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System of Rice Intensification Brings Hope to Global Rice Production

SRI methods generate higher rice yields using less water

Nearly one-third of the world's population depends heavily on rice and rice products for food, with rice providing up to 70 percent of daily calories in some regions.  Over the last thirty years, milled rice consumption has increased by 40 percent, and by 2030, the global demand for rice is expected to increase up to another 40 percent. To meet this demand, rice paddies cover more than 300 million acres around the world.

Traditional rice fields are flooded and planted, and the high water levels are maintained until the rice is ready to be harvested. This requires a lot of water: Up to one-third of the planet's annual freshwater use goes towards irrigating and growing rice.

System of Rice IntensificationPhoto by Oxfam GB AsiaSin Chhukrath harvests SRI rice in Cambodia. SRI farmers report higher yields and use less water and pesticides than farmers employing traditional methods.

In Asia, where more than 90 percent of the world’s rice is grown and eaten, approximately 84 percent of all freshwater use goes towards agriculture, primarily for irrigating rice. This can create serious water shortages.

In the context of global climate change and booming population growth, these water shortages bring up serious questions about global food security. “We need yields to grow to meet growing demand,” said Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, one of the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014 report, “but already climate change is slowing those yields."

But a new farming technique, called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), is generating hope, excitement and new possibilities for increased crop yields.

SRI was first developed in the 1980's. It was developed by Father Henri de Laulanié, a trained agronomist and Jesuit priest, along with colleagues and farmers in Madagascar. With the innovative SRI method, farmers use less water and less synthetic herbicides and pesticides. Contrary to traditional rice farming which calls for standing water in the rice paddies, farmers alternate between keeping their fields wet and dry. Young rice seedlings are transplanted in single rows with more space between them than in traditional rice paddies. Seedlings are kept moist while the soil and its beneficial organisms are exposed to air and sunlight. This allows for more photosynthesis. Farmers add organic compost to improve the health and productivity of their crops, and use a …more

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Stalked from the Skies

Do drones have a place in hunting?

As Dayglo-orange cloaked sportsmen head out into the woods for the fall hunting season, some may have a few new tools in their arsenal. In addition to calls, decoys, and scent eliminators, drones can now give hunters another edge over their prey.

No one knows when an unmanned drone first hovered above treetops, displaying a video feed of an unsuspecting mammal grazing to an off-site hunter. It is likely, however, that Louisiana Hog Control was among the early pioneers of this technology.

hunters pose with a drone and a dead hog in a truckPhoto courtesy Cy BrownCy Brown of Louisiana Hog Control and another hunter pose with the "dehogaflier" after an evening hunt. The pest control company of sorts helps landowners get rid of feral hogs on their property.

Faced with a hog overpopulation problem, the state of Louisiana deals with feral hogs like pests. According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the disease-ridden, crop-damaging, rapidly proliferating hogs “are quickly becoming the most serious problem facing land managers and hunters in Louisiana.” As a result, the agency sets no limit to how many hogs a single sportsman can kill, and the animal may be hunted year round.

That’s where Louisiana Hog Control comes in. A pest control company of sorts, Louisiana Hog Control provides services to landowners with hogs on their properties, and operates under the motto, “We fly, pigs die.” The “fly” part, of course, refers to a drone — a very specialized drone, designed by Owner Cy Brown, dubbed the “dehogaflier.”

“Flying radio control aircraft was already a hobby of mine,” Brown says, “so it wasn’t a big leap to combine it with my hunting hobby.” He explains that due to Louisiana’s tall vegetation, it’s very difficult to spot hogs, forcing Brown and his team to squander hours wandering around in search of them.

Louisiana, like many states, prohibits hunting from, or with the aid of, aircraft (e.g. helicopters). so Brown obtained a special permit to operate the drone on private property. Brown’s dehogaflier received public attention when YouTube videos of its footage went viral in 2012 and 2013.

Shortly thereafter, on January 10, 2014, Colorado became the first state to explicitly ban the use of drones for hunting and fishing with strong support from the local sportsmen community. This new ban also prohibited the …more

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Five Ways Ban Ki-moon’s Summit Has Changed International Climate Politics Forever

The UN climate summit in New York decided nothing – but it has helped put climate change back on the agenda

By Michael Jacobs

So 120 government leaders each made 4 minute speeches about climate change at the United Nations. Did it make any difference?

Yes, but not in the ways you might think.

