This week’s headline is Regenesis, the title of a book by George Monbiot. I'll tell you what I think and indeed what others think about his latest ideas.
I'm also bringing you a few stories that you might have missed; some about food, some about geo-engineering, the threat of a new pandemic and another book I’m just reading.
This is episode number 450, and to be sure that you don’t miss any of the next 450 just take a moment to subscribe. Even better, take a moment to visit patreon.com/SFR and sign up to support me for as little as a pound or a dollar per month. It goes towards covering my costs, because the Sustainable Futures Report is nonprofit and does not take advertising, sponsorship or subsidy. It's totally independent.
I've come across various stories in various publications which I thought you'd find interesting. There are links to the original articles or reports or papers on the Sustainable Futures Report website, which you'll remember is sustainablefutures.report.
We British are always talking about the weather.
This time it's a heatwave. Inside Climate News reports that research scientists on ships along Antarctica’s west coast have said their recent voyages have been marked by an eerily warm ocean and record-low sea ice coverage—extreme climate conditions, even compared to the big changes of recent decades, when the region warmed much faster than the global average. They describe it as a heatwave.
Ice and snow reflect sunlight and therefore resist global heating. As the ice sheets and shelves melt they do not raise sea levels because they are already floating. However, the Antarctic, unlike the Arctic, is a land mass. It’s covered by layer upon layer of ice, flowing oh so slowly down the glaciers into the sea. If the ice shelves blocking the glaciers melt away, then the glaciers can move faster, delivering land-based ice to the oceans; ice which will raise global sea levels.
The oceans are the world’s heat sink and are so large that it takes unimaginable amounts of heat to raise their temperature. Nevertheless, sea temperatures in the Antarctic are rising. The ice shelves and sea ice are hardly melted by the sun because they are reflective. Instead, this warmer sea is melting the ice sheets from underneath. As the ice recedes more of the dark, heat-absorbing, surface of the ocean is exposed to the sun. At the moment it is not clear whether this is a permanent change.
Ocean currents like El Niño and La Niña move around from year to year and the present warm water could simply be a short-term heatwave. There is little recorded data so far on temperature fluctuations in the region, so scientists will be watching closely to see how temperatures change over the coming months and years. There is nothing yet to prove that this heating is the result of climate change, but if it is and it persists it’s potentially a pernicious feedback loop, raising the temperature and raising sea levels.
Blocking the Sun
What can we do? For years now, scientists and engineers have been talking about geo-engineering; global projects to capture carbon dioxide or to block some of the sun’s heating rays.
Dust as a Solar Shield
PLOS - the Public Library of Science publishes a paper entitled “Dust as a Solar Shield”. The authors say,
“Our calculations include variations in grain properties and orbit solutions with lunar and planetary perturbations. To achieve sunlight attenuation of 1.8%, equivalent to about 6 days per year of an obscured Sun, the mass of dust in the scenarios we consider must exceed 1010 kg.”
That’s 100,000,000,000kg or 100,000,000 tonnes of dust. They go on to suggest that rather than sending this dust up into the air from earth, strategically placed explosives could blast suitable quantities of dust from the surface of the moon down into the earth’s atmosphere. They talk of “a ready reservoir of dust on the lunar surface.”
By describing “several days of an obscured Sun per year,” they imply that the effect of the dust will not be permanent. The trouble with this and many other suggestions for geo-engineering is the unintended consequences. It could be great if the project works as intended, but what if the winds gather the dust in one particular part of the sky and ruin the harvests in one particular country? What if the dust particles do not descend to the Earth as expected and stay up there providing constantly dull days? What if the dust particles, as they descend through the atmosphere, become nucleation sites causing unexpected heavy rains?
The trouble with geo-engineering is that it is experimentation at the global level with the only globe that we've got. If it doesn't work it could make the situation far worse for all of us. Does that mean that such research should cease? Probably not, but when they have come up with a solution I hope they are going to be able to test it out in a small area where any untoward consequences cannot readily be seen.
