Climate change will make rice less nutritious, putting millions of the world’s poor at risk



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Rice farmer in Longsheng, China.
kevincure, CC BY

Kristie Ebi, University of Washington

Rice is the primary food source for more than 3 billion people around the world. Many are unable to afford a diverse and nutritious diet that includes complete protein, grains, fruits and vegetables. They rely heavily on more affordable cereal crops, including rice, for most of their calories.

My research focuses on health risks associated with climate variability and change. In a recently published study, I worked with scientists from China, Japan, Australia and the United States to assess how the rising carbon dioxide concentrations that are fueling climate change could alter the nutritional value of rice. We conducted field studies in Asia for multiple genetically diverse rice lines, analyzing how rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere altered levels of protein, micronutrients and B vitamins.

Our data showed for the first time that rice grown at the concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide scientists expect the world to reach by 2100 has lower levels of four key B vitamins. These findings also support research from other field studies showing rice grown under such conditions contains less protein, iron and zinc, which are important in fetal and early child development. These changes could have a disproportionate impact on maternal and child health in the poorest rice-dependent countries, including Bangladesh and Cambodia.

Many of poorest regions in Asia rely on rice as a staple food.
IRRI, CC BY-NC-SA

Carbon dioxide and plant growth

Plants obtain the carbon they need to grow primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and draw other required nutrients from the soil. Human activities – mainly fossil fuel combustion and deforestation – raised atmospheric CO2 concentrations from about 280 parts per million during pre-industrial times to 410 parts per million today. If global emission rates continue on their current path, atmospheric CO2 concentrations could reach over 1,200 parts per million by 2100 (including methane and other greenhouse gas emissions).

Higher concentrations of CO2 are generally acknowledged to stimulate plant photosynthesis and growth. This effect could make the cereal crops that remain the world’s most important sources of food, such as rice, wheat and corn, more productive, although recent research suggests that predicting impacts on plant growth is complex.

Concentrations of minerals critical for human health, particularly iron and zinc, do not change in unison with CO2 concentrations. Current understanding of plant physiology suggests that major cereal crops – particularly rice and wheat – respond to higher CO2 concentrations by synthesizing more carbohydrates (starches and sugars) and less protein, and by reducing the quantity of minerals in their grains.

After steadily declining for over a decade, global hunger appears to be on the rise, affecting 11 percent of the global population.
FAO, CC BY-ND

The importance of micronutrients

Worldwide, approximately 815 million people worldwide are food-insecure, meaning that they do not have reliable access to sufficient quantities of safe, nutritious and affordable food. Even more people – approximately 2 billion – have deficiencies of important micronutrients such as iron, iodine and zinc.

Insufficient dietary iron can lead to iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which there are too few red blood cells in the body to carry oxygen. This is the most common type of anemia. It can cause fatigue, shortness of breath or chest pain, and can lead to serious complications, such as heart failure and developmental delays in children.

Zinc deficiencies are characterized by loss of appetite and diminished sense of smell, impaired wound healing, and weakened immune function. Zinc also supports growth and development, so sufficient dietary intake is important for pregnant women and growing children.

Higher carbon concentrations in plants reduce nitrogen amounts in plant tissue, which is critical for the formation of B vitamins. Different B vitamins are required for key functions in the body, such as regulating the nervous system, turning food into energy and fighting infections. Folate, a B vitamin, reduces the risk of birth defects when consumed by pregnant women.

Anemia affects one-third of women of reproductive age globally – or about 613 million women.
FAO, CC BY-ND

Significant nutrition losses

We carried out our field studies in China and Japan, where we grew different strains of rice outdoors. To simulate higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations, we used Free-Air CO2 Enrichment, which blows CO2 over fields to maintain concentrations that are expected later in the century. Control fields experience similar conditions except for the higher CO2 concentrations.

On average, the rice that we grew in air with elevated CO2 concentrations contained 17 percent less vitamin B1 (thiamine) than rice grown under current CO2 concentrations; 17 percent less vitamin B2 (riboflavin); 13 percent less vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid); and 30 percent less vitamin B9 (folate). Our study is the first to identify that concentrations of B vitamins in rice are reduced with higher CO2.

