Wednesday, February 24, 2010

IDEO Sketches the Future of Play

As part of Living Climate Change, IDEO imagines a future shaped by electric power dependency – where schoolyard play offsets the cost of fossil fuel and kids take an active part in their powering their world. Tune into IDEO next week, when we'll envision a brighter future.

As climate change touches every aspect of our lives, how will it change us? How will we adapt? Living Climate Change is a devoted space for the most defining design challenge of our time. It’s also a place to support fresh thinking and share provocative ideas about the future.

Hosted by IDEO, a global design and innovation company, Living Climate Change aims to support conversations beyond policy and national sacrifice in order to point toward new possibilities. Moving the debate away from what we have to give up toward what we can create, this site is born from the conviction that design has a role to play in addressing the global issue of climate change. We aspire to support the conversation by asking good questions and exploring creative solutions in an optimistic and real-world way.

Living Climate Change invites you to imagine what life will be like in 20 or 30 years, as we move along a path toward reduced carbon emissions. Will the targets be reached? Which behaviors will need to change? Which will we choose to preserve?

Escape from IDEO on Vimeo.

A Maker of Fuel Cells Blooms in California

FEBRUARY 24, 2010, 11:53 AM


Our colleague Todd Woody on the Green Inc. blog has an interesting blog post about Bloom Energy, a secretive fuel-cell start-up that was also the subject of an article Wednesday in The New York Times.

Bloom’s energy servers, which cost as much as $800,000, have been quietly purchased by such companies like Google, eBay and Wal-Mart Stores, which are looking to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Unlike so many other green technologies that make their users feel good but cost more than fossil-fuel alternatives, Bloom appears to have licked the cost problem — at least, when government incentives are included.

K.R. Sridhar, the company chief executive and co-founder, told Mr Woody that the Bloom device has been generating electricity at a cost of 8 to 10 cents a kilowatt-hour. In California, where Bloom has installed 30 fuel-cell systems, commercial electricity rates averaged about 14 cents a kilowatt-hour in October 2009.

EBay, which is using Bloom boxes to generate 15 percent of its electricity, said it expects a three-year payback period, after factoring in tax incentives that halved the effective costs.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

India Ag, Life Out of Balance: Green Revolution in India Wilts as Subsidies Backfire


FEBRUARY 21, 2010

By GEETA ANAND, Wall Street Journal

SOHIAN, India—India's Green Revolution is withering.

In the 1970s, India dramatically increased food production, finally allowing this giant country to feed itself. But government efforts to continue that miracle by encouraging farmers to use fertilizers have backfired, forcing the country to expand its reliance on imported food.

India has been providing farmers with heavily subsidized fertilizer for more than three decades. The overuse of one type—urea—is so degrading the soil that yields on some crops are falling and import levels are rising. So are food prices, which jumped 19% last year. The country now produces less rice per hectare than its far poorer neighbors: Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Agriculture's decline is emerging as one of the hottest political issues in the world's biggest democracy.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet announced that India would adopt a new subsidy program in April, hoping to replenish the soil by giving farmers incentives to use a better mix of nutrients. But in a major compromise, the government left in place the old subsidy on urea—meaning farmers will still have a big incentive to use too much of it.

The setback of the Green Revolution matters enormously to India's future. The country of 1.2 billion has positioned itself as a driver of global growth and as a significant commercial power in coming decades.

India likely will struggle to get there, and to return to the heady days of 9% economic growth, unless it figures out how to reinvigorate its agricultural sector, on which the majority of its citizens still rely for a living.

Agriculture has lagged behind other industries such as manufacturing and services, posting less than 2% growth in the latest reports on gross domestic product. And double-digit food inflation and declining yields spell less money in the pockets of rural Indians.

India spends almost twice as much on food imports today as it did in 2002, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Wheat imports hit 1.7 million tons in 2008, up from about 1,300 tons in 2002. Food prices rose 19% last year.

To be sure, there are bright spots. Indian officials say the country may produce a record wheat harvest this year because of good weather conditions, unless rain or hail appear. The wheat harvest last year was better than expected, making some hopeful that the importing trend will be reversed.

Behind the worsening picture is the government's agricultural policy. In an effort to boost food production, win farmer votes and encourage the domestic fertilizer industry, the government has increased its subsidy of urea over the years, and now pays about half of the domestic industry's cost of production.

Mr. Singh's government, recognizing the policy failure, announced a year ago that it intended to drop the existing subsidy system in favor of a new plan. But allowing urea's price to increase significantly would almost certainly trigger protests in rural India, which contains 70% of the electorate, political observers say.

The ministers of fertilizers and agriculture each declined requests for interviews.

"This is politically very difficult," says U.S. Awasti, managing director of the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Ltd. and an informal adviser to government officials on the issue. The cooperative of 50 million farmers is the largest fertilizer producer in the country.

Farmers spread the rice-size urea granules by hand or from tractors. They pay so little for it that in some areas they use many times the amount recommended by scientists, throwing off the chemistry of the soil, according to multiple studies by Indian agricultural experts.

Like humans, plants need balanced diets to thrive. Too much urea oversaturates plants with nitrogen without replenishing other nutrients that are vitally important, including phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, magnesium and calcium.

The government has subsidized other fertilizers besides urea. In budget crunches, subsidies on those fertilizers have been reduced or cut, but urea's subsidy has survived. That's because urea manufacturers form a powerful lobby, and farmers are most heavily reliant on this fertilizer, making it a political hot potato to raise the price.

As the soil's fertility has declined, farmers under pressure to increase output have spread even more urea on their land.

Kamaljit Singh is a 55-year-old farmer in the town of Marauli Kalan in the state of Punjab, the breadbasket of India. He says farmers feel stuck. "The soil health is deteriorating, but we don't know how to make it better," he says. "As the fertility of the soil is declining, more fertilizer is required."

Increased demand and the soaring price of hydrocarbons, the main ingredient of many fertilizers, have taken India's annual subsidy bill to more than $20 billion last year, from about $640 million in 1976.

"The only way for agricultural yields to rise again is for the government to give farmers the incentives and the products to provide balanced nutrition to their crops," says Bimal Goculdas, chief executive officer of Dharamsi Morarji Chemical Co., one of the oldest fertilizer firms in India.

Agriculture experts say the country can't afford to wait. "There are big problems for the future of food production in India if these problems are not addressed now," says Reyes Tirado, an agricultural scientist and researcher for Greenpeace Research Laboratories, an arm of advocacy group Greenpeace International.

Under the new plan, the government will offer subsidies to fertilizer companies on the nutrients, such as sulphur, phosphorus and potassium, from which their products are made, rather than the fertilizer products themselves. The idea is to provide incentives for farmers to apply a better mix of nutrients.

Ultimately, the government plans to pay the subsidy directly to farmers, who will be able to buy products of their choice, including but not limited to urea.

Mr. Singh's government, however, said it would continue to subsidize urea, although it would set the price 10% higher.

Mr. Awasti, the fertilizer cooperative head, says the continuing urea subsidy means that farmers likely will still use too much of it. "The government is opting, as with any very difficult change, to adopt it in phases," he says. He says he believes that the urea subsidy will be dropped altogether in a year.

In the early years after India gained independence in 1947, the country couldn't even dream of feeding its population. Importing food wasn't possible because India lacked the cash to pay. India relied on food donated by the U.S. government.

In 1967, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imported 18,000 tons of hybrid wheat seeds from Mexico. The effect was miraculous. The wheat harvest that year was so bountiful that grain overflowed storage facilities.

Those seeds required chemical fertilizers to maximize yield. The challenge was to make fertilizers affordable to farmers who lacked the cash to pay for even the basics—food, clothing and shelter.

Back then, giving cash or vouchers to millions of farmers living all over India seemed like an impossible task fraught with the potential for corruption. So the government paid subsidies to fertilizer companies, who agreed to sell for less than the cost of production, at prices set by the government.

The subsidies were designed to make up the difference between the production price and sale price—and to give the producers a 12% after-tax return on any equity investment.

Fertilizer manufacturing companies sprang up around the country. Nagarjuna Fertilizers & Chemicals Ltd. became one of the most profitable publicly listed companies in India.

In 1991, with the cost of the subsidy weighing heavily on India's finances, Manmohan Singh, then finance minister and now prime minister, pushed to eliminate it. Most fertilizer companies lobbied fiercely to retain the program. Many legislators also resisted ending the subsidy, fearing a backlash from farmers.

"The business interests lobbied and the business interests prevailed," says Ashok Gulati, the director in Asia of the International Food Policy Research Institute, a Washington-based think tank, who was involved in the policy discussions at the time. A last-minute compromise eliminated the subsidy on all fertilizers except for urea.

"That's when the imbalanced use of fertilizers began," says Pratap Narayan, ex-director general of the industry group, the Fertilizer Association of India.

With urea selling for a fraction of the price of other fertilizers, farmers began using substantially more of the nitrogen-rich material than more expensive potassium and phosphorus products.

In the state of Haryana, farmers used 32 times more nitrogen than potassium in the fiscal year ended March 2009, much more than the recommended 4-to- ratio, according to the Indian Journal of Fertilizers, a trade publication. In Punjab state, they used 24 times more nitrogen than potassium, the figures show.

"This type of ratio is a disaster," Mr. Gulati says. "It is keeping India from reaching the production levels that the hybrid seeds have the power to yield."

Producers of phosphorus-based fertilizers struggled. The government reintroduced a small subsidy on phosphorus fertilizers, but at times it didn't cover the difference between the government-set price and the actual cost of production. Dharamsi Morarji, one of the oldest fertilizer companies in India, closed some plants.

With scant domestic supply, India had to import seven million tons of phosphorus-based fertilizers last year, according to a senior official at the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers.

Twenty-one percent of the urea, 67% of the phosphorus-based fertilizers and 100% of the potash-rich fertilizers sold in India in the fiscal year ended March 2009 were imported, according to a report this month from Fitch Ratings.

