Monday, October 24, 2016

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

NEWS POSTS: Sweet Potato Vitamin A Research Wins World Food Prize

2016 World Food Prize Laureates - Andrade, Mwanga, Low, and Bouis
Four scientists have been awarded the 2016 World Food Prize for enriching sweet potatoes, which resulted in health benefits for millions of people.

They won the prize for "the single most example of biofortification", resulting in Vitamin A-boosted crops.

Since 1986, the World Food Prize aims to recognize efforts to increase the quality and quantity of available food.

The researchers will receive their US$250,000 (£203,000) prize at a ceremony in Iowa, US, on Thursday.

Three of the 2016 laureates - Drs Maria Andrade, Robert Mwanga and Jan Low from the CGIAR International Potato Center - have been recognized for their work developing the vitamin-enriched orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP).

The fourth winner, Dr Howard Bouis who founded HarvestPlus at the International Food Policy Research Institute, has been honoured for his work over 25 years to ensure biofortification was developed into an international plant breeding strategy across more than 40 countries.

'Science matters'
Announcing this year's winners, USAID administrator Gayle Smith said: "These four extraordinary World Food Prize Laureates have proven that science matters, and that when matched with dedication, it can change people's lives."

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is considered to be one of the most harmful forms of malnutrition in the developing world. It can cause blindness, limits growth, weakens immunity and increases mortality.

The condition affects more than 140 million pre-school children in 118 nations, and more than seven million pregnant women. It is said to be the leading cause of child blindness in developing countries.

The World Health Organization describes biofortification as the process "by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology".

It observes: "Biofortification may therefore present a way to reach populations where supplementation and conventional fortification activities may be difficult to implement."

The World Food Prize ceremony will take place during the the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium, a three-day gathering in Des Moines, Iowa, named after Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug.

Dr Borlaug, often called the father of the Green Revolution, established the World Food Prize 30 years ago to recognize "exceptionally significant" achievements by individuals. In 1970, Dr Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his contribution to world peace through his work to increase global food supplies.

A report published at the Borlaug Dialogue warned that growth in global agricultural productivity (GAP), for the third year in a row, was not advancing at the rate required to meet future demand for food.

The Global Harvest Initiative's (GHI) seventh annual GAP report warned that unless this emerging trend was reversed, the "world may not be able to sustainably provide the food, feed, fibre and biofuels needed for a booming global population".

According to the GHI, GAP needed to increase by at least 1.75% each year. However, its latest figures showed that the current rate was only 1.73%.

Growing the biofortified crops ensure people get the vital nutrients into people's daily diets S.QUINN/CIP
The authors observed that productive techniques and technology were "essential for producers of all scales as climate change and extreme weather events threaten the sustainability of agricultural value chains".

GHI executive director Dr Margaret Zeigler said the agriculture sector had the potential to be a "climate change mitigation powerhouse".

She added: "Private sector investment, investment and scale will help more farmers, ranchers and forest managers access tools and practices that contribute to a low-carbon agricultural system."

Conflict and hunger
Another factor that was affecting regions' ability to produce food was conflict and civil unrest. One of the topics at the 2016 Borlaug Dialogue is the issue of national security and food security in affected regions.

Kenneth Quinn, former US ambassador to Cambodia and president of the World Food Prize Foundation, stated:

"Just as factors like climate volatility, water scarcity, inferior infrastructure and post harvest loss can affect farmers' yields and food reaching urban centres, so too can military conflict and political instability disrupt markets, impede distribution of new technologies and innovations to farmers and halt new rural investment."

He added: "Throughout my diplomatic career, I have seen the incredible transformative power of agricultural development to undercut the allure and recruiting ability of radical terrorist organizations in remote areas."

One scientist who had first-hand experience of the impact of war on agricultural research was Mohmoud Sohl, director-general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA).

He explained how the Syrian civil war ripping the country apart had forced his team of researchers to leave the country.

Also left behind was ICARDA's seed bank in Aleppo, which contained a vast array of samples from many species of staple food crops' wild relatives, which may hold the genes required to produce future generations of climate-proof crops. Most of which were collected from the "fertile crescent", which is widely considered to be the birthplace of modern agriculture.

However, Dr Sohl disclosed that the team was now continuing its work in Morocco and Lebanon.

But he added that he would have a clear message in his speech to delegates at the Borlaug Dialogue.

