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To feed the world amid climate change, we need a better way to grow rice

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Hello, hello. This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • A more sustainable way to grow rice
  • ‘We have lost the luxury of time’: A youth activist reports from COP24
  • The world’s smoggiest cities
  • Your suggestions for how to make the holidays greener

Growing rice in an age of climate change

(Erika Styger)

Humans have been growing rice for millenniums, so it can seem ignorant to say there’s a better way to do it.

Yet, for decades, there’s been a method that breaks from the norm and claims to do more for farmers and less to hurt the environment. It’s called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) — and climate change may finally drive it mainstream.

But let’s back up a little.

The world needs rice. Billions of us eat it, and more than 100 countries grow it. In 2010, global rice production was almost 700 million tonnes. As populations grow in Africa and Asia, so will consumption.

Traditionally, rice seedlings are transplanted from a nursery after several weeks and packed into flooded paddies. A kilogram of rice can take about 2,500 litres of water to grow. That flooded paddy creates an anaerobic environment, where organic material decomposes and creates a lot of methane. In fact, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says between five and 20 per cent of human-caused methane emissions come from rice.

So what’s different about SRI? Farmers transplant the seedlings earlier, spacing the plants apart and giving them much less water — even letting them dry out.

Examples inmore than 55 countries show the result is a stronger plant that yields more rice and uses up to 90 per cent fewer seeds and 30 to 50 per cent less water.

“The conventional wisdom is still that rice is a water-loving plant. It’s not true,” said Erika Styger, a leading SRI researcher at Cornell University. In fact, she said if you provide less water, “the roots develop much deeper.”

Hardier roots mean greater resistance to drought and other extreme weather events made stronger by climate change. Using less water also drastically cuts methane emissions, although some research suggests dry conditions may lead to the release of nitrous oxide, a more dangerous greenhouse gas.

Other criticisms have been that SRI isn’t always reproducible, and that it’s more of a loose set of guidelines than a strict scientific method. But Styger said it wasn’t designed in a lab. “It came from the farmers,” she said. “For farmers, it works.”

Indeed, it’s farmers who have helped spread it in West Africa, even adapting it to work on crops like wheat. But intensification may have its downsides.

Agricultural intensification “should free up space and reduce deforestation,” said Laura Vang Rasmussen, who studies crop intensification strategies at the University of British Columbia. “But it might be so profitable for farmers that we actually might have a situation where [it] escalates the agricultural intensification and expansion of agriculture.”

She cites examples in Laos, Uganda and Rwanda, where intensification has not only deforested more land but also degraded the soil and affected biodiversity.

Still, it seems climate change makes SRI a fix to an immediate problem: food insecurity. And in a warming world, how we feed ourselves sustainably will unquestionably demand more of our ingenuity.

Anand Ram


‘There is so much more to do’: Straight talk from COP24

(Marina Melanidis)

Marina Melanidis recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.Sc. in natural resources conservation. This week, the 23-year-old Canadian is at COP24, the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland, as part of a B.C. youth delegation. Here’s a snapshot of what she’s seen.

It’s only been three days into my COP24 experience and it is already easy to forget that I have a life outside of this conference. I’m overwhelmed by what’s going on: negotiations, high-level meetings, nation pavilions, larger side events and smaller working groups. I’ve walked by Canadian Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in the hall, blew past federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna en route to a meeting and heard whispers that Al Gore is here. (He was.) The voices around me are speaking English, Polish, French, Mandarin, German, Arabic and many languages I don’t recognize.

COP24 has been concentrated with impassioned reminders about the need to increase our climate action ambition and the frightening reality about what will happen if we don’t. “We have lost the luxury of time” is a common speaking point in the dialogues. Yet there is a seemingly intrinsic contradiction between the calls for ambition and the negotiations among countries. Despite the cries for urgency,no one can agree on a followup that adequately matches the ambition required. Countries have not even been able to reach a consensus to recognize the recent IPCC Report outlining the catastrophic impacts humanity will face if global temperatures rise over 1.5 degrees. Instead, to illustrate the host country’s dedication to coal, there is a literal shrine to that resource standing in the Polish pavilion, complete with coal soap and coal jewelry (I am not kidding).

COP24 has been overwhelming, and often disheartening. There is so much more to do, and it is clear that many countries and stakeholders are not only unwilling to give up the status quo for our future, but some are actively undermining any increment of progress — such as attempting to exclude the reference to climate change’s impacts to human rights within the Paris agreement rulebook.