In the northern state of Punjab, Bhupinder Singh, a turbaned, gray-bearded 55-year-old farmer, stood barefoot in his wheat field in December and pointed to the corner where he had just spread a 110-pound bag of urea.

"Without the urea, my crop looks sick," he said, picking up a few stalks of the young wheat crop and twirling them in his fingers. "The soil is getting weaker and weaker over the last 10 to 15 years. We need more and more urea to get the same yield."

Mr. Singh farms 10 acres in Sohian, a town about 25 miles from the industrial city of Ludhiana. He said his yields of rice have fallen to three tons per acre, from 3.3 tons five years ago. By using twice as much urea, he's been able to squeeze a little higher yield of wheat from the soil—two tons per acre, versus 1.7 tons five years ago.

He said both the wheat and rice harvests should be bigger, considering that he's using so much more urea today than he did five years ago. Adding urea doesn't have the effect it did in the past, he said, but it's so cheap that it's better than adding nothing at all.

Land needs to be watered more when fertilizer is used, and Mr. Singh worries about the water table under his land. When his parents dug the first well here in 1960, the water table lay 5 feet below the ground, he says. He recently had the same well dug to 55 feet to get enough water.

"The future is not good here," he said, shaking his head.

Balvir Singh, an agriculture development officer for Punjab state, says it is as if farmers have become addicted to urea.

"One farmer sees another's field looking greener, so he adds more urea," he says. "A farmer will become bankrupt, but he will not stop using urea."

The fertilizer industry, which had lobbied to retain subsidies back in 1991, now sees them as a problem. That's because the government, trying to rein in spending, has been squeezing the reimbursement promised to fertilizer companies.

The subsidy theoretically gives companies a 12% profit margin. Today, in part because of the way the government calculates the subsidy, it offers the average company a 3% margin, according to K. Rahul Raju, joint managing director of Nagarjuna Fertilizers & Chemicals, and Mr. Awasti, the fertilizer cooperative head.

Farmers in Punjab are increasingly glum. "Farming is in shambles," said Kamaljit Singh, standing with fellow farmers in the courtyard of the village agriculture cooperative. "If we have to support our growing families and our increasing population on this land, we must get higher yields. Otherwise our families and our nation will suffer."

—Arlene Chang contributed to this article.
Write to Geeta Anand at

U.S. Offers Solar Project a Crucial Loan Guarantee

February 23, 2010

By TODD WOODY, New York Times

The United States Department of Energy offered a $1.37 billion loan guarantee on Monday to a California company planning to build a large-scale solar power plant in the Southern California desert.

The loan guarantee for BrightSource Energy of Oakland, Calif., is the largest the department has given for a solar power project. BrightSource’s planned project, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, is the first utility-scale solar power plant to undergo licensing in California in nearly two decades.

It would use solar thermal technology, in which mirrors concentrate sunlight to heat a fluid and generate steam. If built, it would be the largest of its kind.

“We’re not going to sit on the sidelines while other countries capture the jobs of the future — we’re committed to becoming the global leader in the clean energy economy,” Steven Chu, the energy secretary, said in a statement.

The loan guarantee is contingent on the Ivanpah project passing state and federal environmental reviews.

Some environmental groups have objected to the site of the project in the Ivanpah Valley, arguing that the plant would eliminate habitat for the imperiled desert tortoise and other rare plants and wildlife. BrightSource earlier this month offered to reduce the size of the plant to lessen its impact on wildlife, but representatives of the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife said the move was inadequate and argued the project should be relocated.

Surveys have found 25 desert tortoises on the site, which is about 45 miles south of Las Vegas.

Executives at BrightSource, which is backed by Google, Morgan Stanley, Chevron and BP, have said the loan guarantee is crucial to obtaining financing to build the plant at a time when banks are reluctant to finance new technologies. The company will not disclose the total projected cost of the power plant.

The Ivanpah plant will deploy thousands of mirrors, called heliostats, that focus the sun on three towers that will each contain a boiler filled with water. The focused heat creates steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. The plant, to be built by Bechtel, is expected to create 1,000 construction jobs.

BrightSource has signed contracts to deliver 2,600 megawatts of electricity to the utilities Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sending a Message in 12,000 Bottles

February 19, 2010

By JESSE McKINLEY, New York Times


STEP onto the Plastiki, the eco-friendly catamaran currently bobbing around the San Francisco Bay, and one suddenly has the undeniable sensation of being at sea on a giant bath toy.

After all, almost everything is repurposed plastic: the deck, the cabin, the sails. Ditto for the hulls, the holds, the hatches. But for all of that, the Plastiki — made from thousands of recycled bottles and held together, no kidding, with cashew nut glue — feels remarkably solid, gliding along with barely a ripple.

For while it is certainly a stunt, it’s also a real boat. But whether it’s a seaworthy boat remains to be seen. Billed as a revolutionary piece of environmentally friendly engineering by its creator, David de Rothschild, a 31-year-old English banking heir and environmental daredevil, the Plastiki is about to face its first real-world test: a winding 11,000-mile journey from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia, an open-ocean route considerably more challenging than sailing the Sausalito harbor.

As of Friday, the boat still hadn’t passed the Golden Gate Bridge, where 20-foot waves are common, and even bigger swells lurk at sea. Not to mention wind, rain and tides.

All of which, of course, raises a question: if the Plastiki, say, breaks apart in the middle of the Pacific — spilling all those carefully collected bottles right back into the ocean — doesn’t it kind of defeat the purpose?

Mr. de Rothschild, a self-described novice sailor, seems confident that a disaster won’t happen (whenever the journey starts; the launch date is yet to be set).

“I’d give myself 100 percent chance of making it,” he said. Then he added: “But obviously, there’s always a percentage that’s outside of our control.”

Indeed, Mr. de Rothschild said that just getting the Plastiki into the water has been a victory, one that came after years of planning, months of delays and more than a few nights of discouraged drinking.

Many of the challenges had to do with the unusual design. Thousands of recycled plastic bottles were melted and re-formed into a 60-foot-long boat. Its two hulls are also ringed by about 12,000 whole and highly pressurized two-liter bottles, some with their labels still clinging to their sides. It may be the only boat in the world that you could redeem at your local deli.

Topside, the layout is simple: an angular igloo provides the only shelter, with six thin bunks softened by six thin cushions. There’s a tiny galley with a sink (in which a bottle of Kombucha was sighted) and a two-burner stove. There’s a tiny desk with room for a laptop, a logbook and a G.P.S. unit. There’s — oddly — a skateboard, as well as several sailing tomes, like “The Log of the ‘Cutty Sark,’ ” by Basil Lubbock.

Power is provided by a small array of solar panels and windmills, and exercise is provided by a stationary bike. Asked how he and his five-member crew might entertain themselves for the planned three-month journey, Mr. de Rothschild said, “sunbathing.” (He later added chess, dominos and, yes, live blogging.)

The hulls’ bottles help absorb many blows from passing waves, but they also deprive the Plastiki of a certain new-boat smell, Mr. de Rothschild said.

“If you were on another boat, it smells of fuel and it smells of that horrible fiberglass and all those other things,” he said. “This doesn’t.”

That said, the insistence on using bottles for flotation drove away a few collaborators during the project’s gestation, but it remains at the heart of the message preached by Mr. de Rothschild: that waste can be used as a resource. That extends to human waste; the Plastiki will include a small organic garden on board, with fertilizer provided from compost made with, well, the crew’s natural leavings.

Mr. de Rothschild said the Plastiki mission was inspired by the famed 1947 journey of the Kon-Tiki, wherein Thor Heyerdahl took his crew from South America to Polynesia on a primitive, decidedly nonplastic raft.

Despite the Plastiki’s technological advantages, Matthew Grey, the project manager, was more measured about the boat’s chances.

“While there is nothing quite like arriving at your destination to prove your point in its entirety, any boat, no matter how it’s made, is vulnerable to the water out there,” said Mr. Grey, who will monitor the Plastiki’s progress from the Polynesian island of Tuvalu. “There’s some big waves out there.”

So it is that over the last several weeks, the captain of the Plastiki, Jo Royle, and co-skipper, David Thomson, have been putting the boat through its paces on San Francisco Bay. Ms. Royle, an experienced ocean yacht racer, said that the Plastiki presents more than a few challenges, including the fact that it is, politely put, somewhat slow. Not quite doggy-paddle slow, but the America’s Cup this ain’t. (That honor would belong to another San Francisco boat owned by another millionaire adventurer, Larry Ellison.)

Then there is the issue of the boat’s agility, which Ms. Royle said was essentially that of a traditional trading schooner. A small biodiesel motor intended to add some oomph at the boat’s back end is useless, she said. “We are very restricted in our ability to maneuver. We sail with the wind.”

So what happens if a storm hits?

“We don’t have the ability to get out of the way,” Mr. de Rothschild said. “So what we need is to have enough confidence in the vessel to say, ‘Right, a storm is coming through, we’ll put up a little storm jib and hunker down and let it go over.’ ”

Cashew glue aside, the other thing keeping the trip together is Mr. de Rothschild, who has relentlessly promoted the Plastiki and is seemingly perpetually followed by cameras. (One of the planned crew is a videographer from National Geographic.)

He is shy when it comes to saying how much of his family fortune he’s spent on Plastiki — “more than I’d like and less than it could have,” he said of the cost — but he has lined up all manner of sponsors. Nike has also designed high-tops for him and Ms. Royle.

While they say they are confident enough to sail without a trail boat, they have painted white crosses on the soles of the Nikes, a sailors’ tradition meant to ward of sharks and other sea monsters. His insoles have an image of a plastic bottle intertwined with a sword, a symbol of the mission, and his dogs, Nesta and Smudge.

Floating on the bay on a calm day recently, Mr. de Rothschild seemed cheery about his chances of making it across the Pacific.

