Interview: How Big Agriculture
Has Thwarted Factory Farm Reforms
In 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released a landmark report
that condemned the way the U.S. raised its cattle, pigs, and
chickens and made a sweeping series of recommendations on how to reduce the severe environmental and public health problems created by the current system. Last month, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future released a study
analyzing the fate of these reforms and reached a stark conclusion: The power of the industrial agriculture lobby had blunted nearly all attempts at change. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Robert Martin, co-author of the Johns Hopkins report, discusses what went wrong and how reforms can proceed. One hopeful sign, says Martin, is "there are more and more people who are concerned about where their food comes from and how it’s produced."Read the interview.
15 Nov 2013:
Groundbreaking Mapping Project
Depicts Forest Change Around the Globe
Scientists from Google, U.S. universities, and federal agencies have for the first time produced a high-resolution global map showing in striking detail the extent of deforestation across the globe.
The project — which relied heavily on expertise from the computing
center Google Earth Engine — documents a loss of 888,000 square miles of forest between 2000 and 2012, along with a gain of 309,000 square miles of new forest. The rate of deforestation is equal to losing 68,000 soccer fields of forest every day for the past 13 years, or 50 soccer fields every minute, says the World Resources Institute
. Brazil, once responsible for a majority of the world's tropical forest loss, is now the global leader in scaling back forest destruction, cutting its deforestation rate in half over the past decade, researchers report in Science
. Over the same period, Indonesia has more than doubled its annual rate of forest loss, despite a supposed 2011 Indonesian government moratorium on new logging licenses.
04 Nov 2013:
Treaties May Not Be The
Key to Global Sustainable Development
Sweeping international treaties are no longer the key for charting the planet’s path to sustainable development, according to international leaders gathered at the “Rio+20 to 2015” conference last week. Instead, they said, partnerships among governments, businesses, and NGOs hold the most promise for measurable progress on sustainability issues, including climate change. "There’s been an enormous focus on treaties," Hans Hoogeveen, director general of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, told the conference at Yale University. "Lawyers and diplomats think they can rule the world, govern the world, from New York, Nairobi, or Rome. I think we have to learn that this not reality anymore." The United Nations convened a summit in Rio in 2012 to secure sustainability commitments from private businesses, societal groups, and leaders at all levels of government. Last week’s conference sought to develop recommendations for producing timely, measurable results from those commitments before international talks planned for Paris in 2015.Read more
Above a Whole Foods Market,
A Greenhouse Grows in Brooklyn
By the end of this year, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, will witness the completion of a cutting-edge partnership in urban agriculture and retail — a 20,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse built on a Whole Foods
Gotham Greens' existing greenhouse in Brooklyn.
supermarket. Atop this newly constructed store in Gowanus, Brooklyn, Gotham Greens
, a New York company that grows greenhouse vegetables, plans to grow leafy vegetables and tomatoes, which will be sold at the store below and at other Whole Food markets. Scheduled for completion in December, Gotham Greens says the new facility will be capable of producing 150 tons of produce each year, a significant increase over the capacity of the company’s existing 100-ton-per-year solar-powered rooftop greenhouse in nearby Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Read more.
18 Oct 2013:
Austrian Team Wins U.S.
Department of Energy Solar Competition
Employing creative ventilation and natural wood, a team from Austria won the 2013 Solar Decathlon
, a biennial competition for solar houses sponsored by U.S.
Department of Energy. The winning design features large living spaces with natural ventilation that helps the house maintain comfortable temperature and humidity levels, and is 96 percent wood. "It was important to us to use wood, because we have a lot of forests in Austria," team member Philipp Klebert told Fast Co.Exist
. "We wanted to make a statement about sustainability in that respect." Floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall sliding-glass doors, combined with an open floor plan, cool the house quickly and with minimal energy consumption. Among other guidelines, all Solar Decathlon entries must produce as much solar energy as they consume, and houses are scored in 10 categories
ranging from affordability to home entertainment. One of the team's sponsors is planning to market the design, perhaps as a self-assembly kit, Fast Co.Exist reports.
