Sunday, December 16

Kenya forested land surface temp 19° C; deforested 50° C (122° F)

... newly tree-free ground “represents huge amounts of solar energy changed into sensible heat, i.e. hot air.”

Scientific American
Clearing Forests May Transform Local—and Global—Climate 
By Judith D. Schwartz*
March 4, 2013

Researchers are finding that massive deforestation may have a profound, and possibly catastrophic, impact on local weather

In the last 15 years 200,000 hectares of the Mau Forest in western Kenya have been converted to agricultural land. Previously called a “water tower” because it supplied water to the Rift Valley and Lake Victoria, the forest region has dried up; in 2009 the rainy season—from August to November—saw no rain, and since then precipitation has been modest. Whereas hydropower used to provide the bulk of Kenya’s power ongoing droughts have led investors to pull out of hydro projects; power rationing and epic blackouts are common. In a desperate move to halt environmental disaster by reducing population pressure, the Kenyan government evicted tens of thousands of people from the land.

Severe drought, temperature extremes, formerly productive land gone barren: this is climate change. Yet, says botanist Jan Pokorny of Charles University in Prague, these snippets from Kenya are not about greenhouse gases, but rather the way that land-use changes—specifically deforestation—affect climate; newly tree-free ground “represents huge amounts of solar energy changed into sensible heat, i.e. hot air.” Pokorny, who uses satellite technology to measure changes in land-surface and temperatures, has done research in western Kenya for 25 years, and watched the area grow hotter and drier. The change from forest cover to bare ground leads to more heat and drought, he says. More than half the country used to be forested; it's now less than 2 percent.

Each year Earth loses 12 million to 15 million hectares of forest, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the equivalent of 36 football fields disappearing per minute. Although forests are ebbing throughout the world, in Africa forest-climate dynamics are easily grasped: according to the United Nations Environmental Programme, the continent is losing forests at twice the global rate. Says Pokorny, the conversion of forest to agricultural land, a change that took centuries in Europe, “happened during one generation in western Kenya.” Pokorny's work, coupled with a controversial new theory called the “biotic pump,” suggests that transforming landscapes from forest to field has at least as big an impact on regional climate as greenhouse gas–induced global warming.

After all, de-treeing the landscape alters the way ecosystems function and self-regulate. For Pokorny, the key is evapotranspiration, whereby plants continuously absorb and emit water in the form of vapor. Evaporation consumes heat and thus has a cooling effect. He calls this "the perfect and only air-conditioning system on the planet." On a moderately sunny day, a tree will transpire some 100 liters of water, converting 70 kilowatt-hours of solar energy into the latent heat held in water vapor. When soil is bare and dry—paved over or harvested—the process comes to a halt. The sun hits and warms the ground directly.

This past November found Pokorny flying a small Cessna from Lake Naivasha up the hills to the Mau Forest, where land surface temperatures in woodlands measured 19 degrees C; agricultural land that until recently had been forest hovered close to 50 degrees C. 

A photo taken from the air shows the dark green of forests diminish along the slope to the lowlands; the valley has clusters of deep forest green among the broad, pale, geometric shapes of cultivated land. His team measures surface temperature as opposed to the usual air temperature metric, two meters above. The surface “is what you are in contact with, and creates the dynamic movement of air,” he says—and ground temperature “indicates the way solar radiation is transformed at the Earth's surface.” His surveys from above combine three measures: “a normal camera, Thermovision [thermal infrared sensors] and our eyes. In putting the pictures together, we see the high temperatures are where there is no vegetation,” which includes swaths of land where forest has been cut.

The "biotic pump" theory argues that natural forests act as a “pump” that draws moisture inland. According to this concept, first described in a 2007 paper by Russian physicists Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva of the Saint Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute in the peer-reviewed Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, condensation, rather than temperature differential, is a primary driver of weather.

Here's a snapshot of the concept: The concentration of trees in wooded areas means a high rate of transpiration. This moist air cools as it ascends and the water vapor condenses, producing a partial vacuum. This creates an air pressure gradient, whereby the forest canopy sucks in moist air from the ocean. According to Gorshkov and Makarieva, forests don't merely grow in wet areas, they create and perpetuate the conditions in which they grow. Without forest cover—specifically mature, natural forest to ensure sufficient biomass and resilience—moisture is no longer pulled in, the physicists say. Rain becomes erratic and ultimately stalls.

The Russian scientists associate the unprecedented heat and drought in their country over the last few years with rapid deforestation in western Russia. The theory is controversial; indeed, it challenges the viability of the climate models currently in use. The theory “explains why in forested regions precipitation does not decrease with distance from the ocean, even thousands of kilometers, while the interiors of deforested parts of continents become dry already a few hundred kilometers away from the oceanic coast,” they wrote in an e-mail. "Condensation of water vapor over forests creates pressure gradients that have been shown to be sufficient to drive winds that bring moisture from ocean to land."

Should the biotic pump be confirmed by further research, it brings new urgency to the need to protect forests. “Most climate models recognize the role of "precipitation cycling" in forests, but not moisture transport by forests,” Makarieva and Gorshkov say. The difference is significant: if deforestation means simply reduced evaporation, the decline of precipitation would be significant but not catastrophic, around 15 percent; rains depend on imported moisture, however. If the vehicle for transport—an intact forest—is impaired, that's a different story. 

The physicists say: “In our theory, imported moisture will decline if the forest is destroyed, especially in the inland portion of the continent. If there is no imported moisture there is nothing to be evaporated, so the water cycle will undergo a dramatic—not minor—reduction of intensity.” In the Amazon, they add, this could be up to 90 percent.

Such ideas are not new. In his 1864 book "Man and Nature" (original title: Man the Disturber of Nature's Harmonies), George Perkins Marsh catalogued numerous examples of changing climate conditions on losing forests and wrote, “When the forest is gone, the great reservoir of moisture stored up in its vegetable mold [humus] is evaporated, and returns only in deluges of rain to wash away the parched dust into which that mold has been converted. The well-wooded and humid hills are turned to ridges of dry rock.”

