Archive for November 2010
What is going on at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and what to make of its particle smashing agenda? The science media doesn’t do a good job of explaining, nor do the physicists. I had been wondering, with a kind of unease, what those extraordinary energies and monstrous temperatures were creating, and decided, on 28 November 2010, to ask CERN directly. This is the text of my letter:
In a press brief titled ‘Antimatter atoms produced and trapped at CERN’ there is an explanation given for some recent experiments done at CERN:
“For reasons that no one yet understands, nature ruled out antimatter. It is thus very rewarding, and a bit overwhelming, to look at the ALPHA device and know that it contains stable, neutral atoms of antimatter,” said Jeffrey Hangst of Aarhus University, Denmark, spokesman of the ALPHA collaboration. “This inspires us to work that much harder to see if antimatter holds some secret.”
I am an agricultural researcher, and am used to dealing with very practical matters. I therefore find it quite disturbing when a CERN spokesman says that “nature ruled out antimatter”, and yet you are trying to create it.
If something does not exist in nature, I can safely say that it does not for a good reason – just as there is a good reason why the coconut palm does not grow in a montane forest. What “secret” does CERN believe it can wrest out of something not found in our world? Why must this work at CERN be done only by defying nature’s “ruling out” of something?
Only half expecting a reply – after all I’m sure CERN must field several hundred queries a day – I took to reading up what I could on the CERN website. Describing itself as one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research, CERN (it is Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire in French) says “business is fundamental physics, finding out what the Universe is made of and how it works”. At CERN, “the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used to study the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of Nature”.
The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions. “Matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts at the Big Bang, yet today we seem to live in a Universe made entirely of matter. Nature appears to have a tiny preference, with just one particle of matter having survived for every billion particles of matter and antimatter that annihilated with each other after the Big Bang”.
I was quite surprised then to receive today (30 Nov) a reply from the Press Office at CERN. This is what they said:
Dear Mr Goswami,
Antimatter is produced in nature constantly, for example in cosmic rays. When particles of antimatter are created they live for a very short time before annihilating with ordinary matter. We have observed similar phenomena in laboratories for decades.
Our research focuses on understanding why antimatter does not exist in large quantities in the Universe – why nature has a preference for matter. As a result of science’s research into antimatter, we now have a very widespread medical imaging technique – PET [positron emission tomography, which is used in clinical oncology] – that uses antimatter for the benefit of humankind. There are also experiments underway to investigate the use of antimatter in cancer therapy.
We hope this will reply to your questions. Best regards, CERN Press Office
Well, it is nice of them to take the trouble to reply. But I’m not much better off than before. If antimatter does not exist in large quantities in the Universe, Nature has a good reason for it to be so, and is CERN’s efforts with gigantic machinery, extraordinary energies and monstrous temperatures only to advance medical imaging? Certainly not. It is also to rewrite physics, as they remind us on the website. Still, do we really need all this fearsome atom smashing in order to do that. It seems somehow deeply anti-ahimsa.
False carbon accounting for biofuels that ignores emissions in landuse change is a major driver of global natural habitat destruction, incurring carbon debts that take decades and centuries to repay; at the same time, the emissions of nitrous oxide from fertilizer use has been greatly underestimated, says a damning new briefing from the Institute of Science in Society (I-SIS), Britain.
A team of thirteen scientists led by Timothy Searchinger at Princeton University, New Jersey, in the United States, pointed to a “far-reaching” flaw in carbon emissions accounting for biofuels in the Kyoto Protocol and in climate legislation. It leaves out CO2 emission from tailpipes and smokestacks when bioenergy is used, and most seriously of all, it does not count emissions from land use change when biomass is grown and harvested, says the I-SIS briefing.
“The team maintained that bioenergy reduces greenhouse emission only if the growth and harvesting of the biomass for energy captures carbon above and beyond what would be sequestered anyway, and offsets the emissions from energy use. This additional carbon may result from land management changes that increase plant uptake or from the use of biomass that would otherwise decompose rapidly.”