Photo Essay: Focusing a Lens on
China's Environmental Challenges
Photographer Sean Gallagher has lived and worked in China for seven years, visiting nearly all of its provinces as he documents the country’s daunting ecological problems and its widely varied landscapes. In a Yale Environment 360 photo essay
, the Beijing-based photojournalist chronicles China’s widespread water and air pollution, the battle against the desertification that has spread across the country's northern regions, and the threats to the nation's biodiversity.
View the photo gallery.
14 Oct 2013:
World Ocean Conditions Worse
Than Previously Thought, Analysis Finds
The world's oceans are deteriorating more rapidly than scientists had thought due to rising carbon dioxide levels and associated warming, according to a new analysis
by European scientists. By many indicators, ocean conditions are even worse than outlined last
Sea butterfly without shell
month by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's assessment report on the physical effects of global warming, the researchers say. Sinking oxygen levels, which could decline by 1 to 7 percent by 2100, increasing ocean acidification, and overfishing of more than 70 percent of marine populations are among the biggest threats to ocean ecosystems, the scientists report in Marine Pollution Bulletin
. Mollusks and other sensitive organisms are increasingly being found with corroded shells, a result of rising dissolved CO2 concentrations; within 20 to 40 years ocean acidity levels may reach the point where coral reefs are eroded faster than they can regenerate, the review said.
05 Sep 2013:
Swapping Corn for Rice Benefits
China's Miyun Reservoir, Study Shows
After years of contamination and decreasing output, China's Miyun Reservoir is rebounding
, say researchers from China and the U.S. Rice farming had contaminated and tapped the reservoir, which lies 100 miles north of Beijing and is the main water source for the city's 20 million inhabitants. But four years ago, the Chinese government began paying farmers to grow corn instead, which requires less water and leads to less fertilizer and sediment runoff than rice farming
. Now, water quality tests show that fertilizer runoff declined sharply, the researchers found, and the amount of reservoir water available to Beijing and surrounding areas has increased. Farmers also made more money growing corn instead of rice and were able to spend less time tending their crops, the study concluded
03 Sep 2013:
Crop Pests Migrate Poleward
Due to Global Warming, Study Says
Global warming has been driving crop pests toward the North and South poles at a rate of 1.7 miles per year, according to new research from the U.K. Looking at the
Stem rust (Puccinia graminis fungus)
distribution of 612 crop pests over the past 50 years, the researchers found a strong correlation between warming global temperatures and increased ranges for the pests. “If crop pests continue to march polewards as the Earth warms, the combined effects of a growing world population and the increased loss of crops to pests will pose a serious threat to global food security,” said Daniel Bebber, a biologist at the University of Exeter who led the study published in Nature Climate Change
. Crop pests — which include insects as well as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and nematodes — destroy 10 to 16 percent of the world's crops each year, or enough food to feed nine percent of the population, scientists estimate.
28 Aug 2013:
Illegal Slash-and-Burn Fires
Are Causing Smog Problem in Indonesia
Skies above Indonesia have been blanketed with smog
as wildfires burn throughout its forests. Ignoring
environmental laws, companies are using the practice of slash-and-burn to clear land for palm oil plantations. The illegal fires decimate rainforests and peatlands and fill the air with lethal levels of smoke, as seen in this NASA satellite image taken on August 27. Indonesia's pollution index hit a record-high 401 earlier this month; any reading above 400 is considered life-threatening to the elderly and sick. Palm oil is the world's largest vegetable oil commodity
and demand is rising rapidly, causing massive damage to tropical forests, especially in Southeast Asia.
05 Aug 2013:
New Deep-Rooted Rice
Shows Greater Resistance to Drought
Japanese scientists say they have developed a rice plant with deeper roots
that could yield a more drought-resistant variety of rice. Writing in the journal Nature Genetics
, a team of scientists describes the discovery of gene that causes a rice strain known as Kinandang Patong, grown in the dry upland of the Philippines, to send longer roots into the soil, allowing the plant to extract water from deeper soil layers. After splicing the gene with a commonly grown rice strain, called IR64, the scientists found that the maximum root depths were more than twice those of the typical plants. After exposing both strains to moderate and severe drought conditions, the researchers found that yields of the standard variety fell significantly in moderate drought conditions and collapsed altogether in severe drought, while the modified strains were not affected by moderate drought and yields declined only 30 percent in severe drought.