Then there is the need to better understand the specific function of forests and even individual tree species. For example, can planted trees have the same effect on hydrology as intact natural forest? “A practical question is whether we're able to mimic effects of forests,” Pokorny says. “For we can't just have forests—we need agricultural land. Can other land types, like savanna and high biomass grassland, serve some functions of trees? Are there pioneer tree species that create microclimates that help other trees grow?”

Deforestation has numerous untoward environmental consequences, including the release of carbon: about one sixth of global emissions are due to cleared or degraded forests. Such deforestation also destroys the habitat for vast variety of species, and threatens the welfare of the more than a billion people who rely on forests for their livelihoods. It may also have unforeseen impacts on the water cycle—which can in turn alter climate patterns. "If we don't pay attention to this now, we could lose our forests," Makarieva told me by phone. "This would make disaster come faster by destroying the water cycle."


Saturday, December 15

It's that time of year again

It's the time when the Christmas season gives Pundita an excuse to inflict her favorite Shopping Mall Music on readers. Okay, so it's not Beethoven -- wait, wait, what's this do my wondering ears hear? I'll be darned. Beethoven's Ninth flashmob at the Omotesando Hills shopping complex in Tokyo. September 2016. Well, September is close enough.

Wow. That's some flashmob. 

All right; let's get what is supposed to be a joyful season off with a bang. Impress the Heavenly Hosts: make as much joyful racket as you can! I don't want to hear, 'Oh Pundita I'm not Christian.' The Ninth is not exactly a Christmas carol, okay? Sing along dammit even if you don't know a word of German and can only sing off key. Ready? 

The catch is that ICT Tokushima doesn't want me posting the video. You'll have to go to the YouTube site for it but at least I can post a still from the video. That's some shopping mall, too:



200 years after the publication of "Frankenstein" real Dr Frankensteins abound

Dr Frankenstein and his assistant prepare to bring their bioengineered creature to life.The scene is from the 1931 film adaptation of a play based on Mary Shelley's horror novel Frankenstein, published 1818.

"An experiment in China to change the colors of Merino sheep gave some spotted fleeces akin to a panda"


“But if we don’t try, we will never learn,” said Goetz Laible, who led AgResearch’s experiment.

Ah but Mr Laible you're trying to learn by trial and error or the dartboard method as it's known in engineering and applied science. Bad idea when the dartboard is the genome map.

Big Tongues and Extra Vertebrae: The Unintended Consequences of Animal Gene Editing
By Preetika Rana and Lucky Craymer
December 14, 2018
The Wall Street Journal

Unintended consequences have included enlarged rabbit tongues and extra pig vertebrae, as bioethicists warn of hubris

[See the report at the WSJ site for a video on Brazil's gene-edited cows -- the first ones engineered for warmer climates]

The purported birth last month of the world’s first gene-edited human babies, claimed by a Chinese scientist, spurred a wave of global outrage. Scientists denounced the (as yet unconfirmed) experiment as irresponsible, and the development reinforced fears that the redesigning of DNA is moving ahead too fast and without necessary oversight.

The proliferation of similar experiments on farm animals in recent years supports those concerns. Though rapid strides have been made to map genomes — the full set of genes for humans, animals, insects and plants — scientists have only begun to understand what the tens of thousands of individual genes do. Moreover, they are far from unraveling how those genes interact with each other.

Scientists around the world are editing the genes of livestock to create meatier pigs, cashmere goats with longer hair and cold-weather cows that can thrive in the tropics. The goals are to improve agricultural productivity, produce hardier beasts and reduce practices that are costly or considered inhumane. But amid some successes, disturbing outcomes are surfacing.

When Chinese researchers deleted a gene that limits muscle growth in mammals so that rabbits would grow leaner, their creations exhibited an unusual characteristic: enlarged tongues. Similar experiments on Chinese pigs led some to develop an additional vertebrae. Gene-edited calves died prematurely in Brazil and New Zealand.

The stumbles show the risks of racing ahead with such experiments, even as many governments work to clear regulatory pathways to bring meat, eggs and dairy from gene-edited animals to store shelves. Bioethicists and many geneticists have raised doubts about applying the gene-editing technology to animals and especially humans, given the continued uncertainties in both the science and the lab and field results.

“Humans have a very long history of messing around in nature with all kinds of unintended consequences,” said Lisa Moses, an animal bioethicist at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics. “It’s really hubris of us to assume that we know what we’re doing and that we can predict what kinds of bad things can happen.”

The belief has spread that scientists know how gene editing works “all the time, under all conditions,” says Odd-Gunnar Wikmark, a researcher at the Norway-based foundation GenOk, which studies the consequences of genetic engineering. “We of course do not.”

Critics say that editing animal DNA could introduce unwanted mutations that pose a threat to human health when consumed, and they fear that mutated genes may spread unchecked as animals breed. Proponents say they are engineering mutations just as traditional crossbreeding does, only faster. Though no gene-edited animal products have reached markets yet, the potential benefits to farming have led many big agricultural nations to join the race.

Crispr-Cas9, the tool introduced in 2012 that was used to engineer the human babies, is cheaper than older techniques and enables scientists to add, delete and rearrange DNA with greater precision. But an article published in the journal Nature Biotechnology in July suggests that Crispr might cause greater damage than previously understood—including changes in genes other than those intended. When DNA is cut, “a lot of odd things can happen,” study leader Allan Bradley said in July.

Take the gene called MSTN. Since 2012, Kui Li, a scientist with the state-run Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, has reverse-engineered cells from adult Chinese pigs to their embryonic stage, which is a common process when cloning animals. Then, using an older editing tool, he deleted MSTN, which limits how large muscles grow in mammals, including in humans. The edited cells are infused into eggs, chemically fertilized in a lab and implanted into the womb of a surrogate. At a farm 70 miles southeast of Beijing, dozens of pigs rest in metallic cages and glass enclosures; their meat is up to 12% leaner if both copies of their MSTN gene are deleted.