“The worst case is when the bioenergy crops displace forest or grassland, the carbon released from soils and vegetation, plus lost future sequestration generate huge carbon debts against the carbon the crops absorb, which could take decades and hundreds of years to repay.”
The work of Searchinger, referred to by I-SIS, has been mentioned in connection with this false accounting as long as a year ago. For instance, the Industrial Biotechnology and Climate Change blog had noted in 2009 November:
The Science Insider blog last week hosted an interesting debate between Tim Searchinger, Princeton visiting scholar, and John Sheehan, of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, regarding the recent policy proposal in the pages of Science by Searchinger et al. to ‘fix’ the carbon accounting of biomass for bioenergy and biofuels in U.S. legislation and the successor to the Kyoto protocol, by giving credit only to biomass that can be managed in such a way as to sequester additional atmospheric carbon in the soil. As Searchinger puts it in the recent debate, “bioenergy only reduces greenhouse gases if it results from additional plant growth or in some other way uses carbon that would not otherwise be stored.”
Also pertinent is a short section on biofuels and emissions in the World Energy Outlook 2010, which has recently been released by the International Energy Agency. “Biofuels are derived from renewable biomass feedstocks, but biofuels are not emission-free on a life-cycle basis,” says WEO2010. There is keen debate about the level of emissions savings that can be attributed to the use of biofuels and, more generally, to biomass. Greenhouse-gas emissions can occur at any step of the biofuels supply chain. Besides emissions at the combustion stage, greenhouse-gas emissions arise from fossil-energy use in the construction and operation of the biofuels conversion plant. In addition, the cultivation of biomass requires fertilisers, the use of machinery and irrigation, all of which also generate emissions.”
The short section is part of Chapter 12 – titled ‘Outlook for Renewable Energy’ – of the massive tome, and the section on Biofuels emissions is found in pages 372-374. As the WEO must perforce sound upbeat about all forms and sources of energy, it ventures, “If appropriate feedstocks and process conditions are chosen, biofuels can offer significant net greenhouse-gas emissions savings over conventional fossil fuels”. That’s a big “if” there.
“This is particularly the case with sugar cane ethanol, as much less energy is required to convert the biomass to ethanol.” In a laboratory perhaps, but as there are as many ways of converting sugarcane as there are types of cane, it would be difficult to say, wouldn’t it? “But variations are large and calculating average emissions savings is complex.” So they are, so it is.
After such kerfuffle, the WEO2010 does get down to brass tacks: “Using land for biofuels production that was previously covered with carbon-rich forest or where the soil carbon content is high can release considerable amounts of greenhouse gases, and even lead to a ‘carbon debt’. In the worst cases, this debt could take hundreds or even thousands of years to recover via the savings in emissions by substituting biofuels for fossil fuels.”
And there you have it, in black and white, from the venerable International Energy Agency itself.
Energy Bulletin, the website which discusses transition, peak oil and ideas of adaptation, has carried an article I have written about intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development.
Before sustainable development came to assume an academic formality (the new ‘earth systems’ science is built around the concept), it drew heavily from intangible cultural heritage (ICH) as expressed through the customs and practices used to transmit traditional knowledge.
That is why there has been a multiplicity of terms used in the field of sustainable development to designate this concept: indigenous technical knowledge, traditional environmental knowledge, rural
Whatever the preference, this is a body of knowledge that has been nurtured and built upon by groups of people through generations of living in close contact with nature. It is usually specific to the local environment, and therefore highly adapted to the requirements of local people and conditions. At the same time it is creative and experimental, constantly incorporating influences from outside and innovating from within to meet new conditions. UNESCO’s 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage states this explicitly in Article 2:
“This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”
These three examples [these are available in the Energy Bulletin article] illustrate the value of intangible cultural heritage to the evolving crises of our times: food, energy and climate change. In the communal rice-growing, locally irrigated societies of Sri Lanka are to be found the lessons of the local self-reliance which has today become a community movement in many countries.