We also found average reductions of 10 percent in protein, 8 percent in iron and 5 percent in zinc. We found no change in levels of vitamin B6 or calcium. The only increase we found was in vitamin E levels for most strains.

Rice within the octagon in this field is part of an experiment designed to grow rice under different atmospheric conditions. Rice grown under carbon dioxide concentrations of 568 to 590 parts per million is less nutritious, with lower amounts of protein, vitamins and minerals.
Dr. Toshihiro HASEGAWA, National Agriculture and Food Research Organization of Japan, CC BY-ND

Worsening micronutrient deficiencies

At present, about 600 million people — mostly in Southeast Asia — get more than half of their daily calories and protein directly from rice. If nothing is done, the declines we found would likely worsen the overall burden of undernutrition. They also could affect early childhood development through impacts that include worsened effects from diarrheal disease and malaria.

The potential health risks associated with CO2-induced nutritional deficits are directly correlated to the lowest overall gross domestic product per capita. This suggests that such changes would have serious potential consequences for countries already struggling with poverty and undernutrition. Few people would associate fossil fuel combustion and deforestation with the nutritional content of rice, but our research clearly shows one way in which emitting fossil fuels could worsen world hunger challenges.

How could climate change affect other key plants?

Unfortunately, today there is no entity at the federal, state or business level that provides long-term funding to evaluate how rising CO2 levels could affect plant chemistry and nutritional quality. But CO2-induced changes have significant implications, ranging from medicinal plants to nutrition, food safety and food allergies. Given the potential impacts, which may already be occurring, there is a clear and urgent need to invest in this research.

The ConversationIt is also critical to identify options for avoiding or lessening these risks, from traditional plant breeding to genetic modification to supplements. Rising CO2 concentrations are driving climate change. What role these emissions will play in altering all aspects of plant biology, including the nutritional quality of the crops that we use for food, feed, fiber and fuel, remains to be determined.

Kristie Ebi, Professor of Global Health and Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Polar invasion: how plants and animals would colonise an ice-free Antarctica



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Tom Hart, Author provided

Peter Convey, British Antarctic Survey and Tom Hart, University of Oxford

Antarctica’s ice sheets could totally collapse if the world’s fossil fuels are burnt off, according to a recent climate change simulation. While we are unlikely to see such a dramatic event any time soon, we are already observing big changes and it’s worth considering what the worst case scenario might look like for the continent’s ecosystems. How long before Antarctica turns into grassy tundra?

For now, life thrives mostly at the very edge of the continent – it’s driven by the plankton-rich Southern Ocean and clustered around seasonally ice-free areas of coastal land. The interior might be sparsely inhabited, but the continent is not as barren as many think. There are around 110 native species of moss and two flowering plants, the Antarctic hairgrass and pearlwort. These plants have flourished along the relatively mild Antarctic Peninsula in recent decades. However they can’t go much further – they already occur at almost the most southern suitable ice-free ground.

With ice-caps and glaciers receding already in the Peninsula region, native land plants and animals are benefiting from more easily available liquid water. Already we are starting to see increased populations, greater areas occupied and faster growth rates, consequences only expected to increase – everything is currently limited by the extreme physical environment.

The world’s most southerly flower, the Antarctic hairgrass (Deschampsia Antarctica)
British Antarctic Survey, Author provided

It may eventually prove too warm for some native species, but the bigger issue in upcoming decades and centuries will be whether new and currently “non-native” species will arrive that are stronger competitors than the native organisms.

Antarctic invasions

Native polar species are inherently weak competitors, as they have evolved in an environment where surviving the cold, dry conditions is the overriding selective pressure rather than competition from other biological sources. If humans (or other wildlife expanding their range southwards) bring new competitors and diseases to Antarctica, that may pose a very grave risk to the existing biodiversity. Some native species would likely be pushed into the remaining more extreme regions where they can avoid competition and continue to rely on their inherent stress tolerance abilities.

Tom Hart with two million chinstrap penguins. Isolation has made Antarctic species vulnerable to introduced competition.
Richard White, Author provided

We usually split the process of natural colonisation – which applies even today in Antarctica – and that of movement of “alien” species by human agency. The best available data for the Antarctic region come from some sub-Antarctic islands, where it appears humans have been responsible for many more successful colonisations than nature. In fact, over the recent centuries of human contact with the region we have introduced 200-300 species compared to just two or three known natural colonisations.