But there was another effect on the pigs: One in five offspring who inherited the edited genes had an extra spinal bone known as thoracic vertebrae, Dr. Li found. He doesn’t know why, though he postulates that the MSTN gene somehow contributes to skeletal formation. Lab tests show that his pigs are safe to eat, said Dr. Li: Despite a slight fading in color after cooking, he recorded no nutritional differences. He’s begun using Crispr to make more commercial breeds like the U.K.’s Large White leaner or resistant to PRRS, a deadly viral infection.

When state-sponsored scientists at Nanjing Agricultural University used Crispr to edit MSTN out of rabbits to make them meatier, 14 of the 34 engineered offspring were inexplicably born with enlarged tongues, leading the scientists to warn of abnormalities from gene editing in a 2016 research paper on their project. “Safety issues need to be addressed in future studies before the technology can be utilized” in agriculture, the authors wrote.

“Even the genes that we think we know very well, there’s a lot to learn,” said Se-Jin Lee, one of the scientists who discovered MSTN at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1997.

Chinese scientists at a different research facility have had to use caesarean sections to birth lambs whose MSTN genes were deleted with Crispr, because some grew too large to be birthed naturally. They have had success modifying goats’ cashmere to grow about 20% longer by preventing the gene FGF5 from regulating the growth.

Generally, the larger the animals, the greater the complications. New Zealand’s AgResearch Ltd. applied Crispr on cattle to reduce their heat stress, deleting a single amino acid on a gene that contributes to coat color (including hair and skin color in humans), in an effort to lighten the cows’ black-and-white coats to better reflect sunlight. Both calves died (one was sick and was euthanized). In a separate experiment using an older tool to enable cold-weather Angus cattle to thrive in the Brazilian tropics, one of two calves died prematurely.

Scientists in both experiments blame cloning, which created the calves but still isn’t foolproof, they say, after two decades in use. Neither is their understanding of genes. “But if we don’t try, we will never learn,” said Goetz Laible, who led AgResearch’s experiment.

Globally, at least a dozen gene-edited livestock projects are aiming to reach consumer markets. Some may face less resistance from consumers and ethicists because they could eliminate reviled practices: Cattle could be engineered without horns, for instance, obviating the need to dehorn them.

Wool from a gene-edited animal might also be more readily accepted because it is only worn, not eaten. Researchers in China’s eastern Xinjiang region used Crispr to alter the ASIP gene, believed to influence coat color in Merino sheep, with the aim of creating new breeds with darker coats—all black, gray or brown—so that off-white wool wouldn’t need to be dyed.

The results confirmed previous research suggesting that genes involved in coat color also play a role in reproduction: Only a fourth as many ewes implanted with the disrupted genes carried to term, as compared to normal circumstances. Meanwhile, for the wool itself, the results were mixed: One sheep was white, two were mostly black, and the other three had spotted fleeces akin to a panda.

The outcome also underlined how far there is to go in understanding the forces at work among the genes of humans and animals. “I think it would be an understatement to say we should be more cautious,” said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and the founder of Utah-based Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. “I think we’ve already gone over the line with animals, and now humans.”

—Zhou Wei contributed to this article



Friday, December 14

Tick tock it's past 3 o'clock

Now we wait.

Mueller ordered to turn over documents on Flynn questioning [by 3:00 PM Eastern time today]
Dec. 13, 2018 - 3:18 - U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered Mueller late Wednesday to turn over all of the government's documents and 'memoranda' related to Flynn's questioning ...
See also
Checking Robert Mueller
The sentencing judge brings to light dodgy FBI conduct in the Mike Flynn case

by Kimberly Strassel
December 13, 2018
The Wall Street  Journal


Thursday, December 13

"Winter in America" and Senate vote on Yemen

As to the 41 Senators who voted against the resolution [shrugging] winter in America, baby, and it's been winter a long time.

From Sputnik's 12/13 report, US Senate Votes to End Military Assistance in Yemen War

S.J. Resolution 54, "a joint resolution to direct the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress," passed the US Senate on Thursday afternoon

The final vote on the bill to end support for the war in Yemen was 56 voting in favor, 41 against. The resolution needed a simple majority to squeak through. 
Technically, Congress never authorized the use of the US military in Yemen, though for years US forces refueled Saudi vessels engaged in the conflict and provided targeting information for Saudi bombers. US special forces also aided Saudi forces on the ground near the Yemen border.
The resolution forces Trump to withdraw any US forces involved in the conflict within 30 days.
The resolution stipulates that the White House must withdraw any US military forces in Yemen unless they are engaged in operations against Al-Qaeda, the president makes a new request for troops in Yemen and Congress authorizes the request, or Congress passes a declaration of war or a bill authorizing the use of military force in Yemen.
As the text of the legislation points out, "no specific statutory authorization for the use of the United States Armed Forces with respect to the conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis in Yemen has been enacted, and no provision of law explicitly authorizes the provision of targeting assistance or of midair refueling services to warplanes of Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates that are engaged in such conflict."
According to an internal Pentagon memo, the US Department of Defense has not been properly charging Riyadh for refueling services and jet fuel during the Saudi campaign against Yemen, an oversight attributed to "errors in accounting." That's meant US taxpayers paying out tens of millions of dollars to refuel Saudi coalition jets attacking Yemen so far, according to estimates.


How much are oceans warmed by ships, underwater pipelines and cables, and submarines?

If you can find a study that even attempts to answer any part of the above question I'll put salt and pepper on the study and eat it.

Just so we're clear, consider this graphic from an Energy Central article titled "Warming and Pipelines," which goes NOWHERE NEAR discussing any part of my question: 

One would think that after seeing 93.4% they'd say, 'Say, what factors might be causing oceans to get warmer?' But they don't ask the question because they already know the answer: Manmade greenhouse gases.

