Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Soil not Oil": Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis

The triple whammy of energy, food and water crisis has certainly taken centre stage. All of which are the fallout of wide-reaching policies of the World Bank, local mismanagement and undoubtedly the vagaries of climate change!

The world over, advocates of change are taking to writing eco books with an unprecedented fervor..... as green writing emerges as the hottest selling item on websites and bookstores. As an avid reader of eco books I was spoilt for choice, for the span of eco writing today is indeed eclectic.

So I picked up a book by an author whom I have been admiring for the past couple of years, Vandana Shiva. She maybe written more for her trademark large bindi by the Indian media, but is much respected and admired by journos and the eco brigade the world over.

An environmental activist, a physicist and an author, Dr. Vandana Shiva, has shaken up the scientific world with her advocacy of vedic ecology and back-to-the-traditional agricultural practices. She has offered the age-old vedic practices as the ultimate answer to the current global food crisis.

Founder of the Navdanya movement, Dr Shiva has taken her theories worldwide through her many publications and discourses. Widely acclaimed for her bold and visionary analysis of the present world crisis, the author reveals how food, oil and climate are all connected, in her recent publication "Soil not Oil" [South End Press].

SOIL NOT OIL. Just like her hallmark no holds barred writing, the name of her latest book is crisp and incisive. The book dares the reader to revert to conventional agricultural practices based on environmental justice. It not only examines how industrial agriculture has become a recipe for ecological and economic disaster, but also proposes how a world beyond dependence on fossil fuels and globalization is both POSSIBLE and NECESSARY.

Unlike many books that simply highlight the issues grappling the society, this book, also offers a sustainable solution ..... based on diversity and the small scale independent farming.

The book is for everyone who takes the planet seriously. It lays out principles for feeding the planet in a socially just and environmentally sound manner with power-packed convictions. Moving beyond the present crisis, Dr. Shiva also examines how an alternative to the industrialized, globalized food system based on OIL can be created.

A powerful presentation addressing the world's most pressing problems, SOIL NOT OIL is bound to rouse the radical in every socially concerned and free-thinking individual. A must read not just for the social activist and economist, but also for the cognizance of the global citizen.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ethanol Production: Analysing the Forces at work

"Corn or Ethanol? Food or Fuel?"
An extremely inane and cliched rhetoric one would say. But going by the hype surrounding this alternative fuel derived primarily from corn and sugarcane, one could not be faulted to presume something is seriously wrong within the corridors of the policy-makers.
Indeed, how could a food crop derived bio fuel take precedence as an optimal fuel choice? Unless the governments are so taken up with the rocketing requirements of gasoline, that they are blinded to some of the ground realities ..... notwithstanding the far-reaching effects on food crop availability and prices?

However, with U.S featuring as the largest producer and importer of corn (followed closely by China, Brazil and Mexico), and of course, the rapidly escalating gas prices ..... it is evident that corn-based ethanol become the focus of policy makers as the most viable alternative fuel.

The obvious advantages of ethanol as an alternative fuel are that it burns cleaner than gas, is renewable, has the upper of being a non-fossil fuel as also being bio-degradable. Added to that, it can be domestically produced, keeping investments within the community ..... the reason why ethanol production from corn is being favoured by many of the farming communities in the U.S., Canada, Africa and South America.

This year, ethanol production has reached record highs all over. According to reports released by the CBO (Congressional Budget Office of the U.S.), roughly one-quarter of corn grown in the United States is now being used to produce ethanol with overall consumption exceeding 9 billion gallons last year. The exact figures for ethanol production in 2008, are not yet known. However, in 2007, U.S. produced 7 billion gallons of ethanol-blended gasoline, as E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) or E10 (10% ethanol 90% gasoline), which most gasoline cars can use without engine conversion. Brazil produced 4 billion gallons with a higher perecentage mix of ethanol, ranging from 24% to 100% ethanol.