"You can see the importance of supporting before they reach that stage, the point I want to say is that the upheaval is not just political - it is because of poverty, lack of jobs and food insecurity.

"Many of the migrants are not just because they are leaving security hotspots, it is because there are few or no opportunities for them or their families.

Dr Sohl added: "Sustainable development is needed. Proper investment is needed to ensure people have jobs and a future, otherwise the problems will mushroom."

Productive agricultural systems deliver both social and economic benefits for families and communities S.QUINN/CIP
On Tuesday, the publishers of the Global Hunger Index warned that the international community was not making enough progress to end world hunger by 2030, which is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

"The world has made progress in the fight against hunger but it has so far been too slow," observed Rose Caldwell, executive director of humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide UK.

"Hunger continues to waste lives and limit potential - we need urgent action from the global community to wipe it out for good."

The latest Index in the ongoing series - produced by Concern Worldwide, the International Food Policy Research Institute and German NGO Welthungerhilfe - suggested that if the decline in global hunger rates continued to decline at the rates recorded since the early 1990 then at least 45 nations, including Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, would still have "moderate" to "alarming" hunger scores in 2030.

Originally published on BBC News

Monday, October 10, 2016

NEWS POST: South Africa Basks In Continent's First Solar-Powered Airport

George, a town of just 150,000 residents on South Africa's south coast, is home to Africa's first 'green' airport to be powered by the sun ©Gianluigi Guercia (AFP)
At first glance there's nothing out of the ordinary about the regional airport in George, a town of just 150,000 residents on South Africa's south coast.

In fact though, the small site is Africa's first "green" airport to be powered by the sun.

The control tower, escalators, check-in desks, baggage carousels, restaurants and ATMs -- every service here depends on a small solar power station, located a few hundred metres away in a field of dandelions next to a runway.

Its 2,000 solar panels produce up to 750 kW every day, easily surpassing the 400 kW needed to run the airport.

The excess is fed back into the municipal power grid, and a computer screen in the terminal informs passengers: "Within this month (September), 274 households were supplied through this system with green electricity."

For environmentally-conscious travellers keen to reduce their carbon footprint, it's a welcome development.

"Planes have such a big carbon print," said passenger Brent Petersen, 33, in George. "If we compensate, that's cool."

George Airport was originally built in apartheid-era South Africa in 1977 to make getting home easier for PW Botha, a government minister at the time and later president.

It now serves as a transit hub for shipments of homegrown flowers and oysters, as well as golfers visiting one of the region's many courses. Some 700,000 passengers pass through its doors each year.

The solar plant, launched in September 2015, is the second solar-run airport in the world after Cochin airport in southern India.

Nestled between the Indian Ocean on one side and the majestic Outeniqua Mountains on the other, George was a surprising location for the first attempt at a solar-powered airport in South Africa.

- Ambitious project -
The town's weather is unpredictable: in the space of half an hour, the temperature can plummet by 10 degrees celsius, the blue skies quickly replaced by a steady drizzle.

But so far, so good: even on overcast days, the plant still produces some power.

At night or when necessary, the system automatically switches over to the traditional power grid.

"The thinking was if we put (the solar system) in the worst unpredictable weather, it will absolutely work in any other airport in the country," the airport's maintenance director Marclen Stallenberg told AFP.

The environmental value of the ambitious project is already evident.

Since solar became the airport's main source of power, the hub has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 1,229 tonnes –- the equivalent of 103,934 litres of fuel.

The electricity bill has been cut by 40 percent in the space of a year, "which is a plus for me on the budget," said airport manager Brenda Voster.

Voster says it will take another five to 10 years to pay off the initial 16-million rand (US$1.2 million) cost.

Africa gets is first solar-powered airport in George, with a plant that converts solar energy into direct current electricity using solar panels ©Gianluigi Guercia (AFP)
Meanwhile, regular power cuts, which in recent years have plagued Africa's most developed economy, are a thing of the past, she adds.

Heavily dependent on coal, which is the source of 90 percent of the country's electricity, South Africa is looking to diversify its options to avoid power cuts.

Robyn Spence, who works at Dollar car hire company at the airport, said they "had to replace quite a few computers" fried by electricity surges caused by power cuts last year –- no longer an issue with the solar system.

- Untapped potential -
But not all the retailers at the airport are feeling the benefits yet.

Lelona Madlingozi, a kitchen manager at Illy restaurant in the main terminal, said they had two power cuts lasting about three hours each just a month earlier. "We could not sell anything in the shop," she said.