As to studies of heat transfer to land from land-buried pipelines and cables -- as with the waterways, I have seen some highly technical studies about heat transfer posted to the internet. But alas they too are no help to getting even a rough idea of the extent to which pipelines heat the ground. Again, I'll eat any such study if it turns out I missed it after I plugged many scores of keyword strings into internet search engines.

So while there are studies explaining that heat transfers to waterways and land occur from pipelines, etc., climate scientists clearly have no idea how much heat transfer occurs as an average, and how and whether this affects the allover temperature of waterways and land. Yet if the intention is truly to save the planet from 'excessive' warming, I'd think the scientists would leave no stone unturned because of the critical importance of offsets. 

In other words, there is a big difference between completely, mostly and much when it comes to assigning blame for overheating of Earth's surface. If manmade greenhouse gases are completely to blame, then the human race should continue in a one-pointed focus on reducing the gases. If there are additional factors, then it makes sense to go for any relatively low-hanging fruit while combating the gases. 

For example, there are ways to reduce heat loss from pipelines -- a serious problem for oil companies. I saw one study where a company was working on developing electrical heating 'packets' to attach to pipelines all along their route. This to keep the oil nice and toasty warm as it goes through the pipelines so it doesn't turn to gel as it travels further from the heated source. Another approach engineers are working on is better insulation for the pipelines. This approach would also work for underwater pipelines. 

As for the oceangoing vessels, I'm thinking in particular about mega-container ships and the supertankers that carry LNG and petroleum. And of course there are giant naval vessels and cruise ships, although I think their number is dwarfed by the container ships that have been crisscrossing oceans and seas since the 1980s. 

It's possible that some if not much of the heat these vessels  generate dissipates into the air. But again I have no idea. Yet if they do transfer significant heat in total to the waterways -- could that be a factor in ocean warming?

As to the heat generated by submarines and undersea cables in total, again, I can't try to guess; I can't even find how much heat transfer there is, just from one submarine or cable. 

Are science and math sufficiently evolved to tackle the kind of question I'm asking? How much science does it take to stick a thermometer in the ground? Do a reading when oil is running through the pipeline on land and when it isn't. Then you could get fancy and walk a little distance from the pipeline to take another temperature reading all right Pundita that's enough; the reader gets the picture. Then you could ramp it into rocket science by taking temperature readings at times of the year when the ground is colder and warmer. Pundita, enough. 

As to oceans -- I'd assume there are ocean thermometers but can't satellites be used to spot heat signatures underwater?

I'd start with an inland sea that has a number of oil pipelines running through it. That might produce interesting underwater heat signatures.

Of course variables would need to be factored in, but the goal would be a ballpark figure, not to cover every blip in a variable; this in order to get an idea of how much warmer the sea is with pipelines going at full blast. Of course seas aren't an ocean but a relatively small experiment could set up a research paradigm to study heat transfers in largest waters.  

None of the above is to argue that manmade greenhouse gases aren't a problem; ocean acidification from an uptake of increased CO2 would alone be hugely problematical. But the question I've asked is just one of several that climate science has ignored in its hyperfocus on greenhouse gases. 

When one considers that carbon emissions-spewing nations such as China and India have been moving the goal posts by setting up coal plants in other nations, it's naive to hope that driving down the emissions will alone save humanity from any self-induced climate calamities. 

Putting the horse in front of the cart means studying all human actions that are possibly warming Earth's climate in a significant way, and noting any convergences and cumulative effects amongst these actions. In this, climate science has so far failed, in my view.


Wednesday, December 12

Food safety and a new entry to Pundita's blogroll

There are so many food recalls here in the USA that it's gotten to the point where checking on recalls before going to the grocery store is like checking the weather report before heading out. So I'm adding a website named Food Recalls to my blogroll.    

The large number of recalls is actually good news in that both the food companies and the government have gotten quicker at spotting problematical food. And the news media quickly pass along the information to the public -- at least about the big recalls and ones directly connected to an outbreak of illness or a death(s).

Paying attention to the recalls can also alert consumers to types of food products that for whatever reason or another are recalled more than once. A salmonella-contaminated tahini spread (imported from Israel) and listeria-contaminated kale salad (from a U.S. company exporting to Canada) are two examples just from this month. I've developed an "Again?" rule: if I remember a recall of the same type of product from earlier years, I ask myself whether I can live without it. 

Romaine lettuce recalls have happened twice this year alone, and the second time, in October, the FDA issued a blanket nationwide alert in response to an outbreak of E. coli associated with romaine:  Just don't eat the stuff and don't sell it. For weeks you couldn't  buy romaine lettuce in Washington, DC grocery stores. From this report today it seems it's just being returned to store shelves but with the warning that romaine from certain counties in California should be avoided. 

And I see from the report that the FDA has finally grown a brain and ordered that retailers label all romaine lettuce with the place where it's grown and the harvest date. Yes that will make romaine more expensive but E. coli is no joking matter.

As to how to know from the label which regions are producing suspect romaine [laughing] I think we're on our own unless the retailer is especially watchful. Another reason to start paying attention to the Food Recalls website.
But in this age of megapopulations, in which such huge volumes of food are produced and often from imported sources, it's impossible for food inspectors to keep up with every single imported food, and that's not counting inspections of in-country food produce. So I figure I bear some responsibility for being watchful and cautious about the food I buy.

This said, much bacterial food contamination can be avoided by better handling and preparation on the consumer end. I think it was the French tradition and maybe other parts of Europe to serve the salad course last. This meant the vinegar, which science eventually discovered is a powerful antibacterial agent, had time to soak into the salad greens and decontaminate them of "gram-negative" bacteria such as E. Coli, a process which takes about 20 minutes. (I don't know whether lemon works the same way but it might well.)

I don't know whether the tradition is still in effect, and today many raw greens are used in sandwiches where they can't be decontaminated in such manner. But the tradition is something to think about, if you eat raw greens, especially in this era when greens can be shipped far from the sale point.