The reason that ethanol is speedily gaining importance in the world fuel scenario are however multifold, not all of them apparent or computed. These are also the factors that are driving the ethanol market.

Firstly, the clean chit given to ethanol by the various institutions backed by the heavily subsidized corporates. Thus ethanol has been promoted as a highly efficient fuel with a positive energy balance of 125%, as compared to 85% for gasoline, making ethanol production "by far the most efficient method of producing liquid transportation fuels"(American Coalition for Ethanol) Another theory attempts to justify diverting of corn to ethanol production on the grounds that each BTU (British Thermal Unit, an energy measure) that produces a BTU of gasoline can actually produce 8 BTUs of ethanol(U.S. Department of Agriculture). According to the Institute of Local Self-Reliance in the U.S., "the amount of energy contained in a gallon of ethanol is more than twice the energy used to grow the corn and convert it to ethanol".

Second, the approval of ethanol blends by leading car manufacturers in the world in their warranty coverage and the recommendations of ethanol as a fuel by Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. This has been the equivalent of issuing a certificate to ethanol as the best alternative to gasoline!

Third, the U.S. Energy Bill of 2005 that targeted ethanol production of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012, aiming at U.S being the world's largest producer of ethanol and ethanol blends. This has effected various pro-active policy measures amongst some of the farming States of U.S. to encourage ethanol production, besides setting a precedence for other corn-growing economies to switch over to ethanol. Countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa are the next emergent ethanol producers, with Mozambique already heavily in the fray.

Fourth, climate change concerns have also addressed the need for alternative and cleaner fuel sources. As ethanol has undoubtedly topped the list as the most energy-efficient, clean burning, cheaply made and readily available alternative option to energy, building up ethanol production to meet the demands of an expanding fuel-devouring polity has become paramount.

Fifth, tax incentives to attract entrepreneurship to ethanol production in many nations and states of U.S. have successfully increased ethanol production manifold. This has to be a domino effect of the U.S. energy policies, which have definitely stressed the need for increased production of ethanol and ethanol belnds and their applications.

Sixth, while the production of ethanol and ethanol blends were always simplistic, further improvement in technologies have promoted ethanol as a 'backyard fuel' that can be easily produced locally. As refinery processes for creating ethanol from corn improve in efficiency, costs of production too are falling. Lower costs have also added to proliferation in ethanol prodcution and ethanol based applications.

Seventh, rising concern over increasing fuel demands on one hand and high oil prices on the other. This has driven fuel policy makers to desperately look for alternative and cheaper solutions, perhaps even at the cost of future concerns over corn as a food crop. After all, U.S. alone has guzzled over 140 billion gallons of gas last year. Thus national energy security considerations have driven governments to depend upon such cheaper and safer fuel options like ethanol.

Eighth, a recent development, that has highlighted the importance of ethanol as a fuel alternative, even amongst the staunchest and most conservative of the green economic stalwarts. The replacement of a gasoline additive called MTBE (Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether) with ethanol and ethanol derived ETBE oxygenator. With this, the octane rating of the petrol goes up by three full points, without the use of other harmful additives, while also 'oxygenating' the fuel by enabling a more complete burn.

Albeit, the hype has been focused on the replacement of the polluting fossil-derived MTBE by a safer cleaner alternative and most recently, the discovery that MTBE contaminates groundwater. With the recent controversies surrounding polluted rivers and groundwater contamination, this has been a significant landmark theory in promotion of ethanol production from food crops, leaving the eco warriors and food crisis stalwarts stumped for a suitable answer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Climate Change : The Indian perspective

Climate Change’ has become the buzzword today. Whether as the hottest topic debated in blogs and forums worldwide or as the coolest conversation-stopper at drawing rooms, ‘Climate Change’ has finally been accepted as an global problem. Even our very own political parties in India are united over the need to develop sustainable measures for tackling and mitigation of climate change.

