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posted by martyb on Tuesday January 11, @04:47PM   Printer-friendly
from the Betteridge-says-"No" dept.

Can We Feed Billions of Ourselves Without Wrecking the Planet?

We are now producing more food more efficiently than ever, and there is plenty to go around for a human population of 7 billion. But it is coming at a drastic cost in environmental degradation, and the bounty is not reaching many people.

Sustainable Food Production, a new Earth Institute primer from Columbia University Press, explores how modern agriculture can be made more environmentally benign, and economically just. With population going to maybe 10 billion within 30 years, the time to start is now, the authors say.

The lead author is ecologist Shahid Naeem, director of the Earth Institute for Environmental Sustainability. He coauthored the book with former Columbia colleagues Suzanne Lipton and Tiff van Huysen.

This is an interesting interview with the author. Do you agree (or disagree) with his conclusions?

Columbia Climate School

[Also Covered By]: Phys.org


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  • (Score: 1) by khallow on Tuesday January 18, @05:32AM (11 children)

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday January 18, @05:32AM (#1213535) Journal

    National boundaries in time and space may excuse your conscience, but they are entirely irrelevant to damage done to the ecosystems of the world.

    Your disinterest in time and space indicates my conscience has little to excuse. If you're not interested in who did what when, then that indicates you have a similar disinterest in our attempts to fix the harm we've done.

    Saying that we are better than the 1950s is like saying the slave trade of the early 1800s was less brutal than what was practiced in the 1600s.

    And that's supposed to be bad why? I think this shows the utter bankruptcy of your argument. We can't magically end environmental harm because we can't magically make almost 8 billion people disappear. The analogy above hides the enormous positive nature of that observation. We are indeed much better off just as 1800s Earth was much better off in terms of slavery. And just as parts of the world led the way in abolition of slavery, so does the developed world lead the way in abolition of unnecessary environmental harm. Hopefully, some day you'll let go of these poisonous narratives and learn who really is making the world better today.

  • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Tuesday January 18, @11:14AM (10 children)

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Tuesday January 18, @11:14AM (#1213556)

    The point is, at this juncture we are no longer the relatively powerless Pre-Columbians who rightfully feared the large predators for the survival of their own species. We are no longer an insignificant bit player in the planetary ecosystems. But we are mostly still acting like we are, and if that rate of adapting doesn't pick up, it will be more disasterous than it already has been.

    In as much as the US is a world leader, we bear that responsibility for leading the necessary positive changes. While we are changing in the right direction, the magnitude of our change is insufficient, by a wide margin. The carrot of "just be rich like us, prosperity solves everything" is ultimately just as hollow as social solutions based on the "just don't be poor" philosophy.

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    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Tuesday January 18, @05:29PM (9 children)

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday January 18, @05:29PM (#1213613) Journal

      The point is, at this juncture we are no longer the relatively powerless Pre-Columbians who rightfully feared the large predators for the survival of their own species.

      I quite agree.

      But we are mostly still acting like we are, and if that rate of adapting doesn't pick up, it will be more disasterous than it already has been.

      You've already given many examples of how that isn't true.

      In as much as the US is a world leader, we bear that responsibility for leading the necessary positive changes.

      That box is checked.

      • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Tuesday January 18, @06:18PM (8 children)

        by JoeMerchant (3937) on Tuesday January 18, @06:18PM (#1213619)

        if that rate of adapting doesn't pick up, it will be more disastrous than it already has been.

        You've already given many examples of how that isn't true.

        Your naked assertions imply nothing about my agreement or disagreement. Assume when I don't answer your disagreements, I remain unconvinced and stand by my statements.

        In as much as the US is a world leader, we bear that responsibility for leading the necessary positive changes.

        That box is checked.

        The expression: "Checkered past" comes to mind in this situation. Policy waffling, open political hostility to environmental progress and science in general, fig-leaf regulations cast aside when the price is right and openly flaunted for decades. With this kind of leadership it's no wonder that practices like dynamiting fish habitat for a cheap/quick single harvest, and similarly use of habitat destroying poisons (cyanide in particular) to collect ornamental pet fish are still practiced around the world.

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        • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday January 19, @02:46AM (7 children)

          by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday January 19, @02:46AM (#1213757) Journal

          [JoeMerchant:] if that rate of adapting doesn't pick up, it will be more disastrous than it already has been.

          [khallow:] You've already given many examples of how that isn't true.

          [JoeMerchant:]Your naked assertions imply nothing about my agreement or disagreement. Assume when I don't answer your disagreements, I remain unconvinced and stand by my statements.

          They don't have to. You've granted many such examples whether you intended to or not, or agree or not. Just in this particular thread:

          Our switch from coal to natural gas has dramatically reduced mercury emissions

          While we are changing in the right direction, the magnitude of our change is insufficient

          not due to pesticides or even fertilizer - which were monitored and controlled

          Moving on, we have appeals to the distinct past - because you can't find enough environmental harm in the present to sell us.