And of course thoroughly cooking foods at the right temperature can kill bacteria but you have to watch out for the survivalists:
Boiling does kill any bacteria active at the time, including E. coli and salmonella. But a number of survivalist species of bacteria are able to form inactive seed-like spores. ... After a food is cooked and its temperature drops below 130 degrees, these spores germinate and begin to grow, multiply and produce toxins. Aug 23, 2011
Bending the Rules on Bacteria and Food Safety - The New York Times
Modern life. So interesting lol. 


Profits of just four agro companies are huge chunk of world's food-import bill

So how are the big four, the only truly global firms, doing in an era when farmers have less need for middlemen? The Economist takes a gander:

Trade war has given agricultural merchants a boost
But their longer-term prospects are dim
December 12, 2018

ON DECEMBER 10th Bunge, an American agribusiness giant, announced plans to replace both its chairman and its CEO. The move may seem ungrateful: the company’s profits surpassed analysts’ expectations in the most recent quarter, marking a turn after a string of bad years. But industry insiders were unsurprised. Despite cost-cutting and divestments, Bunge’s share price is down 30% since its February peak, even after a 3% jump since the reshuffle became public. Its travails are a sign of changing times for soft-commodity traders.

For decades ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus — the ABCDs of agribusiness — were unavoidable middlemen. From corn and cocoa to soya and sugar, they could best gauge supply and demand, thanks to superior intelligence on stocks and harvests. Their storage facilities placed them well to ride out price swings. State buyers and multinationals relied on their global footprint to source staples. Their networks of ports, ships and trucks meant they picked up profits all along the way.

But five years ago their grip started to loosen. In 2013 the quartet posted $351bn in combined sales, equivalent to over a quarter of the world’s annual food-import bill. By 2017 that had shrunk to $260bn. At most companies, profits also crashed, pummelling share prices. And though they together retain 235,000 staff, many traders have left.

Stable, low crop prices were squeezing margins. But the disintermediation owed more to structural forces. Information was becoming a commodity: phone apps could provide farmers with real-time data on prices in all markets. Farms became bigger, and invested in storage. “Today you don’t need all these in-between halfway houses,” says Detlef Schoen, a former head of Cargill’s European grain business. The traders’ decline seemed unstoppable.

Until this summer. In June, after President Donald Trump slapped tariffs on $50bn worth of Chinese goods, Beijing retaliated by targeting soya beans, America’s top farm export. That hammered American prices; Latin American substitutes soared. Brazilian soya, on par with American soya in May, now trades at a 6% premium. Price volatility has increased, too.

American farmers are reeling. But trading is profitable once more. All four ABCDs have hinted at strong earnings for the period since June. In their high-volume, low-margin business, says Vincent Andrews of Morgan Stanley, a bank, agricultural traders shovel “pennies, nickels or dimes”. Until relatively recently, pennies were all they could pick up; now they are earning nickels. Volatility brings opportunities for arbitrage; depressed American prices mean bigger margins on processing soyabeans into animal feed.
Dimes may soon be on offer. “America must find new clients, China new suppliers. Traders have a new raison d’être,” says Jean-François Lambert, a consultant.

But the good times are unlikely to last. Trade shifts will outlast the war. And China will want to diversify away from America, says Heather Jones of Vertical Group, an investment firm. Disintermediation is likely to resume once the market settles. Digital marketplaces such as FarmLead, which covers 12% of North America’s grain market, mean farmers can shop around for the best price. “There’s no more loyalty in this business,” buyers tell Alain Goubau, the startup’s operations chief. 

Eat or be eaten

And the established players face another problem: new competition for supply. Glencore Agriculture, a trader backed by Glencore, a metals and mining firm, and by two Canadian pension funds, has been quicker to move into the Black Sea region, which now exports more wheat than America and Canada combined. Olam, a 30-year-old firm owned by Singapore’s state fund, has carved out a lucrative niche in Asia and Africa, in spices and nuts.

Meanwhile China is advancing in Latin America. Since 2014 it has spent billions on building up COFCO, a state-owned food processor, into an international trading platform. Though marred by integration problems, its acquisitions of parts of Noble Group and Nidera, two traders with South American presence, have made it a top-five exporter of Brazilian produce. 

It has invested in elevators, ports and processing plants, including a 60,000-tonne silo complex in Mato Grosso, Brazil’s top soya-growing state. Valmor Schaffer, COFCO International’s Brazil chief, says China buys 70% of the produce the company exports from Brazil, up from some 30% three years ago. Tariffs are a boon to Latin American farmers, he argues. China gets to test the quality of Brazil’s late-year shipments, and likes what it gets. COFCO is not interested in sharing the spoils. Mr Schaffer says it would not like joint ventures with other traders unless it holds a majority stake.

The ABCDs remain the only truly global firms. But regional competition is adding to their main problem: too many companies are doing the same thing, says Sönke Lorenz of BCG, a consultancy. Tariffs or not, there are only two ways they can restore stable profits. They can diversify into food-manufacturing: Cargill, the most successful, derives two-thirds of earnings from its animal feed and protein business. Or they can consolidate, though their distinct cultures and ownership structures have till now made this hard.

Could the shake-up at Bunge create an opening? Saddled with bad investments in sugar production, it started a “strategy review” in October. Yet there have been two failed takeover approaches in the past year, suggesting it remains too pricey for rivals to swallow whole.

Antitrust issues also loom large. “This company should already have been acquired five times. But no one is doing it,” says a former employee. Rivals may be waiting for Bunge to become a better bargain before slicing it up.


Two-faced BRICS governments and phony anti-colonialism of China and India

"Apart from investing in dirty fossil energy projects, BRICS nations are also united in looting Africa’s resources via dodgy relations with corrupt African regimes." 

July 27, 2018

[Farai Maguwu is founding Director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, which carries out research and documentation on human rights abuses and illicit trade in diamonds in Zimbabwe. Maguwu was the first Zimbabwean to bring to international attention the horrific abuses committed by Zimbabwe's security forces in the Marange/Chiadzwa diamond fields in 2008.]