“I’m over the moon,” he said. “I’m super chuffed.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People (Part I)

Originally published in Science Express on 28 January 2010
Science 12 February 2010:
Vol. 327. no. 5967, pp. 812 - 818
DOI: 10.1126/science.1185383

BY H. Charles J. Godfray, John R. Beddington, Ian R. Crute, Lawrence Haddad, David Lawrence,James F. Muir, Jules Pretty, Sherman Robinson, Sandy M. Thomas, Camilla Toulmin

Continuing population and consumption growth will mean that the global demand for food will increase for at least another 40 years. Growing competition for land, water, and energy, inaddition to the overexploitation of fisheries, will affect our ability to produce food, as will the urgent requirement to reduce the impact of the food system on the environment. The effects of climate change are a further threat. But the world can produce more food and can ensure that it is used more efficiently and equitably. A multifaceted and linked global strategy is needed to ensure sustainable and equitable food security, different components of which are explored here.

The past half-century has seen marked growth in food production, allowing for a dramatic decrease in the proportion of the world’s people that are hungry, despite a doubling of the total population (Fig. 1) (1, 2). Nevertheless, more than one in seven people today still do not have access to sufficient protein and energy from their diet, and even more suffer from some form of micronutrient malnourishment (3). The world is now facing a new set of intersectingchallenges (4). The global population will continue to grow, yet it is likely to plateau at some 9 billion people by roughly the middle of this century. A major correlate of this deceleration in population growth is increased wealth, and with higher purchasing power comes higher consumption and a greater demand for processed food, meat, dairy, and fish, all of which add pressure to the food supply system. At the same time, food producers are experiencing greater competition for land, water, and energy, and the need to curb the many negative effects of food production on theenvironment is becoming increasingly clear (5, 6). Overarching all of these issues is the threat of the effects of substantial climate change and concerns about how mitigation and adaptation measures may affect the food system (7, 8).

A threefold challenge now faces the world (9): Match the rapidly changing demand for food from a larger and more affluent population to its supply; do so in ways that are environmentally and socially sustainable; and ensure that the world’s poorest people are no longer hungry. This challenge requires changes in the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed, and accessed that are as radical as those that occurred during the 18th- and 19th-century Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions and the 20th-century Green Revolution. Increases in production will have an important part to play, but they will be constrained as never before by the finite resources provided by Earth’s lands, oceans, and atmosphere (10).

Patterns in global food prices are indicators of trends in the availability of food, at least for those who can afford it andhave access to world markets. Over the past century, gross food prices have generally fallen, leveling off in the past three decades but punctuated by price spikes such as that caused by the 1970s oil crisis. In mid-2008, there was an unexpected rapid rise in food prices, the cause of which is still being debated, that subsided when the world economy went into recession (11). However, many (but not all) commentators have predicted that this spike heralds a period of rising and more volatile food prices driven primarily by increased demand from rapidly developing countries, as well as by competition for resources from first-generation biofuels production (12). Increased food prices will stimulate greater investment in food production, but the critical importance of food to human well-being and also to social and politicalstability makes it likely that governments and other organizations will want to encourage food production beyond that driven by simple market mechanisms (13). The long-term nature of returns on investment for many aspects of food production and the importance of policies that promote sustainability and equity also argue against purely relying on market solutions.

So how can more food be produced sustainably? In the past, the primary solution to food shortages has been to bring more land into agriculture and to exploit new fish stocks. Yet over the past 5 decades, while grain production has more than doubled, the amount of land devoted to arable agriculture globally has increased by only ~9% (14). Some new land could be brought into cultivation, but the competition for land from other human activities makes this an increasingly unlikely and costly solution, particularly if protecting biodiversity and the public goods provided by natural ecosystems (for example, carbon storage in rainforest) are given higher priority (15). In recent decades, agriculturalland that was formerly productive has been lost to urbanization and other human uses, as well as to desertification, salinization, soil erosion, and other consequences of unsustainable land management (16). Further losses, which may be exacerbated by climate change, are likely (7). Recent policy decisions to produce first-generation biofuels on good quality agricultural land have added to the competitive pressures (17). Thus, the most likely scenario is that more food will need to be produced from the same amount of (or even less) land. Moreover, there are no major new fishing grounds: Virtually all capture fisheries are fully exploited, and most are overexploited.

Recent studies suggest that the world will need 70 to 100% more food by 2050 (1, 18). In this article, major strategies for contributing to the challenge of feeding 9 billion people, including the most disadvantaged, are explored. Particular emphasis is given to sustainability, as well as to the combined role of the natural and social sciences in analyzing and addressing the challenge.

Closing the Yield Gap

There is wide geographic variation in crop and livestock productivity, even across regions that experience similar climates. The difference between realized productivity and the best that can be achieved using current genetic material and available technologies and management is termed the "yield gap." The best yields that can be obtained locally depend on the capacity of farmers to access and use, among other things, seeds, water, nutrients, pest management, soils, biodiversity, and knowledge. It has been estimated that in those parts of Southeast Asia where irrigation is available, average maximum climate-adjusted rice yields are 8.5 metric tons per hectare, yet the average actually achieved yields are 60% of this figure (19). Similar yield gaps are found in rain-fed wheat in central Asia and rain-fed cereals in Argentina and Brazil. Another way to illustrate the yield gap is to compare changes in per capita food production over the past 50 years. In Asia, this amount has increased approximately twofold (in China, by a factor of nearly 3.5), and in Latin America, it has increased 1.6-fold; in Africa, per capita production fell back from the mid-1970s and has only just reached the same level as in 1961 (2, 20). Substantially more food, as well as theincome to purchase food, could be produced with current crops and livestock if methods were found to close the yield gaps.

Low yields occur because of technical constraints that prevent local food producers from increasing productivity or for economic reasons arising from market conditions. For example, farmers may not have access to the technical knowledge and skills required to increase production, the finances required to invest in higher production (e.g., irrigation, fertilizer, machinery, crop-protection products, and soil-conservation measures), or the crop and livestockvarieties that maximize yields. After harvest or slaughter, they may not be able to store the produce or have access to the infrastructure to transport the produce to consumer markets. Farmers may also choose not to invest in improving agricultural productivity because the returns do not compare well with other uses of capital and labor.

Exactly how best to facilitate increased food production is highly site-specific. In the most extreme cases of failed states and nonfunctioning markets, the solution lies completely outside the food system. Where a functioning state exists, there is a balance to be struck between investing in overall economic growth as a spur to agriculture and focusing on investing in agriculture as a spur to economic growth, though the two are obviously linked in regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, where agriculture typically makes up 20 to 40% gross domestic product. In some situations, such as low-income food-importing countries, investing purely in generating widespread income growth to allow food purchases from regions and countries with better production capabilities may be the best choice. When investment is targeted at food production, a further issue is the balance between putting resources into regional and national infrastructure, such as roads and ports, and investing in local social and economic capital (21, 22).

A yield gap may also exist because the high costs of inputs or the low returns from increased production make it economically suboptimal to raise production to the maximum technically attainable. Poor transport and market infrastructure raise the prices of inputs, such as fertilizers and water, and increase the costs of moving the food produced into national or world markets. Where the risks of investment are high and the means to offset them are absent, not investing can be the most rational decision, part of the "poverty trap." Food production in developing countries can be severely affected by market interventions in the developed world, such as subsidies or price supports. These need to be carefully designed and implemented so that their effects on global commodity prices do not act as disincentives to production in other countries (23).

The globalization of the food system offers some local food producers access to larger markets, as well as to capital for investment. At the aggregate level, it also appears to increase the global efficiency of food production by allowing regional specialization in the production of the locally most appropriate foods. Because the expansion of food production and the growth of population both occur at different rates in different geographic regions, global trade is necessary to balance supply and demand across regions. However, the environmental costs of food production might increase with globalization, for example, because of increased greenhouse gas emissions associated with increased production and food transport (24). An unfettered market can also penalize particular communities and sectors, especially the poorest who have the least influence on how global markets are structured and regulated. Expanded trade can provide insurance against regional shocks on production such as conflict, epidemics, droughts, or floods—shocks that are likely to increase in frequency as climate change occurs. Conversely, a highly connected foodsystem may lead to the more widespread propagation of economic perturbations, as in the recent banking crisis, thus affecting more people. There is an urgent need for a better understanding of the effects of globalization on the full food system and its externalities.

The yield gap is not static. Maintaining, let alone increasing, productivity depends on continued innovation to control weeds, diseases, insects, and other pests as they evolve resistance to different control measures, or as new species emerge or are dispersed to new regions. Innovation involves both traditional and advanced crop and livestock breeding, as well as the continuing development of better chemical, agronomic, and agro-ecological control measures. The maximum attainable yield in different regions will also shift as the effects of climate change are felt. Increasing atmospheric CO2 levels can directly stimulate crop growth, though within the context of real agricultural production systems, the magnitude of this effect is not clear (7). More important will be the ability to grow crops in places that are currently unsuitable, particularly the northern temperate regions (though expansion of agriculture at the expense of boreal forest would lead to major greenhouse gas emissions), and the loss of currently productive regions because of excessively high temperatures and drought. Models that couple the physics of climate change with the biology of crop growth will be important to help policy-makers anticipate these changes, as well as to evaluate the role of "agricultural biodiversity" in helping mitigate their effects (25).

Closing the yield gap would dramatically increase the supply of food, but with uncertain impacts on the environment and potential feedbacks that could undermine future food production. Food production has important negative "externalities," namely effects on the environment or economy that are not reflected in the cost of food. These include the release of greenhouse gases [especially methane and nitrous oxide, which are more damaging than CO2 and for which agriculture is a major source (26)], environmental pollution due to nutrient run-off, water shortages due to overextraction, soil degradation and the loss of biodiversity through land conversion or inappropriate management, and ecosystem disruption due to the intensive harvesting of fish and other aquatic foods (6).

To address these negative effects, it is now widely recognized that food production systems and the food chain in general must become fully sustainable (18). The principle of sustainability implies the use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of Earth to replace them. By definition, dependency on nonrenewable inputs is unsustainable, even if in the short term it is necessary as part of a trajectory toward sustainability.

