Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Air conditioning

A recently published paper discusses one impact of rising incomes and climate change: increased use of air conditioning. Depending on how efficient the engineers can make it, that could be quite a burden on the environment by itself.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What does water really mean to you?

  According to a NASA study, which also involved scientists from Cornell and Columbia Universities, a projected megadrought is expected to occur between 2055 and 2099. The southwest and the central plains will be most affected and the drought has been projected to last anywhere between 20-40 years. The severity of this megadrought is dependent upon greenhouse gas emission rates, i.e., if they continue to increase as they are today, this megadrought has an 80% probability of occurring. Depending on what government and general public action is taken to help curb and abate the current greenhouse gas emission rates, the probability of the drought happening can be lowered to about 60%, far better odds than 80%. 
  This megadrought and the current drought the southwest is experiencing already have huge economic and social repercussions. Agriculture suffers a huge amount, crops are destroyed or can’t even be grown due to water shortages, unemployment increases, inflation will occur due to lack of water and food, and dairy and meat industries will ultimately fail. Government intervention is slow but growing; for example, state lawmakers, in California, have issued a $7.5 million bond to be put to vote with Californians in the fall which will expand reservoirs and aid in water recycling and conservation.
  I think it is a very positive thing to see the government trying to put more and more money toward helping the environment especially when our most precious resource is being so severely threatened. If I were a California citizen suffering the consequences of water shortages I would absolutely support the expansion of reservoirs in order to help the environment, the state, the economy, and the citizens that depend so much on water for jobs and of course, means of living. Even being a Maryland resident, I still support projects like the one proposed by California because water is our most precious resource and if we aren’t careful, it will be gone and it will be too late to do anything about it. I think the government needs to step up and educate the public about some of the easiest ways to reduce GHG emissions by doing things like carpooling more and decreasing individual driving and decreasing meat consumption. These two solutions would help abate GHG emission rates drastically, especially if done on a national and/or global level. The time to make a change is now, before it’s too late.

--Jordan Sedlock

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Productive Ag & Productive Criticism

Many of you seem to be frustrated when I say things like, "Industrial agriculture is extremely productive; thanks to technology and the use of inputs like pesticides, fertilizers, and GMO seeds, we are producing more grain than ever." I'm sorry if you don't like it, but it's really true: these technologies ARE tremendously productive, and what's more, all that productivity means that crops are cheaper than ever. All of us, including the poor, have access to food at lower prices than ever. Nutritional diseases like kwashiorkor and marasmus are basically gone from the US. Environmentally speaking, having tremendously productive fields means that there is less pressure on wild lands.

That doesn't mean that all is well with our food system. There are PLENTY of problems! First and foremost are the many externalities: pollution of our air and water, soil loss, serious depletion of aquifers, etc. Also, all this cheap food hurts farmers. Finally, the food that's cheap isn't quality food, and the mass consumption of foods with little nutritional value (aka "empty calories") is fueling the current boom in obesity.

IMHO the best critic is an informed critic. If you want to call for change, I think you will be most effective if you recognize the good and the bad of the current system instead of being in denial about it. For example, I have seen no credible evidence that GMO technology hurts human health. That could change- I could see a great study tomorrow- but the studies that showed harm have all more or less been shown to be flawed. Again, that doesn't mean you shouldn't criticize GMO's: just go after the real problems such as the monopoly power being brought to bear in seed technologies. That's not ok.

At the same time, the harms of industrial agriculture are clear. We need change to avoid the problems listed above, but we really need to keep up the high productivity on our limited land, since there are people to feed and wild lands that we don't want to bring into cultivation. Local food is tasty: good for gourmets, but it is much, much less productive than allowing Idaho to grow the nation's potatoes. Shipping uses fuel, yes, but a heck of a lot less fuel than trying to grow a potato in Florida.

Organic agriculture is a great start. Clearly the methods we need to take care of our land are incorporated. However, at this point it's about 20 to 25% less productive, at best. We need more research to improve productivity, and we may need some of the fruits of our industrial approach as well.

There are other approaches, and I mostly don't know much about them. Here's someone talking about agroecology, and in class some of you talked about analog forestry. Sounds like these are sustainable, but are they economic? Are they as productive as industry? I don't know! If you want to make the case for these, you need to be aware of the issue and be able to make the case. You need... drum roll please... economics!

Try to keep an open mind about costs AND benefits: that's the best way to generate effective criticism and build leverage for your own push to improve the system.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Eastern Shore Wind Nixed

The usual coalition of NIMBY activists seems to have won out over green energy business interests trying to bring wind power to the Eastern Shore. Although the excuses put forward range from protecting migratory geese to the needs of a local military installation, it sounds like those are just excuses to help people avoid the installation of large, noisy, and apparently ugly turbines.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Water: the price is wrong

A nice presentation of some key facts about the role of agriculture in California's drought is over at the Daily Beast. People always notice when prices go up, but people don't pay attention to prices that are too low. The price of water in many locations, such as for most farmers even in drought-stricken California, is nearly zero: people using water don't pay the full cost of the water, and so they aren't as careful with it as they ought to be. The article argues that planting large numbers of water-guzzling trees in the middle of a desert is probably not the best idea, and it's tough to contest that.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

California getting scary

For the past 65 years, the amount of snow on April 1 has averaged 65 inches, but this year there was zero. Nada. Since that snow becomes Nevada & California's water through the year, this situation is pretty dire, and the governor is imposing the most severe restrictions ever in California: a mandatory 25% cut pretty much everywhere. 2014 was California's warmest year on record, and this winter was the warmest winter on record. Add to that mix a near complete lack of precipitation and a history of heavily overdrawing groundwater resources, and we have serious trouble brewing.

Dairy & Crabs

Two quickies from today's Baltimore Sun, print edition (only one seems to be in their online edition, for whatever reason):

1) In upstate New York, the arrival of Chobani yogurt a few years ago has meant a large increase in the demand for milk. Dairy farmers there are thrilled, but say the locals refuse to work on the dairy farms. They want to hire immigrant workers from Central America (like Eastern Shore crab processors, by the way) but the government isn't being very supportive. It's not in the article, but it seems like the poor farmers may have to actually raise their willingness to pay for workers if they want to get a lot done.

2) More Maryland-y: tests by nonprofit group Oceana have revealed that 46% of crab cakes sold in Baltimore and advertised as containing crab from the Chesapeake do not, in fact, contain crab from the Chesapeake. Instead, some restaurant owners are using cheaper foreign substitutes. It is important to note, though, that sometimes it's not the restaurant's fault: they may pay a high price for something labelled as if it comes from here, but it might not actually be from the Bay. Seafood fraud!