Restaurants, said the airport, are not one of the essential services prioritised during power cuts.

Expanding the use of renewable energy is a key focus for management firm, Airports Company South Africa, said its president Skhumbuzo Macozoma.

The company's goal is to achieve "carbon neutrality", or net zero carbon emissions, by 2030.

In a country with an estimated average of 8.5 hours of sunshine a day throughout the year, solar's untapped potential looks huge.

After the success in George, the airports in Kimberley -- South Africa's diamond capital -- and Upington near the Namibian border have also gone green, with three other regional airports next in line.

George Airport now plans on increasing the capacity of the small power station by an extra 250 kW and will soon install batteries capable of conserving energy generated during the day for use at night.

Originally published in AFP/Daily Mail UK

Sunday, October 09, 2016

NEWS POST: Drones Carrying Medicines, Blood Face Top Challenge: Africa

In this July 27, 2016 frame from video provided by Vayu, Inc., residents from Ranomafana, Madagascar, watch before a drone containing medical samples takes off on a test flight from their remote village, which can only be reached on foot. Off Africa’s eastern coast in Madagascar, U.S. Company Vayu completed drone flights to deliver blood and stool samples from rural villages, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development. (Stony Brook University/Vayu Inc. via AP)
At first, the drone took some explaining. Anxious villagers buzzed with rumors of a new blood-sucking thing that would fly above their homes. Witchcraft, some said.

The truth was more practical: A United Nations project would explore whether a small unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, could deliver HIV test samples more efficiently than land transport in rural Malawi.

Once understanding dawned and work began, young students and their teachers would spill out of the nearby school, cheering, each time they heard the drone approaching. "It was very exciting," UNICEF official Judith Sherman said.

As drones quickly pick up momentum around the world in everything from military strikes to pizza delivery, Africa, the continent with some of the most entrenched humanitarian crises, hopes the technology will bring progress.

This second-largest continent, with harsh landscapes of desert and rain forest and extremes of rainy seasons and drought, is burdened with what the World Bank has called "the worst infrastructure endowment of any developing region today." Rural highways, often unpaved, disintegrate. In many countries, access to electricity has actually declined. Taking to the air to soar over such challenges, much as Africa embraced mobile phones to bypass often dismal landline service, is a tempting goal.

Those trying out drones for humanitarian uses in Africa warn that the technology is no quick fix, but several new projects are exploring what can be achieved.

The highest-profile one yet begins this week in Rwanda, as the government and U.S. company Zipline launch a drone network to deliver blood supplies and medicines to remote hospitals and clinics. Even in one of Africa's smallest countries, such deliveries can take weeks by land. With drones, it will take hours.

The speed and limited space of drones have focused aid groups and businesses on how to deliver small, sensitive and potentially life-saving cargo. Earlier this year, a partnership was announced between Zipline and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.

Off Africa's eastern coast in Madagascar, another U.S. company, Vayu, has completed drone flights to deliver blood and stool samples from rural villages with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Africa has certain benefits for such projects, said Sid Rupani, who from his South Africa office studies how drones could be used effectively in supply chains. His U.S.-based employer, Llamasoft, has run a virtual pilot for Zipline in Tanzania.

"It's not crowded airspace. Not many urban areas to deal with," Rupani said. Already, drones are being used in parts of the continent as visual aids in mapping and anti-poaching.

Drones also face multiple challenges. Some models are limited in range or need frequent recharging. If they crash, retrieval in remote areas can be difficult. Some governments are wary of the technology as a possible invasion of their sovereignty, or they have no regulations in place.

Even aid workers have reservations. In a survey of workers in 61 countries released last month by the Humanitarian UAV Network and other groups, the majority saw drones as positive, but 22 percent did not.

A top concern was that people on the ground would think they were under attack.

"Whether we like it or not, UAVs are confused with weaponized drones," one Congo aid worker told the survey, pointing out the use of drones by the U.N. peacekeeping mission there.

Cost is another issue. The United Nations' test early this year in Malawi with the help of U.S. company Matternet found that using motorcycles was cheaper as they could carry other cargo, said Sherman, UNICEF's HIV and AIDS chief there.

But she still sees drones as "a leapfrog technology that has great potential, some we might not have thought of yet."