There are many difficulties in making sustainability operational. Over what spatial scale should food production be sustainable? Clearly an overarching goal is global sustainability, but should this goal also apply at lower levels, such as regions (or oceans), nations, or farms? Could high levels of consumption or negative externalities in some regions be mitigated by improvements in other areas, or could some unsustainable activities in the food system be offset by actions in the nonfood sector (through carbon-trading, for example)? Though simple definitions of sustainability areindependent of time scale, in practice, how fast should we seek to move from the status quo to a sustainable food system? The challenges of climate change and competition for water, fossil fuels, and other resources suggest that a rapid transition is essential. Nevertheless, it is also legitimate to explore the possibility that superior technologies may become available and that future generations may be wealthier and, hence, better able to absorb the costs of the transition. Finally, we do not yet have good enough metrics of sustainability, a major problem when evaluating alternative strategies and negotiating trade-offs. This is the case for relatively circumscribed activities, such as crop production on individual farms, and even harder when the complete food chain is included or for complex products that may contain ingredients sourced from all around the globe.

There is also a danger that an overemphasis on what can be measured relatively simply (carbon, for example) may lead to dimensions of sustainability that are harder to quantify (such as biodiversity) being ignored. These are areas at the interface of science, engineering, and economics that urgently need more attention (see Box 1). The introduction of measures to promote sustainability does not necessarily reduce yields or profits. One study of 286 agricultural sustainability projects in developing countries,involving 12.6 million chiefly small-holder farmers on 37 million hectares, found an average yield increase of 79% across a very wide variety of systems and crop types (27). One-quarter of the projects reported a doubling of yield. Research on the ability of these and related programs to be scaled up to country and regional levels should be a priority (Fig. 2).

Strategies designed to close the yield gap in the poorest countries face some particular challenges (28). Much production is dominated by small-holder agriculture with women often taking a dominant role in the workforce. Where viable, investment in the socialand economic mechanisms to enable improved small-holder yields, especially where targeted at women, can be important means of increasing the income of both farm and rural nonfarm households. The lack of secure land rights can be a particular problem formany poor communities, may act as a disincentive for small holders to invest in managing the land more productively, and may make it harder to raise investment capital (29). In a time of rising prices for food and land, it can also render these communities vulnerable to displacement by more powerful interest groups. Where the political will and organizational infrastructure exist, title definition and protection could be greatly assisted by the application of modern information and communication technologies. Even so, there will be many people who cannot afford to purchase sufficient calories and nutrients for a healthy life and who will require social protection programs to increase their ability to obtain food. However, if properly designed, these programs can help stimulate local agriculture by providing small holders with increased certainty about the demand for their products.

There is also a role for large-scale farming operations in poor-country agriculture, though the value and contexts in which this is feasible are much debated (30). This debate has been fanned by a substantial increase in the number of sovereign wealth funds, companies, and individuals leasing, purchasing, or attempting to purchase large tracts of agricultural land in developing countries. This external investment in developing-country agriculture may bring major benefits, especially where investors bring considerable improvements to crop production and processing, but only if the rights and welfare of the tenants and existing resource users are properly addressed (31).

Many of the very poorest people live in areas so remote that they are effectively disconnected from national and world food markets. But for others, especially the urban poor, higher food prices have a direct negative effect on their ability to purchase a healthy diet. Many rural farmers and other food producers live near the margin of being net food consumers and producers and will be affected in complex ways by rising food prices, with some benefitting and some being harmed (21). Thus, whereas reducing distorting agricultural support mechanisms in developed countries and liberalizing world trade should stimulate overall food production in developing countries, not everyone will gain (23, 32). Better models that can more accurately predict these complex interactions are urgently needed.

References and Notes

1. World Bank, World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2008).
2. FAOSTAT, (2009).
3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009 (FAO, Rome, 2009).
4. A. Evans, The Feeding of the Nine Billion: Global Food Security (Chatham House, London, 2009).
5. D. Tilman et al., Forecasting agriculturally driven global environmental change. Science 292, 281 (2001).[Abstract/Free Full Text]
6. Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being (World Resources Institute, Washington, DC, 2005).
7. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M. L. Parry et al., Eds. (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2007).
8. J. Schmidhuber, F. N. Tubiello, Global food security under climate change. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 104, 19703 (2007). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
9. J. von Braun, The World Food Situation: New Driving Forces and Required Actions (International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC, 2007).
10. G. Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution (Penguin Books, London, 1997).
11. J. Piesse, C. Thirtle, Three bubbles and a panic: An explanatory review of recent food commodity price events.Food Policy 34, 119 (2009). [CrossRef] [Web of Science]
12. Royal Society of London, Sustainable Biofuels: Prospects and Challenges (Royal Society, London, 2008).
13. R. Skidelsky, The Return of the Master (Allen Lane, London, 2009).
14. J. Pretty, Agricultural sustainability: Concepts, principles and evidence. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. London Ser. B Biol. Sci. 363, 447 (2008). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
15. A. Balmford, R. E. Green, J. P. W. Scharlemann, Sparing land for nature: exploring the potential impact of changes in agricultural yield on the area needed for crop production. Global Change Biol. 11, 1594 (2005).[CrossRef]
16. C. Nellemann et al., Eds., The Environmental Food Crisis [United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi, Kenya, 2009].
17. J. Fargione, J. Hill, D. Tilman, S. Polasky, P. Hawthorne, Land clearing and the biofuel carbon debt. Science 319, 1235 (2008); published online 7 February 2008 (10.1126/science.1152747). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
18. Royal Society of London, Reaping the Benefits: Science and the Sustainable Intensification of Global Agriculture(Royal Society, London, 2009).
19. K. G. Cassman, Ecological intensification of cereal production systems: Yield potential, soil quality, and precision agriculture. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 96, 5952 (1999). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
20. R. E. Evenson, D. Gollin, Assessing the impact of the Green Revolution, 1960 to 2000. Science 300, 758 (2003).[Abstract/Free Full Text]
21. P. Hazell, L. Haddad, Food Agriculture and the Environment Discussion Paper 34, (International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC, 2001).
22. Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, Framework for African Agricultural Productivity (Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, Accra, Ghana, 2006).
23. K. Anderson, Ed., Distortions to Agricultural Incentives, a Global Perspective 1955-2007 (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2009).
24. J. N. Pretty, A. S. Ball, T. Lang, J. I. L. Morison, Farm costs and food miles: An assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket. Food Policy 30, 1 (2005). [CrossRef] [Web of Science]
25. G. C. Nelson et al., Climate Change: Impact on Agriculture and Costs of Adaptation (International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC, 2009).
26. N. Stern, The Economics of Climate Change (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2007).
27. J. N. Pretty et al., Resource-conserving agriculture increases yields in developing countries. Environ. Sci. Technol. 40, 1114 (2006). [Medline]
28. P. Hazell, S. Wood, Drivers of change in global agriculture. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. London Ser. B Biol. Sci. 363, 495 (2008). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
29. K. Deininger, G. Feder, Land registration, governance, and development: Evidence and implications for policy.World Bank Res. Obs. 24, 233 (2009). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
30. P. Collier, The politics of hunger: How illusion and greed fan the food crisis. Foreign Aff. 87, 67 (2008).[Web of Science]
31. L. Cotula, S. Vermeulen, L. Leonard, J. Keeley, Land Grab or Development Opportunity? Agricultural Investment and International Land Deals in Africa [International Institute for Environment and Development (with FAO and International Fund for Agricultural Development), London, 2009].
32. A. Aksoy, J. C. Beghin, Eds., Global Agricultural Trade and Developing Countries (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2005).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Spotless Garden

February 17, 2010


THERE’S a “Beyond Thunderdome” quality to Rob Torcellini’s greenhouse. The 10-by-12-foot structure is undistinguished on the outside: he built it from a $700 kit, alongside his family’s Victorian-style farmhouse in Eastford, Conn., a former farming town 35 miles east of Hartford. What is going on inside, however, is either a glimpse at the future of food growing or a very strange hobby — possibly both.

There are fish here, for one thing, shivering through the winter, and a jerry-built system of tanks, heaters, pumps, pipes and gravel beds. The greenhouse vents run on a $20 pair of recycled windshield wiper motors, and a thermostat system sends Mr. Torcellini e-mail alerts when the temperature drops below 36 degrees. Some 500 gallons of water fill a pair of food-grade polyethylene drums that he scavenged from a light-industry park.

Mr. Torcellini’s greenhouse wouldn’t look out of place on a wayward space station where pioneers have gone to escape the cannibal gangs back on Earth. But then, in a literal sense, Mr. Torcellini, a 41-year-old I.T. director for an industrial manufacturer, has left earth — that is, dirt — behind.

What feeds his winter crop of lettuce is recirculating water from the 150-gallon fish tank and the waste generated by his 20 jumbo goldfish. Wastewater is what fertilizes the 27 strawberry plants from last summer, too. They occupy little cubbies in a seven-foot-tall PVC pipe. When the temperature begins to climb in the spring, he will plant the rest of the gravel containers with beans, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers — all the things many other gardeners grow outside.

In here, though, the yields are otherworldly. “We actually kept a tally of how many cherry tomatoes we grew,” Mr. Torcellini said of last summer’s crop. “And from one plant, it was 347.” A trio of cucumber plants threw off 175 cukes.

If that kind of bounty sounds hard to believe, Mr. Torcellini has a YouTube channel to demonstrate it. “There’s alternate ways of growing food,” he said. “I don’t want to push it down people’s throats, but if someone’s interested, I’d like to show them you can do this with cheap parts and a little bit of Yankee ingenuity.”

It’s all part of a home experiment he is conducting in a form of year-round, sustainable agriculture called aquaponics — a neologism that combines hydroponics (or water-based planting) and aquaculture (fish cultivation) — which has recently attracted a zealous following of kitchen gardeners, futurists, tinkerers and practical environmentalists.

And Australians — a lot of Australians.