The ‘transition’ movements in North America and Western Europe, which are contributing greatly to a wider and participatory understanding of sustainable societies, now embody ideas and practices that have been at work for centuries in the rice-growing communities of Sri Lanka (as also elsewhere in South and South-East Asia). The water tribunals of Valencia and Murcia (which is on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity) serve as an inspiring testament to the strength and validity of an ancient system of adjudicating rights and resources.
In an increasingly water-scarce and water-stressed world, it is community-based systems such as this one that promise equity with an authority that is easily accepted because of its cultural roots. Here too, the implication of the Water Tribunals’ inclusion on the Representative List is that generic legal systems may provide protection in law and relief in statute, but it is local authority that rest on knowledge-based tradition that provides the most relevant solution.
Climate change has altered weather patterns and crop seasons, and in regions where land is suitable neither for dryland agriculture nor irrigation, it is the thoughtful management of rangelands that is the only long-term conservation technique. The extraordinary flexibility of the Qashqai derives equally from their dense store of botanical and livestock knowledge, and serves as an example of the durability of a society in a difficult landscape.
One of the strengths of the 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage is that it widens the scope of recognition to traditional knowledge by revealing its cultural roots, which is respected and transmitted through customary systems and expression. How is traditional or indigenous knowledge an invaluable aspect of intangible cultural heritage? Just as ICH is embedded in community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals, unique to a particular culture and society, traditional knowledge is the basis for decision-making in that culture or society concerning matters of agriculture, health, natural resource management and community organisation.
A great deal of it is tacit knowledge and may not readily be coded. Indigenous knowledge provides the basis for problem-solving strategies for local communities, especially the monetarily poor and those communities outside formal (usually urban-denominated) systems of labour and production. This aspect of ICH represents a critically important component of global knowledge on development issues, yet it is an underutilised resource in the development process.
The UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN), a forum comprising UN agencies, NGOs and academics, has been running a campaign to influence negotiators ahead of the UN climate talks from 29 November to 10 December, in Cancun, Mexico.
The effort led by the UN SCN began at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, and members of the group have been attending conferences held by various sectors in the run-up to the Cancun meeting, reports IRIN. The UNSCN team lobbies to position nutrition according to the needs and interests of delegations at any conference.
Experts in delegations from the agriculture sector are told that when climate-tolerant crops are discussed in the adaptation track of the talks, they need to focus on policies and practices that encourage people to plant and breed hardier indigenous varieties, grow groundnuts and other foods for communities affected by HIV/Aids, or breed fish in backyard ponds for protein.
Several studies in the developing world have shown a strong relationship between the impact of natural hazards on food availability, and the subsequent effects on economic growth and the health of children. The UNSCN brief prepared for the negotiators at COP16 calls for a twin-track approach to ensure that food and nutrition security will help reduce vulnerability, and build resilience to cope with a changing climate.
One of the tracks will fall under the adaptation segment and push for scaling up nutrition-specific interventions and safety nets. The other track calls for a multi-sectoral approach that includes sustainable agriculture, health and social protection schemes, risk reduction and risk management plans, and climate-resilient community-based development. The brief also suggested that money to fund nutrition interventions, or technological innovations aimed at improving nutrition, should come out of the various climate funds under the UNFCCC.
Apologies for the long break.
I had visited Nairobi, Kenya, for the annual meeting on intangible cultural heritage, an important Unesco activity. The meet is officially called the Fifth Intergovernmental Committee Meeting, and the committee is one of the organs of the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Nairobi is a large quite densely populated city typical of the sort of growth one sees in the South – organic and community-driven with little evidence of planning and less evidence of services the further away from the centre one travels.
The city is a magnet for rural populations which cannot find work in their provinces or for whom agriculture has become just too difficult to pursue as a livelihood. In the city, they join the informal labour pool and if possible learn skills that will help them get the next job.