In Vermont Boat Project, A New
Model for Carbon-Free Shipping
A new sailing barge was launched last month that its backers hope will soon be in the vanguard of a new carbon-neutral shipping alternative. The Vermont Sail Freight Project
hopes to prove that carbon-neutral boats
Vermont Sail Freight Project
The Ceres will haul produce to New York.
can be a viable shipping method for the 21st century, connecting small-scale farmers in Vermont and upstate New York with customers along the Hudson River south to New York City — all while reducing the substantial greenhouse gas emissions that come from conventional shipping of produce by trucks. If all goes as planned, the 39-foot Ceres sailing vessel will this fall begin its 300-mile voyage to New York, delivering pre-ordered produce to customers along the route. This project is one of a growing number of efforts to revive sail-powered transport in connection with sustainable agriculture in the U.S. and Europe. Read more
25 Jul 2013:
Mapping of Oil Palm Genome
Could Boost Productivity of Key Crop
Scientists say they have identified the gene responsible for the yield of oil palm crops, a discovery that could boost the productivity of the world’s top source of
vegetable oil and help reduce the size of oil palm plantations in the world’s tropical regions. Writing in the journal Nature
, Malaysian and U.S. researchers describe the mapping of the genome of the oil palm, whose products are used in everything from food to cosmetics to biofuels. According to the scientists, the so-called “shell gene” controls “how the thickness of its shell correlates to fruit size and oil yield
.” The fruit of the African palm oil tree comes in three varieties
: a thick-shelled dura, a shell-less pisifera, and a thin-shelled tenera, which produces a greater oil yield. According to scientists, the shell gene plays a key role in a mutation that produces the more commercially productive tenera variety.
19 Jul 2013:
European Fish Stocks
Show Signs of Recovery, Study Says
A major assessment of fish stocks in the northeast Atlantic Ocean shows that many species are recovering and are now being fished sustainably.
The surprising findings, reported in the journal Current Biology,
are based on data from government research institutes that collected millions of measurements of fish, both at sea and in markets. The study showed that for the first time in decades the majority of fish stocks in the northeast Atlantic are recovering, thanks to reforms instituted by individual nations and the European Union in 2002. This good news comes amid widespread criticism of EU fisheries policies
, which recently have undergone further reform. “We should be aware that low fishing pressure needs to be maintained until stocks recover,” said researcher Robin Cook of the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. “This is only the first step. Now we need to see numbers increase as a result of continued low fishing pressure.”
16 Jul 2013:
Russia Blocks Plans to Create
Massive Marine Reserve in Antarctica
Russian officials have blocked plans to establish the world’s largest marine reserve
in the waters off Antarctica, citing concerns that it would restrict their
John B. Weller/The Pew Charitable Trusts
Ross Sea pack ice
fishing interests in the region, according to news reports. The plan, which was proposed by the U.S. and New Zealand, would have protected a total of 2.3 million square miles in the Ross Sea, a deep, high-latitude body of water in the Southern Ocean. But during a meeting of the 25-member Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, Russia questioned whether the organization had the legal right to create such a haven. A key sticking point for the Russians was the potential loss of the fishery for krill, a shrimp-like creature that is a critical food source for penguins, seabirds, seals, and whales, but is netted for use in Omega-3 dietary supplements.
11 Jul 2013:
‘Peak Oil’ Concerns Overstated
As Demand Will Fall, Study Predicts
Researchers say concerns that humanity will inevitably reach a moment of “peak oil,” which would be followed by a crippling decline in supplies, are unwarranted
because global demand for oil is approaching its own peak
. Writing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology
, researchers from Stanford University and the University of California-Santa Cruz (UCSC) say that dire projections of peak oil mistakenly assume that an increasingly wealthy planet will continue to rely heavily on oil. On the contrary, they say, the link between economic growth and oil is breaking down as a result of increased energy efficiency, lower prices for alternative fuel sources, urbanization, and limits on consumption by the wealthy. While the researchers project surging global demand for airline travel and various forms of freight transportation, there will be less reliance on oil, with conventional oil demand declining after 2035.