In Australia, where gardeners have grappled with droughts for a decade, aquaponics is particularly appealing because it requires 80 to 90 percent less water than traditional growing methods. (The movement’s antipodean think tank is a Web site called Backyard Aquaponics, where readers can learn how, say, to turn a swimming pool into a fish pond.)

In the United States, aquaponics is in its fingerling stage, yet it seems to be increasing in popularity. Rebecca Nelson, 45, half of the company Nelson &Pade, publishes the Aquaponics Journal and sells aquaponics systems in Montello, Wis. While she refused to disclose exact sales figures, Ms. Nelson said that subscriptions have doubled every year for the last five years, and now number in the thousands. Having worked in the industry since 1997, leading workshops and consulting with academics, she estimates that there may be 800 to 1,200 aquaponics set-ups in American homes and yards and perhaps another 1,000 bubbling away in school science classrooms.

One of Ms. Nelson’s industry colleagues, Sylvia Bernstein, who helped develop a mass-market hydroponic product called the AeroGarden, recently turned her attention to aquaponics. She has started her own YouTube channel and a blog ( and is teaching aquaponics at the Denver Botanic Gardens. She said she has done market research that suggests the technology may appeal to a half-dozen consumer types, including those seeking fresh winter herbs; gadget-happy gardeners; and high-income parents and their science-fair kids. But primarily, she envisions aquaponics as catnip for “the LOHAS market,” she said. “That means Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability — the green crowd.”

It’s worth mentioning that most of those categories would appear to describe the 47-year-old Ms. Bernstein. She built her first aquaponics system with her 15-year-old son on a concrete pad outside her remodeled 1970s-era Boulder, Colo., home. And she has since set up quarters in a 240-square-foot greenhouse. While she boasted about picking fresh basil the other day for a risotto, she has lately been preoccupied with exotic fish. Having tired of tilapia and trout, Ms. Bernstein is now introducing pacu, a thin, silvery import from South America that she called “a vegetarian piranha.”

Aquaponics is addictive, Ms. Bernstein believes, and it has a way of becoming a full-time pursuit. “If you spend some time on Backyard Aquaponics,” she said, “people start with this little 100-gallon backyard system. But it never stays that way. Next thing, they’ll say, the tilapia were really cool, but I want to grow trout.”

Interested in aquaponics, but not ready to make it a life calling? No problem. An Atlanta company called Earth Solutions now sells kits online, on and the Home Depot’s Web site. Called Farm in a Box, they range in price from $268 to $3,000, and come with pipes, pumps, frames and fittings. David Epstein, 50, the osteopath and entrepreneur who invented Farm in a Box, reports that the company has sold several hundred units since the product went on sale last March.

Dr. Dave, as he likes to be called, created Farm in a Box after studying a do-it-yourself manual written by Travis W. Hughey — a creative debt that bothers Mr. Hughey not a bit.

Mr. Hughey, 49, is not just another proselytizer for aquaponics but, in his words, an “agri-missionary” who hopes to help feed the developing world. His free step-by-step plans have been downloaded more than 15,000 times since he started his site, Faith and Sustainable Technologies (, in 2007.

Mr. Hughey credits researchers at North Carolina State University for building the prototype that started the modern aquaponics movement some 25 years ago. By comparison, he came to aquaponics with little more than an unfinished biology degree at Oral Roberts University and a background in yacht repair, a career that required him to be “a jack of all trades, and a master of every one of them.”

The low-tech, low-cost design for his “Barrel-Ponics Manual” can be built out of three 55-gallon barrels, a pump, a wooden frame and some off-the-shelf hardware. One barrel, which sits on the ground, holds the fish. A second — split in half and filled with gravel — holds the plants. The final barrel, a storage or flush tank, perches above the other two like a toilet tank. The effluent-rich water that flows from one receptacle to the next is the life of the system, flooding the plants with nutrients and then trickling back into the fish tank.

From these rudiments, all manner of aquaponics systems can be built. Mr. Hughey has nine of them going in a demonstration greenhouse outside the double-wide mobile home he shares with his wife and two daughters in Andrews, S.C. He has grown everything from radishes to a papaya tree in those barrels. Of course, his family could also eat the tilapia swimming around the 1,000-gallon in-ground plastic tank. But he’s saving them to use as brood stock.

Mr. Hughey figures that other aquanauts will need to buy fingerlings from somewhere. He’s starting to sell assembled Barrel-Ponics kits, too, for $495, plus shipping.

This winter, he has begun construction on a pair of 1,200-square-foot aquaponics greenhouses to raise produce for the local natural foods market. Each one will take 80 barrel halves, 9 tons of gravel and a 3,000-gallon tilapia tank. The power for the pumps and heaters will come from a “hand-built” biodiesel generator. Mr. Hughey already has the fuel sitting in the yard: 12,000 gallons of vegetable oil that passed its expiration date.

He isn’t exactly stocking up for the end times. But with the way the economy is going, he said, it might not be a bad idea to have a backup plan to feed his family and neighbors. “I’m trying to make this place as self-reliant as possible,” he said. “But ultimately, self-reliance isn’t possible unless it’s profitable.”

There is something about aquaponics that seems to inspire this quirky blend of entrepreneurialism, environmentalism and survivalism. Even a mainstream businesswoman like Ms. Bernstein points to the water shortages in farming areas like the Central Valley in California — “to say nothing of Africa,” she added.

Jack Rowland can imagine a day when aquaponics set-ups could be built into new apartment complexes and be fed by municipal waste and geothermal power. In the meantime, he has started his own 1,200-gallon tilapia hatchery in his family’s unfinished basement in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., about 10 miles south of Poughkeepsie. He houses the fish in black cattle troughs, which have proved to be sturdy and nontoxic. A stock tank heater keeps the water at a comfortable 75 degrees.

Tilapia will tolerate crowding and will feast on your table scraps. (“They’re the ultimate garbage disposal unit,” Mr. Rowland said.) But, being tropical by nature, they die in the cold.

One of the pools is called the Dinner Tank. It is here that Mr. Rowland condemns his tilapia to a five-day fast before they make their way to the frying pan or the broiler. Tilapia, he said, do not deserve their bad reputation among cooks as the white bread of the waterways — mealy, pale and bland — but “you have to purge them or they taste gamey.”

“Most of the tilapia sold here was harvested months ago in China,” he said. “It’s like eating a fresh tomato versus what you buy in the grocery store.”

This summer, he hopes to transfer his operation from a spot next to the washer and dryer to a 50-foot-long hoop greenhouse. But he’s going about the project carefully. This attention to detail will most likely comfort Mr. Rowland’s neighbors: in his day job, Mr. Rowland, 57, is an outage planner for the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

Though Mr. Rowland spends perhaps an hour a night in the basement, looking for floaters and new spawn, he knows that no system is fail-safe. Pumps break, heaters go haywire. The art of aquaponics is one of trial and error.

“My mentor in the tilapia world told me I really wouldn’t be a master of tilapia until I killed at least a million fish,” he said. “I’m not there yet.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Disease sends salmon prices leaping

By Anjli Raval in London, Financial Times

Published: February 17 2010 20:16 | Last updated: February 17 2010 20:16

Salmon prices are jumping after the collapse of the Chilean industry through fish disease caused a sharp decline in global supply.

Wholesale prices for Norwegian-produced Atlantic salmon have risen 20.6 per cent since the start of the year , says Statistics Norway.

That has extended a year-long rally in prices, which have risen 32.5 per cent to NKr37 a kilo. Industry analysts expect the surge to feed through to what people pay for salmon steaks and fillets.

Chile’s output, the world’s second largest, has been been hammered by the virus that causes infectious salmon anaemia, which emerged in 2007.

The disease, which does not affects humans if afflicted fish are consumed, kills off salmon by attacking their red blood cells.

Aslak Berge at First Securities in Norway said: “Chile, which was the second biggest producer of salmon, has seen its output plunge more than 75 per cent in two years.

“During peak production in 2008, Chile sold 403,000 tonnes but we forecast a sales estimate of 90,000 tonnes this year.”

Norway, the biggest producer, has had to take up the slack. In 2008 it accounted for about half global volumes – 1.5m tonnes – of Atlantic salmon.

This is expected to increase to approach 70 per cent in 2010.

Canada and the UK, which collectively account for about 20 per cent of the market, are also expected to see their shares expand.

Sjur Malm, analyst at SEB Enskilda in Norway, said: “We have never seen a year-on-year decline in global supply before, and this is happening in a market where the willingness to pay is increasing.

“We estimate a global supply decline of 6 per cent year-on-year.”

The industry has been rapidly growing in recent years as increased production allowed prices for a product once considered a luxury to fall to a more affordable level for consumers.

The boom in demand and prices has driven the shares of Norway’s Marine Harvest, the world’s biggest producer of farmed salmon, more than 400 per cent higher since January 2009.

However, analysts expect wholesale salmon prices to decline again in 2011 and 2012 as production recovers.

Environmental groups accuse Chile’s salmon industry of overcrowding its cages for salmon and using too many chemicals. Industry analysts said salmon would have to be farmed at a much lower density in Chile in the future.

'Empathic Civilization': Where The Jobs Are

By Jeremy Rifkin

Posted: February 17, 2010 07:30 AM

The fossil fuel energies that propelled the great Industrial Revolutions of the past two centuries are now sunsetting and the infrastructure within which they are embedded is on life support. All across the world people are without work and becoming increasingly desperate. An anxious human race is asking the question, what do we do?

Here in the United States, President Obama has made the issue of jobs and the economic recovery his top priority in 2010, but has yet to deliver a comprehensive plan for rejuvenating the economy.

The irony is that President Obama, who was elected, in large part, by a generation who is growing up on Facebook and the vast distributed power of the Internet, appears to not understand the job potential of a distributed Third Industrial Revolution. Today, the information and communications technologies that gave rise to the Internet are being used to reconfigure the world's business models and power grids, enabling millions of people to collect renewable energy and produce their own electricity in their homes, offices, retail stores, factories, and technology parks and share it peer-to-peer across smart grids, just as they now produce and share their own information in cyberspace. This is a Third Industrial Revolution and will create millions of new jobs.