The government of the USA has planned for India to become an important consumer of US agricultural exports and of US crop science. India is also planned as a host country for an agricultural research agenda directed by American crop-seed-biotech corporations. This is to be achieved through a variety of programmes in India, some of which began their preparation two years ago.
This agenda, labelled US-India cooperation by India’s current UPA-2 government and by the USA’s current Barack Obama administration, has the support of the American farm sector as its aim, not the support of India’s farmers and cultivators. The clear and blunt objective is to increase US agricultural exports and to widen as quickly as possible the trade surplus of the US agricultural sector.
This agenda has become clear following the three business and industry meetings held during the visit of US President Barack Obama — the ‘US-India Business and Entrepreneurship Summit’ in Mumbai on November 6, the ‘India-US: An Agenda for Co-Creation’ with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in New Delhi on November 8, and the ‘US-India Conclave: Partnership for Innovation, Imperative for Growth and Employment in both Economies’ with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in New Delhi on November 9.
The US agri-business view has been projected in India by the US-India Business Council, a business advocacy group representing American companies investing in India together with Indian companies, with the shared aim of deepening trade and strengthening commercial ties.
In a document titled ‘Partners in Prosperity, Business Leading the Way, Advancing the US-India commercial agenda as the foundation for strategic partnership’ (November 2010) the business council stated: “India requires an ‘Ever-Green Revolution’ — a new programme which would engage the country’s rural sector, providing water utilisation and crop management ‘best practices’ to promote greater food security — this time based on technology to increase efficiency and productivity. The effort to vitalise India’s agriculture sector should be driven by business, and the first step is improving India’s farm-to-market global supply chain.”
This business-driven trade in agricultural goods and services was given formal shape two months ago during the inaugural meeting of what is called the India-US Agriculture Dialogue, on September 13-14, 2010 in New Delhi. India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and USA’s Under Secretary (Energy, Economic and Agricultural Affairs) in the US State Department, Robert Hormats, co-chaired the ‘Dialogue’. Under this agreement India and the USA have set up three working groups for: ‘strategic cooperation in agriculture and food security’, ‘food processing, agriculture extension, farm-to-market linkages’, and ‘weather and crop forecasting’.
The ‘Agriculture Dialogue’ is designed to be the implementing process for the India-US Memorandum of Understanding for Cooperation in Agriculture and Food Security, signed almost a year ago by Obama and Singh. On November 24, 2009 they had agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding on Agricultural Cooperation and Food Security that will, according to the US State department, “set a pathway to robust cooperation between the governments in crop forecasting, management and market information; regional and global food security; science, technology, and education; nutrition; and expanding private sector investment in agriculture”.
‘Agriculture Dialogue’ is the new name given to a US-India plan for trade and investment in agriculture which saw its genesis on July 18, 2005, when Singh and then US President George W Bush announced the ‘US–India Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Education, Teaching, Research, Service, and Commercial Linkages (AKI)’. At the time, apart from officials from government on both sides representing agriculture and crop bureaucracies, Indian and American universities and the private sector were on the AKI board.
The Indian agri universities were the Govind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Pantnagar, Uttaranchal), the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu) and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh). India’s private sector was represented by Venkateshwara Hatcheries Ltd, Masani Farms (its owner was a National Horticultural Board director), ITC Ltd’s Agribusiness chief executive and Wal-Mart India. The American private sector was represented by Archer Daniels Midland Company and Monsanto.
Infochange India, which provides news and analysis on development news and social justice in India, has carried the rest of my article on the Obama visit to India here.
Der Spiegel has an article on Merapi, the volcano in Indonesia which has caused till today the evacuation of 160,000 people and has killed at least 122. The article is accompanied by pictures of the eruption and the devastation Merapi has so far caused.