24 Jun 2013:
Houston to Buy Half of its
Electricity From Renewable Sources
The city of Houston has agreed to purchase half its electricity from renewable energy sources
, a step that makes the Texas city the nation’s largest municipal buyer of green energy. In a contract signed with Reliant Energy, Houston committed to buying more than 140 megawatts of renewable power from July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2015, locking in nearly 623,000 megawatts of clean power annually. According to city officials, the government committed $2 million — less than 1 cent per kilowatt-hour — through the purchase of renewable energy credits that will be used to fund alternative energy projects. “Houston is already known as the energy capital of the world, but we are committed to becoming the alternative energy capital of the world as well,” Mayor Annise Parker said in a statement
. In addition to investing in wind energy, the city touted major solar projects at municipal sites and efforts to streamline its solar power-permitting process.
13 Jun 2013:
Population Could Be 11 Billion
By End of the Century, UN Report Says
United Nations report
projects that the world population could reach nearly 11 billion by 2100
, about 8 percent more than predicted just two years ago. The projected increase largely stems from the fact that the fertility rate in Africa has declined more slowly than expected, with demographers now forecasting that the number of people on the continent could nearly quadruple this century, from from about 1.1 billion today to about 4.2 billion. “The fertility decline in Africa has slowed down or stalled to a larger extent than we previously predicted, and as a result the African population will go up,” said Adrian Raftery, a professor of statistics and sociology at the University of Washington, who helped develop the statistical method used in the report. The total world population passed 7 billion in 2011. According to the new report, 8 of the top 10 increases in national populations by 2100 will occur in Africa, led by Nigeria, where the number of people is expected to jump from 184 million to 914 million.
Interview: How Detergent Became
A Catalyst for Green Innovation
Adam Lowry is the co-founder and “chief greenskeeper” of Method
, a small but rapidly growing company that has been a leader in the field of manufacturing
environmentally friendly cleaning and personal care products. Indeed, it was Method that pioneered the use of concentrated laundry detergent, an environmentally beneficial innovation that has been embraced by all the giant brands. Lowry and his partner, Eric Ryan, founded Method in 2001 and today the firm has more than $100 million in revenues and sells its products in retailers like Target and Whole Foods. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Lowry discusses how his company has managed to profit from sustainability, why major corporations have been slow to embrace environmental innovations, and how plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean made its way into Method’s bottles of hand soap. Early on, says Lowry, “we recognized that our little business had the ability to catalyze much bigger change.” Read the interview
31 May 2013:
Getting More ‘Crop-per-Drop’
In World’s Driest Agricultural Regions
Improvements in irrigation in the world’s driest regions could significantly boost food production and water sustainability, according to a new study
. In an analysis of how water is used for 16 staple food crops worldwide, including in regions with similar climates, a team of researchers identified specific areas where major efficiency improvements can be made in the so-called “crop per drop” — or the amount of food produced per liter of water. According to their findings, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters
, about 40 percent of the available water in some dry regions is used to produce about 20 percent of the food calories. But in other regions with similar climate conditions, the productivity is much greater, said Kate A. Brauman, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. If these less-productive regions could improve their crop-per-drop productivity by even a modest amount, she said, “this would increase annual production on rain-fed croplands by enough to provide food for about 110 million people.”
24 May 2013:
Majority of Earth’s Population
Faces Water Shortages by Mid-Century
A conference of 500 of the world’s leading water scientists issued a stark declaration
at the end of a four-day meeting in Germany, warning that within two generations a majority of the people on the planet will face problems obtaining ample supplies of clean water. At the meeting, “Water in the Anthropocene,” the scientists said that the of over-pumping of underground aquifers, soaring populations, pollution, the over-use of fertilizers, and climate change are seriously threatening supplies of freshwater
around much of the globe. Continuing on the current path will mean that most of Earth’s population “will be living under the handicap of severe water pressure,” the scientists said, adding, “This handicap will be self-inflicted and is, we believe, entirely avoidable.” The conference proposed a wide range of solutions, including better study and monitoring of water supplies, basic reform in irrigation and agriculture, and innovation in the institutions that set national and global water policy.
