Calsified Dialog

by Juan L. Mercado


“There is no ‘normal’ to return to,” Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown warns. Driven by climate swings, the world is in constant flux. Things will not “shortly return to normal, as in generations past. (Instead) a new geopolitics of  food scarcity” is emerging.

Floods swamped the Philippines. The most severe drought, in half a century, blistered the US and swathes of Eastern  Europe. September data confirms that the Artic ice cap is melting at speeds never recorded since satellite monitoring began 30 years back, Norwegian Polar Institute cautions.

Warming seas now wash further inland. Countries must redo mid-year estimates. The Philippines anticipated a 20-centimeter sea level rise, over the next 40 years.

The severest threat is “along the Pacific seaboard: from Samar to eastern Mindanao”, Wendy Clavano wrote in “Environmental Science for Social Change”.  “High risk” provinces flanked these waters: Lingayen Gulf, Camotes Sea  Guimaras Strait, waters along Sibuyan and central Sulu, plus bays in Iligan, Lamon and Bislig.

Chances for Manila yearly flooding have risen to 65 percent, Davao to 90 percent, estimates Clavano who has a PhD from Cornell.  “Rising sea level has taken a back seat because increased flooding has a more serious and immediate effect.”

”Adios Summer Sea Ice”, is how Huiffington Post titled reports that the Arctic sea could be ice-free, for a day or more, by 2020. Consequences would be severe.  Weather extremes already sear the world’s breadbasket: North America.

Ever heard of “climate bombs” a.k.a. “clathrates”?  Below the Artic, these icy structures enclose potent greenhouse gas. Methane has been safely caged  —  until now. But it’s permafrost container is thawing.

Already, “methane is being emitted from thousands of sites in the Arctic” notes the journal Nature Geoscience. “Far more carbon is escaping from permafrost in Arctic Siberia than previously thought”.

This context frames a 17 percent add-on to cereal prices, Food and Agriculture Organization reported September. Delayed rains in India and Australia ratcheted pressure on stocks. These impact on the poorest.

“Hunger knows no friend than it’s feeder,” Greek writer Aristophanes noted. Today, there’s a potential for replays of 2007-2008 food riots in Haiti and Egypt, frets FAO senior economist Abdolreza Abbassian. “Anything is possible.”

“Families (will) take their children out of school and eat less nutritious food to compensate for high prices,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim predicted in unusually blunt language. “We cannot allow these historic price hikes to turn into a lifetime of perils.”

In a  forum on “Food Prices in Asia: Is there a Coming Crisis?”, Asian Development Bank economist Giap Minh Bui foresaw  the Philippines won’t achieve it’s target of rice self sufficiency end of 2013. Why?

Viet Nam, Thailand and Cambodia, spend less to raise rice. “Despite recent progress, land reform measures (here) were far from successful. (Much) of productive labor works overseas. There’s been insignificant private investment in on-farm productive infrastructure.”

“It is less costly to transport corn from Thailand than from Mindanao,” ADB’s lead agriculturist Lourdes Adriano told the forum. Sea transport regulations here are prohibitive. Government must craft policies that enable farmers to turn a profit. That’d include: fertilizer, improved storage, more farm-to-market roads and market infrastructure like roll-on, roll off port facilities.      

“It is futile to go against the political tide,” Adriano conceded. “(Many) governments opt for self-sufficiency and increasing buffer stocks”.  Still, some “out of the box” solutions could include rethinking the concept of reserve management.  “Transparency and good governance in reserve management, together with private sector playing a (key) role, a la Singapore, may be the second best option. Complement this with regional reserve management. She points to ASEAN +3 emergency rice reserve system and South Asia’s food bank.       

The DOHA round is dead.  Regional action may be the way to go, she added. That calls for risk management tools, like a weather based-index, a second look at warehouse receipts and a local commodity exchange, among others.

Look at what happens to plants when the mercury bolts up, scientists urge. Between 68 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit,   photosynthesis — the process where plant tissues, exposed to light, blend water and chemicals, sprout and bear fruit  — remains steady.  But at 95 degrees F, photosynthesis wobbles.  “At 104 degrees F, photosynthesis ceases entirely.  At such elevated temperatures, plants go into thermal shock.”

Intense heat disrupts pollination —  a process where insects and birds transfer microspores in a seed plant to another, resulting in growth. Corn’s complex pollination system makes it particularly vulnerable.  Crops fail when  photosynthesis and pollination are disrupted.

“We look at a future of rising food prices driven by rising temperatures,” Lester Brown stresses in his forthcoming book: “Full Planet, Empty Plates.”  “Restoring balance may depend on new energy and population policies than on any agricultural policy we can conceive.”

Evening  prime time  news here leads off with police blotter crimes. Papers headline Supreme Court justices playing  truant at  Monday flag ceremonies. Corazon Aquino’s government and US Customs stole my jewels wails Imelda Marcos under another headline.

Has our national dialog calcified into “the normal” precisely when there is no ‘normal’ to return to?

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