Penguins, seals and flying seabirds move between islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, so there is potential for some natural colonisation. Vagrant birds are regularly observed across the sub-Antarctic and even along the Peninsula, some of which have colonised successfully (such as the starlings, redpolls and mallard ducks on Macquarie Island).

Migrants such as skuas and gulls, which spend time on land at both ends of their migration, could be important natural vectors of transfer for invertebrates, plant seeds and spores, and microbes into an ice-free Antarctica. Importantly, bird colonies also fertilise surrounding rock and soil with faeces, eggshells and carcasses. Plant and animal life flourishes near seabird colonies, encouraged by this enrichment.

What’s hitching a ride on this skua?
Tom Hart, Author provided

However it can be tough to predict what Antarctic melt would mean for individual species, never mind entire ecosystems. Take penguins, for instance – they have already survived previous inter-glacial retreats, but at reduced population sizes. This time round it is likely that Adélie and emperor penguins who are more dependent upon sea ice would decline, while less ice-dependent species such as gentoos and chinstraps might benefit. Indeed, there is already some evidence that emperors are struggling (although also that they may be adapting and learning to emigrate).

However the fact fish-eating gentoo penguins are increasing on the Peninsula while Adélies and chinstraps (both krill eaters) aren’t doing so well suggests prey availability can be more to blame than ice cover. Figuring out the impact of large-scale environmental change at ecosystem or food-web level is hard – it’s a complex process that will no doubt throw up some unexpected results.

This flightless midge comes from South Georgia but has been introduced further south.
British Antarctic Survey, Author provided

The sub-Antarctic islands are full of examples of such unexpected impacts. Pigs, dogs, cats, sheep, reindeer and rabbits have all been intentionally introduced in the past, with often devastating effects. Rats and mice were introduced to South Georgia and other islands accidentally by sealers and whalers, for instance, and have decimated seabird populations. A recent eradication campaign appears to have been successful and pipits, ducks and small seabirds are showing some immediate signs of recovery.

The removal of non-native cats from Macquarie and Marion Islands has similarly helped native burrowing seabirds, although responses in such ecosystems can be far more complex and unpredictable – the removal of cats from Macquarie also led to increase in the introduced rabbit population, and considerably increased damage to sensitive native vegetation.

Antarctic biodiversity is far more complex than widely assumed, with up to 15 distinct biogeographic regions that have been evolutionarily isolated for many millions of years. Humans present the greatest threat, not only of introducing new species, but also of moving “native” species between regions within Antarctica. This could be even more damaging, as these native species would already be pre-adapted to polar life.

Visitors to Antarctica are subject to increasingly strict biosecurity measures but accidental introductions continue to occur, often through food shipments for scientists. Changes in sea and land ice affect access to new areas, so we can only expect plant and invertebrate invasions to increase unless biosecurity becomes more effective.

The ConversationWhile cost issues may be raised, it is worth remembering that prevention will always be better – and cheaper – than subsequent control and eradication, even if such action is possible.

Peter Convey, Terrestrial Ecologist, British Antarctic Survey and Tom Hart, Penguinologist, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why poachers persist in hunting bushmeat — even though it’s dangerous



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Flickr/jbdodane

Eli Knapp, Houghton College

The illegal hunting of bushmeat, or game meat, has long distressed wildlife conservationists. It has persisted in sub-Saharan Africa, attracting international attention and debate. Enforcement by authorities and community-based initiatives have been tried as anti-poaching approaches, but with mixed results. Overall, wildlife populations have continued to plummet.

Why has poaching refused to go away? The answer, as suggested by poachers themselves, is simple: because poaching pays.

We conducted a study with poachers in western Tanzania. Our findings shed new light on what motivates people to poach and shows that poachers benefit considerably while the costs are negligible. The study also knocks down the general perception about who poachers are – they’re not necessarily the poorest of the poor. Rather than hunting for basic subsistence, they take risks to widen their livelihood options and improve their situation.

Our research therefore suggests that current approaches to dealing with poaching are misplaced for a simple reason: poachers vary widely. Bottom-up, or community-based, interventions like providing meat at a reduced cost, are unlikely to work unless the benefits can offset what they gain through poaching. And for those who are poaching out of necessity, top-down measures, like longer prison sentences or greater fines, are unlikely to be effective because they don’t have alternative ways to make an income.