The question is often asked as to whether renewable energy, in the long run, can provide enough power to run a national or global economy. Just as second generation information-systems allow businesses to connect thousands of desktop computers, creating far more distributed computing power than even the most powerful centralized supercomputers, millions of local producers of renewable energy, with access to intelligent utility networks, can potentially produce and share far more distributed power than the older centralized forms of energy--oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear--that we currently rely on.

While President Obama talks about green technologies and new jobs, his administration's vision is limited to erecting vast centralized wind and solar parks in the Midwest and Southwest and laying down high voltage smart grid power lines to send the electricity back east. And in recent weeks he's even retreated further, advocating a new generation of nuclear powers plants, offshore oil and gas drilling, and carbon capture and storage technology to boost coal power generation--in effect, embracing all of the old centralized top-down technologies of the previous century--none of which create a new economic infrastructure to support millions of new jobs.

The transition to the Third Industrial Revolution, by contrast, will necessitate a wholesale reconfiguration of the entire economic infrastructure of the country, creating millions of jobs and countless new goods and services. The U.S. will need to invest in renewable energy technology on a massive scale; convert millions of buildings, transforming them into power plants; embed hydrogen and other storage technology throughout the national infrastructure; transform the automobile from the internal combustion engine to electric plug-in and fuel-cell cars; and lay down an intelligent utility network.

The remaking of the nations' infrastructure and the retooling of industries is going to require a massive retraining of workers on a scale matching the vocational and professional training at the onset of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions. The new high-tech workforce of the Third Industrial Revolution will need to be skilled in renewable energy technologies, green construction, IT and embedded computing, nanotechnology, sustainable chemistry, fuel-cell development, digital power grid management, hybrid electric and hydrogen-powered transport, and hundreds of other technical fields.

Entrepreneurs and managers will need to be educated to take advantage of cutting-edge business models, including open-source and networked commerce, performance contracting, distributed and collaborative research and development strategies, and sustainable low-carbon logistics and supply-chain management. The skill levels and managerial styles of the Third Industrial Revolution workforce will be qualitatively different from those of the workforce of the Second Industrial Revolution.

The Third Industrial Revolution economic development plan was officially embraced by the European Parliament in 2007 and is currently being pursued by way of various EU Commission initiatives as a means of addressing the triple challenge of the global economic meltdown, energy security, and climate change. Cities, regions, and nations across Europe are beginning to implement various parts of the plan to make Europe the first post-carbon economy by 2050 and, in the process, create millions of jobs for a 21st Century workforce.

The U.S. can do the same. The Obama administration and the U.S. Congress should consider creating a second stimulus package, complete with financial outlays, tax credits and incentives for small and medium sized businesses and homeowners, as well as appropriate codes, regulations, and standards, to ease the U.S. economy into a Third Industrial Revolution. For those who say that we can't afford it, the question becomes this: can we afford to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into an aging Second Industrial Revolution whose energies have matured and whose infrastructure is outmoded, with little hope of providing millions of jobs for U.S. workers?

The Third Industrial Revolution leads to a new social vision where economic power itself is broadly distributed, encouraging unprecedented new levels of collaboration among peoples and nations. Just as the distributed communications revolution of the last decade spawned network ways of thinking, open-source sharing, and the democratization of communications, the Third Industrial Revolution does the same with the democratization of energy. We begin to envision a world where hundreds of millions of people are empowered, both literally and figuratively, with momentous implications for social and political life.

Like information, energy too becomes a collaborative effort in the 21st Century--a shared experience designed to optimize the common good. Energy cooperatives are just now being established around the world. Small and medium sized enterprises and home owners are beginning to pool their risks and opportunities and share in the production and distribution of renewable energies. Even in the American West, long a stronghold of the traditional marketplace, where the pursuit of individual self-interest is a cardinal value, ranchers are coming together in energy cooperatives to advance their collective interest.

Economic activity is no longer an adversarial contest between embattled sellers and buyers but, rather, a collaborative enterprise between like-minded players. The classical economic idea that another's gain is at the expense of one's own loss is replaced by the idea that enhancing the well-being of others amplifies one's own well-being. The win/lose game gives way to the win/win scenario.

In the distributed economy, where collaboration trumps competition, inclusivity replaces exclusivity and transparency and openness to others becomes essential to the new way of conducting business, empathic sensibility has room to breathe and thrive. It is no longer so constrained by hierarchies, boundaries of exclusion, and a concept of human nature that places acquisitiveness, self-interest, and utility at the center of the human experience.

Today's younger generation is growing up on the Internet and collaborating in distributed global social spaces. Why shouldn't they also be empowered to generate and share their own renewable energy on a distributed continental intergrid? Just as the distributed information and communications revolution created millions of jobs, the distributed renewable energy revolution will follow suit. We need to begin the journey into a Third Industrial Revolution.

Jeremy Rifkin is Author of 'The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cities Prepare for Life With the Electric Car

February 15, 2010


SAN FRANCISCO — If electric cars have any future in the United States, this may be the city where they arrive first.

The San Francisco building code will soon be revised to require that new structures be wired for car chargers. Across the street from City Hall, some drivers are already plugging converted hybrids into a row of charging stations.

In nearby Silicon Valley, companies are ordering workplace charging stations in the belief that their employees will be first in line when electric cars begin arriving in showrooms. And at the headquarters of Pacific Gas and Electric, utility executives are preparing “heat maps” of neighborhoods that they fear may overload the power grid in their exuberance for electric cars.

“There is a huge momentum here,” said Andrew Tang, an executive at P.G.& E.

As automakers prepare to introduce the first mass-market electric cars late this year, it is increasingly evident that the cars will get their most serious tryout in just a handful of places. In cities like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and San Diego, a combination of green consciousness and enthusiasm for new technology seems to be stirring public interest in the cars.

The first wave of electric car buying is expected to begin around December, when Nissan introduces the Leaf, a five-passenger electric car that will have a range of 100 miles on a fully charged battery and be priced for middle-class families.

Several thousand Leafs made in Japan will be delivered to metropolitan areas in California, Arizona, Washington state, Oregon and Tennessee. Around the same time, General Motors will introduce the Chevrolet Volt, a vehicle able to go 40 miles on electricity before its small gasoline engine kicks in.

“This is the game-changer for our industry,” said Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s president and chief executive. He predicted that 10 percent of the cars sold would be electric vehicles by 2020.

Utilities are gearing up to cooperate with the automakers, a first for the two industries, and governments on the West Coast are focusing intently on the coming issues. Price and tax incentives need to be worked out. Locations must be found for charging stations. And local electrical grids may need reinforcement.

The California Public Utilities Commission, whose headquarters are in San Francisco, has brought together utilities, automakers and charging station companies in an urgent effort to write the new rules of the road.

Much of the attention on electric cars has been on the vehicles’ design, cost and performance. But success or failure could turn on more mundane matters, like the time it takes car buyers to navigate a municipal bureaucracy to have charging stations installed in their homes.

When the president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Michael R. Peevey, leased an electric Mini Cooper, he said, it took six weeks of visits by installers and inspectors before he could plug in his new car at home.

“It was really drawn out and frustrating and certainly is not workable on a mass basis,” Mr. Peevey said.

Such issues are being hashed out here first. The San Francisco area is home not only to a population of early technology adopters but to companies like Coulomb Technologies and Better Place that are developing the networks and software to allow utilities to manage how cars are charged.

Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley company that makes electric cars, says it has already sold 150 of its $109,000 Roadsters in the Bay Area. One customer bought the sleek sports car on the spot after a test drive.

“We asked him how he heard of Tesla and why he bought the car,” said Rachel Konrad, a Tesla spokeswoman. “He said, ‘Well, three other guys on my block have them.’ ”

In Berkeley, a town known for its environmental sensibility, one out of five cars sold today is a hybrid Prius. If electric cars are adopted that broadly in the next few years, problems could ensue.

“If you just allow willy-nilly random charging, are we going to have neighborhood blackouts?” asked Mr. Tang, the utility executive. He said a single car could consume three times as much electricity as a typical San Francisco home.

Mr. Tang is working to make sure that does not happen by monitoring where electric cars are sold in Northern California. And later this year P.G.&E. will lead a “smart charging” pilot project, connecting 200 cars to special charging stations that let utilities control the electrical demand at a given moment.

Robert Hayden, the clean transportation adviser for San Francisco, said the city hopes to have 60 charging stations installed in public garages by year’s end, with a thousand more available across the Bay Area in 2011. And in Oregon, an advisory group is working on charging stations and related issues.

To avoid problems in areas with high car concentrations, utility executives said they would encourage people to charge their vehicles at night or to use smarter electric meters that help control demand.

“We are trying to be proactive about how to make sure that the transformers that serve these homes and neighborhoods are robust enough,” said Doug Kim, an executive at Southern California Edison, which serves Los Angeles.

Mr. Kim said the popularity of electric vehicles “will be a function of a lot of different things: the state of the economy, how many people can actually afford to buy the cars and the price of gasoline — how high does it have to be?”

Some transportation experts are skeptical that electric vehicles will catch on anywhere in the country, in large part because the batteries and the installation of home recharging units are expensive.

Dan Sperling, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, estimated that a typical electric car battery would cost the automaker $12,000, and a 240-volt charging unit would cost a household at least $1,500.

Without huge subsidies, “the reality is, these electric vehicles are not going to sweep the industry and become a major share of the market for a very long time,” Mr. Sperling said.

Despite such skepticism, Washington is putting considerable money into the effort, including billions of dollars in loans to Ford, Nissan and Tesla Motors.

Under last year’s stimulus package, nearly $200 million will support Nissan’s introduction of the Leaf by permitting the installation of 13,000 charging stations around cities in Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona and Tennessee in the next year or so. (Nissan plans to build the Leaf in Tennessee eventually.)