Yet when I walk through security in the morning, past the “#COP24” sign and into the venue halls, I find the same excitement I’ve had since I was first selected for this youth delegation. l continue to grapple with the disbelief that I am actually here, surrounded by people from all over the world who are also pushing for climate action.

I don’t know if Canada, or the world as a whole, will meet our targets. The current trend to do the bare minimum, to shy away from the bold actions that we desperately need to take, worries me greatly. But when I am sitting down with youth and civil society members from all corners of the globe, discussing and making plans for how we can make the greatest impact in this space, I feel empowered and hopeful.


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Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


The Big Picture: The world’s most polluted cities

Coal plants, car exhaust and burning foliage are major sources of smog. While a lot of cities have made efforts to reduce the soupiness of their air, the problem persists in many parts of the world. The World Health Organization measures smog as the amount of particulate matter under 2.5 milligrams in every cubic metre of air. By that metric, WHO found that six of the 10 most polluted cities are in India. (In case you were wondering, the least polluted city on Earth is Bredkalen, Sweden.)

(CBC)

It’s surprisingly easy being green (during the holidays)

Last week, Emily Chung examined whether it was greener to buy a real Christmas tree or a fake one. With that in mind, we asked you to share the ways you are greening the holidays. You had many insightful responses. We’ve included some below.

One reader, who asked to remain anonymous, shared the photo below of a natural tree that can be reused every year.

The reader explained that it’s “a potted Norfolk Pine, which is tropical. I have had this one for almost 30 years, but it has only recently been used as a Christmas tree. It has grown to be huge, but its branches are not really up to holding significant ornaments, so we just wrap the lights around the trunk, which gives it a decidedly Jamaican flavour after dark! It looks like a palm tree with the lights on! I wrap the pot in green silk and my son sets up his wooden toy train set all around the tree base as more decoration. I only use the very lightest and sturdiest of ornaments on it.”

“Brings me joy just looking at the pic,” they wrote.

In a similar vein, Brian Wood wrote that “every 10 to 15 years we buy a small live tree and keep it outside in a big plant pot.

Each Christmas, they decorate it, bring it into the house for a few days and then put it outside again. When the tree is simply too big for the house, they plant it in the ground.

“We have done this for over 30 years and have a small tree plantation in our front yard to prove it.”

Ruth Gatzke wrote about her eco-friendly gift idea: “I potted up rosemary plants that I grew from seed last summer. I have them in repurposed clay pits with leftover ribbons I found around the house tied to the base. Everyone on my list is getting one.”

Gatzke added that her family is not buying presents this year. “No stress — just spending time together is enough!”

Meanwhile, Samantha Salmon said that she has found a better way to package gifts. “One of my ways to green the holidays is to wrap gifts with cloth instead of wrapping paper. To keep it festive, I purchased some Christmas-themed cloth from Fabricland and hemmed it. It looks great!”


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty



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Chill out: Wolves take snow days too, says study

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When snow falls, wolves chill out, according to a recent study from the University of Alberta.

Over two winters, researchers looked at the movements of grey wolves near Fort McMurray, Alta. in conjunction with data on snowfall in the area.

“We found that on the night that it was snowing, wolves rested more than they travelled, and when they travelled, they travelled slower than on other days when there wasn’t any snowfall,” Amanda Droghini, a former master’s student with the biology department. 

The researchers also found that within a day of the snowfall, the wolves returned to their normal movement behaviours. They don’t know exactly why the wolves changed their movements, but they have some theories.

“We think that it might be something about actively falling snow,” said Droghini.

Snow, like rain, clears the air of scent molecules, she said. Wolves rely heavily on their sense of smell to hunt, especially at night. Most of the wolves studied do their hunting after dark.

Another possible explanation, said Droghini, is that the wolves’ prey move less in falling snow.

“We unfortunately don’t have the data to test this,” she said, but if other animals are hunkered down, waiting for the snow to stop, there is no incentive for the wolves to go out hunting.

In their study, researchers used cameras and data transmitted from collars on 17 wolves. (Submitted by Amanda Droghini)

The researchers used data from remote cameras that monitored snowfalls, and collars on 17 wolves. These wolves were also part of a separate study that looked at the movement of wolves and moose near Fort McMurray.