The UN climate summit did not conclude in a grand ‘agreement’. But that was not its purpose. This was not a negotiating meeting. Indeed it was barely a ‘meeting’ at all: the assembled leaders simply made speeches one after the other, with most of the real debate occurring in later sessions (on energy, forests, finance and so on) in which the main speakers were environment ministers and representatives from civil society and business.

People’s Climate MarchPhoto by Climate Action Network InternationalHundreds of thousands of protesters marched through Manhattan during the People's Climate March to demand action at the UN Climate Summit.

But the summit was nevertheless a vital event, and international climate politics will not be the same after it. Here are five reasons why.

First, most of these heads of government had never made a speech about climate change before. The last summit was five years ago in Copenhagen, when very few current leaders were in office. So now the summit has forced each of them to make a public commitment to stronger climate action.

That’s crucial, because over the next six months every country in the world has to publish a new set of climate targets as part of the international negotiations towards an agreement in Paris next year. With leaders’ public statements now on the record, the chances of stronger policies are much better.

Second, some of the speeches were significant in themselves, with new policy commitments. The most important came from China’s Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. China, he said, would publish “as early as possible” a date at which it expected its greenhouse gas emissions to reach a peak.

Since China is now by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the mathematical fact is that averting dangerous climate change will only be possible if its emissions stop rising within the next ten years and then begin to fall. Before Monday, China had not committed to any timetable for this. We can now expect it to do so in the next few months.

In his own speech to the summit, president Obama called on China, as a fellow …more

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In Review: Mission Blue

Diving into the life of renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle

For many years, I was a vegetarian. It was a gradual process. Like many people, I eliminated red meat first, then poultry, and eventually, fish. And then, as the idealistic haze of my college years wore off, I gradually started eating meat again.

Wyland/Earle First Dive Together! Midway Atollphoto by USFWS – Pacific Region, on FlickrDr. Sylvia Earle diving at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in Hawaii, accompanied by artist and conservationist Robert Wyland.

Now, after watching Mission Blue, a documentary about oceanographer Sylvia Earle and the rapid decimation of our oceans, I am re-inspired to put my money where my mouth is. The movie, available on Netflix and directed by Academy Award winner Fisher Stevens and Academy Award nominee Bob Nixon, paints a compelling picture of the havoc we humans have wreaked on the oceans, and the lightning-like speed with which we’ve done it. And it makes me feel pretty guilty about the sushi roll I had for lunch recently. 

Why the dietary turn-around? Why is the documentary so compelling? Well, to start, there’s oceanographer Sylvia Earle, the film’s inspiring real-life heroine.

Mission Blue takes us through Earle’s life, starting with her childhood in New Jersey, and her family’s move to Florida when she was 12. As she puts it, “Some kids play in the streets, some kids have a backyard. Well, my backyard was wet. It was the Gulf of Mexico. It was glorious.”

It is hard not to be charmed by Earle as she describes the pristine Florida of her youth, and her love affair with the Gulf. Her passion for the ocean seeps through the screen. So does her heartbreak as she describes how Florida transformed before her eyes, as tourists invaded, bays were dredged, and crystal clear waters became murky with soil. “That kind of experience – a witness. I saw the before, I saw the after influence of what we can do to the natural world.”

The film alternates between stories of Earle’s life and insights about the crisis facing our oceans. Given Earle’s connection to the Gulf of Mexico, it makes sense that the film delves early on into the BP oil spill. Images of the blast, and the resulting destruction, are underscored with descriptions of …more

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Effective Public Comment

How to make your voice heard in the environmental review process

Audience at the Mercer Island public meetingphoto by Washington State Dept of Transportation, on FlickrNearly 800 people attended a scoping meeting in Washington state regarding a proposal to implement a tolling system on I-90.

As a concerned citizen, it can be difficult to navigate the environmental review process. If you’ve ever submitted a comment on a project, you may have been left wondering what happened to the comment, or wishing you could have made your point more effectively. Here’s an overview of the public comment process, and a few tips on how to maximize your impact on government decision-making. 

The Public Comment Process

First, here’s a little background on the public comment process. As governmental transparency has become more and more of a hot button issue, opportunities for public comment on agency decision-making processes have become more prevalent and more accessible to the average person. Take the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), for example.

NEPA was signed into law back in 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency describes NEPA as the established national policy goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment, and provides a process for implementing these goals within federal agencies.

As large, federally-linked development projects, such as pipelines or wind farm projects, go through the permitting process, NEPA provides the public with the opportunity to review and comment on the project, as well as on the environmental impact statements (EISs) associated with the project. The public plays a vital role in the NEPA process, pointing to issues of particular concern on the front end of the process (called scoping), and also in reviewing the findings of draft EISs. The public is often given the opportunity to attend informational meetings about projects locally, and is provided with access to decision-making documents (often online).