PLoS (the Public Library of Science) has launched a Biodiversity Hub aiming to accelerate the discovery, dissemination and integration of biodiversity studies. The Biodiversity Hub provides three general services to users: it aggregates selected open-access biodiversity articles, adds value in the form of data/images etc and encourages community dialogue – you can find out more about these benefits in the official launch post.
Over the past decade, considerable progress in synthesizing and digitizing biodiversity related assets has been made. These resource assets include: Specimen datasets: GBIF; Interoperability among datasets and databases: GEO BON; Taxonomic literature: BHL; Taxonomic names: Zoobank; IPNI; Catalogue of Life; Molecular sequence data: GenBank; Barcode of Life; Images: MorphBank; ARKive; Phylogenetic relationships: Tree of Life; Natural history: Encylopedia of Life; Conservation status of species: IUCN Red List; TreeBASE and WWF Wildfinder.
Scientists are amassing details about the scope and status of life’s variation at an accelerating rate. This aids our understanding of species distributions and their interactions over time. However, if we are to address the consequences of global environmental change for life’s future, biodiversity data must be integrated and synthesized to a much greater degree than they are at present, and this can be promoted by enhanced communication among the interested parties, and raising public awareness. Here, we call attention to a new community resource and tool which provides a step in the right direction.
Raw sugar prices have been rising in the world’s commodity exchanges following speculation that India, the world’s second-largest producer of sugar, is considering restricting exports to rebuild its inventory. The international financial press is reporting that the price of raw sugar in the commodity markets surged to a high as dry weather constrained output in Brazil, the world’s biggest producer, and on news that India may cap exports to boost domestic supplies. The last time sugar was as high was in January 1981. It has in recent days gained $16.10 to $751.10 per ton on the NYSE Liffe in Britain, a 2.2% increase.
“India is really the big question overhanging the market,” London-based trader Jake Wetherall of Rabobank International told Bloomberg. “It looks like India’s going to have a fairly good crop this year – it should be over 25 million tons for the first time in a few years – but the question is how much the government decides is going to be made available for export.”
Bloomberg reports, quoting industry association Unica on 28 October 2010, that output in Brazil’s Center South, the country’s biggest producing-region, dropped 30% in the first half of October from a year earlier. Stockpiles in India, the second-largest grower, are about 4 million metric tons, compared with the nation’s preferred level of 10 million tons, according to Rabobank International.
Raw sugar for March delivery rose to 30.12 cents/pound on ICE Futures U.S. in New York. Earlier, the price reached 30.64 cents, the highest level for a most-active contract since 15 January 1981. Sugar has more than doubled since touching a 13-month low on 7 May 2010 on concern that adverse weather will reduce output in Brazil, Russia, China and Pakistan.
Societe Generale SA raised price forecasts for raw and refined sugar, citing lower crop forecasts. Raw sugar in the fourth quarter will be 29.2 cents, up from a 17 September 2010 estimate of 17 cents, Emmanuel Jayet, an analyst in Paris, said in a report. The estimate for white sugar was raised to $744 a ton from $515.
Many sugar buyers have been relying on India, the world’s second-biggest producer of sugar, to keep export supplies running early next year, with the cane crushing season in top-ranked Brazil winding down this month. India has yet to make an announcement on its export policy, and government sources on Thursday said that the country, recovering from two seasons of sugar deficit, would not permit wholesale shipments for now. The comments added to fears of a supply squeeze as traders believe that Brazil’s sugar production may fall in 2011-12, affected both by dry weather as well as the credit crunch, which slowed investment in new mills and cane plantings.
On 4 November 2010 however Reuters reported that India will allow an additional 930,000 tonnes of sugar exports after 15 November 2010. The news agency quoted an unnamed government source. “So far we have allowed less than 600,000 tonnes. After 15 November 2010 we will allow more but after that we will go slow. Exports will only be allowed in a calibrated manner,” the senior government official told Reuters.
