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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

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  • (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 [] 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 (RĂ©gnier 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.