Connecting the Dots: Water-Food-Energy-Sustainability
We are now receiving daily media reports about rising prices in our super markets and food riots in over a dozen countries from Haiti, Egypt, Senegal to the Philippines. These are the unintended consequences of misguided policies and incentives, which pit the growing world population’s need for more energy against its need for food. We are facing an international food and energy crisis. Many observe that unrest over soaring commodity prices could spread, and call for an urgent increase in aid to developing nations. Emergency aid is undoubtedly appropriate, but we also need to ask ourselves how to address the situation through systemic, profound change. This is a tall order, for it requires the empowerment of people anywhere to realize a sustainable way of life.
The science is clear: “The way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with a growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse.” That is the message from the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a major new report by more than 400 scientists that was launched this month. The report recommends putting in place institutional, economic and legal frameworks that combine productivity with the protection and conservation of natural resources like soils, water, forests, and biodiversity while meeting production needs. Dr Hans Herren, co-chair of the IAASTD, explains that many OECD member countries are deeply opposed to any changes in trade regimes or subsidy systems. So one might wonder, is there hope?
The answer to this could be an unequivocal yes, for everything is connected – food, energy, trade, subsidies, and sustainability. We simply need to be prepared to consider the system as a whole. As the greening of America and the rest of the developed world goes mainstream, so too it will become apparent (if it not already is) that poor people in developing countries are an integral part of the solutions we need. Take global warming for example, a challenge affecting all countries and all peoples. The Stern Review highlighted some 20% of our carbon emissions could be addressed by planting and conserving trees. For a start, perhaps 140 billion of them over a decade — the number of trees the world community lost during the past ten years. Preferably this should be done in developing countries, where trees absorb and sequester an average of 50 lbs. of CO2 every year during their lifetime, and labor is abundant. Simply planting huge plantations of trees is not the answer; this includes biofuel projects implemented “plantation style” which typically deplete water resources and the soil. Enabling local communities to plant forest gardens is. The reason is that forest gardens contain multiple species of trees, crops, and create biomass that provides sustainable livelihoods as a result of investing money and sweat equity in a diversified portfolio of benefit streams. Forest gardens (re)generate food, forage, firewood, low carbon biofuels, fertile soil, and life-supporting ecosystem services, as well as CO2 offsets that can be traded and marketed to people and organizations that need them in a post-Kyoto world. Advanced remote sensing from space and field monitoring data will make it possible to observe, measure, and certify biomass. Back-of-the-envelope calculations quickly show that forest gardens are not only attractive from a social and environmental point of view; their financial returns are significant as well. Moreover, all local communities tending forest gardens will be customers for renewable energy solutions, access to the Internet, cell phones, education, and more. Serving billions at the base of the pyramid creates markets and jobs everywhere.
As governments scramble to address the international food crisis at the next G8 in July, let us hope they will have the collective wisdom, foresight and courage to invest in empowering local communities in developing countries to be self reliant and resilient. It can avoid the next food crisis, promote energy independence, and improve environmental, economic and human security. Think of it as systemic life insurance for the globe. The US is uniquely qualified to take the lead. May the energy and food crisis be the impetus for seeing the forest gardens for the trees. Let’s see which of our leaders, be it in the US or abroad, will answer this 3 A.M. call