Cost benefit analysis

Our study focused on individuals who lived in villages that bordered two premier national parks in Tanzania: Serengeti National Park and Ruaha National Park.

We interviewed 200 poachers, asking them questions about their lives, livelihood alternatives and motivations for poaching. Respondents volunteered information freely and were neither paid nor given incentives for their participation.

We found that illegal hunters are making rational decisions. They earn far more through hunting than through all the other options combined for rural farmers. Over a 12-month period, poachers on average generated US$425. This is considerably more than the amount earned through typical means – such as trade, small business, livestock sales and agricultural sales – which amount to about US$258 each year.

Obviously, benefits are meaningless unless compared to the costs involved. Hunting large animals in the bush carries economic and physical risks. Hunters could get injured, risk imprisonment or lose the opportunity to farm or do other forms of legitimate business.

But, in places like rural Tanzania, the benefits outweigh these costs.

Where farming is the main income generator, there is lots of time available to hunt between planting and harvesting seasons. And with high formal unemployment, labour in a typical household is rarely a limiting factor. We compared poaching and non-poaching households and found that the opportunity costs forfeited by poaching households amounted to just US$116, far below the amount gained through bushmeat sales of US$425. Because other income generating opportunities are few and pay little, poachers have little to lose by poaching.

Other economic costs may come in the form of arrests, imprisonment and subsequent fines. Each time a poacher entered the bush, he faced a 0.07% chance of being arrested. Once arrested, poachers may be fined, imprisoned, beaten or let off. Two-thirds of poachers had never been arrested. Those who had spent just 0.04 days in prison when averaged over a career of 5.2 years. Of those arrested, just over half (56%) had been fined, with fines averaging US$39. For every trip taken, poachers paid just two cents when averaged over their career.

The story here is simple. The majority of poachers never get arrested. And those who do pay a penalty that is paltry compared to the income typically earned.

Physical costs, including injury and possibly even death, have been far more difficult to assess. Outside Serengeti National Park, dangerous wildlife was frequently encountered in the bush and one-third of the poachers questioned had been injured during their hunting careers. Recovery times averaged slightly more than a month. But when averaged over the number of days a poacher spends in the bush (1,901 days), the likelihood of being injured on any given day was remarkably low, just 0.02%.

Still, poaching isn’t easy. Eight in ten respondents claimed it was a difficult activity and that they did it primarily because they didn’t make enough money from legal activities.

Moderately poor

Poverty has long been assumed to be a primary driver of poaching activities, however it may not be that poachers are the poorest of the poor.

Our analysis of poachers living along the borders of Ruaha National Park, revealed that they are poor, but not absolutely poor. In the language of the economist Jeffrey Sachs, many poachers may be “moderately poor”. They are unlikely to go hungry in the short term and are able to focus more on expanding their livelihood options.

Regarding their economic self-perception, these poaching households were similar to non-poaching households. Over half (54%) of poaching households considered themselves economically “average” rather than “poor”.

So, if poachers don’t consider themselves to be poor and consider poaching difficult, why do they do it? The answer may lay in a concept that the Nobel Peace Prize winner Amartya Sen has called “capability deprivation”.

Many poachers lack choices by which to improve their lives. They lack access to income which reduces their chances for further education or entrepreneurial opportunity. Deprived of capabilities to make a better life, many poachers —- at least in Tanzania —- continue to poach to gain agency, rather than just to make ends meet.

One respondent, outside Ruaha National Park, stated that after poaching for six years, he gave it up. His livestock numbers had grown enough to ensure sufficient income the whole year through. This poacher’s story reveals that some threshold of affluence is attainable for longtime poachers to curb illegal activity.

The ConversationResults here present a new twist for those seeking to protect dwindling wildlife populations. It means that strategies to stop poaching can no longer focus merely on the poorest of the poor. Without other ways to improve their livelihoods, even poachers who can meet their basic needs will continue poaching. For one really simple reason: it pays.