On 26 October 2010 Agrimoney had reported that world sugar prices are set to remain at elevated levels for years, to ensure producing countries – and notably Brazil – ramp up output to meet demand growth of more than 50% over the next two decades. Agrimoney quoted leading sugar industry trader Czarnikow. The briefing did not name a figure for sugar prices. However, Czarnikow’s head of analysis Toby Cohen told Agrimoney a figure of 22 cents/pound may be necessary to ensure sufficient supplies.
The group forecast that world sugar consumption will rise to 257m tonnes in 2030, boosted by growth in China and India, where rising wealth and population growth will foster doubling in demand. “Asia will become the largest sugar-consuming region, reflecting the rising economic status of India and China,” Czarnikow said in a report published to coincide with the annual sugar industry gathering in London. China, where urbanisation would give sugar demand an extra spurt, taking the country’s consumption above the European Union’s by 2014, was “clearly set to demonstrate significant demand growth”.
However, prospects for production growth were more uncertain, with land in many large producing countries, such as India and Thailand in short supply. In China, cane area “will come under increasing pressure” from rice which, as a staple food, is “likely to take priority. The US, there are plans to reincorporate some cane land in Florida into the Everglades national park. This leaves Brazil, which has a “comparatively unconstrained” ability to expand cane area, as likely to increase further its dominance over world production, of which it currently provides 23%, and exports, of which it is responsible for about 60%.
Importers and consumers are set “to become ever more dependent upon Brazilian supply”, the briefing said. “However, as with any investment, it will have to be paid for by higher returns and, as the market evolves, we believe sugar consumers will need to adjust to higher prices.” Brazilian investment will be needed in infrastructure as well as directly in sugar production, Czarnikow added, stressing the country’s logistical bottlenecks, which were evident in a struggle this year to keep up with demand. The report also highlighted the potential for the European Union and Russia to return to sugar exports.
What does Czarnikow say in detail about sugar? (1) We have revised our growth forecast for 2010-11 down from 17.4m mtrv to 14.8 m mtrv. (2) During 2010/11, we project cane sugar production to rise to 137.9m mtrv from 123.1m mtrv last year, while beet sugar production is unchanged on last year’s at 34.3m mtrv. (3) We are estimating global consumption in 2010 at 167.9m mtrv rising to 171.3m mtrv in 2011.
“Although it is still very early in the cycle, the idea that next year’s sugar balance will be resolved through an increase in global production now seems less certain. Extreme weather conditions in Russia and Pakistan have crushed hopes of an increase in production in the 10/11 season, while growth in many other areas of the world is not likely to be as strong as first expected.”
Here is a country breakdown provided by Czarnikow: Brazil – The mid-August total of 338 million tonnes of cane crushed represents round 60% of the CS Brazil cane total and we are expecting total production to reach 41.7m mtrv. India – Indian crop prospects for 2010/11 continue to look promising; we expect sugar production to increase by around 30% to reach 27.1m mtrv. Pakistan – Although serious floods have displaced up to 20% of Pakistan’s population, we are holding our figure unchanged at 3.75m mtrv. EU – Our projection has been revised down by 0.4m mtrv to 16.2m mtrv. Russia & FSU – Russian beet crop prospects in Central and Volga regions have been damaged by a heatwave, so we have reduced our production estimates from 4.1m mtrv to 3.3m mtrv. China – We expect 13.2m mtrv during 2010/2011, but with consumption at 16.1m mtrv, the country will be in deficit. Thailand – The forthcoming crop is now expected to reach a similar level to last year at around 7.6m mtrv, down from our initial estimate of 8.4m mtrv.
Who is Czarnikow? “Czarnikow operates from a head office in London and a network of 10 regional offices to service clients and customers globally. Commercial involvement in physical sugar transactions in excess of 8 million tons of sugar each year assures that we have a first hand presence in all major sugar markets of the world. Czarnikow has been in the sugar business since 1861 and is the premier provider of world sugar market services.”