If electric cars do take off, consumers and society could benefit. Battery-powered motors are more efficient than gasoline engines. They cost drivers on average only 2.5 cents a mile for fuel, less than a third of the cost for a highly efficient gasoline car, according to proponents.

The Energy Department says electric cars produce less of the emissions linked to climate change than traditional vehicles, though how much less depends on the source of power on the local electricity grid.

Before the first Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts reach the show room, an electric car infrastructure is getting a test drive in the Bay Area, in a limited way.

Google, which is talking to automakers about using its PowerMeter energy management software, has already become something of an electric transportation hub. At Google’s Mountain View headquarters, a handful of employees drive to work in Tesla Roadsters, and more drive a fleet of modified Priuses that Google owns. The employees pull into carports that are covered with solar panels and plug their cars into the 100 available charging stations.

Nearby, in downtown San Jose, the city has reserved street parking for electric vehicles and installed charging stations. Nearby, at Adobe Systems’ headquarters, an executive showed off a dozen charging stations in the parking garage. Eighteen more will be installed this year.

“No one wants to be left behind,” said Richard Lowenthal, chief executive of Coulomb Technologies. “We’re preparing for an onslaught of demand.”

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Balance Between the Factory and the Local Farm

February 14, 2010


By DAMON DARLIN, New York Times

INDUSTRIAL food production is not very fashionable right now.

Three books by Michael Pollan criticizing the system of giant corporate farms and food factories have topped the best-seller lists. A graphic documentary, “Food, Inc.,” based in part on his books, has been nominated for an Academy Award.

In Washington, Michelle Obama grew vegetables on the White House lawn as an example of self-sufficiency. And across America, more farmers’ markets and restaurants have popped up that sell vegetables and meat produced on small farms.

Diners now scan the menus at their local restaurants for provenances like “Cattail Creek Ranch lamb” or “Hudson Valley rabbit.” And home cooks now await boxes of fresh produce delivered weekly from local growers.

Some of these so-called locavores may think they are part of a national movement that will replace corporate food factories with small family farms. But as much of the East Coast lies blanketed beneath a foot or more of snow, it’s as good a time as any to raise a few questions about the trend’s viability.

First, how practical is local food sourcing in a nation that enjoys a diversity of food? From a practical standpoint, there isn’t much that can be grown in winter in most parts of the country.

“You can dig parsnips out of the ground,” said the chef Payton Curry, referring to his native state of Minnesota. “It’s 10 below there.” Mr. Curry features locally sourced food at his Caffe Boa restaurants in Tempe and Mesa, Ariz.

The problem isn’t confined to the snow belt. Recently, I asked a neighbor who was bringing in her weekly box of locally grown produce what she got this time. “Kale,” she said. “A lot of kale.” And this is in Northern California.

Then there are the inconsistencies in locavore behavior. People who eagerly order microgreens — tenderly cut with scissors by a farmer that morning — would be scandalized if a Chilean grape was served next to them.

But their wine and water? Those tend to be shipped in from far-flung places. Rarely, for example, do you hear a New York restaurant bragging of its Long Island wine. Even at Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant where Alice Waters got the whole local-ingredients trend started, two out of three wines on a recent evening — the wine list changes daily — did not come from the acclaimed wine regions that begin only 25 miles away.

A friend of Mr. Curry’s, Pavle Milic, has gone to the extreme of serving only Arizona-made wines at FnB, his small restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz. The concept may surprise some customers, but he says that some of the same people who sneer at a Pillsbury Casa Blanca Pinot Gris from Cochise County will declare in blind taste tests that they thought it came from a famous wine-growing region.

“I develop a thick skin here with what I do,” he said. And he acknowledges that “I risk losing a guest who doesn’t want to drink an Arizona wine.”

Granted, wine doesn’t have to be fresh to be good. And freshness is the compelling reason driving the locavore movement. Unlike organic food, which can taste no different from food grown with chemicals, fresh food does taste better.

But what started as an effort to source fresher ingredients from nearby family farms is now as much about reducing the carbon footprint and the “food miles” of food. Ordering water from the South Pacific island of Fiji or wine from New Zealand when the local stuff is quaffable seems to run counter to those ideals.

PEOPLE who grow vegetables in empty lots and schoolyards have a nice, wholesome hobby — but one that can make little sense economically. A few years ago, William Alexander wrote a delightful book chronicling his gardening travails, “The $64 Tomato.” He revealed a truth about do-it-yourself gardening: It is more efficient to buy a fresh tomato in the farmer’s market for $1.50 a pound.

(In San Francisco, where I live, that means going to a market patronized largely by immigrants, not the foodie-dominated ones with inflated prices that put fresh food out of the reach of the poor. )

As a sustainable trend, localism bears at least some resemblance to Mao Tse-tung’s Great Leap Forward. In the late 1950s, Mao decreed that steel production be localized in backyard steel furnaces. Villagers began melting down pots and pans and creating their own steel, which amounted to low-quality and largely useless pig iron.

It was a bad idea that dragged down the nation’s productivity and played a role in widespread famine.

Localism is difficult to scale up enough to feed a whole country in any season. But on the other extreme are the mammoth food factories in the United States. Here, frequent E. coli and salmonella bacteria outbreaks are the food industry’s version of Toyota’s sudden-acceleration and braking problems. It may be a case of a manufacturing system that has grown too fast or too large to be managed well.

Somewhere, there is a happy medium.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

New Pasture Rules Issued for Organic Dairy Producers

February 13, 2010


The Department of Agriculture issued new rules on Friday meant to settle a dispute in the organic agriculture industry over how much time cows at organic dairies must spend grazing on pasture.

The ruling was cheered by many in the organic industry who said it would shore up consumer confidence in organic milk and could force some larger dairies in Western states to change how they operate.

“This is the biggest deal in the organic community for many years,” said Miles V. McEvoy, the deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, the arm of the agriculture department that regulates the organic farming industry.

“Because of the controversy and the complaints against some of the larger Western dairies, it has really affected consumer confidence in the organic label. That’s why it’s so important for us to set the standard and say that organic livestock are pasture-based.”

The new rules clarify an older requirement that said only that organically raised livestock had to have access to pasture. That left a loophole for some dairies that would put cows out to pasture only during periods when the animals were not giving milk or would feed their animals almost exclusively on grain or other feeds.

The new regulations, which go into effect in June, are much more specific. They say that animals must graze on pasture for the full length of the local grazing season. The season will be determined by local conditions and agriculture authorities, like organic certifiers or county conservation officials, not by the dairy alone. While the grazing season must last at least 120 days, in many areas it will be much longer.

The rules also say that animals must get at least 30 percent of their food from pasture during the grazing season.

Mr. McEvoy said the rules would be enforced by organic certifiers who will be required to make at least one inspection a year. In some cases, additional spot checks will be made.

“There’s this feeling that it will level the playing field between the larger farms in the West and the smaller farms throughout the nation,” said Nancy Hirshberg, a vice president for Stonyfield Farm, who supported the rule change. Stonyfield markets milk from about 1,400 organic dairy farms across the country, which in most cases have about 50 to 75 cows each. She said that all the farmers who supplied Stonyfield already operated in accordance with the new rules.

Aurora Organic Dairy, based in Colorado, has been the focus of much criticism in recent years for how it pastures its animals. For many it has come to represent the contradictions embodied in large-scale organic farming. The dairy has about 15,000 cows on five farms in Colorado and Texas, with a total of about 4,400 acres of pasture, said Sally Keefe, Aurora’s vice president for government affairs.

Agriculture department data shows that in 2008 there were 2,031 organic dairies in the country, with an average of 108 cows on each one, although many had far fewer.

While Ms. Keefe said she was still reviewing the final rule on Friday, she said she expected little would have to change in the dairy’s operations.

“We already graze for at least 120 days a year, most years it’s well north of that,” Ms. Keefe said. “And we believe that we already comply with the dry matter intake requirements,” she said, referring to the rule that cows get at least 30 percent of their food from pasture during the grazing season.

Aurora, which supplies organic milk for the private label brands of several supermarket chains, agreed to make significant changes in 2007 after the agriculture department threatened to revoke its organic certification. Among the changes, the dairy agreed to give its animals greater access to pasture.

The new rules also apply to cattle raised for beef. In the case of beef cattle, however, the requirement that 30 percent of food must come from pasture is lifted during the so-called finishing period, which is when the animals are being fattened for slaughter and are often fed on grain. During that period they must still be allowed to graze, however.

The New York Times Company

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sensible Rules for Ethanol

February 11, 2010

New York Times


Despite pressure from farm state politicians, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken an important step to ensure that biofuels help rather than hurt the environment. Under new guidelines, biofuels produced at new facilities — including ethanol from corn, sugar, plants and other sources — must achieve at least a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with conventional gasoline.

In 2007, Congress mandated a big increase in biofuel production (then 7 billion gallons, now closer to 12 billion) to 36 billion gallons in 2022, mainly to lessen the country’s dependence on foreign oil. It also stipulated that the fuels be cleaner than gasoline, and handed the job of measuring emissions from various kinds of ethanol, and setting standards, to the E.P.A.

The agency promptly found itself under ferocious pressure from the corn lobby, which wanted its product shown in the best possible light, and environmental groups, which insisted on an accurate accounting. The most contentious issue was whether the agency should take into account not only direct emissions from ethanol — those associated with planting, refining and burning ethanol from corn or other feedstocks — but indirect emissions from land use changes.

Studies have shown that converting crops to fuel production in, say, Iowa, will cause farmers elsewhere in the world to clear virgin land to meet the demand for food, causing additional emissions. The studies found that because of these indirect effects most corn ethanol currently releases more greenhouse gases than petroleum fuels. The E.P.A. wisely chose to include land-use changes in their calculations.

The guidelines will not have an immediate impact on corn ethanol production since existing refineries and those under construction were grandfathered under the 2007 law. Going forward, however, the rules will almost certainly encourage less energy-intensive ways of making corn ethanol and, more important, advanced and next-generation biofuels from sources that do not displace food, including perennial grasses, crop wastes, and the cellulose in shrubs and plants.