Aid organizations are pushing for new breakthroughs. The Netherlands-based Wings for Aid is working on a drone prototype to carry more and go farther: Up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of cargo could be delivered to several points within 500 kilometers (310 miles), said Wesley Kreft, director of business development and innovation.

"The holy grail is to have a network of autonomous drones that do their work independently, with a human supervising numerous deliveries at once," said Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.

It could take a couple of years before such drones could be entrusted with critical deliveries in challenging rural areas like Africa, he said, but the technology is there.

Originally published in Associated Press/Daily Mail UK

Saturday, October 08, 2016

2-IN-1 NEWS POSTS: Tax Fossil Fuels Or Risk Kids' Future: US Climate Scientist; Washington Voters To Decide On US's First Carbon Tax

Climate change: the basics ©Iris de Vericourt (AFP)
The planet's three most dangerous greenhouse gases are rising, and fossil fuels must be taxed to protect children from the costly turmoil of rising seas and extreme storms, world-renowned climate scientist James Hansen warned Tuesday.

Otherwise, young people face the "dubious" proposition of somehow sucking carbon dioxide from the air at a price tag of hundreds of trillions of dollars in the next century, said Hansen, who leads the climate science program at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

"The science has become crystal clear," Hansen told reporters on a conference call to discuss his latest research paper, titled "Young People's Burden: The Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions."

"We have to phase out carbon emissions over the next few decades," said Hansen, describing the actions of the US government up until now as "grossly inadequate."

Hansen, formerly of NASA, is suing the US government along with 21 youths across the country, including his 18-year-old granddaughter.

The suit alleges that US leaders are not doing enough to curb climate change and are and failing to protect essential "public trust" resources such as clean air and water, thereby depriving future generations of their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property.

The paper, published Tuesday in Earth Systems Dynamics Discussion, has not yet been peer-reviewed, but Hansen said he wanted it released now because time is of the essence.
"Some people might object to discussing such a paper before it has gone through the peer-review process, but I am going to do that simply because we are running out of time on the climate issue," Hansen said.

- Leaving 'a mess' for young people -
The paper, authored by Hansen and 11 prominent climate scientists, warns that the global average temperature is already 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.3 Fahrenheit) warmer than pre-industrial times, defined as 1880-1920.

That is perilously close to the level agreed during last year's Paris talks, when global leaders committed to "holding the increase of global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels."

Meanwhile, the heat-trapping gases of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are all rising, ensuring more global warming in years to come.

The planet's three most dangerous greenhouse gases are rising, and fossil fuels must be taxed to protect children from the costly turmoil of rising seas and extreme storms, says world-renowned climate scientist James Hansen ©Oli Scarff (AFP)
Already, fossil fuel burning has unnaturally propelled the Earth to a temperature range last seen 115,000-130,000 years ago, "when sea level was six to nine meters (20-30 feet) higher than today," said the paper.

As a result, glaciers and ice sheets are melting, the oceans are acidifying and rising seas will engulf coastal cities worldwide in the coming centuries.

"That's not fair. Today's adults benefit from fossil fuel burning and leave the waste for young people to clean up," said Hansen's granddaughter, Sophie Kivlehan, in a video message released along with Hansen's paper.

"We should be moving on to clean energy, leaving dirty energy in the ground."

- 'Like a cancer ' -
"The assumption that young (people) will somehow figure out a way to undo the deeds of their forebears has crept into and spread like a cancer through United Nations climate scenarios," said the paper.

In the absence of sharp cuts to emissions, future generations are saddled with figuring out some way to extract CO2 from the atmosphere in order to limit climate change, Hansen argued.

That would require risky, unproven technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), at a price tag of between US$104-570 trillion this century.

"It is a very dubious idea and the cost of it is not negligible," Hansen said.

- Proposed solutions -
Hansen said the way to reverse course is to place a gradually rising tax on carbon and end government subsidies for polluting fossils fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.

"Make the price of fossil fuels honest. Stop subsidizing them. And make them pay their cost to society," Hansen said.

"If we put a gradually rising fee on carbon emissions, it will spur the business community and entrepreneurs and the public to develop carbon-free energies and energy efficiency, and it will spur the public to change their choices so that we move rapidly to reducing emissions and move to clean energy."

Hansen said he was optimistic that the lawsuit, organized by Our Children's Trust, will go forward.

In April, the case survived an attempt by the fossil fuel industry and US government to get it tossed out of court, and is currently under review by US District Judge Ann Aiken.