It’s hard to say right now how climate change might affect the behaviour of wolves in snow, said Droghini.

Information about snow conditions is scarce, particularly in the North where there aren’t many weather stations.

Droghini said more freeze and thaw cycles could make movement difficult for animals in winter.

Rain after snow can create an icy crust over the snowpack, and this kind of snow is the most challenging for animals to walk through, she said.

“It costs them a lot of energy.”

The concern, said Droghini, is that it might be more difficult for animals to maintain the energy levels they need for the reproductive season.



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Trump says U.S. will develop space-based missile defence

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Moving to protect the U.S. from advanced missile threats from China and Russia, President Donald Trump on Thursday laid out plans for a new array of space-based sensors and other high-tech systems designed to more quickly detect and defeat attacks.

Trump, in a speech at the Pentagon, declared that space is the new warfighting domain. And he vowed that the U.S. will develop an unrivaled missile defence system to protect against advanced hypersonic and cruise missile threats from competitors and adversaries.

“Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” Trump said. “In a time of rapidly evolving threats, we must be certain that our defensive capabilities are unrivaled and unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Trump did not mention Russia, China or North Korea in his roughly 20-minute speech. But the Pentagon’s new strategy makes clear that its plan for a more aggressive space-based missile defence system is aimed at protecting against existing threats from North Korea and Iran and countering advanced weapon systems being developed by Russia and China.

The new review is the first since 2010, and it concludes that to adequately protect America, the Pentagon must expand defence technologies in space and use those systems to more quickly detect, track and ultimately defeat incoming missiles.

Acting Defence Secretary Pat Shanahan, who also spoke, said the new hypersonic missiles being developed by nations such as Russia and China are harder to see, harder to track and harder to defeat.

To address that, the U.S. is looking at putting a layer of sensors in space to more quickly detect enemy missiles when they are launched. The U.S. sees space as a critical area for advanced, next-generation capabilities to stay ahead of the threats.

The administration also plans to study the idea of basing interceptors in space, so the U.S. can strike incoming enemy missiles during the first minutes of flight when the booster engines are still burning.

20 times faster than sound

Russia and China have made clear their efforts to develop the high-tech programs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled new strategic weapons he claims can’t be intercepted. One is a hypersonic glide vehicle, which could fly 20 times faster than the speed of sound and make sharp manoeuvres to avoid being detected by missile defence systems.

Missile defence officials on Thursday declined to provide any budget estimates or timelines for the programs.

Michael Griffin, the defence undersecretary for research and engineering, told Pentagon reporters that developing a new layered network of sensors in space is key to being able to detect a fast-moving hypersonic missile in its early, more vulnerable stages.

The Pentagon, he said, will study the issue to determine how many would be needed, and at what orbit they would fly. He said the program is affordable and some funding for that would be in the budget that will be proposed for 2020. The system could be operational in the late 2020s.

Officials said the study on space-based interceptors could begin in the coming months. But, recognizing the potential concerns surrounding any perceived weaponization of space, officials emphasized that no testing is mandated, and no final decisions have been made.

The Trump administration is considering ways to expand U.S. homeland and overseas defences against potential missile attacks, possibly adding a layer of satellites in space to detect and track hostile targets. (Mark Wright/Missile Defense Agency via Associated Press)

‘Ineffective, costly, and dangerous’

Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, immediately raised concerns, calling the plan a bad Star Wars sequel.

“While it is true that the missile threat environment America now faces is different, the answer is not to build a wall in space,” Markey said. Adding that Trump’s “misguided rush to weaponize space would be as ineffective, costly, and dangerous as it was more than three decades ago when it was soundly rejected.”

During his Pentagon appearance, Trump also pressed his case to build a wall on the southern border and expressed his condolences on the deaths of four Americans in Syria on Wednesday.

Any expansion of the scope and cost of missile defences would compete with other defence priorities, including the billions of extra dollars the Trump administration has committed to spending on a new generation of nuclear weapons. An expansion also would have important implications for American diplomacy, given long-standing Russian hostility to even the most rudimentary U.S. missile defences and China’s worry that longer-range U.S. missile defences in Asia could undermine Chinese national security.

While the U.S. continues to pursue peace with North Korea, Pyongyang has made threats of nuclear missile attacks against the U.S. and its allies in the past and has worked to improve its ballistic missile technology. It is still considered a serious threat to America. Iran, meanwhile, has continued to develop more sophisticated ballistic missiles, increasing their numbers and their capabilities.



