production, as a high proportion of the most valuable agricultural land is at risk of flooding.”
"We need a response from government that recognises the importance for our long-term food security of safeguarding high-quality farmland," said Neil Sinden of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. "We need to view the countryside as more than a place for building, and value it for the food it provides." Via The Guardian
The precipitous loss of native vegetation [to agriculture] across the United States has led to a dramatic decline of insect populations.
This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse.
It is only the latest bad news about the dramatic decline of insect populations.
Another insect in serious trouble is the wild bee, which has thousands of species. Nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids are implicated in their decline, but even if they were no longer used, experts say, bees, monarchs and many other species of insect would still be in serious trouble.
That’s because of another major factor that has not been widely recognized: the precipitous loss of native vegetation across the United States.
“There’s no question that the loss of habitat is huge,” said Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who has long warned of the perils of disappearing insects. “We notice the monarch and bees because they are iconic insects,” he said. “But what do you think is happening to everything else?”
A big part of it is the way the United States farms. As the price of corn has soared in recent years, driven by federal subsidies for biofuels, farmers have expanded their fields. That has meant plowing every scrap of earth that can grow a corn plant, including millions of acres of land once reserved in a federal program for conservation purposes.
Related to Obama’s voracious support for ethanol. See my earlier post on how the president’s policies supporting ethanol fuel is devastating conservation land across the United States.
Report: Obama's ethanol policy has ravaged the environment | Al Jazeera America
Bump in corn grown for ethanol has polluted water and wiped out 5 million acres of conserved land, AP finds
Five million acres of land — more than in Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite national parks combined — have been pulled from conservation on Obama’s watch, according to Agriculture Department figures.
What’s more, from 2005 to 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than 1 billion pounds. More recent data isn’t available from the Agriculture Department, but because of the huge increase in corn planting, even conservative projections by the AP suggest another billion-pound fertilizer increase on corn farms since then.
Some of that fertilizer has seeped into drinking water, contaminating rivers and boosting the growth of enormous algae fields in the Gulf of Mexico; the algae eventually decompose, sucking oxygen from the water and leaving behind a huge dead zone, currently covering 5,800 square miles of sea floor where marine life can’t survive.
That dead zone is just one example of a peculiar ethanol side effect: As one government program encourages farmers to plant more corn, other programs pay millions to clean up the mess.
Obama is no environmentalist. He’s helped increase fracking, expanded off-shore oil drilling, continues to stealthily approve parts the Keystone XL Pipeline, weakened endangered species protection, and will sign off on Alaska’s horrifying Pebble Mine gold mine.
What are your thoughts on vegetarianism/veganism? Especially taking into consideration the possibility of a (worsening) global food crisis.
A question by Anonymous
I generally avoid food posts, but am interested in the infrastructure that supports food systems.
One part of my current contract with USAID is a resilient wheat project in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the 6th largest wheat producer in the world and mostly exports to east and central Europe, the Caucuses, and Asia.
Farmers there are facing three main issues: extreme temperature swings, which are increasing in frequency and causing terrible economic havocs; when to plant their crop, a problem because the planting timing and growing seasons are shifting; and shortage of storage silos for the wheat, especially in bumper seasons.
This last part - where to store the wheat - is probably the biggest issue developing countries (DCs) face with respect to dealing with climate impacted growing seasons. The farmers in Kazakhstan don’t trust the government, nor their seasonal forecastings. Nor do they (generally) reliably purchase crop insurance. So, the farmers tend to plant “when my neighbor plants,” put their finger to the wind, and hope for a good season. It’s very risky, and very unstable. They lose when there is a bad year, due to bad timing of planting, storms, droughts, etc.
But, and back to your question-ish, some years produce so much wheat that the farmers actually lose money. The reason is two fold. First, they lose on market price. The market price goes down when there is an abundance of wheat, it goes up when there is a shortage. The other problem with high-volumes is that there’s no storage system or infrastructure to support a storage system. Thus, all the silos get filled very quickly when all farmers produce record crops - when the silos are filled, the wheat is literally thrown away.
Tl;dnr, “the food crisis” is typically not due to a bad weather year, but due to inefficiencies in distribution. There’s plenty of food grown in the world. Climate change will affect the patterns of growth, but not to such an extent that the systems cannot adapt and adjust.
Getting crops from farm to table is the real issue…
Check out the UN’s Food Security program for more.
Government budget cuts threaten Pakistan's climate change efforts
Climate scientists condemn the decision.
sharp cut in government funds for Pakistan’s main climate change agency may mean little to thousands of people in homes perched along a flood-prone river in the city of Rawalpindi. But it could tip them into crisis during the monsoon season that has just begun.
The natural river - known as Leh Nullah - doubles as a drain, and is now contaminated with rubbish and sewage. It has burst its banks several times in the past, severely damaging houses. The last time this happened was in July 2001, when flooding cost 35 lives and swept away several slum areas.
A few days earlier the country’s climate change ministry – which had only existed since April 2012 – was downgraded to a division. The Climate Change Division is part of the Federal Cabinet Secretariat which functions under the oversight of the prime minister.
The moves have drawn strong criticism from climate scientists, as well as local and international organisations working to boost the country’s resilience to climate impacts.
Floods have halved Pakistan's economic growth
Three years of repeated floods have inflicted serious damage on Pakistan’s economy, halving its potential economic growth, an expert says.
“The impact of floods on Pakistan’s economy is colossal as the economy grew on average at a rate of 2.9 percent per year during the last three years,” said Ishrat Husain, an economist and director of the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi.
That is less than half the 6.5 percent that Pakistan could potentially have managed if it weren’t facing the economic and human losses associated with the flooding, Husain said.
Flooding is hardly the only impediment to economic growth in the troubled South Asian country. Worsening power shortages, “a poor law and order situation and a host of other structural impediments” also are holding back investment and growth, Husain said.
But extreme weather presents an especially worrying economic challenge, he said, because the country can work to reduce its energy crisis and improve law in order, but has limited scope to avert natural calamities, other than trying to devise effective mechanisms to minimise its losses.
'Nothing comes from these plants.' How China's industrialization is polluting its food supply
Industrialization has turned much of the Chinese countryside into an environmental disaster zone, threatening not only the food supply but the legitimacy of the regime itself.
For years, public attention has focused on the choking air and contaminated water that plague China’s ever-expanding cities. But a series of recent cases have highlighted the spread of pollution outside of urban areas, now encompassing vast swaths of countryside, including the agricultural heartland.
Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the “red line” of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.
Rural China’s toxic turn is largely a consequence of two trends, say environmental researchers: the expansion of polluting industries into remote areas a safe distance from population centers, and heavy use of chemical fertilizers to meet the country’s mounting food needs. Both changes have been driven by the rapid pace of urbanization in a country that in 2012, for the first time in its long history, had more people living in cities than outside of them.