Lead government agencies must take into consideration all comments received from the public, as well as from other parties (such as cooperating agencies), during a comment period. Agencies respond to comments received on draft EISs in the revised version of the document.

Your comments can have a real impact on project design and mitigation of environmental impacts. Here are some tips to keep in mind to help make your comments even more impactful.

Tips for Effective Comment
by Rachel Tamigniaux Gupta – September 25, 2014

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On Shaky Ground

Longwall coal mining is sinking farmland in Illinois

South-central Illinois boasts some of the richest farmland in the world. It’s a land of corn and soybeans – a land as flat as a pool table that stretches until it meets the horizon far in the distance.

Lately, something strange has been happening to this land. You’re driving along, and suddenly you see an entire field that has sunk six feet below the surrounding fields. And you see that during the frequent spells of rain, pools of water have gathered in the field. Some areas are completely submerged.

photo of crops in a flat farmland, looming dark band of hill in the backgroundphoto by Christopher JohnsonThe people in Hillsboro are never far from the coal slurry impoundment at the Deer Run Mill.

There’s a force behind everything, and the force behind this sinking land is a coal-mining technique called “longwall mining.” Approximately 500 feet below the surface, coal miners dig tunnels along long panels of coal, which are between 1,200 feet and 1,400 feet wide and nearly three miles long. Then the workers lower giant machines that cut the coal along the panels and deposit the black nuggets on conveyor belts that carry the coal to the mine entrance, where it’s transported to the surface.

Hydraulic roof supports, known as shields, hold up the roof of the mine as the machines attack the coal. After the coal is extracted, workers remove the shields, and nothing remains to support the soil above. Within days everything sinks by six to seven feet. It’s an effect known in coal industry parlance as “planned subsidence.” Longwall mining is more efficient than traditional room-and-pillar mining, in which miners remove the coal from around columns of wood and coal that support the ceiling of the mine. In longwall mining, the company takes out more than 90 percent of the coal, as opposed to 50 to 60 percent in room-and-pillar mining.

Those efficiencies, however, are extremely damaging. Longwall mining is causing extensive environmental harm to farming communities in the central and southern parts of the Prairie State. It’s also perpetuating America’s dependence on coal, which emits far more carbon dioxide than any other source of energy.

Longwall mining has already affected communities throughout central and southern Illinois, but the tremors are being felt especially strongly in Hillsboro, a town of 6,100 people that’s about an …more

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Is There Really Such a Thing as “Ethical Oil”?

A trip to a tar sands conference and trade show offers a glimpse into the oil industry’s Id

It’s late afternoon on the third and final day of the “Peace Oil Sands Conference and Trade Show” held last May at the Belle Petroleum Centre in downtown Peace River, Alberta, and author and television host Ezra Levant is giving his keynote address titled Ethical Oil to a room of approximately 100 executives from Canada’s oil and gas industry. Levant is fired up as he declares: “If someone ever in their life tells you that your oil is immoral, that you’re a climate criminal … stop them right there and say: ‘Oh no, I’m not an oil man. No sir, no ma’am. I’m an ethical oil man.”

Fort McMurray, AlbertaPhoto by kris KrügFort McMurray, Alberta. “Good neighborly” activity by oil companies in this region — venting emissions from highly concentrated bitumen tanks into the air — is making some local residents sick.

With those words, Levant drills to the essence of his role in Peace River. He’s there to give moral and ideological cover to the companies that are busy digging up the oil desposits along the Athabasca River, deposits that have been shown to be more carbon intensive than more conventional sources of oil. Levant’s speech is, basically, damage control, and it’s a well-practiced schpeel. Levant is host of “The Source” a daily TV program on the Sun News Network (the Fox News of Canada), a platform he frequently uses to offer justifications for the Canadian petro-state.

“If you believe in making the world a better place, if you believe in the environmental credo of ‘thinking globally, act locally,’ then you must come to the conclusion I have,” Levant said during an October 2011 episode titled Ethical Oil versus Conflict Oil, based on his national bestselling book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands, which won the National Business Book Award earlier that year. “[My conclusion is that] we must in fact follow our morality and produce as much oil sands oil as possible, knowing that every extra barrel we produce and sell to our American friends, or even if we export it to Asia, is one less barrel that will be sold by a Saudi Prince, an Iranian terrorist-supporter, a Nigerian kleptocrat, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Every barrel of oil that we sell is one barrel less that the bad guys sell.”

On its face, …more

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