Bill McGuire is a vulcanologist and Emeritus Professor of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at University College London. In his book, Hothouse Earth - an inhabitant’s guide, which I’m still reading, he says, “We inhabit a planet in peril. Our once temperate world is locked on course to becoming a hot house entirely of our own making. We can no longer dodge the arrival of disastrous – and all pervasive – climate breakdown that will come as a hammer blow to global society and economy.” This is one of a number of books he has written, which include Waking the Giant – How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes, Seven Years to Save the Planet and Global Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction.
His main interests include volcano instability and lateral collapse, the nature and impact of global geophysical events and the effect of climate change on geological hazards. I’d very much like to know what he thinks of geo-engineering, and whether it’s all doom or whether there are grounds for hope. Last summer he wrote an article in the Guardian: The terrifying truth: Britain’s a hothouse, but one day 40C will seem cool. There’s a link at http://www.sustainablefutures.report.
I am attempting to invite him to be a guest on the Sustainable Futures Report. Well, he's been on BBC Horizon, so he should be ready for us.
Global Food Demand
With or without geo-engineering, significant changes to the climate and global weather patterns put agriculture at risk.
A paper from PNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the US - projects global demand for crop production in 2050 and evaluates the environmental impacts of alternative ways that this demand might be met.
The authors find that the constantly increasing demand for food since 1960 implies a 100–110% increase in global crop demand from 2005 to 2050, and that the environmental impacts of meeting this demand depend on how global agriculture expands. They warn that expansion on present trends, with intensification in rich countries and land clearance in poorer countries, will cause GHG emissions and nitrogen fertiliser use to continue to increase.
On the other hand, if agricultural intensification could be brought to the developing countries as well, the GHG emissions could be cut by two thirds and nitrogen use by some 20%. Efficient management practices could lower nitrogen use still further.
“About one-quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions result from land clearing, crop production, and fertilisation,” say the authors, “and fertiliser can harm marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems. Understanding the future environmental impacts of global crop production and how to achieve greater yields with lower impacts requires quantitative assessments of future crop demand and how different production practices affect yields and environmental variables.”
The paper goes on to “forecast 2050 global crop demand and then to quantitatively evaluate the global impacts of land clearing, nitrogen fertiliser use, and GHG release of alternative approaches by which this global crop demand might be achieved.”
Regenesis: feeding the world without devouring the planet…
…is in many ways George Monbiot’s answer to these questions.
George Monbiot is a long-established environmentalist, campaigner, author and journalist. Some might call him the Marmite man: some people strongly support him, others criticise his views equally strongly.
Certainly this book has received praise from prominent people - Kate Raworth, Sir David King, Sir Tim Smit and Greta Thunberg among others.
On the other hand the one-star review from a reader on the Waterstones booksellers website is detailed and dismissive. (The other two short reviews give it 5 stars.) You can read them if you like but this review is about what I thought about it. Should you read this book? Yes. Will you agree with it? Maybe, maybe not.
That 100 of the 340 – odd pages are taken up with notes and index is testament to Monbiot’s claim that he consulted some 5,000 peer reviewed papers and other documents in preparing the book. No one can doubt that it was meticulously researched.
To start with, the book is dystopian. The author talks about the uncontrolled pollution of much of the land and rivers by agriculture. He talks of regulations ignored and regulators ostracised – and this before Liz Truss had an opportunity to light her bonfire of red tape. He talks about what's happening in the UK, a country, up till recent legislation at least, where protest is allowed and activists are not routinely murdered. Looking at all this on a global scale takes dystopia to the nth degree.
Moving on, we visit two farms in the UK where things are done differently. No monocultures, minimal digging or ploughing, crop rotation – up to 7 years – no spraying and one of them accepts no external inputs of any kind. In the face of modern agricultural practice these farms produce respectable yields and a living for their tenants. Do we have the answers here, to food for the future? It appears not: these farms are only viable because land costs have been ignored – in one case there is a benevolent landlord, in another inherited land.
Diatribe No 1
Philosopher Monbiot now enters diatribe mode. First it's all the fault of the poets. Yes, poets. From earliest times they have peddled the bucolic myth. The story of a countryside which is clean and comfortable, rich and verdant and with plenty of time for well-fed shepherds to lie around playing the pipes or dallying with comely milkmaids. We've all been conned. The world was never ever like this.