          In the 1800s the river supported many species of fish up to very large (good to eat) sturgeon in the thousands. Today, you're lucky to see one a year.

          1950 isn't a good baseline. 1492 might be a reasonable baseline to consider, but even then pre-Columbian residents had extincted a lot of megafauna and scary predators. Ecological damage isn't exclusively a modern thing, we have just accelerated the situation dramatically.

          Not extinction of megafauna though!

          The deer are coming back, and we can't get rid of the wild boar

          Back to acknowledging progress in the backhanded Joe way.

          Saying that we are better than the 1950s is like saying the slave trade of the early 1800s was less brutal than what was practiced in the 1600s.

          Depends on your definition of "great job" better than flaming rivers and 100% of lakes 100% dead from acid rain, yeah, we're beating that standard - now.

          Repeatedly, you've had to acknowledge the great progress the US has made environmentally. Sure, I'm not quoting the many subsequent "buts" where you say. But that's because I think your buts are dishonest.

          My take is that you are heavily invested in ideologies and narratives that force you to treat the developed world as the bad guys, environmentally. This is a lot like the "What did the Romans ever do for us" [youtube.com] Monty Python skit where a rebel Jewish group bellyaches about the Roman oppressors and then comes up with a large list of positive things that the Romans did.

          My take on this is that if you can't see who is doing the right thing here, then you can't have an informed opinion on environmentalist matters.

          • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Wednesday January 19, @02:55AM (6 children)

            by JoeMerchant (3937) on Wednesday January 19, @02:55AM (#1213762)

            you can't find enough environmental harm in the present to sell us.

            https://www.sciencealert.com/new-evidence-confirms-the-sixth-mass-extinction-has-already-begun-scientists-warn [sciencealert.com]

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            • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday January 19, @03:35AM (5 children)

              by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday January 19, @03:35AM (#1213774) Journal
              First, where is most of the species extinction happening? My bet is the developing world.

              Second, the present bout of extinctions is not being accurately compared to the big five. When all you have is a fossil record, you'll get a much lower extinction count than we have here.

              Finally, a big indicator of mass extinction is twofold: extinction of genus level or higher classification, not just species, and the extinction of large organisms. IF this really is the sixth mass extinction, it started 10k years ago, not 500 years ago.

              Sorry, this is hysterical hyperventilating based on really poor comparisons to true, environmentally dangerous periods of time. The narrative needs work.
              • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Wednesday January 19, @04:49PM (4 children)

                by JoeMerchant (3937) on Wednesday January 19, @04:49PM (#1213872)

                First, where is most of the species extinction happening? My bet is the developing world.

                First - what does this do to the argument: "The solution is to promote economic development everywhere."?

                When all you have is a fossil record, you'll get a much lower extinction count than we have here.

                Second - dem scientist types is moar clever then yew giv um credit fer. Ratios are a thing, and they know how to use them. Arguments like: "We'd have lower COVID rates if we did less testing" only work on the weak minded.

                Sorry, this is hysterical hyperventilating

                Sorry, but this isn't a new story, nor is it hysterical, it continues to be re-confirmed by every group who studies the situation with no credible opposition for decades now. A lot like climate change was 20 years ago.

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                • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday January 19, @05:36PM (3 children)

                  by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday January 19, @05:36PM (#1213881) Journal

                  First, where is most of the species extinction happening? My bet is the developing world.

                  First - what does this do to the argument: "The solution is to promote economic development everywhere."?

                  It strengthens the argument since the developing world would then be transitioning into a part of the developed world with its greater care for the environment - such as much lower pollution, growing land set aside for wilderness and habitat, and all the things that Joe cares about like CO2 emissions or the broad list of stuff mentioned in this discussion.

                  Bottom line is that poor people can't afford to care about the environment or the future.

                  When all you have is a fossil record, you'll get a much lower extinction count than we have here.

                  Second - dem scientist types is moar clever then yew giv um credit fer. Ratios are a thing, and they know how to use them. Arguments like: "We'd have lower COVID rates if we did less testing" only work on the weak minded.

                  Ratios only are relevant, if they know what the ratios are and actually use them. Here, I see a huge case of not comparing like to like. You're the first to mention those alleged ratios.

                  Sorry, but this isn't a new story, nor is it hysterical, it continues to be re-confirmed by every group who studies the situation with no credible opposition for decades now. A lot like climate change was 20 years ago.

                  Well, it's getting opposed now. And yes, it is hysterical - if you look at those past extinctions, they are huge with large percentages of genus level groupings going extinct. Sorry, we don't have anything comparable here.

                  The weakest (ignoring that there are probably a bunch of others of more serious nature than today's wave of extinctions) of the five great extinctions, the Triassic-Jurassic [soylentnews.org] extinction event is thought to have killed somewhere in the neighborhood of a third of all species. Even at the worst alleged rate of 13% since 1500 CE, that's another thousand years before the total number of extinctions can match the level of the weakest of the five big extinctions.

