Category Archives: Links out

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A global food crisis?

The New York Times reports on a growing food crisis.

Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost…. the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilize the food system: climate change.

The article ends on a hopeful if sobering note:

“We’ve doubled the world’s food production several times before in history, and now we have to do it one more time,” said Jonathan A. Foley, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. “The last doubling is the hardest. It is possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Water is of course one important component of this. However, food types (as described in the New York Times article) and garden layouts can overcome water shortages. Consider Geoff Lawton’s desert turned garden, as an example.

What role, then, might technology have in all this? One possibility is to help educate a new generation of gardeners, building on the increasing popularity of urban homesteading. A huge amount of knowledge once passed from parent to child must be made available to new gardeners, and online communities could help to supply that. Computer vision techniques could be used to help with the initial diagnosis the causes of plant diseases, while planning tools could help with garden layout and timings. Sensor networks could contribute information about microclimates (or help homesteaders to measure whether they had successfully created such climates), and build up information over time that could help guide seed planting schedules. The distribution of food (and labor) as crops become ready for harvest, sometimes in a surplus to need, could be facilitated by communication tools.

Some of these ideas may seem far fetched, but I am confident that technology has a role to play (some even exist already). After all, while I can’t claim this idea as my own, I recently discovered a robotic, solar-powered chicken coop for sale!

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Global Grabs for Water and Land

Global Grabs for Water and Land

This is the first in a series of posts that attempt to pose the question: What role might technology play in some of the most pressing sustainability problems today? In exploring this, I am explicitly attempting to move beyond a focus on affluent western single homeowners (Aw Shucks). This article describes a new global trend- a global power for limited resources.

The top water-grabbing nations by volume are China, Egypt, India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States, and some of the most grabbed countries are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Another take, specifically on American farmers buying up land in Brazil. Good for the economy? Bad for locals? Perhaps most importantly, this issue is a big unknown — who owns what land, where, and who stands behind the owners (in some cases) appears to be a very muddled issue.

Even setting aside the question of who owns the land (and the disclosure of this data, which is likely to be an issue requiring international policy making), the impact of a land purchase in terms of water access (and/or contamination), groundwater use (and/or contamination), and soil quality may not be immediately obvious or easy to predict. While much of this depends on the intended use of the land, the areas affected can be estimated based on data about nearby rivers, and streams, historical reactions to different types of land use in similar settings, and so on. There could be value in exploring how this information might be provided and collected prior to purchase decisions being made. Given better, centralized data about ownership and use even more might be done including mapping out the connections between parcels of land and  locations of owners.