The heads of state from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are meeting in Johannesburg’s corruption-ridden financial district of Sandton for a two-day annual summit. Pretending to challenge Western imperial hegemony over poor nations of the South, this bloc has itself proved to be no different.

If anything, two of the BRICS powers – China and India – are investing billions of dollars in coal-fired thermal-power generation in Africa while winning global applause for increasing their solar and wind power at home. This contradiction and policy inconsistency is one of many which makes the BRICS a farce.

China is funding coal projects in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, yet is a global powerhouse in renewable energy. It put on hold more than 100 coal plants in 2017 with a combined installed capacity of 100 gigawatts. In 2016 China’s energy regulator also halted coal fired projects amounting to over 300 gigawatts, mainly due to overcapacity but also health and local pollution concerns.

Yet last month Zimbabwe concluded a $1.4 billion agreement with the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank) for the construction of a 600 megawatt coal-fired power plant.

Now here is the problem. Several Chinese state energy companies are losing business due to government slowing of carbon emissions and China is turning them to Africa. Due to its unrivalled current level of pollution, China has first-hand knowledge on the effects of coal on the environment and human health. Researchers from Berkeley Earth, a California-based climate research organization, calculated that about 1.6 million people in China die every year from health issues caused by the country’s notoriously polluted air.

So why is China financing an industry that creates death and destruction when clean energy technology is rising fast in China itself? Dumping old technology makes business sense to China, just as it always did to the West.

Refusing to be outdone, the Indian Government is being praised globally for taking steps to halt carbon emissions, but it too extended a $310 million loan to Zimbabwe to finance a rehabilitation programme for Hwange Thermal Power station that would entail upgrading the plant and extending its lifespan by a further 15-20 years.

According to New Delhi’s ambassador to Harare, Rungsung Masakui, “The Indian Government is keen to assist and co-operate with the people of Zimbabwe in projects that uplift your people.”

Coal is killing people in India, yet will uplift Zimbabweans? We should instead consider such loans as odious, as there was no consultation with citizens of either country.

Apart from investing in dirty fossil energy projects, BRICS nations are also united in looting Africa’s resources via dodgy relations with corrupt African regimes. In neighboring Mozambique, the Brazilian company Vale has been displacing hundreds of farmer-pastoralist villagers from ancestral homes to pave way for coal mining. Although villagers are unanimous in condemning this modern-day colonialism, their protests have been met with fire and fury by the Rio-based firm, which apparently has corporate impunity. The Mozambican government seems powerless to restrain Vale.

In Zimbabwe, Vladimir Putin has muscled his way into the lucrative platinum and diamond sectors. After the military coup in November, Putin sent his powerful Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to meet Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa where they agreed to move ahead with a dodgy $3 billion platinum project in Darwendale. Lavrov later revealed to the media that Russia was also interested in Zimbabwe’s diamond sector, adding the two countries will increase military cooperation.

But health, access to clean water, food security, jobs and infrastructure development are the main priorities of the Zimbabwean people – not more power to our country’s de facto junta. Beijing’s diversion of diamonds via its military, both back to China through the Anjin company and to the Zimbabwean army, was so notorious already that even former President Robert Mugabe – deposed in a coup last November – admitted that of $15 billion worth of the alluvial stones taken from the Marange fields, less than $2 billion had been accounted for.

As the BRICS leaders arrived in Johannesburg this week, a brics-from-below group also met for a Teach In and two protests, to throw proverbial bricks at the conference of polluters and looters. More than 100 activists held both a picket against the BRICS New Development Bank on Wednesday, and a ‘Break the BRICS’ march to the Sandton Convention Centre on Thursday, to demand that BRICS leaders leave.

The main hosting body was the United Front-Johannesburg, whose co-chair Trevor Ngwane ensured a variety of progressive forces made the visit uncomfortable, by raising issues that middle-of-the-road journalists and ‘civil society’ groups dared not address. Other activists were from the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, Soweto Action Committee, South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, Earthlife Africa, groundWork, the South African Kashmir Action Group, and solidarity groups with Congo and Rwanda, as well as India’s National Alliance of People’s Movements, the Russian network and .

Linking issues and constituents, they raised the people’s demands, which include ending exploitation, unemployment, climate change, pollution, violence against women, repression, surveillance, non-delivery of services, austerity, budget cuts, human rights abuses, rampant corruption, racism, xenophobia, extreme inequality, looting resources, subimperialism, neoliberalism, dictatorships and homophobia.

With South Africa hosting scores of BRICS-related events this year, as the official host, there is an enormous stress on generating a new hegemony. We feel this in Zimbabwe, where the heavy hand of South Africa has made achieving democracy much more difficult since the 1990s. Thankfully, there are Johannesburg allies who have begun a bottom-up process, with people from all BRICS nations and from the hinterlands of the BRICS countries, together fighting the climate change, plundering and so many other social evils.

Farai Maguwu is a long-standing defender of human and environmental rights, and founder of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance in Harare.


Attn Beijing! It's Heaven AND Earth, not Heaven on Earth

Don't tell me, 'Oh Pundita we don't know what you're talking about.' You know very well what I'm talking about. Now look, you can go back over the essays I wrote during the Swine Flu pandemic and know that I gave you well-deserved praise for the way you handled Swine Flu -- and at a time when the CDC and WHO were doing everything within their powers to discourage your approach. 

But Chinese never know when to dial it back. You have a mania for perfection, which you even carried into the tea ceremony. You just couldn't stop trying to perfect it, until it was so overdone with beauty it lost its meaning; it was saved only by a Japanese tea master. Then there was the time you decided to perfect Buddhism. 

When this mania is coupled with millions of Chinese college graduates who have engineering degrees and degrees in the sciences, and with a desire to show the world that China is the greatest country, that Chinese can be the most creative people, the entire human race is in great peril.