Eli Knapp, Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies, Biology and Earth Science, Houghton College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia must embrace transformation for a sustainable future



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Judy van der Velden/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Shirin Malekpour, Monash University

Last Friday, the Australian government released its first report on our progress towards meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

These 17 goals are a call to action to ensure economic prosperity and social inclusion, while protecting the planet. They cover issues ranging from health to reducing inequalities and clean energy.

According to the report, Australia has made some steady progress towards most of our goals.




Read more:
In the quest to meet the SDGs, there’s a danger that some may be left behind


However, to achieve the goals in just 12 years from now, we need transformative actions. These are missing in the report. Without a strong vision and new models of partnership between government, industry and communities, we will not meet the 2030 deadline.

What the report says

In 2015, most of the world’s nations signed up to the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda. In July this year, Australia will present its first voluntary review of progress towards the goals at the UN. These reviews are a crucial component of accountability.

Australia’s Voluntary National Review (for which I facilitated a consultation workshop to give input from the university sector) is a showcase of policies, actions and initiatives from across different sectors that are, in the report’s language, “relevant” to achieving the goals.

The report highlights that Australia is a prosperous and generally healthy country. But it also acknowledges significant challenges, such as improving the health and prosperity of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and helping workers in the resources or manufacturing sectors who are facing technological and industrial transitions.




Read more:
Climate action is the key to Australia achieving the Sustainable Development Goals


The report highlights that local councils, statutory authorities, businesses and universities are taking actions that are explicitly aligned with the global goals. For example, a number of Australian universities have signed a commitment to the goals and are including the 2030 Agenda in their curricula.

However, no sector has fundamentally changed its practices in response to the Sustainable Development Goals, nor embedded the goals into its core business.

At the national level, there has been limited specific engagement with the goals. Most of the national policies outlined in the report were developed for other reasons, and some have been around for years or decades. Examples are the National Disability Strategy, which dates back to pre-2010, or the National Drought Policy, which began in 1992. In other words, at the national level, the report emphasises what we have already been doing – not new initiatives explicitly related to the goals.

Notwithstanding success stories from across different sectors, the reality is that we will not be able to meet the goals in just 12 years on a business-as-usual trajectory. Instead, we need transformative plans across all sectors.

What is transformative change?

Sustainable development, as opposed to conventional development, involves big systemic transformations. Let’s use the example of clean energy.

Taking carbon out of our energy system is not simply about using wind and solar instead of coal. It involves big changes in how we consume energy, in manufacturing technologies and in the ways governments help (or hinder) the adoption of new technologies and practices. It requires systemic transformation, rather than incremental improvements.

Research into systemic transformation has identified a range of factors for making change happen. Two critical factors are creative decision-making and strong partnerships across disciplines and sectors. If we are serious about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we need to act now.

Transformative decision-making

Conventional decision-making favours the status quo and is largely risk-averse. It can cope with small incremental changes, but not big ones. In transport, for instance, we often tend to augment or replicate existing infrastructure – building another highway, for example – rather than innovating by trying to get people out of their cars.

Conventional decision-making also prefers to react: we often wait for a crisis situation and then quickly respond. This almost always favours short-term over long-term benefits.

Transformative decision-making, on the other hand, is proactive and takes deliberate actions to shape a desired future. It works toward a long-term vision and doesn’t shy away from uncertainty and complexity along the way.

As Australia’s review correctly acknowledges, the Sustainable Development Goals are all about “longstanding, complex policy challenges with no simple solutions”. Solving complex problems requires a great deal of innovation and experimentation. We need governments, businesses and communities to be willing to try new things, even if they occasionally fail.

Developing partnerships

Improving the lives of people and the planet requires myriad skills, tapping into various networks and reaching out to all segments of society.

Universities, for instance, often play a key role in analysing problems, developing new solutions and providing the evidence base that a solution actually works. But it is only through partnering with communities, businesses and policy organisations that they can put these solutions into practice.




Read more:
Universities must act now on sustainability goals


The Voluntary National Review has highlighted the role of cross-sectoral partnerships. What is missing is a plan for fostering the partnerships that can enable substantial change in just 12 years.

The ConversationAs Australia prepares to present our progress report at the 2018 UN High Level Political Forum in July, we need more critical assessment of our performance. How can we start doing things differently to be able to celebrate achieving these ambitious global goals in 2030?

Shirin Malekpour, Research Leader in Strategic Planning and Futures Studies, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.