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Zimbabwe in ‘total internet shutdown’ amid violent crackdown

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Zimbabwe on Friday went into “total internet shutdown,” a media group said, after a days-long violent crackdown on people protesting a dramatic fuel price increase.

Badly injured people streamed into a hospital in the capital after alleged assaults by security forces.

“Our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history,” the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in a sweeping statement lamenting the government’s “intolerant handling of dissent” and its failure to halt economic collapse.

Media group MISA-Zimbabwe shared a text message from the country’s largest telecom company, Econet, calling the government’s internet order “beyond our reasonable control.” The High Court will hear a challenge to the shutdown on Monday, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said.

A prominent pastor and activist who faces a possible 20 years in prison on a subversion charge arrived at court, one of more than 600 people arrested this week. Evan Mawarire has called it “heartbreaking” to see the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa acting like that of former leader Robert Mugabe.

‘It’s a shame what’s happening’

Mawarire is accused of inciting civil disobedience online. “It’s a shame what’s happening,” the pastor said. A magistrate said there was reasonable suspicion he had committed an offence and set a Jan. 31 hearing, while Mawarire remains in detention until his lawyer on Monday can seek bail.

International calls for restraint by Zimbabwe’s security forces are growing, while Mnangagwa prepares to plead for more investment at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He announced the fuel price increase on the eve of his overseas trip, leaving hardline former military commander and Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga as acting president.

Zimbabwe cleric and activist Evan Mawarire speaks to the media as he arrives at court Thursday, accused of inciting violence through social media. (Jekesai Nijikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

Gasoline in the economically shattered country is now the world’s most expensive. Zimbabweans heeded a nationwide stay-at-home call earlier this week in protest. Rights groups and others have accused security forces of targeting activists and labour leaders in response, with the United States expressing alarm.

The UN human rights office on Friday urged Zimbabwe to stop the crackdown, noting reports of intimidating door-to-door searches by security forces.

68 cases of gunshot wounds

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has said it had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds and 100-plus other cases of “assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton sticks” and more.

Injured people streamed into a private hospital in the capital, Harare, on Thursday. Some had broken legs. A nurse attended to a man with a broken spine.

Albert Taurai told The Associated Press he had ventured out to look for bread when plainclothes officers wearing masks beat him up, accusing him of barricading roads.

Keith Frymore, a 21-year-old security guard, had a torn lip. He told the AP a group of uniformed soldiers attacked him at work.

Shops running out of bread

“I need $70 to get help here. I don’t have that kind of money,” he said.

Other hungry Harare residents who ventured out seeking food have reported being tear-gassed by police. Soldiers were still controlling long fuel lines in the capital on Friday, and many wary residents stayed at home.

A man stands in a shop after failing to find bread in Harare on Friday. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

Zimbabweans had briefly rejoiced when Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe, who was forced out in late 2017, thinking the new president would deliver on his refrain that the country “is open for business.” But frustration has risen over the lack of improvement in the collapsed economy, which doesn’t even have a currency of its own.

The internet shutdown cuts off crucial access to the mobile money that Zimbabwe’s government uses to pay teachers and other public workers. Some said they can no longer afford fares for public transport, and some shops have run out of basics such as bread.

Demonstrations are ‘terrorism,’ government says

Death tolls in this week’s unrest have varied. Eight people were killed when police and military fired on crowds, Amnesty International said. Zimbabwe’s government said three people were killed, including a policeman stoned to death by an angry crowd.

The demonstrations amount to “terrorism,” Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said, blaming the opposition. State Security Minister Owen Ncube thanked security forces for “standing firm.”

President Emmerson Mnangagwa replaced Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for decades. (Natalia Fedosenko/TASS News Agency/Associated Press)

But among those arrested are several ruling ZANU-PF party community leaders as well as a soldier and a police officer.

The U.K.’s minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, has summoned Zimbabwe’s ambassador to discuss “disturbing reports of use of live ammunition, intimidation and excessive force” against protesters.

The European Union, in a statement late Thursday, noted the “disproportionate use of force by security personnel” and urged that internet service be restored.

Canada updated its travel advisory for the country on Thursday, warning access to food and fuel is limited, and an increased police presence should be expected in all major urban centres.



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