She heard oral arguments on September 13 and is expected to announce her decision by mid-November. Then, the case will head either to trial or appeal.

In this April 2, 2010 photo, a Tesoro Corp. refinery, including a gas flare flame that is part of normal plant operations, is shown in Anacortes, Wash. after a fatal overnight fire and explosion. Voters in Washington state will weigh in on Initiative 732 in the 2016 election as they consider whether to approve the nation’s first direct carbon tax on the burning of fossil fuels. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
NEWS POST: Washington Voters To Decide On US's First Carbon Tax
Associated Press reports that Washington lawmakers have tried and failed in recent years to make polluters pay for their carbon emissions to fight climate change. Now, voters will get to decide.

An initiative on the November ballot asks voters whether the state should impose the nation's first direct carbon tax on the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and gasoline.

Sponsors say residents have a moral responsibility to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and a carbon tax is the best way to do it. The tax encourages businesses to conserve or switch to clean energy by making fossil fuels more expensive, and it makes the tax system fairer by using the revenues to reduce other taxes, they say.

Businesses say the tax will drive up fuel and energy costs and put Washington companies at a competitive disadvantage.

And in a move that has bewildered some, major environmental and other groups — including those that backed Gov. Jay Inslee's proposal last year to cap emissions and make carbon polluters pay — oppose the initiative. They say it takes the wrong approach.

Yoram Bauman, an economist who founded Carbon Washington, the grassroots group that gathered more than 350,000 signatures to qualify Initiative 732, defended it as great climate and tax policy.

"It does almost everything right for Washington," he said.

Audubon Washington supports it.

"Our members came down on the side of urgency. We don't have time to wait," said Gail Gatton, the group's executive director. "Climate change is happening, and this is our best available option right now to protect birds."

But the Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council and the advocacy group Front and Centered say the initiative is the wrong carbon-pricing approach and will hurt the state's revenues. Whereas Inslee's pollution fee would have raised money for education, transportation, clean energy and programs to help disadvantaged communities affected by climate change, Initiative 732 provides no such investments, critics say.

"It's not a path that makes sense for our communities," said Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, which works on social justice issues. Stolz said the initiative ignores climate justice and lacks input from communities of color.

Stolz's group is part of a coalition that worked on an alternative carbon-pricing measure. Last-minute talks between that coalition and I-732 supporters to collaborate on one ballot measure fizzled last year.

The initiative is designed to be revenue neutral, meaning the tax revenue increase from fossil fuels would be mostly offset by decreases in other taxes. In this case, revenues would be returned to people and businesses by cutting the state sales tax by one point, virtually eliminating business taxes for manufacturers and providing rebates for working families, sponsors say.

A state analysis, however, estimates the measure could cost the state about $800 million in lost revenues over the first six fiscal years. Initiative sponsors dispute the state's analysis, saying it double-counted the rebates in the first year.

In this photo taken Oct. 29, 2015, Carbon Washington campaign organizer Ben Silesky, left, leads a group of supporters and organization members into the Elections Office for the Washington Secretary of State in Olympia, Wash. to deliver signatures in support of putting Initiative 732 on the ballot. 
The carbon tax is modeled after one in the nearby Canadian province of British Columbia. California has a cap-and-trade program, which limits emissions and allows carbon polluters to buy and trade pollution credits. If approved, Washington's carbon tax starts at US$15 a ton of carbon emissions in July, goes up to US$25 the next year and incrementally increases afterward.

The Washington State Tree Fruit Association, which represents growers, packers and marketers, is among those opposed.

It takes a lot of fuel to grow and transport produce, and the tax will be paid by those in the state, not competitors outside it, said Jon Devaney, the group's president.

"Raising food prices in Washington state will make us less competitive compared to others," he said.

Initiative sponsors say a US$25 carbon tax would raise the price of gasoline by about 25 cents per gallon and the price of coal-fired electricity by about 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. They say power plants and fuel suppliers likely will pass those costs on to consumers, but that consumers will see price reductions in other things they buy because the sales tax is cut. The tax wouldn't apply to electricity from renewables like hydro, wind or solar power.

The campaign has raised US$1.2 million from nearly 1,200 unique donors; more than half of those total contributions are under US$200.

The No on 732 campaign sponsored by the Association of Washington Business has raised US$300,000 to oppose the tax.

Originally published (STORY 1) in Agence France-Presse and (STORY 2) in Associated Press