Yes I understand that you have to keep these graduates employed some way, and that you need to get as many people off China's land as possible. But you need to fully confront why you have come close to completely destroying your land. The perfect farming system. Then you just had to perfect the factory system to show you could do it better than everyone else.   

You sure showed everyone. Now look at the horrors you wrought against your own lands!

I especially don't want to hear, 'Look at what the Americans are doing!' Do something new and pay less attention to what others are doing.

This desire to keep Face is turning millions of Chinese into megalomaniacs and hypocrites. It doesn't get worse when these character flaws mix with a mania for perfection.

Dial it back -- and for crying out loud, don't try to perfect dialing it back. 


Tuesday, December 11

Deforestation and global greenhouse effect

It was all there, clearly spelled out in the Mongabay interview in 2012. It's just taking years for climate scientists to catch up. Going back years and quite recently I've posted excerpts from the interview; here I focus on the biotic pump's relation to global warming.    

New meteorological theory argues that the world’s forests are rainmakers
by Jeremy Hance

1 February 2012

Mongabay: Does the biotic pump theory [to be precise, hypothesis] modify our current understanding of global climate change?

Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva: The widespread view is that global climate change is largely due to anthropogenic pollution of the global environment. The main anthropogenic pollutant is carbon dioxide, which is emitted by burning fossil fuels. CO2 is the second most important greenhouse substance in the atmosphere of Earth, therefore its accumulation in the atmosphere is believed to be the main cause of the observed warming and other climatic changes. The main proposed strategy to combat climate change is by reducing carbon emissions.
However, the greenhouse effect on Earth is mostly determined by water vapor and clouds, i.e., by atmospheric moisture, which is the main greenhouse substance. The absorption interval of CO2 molecules covers less than 20 percent of the spectrum of thermal radiation of the Earth’s surface, while atmospheric moisture absorbs thermal radiation rather uniformly over the entire spectrum. Therefore, the impact of increasing CO2 concentrations on the greenhouse effect can be completely compensated by a relatively minor change in the hydrological cycle over land. Such climate stabilization can be performed by natural forests that control the hydrological cycle on land and the adjacent ocean, provided they are allowed to occupy a significant area. 
Conversely, destruction of forests leads to disruption of the hydrological cycle, which expectedly causes significant fluctuations of the magnitude of the global greenhouse effect, up to complete loss of climate stability and transition of Earth’s climate to a state incompatible with life.
Most modern climate researchers have grown up on computer models of climate and are used to believing in the model output. As illustrated by the discussion of our work, it is rarely appreciated that by artificially setting the needed numerical parameters it is possible to simulate a very broad range of climate scenarios, including those that will agree with observations of the past. The existence of simulations that mimic the past and present reality does not mean that the physics included in the models is correct or that the model can generate a trustworthy prediction.

Breakthrough report: "Land use change has warmed the Earth's surface"

February 20, 2108

[emphasis mine]

Recent changes to vegetation cover are causing the Earth's surface to heat up. Activities like cutting down evergreen forests for agricultural expansion in the tropics create energy imbalances that lead to higher local surface temperatures and contribute to global warming.

Natural ecosystems play a crucial role in helping combat climate change, air pollution and soil erosion. A new study by a team of researchers from the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission's science and knowledge service, sheds light on another, less well-known aspect of how these ecosystems, and forests in particular, can protect our planet against global warming.

The research team used satellite data to analyse changes in global vegetation cover from 2000 to 2015 and link these to changes in the surface energy balance. Modifying the vegetation cover alters the surface properties - such as the amount of heat dissipated by water evaporation and the level of radiation reflected back into space - which has a knock-on effect on local surface temperature. Their analysis reveals how recent land cover changes have ultimately made the planet warmer.

"We knew that forests have a role in regulating surface temperatures and that deforestation affects the climate, but this is the first global data-driven assessment that has enabled us to systematically map the biophysical mechanisms behind these processes", explains Gregory Duveiller, lead author of the study.

The study also looked beyond deforestation, analysing changes between different types of vegetation, from evergreen forests to savannas, shrublands, grasslands, croplands and wetlands. However, they found that the removal of tropical evergreen forest for agricultural expansion is the vegetation cover transition most responsible for local increases in surface temperature.

From a greenhouse gas perspective, the cutting of forests might only affect the global climate in the mid-to-long term. However, the scientists point out that local communities living in areas where the trees are cut will immediately be exposed to rising temperatures.

The study was published in Nature Communications today and the datasets behind are fully described in Scientific Data.

(Explore further: Forests are the key to fresh water

Explore further: Climate change ruled out as most dominant factor for watersheds )

More information: Gregory Duveiller et al, The mark of vegetation change on Earth's surface energy balance, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-02810-8

Journal reference: Nature Communications

Provided by: European Commission Joint Research Centre



Lil Xan and the economics of being sad and anxious in America

22 year-old 'Sad Rap' music artiste Lil Xan (Xan as in Xanax), who went from highschool dropout to $8/hr street sweeper to drug dealer (?/hr) to being in debt to Columbia Records for $1 million, so he'd damn well better stay sad.     

Onstage, Lil Xan wore a pink hoodie bearing Lil Peep’s image. [Lil Peep having died two weeks earlier from a Xanax-fentanyl combo.] Just as he was about to finish his set, he launched into a tirade about the pitfalls of Xanax abuse. Artists of the sad-rap movement possess a world-weariness that makes them seem older than they are, and Lil Xan has spoken many times, in a harrowed tone, about battling a Xanax addiction. “Fuck Xanax 2018!” he told the crowd. But he added a footnote, lest he start to sound like too much of a killjoy: “I’m still Lil Xan, though, at the end of the day.” In tribute, the d.j. played Lil Peep’s “Beamerboy,” perhaps the most morbid song about luxury cars ever recorded.
The above is from the New Yorker's January 2018 report, Lil Xan and the Year in Sad Rap: "In 2017, a cohort of young musicians embraced a depressive sound and became stars."

