Surviving Global Warming – Localized Food & Energy Systems in Nature’s Circular Economy

Record-breaking heat waves destroying harvests and worse predicted, localized food and energy systems urgently needed if we are to survive.

by Dr Mae-Wan Ho

A fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS members website and is otherwise available for download here.

Photo credit: SugarCreekPhoto via Flickr

Across the world in both hemispheres, record-breaking summer heat waves and wild fires ravaged natural ecosystems, and sent hundreds of heatstroke victims to hospital [1, 2]. Global warming was back in the headlines, and worse predicted in heat waves as well as spoiled harvests. Localized food and energy systems are the perfect solution.

More frequent and worse heat waves predicted

A new study warns that heat waves are likely to become more frequent and more severe in the decades ahead. Dim Coumou and Alexander Robinson at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain used a climate model that accurately reproduces the space-time patterns of historically observed increase in monthly heat extremes to predict what would happen in future [3]. Their results show that the current record-breaking heat waves – ‘three sigma events’ with increase in temperature three standard deviations above the mean – will cover double the global land area by 2020 and quadruple by 2040; i.e., from about 5 % of the global land area now to 10 % and 20 % respectively in 2020 and 2040. Even more severe heat waves – the five-sigma events with temperature rise five standard deviations above the mean – would go from zero to about 3 % of the globe by 2040.

Such heat waves will increase in frequency and intensity until 2040 even if the international community manages to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which we are not doing (global CO2 emissions rose 1.4 % to 31.6 Gt in 2012 [4]). Under a low-emissions scenario, the frequency of these heat waves would probably stabilize in the second half of the century. Business as usual, however, will mean that three-sigma heat waves will cover 85 % of the global land area by 2100, while five sigma events will cover 60 % of the globe. To give an idea of what it will be like, Coumou said [2]: “In many regions the coldest summer months by the end of the century will be hotter than the hottest experienced today.”

The looming food crisis and what to do

The 21 July 2013 issue of New York Times carried an important article [5] by Gary Paul Nabhan, research scientist at University of Arizona and author of Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons from Desert Farmers in Adapting to Climate Uncertainty.

The Western states of the US were in the midst of a heat wave, with Furnace Creek in California Death Valley already registering 130 ºF. Nabhan warned of the threat not only to the lives of millions of people who live in the region, but also to “a cornerstone of the American food supply.”

About 40 % of net farm income for the US normally comes from the 17 Western states, cattle and sheep production making up a significant portion, as well as salad greens, dry beans, onion, melons, hops, barley, wheat and citrus fruits. The heat waves will reduce both the quality and quantity of these foods (see also [6]). The most vulnerable crops are those in flower and fruit when temperatures soar, from apricot and barley to wheat and zucchini. Idaho farmers saw their potato yields drop as plants failed to develop their normal number of tubers. Across much of the region, temperatures on the surface of the crops have been 105 ºF, at least 10 degrees higher than the threshold for survival of most temperate-zone crops.

High temperatures also mean that the plants and livestock need more water than usual. The Western drought over the past several years has depleted both surface and ground water supplies and increased energy costs, because water has to be pumped from elsewhere. If the costs are passed onto consumers, food prices will again rise, as they did in 2012, the hottest year in American history. So extensive was last year’s drought that more than 1 500 counties – about half of all the counties in the country – were declared national drought disaster areas, and 90 % of those also suffered heat waves.

There are dozens of time-tested strategies that the best farmers and ranchers have begun to use, Nabhan said [5]: “The problem is that several agribusiness advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to promote them, including leaving them out of the current farm bill, or of climate change legislation.”

Nabhan was referring to advocates of genetically modified (GM) crops who have also been running a concerted misinformation campaign in the popular and not so popular media, including an editorial in Scientific American [7] arguing against GM labelling in the United States. That is one reason for joining local communities and many countries to [8] Ban GMOs Now (ISIS publication). Contrary to the false claim of a “scientific consensus” that GM food is no more risky than the conventional counterpart, there are major concerns over safety to health and the environment based on real evidence both in the field and in the laboratory. Above all, the promoters of GMOs are obstructing the shift to sustainable non-GM agriculture already happening in many developing countries that can truly enable us to survive global warming ([9] Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS publication).