20 May 2013:
System Converts Pig Waste
Into Biogas at Chinese Pig Farms
An international team of researchers has developed a system that will help Chinese farmers convert massive amounts of pig waste
into a renewable source of energy
and fertilizer. The project, led by Australia-based Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment
(CRC CARE), uses a two-step anaerobic biodigester that is able to treat 73,000 tons of waste annually, producing 380 cubic meters of biogas daily and about 5,600 tons of fertilizer per year. According to its developers, it will also provide a solution to a growing waste disposal challenge in China, where pigs generate more than 1.4 million tons of excrement annually. “Only 10 percent of this waste is currently treated, posing a considerable disposal headache, as well as health and water quality risks,” said Ravi Naidu, managing director of CRC CARE. While the system is being introduced at pig farms across China, Naidu says the technology could eventually help solve critical waste management challenges worldwide and make the pork industry more sustainable.
17 May 2013:
‘Artificial Forest’ Nanosystem
Mimics Photosynthesis, Researchers Say
U.S. scientists have developed what they say is the first integrated nanosystem capable of replicating the process of photosynthesis
, a sort of “artificial forest” that could one day lead to the production of hydrogen that could be used to power fuel cells. Composed of nanowire structures — including silicon “trunks” and titanium oxide “branches” — the system mimics the role played by chloroplasts in promoting photosynthesis in green plants. By assembling the “trees” in a dense array, resembling a miniature forest, the network lowers sunlight reflection and provides more surface area for hydrogen-producing reactions, the scientists say. “We’ve integrated our nanowire nanoscale heterostructure into a functional system that mimics the integration in chloroplasts and provides a conceptual blueprint for better solar-to-fuel conversion efficiencies in the future,” said Peidong Yang, a chemist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and co-author of the study, published in the journal NANO Letters
. The lab of Daniel Nocera
at Harvard University is doing related research into so-called artificial leaves
14 May 2013:
Shifting Petrel Diets Suggest
Effect of Humans on Ocean Food Web
An analysis of the bones of ancient and modern Hawaiian petrels has revealed that modern petrels, which forage in the open ocean, are eating prey lower on the food chain
than in centuries past, a dramatic shift
that coincides with the rise of industrial fishing. In tests conducted on petrel bones collected over three decades in the Hawaiian islands, a team of scientists found that the bones from 4,000 to 100 years ago contained higher ratios of nitrogen-15 and nitrogen-14 isotopes than the more recent bones, suggesting that the earlier birds ate bigger prey before changes in the food web composition of the Northeast Pacific. According to the scientists, the nitrogen ratio started to decline in the decades after the early 1950s, when industrial fishing started to extend beyond the continental shelves. “Our bone record is alarming because it suggests that open-ocean food webs are changing on a large scale due to human influence,” said Peggy Ostrom, a zoologist at Michigan State University and co-author of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
25 Apr 2013:
Metal Demand Could Increase
Nine-Fold as Developing Economies Grow
Global demand for metals could increase nine-fold in the coming years
as the world’s developing economies continue to grow, a trend that could have profound negative environmental impacts, a new UN report says. As populations in these countries continue to adopt modern technologies, and nations increasingly construct metal-intensive renewable energy projects, the need for raw metal materials will likely be three to nine times larger than the current global demand, said Achim Steiner
, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). While the current demand is typically met by mining for more metals, large-scale mining operations can have adverse environmental consequences, and the supply of some rare earth metals is running low. Saying that there is an urgent need for a more sophisticated approach to recycling the planet's increasingly sophisticated products, the UN suggested
that mining companies be enlisted to help sort out valuable metals when the products reach the end of their usefulness.