On paper they became rich stars, snagging signing deals with major recording companies that offered them contracts of a million dollars or more. One catch: 
Jake Millan, manager of rising Atlanta rapper Yung Bans, is concerned that inexperienced stars don't understand that a label's $1 million offer usually means an advance that has to be paid back.
Another catch:
Laurie Soriano, an attorney for acts including Travis Scott, Frank Ocean and M.I.A., cautions that "a lot of times people will have one big single, but that's not enough to sustain a recording career and to justify the big-money deals we're talking about." ...
Both quotes are from Billboard's March 2018 report, A Hip-Hop Signing Frenzy Sends New Record Deal Prices Soaring, which describes the bidding wars as record label companies race to cash in on the 'streaming revenue' bonanza in music:
"Everyone's competing because urban music is dominating," says a label source. "You can get rich quick, so if you sign the right urban artist, that has the potential to have massive numbers on Apple and Spotify. Some labels don't want to miss any piece of gold in the river."
Loosening the labels' checkbooks is streaming revenue, which jumped from $1.8 billion in 2014 to $5.7 billion in 2017 in the United States, according to the RIAA, as well as Spotify's public listing, which could lead to a windfall of billions more, should labels sell their stakes.
Do the bidding wars represent a bubble, as in a stock market bubble? There is that concern in the music recording business, as you'll learn if you read the entire Billboard report. What the report doesn't discuss is that any such bubble would be buoyed by America's druggie subculture, which is a big part of urban music. The subculture is stuffed with Americans who like Lil Xan are struggling against addiction to Xanax and a host of other mood-altering prescription drugs.

From that viewpoint the big bucks garnered by streaming music is a drop in the bucket next to what pharmaceutical companies and pill pushers, legal and illicit, have been raking in for decades. And with Xanax, the user is not just the ordinary captive consumer. From an explainer article at Solutions Recovery, What Is Xanax and Why Is It Addictive?
Xanax Withdrawal
As previously mentioned, withdrawal from Xanax can be more than uncomfortable, but truly dangerous. Brain cells long inhibited by the constant presence of Xanax can rebound with abnormal excitatory signaling, which can cause those cells to erupt with activity that jumps from cell to cell to cell — a spreading wave of nerve cell excitation that may result in seizures. 
Further, repeated attempts to quit Xanax increases the risk of seizures with each additional withdrawal process, which is known as “kindling”. In kindling, each withdrawal episode causes the cells to become even more excitable in the absence of Xanax, and as the cells become more reactive, the risk of seizures increases.
Which is to say Lil Xan is taking his life in his hands if he truly attempts to withdraw from Xanax without 24/7 medical supervision. Just what is the drug?
The brand name Xanax represents the drug alprazolam, which is a short-acting benzodiazepine. It is most often prescribed to alleviate moderate to severe anxiety and panic attacks. It is also used as an adjunct treatment for the kind of anxiety that is associated with moderate depression, and the kind connected to sleeping disorders.
Ironically one of the uses for Xanax is to help alcohol and other substance abusers endure the symptoms of withdrawal. But this is making a deal with the devil given that Xanax is 'safe' to take only for a short time -- between two and four weeks -- although "safe" in this context is relative. Even without becoming addicted users of benzodiazepine can experience mental blackouts of the kind associated with severe drunkenness. And it can be addictive within a few days when the user takes more than the prescribed daily amount of pills to achieve his idea of being comfortable.

The stuff is one of a large class of drugs known as mood-altering, mood-stabilizing or "lifestyle" drugs that should never have been developed, and why it was cleared for sale is beyond me. Clearly it was not adequately tested before being marketed to primary-care physicians and psychiatrists as treatments for patients who can't keep up with their jobs and college studies if they're experiencing 'discomfort.'

But this is how large numbers of American workers and students live. The medical/pharmaceutical industries in the United States have evolved to cater to discomforts that are largely a result of a person's wrecked circadian cycle of wakefulness and sleep. The wrecking started in grade school and 'preschool' programs; it was made worse by keeping children sedentary for extended periods daily in classrooms and after-school studies, not to mention TV watching, video gaming, and internet surfing, and social media sites. The human body was designed for sustained manual labor particularly in its youth.

As to how much money the pharmaceuticals have made from alprazolam drugs -- I don't think that information is readily available from a quick internet search but from Wikipedia's outdated discussion:
Alprazolam was approved for medical use in 1981. In 2013, more than 48 million prescriptions were filled in the United States making it the most prescribed psychiatric medication.
The Guardian's January 2016 report, Why 'big pharma' stopped searching for the next Prozac isn't forthcoming with specific numbers, either, opting to describe the big picture for the development of mood-altering drugs. The picture is that it isn't any longer cost-effective to plug big money into R&D for psychiatric drugs. Result: "Pharma giants have cut research on psychiatric medicine by 70% in 10 years."

As to where next for the giants now that America is littered with people trying to kick their addiction to brain drugs -- 
First of all, while R&D clearly stalled, it did not stop entirely. According to the industry body PhRMA, in 2014 there were more than 100 medicines to treat a range of mental health conditions and addiction in development [pdf] by companies in the US, although 75% were “in the earliest phases”.
 However, the next big moneymaker will be mined from gene-sequencing:
Neuroscientific research, for example in gene-sequencing technology, could spill over into psychiatry and draw investment back along with it notes [clinical psychology professor Richard Friedman]:  
“Brain research is actually proceeding at a pace that is going to tell us a lot about the basic neuroscience that underpins major mental disorders so we know what’s going on at a circuit level. The pace of research is sometimes astounding. There’s a lot of work and then suddenly, boom, there’s a major finding and innovation.”
And there are brain implants under development to treat depression, as RT also informs us that cybersecurity experts warn there will be hacking of neural implants. 

But the biggest picture is that no one has yet dared tabulate the economics of being sad and anxious in America because so many people work at jobs related to making Americans comfortable through the drug route.   

Maybe Lil Xan can write a song about that.