Nabhan offered 5 strategies for food production under climate change [5]. First, locally produced compost should be used to increase the water-holding capacity of fields, orchards and vineyards, including green wastes from cities now generating methane from landfills instead of being sorted and composted for distribution to farmers. Increasing organic matter in soils from 1 % to 5 % boosts water storage in the root zones from 33 pounds to 195 pounds per cubic metre.

Second, small- and medium-scale rainwater harvesting and grey water use on private lands should be encouraged (as in Europe [10] Using Water Sustainably, SiS 57 and elsewhere [11] Water is Life, SiS 59) instead of being restricted by law and channelled off to huge, costly and vulnerable reservoirs downstream.

Third, the farm bill should include funds from the Strikeforce Initiative of the Department of Agriculture to help farmers shift to forms of perennial agriculture, initially focussing on edible tree crops and perennial grass pastures, rather than provide more subsidies to biofuel production from annual crops. Perennial crops not only keep 7.5 to 9.4 times more carbon in the soil than annual crops, but their production also reduces the fossil fuels needed to till the soil every year. (They have many other advantages: preventing runoff and soil erosion, conserving water and nutrients and reducing pollution, see [12] Ending 10 000 Years of Conflict between Agriculture and Nature, SiS 39.)

Fourth, we need action on the looming seed crisis. Recent droughts and floods have created the largest shortage of native grass, forage, legume, tree and shrub seeds in American history. But current budget cuts could decimate the federal plant material centres that promote conservation best practices. For the rangelands, forests and farms to recover from the heat, drought and wildfires of the past three years, they must be reseeded with native forage and ground-cover species and allowed to regrow. The farm bill should direct more money to the underfinanced seed collection and distribution programmes.

Finally, the National Plant Germplasm System, the Department of Agriculture’s national reserve of crop seeds, should be funded to evaluate the hundreds of thousands of seed collections for drought and heat tolerance, as well as other climate adaptations. This would cost a fraction of what it takes for a biotech company to develop, patent, and market a single “climate friendly” GM crop, and produce much faster results.

“Investing in climate-change adaptation will be far more cost-effective than dolling out billions in crops insurance payments, as the government did last year, for farmers hit with diminished yields or all-out crop failures.” Nabhan said.

Consensus over sustainable, localized agro-ecological farm and food systems as the way ahead

Nabhan identified the most crucial task facing humanity, which is no less than a complete overhaul of our agriculture and food system if we are to survive global warming. We have all the knowledge and wherewithal at our disposal, yet severely hampered by the lack of political will and decisive policies, misdirected investments and subsidies, and a narrow focus on inapt technological solutions, not to mention the untoward political influence of agribusiness corporations. As the current Trade and Environment Review of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) makes clear, there is remarkable consensus among scientists as well as UN agencies, non-government organisations and other leading commentators that we need an urgent global transition to small scale sustainable agriculture and localized food systems that can reverse most, if not all, the underlying causes of deteriorating agricultural productivity, conserve natural soil and water resources while adapting to and mitigating climate change (see [13] Paradigm Shift Urgently Needed In Agriculture, SiS 60). Furthermore, that is also the best strategy for eliminating and alleviating poverty all over the world.

The evidence is already there for all to see. Small agro-ecological farms are not only more productive and profitable, they are more resistant to climate change extremes in suffering less damage to droughts, floods and hurricanes, as well as more resilient, in recovering faster. At the same time, such farms reduce energy use and carbon footprint substantially, especially in combination with a growing worldwide movement towards consuming locally produced foods. This tendency towards localism in food production and consumption is happening at a time when distributed small to medium scale generation and consumption of renewable energies has proven so successful that it is making fossil fuel energy redundant in some countries.

Distributed local renewable energies overtaking fossil fuels

2013 will go down in history as the year in which renewable energies are out-competing fossil fuels even without feed-in tariffs and other subsidies and while perverse subsidies for fossil fuels are still in place [14] (Renewable Ousting Fossil Energy, SiS 60). All this has happened within the past 4 or 5 years. The City of London – not known for being green or sunny – has unveiled new investments in solar power worth £217 million, bringing the City’s total investments in renewables (solar and wind) to £907 million thus far. Improved efficiencies and tumbling costs have increased installations so rapidly that renewables are threatening the survival of fossil fuel energy plants. Back in August, EON, Germany’s largest utility company abandoned its profit targets, blaming the rise of subsidized green energy; one of its gas-fired power plants ran only for 9 days in 2012. Another German utility RWE took 3 100 MW generation capacity off line, while the Netherlands also disposed of 1 200 MW German coal-fired power plant capacity it has contracted. In Spain and the United States, utility companies want to impose charges on people installing solar panels for the use of the electricity grid that they no longer pay for. That is because the solar panels produce essentially enough, or more than enough energy for people’s own use, and the connection to the grid merely serves to provide storage for the excess energy produced in the daytime to be imported back cheaply during non-peak hours in the evening.

The most important factor in the success of renewable energies is that they are easy to install and come in modules or sizes, hence best suited for distributed generation for individual families (right down to 10 W in some developing countries), public buildings and local communities (see also [15] Green Energies – 100% Renewable by 2050 (ISIS/TWN publication). Add appropriate incentives at the beginning when installation prices were still relatively high, such as feed-in tariffs and other subsidies, and there was no looking back. All the signs were that fossil energies would keep on increasing in price whereas the prices of renewables would fall because of technological improvements in harvesting sources of energy especially solar and wind that are essentially free and unlimited in supply.

System transformation of electricity supply grid could benefit both local food and energy production enormously

The distributed nature of renewable energy is now forcing a system transformation of the electricity supply grid from a rigid structure that distributes electricity from a few central generating plants to a flexible and ‘nimble’ interconnected organic system with many distributed producers and consumers that are also producers. The new ‘smart grid’ prioritizes local consumption as well as local storage and is also able to export energy to where it is needed to achieve overall balance of supply and demand in the entire network. The network itself may be connected to other networks across country borders for export and import as and when required [14]. Simultaneously, energy storage batteries and other technologies needed for the new distributed grid are set to increase in efficiency and decrease in price.

This is the opportune moment to combine localized distributed agriculture and food with renewable energies production to make the most of both. Farms could be located close to or even within major cities. Intensive peri-urban and urban agriculture (see[9]) modelled on and integrated with the circular economy of nature (see also [16] Living, Green and Circular, SiS and [17] The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, ISIS publication) can supply cities with abundant fresh, nutritious, and organically grown food and collect organic wastes for composting and/or anaerobic digestion to produce biomethane for combined heat and power generation; or upgrading the biomethane as clean fuel for cars and farm machinery. Biomethane production, along with other on-farm renewables such as solar, wind, and micro-hydroelectric, will facilitate the development of local mini-grids and energy storage for export to urban centres.

The close proximity of food and renewable energies will provide plenty of new business opportunities in the food industry, such as restaurants (organic gourmet naturally!), vineyards, food preservation and processing, as well as the renewable energies and electronics industries.

Finally, the intensive use of peri-urban and urban lands for food production can free up the real countryside for permanent pastures, wild-life, and recreation (for farms operating on the circular economy are prodigiously productive [9]); and most of all the regrowth of natural forests to absorb carbon dioxide, create rain, and regenerate oxygen. The whole world can look forward to surviving climate change in style.



One thought on “Surviving Global Warming – Localized Food & Energy Systems in Nature’s Circular Economy

  1. You publish such important numbers only in Fahrenheit for the only three (3) countries Myanmar (Burma), Liberia, and USA left on this planet using Fahrenheit.
    We, 95% of the population of this planet, need to convert them to understand them.
    Why do you this?

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