Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Adaptation Critical to Agriculture in Already Changing Climate

Did you know? In a changing climate, food security for the world's billions hinges on helping crops and cattle thrive amid rising temperatures and extreme weather.

Ten thousand years ago, as Earth's climate stabilized, people began turning planting into agriculture and animals into livestock. Civilization was transformed. Today, with that critical stability deteriorating as the result of climate change, food security for the world’s billions hinges on helping crops and cattle thrive amid rising temperatures and extreme weather.
Climate, greenhouse gases and agriculture are inextricably bound. Agriculture contributes 14 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere through energy-intensive farming (carbon dioxide released), rice production and livestock (methane) and fertilizer (nitrous oxide), even as soils, plants and improved farming practices act as carbon sinks to keep carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere.
“Agriculture will be mitigating its greenhouse gas emissions at the same time it works to adapt to a changing climate,” Cynthia Rosenzweig, senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, said during a June 16 briefing in Washington.
Meanwhile, according to the International Food and Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the changing climate will have dramatic consequences for agriculture. Water sources will become more variable, droughts and floods will stress crops, some coastal food-producing areas will be inundated by salty seas and food-production rates will fall in some inland areas.
“These changes have already begun to have documented effects on agriculture production,” Rosenzweig said, “in yields, growth stages of crops, management practices, pests and diseases, and livestock production and productivity.”
CO2 is essential for photosynthesis — the process green plants use to turn water and sunlight into food and oxygen. Rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will increase rates of photosynthesis, speeding up growth and development for many plants. Yields for most crops have risen dramatically over the past 40 years thanks to improvements in cultivation (planting, fertilization) and genetics.
But as CO2 rises so does temperature, César Izaurralde of the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland, said June 16, and temperature increases over the next 50 to 100 years are likely to reduce yields of corn, wheat, sorghum, cotton and peanuts.
Paul Gepts, a geneticist and professor of agronomy at the University of California, Davis, detailed strategies for adapting agriculture to a changing climate. These include switching crops or crop mixtures to match new temperatures, increasing crop biodiversity to strengthen agricultural systems and breeding plants to produce varieties that tolerate drought, heat and other stresses.
Another strategy is to grow crops as usual and let climate change sort them out.

“This is an exercise in applied evolution,” he said. “If you provide biodiversity, the climate will automatically start selecting the crops and the varieties within those crops that are better adapted to the changed conditions.”
Farmers will also have to test alternative crops, Gepts said, develop ways to transition from one climate state to another, conserve genetic diversity and make sure there is support for plant breeding and breeding research.
Livestock, traditionally raised on open ranges, may have to be sheltered from rising temperatures and extreme weather, and Izaurralde said more research is needed to understand how environmental stresses like heat will affect animals.
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), established in 1971, is a scientific organization that supports 15 international centers, working with hundreds of government and civil society organizations and private businesses around the world. CGIAR donors, the United States among them, include developing and developed countries, international and regional organizations and private foundations.
CGIAR research tackles agricultural productivity and a range of initiatives related to water, biodiversity, forests, fisheries and land conservation. CGIAR scientists also play major roles in collecting, characterizing and conserving plant genetic resources. Eleven centers maintain more than 650,000 samples of crop, forage and agroforestry (combining trees and shrubs with crops or livestock) genetic resources in the public domain.
The researching is yielding results:
• More than 50 new drought-tolerant maize (corn) varieties developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and partners grow on 1 million hectares in Africa, producing average yield gains of 20 percent over the old varieties.
• Most rice varieties can survive complete submergence in water for only three days, but the International Rice Research Institute, working with the University of California–Davis, identified a gene that lets rice plants survive complete submergence for more than two weeks. This trait has been bred into rice varieties grown in several Asian countries.
New Rice for Africa (NERICA) varieties developed by the Africa Rice Center combine the high productivity of Asian rice with the acclimation of African rice varieties to African drought, weeds and pests. NERICA lines have been tested in 31 countries, with 16 lines released in 15 countries and adopted on 200,000 hectares.
• Biofortified crops, bred to be rich in nutrients, are helping reduce malnutrition, including vitamin A deficiency, which leaves people susceptible to blindness and disease. The International Potato Center developed improved sweet potato varieties high in beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) that are benefiting more than 6 million people in eastern and southern Africa.
Photo Credit: AP Images

Monday, July 12, 2010

Virginia Tech Home Wins Solar Decathlon Europe

Americans get less than 1 percent of their electricity from the sun, but that humble statistic doesn’t discourage Corey McCalla and other students at Virginia Tech who brought their high-tech, energy-producing home to Solar Decathlon Europe in Madrid, Spain, in June and conquered the competition.

Their house design, called Lumenhaus, uses a mix of flexible solar power roof panels, geothermal heating, an open floor design and natural heating and lighting from the sun to provide the kind of comfort and lifestyle many people in a country such as the United States have come to expect.
That, along with its affordability, gives Lumenhaus market viability, says McCalla, who recently graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in architecture. Virginia Tech is the common name for the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia.
“Our intent with the house was that you wouldn’t have to sacrifice anything you’re used to,” McCalla said. “A lot of houses that try to be energy efficient become tight boxes with few windows, but we decided to make it as light as possible because that makes it look larger than it really is.”

The team of three faculty members and 16 students who traveled to Madrid topped 16 other solar houses built by university teams from six other countries: China, Finland, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. But the competition was close. Virginia Tech beat Germany’s University of Applied Sciences Rosenheim by less than one point. That was still a big leap forward for Lumenhaus, which had finished 13th when the Solar Decathlon was held in Washington in 2009. Video from that competition is available on YouTube.

The Virginia Tech students had a hunch they were on the right track after their house design was invited to the National Building Museum in Washington in 2009, and then to Times Square in New York in January where it was on display for 48 hours.
The Solar Decathlon was created by the U.S. Department of Energy in the late 1990s, and the first event took place on the National Mall in Washington in 2002. This was the first year Spain hosted the competition after the U.S. and Spanish governments agreed to alternate the event between their countries. The purpose of the Solar Decathlon is to encourage students to invest time and skills in a new generation of sustainable homes.

“These students are tomorrow’s leaders in helping develop a clean-energy economy,” Steven Chu, the U.S. secretary of energy, said when announcing the 2011 competition teams a few months ago. “Their innovative projects will help raise public awareness about energy efficiency, help save consumers money and reduce carbon pollution.”

To maximize natural light and heat, the north and south sides of the Lumenhaus are built with glass walls. Automatic sliding panels filter the sunlight and adjust to changing weather conditions or privacy needs, keeping indoor temperatures even. The photovoltaic panels on the roof produce a net surplus of electricity for the house, which means the homeowner can sell excess power back to the grid. The geothermal system, meanwhile, provides warm water and radiant heating in the concrete slab that makes up the floor of the house.

At 650 square feet (60 square meters), the one-bedroom, rectangular house is designed to make the best use possible of all spaces. The kitchen counter can be pulled out and become a bar, for example. But the home is also modular, which means one house can be stacked on top of another to create more space for growing families, or even multifamily homes. One module, if mass produced in a factory, would cost about $250,000, making it affordable in certain markets in the United States and beyond, McCalla said.

The young architect plans to continue to work on sustainable designs for the residential or commercial markets. “I don’t think [there is] any architect nowadays that would not focus on energy efficiency,” McCalla said. “And with the price of solar coming down and laws changing to make it more accessible for people, the market will grow. Plus, there are so many other ways for capturing energy now that are better than using coal and oil.”

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the nation’s solar energy capacity grew 36 percent in 2009, thanks in part to government investments and subsidies. On July 3, for example, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $1.45 billion loan guarantee to Abengoa Solar, a company that plans to build a 250-megawatt solar power generating station in the Arizona desert, the first of its kind.

Photo caption: Virginia Tech’s solar-powered house was on display in New York’s Times Square earlier this year.

Photo credit: Virginia Tech

Friday, July 9, 2010

USAID Partner Receives International Recognition for Combating Climate Change and Reducing Disaster Risks

Long-term USAID partner the Africa Centre for Holistic Management (ACHM), based in Matabeleland North Province, was last month named the winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for devising progressive land management techniques to combat climate change.

ACHM’s Operation Hope program received US$100,000 to further develop its work at a conferring ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on June 2. Through Operation Hope, ACHM and its U.S. sister organization, the Savory Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have pioneered a successful approach to management that recognizes that culture, land, livestock, and economy are indivisible.

Operation Hope demonstrated to Buckminster Fuller Institute judges that practicing what is known as holistic management, and increasing (rather than decreasing) livestock numbers can restore degraded grasslands in Zimbabwe to higher productivity and health and improve water retention and flow in streams, even during dry years. The approach contradicts accepted practice and theories of resting land from animal grazing. Instead, the approach re-establishes the symbiotic balance between plant growth, soil building, water retention, and the behavior of herding animals. In so doing, the program helps reduce the risk of disaster for vulnerable Zimbabwean populations by strengthening food security, improving water supplies, and mitigating drought.

USAID/Zimbabwe Mission Director Karen Freeman congratulated ACHM and noted that “sustainable methods of reversing desertification and combating climate change are USAID priorities, as is strong community involvement in development. Our partnership with ACHM and the Savory Institute combines the two and confirms the validity of a holistic approach. We are thrilled that the Buckminster Fuller Challenge exists to recognize and support such important initiatives," said Freeman.

Since 2005, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has provided more than $1.1 million to support ACHM’s Operation Hope program, which restores degraded land to thriving grasslands rich in biodiversity, brings water sources back to life, helps mitigate the effects of global climate change, and increases crop yields to enhance food security.

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge recognizes initiatives that take a comprehensive, anticipatory, design approach to radically advance human wellbeing and the health of the planet's ecosystems. The Challenge is sponsored by the Buckminster Fuller Institute, which is accelerating the development and deployment of whole-system solutions that demonstrate the potential to solve some of the world's most significant challenges.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide for more than 40 years. For more information on USAID programs in Zimbabwe, please visit www.usaid.gov/.

Friday, July 2, 2010

“Apps 4 Africa” Seeks to Improve Lives Through Technology

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale launched the “Apps 4 Africa” contest at the Innovation Hub in Nairobi, Kenya, July 1. The regional competition seeks to harness the power of African software developers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda and leverage the power of digital technology to improve the lives of ordinary people in East Africa and worldwide. The competition runs through August 31.
Jessica Colaço, the manager of the Innovation Hub (or iHub) in Nairobi, calls it “a tech journey in East Africa, a journey with social change to better the lives of the people.”

Apps 4 Africa, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is “a competition meant to leverage the really exciting technology space in East Africa,” Josh Goldstein, an Appfrica Labs Fellow, told America.gov in an interview June 25. For the complete article, please visit http://www.america.gov/st/develop-english/2010/July/20100701090516SztiwomoD0.4741632.html

Photo caption: Women surf the Internet at an Internet Cafe in Nairobi, Kenya.
Photo credit: AP Images