A lot of credit for this fad goes to the aggressive stance taken by India at the Bali summit of the UN Convention on Climate Change, in December, 2007. The stalemate brought about by the nonchalance of world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, USA, was finally brokered by Australia. Whether it was Al Gore’s sleight of hand or the pressure brought on by Nobel Peace Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), or the European Union's veiled threats to boycott future US-initiated meetings, it definitely spurred a volte-face in USA’s stance, prompting it to co-operate on future climate change negotiations.

So post Bali, the ball set rolling at India, despite the global perception to the contrary. With the Prime Ministers’ Special Task Force on Climate Change and the Indian industry’s CII Mission for Sustainable Growth & Climate Change, the Indian polity has definitely risen to the occasion.
It seems like the Indian Government has finally woken up to Mr. R.K. Pachauri's warnings while he spearheaded the IPCC into a force to be reckoned with. On may recall how Mr. Pachauri had termed Climate Change as a major threat to the environment and labeled it as a ‘national security issue’.

Climate Change, essentially the domino effect of rapid industrialisation, is today a reality, that has long since touched India. The coldest record of minus five degrees at Adampur, Punjab and 'the lower winter rainfall for the Rabi crop in the Northern India', are merely a fraction of some recent climate-change chnages that have stormed the nation. In the global scenario, climate change assumes special importance in India, primarily because it is an agricultural economy dependant upon the monsoons.

A natural upshot of global warming, climate change has been visible in the marked shift in weather patterns in the past few years. Unpredictable monsoons, extreme climate conditions, increase in natural disasters, rise in sea levels and crop failures are some of the obvious impacts of climate change being felt here. With an expected general increase in surface temperature up to 4°C, it is of grave concern to us. Unless reversed, this is likely to further augment the already emerging changes in glacier advances or retreats of the Himalayas. On the one hand the Himalayan river systems draining into the Ganga river basin are dying out, on the other hand glacier melting has resulted in recurrent flooding of Yamuna and Brahmaputra rivers and rise in the sea-levels. It is a disaster, waiting to happen, as the impact will be felt on human survival, agriculture, infrastructure, forest cover, hydel power and the general economy of India.

There was a time when the villagers of Basahi in Bihar, welcomed the onset of monsoons. Theast few years, however they view it with trepidation. The rains are getting heavier and relentless with each successive year. Combined with an increased run-off from the mountain glaciers in Tibet and Nepal and consequent breach of the Budhigandak river, the Basahi village has became a victim of climate change. The villagers think fixing the river embankment is the solution. Little do they know that the heavy floods are a visible sign of a climate flux.

Another State where the impact of climate change is obvious, is Rajasthan. A State that has winessed more of drought and aridity than any other, Rajasthan has witnessed an unprecedented 2 month long flooding in its five districts, in 2007. Contrarily, the North-Eastern States of Assam, whose lush green forests owed allegience to heavy downpour almost half the year, has been fraught with dry weather since 2004.

In particular, Himachal Pradesh is facing the heat of climate change. The effects of climate transmutation are more pronounced in these mountainous regions because of their fragile ecosystems. The melt-down of glaciers is already flooding river valleys. Flash floods are becoming the order of the day. Paradoxically, the prolonged drought conditions at other times of the year, are giving rise to a serious concern about water management, a hitherto unknown issue in this water-rich region. It is inevitable that these shifts in the environmental and geophysical attribute of this Himalayan region have a non-reversal impact on land-use patterns and crop production. Perhaps, in no other State have the people felt the effects of climate change to such an extent as in Himachal. Fortunately though, the Mountain Forum Himalayas (MFH) has already begun taking stock of the situation and is working towards a pro-active mitigation of the fallouts of a variable clime.

Sikkim is one of the most affected States in the North-East, where the effects of climate change are becoming cardinal to the State Government's policy-making. Early glacier melt, flooding of glacier-fed lakes and consequent breaching, change in cropping patterns, and paradoxically a drying-up Teesta river, are some of the problems the region has been grappling with of late.