17 Apr 2013:
Outdated Management, Drought
Threaten Colorado River, Report Says
Drought, mismanagement, and over-exploitation of its waters have made the Colorado River — the lifeblood of the arid Southwest and drinking water source for 36 million people — among the most vulnerable rivers in
the U.S., according to the group American Rivers. In its annual report on “America’s Most Endangered Rivers
,” the organization placed the 1,400-mile Colorado at the top of the list of threatened rivers, saying the iconic river “is so dammed, diverted, and drained that it dries to a trickle before reaching the sea.” Proposals to remove more than 300,000 acre-feet of new water from the river and its tributaries, coupled with a projected reduction in its flow of 10 to 30 percent because of global warming, will add further stress to the Colorado system
. According to the report, outdated water management systems also threaten the Flint River in Georgia, the San Saba River in Texas, and the Little Plover River in Wisconsin. In the U.S. Southeast, storage ponds for coal ash pose a threat to the Catawba River, a major source of drinking water for parts of North Carolina and South Carolina.
Interview: Using Citizen Power
To Fund a U.S. Solar Revolution
Billy Parish is the president of Mosaic
, an Internet “crowdfunding” service that lets individual investors put their money into commercial solar projects and earn a rate of return that
currently beats anything offered by a bank. This month, California regulators authorized Mosaic to offer up to $100 million in loans for solar projects. Its first loan under that authorization, $157,750 to install a 114-kilowatt array on the Ronald McDonald House in San Diego, was funded within six hours by 171 investors. Parish, 31, a co-founder of the Energy Action Coalition
, decided after the failure of the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen that the best way to drive a clean energy transition was to dive into the renewable energy business. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Parish talks about why his generation has pursued environmental goals through entrepreneurship, how crowdfunding can fuel the solar revolution, and how he discovered “that sweet spot where making money and doing good overlap.” Read the interview
26 Mar 2013:
China’s Utility Giants
Vulnerable to Water Scarcity, Report Says
China’s five largest power utilities, which depend on water-intensive, coal-fired stations to generate electricity, are vulnerable to water supply disruptions because they are centered in the country’s water-scarce northern regions, a new report says. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance
, the five power generators — Huaneng, Datang, Huadian, Guodian, and China Power Investment — operate hundreds of gigawatts of thermal plants in the industrial northeast, where water resources are increasingly strained. Eighty-five percent of China’s power-generating capacity is in water scarce regions, said Maxime Serrano Bardisa, one of the report’s coauthors. The report said that major technical and policy shifts will be required to avert serious disruptions, including the addition of systems that use less water, such as closed-cycle or air-cooled systems. Such improvements could cost the utilities $20 billion in retrofit costs, the report said.
01 Mar 2013:
Loss of Wild Pollinators
Affecting Global Crop Production
Research data from 600 fields in 20 countries shows that wild bees and insects are more effective pollinators than domesticated honey bees, suggesting that the continuing loss of wild insects in many agricultural
landscapes has negative consequences for crop harvests.
Reporting in Science
, an international team of 50 scientists analyzed data from 41 crop systems around the world. They found that widespread development and modern agricultural techniques that use every available hectare of land decrease the number of key pollinators, such as wild bees, butterflies, and beetles. As the numbers and diversity of these pollinators decreases, flowering plants receive fewer visits from these insects, resulting in lower production of important crops such as tomatoes, melons, and coffee. The researchers said that using domesticated or managed honey bees did not make up for the loss of wild bees and insects. The study suggests new practices to preserve natural or semi-natural areas to support wild pollinators.
28 Feb 2013:
Earth Unlikely to Face
An Ecological Tipping Point, Study Says
A team of international scientists has rejected the idea that the planet could face a sudden and irreversible ecological shift as a result of largely human-driven pressures, suggesting that such global transformations are more likely to occur over a long period of time. While earlier studies have warned that ecological pressures — including climate change, biodiversity loss, and over-exploitation of resources — could drive the planet toward a dangerous “tipping point,” the new paper says the ecosystems of different continents are not sufficiently interconnected for such a global shift to occur
. And while as much as 80 percent of the biosphere includes ecosystems that have been affected by human activities, major ecological shifts driven by these human pressures “depend on local circumstances and will therefore differ between localities,” said Erle Ellis, a scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and co-author of the paper, published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution