agriculture

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Image source: Taiga Company.

Image source: Taiga Company.

1) If you buy just one new appliance in 2010, make it a really efficient fridge-freezer. The improvements in the energy use of the best fridge-freezers have been really impressive in the last few years. If you have an old refrigerator, it may be responsible for as much as a sixth of your electricity bill. A good new machine might use less than a half as much power, particularly if it is not too large. A second benefit is that by choosing to buy a really efficient refrigerator you will be sending a clear signal to the manufacturers that energy consumption matters. An impressive new web site – www.energytariff.co.uk – allows you to compare the electricity used by almost all the appliances currently in UK shops. You can make well-informed choices from your computer.

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Go green, go vegan

Lord Stern says the meat industry damages the environment. Image source: VirtualTourist.com

Lord Stern says the meat industry damages the environment. Image source: VirtualTourist.com

Clearly irritated that his argument in an interview in the Times had been boiled down to a ‘go veggie to save the planet’ headline, Nicholas Stern has issued a clarifying statement:

I think that once people understand the great risks that climate change poses, they will naturally want to choose products and services that cause little or no emissions of greenhouse gases, which means ‘low-carbon consumption’. This will apply across the board, including electricity, heating, transport and food. A diet that relies heavily on meat production results in higher emissions than a typical vegetarian diet. Different individuals will make different choices. However, the debate about climate change should not be dumbed down to a single slogan, such as ‘give up meat to save the planet’.

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Key Farmers Cameroons coordinator at a plot in Ediki, in which the difference between char and non-char maize was exceptionally big. In this case, the plants on the control (left lower corner) were barely in their 8th leaf stage, whereas the plants on the char-plots (right, upper corner), were already tasseling. Photo credit: Laurens Rademakers, Etchi Daniel-Jones. Source: biocharfund.org.

Key Farmers Cameroon's coordinator, Etchi Daniel-Jones, at a plot in Ediki, in which the difference between char and non-char maize was exceptionally big. In this case, the plants on the control (left lower corner) were barely in their 8th leaf stage, whereas the plants on the char-plots (right, upper corner), were already tasseling. Photo credit: Laurens Rademakers, Etchi Daniel-Jones. Source: biocharfund.org.

Biochar Fund has reported extremely encouraging first results from its field trials in South West Cameroon. Working with small groups of subsistence farmers around the town of Kumba, the Fund set up and managed a large-scale experiment to assess whether maize (corn) yields were improved by the addition of biochar to the soil. The biochar was made from local agricultural wastes and tree thinnings. The data from the trials strongly suggests that biochar adds greatly to food production. Some areas showed yield improvements of more than 250% over the control plots. The areas dosed with biochar also showed substantially increased production of crop biomass, including roots, stalks, and leaves.

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Image source: flourish.org.

Image source: flourish.org.

A study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency concluded that:

there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.[1]

Yes and no. What the study actually shows is that organic food typically does have higher levels of important nutrients but the high degree of variability in the measured levels means that we cannot be 95% sure that these higher levels are not the outcome of chance. The Food Standards Agency and the report’s authors have misled people interested in this topic and should revise the summaries of their work.

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Barley field near Wallington, Hertfordshire. Copyright: Paul Dixon. Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

Barley field near Wallington, Hertfordshire. Copyright: Paul Dixon. Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

Biochar increases crop productivity in many tropical soils. The reasons probably include improved water retention, reduced leaching, and better availability of nutrients to plant roots. In temperate conditions, studies have been fewer in number and haven’t produced results that are as clear. A new study[1] adds usefully to our knowledge.

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The Maldives. Image source: Primetravels.com.

The Maldives. Image source: Primetravels.com.

The Maldives will be the first country to be overwhelmed by the effect of climate change. The republic is a collection of coral atolls with maximum heights of one or two metres above sea level. Climate change is increasing worldwide sea levels and the atolls will probably go underwater by the end of the century.

The 300,000-400,000 people who live on the Maldives are not responsible for global warming. Their emissions per head (even including aviation fuels for incoming international tourism) are less than a seventh of typical European levels.

Many countries have set ambitious targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. The government of the Maldives seeks to encourage this trend by going one step further with a plan for near carbon neutrality within ten years.

This is an immensely challenging target. Chris Goodall (author of this blog) and Mark Lynas, the prize-winning climate change author, were asked to provide a short outline of how it might be achieved and what it might cost.[1]

In the rest of this note, we show our calculations. We will be the first to acknowledge that this work is incomplete. Although it was tempting to conduct fieldwork in some of the most attractive island resorts, we did our analysis using publicly available information and with help from officials attached to the Maldives government.

Our work shows that near neutrality is possible, but expensive. It will take at least $1.1bn for this small island state. The Maldives imports almost all its fuels in the form of refined oil products. Rates of financial return to the investment therefore depend largely on the price of oil. If expectations of future oil prices exceed $100 a barrel, we judge that the plan is sufficiently attractive to be financeable by international institutions such as the World Bank.

Comments on this work will be very gratefully received.

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Photograph: Christopher Whalen.

Photograph: Christopher Whalen.

George Monbiot rightly observes that the earth’s resources of biomass are limited and cannot be simultaneously claimed for multiple uses: liquid biofuels, fuel for heating, biogas, and biochar. This presentation (available for download in PowerPoint or PDF) looks at the globe’s land and biomass production to assess how much space can be given over to non-food uses and how much energy this can generate. This is one of the crucial questions facing the world: how much energy can we use from biomass before this affects the ability of the world to provide enough food for nearly 7bn people, rising to at least 9bn by 2050?

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Jatropha

Alok Jha of the Guardian wrote about Air New Zealand’s trial of jet fuel based on jatropha berries here. This note looks at the percentage of the world’s land area that would have to be devoted to the crop in order to provide for the total needs of aviation, an industry that uses about 5% of the world’s oil.

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US ethanol biorefinery locations

The world has decided that much of the blame for the rising cost of foods can be ascribed to the use of grains for biofuels. The case for the prosecution is simply made. About one hundred million tonnes of maize from this year’s US crop will be diverted into ethanol refineries, an increase of a third on 2007’s figure. The maize used for ethanol represents almost 5% of global production of all types of grain. One in twenty cereal grains produced in the world this year will end up in the petrol tank of US cars. Other countries are also pushing ethanol, but the US has moved most aggressively to increase the use of food for fuel.

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More bad news for the poor


Two pieces of news from Tuesday 26 February. A UK investment fund is trying to raise £330m to build two large biofuels plants on the eastern coast of England. And the price of wheat rises to a new high of over $12 per US bushel in Minneapolis (over £220 per tonne) as worldwide shortages force prices ever upwards.

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