Then of course, is the seat of the climate refugees, the deltaic region of Sunderbans, occupying the Southern tip of West Bengal; where a steady rise of sea-level has resulted in submergence of land area. Islands ahave disappeared over time, and many more are shrinking every year, forcing the villagers inhabiting these islands to take refuge elsewhere.

The results are evident all over India for everyone to see and feel, albeit, the fragile eco-systems of the Himalayan region in North and North-Eastern India, are facing the impact to a greater intensity. Whether it is the occupational shift from woollen goods to handicrafts and artifacts in the markets of hilly towns like Darjeeling; or the sociological adjustments in the villages of Bihar and Bengal because of an increasing influx of illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants, or the rise in deaths because of mosquito proliferation and zoonotic diseases like bird flu, it cannot be denied that all of these are the visible climate change-induced effects on our society.

So the next time you wonder why Holi sprinklers are getting chiller every year, why the allates are storming your lighting fixtures even after Diwali is long past or why the visible moon has has been obscured by sleets of rain on a Karva Chauth night, blame it all on climate change!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Of the quintessential brinjal vs. the Bt Brinjal !

While the world over, experts debate on the geopolitics of food scarcity and crop scientists devise climate resilient crops, Bangalore (India) comes up with a first-ever brinjal festival to effect a re-think on informed food choices ..... protesting the recent introduction of the first Genetically Modified crop ..... the Bt Brinjal !

There is the tomato festival in Bunyol (Spain), pumpkin festival at Keene (New Hampshire, U.S.A.), carrot festival at Hotville (California, U.SA.), potato festival at Whitchurch (Wales, U.K.) and even the celebrated lettuce festival at Yuma (Arizona, U.S.A.) …… now a brinjal festival in the very homeland of brinjals !

However, there is an interesting anomaly herein! Unlike the populist nature of those long-established veggie festivals, our very own indigenous-flavoured brinjal festival primarily aims at sustainable food solutions for a healthy future, using the brinjal as its flagship campaign.

While the universally popular food fests traditionally began by celebrating the abundance of harvests, over time they developed into mammoth events featuring on world maps of annual food festivals. Today as travel writers and food aficionados flock to these tourism hotspots, there is plenty of hype surrounding these crop festivals. Thus, the spirit today is more in tune with the demands of popular tourism and the cultural hoi polloi, rather than in honour of the vegetable crop.

In a scenario where such veggie festivals have degenerated into popular tourist draws to the accompaniment of massive crop wastage, the brinjal festival scheduled on 5th April, at Bangalore, assumes significance. For this strives to be a festival with a difference ….. celebrating the presence of a vegetable indigenous to India vis-a-vis the maiden entry of the Genetically Modified (GM) Bt Brinjal.

Brought to the forefront by the Association for India’s Development (AID, Bangalore), the brinjal festival aims to highlight the diversity of this vegetable endemic to the cultural ethos of India, and attempts to bring about a better consciousness and respect for the traditionally rich food. With an exhibition showcasing more than 30 varieties of the brinjal as grown in India, and competitions to highlight the versatility of brinjal in Indian cuisine, the brinjal festival is aimed at promoting the importance of making informed choices about our food.

GOOD FOOD, HEALTHY FOOD, SAFE FOOD …… seems to be the catchphrase, as AID comes up with an innovative style to educate people about the ill effects of genetically modified food and food crops.

The screening of "Poison the Platter" is aimed at adding a powerful visual impact, while the presence of the farming community, health professionals and the scientific community, is designed to lend a solemnity to the occasion.

Bangalore, I salute thee! For thy cognizant demographics, vibrant youth and civic vigilance. For never failing to respond to every socio-economic build-up with a unique take .....

And of course, a big hurrah for our very own baigan ...... begun ..... badenakayi ..... whatever!