The corn ethanol industry, which already enjoys generous and unnecessary subsidies, says, for the record, that it can live with the new rules. Even so, its Congressional allies threaten to deny the E.P.A. the money to carry them out. These efforts should be resisted.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Water Crisis in America

Aqua Shock

By Susan J. Marks

Water is the new oil, and we're running out.
How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

Format: hardcover
ISBN: 9781576603321
Publisher: Bloomberg Press
Pub. Date: 10/2009
256 pages, 6" x 9"

The lack of water is no longer just a problem in the arid West. Drought, contaminated groundwater, overuse, and more have affected water supplies from Massachusetts to California, from Georgia to Wisconsin.

Aqua Shock is a clear-eyed, objective look at how we arrived at this crisis point. Find out what’s happening to America’s shrinking water supply: the problems, the players, the complexities, and the possible solutions.

Award-winning journalist Susan Marks uses real-life conflicts to show how the battle for water is being fought every day everywhere. She draws on interviews with water experts, research from universities and think tanks, and studies from national and international governmental organizations.


America is running out of water! Sooner rather than later, your tap could run dry.

Tens of thousands of acres of the nation’s farmland already are parched, and reservoirs, lakes, and streams across the country have dried up. States, cities, businesses, neighbors, and even one-time friends now fight over the right to take what’s left from our fast-shrinking rivers and lakes and from the underground water supplies known as aquifers that hold our freshwater. Pollution, poisons, and contaminants—natural and man-made—further taint our dwindling resource.

Water has become the golden commodity of the twenty-first century. Once plentiful and pure, today it’s a finite resource like oil or gold, and its price is rising, too, whether you price it by bottle, bath, or billions of gallons.

Some battles for this new millennium’s “clear gold” are reminiscent of frontier-style, guns-drawn shootouts at the OK Corral; others end up as years-long, mega-million-dollar fights in court. Both kinds of disputes are equally acrimonious and devastating to the losers.

In Arizona, for example, pecan farmers watch their trees and livelihood wither in a battle with an industrial neighbor, who they claim depleted the area’s aquifer. After the aquifer’s water level drops by half—from thirty-two feet to only sixteen feet—the trees die of thirst.

The state of Mississippi battles the city of Memphis, Tennessee, in court with claims that the city and its Memphis Light, Gas and Water Company pilfered tens of millions of gallons of water from Mississippi’s aquifer. It’s not the first time the two have faced off over water. In February 2008, a federal district judge dismissed Mississippi’s $1 billion lawsuit against Memphis, but the fight is far from over. The interstate dispute is destined for the U.S. Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over interstate issues.

In Colorado, two cities head to court over tens of millions of gallons of disputed water in a single stream that has for years quenched their needs. It takes a pricey deal with yet a third city—and a beer brewer—to calm the storm over water, but not without millions more dollars in fines and fees changing hands. After all that, the water shortage still isn’t resolved.

Elsewhere in Colorado, farmers and their neighbors end up thirsty and out of luck after more than four hundred water wells are shut down—plugged—because, the courts determine, these residents “stole” water they didn’t own the rights to even though the wells are on their individual properties.

Yet again, North Carolina and South Carolina square off in court in 2007—this time in the U.S. Supreme Court—over rights to take water from the Catawba River to quench the thirst of the Charlotte, North Carolina, suburbs of Concord and Kannapolis. That dispute, already years old, is likely to drag on for several more years. In March 2009, South Carolina’s attorney general rejects a call by his North Carolina counterpart to resolve the case outside of the Supreme Court.

The states of Tennessee and Georgia are in an old-fashioned border war precipitated by a controversial 1818 land survey. The prize: access to the Tennessee River and its billions of gallons of aqua!

The battles today rage coast to coast. Large-scale water disputes once were rare, and only arose in desert states or between frontier farmers and ranchers. But that was before huge populations, urban and rural sprawl, years of overbuilding and development, drought, climate change, pollution, and more took their toll.

Water once was abundant, with plenty to go around. But that’snot necessarily the case anymore, especially if you factor in the spreading issue of groundwater pollution—natural and otherwise. Earth’s essential, no-longer-so-easily-renewable resource is in short supply.

Aqua Shock looks realistically at the water crisis in America. It touches on global issues and connections; explains where our water comes from, what’s happening to it, and why; examines the poorly understood and highly complicated water laws that control water supplies; discusses who does and doesn’t own the rights to the water; describes how our groundwater is polluted and depleted; and considers what, if anything, can be done to ease the crisis.

This isn’t another book filled with corporate-speak or grandstanding for a cause, and it doesn’t dwell on the technicalities of the world’s water or the shortcomings of conservation or development. Neither does it single out states, developers, groups, or individuals for ridicule or blame.

Instead, Aqua Shock is a simple description of our nation’s water as a shrinking resource, and the problems, issues, and complexities associated with it. The book brings home the statistics and the shocking realities of America’s battle for water with real-life illustrations of the thirst and tribulations of individuals, companies, towns, cities, states, and regions. We turn to real stories from real people who give this global issue a human face in our own neighborhoods.

Before anyone shrugs off Aqua Shock as scare tactics, the woes of somewhere else, or more rhetoric from environmentalists or corporations, keep in mind that our nation’s midsection—with its withered fields and shrinking groundwater supplies—fulfills much of America’s (and the world’s) appetite for food, water, and—now with corn-based ethanol—fuel. That midsection stretches from North Dakota to Texas and from California to Nebraska.

The U.S. water shortage isn’t confined to the Great Plains or the West, either. At least thirty-six states across the country expect water shortages of some kind by 2013, and that’s not even factoring in drought or changing climate conditions, according to a 2003 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office. Forty-six states are expected to be under drought conditions by 2013. If you think that it’s not in your neighborhood, look more closely:

--The nearly five million residents of Atlanta, Georgia, were shocked into reality in 2007 when it was revealed that their
main water source, Lake Lanier, was drying up. By spring 2009, rains finally had eased drought conditions, and in June, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division issued its first non-drought outdoor watering schedule since June 2006.

--North Carolina had its driest winter in 113 years in 2007, according to data from the National Climatic Data Center, part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

--Florida, a peninsula (meaning that it is surrounded on three sides by water), averages more than fifty inches of rain a year, yet regularly faces water-shortage emergencies in some areas. With rainfall totals 70 percent below normal, by mid-March 2009, Tampa Bay Water’s regional reservoir ran out of water, and the utility was forced to turn to alternative sources for water.

--In May 2008, a fire in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee—specifically in the then-severely depleted lake’s bed—covered thousands of acres before being extinguished.

--New Berlin, Wisconsin, near the banks of Lake Michigan, must deal with water restrictions because of population growth, water use limitations imposed by international laws and regional agreements, and drainage patterns. Geologically, the city sits on a subcontinental divide: Part of the city drains into the Great Lakes Basin (the area that includes the Great Lakes and its watershed), and the other part drains away from it.

--Rain forests and paradise aren’t immune, either. Some parts of the Hawaiian Islands have experienced what the National Weather Service and the U.S. Drought Monitor (a drought report published by the U.S. government) call “extreme drought” conditions.

Water shortage is a national problem we no longer can ignore. It’s global in scope, too. Here are some numbers:

--More than 1 billion people worldwide do not have access to minimal amounts of clean water, according to United Nations data.

--In Latin America alone, approximately 76 million people lack safe water, according to the World Bank.

--Every year 1.8 million children die as a result of diarrhea and other diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation, according to the United Nations report mentioned above.

--By 2035, as many as 3 billion people may live in areas with severe water shortages, especially if they live in Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia, as the World Bank predicts they will. The issue for Americans isn’t simply a result of population growth or water demand, drought, development, or pollution. It’s all of that and more.

Aqua Shock begins with a look at our nation’s water supply: where it is, what’s happened to it, the global perspective, and why we should be worried. Then we examine why our water is in short supply: drought, development practices, population changes, overuse, regulation (or lack of it), worn-out sewer systems that leach away precious freshwater supplies, and contaminants—both natural and man-made. We’ll also delve into the morass of rules and regulations that govern water: who owns it, who doesn’t, and the “water gods” that often control this precious resource. These “gods” are often little-known, extremely powerful individuals in many areas of the country who, by law and sometimes behind the scenes, play a big role in whether you, our neighbor, your neighbor’s neighbor, or an entire town or city does or does not get water. We’ll also look briefly at whether it’s possible to save our water and how that can be accomplished.

After reading Aqua Shock, you’ll better understand why our water is a finite resource and the importance of waking up to the looming water disaster. The ordinary individual can help turn the thirsty tide with the right information and direction. Water is a broad issue and—through the lens of Aqua Shock— anything but dry, so let’s get started.

Chapter Notes

1. U.S. General Accounting Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, GAO-03-514, “Freshwater Supply: States’ Views of How Federal Agencies Could Help Them Meet the Challenges of Expected Shortages” (July 2003): 8,

2. Governor Sonny Perdue/Office of the Governor, “Governor, EPD Ease Outdoor Water Use Schedules,” June 10, 2009;

3. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, “Florida Drought Conditions, Frequently Asked Questions,” Drought/faq.htm; Tampa Bay Water, “Tampa Bay Regional Water Supply and Drought Index” (April 6, 2009),

4. First United Nations World Water Development Report, “Water for People, Water for Life” (2003); Second United Nations World Water Development Report, “Water, a Shared Responsibility” (2006); United Nations Development Programme, “Human Development Report” (2006),

Susan J. Marks is an award-winning journalist and author. She spent more than a dozen years at the Denver Post,primarily as Sunday business editor and special projects editor/business. She has also written for BusinessWeek, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Woman’s World, ColoradoBiz, and the United Communications Group. Her work has received awards and recognition from local, regional, and national organizations, including Gannett, the Colorado Press Association, and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. She lives in Denver.