                  I find it interesting how once again, your only argument is a sad argument from authority. Fallacy once again is your go to argument.

                  • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Wednesday January 19, @06:09PM (2 children)

                    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Wednesday January 19, @06:09PM (#1213891)

                    transitioning into a part of the developed world with its greater care for the environment

                    Greater care = greater extinction of species? I think you mean greater short term exploitation. Short, in this case, being ~100 years or less.

                    poor people can't afford to care about the environment or the future.

                    Agreed there. UBI would solve that.

                    You're the first to mention those alleged ratios.

                    I'm sure you've read the statistical methods of the underlying research thoroughly. /s Popular press is incapable of expressing anything as sophisticated as a ratio.

                    Well, it's getting opposed now.

                    Not by anyone credible.

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                    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday January 19, @06:47PM

                      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday January 19, @06:47PM (#1213900) Journal

                      Greater care = greater extinction of species?

                      You really think I said that? Reread it again.

                      I'm sure you've read the statistical methods of the underlying research thoroughly. /s Popular press is incapable of expressing anything as sophisticated as a ratio.

                      So you haven't actually read the research. Not my problem.

                    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday January 20, @01:31AM

                      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday January 20, @01:31AM (#1214022) Journal
                      More on this:

                      You're the first to mention those alleged ratios.

                      I'm sure you've read the statistical methods of the underlying research thoroughly. /s Popular press is incapable of expressing anything as sophisticated as a ratio.

                      So why quote the popular press rather than the underlying research in the first place? And then foist off the work of showing your correctness onto me when the going got hard?

                      My bet is that the popular press sold a sexy narrative while the underlying research does not. Moving on, I've actually parsed the research and well, it doesn't have that ratio you claimed it would have. For example, the authors of the research just took the background species extinction rate at face value - likely because it showed a background rate two or more orders of magnitude lower than the estimated modern rate.

                      When I read the actual research [wiley.com] on background extinction rates, it's remarkably useless. They don't take into account the narrow habitat range of most species on Earth. Widespread genuses are much more likely to be fossilized than a collection of species on a small island. Similarly, narrow niche species would be far less likely to leave a fossil record and far more likely to go extinct for any reason.

                      Based on these data, typical background loss is 0.01 genera per million genera per year. Molecular phylogenies are available for more taxa and ecosystems, but it is debated whether they can be used to estimate separately speciation and extinction rates. We selected data to address known concerns and used them to determine median extinction estimates from statistical distributions of probable values for terrestrial plants and animals. We then created simulations to explore effects of violating model assumptions. Finally, we compiled estimates of diversification—the difference between speciation and extinction rates for different taxa. Median estimates of extinction rates ranged from 0.023 to 0.135 E/MSY. Simulation results suggested over- and under-estimation of extinction from individual phylogenies partially canceled each other out when large sets of phylogenies were analyzed.

                      Notice the boilerplate. They've got models and simulations galore, but no estimate of the island effect in there at all or any factor between fossil-based estimates of speciation creation and extinction and modern ones. The fundamental problem is that islands (both natural ones and the metaphorical ones of niche ecological zones on the continents) have exaggerated species creation and extinction rates - almost none of which will show up in fossil records.

                      In your article, the island effect is exaggerated for effect.

                      Most estimates of extinction rates, including ours (Régnier et al., 2009, 2015a, 2015b; Chiba & Cowie, 2016; Cowie et al., 2017), indicate that island species have suffered far greater rates than have continental species, a fact that is widely acknowledged (Manne, Brooks & Pimm, 1999; Stork, 2010; Triantis et al., 2010). However, Briggs (2017) discounted this as not representative of a Sixth Mass Extinction, focusing on continental faunas with much lower extinction rates. But ignoring island species downplays the seriousness of these losses, with figures such as 2,000 bird species extinctions on Pacific islands after human colonisation beginning just a few thousand years ago (Steadman, 1995), that is, the loss of almost one sixth of the current worldwide bird fauna. While it has generally been thought that the vast jungles of the Amazon Basin and Central Africa may not be populated by extremely narrow endemic species, at least not on the scale of island endemics inhabiting only a few square kilometres, there are nonetheless many habitat islands within continental regions that do indeed support relatively narrow endemics that are just as threatened as those of oceanic islands (Manne et al., 1999).

                      Golly, 2000 bird species gone extinct! Almost one six of the current worldwide fauna! Sounds like a lot, until you realize it's bird species that have almost no habitat and hence, little impact environmentally and would be on the razor's edge anyway. Even primitive humans can easily drive extinct birds in that situation. As can volcanic eruptions, well-placed hurricanes at the wrong time, unusually large tsunami, wildfires (for continental niches) and other perfect storm disasters.

                      My take is that this research exaggerates the extinction rate by playing the sort of games I've noted before. Such as comparing geological continental rates of species extinction to modern island extinction rates. Or ignoring the spottiness of fossil records of extinctions, assuming all extinction rates must be lower because the ones you can see are lower.