Diatribe No 2
Diatribe number two is against farmers, particularly European farmers who are paid subsidies for owning land regardless of what they do with it. Farmers who are lightly regulated in many ways but ignore regulations they don't like and coerce anyone who dares to object. So what's the solution?
Apparently it's intensive agriculture, but we're not talking feedlots, battery chickens or pigpens. We’re talking fermentation. Monbiot takes us into a research lab where bacteria are fermented to produce edible protein. He even eats a pancake made from this protein, wheat flour and oat milk, and says it tasted as good as the ones he used to make with eggs before he became vegan.
The fermentation is powered with solar energy and he calculates that producing protein from the fermentation of bacteria will take 30 to 60 times less land than producing protein from soy. He goes into the calculations in some detail.
Fermentation is rapid. There is no need to wait months for harvest. Harvesting can be done up to eight times a day. If the process was scaled up to meet global needs then most land could be rewilded which would protect biodiversity and would sequester vast amounts of CO2. The process could be installed in any part of the world. With genetic engineering the bacteria could be modified to ensure that the fermented product included micronutrients, including those which are sometimes deficient in diets. But further, the protein material could be manipulated to produce different textures and different tastes, to mimic existing foods but also to produce completely new ones. Food from your 3-D printer.
Says Monbiot, “I'm not naive about the challenge. I know the proposals of the kind this book makes will be met with bitter resistance."
He is not wrong.
Chris Smaje clearly knows the topic in great detail and doesn’t agree with George Monbiot at all. He admits that his extensive review on his Small Farm Future blog is a hatchet job. The link is on the Sustainable Futures Report website. Http://Www.Sustainablefutures.Report
I can’t see the average farmer warming to Monbiot’s ideas either.
Other people, Sir David King, for example, describe Regenesis as one of the two or three most important books to appear this century.
But that’s George Monbiot - Marmite man.
Monbiot - Pandemic
He’s no stranger to controversy, and whether you agree or disagree with him he always makes you think. In a recent article he warns of the likelihood of a new pandemic and ties it to the intensive farming of species which would normally live much further apart. He talks in particular of farmed mink, which are able apparently to infect humans and to be infected by humans. They can be infected by other animals and therefore could be a vector, or bridge, for diseases in the wild such as bird flu to be transferred to humans. Some strains of bird flu are fatal to humans. Monbiot is not alone in his warning.
Mink as a host species
This is an abstract from a paper published by the US National Library of Medicine.
Pandemic influenza, typically caused by the reassortment of human and avian influenza viruses, can result in severe or fatal infections in humans. Timely identification of potential pandemic viruses must be a priority in influenza virus surveillance. However, the range of host species responsible for the generation of novel pandemic influenza viruses remains unclear. In this study, we conducted serological surveys for avian and human influenza virus infections in farmed mink and determined the susceptibility of mink to prevailing avian and human virus subtypes. The results showed that farmed mink were commonly infected with human (H3N2 and H1N1/pdm) and avian (H7N9, H5N6, and H9N2) influenza A viruses. Correlational analysis indicated that transmission of human influenza viruses occurred from humans to mink, and that feed source was a probable route of avian influenza virus transmission to farmed mink. Animal experiments showed that mink were susceptible and permissive to circulating avian and human influenza viruses, and that human influenza viruses (H3N2 and H1N1/pdm), but not avian viruses, were capable of aerosol transmission among mink. These results indicate that farmed mink could be highly permissive “mixing vessels” for the reassortment of circulating human and avian influenza viruses. Therefore, to reduce the risk of emergence of novel pandemic viruses, feeding mink with raw poultry by-products should not be permitted, and epidemiological surveillance of influenza viruses in mink farms should be urgently implemented.
I hope agriculture ministers across the world are taking note.
That's the end for this week.
I'm Anthony Day.
That was the SFR.
There'll be another one next week.
Thanks for listening, and many, many thanks to my loyal Patrons.
Bye for now.
PLOS - Public Library of Science
Dust as a solar Shield
PNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the US
Global Food Demand
Monbiot - Pandemic
Mink as a host species
Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/larisa-k-1107275/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=276014">Larisa Koshkina</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com//?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=276014">Pixabay</a>